Tisserand and family in Carenco, La.
dispatch from the early days of the disaster, By
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 @yahoo.com.
Note: Since this story was written, it has been reported that
Katy Reckdahl and her newborn son got out of New Orleans safely.
refugee ponders life after Katrina, with or without New Orleans
people got lost in the flood, some people got away alright.”
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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
Needs the United States Government? (We All Do.)
By Chris Edelson
answers a quarter-century of conservative rhetoric
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Edelson is a civil-rights attorney in New York City.
in the Spin
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: www.cnn.com/2005/ US/09/02/katrina.nagin/index. html.
TV highlights: www.crooks andliars.com/2005/09/02.html. 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
the Press interview with Aaron Broussard, president of
Jefferson Parish: www.michael moore.com/_images/splash/ aaron_broussard.mov.
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,
Disaster That Shouldn’t Have Been
By Jon Elliston
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
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:
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.
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.”
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
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
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
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 Salon.com, 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