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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Letter from a New Orleanian

I had the pleasure of meeting Allison Plyer, a New Orleans resident, shortly after the Katrina disaster. Allison is a member of New Orleans' inter-racial gospel choir, Shades of Praise. She also works for the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center - Allison knows a heckuva lot about NOLA. She sent this letter to her friends and acquaintances and asked us to pass it along. This is her personal reflection, and it is heart-felt.

Letter to America 12-16-05

Since my exile from my home late in August 2005, I’ve been adrift on dry land. Bunking up with family and friends -- near and far from New Orleans. Relying more than I ever thought I would on the kindness and generosity of people across the country. And in that process I’ve talked to a lot of people about New Orleans. People in stores, people in restaurants, people everywhere. And I’m rather disturbed by what I hear from Americans.

It’s true; Americans have been very compassionate about the terrible trauma I’ve experienced. You empathize with the horror of my losing my house, most of what I own, and so many aspects of my life all at once. And you want me to know that your doors are open to me any time I might need a place to stay. You are generous to a fault when it comes to providing relief from this disaster. And speaking on behalf of all New Orleanians, we are grateful more than words can express for your generosity in the face of this disaster. Really and truly we are.

But the mood notably changes when we start talking about rebuilding. I get the distinct impression you’re not interested in rebuilding New Orleans. Some folks say it gently and others are more direct. But I get the overwhelming sense that Americans think New Orleans should not be rebuilt. That New Orleanians were just foolish to build a city on a flood plane. That we should stop fighting nature and learn to live with nature. That Louisiana politicians are corrupt and can’t be trusted with large sums of money. That the country can’t afford to “bail us out.” That we’re inappropriately looking for a handout.

So tonight I write this letter to America. Many of the direct recipients of this letter may not have thought these thoughts, but you’ve probably talked to someone who has. So I hope you will share this letter far and wide.

You see rebuilding is not just in the interest of New Orleans. It’s in the interest of America. First, and perhaps most persuasively, it’s in America’s own economic self-interest to rebuild New Orleans.

The cost to America of not rebuilding New Orleans will be gigantic. The Port of New Orleans has always been key to the nation’s economy and for that reason to its security. This is the largest port in the nation by tonnage and the fifth largest in the world. Essentially all of the agricultural commodities from the Alleghenies to the Rockies are shipped on barges through the Mississippi’s tributaries, down the Mississippi itself and eventually loaded onto seagoing ships at the port of New Orleans. And an even greater tonnage of raw materials from around the world is shipped up the Mississippi to support our industrial sector. Think coal and steel, not to mention crude oil.

There is no cheaper way to ship these products. If the port of New Orleans stops functioning or even reduces its capacity, our exports become less competitive and our imports become more expensive. How much are you willing to pay for your heating oil, gasoline and groceries? Feel free to do a cost-benefit analysis on that one. [To learn more about the economic repercussions to America of not rebuilding New Orleans read this article by Dr. George Friedman, geopolitical expert.]

New Orleans has to be situated exactly where it is to be a viable port. If it were farther downstream it would be more flood prone. And if it were farther upstream (and, therefore, less flood prone), then seagoing ships would not be able to reach it. So yes, New Orleans is on a flood plane. But such is the nature of the beast. And such, by the way, is the nature of modern civilization. Which one of you “lives with nature?” You live in houses with heating and air-conditioning, do you not? And, in fact, did you know that FEMA spends more on snow-related emergencies than on any other kind of disaster? Now what are you people doing living up there in sub-freezing temperatures? And why did Chicago reverse the course of the Chicago River? Look it up.

Clearly none of us are “living with nature.”

But, you think, New Orleans is not just flood prone. It below sea level. This is craziness. Well, to clarify, not all of New Orleans is below sea level. Only roughly 2/3 of New Orleans is below sea level. The oldest portions of the city (for example, the French Quarter and the Garden District) are above sea level. And not surprisingly these did not flood when the levees broke. But even some parts of New Orleans that are at or above sea level did flood when Katrina struck. (For what it’s worth, my neighborhood is at sea level and it got 5 feet of water because of storm surge up a canal. The difference between my neighborhood and others is that the water did not stand for weeks in my neighborhood. But this is small consolation. If you’ve ever had a house flood, you know its very destructive even if the water doesn’t stand very long.)

So those parts of New Orleans that are at or above sea level are going to be prone to flooding and are going to need levee and wetland protection. But hopefully its clear by now that this port city is essential to our economy and worth some investment in flood protection in order to benefit our entire country.

Now, its true we could reduce the size of New Orleans, and all start to live more densely on what’s now often referred to as “high ground” so as to reduce the cost of protecting New Orleans. And in the end, I suspect that will happen whether we like it or not. But I think that Americans should recognize that if we do this we are making a sacrifice that most Americans are not willing to make, and one that we will quite naturally go down bitching about.

You see New Orleans grew beyond its original high ground area through a process of urban sprawl that all Americans have become quite accustomed to. It was highways as much as levees that drew New Orleanians to build homes in areas below sea level. Areas that afforded them larger lots and room to breathe. Imagine if you would that one day a tornado or earthquake were to wipe out the highway that you use each day to drive from your suburban home to your work place. And then the government tells you they’re not going to rebuild that highway. They suggest that you just move into a condo closer to work and live more densely as all of us should to reduce urban sprawl. You’d probably start screaming for the highway to be rebuilt. Well, that’s what New Orleanians are doing right now. As I say, in the end I think the city will shrink due to some natural attrition and most of us will end up living on high ground. But remember, when that happens, that those of us who are staying are giving up something that most Americans consider their birth right. And even still, we’re gonna need some levees and restored marshlands.

Now let’s talk about culture for just a second. New Orleans must be rebuilt (in some form or fashion) because it is the seat of the vast majority of indigenous American music and culture and the only place where this culture is fostered and cultivated. Its true that the Diaspora of New Orleanians around the country cannot be entirely reversed. New Orleanians have now gone forth and are teaching people all around the nation how to cook, and dance, and make music, and enjoy themselves. But New Orleans culture needs New Orleanians en mass and New Orleans institutions to foster it. Ever since African slaves were first brought to America, New Orleans was the only place where they were allowed to congregate. And thus, they maintained their African customs including drumming -- and eventually from this Jazz was born. This continues today as New Orleans musicians gather to share musical styles and techniques.

And as another example of the need for New Orleanians in New Orleans, think of the other cities that have tried to replicate Mardi Gras. As far as I can tell, all have failed as drunken crowds lapse into lawlessness and mayhem. New Orleanians model playful yet appropriate behavior for tourists. And our police know how to manage a crowd such that thousands of people can be dancing and many drinking in the streets and no one gets hurt. We do it at festivals and second line parades almost every weekend of the year. We have lots of practice at it. New Orleans en mass and New Orleans institutions are essential to the fostering of New Orleans culture.

OK. So let’s talk about corrupt politicians. Louisiana politicians may be famous for their corruption, but this by no means makes them the most corrupt politicians in the land. Anyone hear about Tom Delay being indicted for conspiracy to illegally funnel corporate money to state campaigns? Remember Dan Rostenkowski? Help me out here. Name your favorites. Don’t be shy.

Anyone hear about the no-bid contract that Haliburton got to provide hurricane relief post-Katrina? Did that one strike you as fishy? I don’t mean to defend Louisiana politicians. They are as corrupt as any. But lets face it. That’s the way of the world. So what standard has been used to determine that Louisiana politicians’ level of corruption is so bad that they cannot be trusted with funds? Is it simply the infamy standard? The reputation standard? Well, I don’t know the man personally, but I’d be willing to vouch for Mayor Ray Nagin. We might have criticisms of his leadership right now, but as far as corruption goes, or even seeming impropriety, his record is almost spotless. Its a shame that of the billions of dollars spent so far on hurricane relief only a few hundred million have made their way to the City of New Orleans and the vast majority has been squandered by federal agencies with huge administrative overheads. (Feel free to look that one up.)

And here’s my last argument for why New Orleans should be rebuilt. Because we said we would. Indulge me once again by imaging for a second that you are suddenly and unexpectedly ejected from your home by a disaster of some sort. Perhaps terrorists drop a dirty bomb on San Francisco. Or there’s a huge chemical spill on your city's water source. You are not prepared for this sudden departure so you scramble to find housing that will allow you to enroll your kids in school somewhere-- and if possible, continue your work. But likely you have to make some compromises to accomplish these disparate tasks. Maybe your kids are in school in one state with your spouse and you are in another state at a temporarily relocated job. Suddenly you are stressed to the max trying to pay rent on one or two new places along with your mortgage back home, and all sort of unexpected expenses associated with this sudden move. And imagine that every time you talk to your children, they tell you how they ache to go home and see their friends. Meanwhile you miss your friends and family, too. You’re getting a little help from the government and you’re grateful for that. Because your spouse can’t find work in the place where your kids are in school. And housing is scarce, too. But you’re thinking that this can’t go on forever and you’re wondering what your next move should be. Then the president comes on TV and he says your city will be rebuilt.

Well, there are literally hundreds of thousands of people floating around the U.S. right now in just this state of limbo. People sleeping on couches of relatives or friends. Hurricane-fractured families who can’t afford to quit the one job they have so all members can be together Parents aching to see children. And children aching to see parents. Wanna talk to a few? I know several. And they’re people just like you and me. And they’re distraught. And they can’t all just be absorbed in other cities. Heck, Texas is so eager to repatriate evacuated New Orleanians, they’re paying for one-way tickets back to New Orleans or to anywhere outside of Texas. And Louisiana has no more housing available, so FEMA is trying to ship evacuees currently in hotels to apartments in other states. There is nowhere for these hundreds of thousands of evacuees to be absorbed.

Families are hanging in there. But just barely. The mental health crisis is enormous. One city councilman said, "For everyday that we don’t rebuild the city, another person commits suicide." He’s not far off.

For those of you who don’t have a big bleeding heart like me, think dollar signs. Think port. Think cost-benefit. Let’s not cut off our nose, to spite our face.

And finally, let’s talk about inappropriate handouts. We here in Louisiana have said, we don’t need any handouts. Just give us 50% of the royalties on the oil and gas that is generated off our coast, just like you do for all the other states where oil is produced, and we’ll take care of our levees and coastline ourselves. In fact, we have been pushing to get these royalties to restore our wetlands since way before this storm. (You can check this out on Senator Mary Landrieu’s web site.)

Why don’t we get this money now? Well, some legal hairsplitting and political hanky-panky some years ago and... here we are with no royalties. And now the feds are saying they don’t want to give up the $3+billion that would be our share of our royalties. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? They would rather keep our royalties, but dole out handouts to us. Hmmm.

You say, Bush just announced $3 billion to rebuild our levees. Well, that’s just a drop in the bucket. It won’t do anything to make the levees withstand a category 4 storm like Katrina. And it won’t do anything to restore our coastal wetlands, which is arguably more important than the levees to protect the city. But with a steady stream of $3 billion in oil royalties each year, we could finance all the restoration we need. And just to put things in perspective, did you know that our defense budget is upwards of $400 billion each year? America can easily afford to rebuild New Orleans. In fact, give us equitable oil and gas royalties, and Louisiana could finance it ourselves.

So. OK I’m wiped out now.

New Orleans needs to be rebuilt for all of our sakes. And we can afford to do it.

Meanwhile there are about 100,000 of us in New Orleans. Bunking up with one another. Friends housing friends. Families taking in other families. Working harder than I’ve ever seen any group of Americans work. Trying to keep this city -- and each other -- alive. And if you come down to visit, you can count on lots of conversation about home repairs, as well as lots of great food, incredible music, and endless dancing. And we’ll make sure you have an amazingly good time. Because that’s what we do. We believe in love and giving and joy. We believe in life. That’s New Orleans.

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