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Monday, February 27, 2006

New Orleans Reborn? No! But it's a Start!

I went to New Orleans this past weekend to celebrate Mardi Gras, as I have done in the past. This year, though, it was very different from my past experiences. Not because the party was any different, or the drunk debauchery any more civil, or the nudity any more toned down. New Orleans is a city facing an enormous challenge. There is no way the magnitude of the challenge can be understood until you physically go down there and take a look. I have been to New Orleans many times in the past, and now I have been there after Katrina ravished the area. It is a scene straight from armageddon, a woven path of destruction that is disguised by the images of happy revelers on Bourbon Street. It is hard not to have a good time on Bourbon Street. There are a lot of people, not as many as in previous Mardi Gras', but still a lot of people. You can feel the energy flow, the hope for the future redemption of a city in the middle of rebirth. That is until you drive a few blocks outside downtown. There, the thin veneer of progress is shattered. Destruction worthy of a Michael Bay movie can only do it little justice. Houses standing on their frames with no walls, cars in the middle of the road, debris piled in front yards, complete darkness in some areas (no working street lights or street signs), but nothing quite gets to you like the realization that this could be like some areas in Harlem, NY, or South Central Los Angeles, CA, except that these areas in the Big Easy are completely desolate, abandoned. There is no fear of being attacked or getting robbed because there are no people. And along with that desolation are left the hopes and dreams of hundreds, thousands. The deeper you get into this dead territory, the more you feel the anguish, the anxiety to run and get out as fast as you can. I was looking for a gas station and an ATM, and it was the most difficult task I've had in a while. No working stations, pharmacies, grocery and convenience stores.

I went to New Orleans to return to Mardi Gras and try and put my two cents in. But I also wanted to see for myself what had happened. It has been six months since the hurricane came. I got lost driving around the Superdome, site of so many barbaric events. There were some abandoned floats on the southeast side of the stadium, but for the most part it was fairly quiet and empty. The closer you got to Canal Street and the French Quarter, the more activity you saw. I was lucky enough to find a parking spot in front of the Hard Rock Cafe, about a block from the New Orleans Cathedral where President Bush spoke from in September of last year. What an eerie and disappointing feeling to pass that site because it makes you realize the size of the government's failure, at all levels. President Bush vowed to bring back New Orleans, promised a lot of money. Today, all you have to do is go down there to know that it is not happening. We are the richest most powerful country in the world. We are en route to spend half a trillion dollars on the unjustified destruction of another country, but we cannot spend the money and resources to rebuild one of our own. Showering money on problems does not solve them, it just provides the resource to solve them. The work has to be done by the people. And the Bush White House has not done its part. How can we live with ourselves knowing that we will first pay attention to the problems outside before we look at our own problems? Why do we spend half a trillion dollars on another country and not on our own? Do we expect a foreign power to invade New Orleans and fix it, as we have so claimed in Iraq?

Katrina did something to this country that no one has done before: it taught us humility. It very violently demonstrated that the United States, as powerful as it is, is not perfect and can also learn from others. The Netherlands lie far below sea level, but they have learned to plan and protect themselves. They have done their homework and built powerful engineering marvels to adjust. They have put the time and money into these structures and we have much we could learn from them. The Bush Administration has, for far too long, focused expenditures on far less important things than protecting our cities. They have ignored the problems at home while focusing our money and our military on the problems of others. They have buried us in the largest federal budget deficit while failing to improve our national security. This catastrophe was predicted, and simulations were run as recently as 2004. I suppose that, to the White House, the cost of a $500 billion war is less than the $20 or so billion (I think) needed to properly fortify the New Orleans' levies. Strange math it seems, but after their math on medicare and the federal budget that always seems to be off the projected mark, it does not really surprise. Point to fact, nothing this administration does really surprises me anymore.

New Orleans will come back, the Big Easy will not. That swagger that used to define this ragin' cajun city is missing, gone along with so many that will not return. New Orleans was a predominantly black city, and that cultural demographic gave it its taste. It has been transplanted to other parts of the country, one of them being here in Houston. Those that have chosen to stay will rebuild. It will be the folks that stay and those that decide to return that will rebuild New Orleans, not the governments, federal and state. They have shown their worth. But it will be a different city, a city with a traumatizing event in its past, one that will forever remain at its heart. Something of this magnitude does not happen without changing the people.

This Mardi Gras celebration was the most important New Orleans has had in decades. There are those that say it is not a time not celebrate. I can understand that view, and I can even sympathize with it. But I say to you, to not have this Mardi Gras would be to admit defeat, to say that New Orleans and all it has stood for in the past is really dead. It is also an economic infusion that is direly needed. That was one of the reasons I felt this urge to go and at least leave some money there. I had vowed in the past to not return for a Mardi Gras celebration because I was just tired of the huge crowds. This year was different. I wanted to be there and say I did a little bit. Even if it is just a tiny, tiny bit.

Some news organizations, mainly CNN and its rising star Anderson Cooper have done a very good job of capturing the devastation and also the renewed hope that lies within the resilient folks who will not let nature and an incompetent federal government doom a city. As I mentioned, you have to be there to fully appreciate the scale of devastation, but if you want to at least see a little bit, CNN has done the most. You have to put the spirit, the meaning of Mardi Gras in perspective. You have to realize that while there is hope and desire to rebuild, all is not well. But to extinguish the fire that Mardi Gras represents is to kill its spirit. New Orleans will take years to rebuild. It is just that devastated. But it will be rebuilt, by the people who care, those who love it. It will be different, like a mended athelete after a serious injury. It will live on. Some see the devastation and ask where to begin? You start at the beginning, brick by brick, stone by stone. But realize that rebuilding starts with laying down the first brick, not throwing money at it in hopes that it will lay itself.

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