Thursday, September 08, 2005

DIY (And/Or Kiss Your Ass Goodbye)

Before the queue to the gallows grows unbearably long, we’d like to dry our eyes, adjust our britches, clear our throat and take note of the too obvious: how the deadly wake of the hurricane is being used to affirm and justify just about every previously held belief system, ideology, social theory, political position or whimsical notion imaginable. To cite the most obvious of the obvious: Conservatives who ordinarily have little use for government on any level predictably have had their hands full stringing up Louisiana’s Democratic governor and New Orleans’ Democratic mayor, while the very large necktie party forming to our left has predictably attracted such subtle thinkers as Kanye West and Cindy Sheehan (Louisiana residents are "collateral damage" from the U.S. misadventure in Iraq, she says).

We’re guilty of the same, in our way. You could have quizzed us 100 times before the hurricane, and we never would have guessed that someone named “Michael Brown” is the head of FEMA. Yet when we saw him on TV for the first time in the middle of last week we were instinctively disposed to be repulsed (is that a toupee?), and subsequent exposure has not changed our initial impression. Conversely, Mayor Ray Nagin may indeed be the hapless buffoon his legions of newfound critics claim him to be, yet we can’t help but root for the guy and nod along with his bombast, probably against our better judgment (and we wish him well in his next line of work). We instantly recognized Nagin’s kicking and screaming and crying and cussing as a more emotionally wrought version of the same populist playbook that's been passed down by Louisiana politicians from Huey Long to Edwin Edwards: They’re trying to wash us away, essentially, they being any powers-that-be conveniently located outside of the 64 parishes, or, in Nagin's case, what's left of the greater New Orleans metropolitan area. (And could someone issue a cease and desist order against TV's further use of that great Randy Newman song, as performed by the great Aaron Neville, as lulling and sentimental background music for scenes of the flooding? It’s been a good week now, and it’s obviousness in the current context has rendered it a soggy cliché. Next time we hear it we may drop to one knee, throw out our arms and sing out "Mammy ...")

Ah, where were we … oh, yeah. There is one school of thought we find to be beyond disputation---the one that’s been predicting for years this something like this was bound to happen. Saying it almost every spring when the waters begin to rise, and every summer when the hurricanes begin forming in the ocean. Saying it, we can remember, as far back as the Nixon administration. That’s why we were at a loss earlier this week when Houston Mayor Bill White was quoted as saying: “If someone here had forecast the destruction of New Orleans, then I’d like to join your church.” We understand he was speaking in the context of Houston trying to handle the unimagined relocation of a fifth or so of the New Orleans area’s population, but as to the destruction itself, it’s a fairly large church, with oft-quoted scripture: books, magazine articles, newspaper series after series, and reports by hydrologists and geologists and emergency management officials and, for all we know, astrologers and phrenologists. (Similarly, we can hardly contain ourselves every time we hear some sage journalist type declare---in precisely the following words---that the hurricane “exposed the racial and class divides in America.” Yes, we suppose, but only to someone who’s had his head up his ass for the past 40 years.)

There are many highly refined minds plotting scenarios for the future avoidance of the destruction and death Katrina delivered. But as some of the best of late 20th century literature reminds us, whenever you factor in the human element, systems tend to break down or fly apart. Especially when politicians are involved. There’s just no airtight precaution, no 100 percent guarantee. That’s why we’ve been heartened by the many inspiring stories of people who, left to their own small devices, took matters in hand and without waiting for the cavalry to arrive set about to save themselves, and others.

We’re thinking of the churches on the Mississippi Coast that rushed in to feed and house the disposed and displaced while FEMA personnel were still checking their frequent flyer miles. Or the dead-enders around Rampart and Desire in New Orleans that we saw Wednesday night on Nightline, who’ve formed their own informal protective and benevolent association to see that they’re all fed, watered and protected against predators. Or the state senator from Chalmette profiled on the same program who commandeered a large boat to house the homeless and waded into a CVS and grabbed as much food, water, diapers and other supplies as he could to distribute to his constituents. Or the boat owners who without being ordered or asked drove to the water's edge and launched off to fish the stranded from the waters (pub-seeking hot dog that he is, if Sean Penn pulled one person off of a roof---well, that's one more than we did). Or the homeowners in Uptown New Orleans and elsewhere who stood guard on their front porches and streets with their pistols and shotguns, ensuring that they and their neighbors didn’t survive Katrina to fall victim to the worst of human nature.

We hope that when a Category 5 storm bears down on Galveston and Houston all the plans are carried out as they are in the computer modeling---and you won’t have to ask us twice to leave, although we have a hard time envisioning ourselves stuck in traffic with 3 or 4 million other people headed out on 290 and I-10. If developments don’t go according to plan, though, we hope we’ll be in the vicinity of the kind of capable citizens whose stories have been about the only small shafts of light in this entire dark episode.
Authentic signature New Orleans song suggested for future use by cable networks as Katrina soundtrack:

“Give him water
When he gets thirsty
Tell him that water mighty fine when you dry.
Give him attention when he gets sickly
Give him the graveyard
In case he die.”

--- Junco Partner, as performed by Professor Longhair

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