Tuesday, August 31, 2010

American Tsunami revisited

Every horror of our time contains within it an image that visually distills that horror. This is a fact of a modern world that takes its behavioral cues, marks its transitions and upheavals, according to what we can see. For many, the carnage and barbarity of the Vietnam War are embodied in either one of two photographs: the image of a Vietnamese general holding a pistol to the head of a Viet Cong suspect, a fraction of a second before blowing his brains out; or the vision of naked children running in primal fear, bodies burning from the effects of a napalm-laden air strike courtesy of the United States.

For the residents of New Orleans, the agonies of the biblical wrath unleashed by the hurricane known as Katrina on Aug. 29 and 30, 2005, left a multitude of candidates for the Image That Says It All. The site of the actual breach in the Industrial Canal levee in the Ninth Ward. The dispossessed standing on the rooftops of homes fully underwater. Masses of humanity screaming for assistance from inside the Superdome. The I-10/I-610/West End Boulevard interchange so badly flooded that parts of the roadway utterly disappear from view.

There’s another choice, of course. You’ve seen the woman in the shot taken by photographer Eric Gay of The Associated Press. An elderly woman who sits amid the devastation wrought by Katrina, awaiting rescue while draped in the American flag, her face a map of fear and woe.

When 84-year-old Milvirtha Hendricks was covered by the blanket adorned in the stars and stripes outside the New Orleans Convention Center, she became the Katrina Madonna, the visual symbol of those enduring dual catastrophes: one unleashed by nature, the other incrementally unleashed by human indifference in the long years before nature’s fury hit the Gulf Coast five years back.

When she huddled for warmth under the blanket, her coverage by that blanket flag was a sign, a visual metaphor of exactly what the United States wasn’t doing for its poorest, most defenseless citizens: covering them, protecting them from a burst of meteorological fury that didn’t have to be this bad.

More than 1,800 people were killed by Katrina, directly or indirectly. More than $81 billion in property damage was sustained. Tens of thousands of people were displaced permanently. And maybe the storm that scarred the Gulf region and other states further inland created a dividing line. For New Orleans, there was a life Before Katrina and life After Katrina. Life was tough enough for New Orleans' poor B.K.; it’s been far worse A.K.

And the disparities of life in the city after the storm revealed that other dividing line, that eternal third rail: the fissure of race in America.

“No response, no security, no food or water. We were back there on our own. Nobody to help us, direct us or nothing.” Layman Thomas, who worked for the New Orleans Parks Department, expressed outrage at what he saw at the convention center, in a 2005 interview with The AP.

“I think they played race on our entire state,” he says. “We had people from all different cities who wanted to come get us. But the president and the governor had to release all that. But it took them all days to sign the papers.”

Katrina’s vicious storm surge overpowered a levee system that, many have said, the Army Corps of Engineers had designed and maintained so badly it amounted to the proverbial accident waiting to happen.

Mike Davis, a San Diego historian and author of “City of Quartz,” an acclaimed 1990 social history of Los Angeles, went to New Orleans post-Katrina, and expressed for AP what black people in New Orleans almost certainly believed: “Communities of color have always favored urban legends, because all too often they have corresponded to reality.”

The urban legend that flared after Katrina is one that’s persisted for decades: that black people in the impoverished Ninth Ward were intentionally abandoned to the furies of the weather since the Industrial Canal was built back in 1922.

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A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, released in 2007, stated plainly that the failures of the levee system in New Orleans were mainly caused by mistakes in the system’s design — the start-to-finish responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers.

That’s presumably why on Nov. 18, 2009, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. found the Corps responsible for “monumental negligence” for failing to properly maintain the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), the vital arterial connecting New Orleans and Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Once the corps exercised its discretion to create a navigational channel, it was obligated to make sure that channel did not destroy the environment surrounding it, thereby creating a hazard to life and property,” Duval said in his ruling. “When the corps designed the MRGO, it recognized that foreshore protection was going to be needed, yet the corps did nothing to monitor the problem in a meaningful way.”

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Even now, in the long wake of the flood, investigations suggest that errors are being committed while the levee system is in the process of being repaired and replaced.

“We built Lego levees, shoddy levees,” said historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University, on MSNBC Monday. “We haven’t built a levee system with a Category 4 or Category 5 protection level.”

In “The Big Uneasy,” a new Katrina–related documentary film, actor, writer and satirist Harry Shearer suggests that the new levees are almost being built with planned obsolescence deliberately in mind.

Interviewed by Democracy Now! Shearer said:
In my film is a whistleblower from the Army Corps of Engineers whose responsibility was to test and install the new pumps on those outfall canals, which are essential to keeping those canals at a safe water level defined by the Corps. She says unequivocally the pumps never passed their testing. They failed. They self-destructed. They were installed anyway. And they will not withstand a hurricane event.
A frightening prospect: The next Katrina-level event is slowly being built, assembled a little at a time, before the impact of the first has fully come to a conclusion.

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Every horror contains an image that visually embodies that horror. But horrors contain the kernels of courage that people need to survive them, and the folks in the Gulf region generally, and the city of New Orleans specifically, have that courage. They reflect the beauty, the existential elegance, the art and duty of surviving, of putting the one foot in front of the other every day — doing what anyone does in response to anything, anywhere and everywhere in the world.

These are the people whose contract with mortality is always up for renewal, enduring as they do in a city that’s technically under water on a bone-dry day.

These are the people slowly bringing the city back to life. These are the lovers of jambalaya and étouffée who’ve now got more restaurants open in New Orleans than there were before the storm.

These are the people who transformed the Superdome, warehouse of miseries five years ago, into a place for victory — most notably the galvanizing February 7 triumph of the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl, their first win in the 44 years of the franchise.

These are the Americans who’ve made a historical habit of transforming nothing into something, if given a chance.

“There’s tens of thousands of people who want to come back,” Brinkley said Monday. “How do you come back if the banks won’t give you a loan? How do you come back if you don’t have schools? How do you come back if hospitals are closed? … It’s death by a thousand cuts of indifference.”

New Orleans. New war land. Ignoreland. We’ve all been there, and we can never leave. We are New Orleans. New Orleans is America. Like it or not.

Image credits: Milvirtha Hendricks: Eric Gay/Associated Press. Hurricane Katrina: NASA. Times-Picayune front page, Aug. 30, 2005: © 2005 Times-Picayune. I-10/I-610/West End Boulevard interchange from the air: Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi, USCG.

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