Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Katrina Updates

September 13th, 2005 12:42 PM

New Orleans: Raze or Rebuild?

By Christian Parenti / The Nation

The water in the lower Ninth Ward is thickening into a glassy, fetid slick as the gasoline, oil, solvents and sewage from thousands of submerged vehicles and homes leaches out. Some rescue crews can stay out on their boats for only an hour before getting light-headed. The water's blue-black sheen casts back an almost mocking mirror image of the horrible devastation and incongruously beautiful blue sky above.

A tour from Houston to Gulfport and into New Orleans for several days revealed not only this type of weird physical destruction but also a landscape of raw and tangled emotions, ranging from open fantasies of an impending race war to inspiring, ad hoc experiments in interracial mutual aid and grassroots organizing. This mix of the best and worst in American culture suggests the widely divergent political possibilities left in Katrina's wake. The storm could become an excuse to banish the African-American poor in the interests of the private redevelopment of New Orleans, or the city could become the geographic center of a progressive program of urban revitalization.

In the lower Ninth Ward, controlled breaks by the Army Corps of Engineers have dropped the water by several feet, opening an archipelago of scum-encrusted islands that can be navigated by way of partially open streets. Late in the second week of the disaster a colleague and I made our way through this eerie and desolate maze.

Though the area is routinely designated a ghetto, the homes of the Ninth Ward are mostly beautiful, century-old capes and bungalows, some with ornate wooden detailing reminiscent of old homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. "They'll have to bulldoze it all," says a visiting New York City cop, surveying the damage from inside an NYPD van.

Is that option--the right's much-touted tabula rasa--inevitable? "They don't have to tear all these down," says Joe Peters, a Ninth Ward tier repairman. "Under that siding, that's all cypress frames and barge board." Peters seems to think that the more solid homes of the Ninth Ward can be saved. Increasingly the holdouts here see the mandatory evacuation order as part of a huge land grab.

I track down Mike Howell, a Nation reader I'd met several days before. "Yeah, this could be their dream come true," he says. "Get rid of all the poor African-Americans and turn the place into Disneyland." After camping on Howell's roof, my colleague and I leave him and his wife our extra water and gas and push on.

At Kajun's, one of only two bars open at the end of last week, a bacchanalian, slap-happy air prevails among the handful of drunk and adrenaline-pumped patrons. A big man with a ponytail is weeping--he just put down his dog because it was biting everyone. A wide-eyed young woman named Caroline is changing the bandage on a dog-bite victim and talking a mile a minute. "I am a massage therapist, but I am not licensed. I am giving garlic and herbs to everyone, even the soldiers."

Outside, a man slips two bottles of cognac in the back seat of a police vehicle. The officer isn't harassing the patrons to leave. Someone brings him a big plastic cup of something iced.

"The evacuation order is just trying to get out the criminal element," says the cop in the classic flat, nasal Yat accent common to the Irish- and Italian-Americans who make up much of the city's white population. He explains how the military is mapping the city for holdouts using helicopters with infrared, and how troops on the ground mark the suspect building with a system of Xs and checks, a code that indicates to the police how many people are inside. The cop finishes his drink, shakes a few hands and rolls off.

Facilitating the tabula rasa agenda is an increasingly militaristic attitude that borders on boyish fantasy and seems to pervade the numerous federal SWAT teams, out-of-town cops, private security forces, civilian volunteers and even journalists. There are exceptions: The young soldiers of the 82nd Airborne and First Cavalry seem much less caught up in it and are quite generous with their ice and MREs.

When an APC full of federal marshals passes deep in the Ninth Ward, a journalist in a camo floppy hat riding with them glares at me and demands, "Who are you with?" For a second I think he's a cop.

Downtown, a man on a bicycle wearing a pistol and carrying a medical bag says he's an emergency medical technician. "I had to shoot one guy in the arm," the man explains. "He was going for the bag. They think it's full of drugs."

Elsewhere, two vehicle convoys from Blackwater USA--one of the biggest mercenary firms operating in Iraq--cruise the deserted city, their guns trained on rooftops ready for snipers, who have recently shot at a cell-tower repair crew.

It seems the rescue effort is turning into an urban war game: An imaginary domestic version of the total victory that eludes America in Baghdad will be imposed here, on New Orleans. It's almost as if the Tigris--rather than the Mississippi--had flooded the city. The place feels like a sick theme park--Macho World--where cops, mercenaries, journalists and weird volunteers of all sorts are playing a out a relatively safe version of their militaristic fantasies about Armageddon and the cleansing iron fist.

God's Wrath in Gulfport

In Gulfport, Mississippi, God's wrath hath smitten the evil gaming industry. All the giant floating multi-story casinos have washed away--and much of their cash is unaccounted for. So, too, have all the houses on the beach been wiped out. An area two blocks from the beach is cordoned off because the shore is strewn with tons of rotting chicken and pork from a grounded freighter. Perhaps that cordon is also protecting the casinos' cash.

At a shuttered gas station, I meet the young white night watchman, Joseph. He owns a seven-foot-long Monitor lizard and is going to great lengths to keep her warm now that the power is down. "I have my plan for evacuation," he says. "Those people in New Orleans shoulda too, but if you say that, then you're a racist."

Later it comes out that Joseph thinks New Orleans is a cesspool that should be filled with even more water, that he doesn't like Vietnamese people and that he's licensed to carry a gun at all times. "I tell you, we're on the verge of another Civil War in this country."

A white woman pulls in to buy cigarettes. "I think New Orleans is a satanic city," she says earnestly. "I mean, I am not super-religious, but it's a horrible place full of very satanic people." She thinks voodoo and Mardi Gras might have something to do with Katrina's path.

Trying to get gas north of Lake Pontchartrain, back in Louisiana, we pull in to a cops-only refueling depot and chat with a producer from Universal Studios in Florida who is now a volunteer parking attendant for the rescue effort. He's red with sunburn, fidgety and sweaty, his lingo laced with military jargon.

"My orders are to secure this area," he says. "The situation is still pretty volatile here--there are a lot of evacuees from New Orleans around." He nods to the woods as if Charlie is out there on the proverbial tree line. "I am trying to locate a truckload of NYPD ammunition that went missing." Everything about him says this is war. "You guys be careful out there." Gun shops in Baton Rouge are reporting sales of up to a thousand a day.

Outside a Red Cross shelter in Covington, there is a softer version of this siege mentality. When I interview some African-American evacuees, no less than four different white middle-class Red Cross staff intervene at various points, once even attempting to have me evicted from the area by police. In paternalistic tones, they explain to the black people I am talking with that newspapers and magazines do not give aid.

"Yes, ma'am, I know," says a woman named Raven. "I want the whole world to hear my story." And the stories they tell are harrowing.

A heavy-set older woman named Rosie Lee Riford is on the verge of tears. "I am so worried. I feel like killing myself," she says. Her grown son, who uses a wheelchair due to a childhood gunshot wound, refused to leave the Saint Downs housing project. She was forced to leave without him as the storm took aim at New Orleans. Now that neighborhood is flooded. "I never hurt anybody or did any wrong. I just keep asking God, Why? Why'd you do this?"

For Latino immigrants, the situation can be even worse. A Nicaraguan house painter named Juan tells me he will have to go home to Managua because he has lost everything: car, apartment, the business where he worked. He says the Red Cross cannot register him for benefits, so he eats at Latino churches. He bravely holds back tears.

Not far from the Red Cross is a group from Veterans for Peace, who came here from Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas, and who are now coordinating a large-scale supply depot and distribution center. At the Vets' Internet tent sits Tenshenia Downs, a young, well-organized mother from East New Orleans.

She is trying to find her relatives and set up housing in Atlanta. She spent a day on her roof with her three kids and was then evacuated by a National Guard flatboat and taken to the Superdome.

"It was like a prison," she says. "It was hell. They had pedophiles up in there. People living like animals." She recounts the backed-up toilets, urine-flooded halls, the elderly near death, the fistfights, panic, lack of food and limited water.

"They wouldn't let us leave," she continues. "But when I heard about the third rape, I just took my three kids and went. We waded through that water to I-10 and walked over the river to Gretna." From Gretna she walked and hitched rides with truckers and "a real nice white couple" here to Covington. "I lost it all: everything in my house and a new car, no insurance." And the beauty spa where she worked, Bella Donna, is gone.

She says she'll try and start over in Atlanta. Bizarrely, there is no Red Cross or FEMA clearinghouse of information yet established; instead, Ms. Downs is pointed to the MoveOn.org website for housing and job postings in Atlanta.

Grace and Generosity in Houston

At the Houston Astrodome, the stereotype of white America's worst nightmare has arrived: a wave of black people from some of the nation's worst ghettos. And, surprise, surprise, it's not so bad.

On the sterile manicured lawns and the sidewalks of the sprawling shopping plaza around Reliant Center, hundreds of young dudes and well-dressed ladies from the Ninth Ward, East New Orleans and other desperately poor and excluded neighborhoods stroll around peacefully.

The relief effort here is far from perfect and involves only some 11,000 people, but it is one of the most functional pieces of the response. The people of Houston have welcomed the evacuees with grace and generosity. Everyone here is getting tetanus shots and other basic healthcare, and they have debit cards (most are only good for a few hundred dollars, not the $2,000 usually cited in the press). And at some point in their stay, the evacuees in the Astrodome each get to spend a week in a hotel, to have some privacy, comfort and solid rest. Many are being successfully placed in more long-term housing and even set up with jobs. Their children will be entering schools that in many cases are far better than the disastrous system they left in New Orleans.

Looking out at the scene, I can't help but be moved by its peaceful contrast to the flood-zone militarism. Nor is the so-called "culture of poverty" much in evidence. What is so striking here is not the role of culture but the role of opportunities, services and money. When the poor are treated with some modicum of respect and given a few resources, the social benefits are immediately apparent. When offered the chance, most of them rebuild their lives.

Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, Bush-connected firms like the Shaw Group, Bechtel and Halliburton are lining up to get big portions of the $62 billion in federal money that will soon flood the storm region.

The fact that some of these companies had been convicted of defrauding the federal government in the past, are under investigation again for corruption in Iraq and were once banned from federal contracting due to unethical practices has not stopped the process. Many of the people here at the Astrodome,

You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

If you have a moment today, I hope you can read the obituary for my father Francis (Frank) Moore, who died this past Saturday at the age of 92: Francis...

Apr 22nd
6:33 PM
Read More

My father, Francis (Frank) Moore, passed away this morning a few months shy if his 93rd birthday. He was a great dad I am blessed to have had him in my life. I...

Apr 20th
2:58 AM
Read More

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... www.theonion.com President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States www.theonion.com WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract pando.com As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors pando.com If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa ...by Nick Turse www.michaelmoore.com Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 www.theguardian.com Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? www.huffingtonpost.com I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch ...by Donna Smith www.michaelmoore.com The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | RootsAction.org act.rootsaction.org The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles