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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Tracking the Beast Backwards by John Biguenet

Oct. 7, 2005
Tracking the Beast Backwards

We were impatient to get on the road. After five weeks staying with relatives, Marsha and I wanted to get home, though we knew our house in New Orleans was probably uninhabitable. Our insurance company had called our daughter's home in New Jersey to tell us that the two cars we had left behind in our garage when we fled Hurricane Katrina would be declared total losses without an adjustors report required. If an insurance company was willing to pay off a claim without an inspection based simply upon our address, we knew our house had sustained major damage.

We had covered over a thousand miles in two days of driving back to New Orleans when we first noticed them in Alabama, doublewide mobile homes on the interstate traveling south with us. There were so many, we lost count as we passed the slower moving trailers, each with a simple sign taped to a rear window: FEMA. They were the first trace of the hurricane we had seen.

In the late afternoon, taking I-59 south out of Meridian, Mississippi, we saw a road sign that pointed the way to New Orleans, and I felt the surge of elation coming home always inspires in me. But almost immediately, we also saw evidence of the storm littering both sides of the highway. About 10 percent of the slender pine trees lining the interstate were snapped in two 10 or 12 feet up. On the right, the broken trunks had fallen into the forest; on the left, dead treetops fringed the edge of the highway. Every broken tree had toppled toward the west. The battering wind that had decimated the woods had spun out of the east, the counterclockwise wind of an advancing hurricane.

With the light thickening into early evening as we drove farther south, it seemed at first an optical illusion, the bowing toward the falling sun of the trees still standing on either side of the road. By now perhaps a third of the trees were snapped in half, always falling westward. Then, we passed a steel sign crumpled like a wad of green paper beside the interstate: New Orleans 98. We were less than 100 miles from home.

From that point on, we couldn’t read any of the signs along the highway; every one was doubled over backwards on its steel legs from the wind. Now half the pines were down, their needles rusting on the ground. We felt as if we were following the trail left by some terrible beast back to where its rampage had begun.

With the twin bridges of I-10 across Lake Pontchartrain both having been smashed by the hurricane, we had to follow I-12 along its northern shore to the 24-mile causeway that crosses the lake into Jefferson Parish, which adjoins New Orleans. This was the same bridge we had been forced to use the day we evacuated because the other routes out of the city were already jammed. That morning we had been nervous, crossing the open water of the choppy lake that would flood our house two days later after a levee had collapsed. Coming home in the dark across the long bridge, we were too exhausted to be nervous about the uncertain future that awaited us in the unlit city we could barely make out on the south shore.

Up ahead on the interstate into New Orleans, gigantic spotlights seemed to hover over the roadway. As we slowed, we saw a contingent of police manning a checkpoint barricading the highway. It was after eight o’clock; the curfew was in effect, and the city was closed for the night. Diverted from the interstate, we followed a back street littered with cracked pieces of sheetrock and shattered branches. Heaps of ruined carpets and mattresses and furniture and toys spilled from sidewalks into the gutters. Every house was sprayed with a red X; in each quadrant, a number reported what a search team had found: how many survivors on the right, how many bodies at the bottom.

We had been unable to find an apartment to rent by phone; a FEMA representative told us the nearest available rentals were in Mobile, Alabama. But a friend located a tiny apartment attached to the back of a daycare center that we could use until the end of the month.

We unloaded the car, found a bag of pretzels in the daycare center, and opened a going-away present from our Danish son-in-law, a bottle of Larsen’s brandy (Le Cognac des Vikings, according to the label). Marsha and I sank down on children’s chairs around a table 18 inches high, nibbling pretzels for our dinner and savoring cognac in red plastic cups. In the morning, we would see what the hurricane had done to our house.

But after five weeks away, we were nearly home.

The Trouble with Harry by MAUREEN DOWD

October 8, 2005


Conservatives may consider Harriet Miers the last straw.

But what will Harriet Miers consider the last straw with conservatives?

Maybe it will be Bork Borking her.

The old Supreme Court nominee reject rejected the new Supreme Court nominee, calling her "a disaster on every level" and "a slap in the face" to conservatives. Robert Bork complained to Tucker Carlson on MSNBC last night that Ms. Miers had "no experience with constitutional law whatever," that it was wrong for W. to choose a justice simply to have a woman's perspective and that conservative reaction veered between "disapproval and outrage."

WHAM! BLAM! POW!

Way to crack the gal right across the kisser, when she's already on the ropes from so much conservative wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Senator Sam Brownback suggested it would be futile for the "very decent lady," as he dismissively called her, to compete with John Roberts's masterly performance because that would be like "following Elvis."

Pat Buchanan told Keith Olbermann that conservatives were "agonized," "depressed," and "virtually heartbroken," and Charles Krauthammer wrote: "If Harriet Miers were not a crony of the president of the United States, her nomination to the Supreme Court would be a joke, as it would have occurred to no one else to nominate her." Ouch.

Conservatives are shocked to discover that President Bush has been stuffing his administration with cronies and mediocrities in important places? If Ms. Miers were a sworn foe of Roe v. Wade and an ardent advocate of originalism in constitutional jurisprudence, would the same conservatives be so sick about her qualifications? Clarence Thomas, after all, was anything but a leading light of American jurisprudence.

The New Republic this week chooses the biggest 15 hacks in the Bush administration, noting that "no administration has etched the principles of hackocracy into its governing philosophy as deeply as this one." Ms. Miers wins at No. 1.

W.'s case for her elevation is their closeness, because she is, as Alexander Hamilton put it, one of the "obsequious instruments of his pleasure."

But there is some sign, at least, that there are limits to cronyism, even for the Bush administration. The president had nominated Timothy Flanigan to be deputy attorney general, a job in which he would oversee all U.S. attorneys, the criminal division of Justice and the F.B.I. His qualification for this was a stint as Alberto Gonzales's deputy White House counsel, a job where he helped write the torture memos. In Congressional testimony at one point, he said that waterboarding was a good thing, because it doesn't leave visible or permanent marks. After his White House stint, Mr. Flanigan was a senior executive at Tyco International, where his main contribution was hiring Jack Abramoff, the Republican influence peddler, to protect Tyco's offshore tax shelters. Yesterday, Mr. Flanigan withdrew amid growing questions.

The right is right about Ms. Miers's insufficiency to join the Brethren, even if the right is cynical. Actually, there's a lot of cynicism in the Miers affair. Those on the left are perfectly happy to look away from mediocrity because it is the lesser of two evils, because they were spared the nightmare of a reactionary maniac.

W. is so loath to leave his little bubble - where caretakers tell him how brilliant and bold he is - that he keeps selecting the people in charge of the selection committees. It's just so much easier to choose a sycophant who's already in the room than to create one from scratch.

He used to disdain pointy-headed liberals from Yale, but now he's angry at pointy-headed conservatives demanding some sort of genius for the Supreme Court, rather than a den mother who did all of W.'s legal wet work and who prefers John Grisham to Leo Strauss.

While the Bushies have been trying to reassure the right that W. knows Harry's heart, that she's a good Christian church lady who will vote in a way that will please them, Harry is probably working herself up to a good grudge against all those meanies who are savaging her as a lightweight apple polisher. Imagine! After she rechristened herself midlife as born again and Republican for them.

Even if she was going to be a loyal conservative jurist before, why should she be now, after all the loathsome things they've said?

The old maxim goes that a neoconservative is a liberal who got mugged by reality. But if you're a conservative mugged by conservatives, neo and paleo, it may have the opposite effect and turn you into ... David Souter!!!!

Friday, October 07, 2005

Everything's on Loan by John Biguenet

NYTimes Guest Columnist
Oct. 5, 2005


We didn’t know that we were both mulling the same feelings, but my wife and I admitted to each other a few nights ago that we don’t want to go back to the way we used to live before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Not that our lives were unfulfilling; in fact, Marsha and I found our work deeply satisfying, and our marriage and family life couldn’t have been any happier. But the hurricane, in turning our world upside down, has awakened in us a realization that might have slumbered undisturbed for the rest of our lives.

Like others, we were always quick to acknowledge that nothing lasts. We knew things that pleased us would crack and shatter, stray and disappear. Pleasant routines would grow tiresome. Friendships would sometimes fray. And we’re old enough to have lost people whom we loved; we thought we had grasped the lesson of that grief.

So when our house filled with muddy water, we dismissed as simply stuff, and nothing more, the books we lost, the paintings, the recipes, the sofa we had saved to buy, the old vinyl records collected years ago, the comfortable coats in the hall closet, the furniture we’d chosen piece by piece, the tablecloth Marsha’s grandmother had crocheted us as a wedding gift. It wasn’t easy. Each time another thing we’d lost to the flood occurred to us, we’d flinch inside. But with nearly a thousand New Orleanians dead after the storm, how could we justify much sorrow over mere stuff?

It wasn’t the loss, then, so much as the lesson the loss emphatically taught that made us ask whether we’d simply reconstruct, if we could, the life we used to have before the storm, or whether we’d change, in fundamental ways, the kind of life we’d lead from this point on. If it turned out that our house had to come down after sitting for weeks in four or five feet of water, would we rebuild where it stood in our quiet neighborhood or move into another part of town, perhaps the French Quarter? And if that could change, then why not reconsider the habits of our lives — the round of jobs and tasks, films and favorite restaurants — that filled our weeks? I suppose it comes down to a fairly simple decision: should we rebuild the life we had or start from scratch.

The one thing of which we are sure is that we want to return to New Orleans. We want to help our schools reopen, help our city rebuild. Beyond that, though, it’s all a question mark.

We know now, in a way we couldn’t have known without losing so many of the things we owned, that possession is an illusion. Everything’s on loan. As for security, we know just a few hours of rain and wind can leave your life in shambles. It will be harder from now on to take things for granted because we know that even a city — imagine, a whole city — can be extinguished in a single summer morning. So we have changed. I don’t think I will ever close a door behind me again without wondering, Last time?

We used to live as if our lives drifted on a river that rolled on forever, but now we’ve heard the falls ahead. To us, the roar sounds louder than it did just a few weeks ago. Perhaps that’s why we think it’s finally time to swim against the current.

Miserable by Design by PAUL KRUGMAN

Federal aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina is already faltering on two crucial fronts: health care and housing. Incompetence is part of the problem, but deeper political issues also play a crucial role.

Start with health care, where conservative senators, generally believed to be acting on behalf of the White House, have blocked bipartisan legislation that would provide all low-income victims of Katrina with health coverage under Medicaid.

In a letter urging Senate leaders to reject the bill, Mike Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, warned that it would create "a new Medicaid entitlement." He asserted that victims can be taken care of by Medicaid "waivers," which basically amount to giving refugees the health benefits, if any, that they would have been entitled to in their home states - and no more.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, many needy victims won't qualify for aid. For example, Medicaid doesn't cover childless adults of working age. In fact, surveys show that many destitute survivors of Katrina are being denied Medicaid, and some are going without medicines they need.

Local hospitals and doctors will often treat Katrina victims even if they can't pay. But this means that communities that have welcomed Katrina refugees will, in effect, be financially punished for their generosity - something local officials will remember in future crises. (The administration has offered vague, unconvincing assurances that it will do something to compensate medical caregivers. It has offered much more concrete assurances that it will reimburse religious groups that provide aid.)

What about housing? These days, both conservatives and liberals agree that public housing projects are a bad idea, and that housing vouchers - which help the poor pay rent - are much better. In the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, special housing vouchers issued to victims worked very well.

But the administration has chosen, instead, to focus its efforts on the creation of public housing in the form of trailer parks, which have been slow to take shape, will almost surely be more expensive than a voucher program and may create long-term refugee ghettoes. Even Newt Gingrich calls this "extraordinarily bad policy" that "violates every conservative principle."

What's going on here? The crucial point is that President Bush has been forced by events into short-term actions that conflict with his long-term goals. His mission in office is to dismantle or at least shrink the federal social safety net, yet he must, as a matter of political necessity, provide aid to Katrina's victims. His problem is how to do that without legitimizing the very role of government he opposes.

This dilemma explains the administration's opposition to Medicaid coverage for all Katrina refugees. How can it provide that coverage without undermining its ongoing efforts to reduce the Medicaid rolls? More broadly, if it accepts the principle that all hurricane victims are entitled to medical care, people might start asking why the same isn't true of all American citizens - a line of thought that points toward a system of universal health insurance, which is anathema to conservatives.

As for the administration's odd insistence on providing public housing instead of relying on the market, The Los Angeles Times reports that Department of Housing and Urban Development officials initially announced plans to issue rent vouchers, then backed off after meeting with White House aides. As the article notes, the administration has "repeatedly sought to cut or limit" the existing housing voucher program.

This suggests that what administration officials fear isn't that housing vouchers would fail, but that they would succeed - and that this success would undermine the administration's ongoing efforts to cut back housing aid.

So here's the key to understanding post-Katrina policy: Mr. Bush can't avoid helping Katrina's victims, but he doesn't want to legitimize institutions that help the needy, like the housing voucher program. As a result, his administration refuses to use those institutions, even when they are the best way to provide victims with aid. More generally, the administration is trying to treat Katrina's victims as harshly as the political realities allow, so as not to create a precedent for other aid efforts.

As the misery of the hurricane's survivors goes on, remember this: to a large extent, they are miserable by design.

A Wolfie in Sheep's Clothing by MAUREEN DOWD

Paul Wolfowitz is having fun.

"It's fun to have the chance to be a retail politician again," he told Andrew Balls of The Financial Times on a recent trip to India. It was an economic odyssey designed to warm up his image by tipping off the press to record his shirt-sleeve visit to a slum and his street dancing with children in Andhra Pradesh.

When the reporter noted that Mr. Wolfowitz's role as No. 2 at the Pentagon must seem distant, he agreed, saying, "Yes, it does seem like a long time ago."

A lot has changed for this architect of the Iraq war since he left the scene of the accident. Following the lead of that other wooly-headed war theoretician, Robert McNamara, Wolfie scuttled to the World Bank, where he changed the subject from bollixing up Iraq to fixing up Africa.

Unlike the Powell maxim "If you break it, you own it," the Wolfowitz philosophy is "If you break it, walk away from it."

Where on earth are those who egged on the Iraq civil war? The neoconservatives have moved on to debates about China and Iran. Richard Perle has dropped out of sight, except to pop up, as he did at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual meeting in May, to urge a military raid on Iran if it's "on the verge of a nuclear weapon."

The president and his generals are still offering gauzy assessments of our fight against an insurgency that grows ever more vicious, and dishing out loopy justifications for the war.

Before Mr. Bush was dragged out of Crawford this summer, he was making the case that we had to keep killing in Iraq to honor troops killed there. This week, Gen. Richard Myers offered more circular logic, warning that a U.S. defeat would invite another 9/11. The Bush administration used 9/11 as a pretext for invading Iraq and now says it can't leave for fear of spurring another 9/11.

Wolfie and fellow hawks turned Iraq into a harbor for Al Qaeda with an invasion they justified by falsely calling Iraq a harbor for Al Qaeda. General Myers said that America couldn't leave and allow Al Qaeda to dominate Iraq because "then in my view we would have lost, and the next 9/11 would be right around the corner, absolutely."

Here's the weirdest perversion: First Rummy, as President Reagan's Mideast envoy, was photographed with Saddam, supporting him in the war against Iran. Then Rummy and other hawks rushed the U.S. into war against Saddam and ended up turning Iraq over to Shiites intertwined with Iran. And now Richard Perle thinks we might have to bomb Iran.

The president spent years saying that Al Qaeda was on the run, and Rummy spent years saying we just had to finish off a few Saddam "dead enders." But four years after Mr. Bush promised to get "the people who knocked these buildings down," they are finally talking about Al Qaeda as a threat again.

Perhaps they have no choice, now that Al Qaeda has supposedly started its own weekly newscast on the Internet, "The Voice of the Caliphate," with an anchorman wearing a ski mask and an ammunition belt, and props like a Koran and a rifle pointed at the camera. Its top story was joy over Katrina damage.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Gen. John Abizaid called Al Qaeda "the main threat we face" in Iraq, citing its 400 suicide bombers deployed worldwide. So, when W. says if we fight them there we won't have to fight them here, that's just nutty.

Though the Bushie gang has maintained that it would be hard for Al Qaeda to operate on the run, General Abizaid noted that the group is "empowered by modern communications, expertly using the virtual world for planning, recruiting, fund-raising, indoctrination and exploiting the mass media" to break the U.S. will and try to form a haven in Iraq.

Al Qaeda is exploiting tribal tensions intensified by the bungled U.S. occupation. Mr. Wolfowitz's assumption that America could conquer Baghdad and install the Shiites at the expense of the Sunnis, with bouquets thrown, in a religious war that has been going on for centuries, was naïve and dangerous.

The rest of us may be glued to the gruesome pileup of bodies in Iraq, but Wolfie has moved on. He told The Financial Times that he still thought the U.S. and the British did "the right thing" for "the right reasons," and "hopefully, it's going to turn out the right way."

He said that wherever he travels, from Burkina Faso to Bosnia, Iraq rarely comes up. How fortunate for him.

In the Beginning, There Was Abramoff by FRANK RICH


"Terri Schiavo is not brain-dead; she talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life support."
- Tom DeLay, March 20, 2005


IF you believed Tom DeLay then, you no doubt believe now that the deposed House majority leader is only on "temporary" leave from his powerful perch in Washington and that he'll soon bounce back, laughing all the way, from a partisan witch hunt that unjustly requires his brief discomfort in a Texas courtroom.

Those who still live in the reality-based community, however, may sense they're watching the beginning of the end of something big. It's not just Mr. DeLay, a k a the Hammer, who is on life support, but a Washington establishment whose infatuation with power and money has contaminated nearly every limb of government and turned off a public that by two to one finds the country on the wrong track.

But don't take my word for it. And don't listen to the canned talking points of the Democrats, who are still so busy trying to explain why they were for the war in Iraq before they were against it that it's hard to trust their logic on anything else. Listen instead to Andrew Ferguson, of the conservative Rupert Murdoch magazine, The Weekly Standard. As far back as last December in a cover article on the sleazy lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Mr. Ferguson was already declaring "the end of the Republican Revolution."

He painted the big picture of the Abramoff ethos in vibrant strokes: the ill-gotten Indian gambling moolah snaking through the bank accounts of a network of DeLay cronies and former aides; the "fact-finding" Congressional golfing trips to further the cause of sweatshop garment factories in the Marianas islands; the bogus "think tank" in Rehoboth Beach, Del., where the two scholars in residence were a yoga instructor and a lifeguard (albeit a "lifeguard of the year"). Certain names kept recurring in Mr. Ferguson's epic narrative, most prominently Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, Republican money-changers who are as tightly tied to President Bush and Karl Rove as they are to Mr. Abramoff and Mr. DeLay, if not more so.

The bottom line, Mr. Ferguson wrote, was a culture antithetical to everything conservatives had stood for in the Gingrich revolution of 1994. Slaying a corrupt, bloated Democratic establishment was out, gluttony for the G.O.P. and its fat cats was in. Mr. Abramoff and his gang embodied the very enemy the "Contract With America" Congress had supposedly come to Washington to smite: " 'Beltway Bandits,' profiteers who manipulate the power of big government on behalf of well-heeled people who pay them tons of money to do so." Those tons of Republican money were deposited in the favors bank of K Street, where, as The Washington Post reported this year, the number of lobbyists has more than doubled (to some 35,000) since the Bush era began in 2000. Conservatives who once aspired to cut government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub" - as a famous Norquist maxim had it - merely outsourced government instead to the highest bidder.

Mr. DeLay's latest plight is only a tiny detail within this vast Boschian canvas of depravity. If this were Watergate - and Watergate itself increasingly looks like a relatively contained epidemic of corruption - the Texas grand jury's indictment of the congressman and his associates would be a sideshow tantamount to the initial 1973 California grand jury indictment of the Nixon aide John Ehrlichman and his pals in the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office; Watergate's real legal fireworks were still in the wings. So forget about all those details down in Texas that make your teeth hurt; don't bother to learn the difference between Trmpac and Armpac. Fasten your seat belt instead for the roller coaster of other revelations and possible indictments that's about to roar through the Beltway.

The most important plot development of the past two weeks, in fact, has nothing to do with Mr. DeLay (as far as we know). It was instead the arrest of the administration's top procurement officer, David Safavian, on charges of lying and obstructing the investigation of Mr. Abramoff. And what an investigation it is: The F.B.I., the I.R.S., the Treasury Department and the Interior Department have all been involved. The popular theory of the case has it that Mr. Safavian, a former lobbying colleague of both Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Norquist, is being muscled by the feds to rat on the big guys in Washington - much as another smaller fish may have helped reel in Mr. DeLay in Texas.

The DeLay and Abramoff investigations are not to be confused with the many others percolating in the capital, including, most famously of late, the Justice Department and S.E.C. inquiries into the pious Bill Frist's divine stock-sale windfall and the homeland security inspector general's promised inquiry into possible fraud in the no-bid contracts doled out by FEMA for Hurricane Katrina. The mother of all investigations, of course, remains the prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's pursuit of whoever outed the C.I.A. agent Valerie Wilson to Robert Novak and whoever may have lied to cover it up. The denouement is on its way.

But whatever the resolution of any of these individual dramas, they will not be the end of the story. Like the continuing revelations of detainee abuse emerging from Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo, this is a crisis in the governing culture, not the tale of a few bad apples. Every time you turn over a rock, you find more vermin. We've only just learned from The Los Angeles Times that Joseph Schmitz, until last month the inspector general in charge of policing waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, is himself the focus of a Congressional inquiry. He is accused of blocking the investigation of another Bush appointee who is suspected of siphoning Iraq reconstruction contracts to business cronies. At the Justice Department, the F.B.I. is looking into why a career prosecutor was demoted after he started probing alleged Abramoff illegality in Guam. According to The Los Angeles Times, the demoted prosecutor was then replaced by a Rove-approved Republican pol who just happened to be a cousin of a major target of another corruption investigation in Guam.

We have to hope that the law will get to the bottom of these cases and start to connect the recurring dots. But while everyone is innocent until proved guilty, the overall pattern stinks and has for a long time. It's so filthy that the Republican caucus couldn't even find someone clean to name as Mr. DeLay's "temporary" stand-in as House majority leader last week. As The Washington Post reported in 2003, Roy Blunt, the Missouri congressman who got the job, was found trying to alter a homeland security bill with a last-minute provision that would have benefited Philip Morris-brand cigarettes. Not only had the tobacco giant contributed royally to Mr. Blunt's various campaign coffers, but both the congressman's girlfriend (now wife) and his son were Philip Morris lobbyists at the time.

This is the culture that has given us the government we have. It's a government that has spent more of the taxpayers' money than any since L.B.J.'s (as calculated by the Cato Institute, a libertarian research institution), even as it rewards its benefactors with tax breaks and corporate pork. It's a government so used to lying that Mr. DeLay could say with a straight face that the cost of Katrina relief could not be offset by budget cuts because there was no governmental fat left to cut. It's the government that fostered the wholesale loss of American lives in both Iraq and on the Gulf Coast by putting cronyism above patriotism.

The courts can punish crooks, but they can't reform democracy from the ground up, and the voters can't get into the game until 2006. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the key players both in the White House and in the leadership of both houses of Congress are either under investigation or joined at the hip to Messrs Rove, DeLay, Abramoff, Reed or Norquist. They seem to be hoping that some magical event - a sudden outbreak of peace and democracy in Iraq, the capture of Osama bin Laden, a hurricane affording better presidential photo ops than Rita - will turn things around. Dream on.

The one notable anomaly is John McCain, who retains a genuine hunger for reform, a rage at the corruption around him and the compelling motive of his presidential ambitions to push him forward; it's his Indian Affairs Committee, after all, that exposed the hideous Abramoff cesspool to public view last year. The Democrats, bereft of leadership and ideas (though not of their own Beltway bandits), also harbor a number of would-be presidents, but they are busier positioning themselves politically than they are articulating actual positions that might indicate what a new governmental order would look like. While the Republican revolution is dead, it says everything about the power vacuum left in its wake that Geena Davis's fictional commander in chief has more traction, as measured in Nielsen ratings and press, than any of the real-life contenders for that job in D.C.

A Pig in a Jacket by PAUL KRUGMAN

During the California electricity crisis, Dick Cheney sneered at energy conservation, calling it a mere "sign of personal virtue." But this week Samuel Bodman, the energy secretary - who is widely regarded as Mr. Cheney's proxy - declared that "the main thing that U.S. citizens can do is conserve." Is the Bush administration going green?

No, not really. This administration's idea of encouraging conservation is an ad campaign centered on a cartoon pig. When it comes to substantive energy policy, the administration is still thinking drill-and-burn.

The background to Mr. Bodman's remarks is growing public anger over high energy prices. Most of the focus right now is on the price of gasoline, but the worst is yet to come: just wait until people see their winter heating bills, especially for natural gas, which has roughly doubled in price since last year.

And the political danger to the administration is obvious: polls suggest that many people blame energy companies for high energy prices, and blame the administration for failing to control price gouging.

Funny, isn't it? During the California crisis, some of us deduced from economic evidence that electricity shortages were artificial, the result of market manipulation by energy producers and traders. This deduction was later confirmed by the Enron tapes, but at the time we were voices crying in the wilderness.

Now, much of the public believes that corporate evildoers with close ties to the administration are conspiring to drive prices up. But this time they aren't, at least so far.

Just in case you think I've gone soft on the energy industry, let me say that claims that we're having a crisis because environmentalists wouldn't let oil companies do their job are equally bogus. When you hear someone talk about how no refineries were built for 25 years, remember that until recently, oil companies weren't interested in building refineries, because they had excess capacity and profit margins were thin.

In fact, the current crisis is nobody's fault, except Mother Nature's. Both Katrina and Rita were stronger hurricanes when they plowed through offshore oil and gas fields than when they made landfall. And because damaged refineries and other energy facilities are competing for a limited number of repair crews, it's taking a long time to get those facilities back up and running.

What this means is that a lot of "demand destruction" must take place over the next few months. That is, one way or another, people will have to be persuaded to limit their consumption of natural gas, gasoline and heating oil to match the available supply.

In the absence of an effective conservation policy, prices will do all the persuading: the cost of fuel will rise until people drive less and turn down their thermostats. The problem, of course, is that high prices will impose serious hardship on many families.

And that's why administration officials are sounding vaguely greenish: they hope to limit the price pain by persuading people to curb their energy consumption out of a sense of public duty. Done right, such a campaign really could make a difference. In fact, energy conservation played a significant role in ending California's crisis four years ago.

But as you might expect, the administration's conservation push lacks conviction. President Bush has spoken in favor of conservation, but he seems more interested in trying to justify the Iraq war. And the administration's attempt to promote "Energy Hog," a cartoon pig in a leather jacket, as a conservation mascot verges on the pathetic.

So it's going to be a long, cold winter. But what about the longer term?

The long-term case for energy conservation doesn't have much to do with the current shortages. Instead, it's about national security, broadly defined - reduced dependence on Middle East oil supplies, reduced emission of greenhouse gases. But one might have hoped that the administration's new willingness to use the language of conservation would spill over into long-run policy.

No such luck: when it comes to substantive actions, as opposed to public relations, it's still the same old, same old. Mr. Bush has called for more refineries, but has said nothing about raising mileage requirements and efficiency standards for appliances. And as for a higher gasoline tax, which would be politically possible only with broad bipartisan backing - don't be silly.

Conservation's day will come. But it hasn't happened yet.

Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant by BOB HERBERT

A lot of people are upset over comments made on the radio by the former education secretary and guardian of all things virtuous, Bill Bennett.

A Republican who served in the Reagan cabinet, Mr. Bennett told his listeners: "I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could - if that were your sole purpose - you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down."

After making the point that exterminating blacks would be a most effective crime-fighting tool, he quickly added, "That would be an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down."

When I first heard about Mr. Bennett's comments, I wondered why anyone was surprised. I've come to expect racial effrontery from big shots in the Republican Party. The G.O.P. has happily replaced the Democratic Party as a safe haven for bigotry, racially divisive tactics and strategies and outright anti-black policies. That someone who's been a stalwart of that outfit might muse publicly about the potential benefits of exterminating blacks is not surprising to me at all.

Listen to the late Lee Atwater in a 1981 interview explaining the evolution of the G.O.P.'s Southern strategy:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

"And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me - because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.' "

Atwater, who would manage George H. W. Bush's successful run for the presidency in 1988 (the Willie Horton campaign) and then serve as national party chairman, was talking with Alexander P. Lamis, a political-science professor at Case Western Reserve University. Mr. Lamis quoted Atwater in the book "Southern Politics in the 1990's."

The truth is that there was very little that was subconscious about the G.O.P.'s relentless appeal to racist whites. Tired of losing elections, it saw an opportunity to renew itself by opening its arms wide to white voters who could never forgive the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights and voting rights for blacks.

The payoff has been huge. Just as the Democratic Party would have been crippled in the old days without the support of the segregationist South, today's Republicans would have only a fraction of their current political power without the near-solid support of voters who are hostile to blacks.

When Democrats revolted against racism, the G.O.P. rallied to its banner.

Ronald Reagan, the G.O.P.'s biggest hero, opposed both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960's. And he began his general election campaign in 1980 with a powerfully symbolic appearance in Philadelphia, Miss., where three young civil rights workers were murdered in the summer of 1964. He drove the crowd wild when he declared: "I believe in states' rights."

Bill Bennett's musings about the extermination of blacks in America (it would be "impossible, ridiculous ... morally reprehensible") is all of a piece with a Republican Party philosophy that is endlessly insulting to black people and overwhelmingly hostile to their interests.

But that white racist vote, once so important to the Democrats and now so important to the G.O.P., has been steadily shrinking. The U.S. is less prejudiced than it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, which is why George W. Bush had to try so hard to disenfranchise black voters in Florida in 2000; and why Jeb Bush had to call out the state police to try to intimidate black voters in Orlando, Fla., in 2004; and why Republicans in Georgia have come up with the equivalent of a poll tax (requiring people without a driver's license to pay $20 for a voter identification card), which will hurt poor, black and elderly voters.

Bill Bennett's twisted fantasies are a malignant outgrowth of our polarized past. Our job is to keep them from spreading into the future.

For No Good Reason By BOB HERBERT

"You can keep the flowers blooming on their graves forever. It won't change the fact that they died for nothing."

- antiwar protester, circa 1969

It's finally becoming clear on Capitol Hill, and maybe even in the White House, that the United States cannot win the war in Iraq. The only question still to be decided is how many more American lives will be wasted in George W. Bush's grand debacle.

The wheels have fallen off the cart in Iraq, and only those in the farthest reaches of denial are hanging on to the illusion of an American triumph over the insurgency.

Air Force General Richard Myers, who retired Friday as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was publicly chastised at an Armed Services Committee hearing last week by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has always been a strong proponent of the war.

Senator McCain bluntly declared that "things have not gone as we had planned or expected, nor as we were told by you, General Myers."

The general replied, "I don't think this committee or the American public has ever heard me say that things are going very well in Iraq."

The gruesome events throughout Iraq over the past month or so were understandably overshadowed in the American media by the obliteration of New Orleans and other matters connected to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. An apocalyptic tone was set on Aug. 31 when nearly 1,000 people were killed in a stampede on a bridge in northern Baghdad. The stampede was provoked by rumors of a suicide bomber.

Another two dozen Iraqis were killed in attacks by insurgents on Sept. 3. A few days later a taxi blew up outside a crowded restaurant in Basra, killing 16. That attack came just hours after four American contractors in Basra were killed by a bomb that was detonated next to their convoy.

The violence would continue without respite. Nearly 200 Iraqis were killed in just 48 hours in a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad on Sept. 14 and 15.

On the evening of Sept. 17, a Saturday, insurgents used a remote control device to detonate a car bomb in a crowded marketplace on the outskirts of Baghdad. At least 30 people were killed. A dozen Americans, including a State Department aide and eight soldiers, were killed in a series of attacks from the 19th through the 23rd of September.

And so on.

The president who slept through the early days of the agony in New Orleans is sleepwalking through the never-ending agony in Iraq. During an appearance at a naval base in California, Mr. Bush characterized the war that he started in Iraq as the moral equivalent of America's struggle against the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II.

If that's true, the entire nation should be mobilized. But, of course, it's not true. This is a reckless, indefensible war that has been avoided like the plague by the children of the privileged classes.

Even the most diehard defenders of this debacle are coming to the realization that it is doomed. So the party line now is that the Iraqis at some point will have to bear the burden of Mr. Bush's war alone.

Talk about a cruel joke. On the same day that Senator McCain faced off with General Myers, more than 100 people were killed in a series of car bombs in a town north of Baghdad; five U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi; and the American general in charge of U.S. forces in Iraq, George Casey, admitted before the Armed Services Committee that only 1 of the Iraqi Army's 86 battalions was capable of fighting the insurgency without American help.

The American death toll in Iraq is fast approaching 2,000. If the public could see the carnage close up, the way it saw the horror of New Orleans, the outrage would be beyond belief.

You never want to say that brave troops died for the mindless fantasies spun by a gang of dissembling, inept politicians. But what else did they die for?

And what about all those men and women, some of them barely out of childhood, who are lying awake nights, hardly able to move their broken, burned and paralyzed bodies? What do we tell them as they lie there, unable to curb the pain or fight off the depression, or even begin to understand the terrible thing that has happened to them?

What do we tell them about this war that their country inflicted on them for no good reason whatsoever?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

The Rescuing of New Orleans Dogs after Katrina



Past the swarms of love bugs of east Texas slathering my truck, through the swamp that had eerie pillars of dead Cyprus trees as far as you could see, over the bridge that you climbed at an angle not knowing what was on the other side till you finally topped it and headed downward, I finally pulled into the Gonzales, Louisiana, Humane Society Rescue area for hurricane Katrina. Being a dog lover and feeling like I needed to do something, I had volunteered with the Humane Society of the United States and was immediately requested to go to Gonzales.

As I pulled up, the National Guard was there asking for IDs. I explained who I was and was told where to go to sign up. In front of me was a huge pavilion, much bigger than I had imagined, with cars, trucks and large vans everywhere. I had been told to go to the sign-up tent. As I walked up, to my left I could see the incoming animals, those rescued that day from New Orleans. They were dirty, hurt and disoriented, but for the most part happy to be there.

To my right was the sign-up tent. I signed the necessary paperwork and was asked when I wanted to start. I basically said –NOW. Let’s get to it.
The woman said to get a cot at the FEMA tent so I would have a place to sleep later on. WOW—no tent on gravel? You mean I will have some relief from the oppressive heat. I am told to show up in 30 minutes at Barn 1 for second shift dog walking. Heh, dog walking. That will be easy. Lucky me.

6:30: I am in Barn 1, ready to walk the dogs. But wait, there are how many dogs in our barn--175. Yes, 175 dogs that five of us will have to walk, clean up after and feed. All shapes and sizes of dogs. Well, maybe this is not as easy as I thought. There are six barns, each with a series of horse stalls. Each horse stall holds either horses, dogs, cats, pigs, goats, birds or reptiles. In total I find out there are nearly 800 animals in all at this site. Eventually over 3000 will pass through here. In my barn we have not only the 175 dogs, but all cats, birds, reptiles, aggressive dogs and finally the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams or better known as VMAT. Barn 1 is considered the most dynamic of all the areas.

After about one minute of training, we are off. First, we must don rubber gloves, due to the bacteria and unknown contaminates the dogs have been in, and then it hits me--the putrid smell or what New Orleans smells like. A rotting, infested, putrid smell that gets into every pore of your body.

My first dog to walk is a beautiful German shepherd female I nickname “Princess.” She acts delicate--leaning on me for comfort, not wanting to run, but slowly walking to the area where the dogs get exercise and go to the bathroom. She is so emaciated you can feel her spine, but she is sweet and just wants to be hugged. There is a note on her stall indicating the rescuer says she is a “really a sweetie, please take care of her.” I am beginning to wonder if I have what it will take for this week of volunteering. I hate to take her back to the cage, I just want to sit and hold her but I cannot.

Next is a gorgeous chocolate Labrador retriever that was obviously trained. He is a sweetheart and makes me look good walking him. I give him the name Henry. Then there is Pumpernickel a little terrier-mix full of himself.
I walk a number of pit bull terriers. I am told that they are having trouble with people trying to steal the pit bulls. So many of the pits are just big lovers, and all they want is to be petted. But unfortunately the sick sport of dog fighting is big in the United States. People involved in this will stop at nothing to see the spilled blood of these beautiful animals for their sick pleasure. One dog I call Momma Dog has had puppies very recently, but I do not see any in her cage, so I can only imagine what has happened to them.
Little Man the poodle must be carried out to the walking area. He is partially paralyzed, and those back legs don’t work very well, but he has a big heart. When I take him back to his cage I give him some soft food as he has few teeth, and those little poodle eyes look at me, lost and asking why. Lobo is a wolf hybrid who loves his back scratched. He is a lucky one, along with a number of his buddies, because they have an owner who is making arrangements to get them home soon.

During this first night, I experience what everyone does. I am walking, and the tears begin to roll down my cheeks, uncontrollably. There are many reasons these dogs are here, but for the most part it is due to humans being selfish. I really dislike the human race at this point. At the end of my shift, in the middle of the night, I hate to get in my truck to drive to the showers because I smell like the mud that is everywhere. But my feet hurt, so smell up my truck it is. I can still see the faces looking at me through the bars of the cages.

The next day I find a radio station, the United Broadcasters of New Orleans. The news the people are calling in and the “official” news coming out is not the same. I find the disconnect very unsettling. I have worked smaller disasters before but this was a total disconnect of what is real and not real.
The next day before I start my shift, I start finding out that contrary to what is being said in the news people were told by many of the rescuers that there would be someone along right behind them to get their family pet. There would be someone to save the dog or cat that woke them up and saved their lives in many cases. But they found out later that the animal that saved them had been totally ignored and for the most part allowed to die. The owners all have a great guilty sadness that they may never get over. Only another animal lover would understand.

I see person after person looking for their animals. “Have I seen an overweight basset hound, have I seen a beagle, have I seen…” They all have the same look on their faces, and they all are saying the same things, such as never trusting anyone again and how much they hate those in authority. Asking themselves over and over why did I listen, why did I not stay with my friend, my companion. When they ask me I have no answer for them, just a comforting smile that tells them I understand the pain.

We start our shift and I see a number of my favorites such as Princess, Henry and Little Man. Word goes out that a pit bull that’s had all its teeth pulled has been brought in. Evidently some sick person was going to use her as a bait dog for dog fighting.

I get to meet a German shepherd dog I call “King.” He is about 60 pounds underweight and only wants to be held. He really does not want to go back in his cage, and my heart is not into putting him there, but I have to. Every time I pass his stall he is looking at me and tears come to my eyes. There is Arnold, the beautiful black pit bull, that is more of a lap dog than some little poodle. He too doesn’t want to go in his cage and goes limp lying flat on the ground. He gets really heavy when I put him in the cage and as he looks at me with sad eyes my heart wants to take him out again. There are quite a number of dogs with chemical burns, others with embedded collars.

We now have volunteers from 18 years of age on up, from every state, including Alaska, Hawaii, and the countries of Canada, Puerto Rico and Germany. Each volunteer has stated that there is a total commitment to go back to their part of the country and do what they can to stop animal cruelty, such as dog fighting, and also to force the issue of including family pets in evacuations. We have all seen both sides from the devastation of the animals to the total feeling of loss by the owners. Neither should have to go through it. It is interesting to watch the culture shock of people from other states and countries as they meet up with the lax attitude on dog fighting or spay/neutering of animals. Those from other areas cannot understand why people seem to not care about what animal cruelty does to a society in general. They tell me that in their part of the country to NOT have your animal spayed or neutered is looked down upon. They ask me why the difference and I have no answer.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Rita is bearing down on us. All volunteers are ordered into shelters, though most of us want to stay with the dogs. All we can do is hope that all will be OK. We hear that Texas has allowed animals to evacuate with their owners. There is a huge hooray. Then we also find out that Louisiana still doesn’t allow the evacuation of animals, and a somber mood fills the room. We have seen the devastation of not allowing the evacuation of family pets and what it does to the mind and soul of people. Will those in charge never learn?

With the hurricane over we rush to see if the animals are OK. Everyone seems to be up to their old tricks of “how do I stay out of the cage”. They are each given treats and extra time just to let them know how much we care.

Back in the barn, I am told that King has been attacked by a pit bull and following
protocol has been placed in quarantine. I can still go by his cage, and he looks at me. I talk to him wishing I could get closer to him but because what has happened I am not permitted to.

We are told that the Dixon Correctional Prison has requested and taken 160 animals for the inmates, not only to only care for, but also to work with so they can eventually be adopted. Finally something good has come out of the disaster.

A man shows up with his brindle pit bull search and rescue dog. The dog is trained to search for dogs and cats and is going to be used in New Orleans. The dog lays next to me and keeps looking up at me as though it is trying to let me know something. Her dark eyes seem to penetrate into your soul.

Due to Rita I was not able to go into New Orleans to work with the first line rescuers. At first I really wanted to get the opportunity to go. During the evacuation I had time to talk with some of the people that had done those rescues and I came away wondering if I would have what it takes to do it. They talk about the maggots everywhere, the stench that is 10X more than what we have at our sight. They talk about the dead bodies of both animals and humans. Finally, trying to hold their composure they talk about the leaving of animals and how it would tear them up inside. The facility was at capacity so they were going out in the field feeding the animals food and water. Only the ones who were in dire needs could be picked up. Basically they were having to make hard decisions that if a puppy, dog or cat came up and was crying to be rescued but it did not have immediate medical needs they had to leave it. The people who talked about it cried and said they were haunted by the faces.

Finally, it is my time to leave. But I have to do one thing--check on King. I ask Scott, the person over the aggressive and quarantine area, what is planned for King. He says if everything goes OK he would be released into the regular population of dogs the following weekend. I get his ID number. Maybe I can adopt him. But that I won’t know till later on, and even then, it’s a big maybe. The volunteers are not allowed to adopt or do immediate fostering due to the Humane Society trying to give the owners every chance to get their animals back. They do not want people to think that we had gone in there and taken away their pets as the state during the original negotiations was trying to say we were going to do. I stand there looking at King, telling him he will be OK and if I can make it happen he will someday come home with me. He cocks his head, eyes looking at me as if to say don’t leave.

I leave the facility, tired and sad, but I have eight hours to cry and get it out before I reach McGregor. I can only hope that is enough.

Back home in our engine shop the following day, a lady from Beaumont comes in. She tells us she has lost everything but has her family, her dog and its puppies. She asks if I know where she might be able to take her five, three-week old Malamute puppies to get them out of the heat for a bit before she heads for Gatesville. My first question to her is: “How did you know to bring them here?”

She said no one told her, she just saw the place and felt this was where she needed to go. Again I volunteered. The pups were so soft and furry. After seeing so much of the bad side of humans, to see someone who was doing everything she could to protect those innocent pups made me feel like there still was some good out there.

As of this writing King has gone into the adoption system but I cannot find him. I can only hope that he will find someone who will understand his fear of being caged and will hold him as much as he wants to be held.

Written by Sandy Witliff

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Salt by John Biguenet

Oct. 4, 2005
Salt

According to the Bible, though she had been commanded not to, Lot’s wife looked back to glimpse the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned into a pillar of salt for her disobedience. But how could she have not looked back? She was a mother who, like all mothers, had spent most of her life checking over her shoulder to see that the children trailing after her were safe. A habit like that dies hard.

Water, not fire, destroyed New Orleans. But my wife and I are still struggling with the same temptation to look back. In the days after Hurricane Katrina struck, having taken refuge at my brother’s house in Dallas, we couldn’t turn the television off. We found it impossible to avert our eyes from the scenes of suffering as our fellow New Orleanians clambered out of the floodwaters onto rooftops or dry ground. We stared at city landmarks we recognized jutting from water six feet deep around them. We leaned back in disbelief at official estimates of the scope of the catastrophe. And when the television networks began to repeat their reports and video footage, we scoured the Internet for satellite views of the flooding of our neighborhood, Lake Vista, for photographs of our street, for postings on local message boards about whether our house was under water.

The shock from what we learned on the screens of our TV and our computer was deepened by our vivid memories of the city. Every image of devastation was shadowed by how we knew it had looked just a few days before. A television correspondent, for example, led a film crew to her family’s home on Pauger Street. Wrecked by the storm and already furry with mold in spots, the house was uninhabitable. Finding her cousin’s ruined paintings in a back room, the young woman started to weep.

I knew the house. It was on the same street as my grandmother’s had been, an old shotgun in which my family had ridden out Hurricane Betsy in 1965. In fact, years before that, I had been taken after my birth at the Touro Infirmary to the tiny apartment above my grandparents’ garage there, where we lived for six months while my father, a carpenter, built our first house. One way or another, everything I saw in the aftermath of Katrina was personal.

In those first few days at my brother’s house, the double vision from which we suffered — of the present overlaid on a past continually bleeding through — kept us from seeing the future. Though the image before us on the screen showed our street deep with water, what even more strongly asserted itself in our imaginations was the sturdy fence around our yard as if it had not been blown down, the lush garden leading to our door as if it were not submerged, the scent of garlic sautéing in olive oil on the stove as if one of us were home preparing dinner. While we continued to make plans to return to New Orleans, my brother gently suggested that we would be welcome to stay with him in Dallas as long as we needed.

Just as the filthy flood had topped our roses and camellias, our azaleas and day lilies, the present eventually swamped the past. For me, it happened the morning that I learned Loyola University, where I teach, had cancelled its fall semester. About the same time, the school where my wife serves as principal of its elementary division made a similar decision. Everything that had happened finally began to — so to speak — sink in. We had neither a home nor a job to return to, at least for the present.

We began to understand that we ourselves might not turn to salt, but by looking back, we were turning the past into salt for the raw wound of the present. That’s when we stopped watching television and searching the Internet for scraps of information about New Orleans. That’s when we decided to drive north toward our daughter’s home outside New York and whatever future was in store for us.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Key on the Back of the Door by John Biguenet

Oct. 3, 2005
The Key on the Back of the Door

Even as New Orleanians marooned on their rooftops awaited rescue while thousands of others crowding the Superdome and the Convention Center sweltered without water in the city’s August heat, a national debate flared over whether to call survivors of Hurricane Katrina “refugees” or “evacuees.”

A congresswoman, denouncing the use of “refugee” to characterize those who had fled the storm, reminded the nation that “These are American citizens.” A businessman complained in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Your use of the term ‘refugee’ is incorrect and is a direct insult to the people who have suffered.”

But as a native New Orleanian who has traveled 2,200 miles since fleeing the city as the hurricane approached, first to my brother’s house in Dallas, and then to my daughter’s home just outside New York, I find neither “evacuee” nor even “refugee” adequate to express the swells of emotion upon which I have bobbed since watching the New Orleans skyline recede in my rearview mirror as my family and I crossed the agitated waters of Lake Pontchartrain at the outset of this long journey.

For someone whose family has lived in New Orleans since the 18th century, who grew up there speaking the patois into which locals still fall among themselves, who takes his coffee with chicory and his jambalaya with cayenne, only one word encompasses my sense of displacement, loss, and homesickness as we made our way through America this past month: exile.

Though the individuals we have encountered in our travels across the country have been, without exception, unstinting in their kindness, each sympathetic greeting in a new accent, each meal of local specialties prepared to welcome us, each regional custom of hospitality has confirmed not only the open-hearted generosity of our fellow Americans but also that we are strangers among them.

Of course, all travelers eventually recognize that they are the foreigners, but what has transformed our travel from a long family vacation into exile is that we have been forbidden until now to return to our home in one of the devastated neighborhoods of the city.

Drawing on a lifetime of experience with hurricanes, including both Betsy and Camille, we expected to be gone no more than three or four days. What had not occurred to any of us, I think, as we idled in those long lines of automobiles creeping away from the approaching Katrina was that weeks later, our deserted city would still steep in fetid waters. It was inconceivable to us then — and barely imaginable now — that our churches and temples would echo none of our voices on the Sabbath, that our office towers would rise unoccupied through the workweek, that silver would not clatter against dinnerware in our restaurants, that whole nights would pass without music insinuating itself into the humid air. Who could have foreseen that a major American city would be ordered emptied of its population?

In fact, what has happened to us is something more than exile. In "The Plague," Albert Camus notes the pleasure quarantined men take in the middle of the night imagining their women asleep back home. In the same way, just before dawn, one knows what is likely occurring in the city from which he or she has been exiled and is free to wander its streets again, at least in the memory.

But with New Orleans deserted, how could we take comfort in remembering that as the sun rose, even if we were unable to see it for ourselves, the ragged fleet of shrimp boats would be setting out from Bucktown to scour Lake Pontchartrain until the tide shifted, stragglers from a late party in the Quarter would be spilling powdered sugar from their beignets at the Café du Monde, farm vegetables would be arriving at French Market stalls, streetcars would be rattling down St. Charles Avenue — their lightbulbs blinking out at every bump, and regulars would be gathering at the little café near the race track where I had a coffee with my paper every morning? How could we take comfort in a life no longer lived in a city abandoned to the swamps that surround it?

So no matter what faces us back home, the impulse to return is strong.

When the Moors were driven from Spain to their diaspora throughout North Africa, resettled families hung on the back of their new front doors the keys to their houses in Granada and Cordoba, so unimaginable was the possibility that they might never return. Centuries later, doors all across the Maghreb still clanged with those keys.

As for me, it is true I’ve stopped carrying in my pocket the key to our house in New Orleans. But I know where it is. And later this week, I intend to try it in the lock on my own front door.

This morning, we will say goodbye to our daughter and son-in-law and head home, 1,300 miles away. We know that our house was flooded for weeks, our garden is dead, and our neighborhood lacks power, water, and a functional sewage system. Not a single stoplight works in our entire area, nor is there a gas station open. But from Wednesday through Friday this week, the police and the military will admit residents during daylight hours to see for themselves what Hurricane Katrina did to their homes. A great deal is behind us, but by the end of the week, we’ll have a better sense of how much more is still ahead.