A city lost, a family saved

Sydney Morning Herald
September 3 2005

Howell Raines recalls New Orleans's unique place in US culture and rages against George Bush's glaring failure to manage the tragedy.

The first whisper came in the bazaar at Nyack. Two men sidled up to Safura El Khani's uncle, warning of a plot to kidnap the 29-year-old candidate for election to Afghanistan's new parliament.

UNLIKE thousands of Americans, my kin and I received at least one precious splash of good news from New Orleans. My daughter-in-law, Eva Hughes Raines, loaded her three-year-old daughter Sasha and their pets into a four-wheel-drive vehicle and fled a day ahead of the evacuation order.

My son, Jeffrey, and his mates in Galactic, one of the city's better-known funk bands, were performing in Seattle, watching from afar as Katrina inundated their homes in America's most distinctive city. Soon the little family will arrive here in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania where we will wait, for weeks or months, to see if their antique neighbourhood of distinctive "shotgun houses" can be made habitable again.

In the personal realm, there is no relief like the relief arising from the safety of loved ones. In the civic realm, there is no communal grief quite like that kind so well known to Londoners and New Yorkers from past disasters, the sorrow of watching as a beloved city is hammered by an unstoppable malice. Millions around the world now know about the inundation of the famous "bowl" formed by the city's levees. What may need a little explaining is why New Orleans has been for generations of Americans a golden bowl of memories - sacred and profane.

In colonial times, it was the one US city where Afro-Caribbean and Creole culture enjoyed at least a measure of tolerance under a succession of masters - Spanish, French, British and American. In 1814 it was the site of the US's most complete victory over the redcoats, a victory all the sweeter because it was crafted by the raw Celtic cunning of our most quintessential president, Andrew Jackson, and the Gallic conniving of his pirate ally, Jean Lafitte. Even the handful of Americans who died at the Battle of New Orleans did so in Mardi Gras style, dancing atop the barricades before the last of the British snipers had skulked away.

For millions of Americans who grew up in straitlaced towns, the Big Easy has always been the city to dance, the one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was America's best place for the world's oldest profession and the birthplace of the nation's best contribution to world music, jazz. Like millions of other young people in the preacher-haunted Southland, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism.

This was the place where Thomas Williams of St Louis became "Ten nessee", and where that much-ridiculed postal clerk from Oxford, Mississippi, made himself into William Faulkner, novelist. This was the place where you could come to find or lose yourself. Across the river in Algiers, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady ate benzedrine like gumdrops.

Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink, of shaky-handed failed watercolourists hanging unloved pictures on the wrought-iron fence at Jackson Square, of gaunt-eyed superannuated transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their tits on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung by a drunken college boy on the balcony of his daddy's $1500 suite at the Soniat House - must we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that's never been psychoanalysed?

I hope not. I am 62. If New Orleans is to be pumped out, its walls re-replastered, its oaks replanted before I'm gone, I'll be happily surprised. I'm just glad I saw it, and I'm glad my babies got out alive.

THE sacrifices of New Orleans need a kind of national reckoning that would enable our people to see the President for what he is. Every great disaster - the Blitz, September 11, 2001, the tsunami - has a political dimension. George Bush's performance this week has been outrageous. The leader of the free world has been outshone by elected leaders of a region renowned for governmental ineptitude. Louisiana's anguished Governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, climbed into a helicopter at the first possible moment to survey what may become the worst weather-related disaster in United States history.

She might even have stopped the looting if members of the state's Army National Guard had not been in Iraq. They are among thousands of Southern guardsmen who could have been federalised had they not been deployed in a phony war.

This President, who flew away on Monday to fundraisers in the west while the hurricane blew away entire towns in coastal Mississippi, is very much his father's son when it comes to the kinds of emergencies that used to call forth immediate White House action. Bush seems determined to show his successors how to holiday through an apocalypse. Consider the visible federal leadership presence in Louisiana on the day the levee broke, a full day after the hurricane hit. The government department charged with disaster preparation and response issued the usual promises. Bush urged people not to stay where they were, even if their evacuation residence might be the roofless, clogged-toilet Superdome.

On Wednesday, as Bush met by intercom with his emergency team and considered a return to Washington, intensive care patients were dying at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. They had languished for two days because overworked Coast Guard helicopter crews in New Orleans did not have time to reach them.

As for the Superdome refugees, it fell to the Governor of Texas to announce that they could come to Houston's Astrodome.

What other US president would fail to house these people in the decent barracks at the military bases scattered throughout the South?

Jimmy Carter did a better job of housing the Mariel refugees from Cuba than Bush has done with the citizens of New Orleans. The church-going cultural populism of Bush has given the US an Administration that worries about the house of Saud and the welfare of oil companies while the poor drown in their attics and their sons and daughters die on foreign deserts.

Howell Raines is a former editor of The New York Times.



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