Cold Weather, Warm Hearts, Tough Love

The vertigo that hit me Tuesday morning has slowed down my week. I’ve stayed fairly close to home, keeping only the appointments I needed to. I hated to cancel the flight to Dallas on Wednesday to meet with some of our Baptist leaders, but the doctor advised it. A friend wrote that he spent two days in the cardiac unit of a hospital enduring all kinds of tests, until they discovered he was suffering from vertigo. When my 9 year old granddaughters heard of it, they said, “What–you’re afraid of heights?” I said, “No. I’m just dizzy.”

I “visited” the Bring New Orleans Back Commission meeting Saturday. One of the public access channels replayed their meeting from last Tuesday and I sat through the full two hours of it. This blue ribbon panel, made up of perhaps 15 or 20 of our community’s true leaders, is divided into subcommittees that work in between meetings of the full body. Therefore, the meeting consisted of each commissioner reporting on the special assignment given to the subcommittee to which they are responsible. The meeting was informative and fascinating, and it was long and boring. Just like every other committee I’ve ever served on or tried to lead. Some of the subcommittees seem to have such a broad interpretation of their responsibility, you wonder what they can hope to accomplish. The committee dealing with the culture of the city announced they will be requesting over $400 million dollars. Four hundred million. Stay tuned.

The most interesting was the report on housing from Joe Canizaro, a real estate developer and as articulate a commissioner as sits on the panel. Certain areas of the city, he said, need to be left alone, not brought back for a long time, and those home sites bought up by an independent commission funded with government money. Then, as neighborhoods on higher ground are restored and these less safe areas are found to be secure, large parcels of the land–perhaps hundreds of acres at a time–can be sold to developers who would plan for entire communities, complete with stores and offices within walking distance. The Times-Picayune reported earlier this week that the commission would end up recommending a version of this.

People are complaining that the Small Business Administration, which was given hundreds of millions of dollars to help hurricane victims, in the first four weeks of operation have generated only 20 loans for a total of $1.4 million. The plan had been to bypass bureaucracy and cut red tape in order to expedite getting the money into the hands of the people who need it. A New Orleans company that anyone who has ever lived here is familiar with is Hubig’s Pies, located in the Bywater section, just south of the French Quarter. We do love their product. The company’s buildings took a lot of wind damage, but they’ve been unable to get hold of SBA money. Instead, something called Idea Village gave them $5,000, with which they set up a website and started selling t-shirts with their logo to generate money for restoration. Senator Mary Landrieu says at the rate the SBA is approving loans, “It will take 114 years” to help all the 18,000 Louisiana businesses in need.

Friday, the mayor of New Orleans hosted a town hall meeting which was telecast locally. I sat there amazed at the infinite patience of this man who embodies the proverb, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” “I don’t care if my time is up,” speaker after speaker shouted into the microphone. “I’ve waited all this time to get to you and now I’m going to be heard.” After each one, the mayor would say, “I promise you we’re working on that” or “Give my aide here your name and we’ll see what we can do and get back to you.” “You promised that the last time,” one shouted. “Well,” he said, “Will you give me another chance.”

Friday’s newspaper was filled with news and advertisements from St. Bernard Parish. Most of the businesses stated that they are presently working out of Houma or Covington or Slidell or Metairie, but they want it known they are St. Bernardians and have every intention of coming back.

Speaking of St. Bernard, police have arrested a jewelry store owner whose Meraux store was robbed recently of over $400,000 in jewels. Turns out the owner, a resident of Sugarland, Texas, and one of his employees, a local fellow, had faked a break-in and cut into the safe. The boss was caught at the airport with thousands of dollars of the stolen jewelry in his pockets. Real smart. They will have years in prison to contemplate their foolishness.

Benched Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks upset a lot of locals this week when he told a reporter what harsh conditions the team has to endure in San Antonio, their temporary home since the Superdome is unavailable. One person, Kevin James, wrote, “I feel so sorry for Mr. Brooks. I would love to take him up on his offer to come see him in San Antonio, but there are a few things preventing me from doing so. For one, the roof of my house was torn off, so I have to stay here to make sure that if it rains the plywood and blue tarp stay in place…. I’d be more than willing to drive to San Antonio to assist Mr. Brooks, but our car was destroyed in the hurricane. I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the gasoline for the trip anyway since the business where I worked for 12 years was destroyed, and I am now working two jobs trying to keep my kids fed and in school.” James ended with these words of pity: “I can only imagine how terrible his life is right now.”

Local columnist Jarvis DeBerry wrote this week, “One of the lingering myths about Hurricane Katrina is that everybody who died here was trapped here and that, in fact, no one would have died if local and state governments had provided buses out of town. That myth also assumes that upon hearing of a mandatory evacuation, everybody with the means to leave town does so.” He continued, “The falsity of both claims has been well-established. The Times-Picayune has run dozens of obituaries under the headline ‘Katrina Lives Lost.’ In their interviews with relatives of the deceased, reporters have not encountered one person whose loved one wanted to leave but could not. We might assume that some of those who died at local nursing homes were trapped; not by government, however, but by the folks who ran those nursing homes.”

DeBerry reasons, “There probably were some people who did not have transportation to leave and declined a free ride to the relative safety of the Louisiana Superdome. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that such people constitute a majority–or even a significant minority–of the fatalities. The truth is that many people made the fatal decision to stay.” His column ended with this: “Maybe a small percentage of those who perished would still be alive if Nagin and Blanco had worked together to provide transportation. But if the federal government’s floodwalls had held, it’s doubtful anybody would have died at all.” That is the consensus of opinion locally.

It was announced Saturday that the Corps of Engineers will begin demolishing homes too severely damaged by the floodwaters. The number will quickly reach into the thousands in Orleans, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines parishes. The plan is to begin with the homes nearest the breaches in the floodwalls. Mayor Nagin said today many residents have sent word to him that “FEMA or the Corps or somebody–I want them to tear down my house.”

The Spanish Baptist pastors had their annual luncheon Saturday at Smilie’s Restaurant in Harahan. I had planned to attend, but the vertigo was worse and I sent word to excuse me. Freddie and Elaine Arnold came by after three o’clock to bring Margaret the flowers from the head table and a gift from the pastors. I said, “The lunch took this long?” Freddie said, “They love to fellowship. And they wanted to hear each other’s stories of how God provided.” I’ve been impressed for a long time at the way our Hispanic brethren take care of one another. Just as impressive has been the way they’ve attended and participated in the weekly ministers’ meeting at First Baptist-LaPlace. This gathering has set a new standard for us with all groups of our pastors involved–Korean, African-American, Vietnamese, Spanish, and a scattering of us Gringoes.

Late Saturday evening, I took my son and grandson up on the invitation to see “King Kong” with them at the local multiplex. It’s three hours long, so I warned them I might not last. But I got through it. Anyone who loves the original story–and there are millions who do–will treasure this version of it. Instead of updating the 1930s version, the filmmakers kept it in that time period and enhanced it with computer-generated special effects, which were incredibly impressive. I found myself wondering if our fascination with this giant ape might be a metaphor for man’s love affair with nature: at first, we are afraid of it, then fascinated by it, we want to capture it and help it along, and end up destroying it. In a sense, that’s the story of America’s dealings with the wonderful Mississippi River.

So endeth today’s sermon.