Thursday, December 27, 2007

The third Christmas

Our dear friend, Ann Arnold called last week. She learned of the death of my father and needed to touch base to make sure we were alright and to express condolences.

Ann and Wayne Arnold have lived in New Orleans, Louisiana for over 40 years.

Their daughter, Missy Arnold Wilson, and our oldest daughter, Jennifer, have been good friends since they were little girls.

We met the Arnolds when we moved to New Orleans in 1975. During our five years in that wonderful old city, Ann and Wayne showed us the ropes in more ways than one!

Wayne and Ann are heading into their third Christmas since Hurricane Katrina ravaged their city. Nothing much has changed or been done to address the disaster left in Katrina's wake.

I've been watching Brad Pitt on television over the past couple of weeks. Last Friday evening, Larry King interviewed him. He's been on all the major networks promoting his "Pink Project" as a part of his "Make It Right" campaign (

I wonder how our government would have responded had a major earthquake hit Los Angeles or San Francisco or Seattle and caused the same scale of damage and destruction? How about a massive nor'easter storm along the coast of New England? Or a devastating series of tornadoes ripping through the heart of Dallas? How would you feel if it were your hometown? Your house? Your children's school?

Last week we watched news reports from New Orleans that pictured irate residents of public housing protesting the demolition of several thousand units of housing that had been their homes. I know we can argue about plans and strategu. I might even agree with the developers who apparently intend to use low income housing tax credits to rebuild a portion of the city with a focus on mixed income neighborhoods. But, the point here is the understandable frustration of the people of New Orleans.

Nothing has happened to give residents even a glimmer of hope.

So, the city is now depending on private efforts. Brad Pitt is the best thing going in New Orleans these days.

Isn't there something wrong with this picture?

Don't get me wrong.

God love Brad Pitt.

But individual, grassroots only efforts will never be enough.

Forget the past lack of responsiveness. Don't even go down the path of who's to blame for the incredible lack of progress--believe me, it's hard to heed my own directive here!

Here's the point: What can be done going forward? How can the American people help Brad Pitt and our fellow Americans living in New Orleans?

New Orleans provides a case study in a major national disaster in an urban area and how it should be attacked.

1) The President of the United States should appoint a "Director of Recovery for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast." This new appointee must be a very strong and proven leader and should sit with the President's Cabinet and be authorized to marshal the resources of every government agency around the table.

This Director's job would be to develop a plan for rebuilding the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. He or she would certainly devise a strategy for working closely with the residents in the process, but the ultimate responsibility would be the Director's for bringing about the reconstruction of the city using every resource available. Every Cabinet agency and department would likely find a place in the massive effort.

2) Working with the Congress, the President should lay out an aggressive appropriations plan for funding the rebuilding process. The Director would coordinate and inform the funding strategy that would also draw in local, state and private investments in the entire plan. A nation that can spend hundreds of billions of dollars on war should be able to spend whatever is necessary to restore a major American city.

3) The President should make the renewal of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast a priority and he should challenge both major political parties to make the city's rebirth a key part of their respective party platforms in this election cycle. The challenge of New Orleans offers our leaders a wonderful opportunity to rediscover the strength of bi-partisan approaches to difficult national problems.

4) Any plan should contain clear benchmarks and measurable outcomes for judging progress and measuring success.

5) The plan would involve private, national, regional and local sources of funding, volunteerism and community development but only as complimentary to the larger, public effort.

Three Christmases in "the city that care forgot." Tragic how that well known phrase of celebration has turned in a horrible way to be a summation of the national response to its time of greatest need.

W must act to restore the care to this amazing national treasure. If we fail the "care test" here, we may fail in other cities in days to come.



Mark said...

First, thanks for posting this.

The president has appointed a "recovery czar", a former banking and GOP money man who seems to interpret the job to mean making sure no money gets diverted except to the A-list of approved suspects (Haliburton, for example).

Congress thinks they have appropriate a pile of money. They have, but virtually all of it went to large contractors on fabulously over-price, no-bid contracts for immediate response. This wasn't just a Louisiana problem. Haley Barbour, government of Mississippi, had no problem steering debris removal contracts to companies his own consulting firm had business relationships with (think: kickback) at prices that recovery experts in Florida found ridiculous. Most of that money went somewhere else, not to the people of the Hurricane Coast.

In the end, some of us in New Orleans believe that we in fact have to do it on our own, and have adopted the motto of the Irish nationalist movement Sinn Fein, which in Gallic means Ourselves Alone, as a motto.

Frankly, if there were a vote tomorrow to secede, I'd vote yes. I have great affection for the people of the United States who have come (and continue to come) to help. I have abandoned all faith or trust in what I have taken to calling the central government, and I don't know that a change of party will make a tremendous difference.

What I have seen is a tremendous resiliance in the people down here, and an outpouring of support in the form of the tens of thousands of volunteers who continue to come today. I may have lost faith in "America", but I have not lost faith in people.

You are dead on in your last point. If the U.S. cannot manage the recovery of New Orleans, then whoever is next will suffer again as the people here have. They will have to discover on their own that the U.S. is no longer the country of the greatest generation, the nation that built the interstate system and sent men to the moon. They will discover, too late, that expecting the government to protect or rescue them was a terrible and tragic mistake.

All that said, I believe we will make it because the people of New Orleans (and the entire Gulf Coast) are determined to recover and live here, whatever obstacles are placed in our way. Sinn Fein.

Larry James said...

Mark, really appreciate this post and update from the city.

Of course, the President's action in this appointment has been the opposite of what is needed. I had in mind a leader who would get the funds flowing to homeowners who could then engage the marketplace and let things begin to happen.

The corporate corruption you describe would not happen if the media were really tuned in and the czar were seated at the Cabinet table with the right Cabinet and President. By the way, the czar should be from New Orleans.

I understand and can see your point about the natinoal government. I also understand the resiliance of the people of your great city.

I don't agree about a change in administration making a difference: I have to believe that it would make a huge difference.

You and the city remain in my prayers.

Karen said...

Ditto the prayers.

What a very frustrating situation. And what a fearsome portent for things that may come.

Cole M. French said...

I'm not sure that grassroots efforts couldn't work. The Government has never worked in this arena. Are we supposed to think that it will someday? The problem is we all point to government to do something about it instead of pointing at ourselves. And, government is typically so far removed everyday life they just throw at the money problem. That has never and will never work. Solutions aren't as simple as dollars and cents.

Larry James said...

Cole, thanks for the post.

I beg to differ with you. Worked in Europe after WWII--Marshall Plan. Worked in lifting millions of eldlerly out of poverty via Medicare. Worked with the GI Bill and FHA. Government assistance can be a grass roots partnership. You are correct, it doesn't work if Haliburton gets it all. But homeowners should be getting SBA-type loans and grants to rebuild. It is not happening and unassisted grassroots work can't get to scale here.

Karen Shafer said...

You're right, Larry. I see it with the homeless downtown. If grassroots efforts could solve the problem, there wouldn't be a homeless problem in Dallas, because the heavy lifting done by the faith community downtown is phenomenal.

But it is not enough!

People who are anti government involvement often say to me, "It's the job of the churches to take care of the homeless." I reply that they already are taking care of them.

But a comprehensive solution to such large problems must involve grassroots action, business support, city government, and state and federal funding. Otherwise, as you say, the scale is too immense.

When something as big as federal government is corrupt -- ie, funneling money and power only to its cronies -- it has a profound effect on the way things filter down to the rest of us, especially people living in poverty.

But the places were enormous problems like those in New Orleans are solved are places where all the levels of support are somehow brought together.

Happily, getting to know Mayor Leppert the past few months, I believe we now have a city leader who is both competent and really cares.

chris said...

New Orleans was a cesspool BEFORE Katrina and it will continue to be unless they quit electing corrupt politicians to run the state. For example, former governor Edwin Edwards in in the penitentiary, followed by an attorney general, an election commissioneer, three insurance commissioners, an agriculture commissioner, a congressman, a federal judge, a state Senate president and various legislators, judges and other municipal and parish officers.

And what about U.S, Representative William Jefferson who hid $90,000 in his freezer and yet was re-elected for a ninth term in 2006.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I agree. But, I wonder, how many poor people were involved in these examples of corruption you so eagerly point out? I wonder if we counted all of the corporate interests involved or all of those folks with wealth involved who sought to turn the system to their advantage, if they would out number the poor who might have been involved? I think we all know the answer to that one. We need leaders who rise above greed to lead. I'm about convinced that greed and extremist, fundamentalist religion pose the gravest threats to our civilization today. Phil C.