geoffrey gauchet

One New Orleans Native's Perspective

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina we have many questions. One major question is simply “Why?” Why us? Why did this happen to the fine people of New Orleans, Louisiana? No one will ever know. That’s why it’s called a natural disaster. Sure, we could go into the science of hurricanes and how they redistribute heat evenly across the globe, but what my family and my fellow New Orleanians (and Mississippians and Alabamians) want to know is why it happened to them.

Unfortunately, that’s a question that can only be answered by the Almighty, whomever you feel that is (or isn’t).

The second question we want answered is “Why did it happen to this extent?” I’d be happy to offer up facts and hypotheses that I’ve come up with to try and explain the situation to myself.

My family, my self, and my friends have all been impacted by this storm. While my parents’ home suffered little to no damage, my father’s business suffered a submersion of roughly six feet. My home suffered little damage as it is approximately four feet above the ground, leaving the high waters in my neighborhood just below my porch. And while that isn’t so bad, I’ll be without a job for several weeks, perhaps even months.

But perhaps the worst victims are my sister and my brother-in-law. The two wedded nearly three years ago and have struggle financially since the two said “I do.” My father found them a nice little double in Lakeview, just past the Jefferson/Orleans Parish line. And while things weren’t unbearable, they were tough for the new couple. But they made the best of it. Sadly, their home was about six blocks from where the levee was breached at the 17th St. Canal. Their home was completely submerged in the dark, black, murky water that was a mixture of Lake Pontchartrain, rain, the Mississippi River, sewage, gasoline, oil, and Lord knows what else. They lost everything. Her car. Their photos. Books. CDs. Furniture. Appliances. Even the wooden chest Mark’s uncle made with his bare hands as a wedding gift for them.

They aren’t the only ones, though. So many thousands of homeowners and renters lost so many irreplaceable items. My roommate, Kevin, will never see his childhood home in the same condition he left it as the water in his parents’ neighborhood was up to the floor of the second floor of their home. My friend Greg lives in Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish, a parish that consists of 122,000 homes and had 90,000 completely flooded. My aunt Maureen and uncle Lance’s home in Gentilly has about 6 feet of water in it.

And while it’s great that we are all alive and have something or someone to live for in the end, so many more do not. The estimated death toll is around 10,000, and that’s before they’ve even started counting. In addition, several suicides have been reported. One man jumped to his death inside the Superdome which was housing 25,000 people. Two New Orleans police officers shot themselves in the head, one of which my father knew on a first-name-basis. So many of the people that didn’t make it out of the city even after the mandatory evacuation was ordered were poor and either didn’t have vehicles to travel out of the city, or didn’t have the money to stay in a hotel.
One sidebar to this tragedy is the national media’s deplorable coverage of this disaster. CNN and Fox News showed flooded homes and stranded citizens on rooftops around the clock. CNN and Fox News constantly commented on how they never saw the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, or the chief of the NOPD, Eddie Compass. CNN and Fox News repeatedly commented on how the people stranded in the Convention Center and Superdome we not being helped. How the evacuations weren’t being done well. But when I finally made it back to Louisiana from my “vacation” to Pensacola, Florida and Auburn, Alabama and could watch local stations, the view changed.

Where was Ray Nagin? Where was Eddie Compass? Why weren’t they doing press conferences every hour like the other Louisiana big wigs like Governor Blanco or Senators Landrieu and Vitter? Mayor Nagin was at the Convention Center wiping the faces of the elderly. He was yelling and screaming, asking where the National Guard and FEMA were. He was in rescue boats pulling bodies from the water and throwing an ax through roofs to reach the trapped living. Chief Compass was on the streets as a street cop firing his gun at would-be looters. He was coordinating rescue efforts because he realized that federal help was not on its way.

CNN and Fox News repeatedly played the race card, along with (convicted) Cleo Fields and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, asking why all the people left behind in these horrible conditions were black. They were saying that if these were white people, they’d be in 5-star hotels. Here’s a fun fact: 68% of New Orleans’ population is black. Any sophomore high school student can tell you that it’s not a case of racism, but of simple probability. Fill up a bag with 68 black marbles,10 yellow marbles, 10 brown marbles, and 12 white marbles and dump them on a table near the edge. Probability will tell you that the majority of marbles that didn’t fall to the floor would be black. This is not a case of Bush hating black people, as rapper Kanye West so eloquently put. It’s not a case of local government hating black people, as our Mayor and police chief are both black. If this disaster had happened in Kansas or Montana, the majority of poor people left behind would be white.

The federal government, particularly the W. Bush administration, has always done a poor job of giving two shits about the citizens of this nation, namely the middle class and poor citizens. The federal government is far too busy helping big business and the top 1% to cut the rest of us into groups of white, black, Hispanic, or Asian. If we don’t own a corporation, have more than $1 million in the bank, or aren’t attacked by terrorists, then we aren’t a top priority.

Let’s look at past events. Oklahoma City Bombing: federal aid immediately due to terrorism. September 11th: federal aid immediately due to terrorism, especially to federal buildings. The four hurricanes that hit Florida last year: federal aid immediately due to Jeb Bush being the governor. If this hurricane had hit Texas, you’d be damn sure that Bush would have taken Air Force One down there immediately and given some speech filled with rhetoric about how he wants to rebuild his home state.

I firmly believe that I know why Bush suddenly sent in federal aid. In 2004, Bush cut the Army Corps of Engineers of Louisiana’s budget by 21%, which translates roughly into $71.2 million. This budget cut directly affected the Southern Louisiana Urban Canal Reconstruction project that would turn Louisiana’s Category 3 hurricane protection levees into Category 5 hurricane protection levees. The reason my sister is homeless is because the 17th Street Canal breeched. The reason my friend Greg is homeless is because the Industrial Canal’s levee breeched. All because a Category 4 hurricane directly hit southeastern Louisiana.

Now, would the levees still have overflowed? More than likely, but once the storm surge passed, the water wouldn’t (and didn’t) rise any higher. Once the levees actually broke, water continually poured into the city.

And while it could be argued that this tragedy would have occurred regardless of the amount of funding the Army Corps of Engineers had, why was there no plan in place? I am 21 years old – a child when compared to the ages of the men and women who run this state, country, and various agencies tackling this problem. Why is it that when I heard of the 17th Street Canal breaching on Tuesday, I suggested to my father that they first seal off the mouth of the canal leading into Lake Pontchartrain to stop any additional rising of the tide from pushing more water into the city through the broken levee. They did not begin that project until Thursday. Maybe I should work for the Army Corps of Engineers. Maybe my sister’s house would have only 4 feet of water instead of 8 feet. Maybe my father’s business would only have 3 feet instead of 6 feet of water in it.

On Tuesday CNN and Fox News asked the Army Corps of Engineers this question: “Why only Category 3?” referring to the level of protection that the levees provided. Their response? “That’s all we were authorized to do.” Which I can clearly point out was due to the lack of funding, be it from Bush’s budget cuts, or cuts from previous Presidents.

The second thing that caused the death toll to reach what is believed to be in the 10,000’s is all of the political bullshit, for lack of a better phrase. Every hour since the storm hit Monday morning, I have seen press conference after press conference about minor, trivial triumphs. I have seen press conference after press conference where reporters ask officials questions and all they do is thank each other. Senator Landrieu was the one official I wanted to personally slap for avoiding every question asked of her by reporters and answering with “First of all, [reporter’s name], I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to the people of Louisiana. Most of all, I’d like to thank President Bush for all he’s done and Governor Blanco for her resilience and hard work in this crisis. We will work through this and we will prevail and we will rebuild New Orleans to the great city it once was.” This seemed to be her answer to nearly EVERY question asked of her. CNN’s Anderson from 360 called Landrieu on this during one of his interviews with her saying he’s tired of seeing politicians being politicians and just thanking each other. He wanted answers about why people were dying in her home state. She talked in circles for a while, not actually answering his question. I’m happy to report that I haven’t seen Landrieu at any press conferences since.

Mayor Ray Nagin had similar feelings. While talking to Garland Robinette on WWL 870AM, he said, and I am paraphrasing here, “I’m so sick of seeing press conferences. I’m sick of hearing about ‘red-tape’ and forms needing to be filled out. I have thousands of my citizens floating dead in the streets of my city. Thousands more are jobless. Thousands more are homeless. We gave $8 billion to fund the Iraq war lickity-split. We gave the President unprecedented power after 9/11, lickity-split. You mean to tell me that a city that handles almost all the world’s oil, a city that when you mention ‘New Orleans’ to anyone in the world, their eyes light up, can’t get some food and water delivered to it?”

And he’s right. Where was FEMA Tuesday? Where was FEMA Wednesday? Where was the food that it didn’t show up until Friday? Why is it that the poorest city in the country, in Kentucky, can fill three 53-foot trucks and a van with food, water, diapers, and supplies and get it to the West Bank within two days of starting their food drive and the federal government of the richest nation in the world couldn’t get food and water to the Convention Center or the Superdome?

Reporters and politicians alike are saying that this is no time to point blame. That we need to save the living and feed the hungry displaced citizens and start rebuilding before we point fingers. Well, I’m in a house with air conditioning, food, water, a toilet, and dry clothes, so I feel I have some spare moments to point fingers.

I blame the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, for not requesting federal aid sooner. I blame her for sending Bush a letter requesting help boosting the economy of New Orleans when there were still 1000+ people standing on I-10 under the Causeway overpass and not worrying about saving them before saving her precious economy.

I blame Senator Mary Landrieu for not speaking her mind. In the report I read about Bush cutting funding to the Army Corps of Engineers, she commented how much this would hurt Louisiana. When asked about the funding, she said she felt all that could be done, was done.

I blame FEMA for not listening to local government better. When heads of cities and parishes are giving exact locations (like addresses or intersections) of people trapped in homes or buildings and FEMA and those heading rescue missions couldn’t save them, especially an entire nursing home in St. Bernard where 30 elderly people drowned to death, including the mother of the head of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, I have to ask why.

I blame President Bush for not increasing the funding for the Army Corps of Engineers so that they may build a safer levee system. I blame him for having to take two aerial rides through the devastation before any real work was done.

Maybe it’s easier to point blame from an air-conditioned home when I wasn’t trapped on a roof, or pulling bodies out of the putrid water. Maybe I’m just an upper-middle class kid using his computer to sound like a bad ass. Maybe I should pat some backs instead of point fingers.

I applaud New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for living in the same conditions as his citizens and for doing all he could to get federal aid.

I applaud Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard for speaking his mind and essentially getting Jefferson Parish under control before any other parish.

I applaud Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee for his organization skills and his no-bullshit attitude towards making his town a safe place.

I applaud the men and women of the Army National Guard, NOPD, JPSO, LAPD, NYPD, the Canadian Mounties, and all other military and law enforcement personnel that came down to help restore order in our affected areas.

I applaud the men and women of the Army, Coast Guard, and all the volunteers who helped rescue my fellow New Orleanians from their homes.

I applaud Wal-Mart, Chevron, Disney, and every business, city, and individual that made a financial or otherwise contribution to the efforts to save and later rebuild my beloved city.

But mostly, I applaud every New Orleanian (and that includes, Metairie, Kenner, St. Bernard, Northshore, Plaquimines, and anywhere else that suffered from this hurricane, including those in Alabama and Mississippi—you’re honorary New Orleanians in my book) that rode out Hurricane Katrina and lived with out water or food or modern conveniences for days on end in 95degree heat.

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