Tuesday, September 13, 2005

I will never forget my first sight of New Orleans. My parents, my brother, and I had taken a 24 foot motorboat from Nashville down the Cumberland, the Ohio, and the Mississippi Rivers, and we pulled into the Port of New Orleans the night of July 4, 1971. Coming through on the river, it was romantic as hell: fireworks over the city, lights everywhere, little bits of music and cheering floating over on the air, gorgeous. After the sinister miles south of Baton Rouge, where the Mississippi started spreading out into BayouWorld and it became very difficult to discern the channel (but alarmingly easy to discern alligators, even in the dusklight) the festivities in New Orleans were a welcome sight.

Then we put-putted into the Port proper, and I got the living daylights scared out of me. A port full of ocean-going freighters is no place for a 24 foot runabout. The wakes of the big ships were like mountains, even in the cautious waters of the port. We'd fly up to the top of one, as if the boat were going to lift off on an early moonshot. Then we'd plunge down the other side, farther and faster than could possibly be a good idea. I was sure we were going to die.

At last we pulled into the lock to Lake Ponchartrain. Ever since, I've thought of the lake as a safe haven, even though it was also an accident waiting to happen. The thing is, New Orleans is all about accidents waiting to happen. It's like Key West, and Macau, and other places where bidness goes on, some of it pretty evil bidness, much of it pretty necessary bidness, and the tourists come and go.

It had that old-city smell, almost but not quite a bad smell, that carried the scent of rotting things, and urine, and secrets. I fell in love with it instantly, and have fantasized from time to time about living there. I've always said, though, that I am too much of a wimp for a New Orleans August: the wet heat, the carnivorous bugs, the threat of storms. I've always admired people who could stand up to a New Orleans August.

I had no idea.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

There are many good places to send money to help in the Southeast, and many good people trying to cope with the many people who were displaced by Katrina. If you haven't already done so, consider sending cash to the Union for Reform Judaism Hurricane Relief Fund or go to the Red Cross website to volunteer and/or contribute.

My high school classmate, Rebecca, forwarded an email to me last week from Father Tim Hurd, in Zwolle, LA:


Katrina did not send wind or water this far west, so we still have power etc. What has happened though is that buses of evacuees are being herded into every nook and cranny of the state. here at St Joseph's in Zwolle we're expecting another 100 or so to arrive at any time. The parishioners and local people here are trying to be helpful and are remarkably and tremendously generous/

The greatest problem/fear: There are at least two kinds of evacuees.
1. Those who left as family units before the storm: they have some sort of transportation, a few belongings, etc.
2. Those who are being picked up along the highways, those who would not/could not leave before, those being plucked up out of the sewage/mess in New Orleans, the stragglers that can't find family, that have nothing, that are totally exhausted, famished, some are vomiting, they're all angry: at God, us, the state, the feds, the sun, the grass,..... this group is really a mixed group. There are crack heads going through the DT's, the people who are HIV+, inner-city thugs, people who are desperately trying to find someone they know/knew.... all mixed in ......suffering, hurting people...

Those are the people who we are being asked to house and are or will be staying here; those are the group from which we'll be getting another 100 or so..... probably for 2 months at least--could be 3-4 months they're warning. Our community here is mostly poor to lower middle class, mostly based on the Timber industry (which is running out of diesel fuel). Zwolle is a simple, somewhat backward town ( imagine a Mayberry/Deliverance cross!?) with hardworking, good people. We're scared, they're scared, everybody's scared....

It seems harsh, but our local law enforcement is begging the state to divert some of them elsewhere. But we'll do whatever we need to do.

I'm tired and obviously leaning to the exhausted side--so forgive please if I seem dramatic to you......
We'll keep going, jump into the unknown (it looks better than the 'known' at this point).
Pray for us, please. And give a prayer of thanks when/if you look in your underwear drawer and see more than one pair........


I wrote to Fr. Hurd and asked him if cash would help, and if so, where to send it. His reply:

Bless you....

Our address here is:

St. Joseph Catholic Church
P.O. Box 8
Zwolle, LA 71486

We've run out of sorting/storage/distribution space for clothes and such and I am trying to find out where to send on those things. I'll try to get back to you with that.

Thank you.

Fr. Tim


It's now Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, and I've begun practicing the chants and prayers for the solemn services. One of the prayers, the Unetaneh Tokef, reminds us that we do not know who will live or die in the next year, who by fire and who by flood. As in 2001, those words are particularly sharp this year, since we have just had a demonstration of how unpredictable life can be.

There are lots of different ways to theologize about it, and lots of reasons to be angry and targets for the anger, lots of analysis and lots of words that can be said, but in the meantime people are hungry and homeless and there are caregivers stretched to the brink. I encourage you to join me in finding your own way to help the sufferers. If not now, when?

Monday, September 05, 2005

What good is a federal government that is so slow to react to the peril of an entire region?

Daughter of the South that I am, I have always believed it was a good thing that the Confederacy lost its war. Slavery was and is wrong, will always be wrong, and no amount of romanticism or revisionist history will ever make it even a little bit right.

But I looked at the news this past week, and I wondered: what good is a federal government that is so slow to react to a threat to the lives of such a large segment of its citizenry? I wondered if Jefferson Davis & Co may not have had a point, when it came to one of the issues other than slavery: the fact that to much of the rest of the United States, the South is a joke, an afterthought, a scapegoat. Exactly what is the purpose of this vaunted Union?

Rep. Maxine Waters took a bus to Louisiana to see events first hand, and to rescue whom she could. She represents South Central Los Angeles, and I imagine she would agree with me that the racism and classism we are seeing in this national tragedy are not confined to the South. I just find it hard to imagine that a major city outside the Southeast would be allowed to go for days and days and days after such a disaster. If a hurricane headed for New York City, do you think the reaction would be so slow? When a major earthquake hit Los Angeles in the 1990's, people were not left to fend for themselves for days and days, living in filth and squalor. L.A. has seen its share of riots and looters, but no one seemed to think that simply abandoning the city and bulldozing the site was a solution to anything.

It's no secret that I disapprove of the current administration in Washington. They've bungled this job, just as they have bungled a lot of things. That almost goes without saying.

But I think I'm through being a "good sport" about people making fun of my regional accent, of jokes about the South and Southerners told by people who'd be really, really annoyed if someone behaved that way towards almost anyone else. Quit using the South to reassure yourselves, America, and look into the mirror: African Americans (AMERICANS) and poor Americans (AMERICANS) are suffering because in the minds of too many, New Orleans was a play-city, a joke town, that didn't need the money to pay for the maintenance of real levees.

Even "wealthy" (as in, had a car so they could leave before the storm hit) New Orleanians are suffering, with every thing they have worked for all their lives under many feet of filthy water, and no real idea when they can even assess the damage. Many of the "wealthy" don't have a home to go back to, a job to go back to, a bank account at a bank that is above water, or a clue what they are going to do when they run out of cash or the relatives get sick of them.

My guess is that many of those people sent good wishes, and money, and firefighters, and assistance to people suffering in New York, and Los Angeles, and Oklahoma City. I know for a fact they've been paying federal taxes just like the rest of us, on the notion that when they needed the federal government, when they needed the rest of us, we'd be there for them. They paid taxes on the notion that if we can send pork barrels here and there, we can pay for legitimate needs like FEMA and flood control.

I'm sick. I'm angry. Don't you dare make fun of the way I talk.