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Thursday, November 03, 2005

John Biguenet's NOLA Journal - DEFEND NEW ORLEANS

Nov. 1, 2005
Defend New Orleans


Saturday night, Marsha and I attended a Nine Inch Nails tribute concert for relief and emergency workers as part of the Voodoo Music Experience, an annual New Orleans festival. The concert was held on the banks of the Mississippi River in weather that turned crisp after darkness fell.

Earlier, as the setting sun silhouetted tankers and container ships gliding down the river toward the Gulf, we had been entranced by Worms Union, a local punk drum ensemble, one of whose members wore the most commonly seen T-shirt at the festival. It featured, just above a musket, a skull emblazoned with a fleur-de-lis; circling the skull and gun was a simple message: “Defend New Orleans.”


If there’s anything left for me to say after my 15 columns and videos this past month about my hometown, it’s to echo that plea: Defend New Orleans.

The city is in jeopardy. At dinner last night, a knowledgeable historian and friend, who has been trying to get a fix on the actual population of New Orleans today, told me that the estimate he keeps hearing is 150,000 people during the day and only 50,000 at night. That means, if those numbers are accurate, the city has a resident population only one-tenth its size before Hurricane Katrina hit two months ago.

Many have compared the tragedy here to the events of 9/11, but as terrible as that day was for America and the families that lost loved ones, it resulted in the closing of a neighborhood in New York and a building in Washington. My son, then a student at Columbia University, was back in class a few days later. The collapse of defective levees here, on the other hand, led to the forced evacuation of an entire city. Our universities will not open again until January. Basic governmental services are still being restored two months later. Much of the population is homeless and either jobless or without salaries. What happened in New Orleans is a catastrophe of so large a scale, it is difficult to comprehend the extent of the upheaval.

As has now been widely documented, all this suffering was engendered by the incompetence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As an engineer on an L.S.U. team researching the collapse of the city’s levees concluded, the levee design the corps chose to use “could never work.” But having lost our houses, cars, jobs, and possessions to a needless flood for which a government agency bears responsibility, we now face an administration ideologically opposed to the use of government to serve the public good. The grandiose promises of reconstruction aid made by President Bush before St. Louis Cathedral in a dramatically lit nighttime speech to the nation turn out to have been nothing more than lies by a weakened politician. It is now expected that what aid we get will be funds redirected from existing poverty programs, and unlike any other federal disaster aid in history, we will be made to pay it all back.

I have been overwhelmed by the response to my columns this past month, and I apologize for not having been able to respond personally to all the readers around the world who sent their sympathy, encouragement, and gratitude. (I was especially touched by the bookshop owner in Maine who offered to replace some of the books I had lost and another reader who tried to locate a place for us to stay when Marsha and I were taking cold showers in the daycare center where we first slept upon returning to New Orleans.) Many readers expressed their shame and outrage at the performance of the federal government in responding to the crisis here.

I hope all those readers and everyone who loves the Big Easy will do whatever they can to keep attention focused on what happens down here over the next year and to support, however they can, the rebuilding of this great city. We New Orleanians can’t defend New Orleans by ourselves; we need your help.

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