Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Conversations Over Dinner: The Worst is Yet to Come?

Dear friends and family,

Conversation here over dinner tonight was of bodies and burials. All six
of us (four evacuees and two hosts) had dinner together while watching
the Lehrer News Hour, a really well-done news program. Mitch Landrieu,
the Lieutenant-Governor of Louisiana – he’s one of many Landrieus in
political life, including his sister, Senator Mary Landrieu, whom you
may have seen alongside Governor Kathleen Blanco in some of the press
conferences – was saying that the worst is yet to come and that the body
retrieval phase will be particularly hard. It’s hard to imagine that the
worst is to come, but so many of the bodies are going to be in an
advanced stage of decomposition, many will never be identified and it
will be a nightmare process for those trying to identify their family
members. Identification will be made even harder because identification
records, such as dental records, are submerged, too.

We’ve heard reports of many alligators, which may be feeding on the
bodies, in the waters in New Orleans. I can only assume it’s true
because there are so many alligators in the waters around the city.
Waterways within the city itself, such as Bayou St John which runs right
up through City Park and Mid-City, have regular alligator sightings.
Every now and then one of them will wander out of the bayou into a
rather more public place. The only surprise is that they can survive the
toxic waters post Katrina.

When the waters finally recede, I assume we’re going to have to deal
with quite a few animals in our houses, including snakes, which abound.
And all the animals in the New Orleans Aquarium – a true marvel of a
place – have died. The animals in the zoo were on relatively high land,
but I assume many of them have been without food for a long time now.
There were also earlier reports that buried bodies were rising out of
the graves into the flood waters, but I think that will prove to be one
of the many ill-founded rumours which have abounded.

Graves, by the way, are a big deal in New Orleans. Because it’s below
sea level, people are buried in raised tombs or grass plots built above
ground level, to prevent bodies from rising up to the surface. So the
city is dotted with fascinating cemeteries full of mausoleums. They’ve
said that all the Katrina victims will be buried in individual graves;
we’re not sure where yet. They’re setting up a morgue at St Gabriel’s,
which is where the dreadful prison for women is located. (Prisons across
the south are astoundingly harsh and gruesome.)

Part of the Lehrer Hour dealt with the body problem, much of the rest of
it focused on Baton Rouge, which really is struggling to manage the
influx of refugees. It’s so crowded on the roads we have to make
strategic decisions about trips out to the shops and post office and
shelters and so on. Local people have been amazing in the way they’ve
opened their houses to us. Almost everyone in Baton Rouge has someone
staying with them, and many people are housing a dozen or more refugees.

The city has a weird feeling to it and rumours are rampant. People are
anxious about what the sudden doubling of the population might do to the
place and helicopters fly overhead constantly throughout the day. Most
of them are headed to New Orleans. They come back up here to refuel and
sometimes to get supplies, then head back down to New Orleans once more
to pick up people still stranded or to supply rescue crews. Makes me
feel like I’m in a military zone, which is not far from the truth.

Cities in Texas are also under a strain. Texas has taken a quarter of a
million of us, which is a lot to absorb. It’ll be interesting when we
get to Houston to see how the local community is responding to the
influx and the prospect of many of them being long-term visitors. I’m
concerned that after the initial horror and caring die away, things will
become tense in all these crowded cities. Of course, that may not be a
bad thing: my real worry is that Americans other than New Orleanians
will return to normal and forgot about us; having a whole bunch of
cities across the south focused on the “refugee problem” may help keep
the story front and centre.

Bush continues to be loathsome. I’ve never seen a leader so completely
and utterly clueless in the face of a natural disaster. He is constantly
smiling in this “you’re fine, you’re in my hands and everything will be
hunky dory” way. People around here keep talking about it. “Why’s he
smiling?” The generous interpretation is that he’s nervous in the face
of the most hostile questioning he’s ever encountered. I can’t believe
he’s going to head the investigation into why the emergency response
went so wrong. He’s trying to put the blame onto “bureaucracy”. As Nancy
Pelosi (house Democrats leader) puts it: “He need only look in the mirror.”

It was good to hear a reporter questioning a White House spokesman:

Reporter: “Where does the buck stop in this administration?”

Spokesman: “The President.”

Reporter: “So he will be held accountable as the head of the government
for the federal response that he's already acknowledged was inadequate
and unacceptable?”

Spokesman: “The President's most important responsibility is the safety
and security of the American people…” [followed by more waffle].

I have to say this is the first time in a very long time that I’ve heard
the White House press corps really put Bush on the spot.

The rest of the administration and much of FEMA (the Federal Emergency
Management Agency) appear to be not much better. The Secretary of
Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, said the storm had been far worse
than predicted and “there had been no evidence to suggest the levees in
New Orleans would be breached.” The man is either a liar or completely
ignorant. People in New Orleans have been talking about the
inevitability of levee breaches, if flood protection funding was not
increased, for years. About three years ago the Times Picayune ran an
extensive and detailed series on the topic. I can’t believe someone in
the administration thinks he could get away with saying such a thing.
And the Director of FEMA, Michael Brown, has blamed the high death toll
on “people who did not heed the advance warnings”, completely ignoring
the fact that the city and FEMA had no plan whatsoever for evacuating
the poor or providing adequate shelter.

The other thing we watched on the news tonight was the water being
pumped out of the city. A sight which should give us great joy, but
which is the start of another tragedy. That filthy toxic water is going
to kill Lake Ponchartrain. After years of hard work, the lake had
finally gotten to the stage of being reasonably clean and dolphins and
other marine animals had been spotted in it for the first time in a long
time. Now, almost everything in it is going to be killed. It’s
heartbreaking. The water being pumped out is truly dreadful. We’ve been
told that even after it has been pumped out, even after the houses have
been left to dry, the city will be really dangerous. A biologist who has
tested the water said “the bacterial count could not be worse” and they
say we’ll need protective gear to get into our houses (if we can get in).

In amongst this, people are simply wonderful. When Lillie was in WalMart
yesterday buying some essentials, she started talking to a woman
stocking the shelves. She’d been working for 13 hours to help replenish
much-diminished supplies and she said that she was really concerned
about the evacuees’ needs. She has donated $2000 to the relief effort –
on a shelf-stocker’s wages. Lillie started crying when she told her
that, and the woman hugged her and comforted her. Public crying is not
all that unusual here; in stores you see people stop and stare and tears
well up in their eyes. It happens to me a lot. Shopping is really hard.
When I was in WholeFoods yesterday, one of my favourite health food and
grocery stores, I felt nauseated being there. It felt like an outrage to
be doing something normal and I found it hard to believe so many people
were walking around as if things were no different. Cindy, one of the
people at the gathering we went to last night, said she experienced the
same thing.


Rose Vines