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Author of this essay:

Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(September 10, 2005)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

LAISSEZ LES BONTEMPS ROULE! (Let the good times roll!)

Another motto should be affixed to New Orleans' brash "Laissez les bontemps roule!" "If you want to dance, you have to pay the piper."

In religion, we're used to seeing this refusal to acknowledge the high price of pleasure and the unwarranted shock and indignation expressed when fate submits an invoice that is "due and payable upon presentation."

It isn't as if The Big Easy's city and state officials weren't aware of the city's vulnerability and urgently warned of the increasing precariousness of its position. A host of scientists have repeatedly predicted exactly what in fact did happen when a hurricane hit the city.

The old, "aristocratic" rich of New Orleans live on high ground. They fear wind, but not water, and their homes are, of course, very well built. They have everything the City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Plan For Hurricanes dreams about. The "plan" is worth a look. It is, depending on one's mood, pathetic or hilarious. http://www.cityofno.com/portal.aspx?portal=46&tabid=26

The high-ground rich of New Orleans have generators, supplies of fresh water, stores of food, medical supplies, and even their own private security army to protect them - an army, which the New Orleans regular police force has had to admit, is better armed than they.

The low-land poor of New Orleans, on the other hand, and the ordinary, inner city folks believed the cunning hype served up by the oligarchs of Louisiana. They trusted. They believed. They are now refugees. And frankly, considering their new homes and the warm receptions they are receiving in our other civilized states, their luck has finally turned.

New Orleans' inner-city citizens have literally lived beneath the threat of inundation. The city is normally between six and twenty-two feet (some 2 to 7 meters) below sea level. Worse, it is built upon a drained peat marsh and the city's weight has been steadily compressing the peat, and with or without flooding, the city has been slowly sinking.

New Orleans is nearly surrounded by water - the levels of which are all higher than the city. Its west and south sides border the Mississippi River as it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Its north and east sides border swollen Lake Pontchartrain, a salt-water lake second in size only to Utah's Great Salt Lake.

To defend itself against the mighty Mississippi's spring floods, the city has constructed levees that additionally provide for cultivation of rich farm land and protection of industry - but have the unfortunate side effect of preventing river silts from replenishing the marshlands that once acted as a protective barrier against the fury of Gulf hurricanes. Tropical storms lose much of their energy when they strike and traverse land; but New Orleans, thanks to the levees' unnatural constriction of the delta, now loses one acre of protective marshland every twenty-four minutes.

Annually, nearly 30 square miles of its marshland barrier, deprived of silt's accretion and tormented by global warming's oceanic rise, slide beneath the fierce and implacable Atlantic that stretches over it like a mother trying to clasp her salt lake child to her breast, refusing to allow anything to keep her from reaching it. The Lake's pollution problems have increased her determination.

To further prevent the Mississippi River's overflow, channels have been constructed to deliver its excess water directly to Lake Pontchartrain, which, though 630 square miles in surface area, is only 25 feet deep. A low and landscaped flood wall is supposed to restrain the lake from flowing into the city.


To prevent Gulf waters from entering the lake, more barriers have been constructed. Pumping stations, all dependent upon electricity to operate, squirt water from one place to another. Meanwhile, the shallow lake has become a drain for the discharges of industrial chemicals, agricultural pesticides and fertilizer runoffs, city sewage, and the contaminant silts of its own shoreline erosion. People like lakefront property, and unobstructed views of the lake are de regueur. Mangrove and other shoreline trees have been routinely felled, eroding the lake's edges. A U.S. Geological Survey map and legend explains it clearly. Louisiana State University scientists repeatedly have issued urgent warnings while proposing reasonable reformations; the Scientific American magazine in October 2001 explained the problems and offered rational solutions in its prophetic article, "Drowning New Orleans"; the U.S. Geologic Report has waved SOS signs to no avail; the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper did a 5 piece series in 2002 called "Washing Away!" in which they begged the Powers That Be to pay attention and to act!; and intelligent, responsible citizens of Louisiana have been clamoring for the politicians to stop arguing and to start solving the problem. An alarming study predicted the possibility of a hundred thousand deaths. New Orleans responded by ordering ten thousand body bags.

In a 1998 report entitled Coast 2050, Federal and State agencies detailed a plan for correcting New Orleans' abysmal problems which would cost $14 billion. The cost would be shared between Washington and the State, and this became an unacceptable solution. The state demurred, considering the burden on itself too great. If the plan were presented, President Bush agreed to sign it. It wasn't presented.

As for Katrina, her history is a simple one: on August 25th, she was christened an Atlantic hurricane. While passing west across southern florida, the storm was downgraded; but once it entered Gulf waters it gathered energy; and on August 26th became a Category 2 hurricane that was ominously curving upwards towards New Orleans. Still on target, on the 27th it became a Category 3. By the 28th it was a Category 4 and was clearly headed for New Orleans. Later that day, still aimed at New Orleans, the storm briefly attained Category 5 force; but by the morning of the 29th, the force declined to Category 4 and the eye of the storm was due to pass east of New Orleans and to strike the state of Mississippi.

New Orleans' mayor led the inner city's collective sigh of relief; but the knowledgeable knew; and from the moment the storm had indicated it was heading for New Orleans, there had been a steady exodus of SUVs, pickup trucks, and sedans all heading north.

The city's lack of preparation beggars description. Especially considering the water disasters that regularly plague the sunken city, there was no block-by-block organization; no Civil Defense teams; no Neighborhood Watch program; no "B-Prep" (be prepared) squads; no Block wardens of any kind. No one was charged with the responsibility of keeping his locality's head count or knowing which civilians were bedridden or confined to a wheel chair. No civilian emergency operations' system provided for an assigned number of row boats or inflatable rafts; there were no emergency stores of bottled water; no manually operated water purification equipment; no waterproof food rations, such as "MREs" (meals ready to eat); no flashlights; no first-aid supplies; no generators and emergency fuel supplies. No preparation or organization of any kind.

Of course, plans for all these contingencies and an organized response were on paper in the much vaunted, copyrighted and impressively named, City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. (Somebody ought to copy it before shame makes them take it down.) http://www.cityofno.com/portal.aspx?portal=46&tabid=26

If the mayor knew anything about storm surges that follow initial impacts, he didn't convey that information. While he reassured everyone that things were under control, and the Army Corps of Engineers opined that the levees would hold against the now-downgraded, Mississippi-aimed storm,.the twenty-five foot storm surge began to inundate the paltry coastal wetlands, the gates, the pumps, the levees, and to pour into Lake Pontchartrain, overwhelming it so that two football-field lengths of flood wall collapsed, allowing the Lake to cascade into the city.

The poor, who lived mostly in the lowest part, were told to take shelter in the Superdome, the shoddy construction of which seemed to be a parody of an old Louisiana political stratagem a la Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning novel about Governor Huey Long, All The King's Men. Thousands of people were herded into a building without food, without water, without operating toilet facilities, under a roof that caved in on them. And they could not leave.

We saw the City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan in action. Chaos was the only rule. Prisoners, released from flooded jails, were corralled while a few guards tried to keep them under control with pepper spray. The Mayor said that the poor could not afford to escape the city: because they had no cars. Television showed rows of buses standing unused in the water and an uncountable number of cars bobbing up and down in the streets. Ships, that in a timely manner could have evacuated hundreds, lay helter skelter, piled up on the nearest high ground that could hold them

We also saw their management solution. It was to curse Washington, D.C., for not doing what New Orleans should have done for itself according to its own Comprehensive Emergence Management Plans for Hurricanes.

So what really went wrong? Oligarchy went wrong. The same Good Ole Boy mentality that has shadow-governed that state for decades, giving to the public the Bread and Circuses needed to deflect attention away from their own greedy, self-righteous gallic absurdities. Sure... offer the folks a handsome, young black man to be their mayor and give him a fancy report to rely upon. But beyond the illusion of power, give him not a centime out of their pockets. Let Curly, Moe, and Larry of the Army Corps of Engineers get what they could out of Washington. And if the poor black folks down in that basin get flooded out, who's going to blame a young black mayor?

Does this sound far-fetched? In the 1990s, David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan - the same man who regularly wore a Nazi uniform to class at LSU - ran for the Governor's office against suave Edwin Edwards - who brought manipulative "open" primaries to Louisiana and on-land gambling - and proclaimed on national TV that the only way he wouldn't be elected was if he was caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.

The people took the least dishonorable course: Poor does not mean stupid. Their bumper stickers read: "Vote for the Crook. It's important." Edwards won and brought gambling to the folks but in such a way that he is now in Federal Prison... and the last anyone outside of Louisiana heard he was asking for a new trial on the grounds that the judge who presided at his trial was drugged with Oxycontin during the proceedings.

The people of Louisiana have deserved so much more than the political hacks who cunningly or naively serve the Chose Notre godfathers of Louisiana politics. The poor are unable to pay for the needed solutions to the flood problems; the rich are unwilling to pay; and now, according to estimates, the rest of us are obliged to pay at least $1000.00 each. Katrina is one expensive disaster.

After the storm, the experts said the Army Corps of Engineers was wrong in its estimation of the force the levees could withstand. A Category 2 storm, hitting directly, would have destroyed them. The chief spokesman for the Corps countered, saying on TV that "95% of the time", their work in New Orleans would have been adequate. "It was that other 5%" that caused the trouble. Good Grief!

The Army Corps of Engineers does what the U.S. Congress tells it to do. Does anyone in his right mind wonder why books have been written about their expensive, tragic, and often hilarious blunders?

The politicians of Louisiana are a powerful group; and especially those that are in Baton Rouge (the capital) and in Washington have cared only that they did not have to pay the piper after the dance.

They could afford to be sanguine with New Orleans' Maginot Lines of pretty canals and levees.

What New Orleans really needed were the steel jaws of the Netherlands' dikes.

There is not and never will be a consensus among the Army Corps of Engineers, the Good Ole Boys of Napoleonic delusion, the politicians of Louisiana and the people with brains. We will wind up throwing billions into the coffers of the same old oligarchy and lose it all on the next Katrina.

We do the moon. The Dutch do levees. The president needs to have lunch with the Dutch ambassador. The whole restoration project should be turned over to experts who are free of political interference.

New Orleans was not the only area damaged by Katrina. Mississippi and Alabama deserve our attention, too.

And as to the Atlantic trying to reclaim her salt-lake child... now that the poisonous scum of flooded New Orleans is being pumped from the devastated city into the lake, the Atlantic, if she succeeds in her next hurricane, will take her vengeance on the fishing industry in that part of the Gulf.

Laissez les bontemps roule.

Humming Bird
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