I grew up in New Orleans, which was my father’s hometown and had been for generations of Cucullus since the mid-17th century. In 1953, we returned from Japan, where Dad had been stationed with the Air Force, while he went in and out of the Korean War in time for me to enter 4th grade. Timing was October, a bit late for the taste of the nuns, but they agreed to let me enroll. Nine years later, I graduated from the University of New Orleans and moved away permanently, with only an occasional visit since then.
While in New Orleans we lived in four houses, two in the older section of town in a neighborhood near Esplanade and Broad Streets, one uptown near Audubon Park, and the newest in Algiers on the West Bank of the Mississippi River. From two of the houses we watched large ships traversing the River. We had to look up to see the ships, since the house was 6-10 feet beneath sea level. During high school track season, we would run along the tops of the levees for a mile or so. In spring flood stage, the river was nearly level to the top of the levee while the land sloped off for what seemed a long drop to a Louisiana flatlander.
While in college I was able to work the New Orleans docks at three-times minimum wage for the summer, big money for a college student. By working three months, I was able to make enough to pay tuition, books, and still have spending cash for the school year. In 1965, we watched equipment for the 1st Cavalry Division mount out of the port. On the land side, five parallel railroad tracks – loaded with helicopters, vehicles, weaponry, and tons of support equipment – waited impatiently for cranes to pick them up and load them onto freighters tied two abreast to the dock. The minute a train was cleared, it pulled away and another took its place. Around-the-clock operations continued for what seemed like weeks. Everyone was on the clock, so overtime rolled up in unimaginable numbers, while exhausted workers caught cat naps in the corner during the rare breaks. We stayed fueled by an occasional po-boy sandwich or plate of red beans, rice, and Cajun sausage from the port cafeteria, washed down by a steaming cup of black, chicory-enhanced coffee.
Even during ordinary periods, tons of goods poured through the port. New Orleans was long a prime entrepot for cargo destined to transit the Panama Canal, and for ships headed for other South American ports. Enormous quantities of commodities such as sugar, sulphur, and other critical items regularly pour across New Orleans wharves. Petroleum products have become the largest users of extensive facilities up and down the river, performing essential support and distribution tasks for the extensive offshore oil production facilities. As a resident, rather than a tourist, I came to appreciate the strategic commercial importance of the city as significantly more than a place to get drunk, listen to classic Dixieland jazz, or let the good times roll.
While I lived in New Orleans –and for a brief time earlier when we lived in Pass Christian, Mississippi – we watched hurricanes hit the Gulf shores with frightening regularity. The Gulf Coast is to hurricanes as California is to earthquakes or the Midwest to tornadoes. Hurricanes are part of life there, like mosquitoes. In those days before meteorological satellite photography and sophisticated computer modeling, storms fell upon residents with more swiftness and surprise than they do today. All the storms had women’s names then. We listened to the radio that terrible night on June 27, 1957, as Hurricane Audrey took Cameron, Louisiana, down to bare soil. Residents had scoffed at warnings to leave and decided to ride it out. More than 425 died for their impudence. We rode Hurricane Betsy out in New Orleans. She had especially severe winds. (The wind gauge at Grand Isle Weather Station, said to be able to withstand in excess of 200 mph, reportedly blew off when it passed through 205.).
But Betsy passed far enough away to the west so that the waters of Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchatrain, which normally caress the city limits, were not pushed up into the city by fierce winds, overpowering levees and flood walls. This was everyone’s nightmare scenario. Even so there was serious damage. My grandmother’s house in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward was flooded to about four feet. Dark rumors flew that city officials had colluded to dynamite the levee, thereby taking the pressure off the rest of the city while abandoning the “poor folks” to their fates. “I heard dat explosion,” one on Grandmother’s neighbors told me, with great intensity. The perennial state of bureaucratic corruption that characterizes New Orleans politics lent credibility to the rumor, although nothing city officials had accomplished to date would support the degree of proficiency necessary to accomplish such a complex task as picking the exact spot to blow the levee and the precise charge with which to accomplish the mission.
From what I can ascertain from initial reports, it is probable that every house in New Orleans and Mississippi that I lived in is now destroyed. The University of New Orleans, my alma mater, which sat a stone’s throw from Lake Ponchatrain, is probably severely damaged. The good news is that friends and relatives that I have heard from or about are safe, although all have lost their homes, boats, automobiles, and possessions.
But the image of the city that has emerged from the aftermath of this deadly storm named Katrina is troubling. We can see that there is clearly a leadership problem in New Orleans. It has nothing to do with race, although some of the usual leftist race-mongers are trying to stir that witch’s cauldron to enhance their own personal and political agenda. Like many of its Southern sisters, New Orleans has been for all intents and purposes black-run for decades. New Orleans brings its unique problems to the fore by chronic corruption, irrespective of race. Incompetence is an equal opportunity employer. Neither is the storm, as pinhead Green extremists like Robert Kennedy Jr. say, America’s punishment for George W. Bush’s refusal to sign the discredited Kyoto Treaty. The problem in New Orleans is what is has been for generations: deep-seated political corruption of the electoral and appointee process that guarantees that only mediocrity rises to the top. Such is the situation we face today.
Who could imagine Rudy Giuliani duplicating ashen-faced New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s call for panicked citizens to flee for their lives pell-mell, virtually abandoning them to their fates? Can anyone think that Police Commissioner Bernard Kerick would have had his men stand by and permit looting, rape, robbery, assault, and attacks on rescue workers post-9/11 because they were afraid of the crowd? Anyone who watched the incredibly complex but amazingly smooth coordination of fire, emergency, and other first responders in New York City following the terrorist attack was appalled to see the chaos of New Orleans post-flood.
We are going to have to learn many lessons from New Orleans, many we will find difficult to absorb. Is this abysmal failure at the local level indicative of the ineptitude of many or most American cities? If so, does this mean that we are more vulnerable to terrorist attack than we feared? If I were an Islamofascist terrorist looking at America, I would be heartened by the chaos of New Orleans and encouraged to press an attack. Homeland Security needs to ramp up its capabilities. Not to single Michael Chertoff, but it is inconceivable that Bernie Kerick would have delayed responding to the crisis as long as Chertoff has. Kerick would have acted first and had his lawyers clean up the niceties later.
Lay this one at the feet of the Left. Kerick, who was initially proposed for the position of Homeland Security Director, was attacked viciously by Hillary Clinton supporters in order to impugn Rudy Guiliani’s reputation by association. Since Guiliani beats Hillary in all polls, it was necessary to hit him early and hard. They did and Kerick’s nomination was pulled by the president. New Orleans and perhaps the nation are now paying the price of cheap political assassination.
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