The Eleven Month Perspective

Saturday, July 29, 2006, is exactly eleven months after Katrina. As various groups in the city plan their one-year commemoration of the Hurricane-that-changed-life-forever-in-New-Orleans, some are complaining that these events reek of celebrating, and why have a party to honor the storm that destroyed our city. In most cases, however, plans call for prayer meetings and worship services and for tributes to those who died.

This is wedding anniversary time in our family. Son Marty and wonderful daughter-in-law Misha in Charlotte celebrate number 17 today. Tuesday, August 1, son Neil and terrific daughter-in-law Julie in Metairie celebrate number 14. (Margaret and I are working on number 45 next April, and my parents go for number 73 next March. Just for perspective.)

Headline on Saturday’s front page: “Experts excoriate recovery leaders.” I looked up the word. “Excoriate: to denounce scathingly.” Leaders of the Urban Land Institute are coming down hard on the absence of real leadership from our mayor and city council. Scroll back to late last year on this website and you will read of the work of the ULI, a group of professional urban planners across America who were invited to study New Orleans and make recommendations for the rebuilding. As far as I can tell, not a single insight or suggestion from their report has been followed, and now the group is taking off the kid gloves.

“It’s virtually a city without a city administration and it’s worse than ever,” said John McIlwain of the ULI. “New Orleans needs Huey Long. You need a politician, a leader that is willing to make tough decisions and articulate to the people why these decisions are made, which means everyone is not going to be happy.”

ULI’s Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, said this city does not have a citywide plan and a single, powerful authority handling the rebuilding of homes and neighborhoods. “Given the extraordinary circumstances of what happened to your city, you cannot solve this incrementally.” Which is precisely how the city is coming back at this very moment–a street here, a house there, a store across the way. Piecemeal.

Murphy said, “You need to create an agency or an authority that has people who wake up every day and their job is simply to make development happen. You need to build on a scale that in the best of times most cities wouldn’t be able to do. You don’t need 200 houses a year. You need to do 10,000 houses a year.”

For perspective: First Baptist-New Orleans is nearing the 1,000th house gutted out. Disaster pastor Travis Scruggs who oversees church groups coming to assist has a list of every one helped and a long waiting list of those wanting houses cleaned out for rebuilding. Meanwhile, NAMB’s Operation NOAH Rebuild is shooting for 1,000 houses to be redone in the next two years. Since they will be mobilizing volunteers all across the country, I expect they’ll end up doing far more than that number.

ULI’s McIlwain says that unless City Hall figures out a new way of doing things, the future of New Orleans is going to be blighted neighborhoods and dead business zones as the legacy of Katrina. “We’re talking Dresden after World War II,” he said. “I can take you through parts of North Philadelphia or Detroit or Baltimore and show you what it will look like.”

“Not so,” replies the President of the N.O. City Council, Oliver Thomas. The ULI is making incorrect assumptions about this city, he says. Their first mistake was in recommending that some low-lying sections of the city be abandoned. “We now find those areas are not below sea level.” Thomas says, “Money dictates authority. The city doesn’t have the money. The state has the money and the communities are planning. We just hope at some point, all the stars will line up. I think we’re getting there.”

Methinks Mr. Thomas has been drinking Mayor Nagin’s kool-aid. His Honor, meanwhile, in response to the criticism of a leadership vacuum, replied, “No comment.”

On the other hand, we most definitely do not need a Huey P. Long. Good night, what is that man thinking? Reminds me of Russia in the late-1990s when the former Soviets were having trouble finding their way into democracy–okay, they still are, but bear with me here–and someone took a poll and found a large percentage of Russians would like to have Joseph Stalin in leadership. He who killed umpteen million of his own people in the thirties. Perhaps all they are saying is, “We need a strong leader.” No argument there.

Our friends in other places will read this and understand better why we keep asking for “big” prayers. We have gigantic needs.

Criminal District Court in New Orleans has a backlog of 6,000 cases while the public defender’s office has no money and few lawyers. Judge Arthur Hunter ruled Friday that a state of emergency exists in the criminal justice system here, and that beginning August 29, he will begin releasing untried inmates. He plans to decide them on a case-by-case basis. These people have their rights, admittedly, such as the right to a speedy trial. But I can’t wait until thousands are turned out of the parish prison onto the streets of New Orleans.

Meanwhile, Friday night, four more people were shot to death in the neighborhood of Treme. This week, it was announced that the four teenagers shot to death on one street corner a few weeks ago all had drugs in their systems. For perspective.

The editorial page writer refers to an upcoming interview in Playboy where former FEMA head Mike Brown calls Mississippi Congressman Gene Taylor a “little twerp.” Taylor responds, “Brown is an incompetent fool and everyone in South Mississippi knows it.” Our editor says, “We take issue with the congressman’s implication that only folks in South Mississippi know about the fumbling, bumbling, preening, self-congratulatory former FEMA director…. Having failed so spectacularly after Hurricane Katrina, one might have expected him to hide his face and drop out of sight. But, no. When we wanted to see him, he stayed invisible. Now that we wish he’d go away, he’s craving the limelight.”

In the article, Brown says, “In the middle of the disaster I thought about quitting–after the first few days. But then I thought, ‘People are dying, people are suffering. I can’t leave.'” The editor adds, “Of course he couldn’t ‘leave.’ He had yet to show up.”

St. Bernard Parish is being overrun by swarms of mosquitos bred in standing stagnant water caused by rainwater that is not draining.

Police Chief Warren Riley–who I believe is a member of Fred Luter’s Franklin Avenue Baptist Church–has fired a police captain with 30 years of experience. Harry Mendoza, the news release said, spends large chunks of his workday on the tennis court, in the gym, and relaxing at home. Last week, two police officers were arrested for demanding kickbacks from some kind of establishment.

Marie Howard of Marrero writes in a letter to the editor that the mayor is kicking the firefighters when they are down. “What do they have to do to prove worthy of a raise?” she asks. She ends her letter with a poignant question. “How often do you hear…of a firefighter being indicted or…arrested? It seems the more the NOPD embarrasses the city, the more they are rewarded by Mayor Nagin.”

My vote for the most obvious miscarriage of justice in this city in years occurred this week. “Sister Jackson” is a psychic with a shop on Williams Boulevard in Kenner just off the interstate. She was arrested recently for running a scam. Caught on tape taking money to take curses off people, big money, many thousands of dollars, saying she would bury the money in the cemetery, that sort of thing, lying-thieving-conning, and what did she get? A suspended sentence, probation for a year, and a fine of $250. The judge told her not to do that any more. State District Judge Reginald Badeaux needs to give account of his actions. The paper gives numerous instances of her conning families out of large sums of money.

Had Sister Jackson been dumb enough to take twenty bucks from a convenience store at gunpoint, she would be serving 20 years in the state pen. However, she avoided that future. She must be psychic.

Norman Robinson, news anchor on the local NBC affiliate WDSU-TV, is one of five plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. Government and the Corps of Engineers for the bumbling that resulted in the breaching of our levees and the subsequent flooding. The corps’ attorneys are asking a federal judge to throw out the lawsuit because of their interpretation of a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that “Whenever damages result from or by flood or floodwaters, the United States is absolutely immune.” Robinson’s team responds that “we’re not talking about a flood; we’re talking about shoddy engineering.” Columnist Jarvis DeBerry says, “Robinson and his fellow plaintiffs are discovering that it isn’t easy to sue a defendant with the ability to declare itself unsue-able.”

On the question of the doctor and two nurses arrested for allegedly euthanizing four critically ill patients at Memorial Hospital in the horrid days after Katrina, curmudgeonistic columnist James Gill chimes in. The outrage from the medical community over the charges against these women, calling them heroes for staying through the storm and the flood, is glossing over one salient fact: other medical people on the spot say patients were indeed administered drugs with “express homicidal intent.” Yet we are hearing that “doctors and nurses will desert Louisiana in droves the next time a hurricane strikes.”

Gill says, “What charming people they must be. The rest of us might be better off without medical practitioners whose protests imply they have the right to kill us with impunity.”

Gill admits that Attorney General Charles Foti, who called a news conference to announce the arrests and, as many saw it, grandstanded when the low-key approach would have been classier, “has behaved like a jerk.” Gill adds, “But he is not alone.”

Saturday, Riverside Baptist Church is giving away school supplies in their front yard. Church volunteer teams from across America are gutting out houses and passing out supplies to residents hunkered down in FEMA trailers. And Urban Family Ministries had a block party on Magazine Street.

I spent three hours on the front porch of Urban Family today, from 11 to 2 pm, drawing people. Even though we had a good shade, sweat was steadily dripping from my head onto the paper. I met some fascinating people, some who belonged to the little church and some Magazine-Streeters who wandered over. “I have a Turkish nose,” said a man with the fascinating name of Bircan. I said, “Not ‘beer-can?'” He said, “Beer-John. The ‘c’ is pronounced as a ‘j’.” His brother was Ozgur. “Oscar,” I suggested. He said, “Close.” I finally gave up on hearing someone’s name and writing it under their sketch, and had them write out their names. That’s how I got to know Keimon, Labire, Nallely, Josue, and my favorite, Termanesha. Welcome to New Orleans.

Along about 2 o’clock, I announced to those waiting to be sketched that, “I have only 3 sheets of paper left. Then I’ll be closing down.” It’s a little self-preservation ploy I’ve learned over the years: take only so much paper and when it is gone, I’m done. Pastor Kemp Johnson heard that and with a gleam in his eye, said, “I’ve brought you fifty more sheets of paper, Brother Joe.” I said, “Oh no”–and then realized he was teasing me. After they all left, I pulled out a letterhead from our office and drew the first man I had met there that morning and the last one on the porch. Scott is his name and he told me right off that he is to be baptized today. Sure enough, there on the front lawn beside the sidewalk sat a baptistry of sorts. A rectangular-horizontal tank about four feet high, long enough for a man to lie down in, filled to the brim with water which was warming in the sun. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, Pastor Kemp planned to baptize Scott. Scott was excited and couldn’t quit talking about it.

The heavy traffic up and down Magazine Street made me wish they had a dozen people to baptize. One will not take long enough to attract a crowd. Had anyone asked, I think I would have advised them to do some “baptismal dramatizations” there. Which means. baptize some people who have already been baptized in order to draw a crowd and have that opportunity to bear witness to the saving gospel of Christ.

I’ll be ready to suggest that the next time someone says they plan to baptize outside. For them either to have several to baptize or to include some demonstrations. The most recent SBC President, Dr. Bobby Welch, has urged public baptisms for this very purpose–to get the attention of the community and use that as an opportunity to share the gospel.

People who visit New Orleans but never travel the length of Magazine Street are missing the true flavor of this city. Perhaps 5 miles long and parallel to ritzy St. Charles Avenue, Magazine Street is a narrow, two-lane thoroughfare and sports a seemingly unending string of coffee shops, curio and antique stores, sidewalk cafes, seedy neighborhoods, Whole Foods Market, upscale jewelry and pottery shops, and expensive homes. Audubon Park is wedged between Magazine and St. Charles Avenue near Tulane and Loyola Universities. At the end, where Magazine intersects with the river lies the Audubon Zoo, one of the neatest places in town.

Got all that? Good. Occasionally, for the benefit of visitors and outsiders, we need to emphasize that not every place in this strange and wonderful city is a voodoo joint or strip club. In fact, the few of those we have seem to be clustered in a small section of the French Quarter. I’m not excusing them, only saying for every one of those dark holes New Orleans can produce a hundred of the far more interesting places that have made this city memorable for nearly 300 years.

Just to keep it all in perspective.