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Michael Tisserand and family in Carenco, La.

Washed Away

A dispatch from the early days of the disaster, By Michael Tisserand

Michael Tisserand is editor of Gambit Weekly. He is currently living in Carencro, La., at the home of Scott Jordan, the editor of Lafayette’s Independent Weekly. He can be reached at michaeltisserand

Note: Since this story was written, it has been reported that Katy Reckdahl and her newborn son got out of New Orleans safely.


A refugee ponders life after Katrina, with or without New Orleans

“Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away alright.”

—Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927”


New Orleans is gone. I left it behind me on Saturday, Aug. 27, with my two kids in the backseat, the soundtrack to Shrek on the CD player. My wife, a pediatrician, was on call for the weekend and stayed behind.

She joined us in a town just outside Lafayette, La., Sunday evening after a harrowing odyssey along the southern route of Highway 90, driving without her glasses or a cell phone, our three cats roaming in the back of a shaky Volvo.

Together that night, we watched the same show that all who’d gotten out were watching. The straight line for our city. The familiar “Cat-4” and “Cat-5.” And for those of us who thought we’d seen this before, the much-hoped-for right turn.

It didn’t matter. It hit. Even those who could read the tea leaves in John McPhee’s The Control of Nature or John Barry’s Rising Tide, or who had seen the diagrams of a bowl-shaped city, are in disbelief. New Orleans is gone, along with the newspaper where I work, the home where I live, my kids’ beloved school, my neighborhood sno-ball stand, my neighborhood anything.

On The Times-Picayune’s Web site and on cable news, I see my former home’s dark and distorted reflection: submerged rooftops; a battered Superdome filled with the desperate; looters grabbing guns and VCRs and racks of shirts; a house scrawled in red with “diabetic inside”; the breach in the levee.

The future is recited: a bowl of toxic stew. The gas, the sewage, the dead.

On the local news shows in south Louisiana, the crawl beneath the picture lists statewide evacuation centers in Rayne and Opelousas, and announces that “evacuees in need of dialysis should call . . .” Above these details are shots of aerial superheroes in short red jumpsuits or head-to-toe military green, alighting on rooftops and loading old women and little boys in wire baskets for their ride out.

Scan along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and it’s tragedy and timber. A man holds his two boys. “I can’t find my wife,” he tells the reporter. “Our house split in two.”

This is all via TV. Direct information is harder to come by. Cell phones aren’t working; contact with others is haphazard. I haven’t been able to talk with my publisher yet. But this morning, my wife reached her boss. This is a man who embodies the New Orleans peculiarly dark joie de vivre to such an extent that he dressed as the tsunami for this year’s Mardi Gras.

On the phone, he was blunt. “I don’t know if we’re going to have a practice to come back to,” he said. “What families will return to the city with their children?”

Other cities are mightier. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York. But New Orleans is where I wanted to make my home.

I first hitchhiked to the city as a college dropout who wanted to hear jazz and see Mardi Gras. The ride I got was with a preacher who warned me about sin and temptation. Just like every drunk tourist on Bourbon Street, that’s exactly what I was looking for.

Soon after, I heard zydeco and followed the blast of brass bands on the streets, and started writing about musicians who seemed like magicians, the way they could conjure a mood. I even covered Hurricane Andrew, drove straight toward it, fueled by recklessness and a USA Today day rate.

For the past 20 years, I have moved in and out of New Orleans. This last time, the roots buried deep: job, house, family, school. Early notions of the city of good times were tempered by the closer looks at poverty, illiteracy and crime I obtained as editor of the city’s alternative weekly. Being a parent in the public school system brought me even closer. Long before the rain started, New Orleans was a troubled city.

But it’s still the hallowed ground of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, of Mardi Gras and jazz funerals that send off the dead with “Didn’t He Ramble?” Of lesser-known purveyors of high spirits in bleak houses. I love New Orleans more than I’ve ever loved a particular place.

Most recently, I loved my neighborhood. Every morning, friends passed by our corner on their way to school. We’d hurry up tying our shoes to join them.

Of the thousands who evacuated to the towns surrounding Lafayette, a handful are from my street. We fled on the buddy system and hooked up when we got here. We’ve met for pizza and seen ourselves in each other, and we’ve drawn some comfort from that.

Now, as the TV news reports rising floodwaters and worse, it is becoming more difficult to speak to each other about our plans and how long we can hold on.

I haven’t told you about Katy Reckdahl. She’s a staff writer I hired a couple years back, and she writes about the hardest-hit citizens of New Orleans, including those who put themselves on the trigger side of a gun. She cares about all kinds of people. She knows this city better than most, and I am better for having worked with her.

On Saturday, when I was driving my kids out, she was having her first child, a boy, in Touro Infirmary.

Last I heard, they were moving people from floor to floor in Touro, and will now be evacuating them, along with others stranded in hospitals with no air conditioning and sealed windows, generators running out of gas.

Where is Katy?

At The Times-Pic ayune’s Web site, stories like mine pile on top of each other. Looking for grandfather. Want to hear from my friend. What do you know?

It’s harder to access pleas that aren’t online.

Meanwhile, the TV stations traffic in comparisons: a war zone, Hiro shima, the tsunami, a third-world refugee camp, 9/11. I try not to think like that, but Woody Guthrie’s dust-bowl ballads keep coming to mind. He wrote them about another time when the forces of man and nature sent refugees into America: “So long, it’s been good to know you.”

As I write, what’s left of New Orleans is being swallowed up. Gov. Kathleen Blanco—whose maternal concern has helped me through each day—is removing the last of us from the flooding city. The next journey belongs to the tens of thousands in the Superdome, now on to the Astrodome in a fleet of buses.

A couple hundred miles away, we have new household decisions to make. “I’m getting pretty bored of not having school,” my 7-year-old daughter announced today. A week ago, her life was filled with first-day-of-school excitement. Now, there’s maybe a Catholic girl’s academy. The public schools are also taking in the children of New Orleans. My wife returned from a registration session, speaking through tears about the warmth and efficiency.

We’re staying with friends who just keep saying “as long as it takes.” Last night, one of their neighbors showed up with smothered steak, rice and gravy, cabbage and sausage, and bread pudding. Another showed up with margaritas.

Decisions. Maybe we’ll call my daughter’s first-grade teacher, who evacuated to a nearby town, and we’ll set up a home school. The Saturday we left, my daughter was in his classroom a block up the street, playing on the computers while he put together lesson plans. “I want to go to Mr. Reynaud’s,” she’d beg every week until we relented. That’s one of those memories that seems untraceable now. It leads nowhere.

I also have a 4-year-old son. Last night, we were unfolding our hide-a-bed and putting blankets on the floor. “Did you see this?” my wife said, holding a book he’d made last month, before this hurricane had begun to form. He had drawn the pictures and recited the story, and my wife had taken his dictation. It was titled Miles and the Sun! and it goes like this:

“One spring day, Miles came out of his house in New Orleans. The sun was happy to see Miles. The sun was wearing sunglasses. Miles moved to his new house and the sun got very very hot. Now it was even hotter! A fearful wild storm came with lots of monsters. Luckily Miles wasn’t in it. The water splashed all over it.”

The drawing for that last page was all deep, hard-pressed scribbles.

Last night, he sat on my lap and looked at the TV and the people walking through the water. “Are those the people who didn’t evacuate?” he asked, carefully enunciating his new word.

New Orleans is gone and I can’t say when it will come back. My neighborhood, my job, all of it might somehow return.

Yet I don’t know what a rebuilt New Orleans will look like and I don’t know if I’ll be there for it. For now, we’re living on the generosity of others.

That’s what it’s like to be a refugee. You never know what’s next.

photo:Liz Roll

Who Needs the United States Government? (We All Do.)
By Chris Edelson

Katrina answers a quarter-century of conservative rhetoric


Over the past week, the United States government has proven incapable of providing relief to citizens in desperate need. The consequences were immediate and devastating for thousands of residents of New Orleans and other affected areas. For days, people were trapped in hellish conditions, without food, water, medicine or sanitation. It seems certain that thousands of people died.

When disasters like Hurricane Katrina occur, Americans naturally look to the federal government for help. This is not surprising. The federal government has a budget of more than one trillion dollars. It has more than one million employees. It has an agency dedicated to emergency management. It is far bigger and has far more resources than state and local governments. It is natural that Americans expect the federal government to be the entity most capable of responding to the worst crises, including disasters like Katrina.

Sadly, those in charge—our supposed leaders—do not seem to understand why the federal government is essential. For the past quarter century, conservatives have hypocritically damned the federal government, even as they presided over it for most of those years. Ronald Reagan criticized wasteful federal spending, even as spending and deficits ballooned during his administrations. George W. Bush brought more of the same, denouncing the federal government as a problem to be solved by reduced spending (again, even as spending and deficits increased on his watch). This critique has given the Republican party a focus and single-mindedness Democrats have lacked. It is easy to say what the Republicans have stood for in recent decades: Limited federal government has been the cornerstone of their philosophy.

The Democratic heirs to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society have been unable to deliver an effective rejoinder to the conservative critique of national government. In 1984, Walter Mondale’s attempt to defend the Democratic vision of government became associated only with higher taxes. A decade later, Bill Clinton famously conceded that the era of big government had ended. Presidential standard bearers Al Gore and John Kerry defanged their rhetoric in order to avoid sounding like big-government types.

A question, glaringly unasked over the past quarter century, has forced itself into the national consciousness over the past week: Why exactly do we need the United States government? Conservative rhetoric suggested that government was more a problem than a solution, an obstacle to be removed from the path of the free-market system. Of course, even conservatives did not advocate dismantling the entire government. For one thing, lavish military spending marked Republican administrations. Beyond the military, however, it was unclear that conservatives saw any part of the federal government as essential. They en dorsed states’ rights at almost every turn (though not when it came to gay marriage or medical marijuana). In opposition, Democrats were unable to articulate why we need federal government.

In the flooded streets of New Orleans, we finally have a clear, resounding answer. State and city authorities were first unable to muster the resources needed to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people, then to care for and protect those left behind. Ordinary citizens stuck in the city looked, in vain, to the federal government for help. On television, they asked how the United States could deliver aid to other countries and fight a war overseas in Iraq while forsaking its own citizens.

This is an “emperor has no clothes” moment. Twenty five years of Republican rhetoric have been stripped naked. Criticizing big government sounded good when all it seemed to mean was lower taxes. But, it turns out, those taxes pay for something, and reduced spending can have very real consequences. The Bush administration cut funding for strengthening the levees in New Orleans. That decision had a human cost not factored into the budget calculus.

It is time to ask basic questions about government, questions that were asked when this country was founded, but questions that need to be asked again, after years of assault on the concept of national government. Why do we have a government at all? Why did we form a national government? Government, at its essence, means civilization. We have government for the same reason cavemen banded together into tribes, and the people of the Fertile Crescent formed cities. Government exists to make life better, less dangerous, more sane. It accomplishes collective tasks that would overwhelm individuals. A national government exists for the same reasons, and can marshal far greater resources than smaller state or local entities, taking advantage of economies of scale and a larger tax base.

The country’s founders made their reasons for forming a national government explicit in the preamble to the United States Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

During the past week, the United States government utterly failed to ensure domestic tranquility or to promote the general welfare in New Orleans. After this failure, we must reexamine all of the platitudes that have become dogma over the past quarter-century: that government is a problem to be reined in, not a resource; that the private sector can be counted on to fill in gaps unaddressed by government; that taxes may only be lowered, never raised; that private-sector principles should be applied to the public sector. When searching for something good that could come out of this national tragedy, President Bush clumsily looked forward to the reconstruction of Trent Lott’s house in Mississippi. If we really want to hope for something good born from tragedy, we should reimagine, as our forebears once did, our national government as a force for good that will be there when its desperate citizens cry out for help.

Chris Edelson is a civil-rights attorney in New York City.

Cracks in the Spin

Although initially one had to turn to blogs and rebroadcast local radio to get the real information about what was happening in New Orleans, the ensuing week has broken through the usual sound bites. People from Fox News reporters to the mayor of New Orleans to Ted Koppel have been describing the scene in blunt terms, refusing to accept platitudes in return, and airing their emotions and anger in unusual displays of honesty. If you tuned out, it’s worth checking out these highlights:

Transcript of New Orleans mayor’s interview with a local radio host: US/09/02/katrina.nagin/index. html.

TV highlights: www.crooks Scroll down to see: Kanye West breaking the mood on the telethon, Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera refusing to let Sean Hannity spin what they were seeing on the ground or make them end on an upbeat note, and Ted Koppel giving the head of FEMA hell.

Meet the Press interview with Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish: www.michael

Meanwhile, information that isn’t making it to the national news is still streaming in to the local blogs. To stay up-to-date on stories, donation requests, and other localized information, visit: www.jacksonfreepress. com/katrinablog.php. Main_Page.

photo:Liz Roll

The Disaster That Shouldn’t Have Been
By Jon Elliston

Warnings about problems at FEMA were sounded soon after Bush put a political appointee in charge


With outrage still building over the excruciatingly inadequate federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is facing a political storm of its own. The question of how FEMA—the government agency most responsible for containing the damage of such catastrophes—seemed to have abandoned hundreds of thousands of suffering Americans now seems destined for multiple government investigations.

Tracing back through recent developments in federal emergency policy, there were some clear warning signs that FEMA has been set up to falter. A year ago, during the wave of hurricanes and floods that battered communities across the South, seven alternative newsweeklies collaborated on an investigation of FEMA’s approach to natural disasters under the Bush administration (http://www. The investigation showed that FEMA, which had during the 1990s won widespread praise for advancing its approach to natural disasters, was in a severe backslide. Emergency managers from both inside and outside of government said in the story that President Bush has drained FEMA’s natural-disaster programs in a series of policy and budget changes, including:

The appointment of political cronies rather than disaster experts to top posts. The current director of FEMA, former attorney Michael Brown, took on the job from one of his college friends—President Bush’s first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, the president’s former chief of staff from Texas. Neither of the two had any significant experience in managing disasters.

“Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors,” Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran and president of the agency’s government employees’ union, warned Congress last summer.

The move to outsourcing for emergency assistance reflected a philosophical shift by the Bush administration away from federal responsibility. As we wrote, “In a May 15, 2001, appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Allbaugh signaled that the new, stripped-down approach would be applied at FEMA as well. ‘Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management,’ he said. Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.”

A push to privatize some of the agency’s key functions. William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warned that outsourcing had not served natural-disaster programs well. “It’s part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities,” he says. “Pretty soon, governments can’t do things because they’ve given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don’t necessarily maintain those capabilities.”

Cuts to key “disaster mitigation” programs—the measures taken in advance to minimize the damage caused by natural disasters. Such programs, which have proven to be both cost-effective and in some cases life-saving, included FEMA’s Project Impact, a model mitigation program created in 1997 but ended by the White House in 2001. Federal funding of post- disaster mitigation efforts designed to protect people and property from the next disaster has been cut in half; that program had saved an estimated $8.8 million in recovery costs in three eastern North Carolina communities alone after 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. And now, communities across the country must compete for pre-disaster mitigation dollars. Last year, Eileen Loh Harrist, a writer for the New Orleans newspaper Gambit Weekly, reported that Jefferson Parish, La. (which has now been hit by Katrina), had seen FEMA reject no less than three of its recent requests for flood-mitigation grants.

And, perhaps most damagingly, in 2002 the administration folded FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, where the emphasis on terrorist threats has left natural disaster work increasingly marginalized. “Before, we reported straight to the White House, and now we’ve got this elaborate bureaucracy on top of us,” Mann told the Independent last year. “And a lot of this bureaucracy doesn’t think what we’re doing is that important, because terrorism isn’t our number one.” In testimony to Congress in March 2004, James Lee Witt, who directed FEMA during the agency’s heyday in the 1990s, said he was “extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded” because of the merger of FEMA into the DHS. “I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared.”

A year later, these concerns have only intensified. Following the devastation of Katrina, and amid the mounting evidence that the federal government has done far too little, far too late to assist the storm’s victims, some of the country’s most experienced emergency managers have stepped forward to sound an alarm. “We are so much less than what we were in 2000,” said an unnamed “senior FEMA official” in a Sept. 1 Washington Post article. Another FEMA veteran said, “It’s such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on Sept. 11.”

Other emergency experts have gone on the record. FEMA “is being, in effect, systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security,” wrote Eric Holdeman, director of emergency management in King County, Wash., in an Aug. 30 Washington Post op-ed. “[T]he advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA. “Our all-hazards approaches have been decimated by the administration’s preoccupation with terrorism.”

On Sept. 5, the Los Angeles Times carried these remarks from Morrie Goodman, a Clinton-era FEMA official. “They’ve taken emergency management away from the emergency managers. These operations are being run by people who are amateurs at what they are doing.”

In the same article, former and longtime FEMA official Richard W. Krimm said that “it was a terrible mistake to take disaster and recovery and disaster preparedness and mitigation, and put them in Homeland Security.”

Eric Tolbert, a former North Carolina state emergency director who was a high-ranking FEMA official from 2002 until February of this year, told a Knight-Ridder reporter that the disastrous disaster response in the Gulf Coast was a product of FEMA’s misplaced priorities. “What you’re seeing is revealing weaknesses in the state, local and federal levels,” he said in the midst of New Orleans’ weeklong wait for substantial assistance. “All three levels have been weakened. They’ve been weakened by diversion into terrorism.”

And in an interview with, Tolbert drew a direct connection between FEMA’s recent breakdown and the calamity unfolding in that city. In the summer of 2004, he said, the agency ran a “tabletop exercise” in Baton Rouge as part of an effort to craft a new plan for dealing with a serious hurricane strike in the New Orleans area. But then, the money dried up. “Unfortunately,” Tolbert said, “we were not able to finish the plan.”

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