Part III: The Circling Vultures


Editors' Note: On the first year anniversary of Katrina, Louisiana resident and writer, Polydactyl reflects on her in-the-moment journals and diaries to remind us of what it was like in the eye of the storm.

During Rita and its immediate aftermath, my writing stayed offline for a long time and didn't come together as an online post until another event or series of events caused me to square myself and face them dead on. Some of that is found in the original iteration of this series -- Breaching the Levee of Faith

September 29, 2005
New International Times

Friday morning, I started to cry. Like those times when I have a heart-shredding anxiety attack, I wasn't sure why. But, my heart wasn't pounding, I wasn't soaked by the dreaded flop-sweat and I wasn't fighting to catch my breath. I was just crying. That is a tough thing to do in the office, when you really should be concentrating on disaster recovery...taking the proverbial shoe-horn to cram people into every available space with a network drop or a phone line, preferably both. But, in that moment, as I was trying to sort through every conscious thought that might have buzzed through my noggin, something opened the flood gates. But, it wasn't a conscious thought and it wasn't a flood, it was more of a seeping, a weeping, a breaching of the levee of faith.

I was thinking of 1983, the year I graduated from college and made a conscious decision to stay in Louisiana: to stay be a part of making Louisiana better as well as to enjoy all of its natural and supernatural beauty. It was a time of terrible economic depression in the state, a time when almost 85% of the state's college educated native sons and daughters were leaving in hopes of better jobs. I was thinking of a time when every last one of my college friends (but one, the Norseman) abandoned the state for easier pickins, any place that offered a glimmer of hope, a sense of opportunity, a reward for all of their hard work.

And I was thinking of 1989, the year that I got married, the year that my brother graduated from college and moved away. There were no jobs to be had, so he chose the continuing education route and started grad school in Virginia. I've seen him three times since then...when he got married in 1993, when his first born arrived in 1997 and the Christmas after my dad died in 2000. He has another son, born on my birthday in 2003 that I have never seen in the flesh.

Not a great deal has changed in the last twenty or so years. I-49 is completed through town linking I-20 in Shreveport to Natchitoches to Alexandria to Lafayette and I-10 and the Red River is navigable via locks and dams all the way to the Mississippi the Old River connection -- via the Atchafalaya basin. In theory, the closing of our air force base in 1991 made us a national icon for base reuse planning for new jobs (at least to the Wall Street Journal and others), but the jobs did not come even though we have all the transportation infrastructure that a community could wish to have including 3 major rail lines, but we have no manufacturing or heavy industry. We exist as a medical hub for the region and as a center for retail/service industries. That is the essence of subsistence living in the south.

But my thinking was pre-Katrina thinking in a post-Katrina world. I am worried. Our little town has grown half-again larger and is bursting at the seams. There are no signs of long term planning, there is very little affordable housing (rent or purchase) and very few pre-Katrina jobs available that could support a family, much less 5,000 or so new families that have voiced an intention of staying here. Baton Rouge has it worse. They have doubled in size with only a slightly better hand to play from with respect to housing and jobs.

While the biggest long-term lessons from Katrina may be the total breakdown of the public/private communications infrastructure and the convoluted command and control issues of governmental decision making, there is another crisis that must be resolved immediately: the relationship between housing and jobs.

As the months wear on, a certain sense of Katrina (and Rita) fatigue will set in. People will forget that Katrina really is the worst natural disaster in our nation's history. The number of housing units destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was estimated at over 28,000. The combined effect of Hurricanes Jeanne, Ivan, Frances, and Charley in 2004 was almost as large, with nearly 27,500 housing units destroyed, according to estimates compiled by the American Red Cross. In those cases, most of the destruction was caused by winds or the immediate force of the storm surge. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake/fire reportedly destroyed 28,000 "buildings."

But with Katrina, the number of homes rendered uninhabitable is nearly 200,000 in the city of New Orleans alone. Pile on top of that the complete devastation of St. Bernard parish, parts of Plaquemines and St. Tammany, and destruction of between 50 and 80% of homes in all of the bedroom communities surrounding New Orleans. And that was just Katrina. Rita has taken out what Katrina left behind including all of southwest coastal Louisiana and cut a swath along the interior for 150 miles inland along the Texas/Louisiana border. Early reports are that 100,000 homes have been lost to Rita in both states combined and twice that many are heavily damaged. The total number of homes lost in Lousiana is easily ten times that of the previous records ... busted clean through the record and 10X-ed it.

On other fronts, The Congressional Budget Office has reported that 71,000 businesses in Louisiana remain closed due to Katrina. That amounts to almost 41% (almost half!) of the registered businesses in the state. The number of unemployment claims attached to Katrina stand at 279,000 filed so far and the projection for jobs lost in Louisiana for both storms is estimated at half a million.

How is it that you rebuild or repair half a million homes and restore half a million jobs? How do you repopulate communities with standing homes that have no operational businesses or provide a workforce for businesses when there is no place for workers to live?

What do you bring Louisianans home to without houses and jobs? The real heart-breaker is that for all the years of investment that I have in the state, all that I have sacrificed to stay over the years, I just don't know if I have the patience to stick it out. Where is the vision of our leadership?

Looking back at what I wrote in October of 2005, I can't say that my feelings have changed radically, at least not in terms of how I feel about the state or federal governments' efforts. When was the last time you saw Donald Powell, the Gulf Coast Recovery Czar make a statement in print or on broadcast news? C. Ray Nagin has pitched a new and improved evacuation plan that involves the deployment of available buses, but the plan also relies on the availability of rail and airliners for which there are no contracts in place. Chertoff has also spoken of a larger DHS use of buses for national evacuations plans, but again, contracts are pending and that also assumes that there are shelters in place, staffed and equipped to serve. That is a faulty assumption. So this year's hurricane season may once more find evacuees on the road to nowhere.

And, what about FEMA? Will it be re-elevated to a cabinet level position or merely act as a non-functional scapegoat agency within the likewise ineffectual behemoth that is the Department of Homeland Security? Even as early as the first week of October, many of the locals could see that housing is the key to the resurrection of New Orleans -- and housing was ripe for contract abuse, as I wrote in Circling Vultures and Congressional Cretins posted again at New International Times.

October 7, 2005
New International Times

I realized on a personal level, that I needed to be part of the solution and keep an eye out for the profiteers.

The Cruise Liners: FEMA contracted with the cruise liners to provide 3 ships for 6 months at a cost of $236 million. The premise was to use the liners to house evacuees, but of course, by the time that the ships arrived on site, there was no one left to house save FEMA workers, the National Guard, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) fire fighters and a few city employees. As best as I can tell, all of the above prefer to be housed in the remnants of the New Orleans hotels, where they were closer to the action and certainly within the earshot of their various chains of command. From the news reports, the cruise liners are at less than quarter occupancy.

The disconnect in the dollar amounts "charged" is staggering. As I write this, I am again without internet access, having to rely on a shaky memory, but the gist of it is this: a week aboard such a cruise ship would normally run approximately $560, but the FEMA contract per single occupancy stands in the neighborhood of $1160.

The Hotels: If the reoccupation of southeast Louisiana is going to be successful, then there will have to be a communion between jobs and workers. Businesses that survived Katrina in the French Quarter (FQ), the Central Business District (CBD) and other points of high ground will have to be able to draw back their employees to the region, but neither the FQ or the CBD are high density residential areas. Southwest Louisiana fared far worse from the wrath of Rita, where we find entire communities wiped clean of both businesses and family homes.

To complicate matters further, Gov. Blanco issued an order early on after Katrina (in an honest act of compassion based on FEMA promises of alternate housing) that prevents hotels from displacing evacuees statewide, so long as the bills are being paid. FEMA, instead of using their housing assistance dollars to locate and procure semi-permanent housing for the evacuees both in state and out of state, is footing the bill for the fortunate few to stay in hotels. But FEMA has reneged on their promises to Blanco to remove evacuees from hotels in Louisiana and find housing for those in warehouse shelters by October 15th. You may ask why I consider this to be a problem given that the housing needs of the displaced are being met?

Building the Tourist Economy: If you take a look at the communities that have withstood the blows of Katrina and Rita, they have busied themselves with trying their damnedest to reinvigorate the business and local economies only to find their hotels at 100% occupancy, taking away their ability to bring in professional conventions, host business colleagues and hold functions such as sporting events and wedding receptions or even house grieving family for a funeral. That is stifling to the handful of communities that would otherwise be in a position to try to get back to business as sort of usual. To add insult to injury, there is some sort of caveat that excludes FEMA from having to pay the local occupancy taxes that are a significant portion of the tax base in a community like my own.

The Contractors: Everyone's favorite company to hate, Halliburton and its subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root received multiple no-bid contracts. A Louisiana legend in the construction and engineering field, The Shaw Group, has received two contracts of approximately $100M each, one from FEMA for "assistance with housing" and the other from the Corps of Engineers to assist in the pumping of floodwaters and work on the levees. On the one hand, having Shaw in the mix keeps the money local, but on the other, I have concerns with the term "assistance with housing"...I have a gut feeling that this means bulldozing.

I write this stuff over multiple days. I wish I had the luxury of an hour to myself to do it all in one fell swoop, but I have put in back-to-back-to-back 18-hour days this week on the jobs. The fatigue and time away from family aside, the thing that aggravates me the most is being out of the news loop. But what I am seeing, I do not like.

Thursday, it was reported that the two charity hospitals in New Orleans will be leveled as they are beyond repair. The hospital ship that was docked in New Orleans has been sent to home port for being under utilized. Eventually, and at some point, people will be able to return and try to begin the rebuilding effort. On Thursday, it was also reported that our runaway Republican House gave an extra $55 Billion of unrequested funding for the "war effort" just so that they wouldn't have to ask for it later. The gulf coast states are experiencing a total economic collapse of the municipal infrastructures.

What do the benevolent Republicans in the House do today while they also provide -- to repeat -- $55 Billion unrequested funds for the war effort? They designate a paltry $1 Billion in federal LOANS to the Gulf Coast -- 1 Billion to rebuild that MUST be repaid. To make the insult all the more horrific, they continue to subsidize the petroleum industry to the tune of multiple billions while passing legislation to make it easier for Big Oil to control supply and ensure its own profits. I'm aghast. My own Lousiana Senators are in-fighting in public instead of cooperating with each other, and the Republican House is making up the rules as it goes, extending the vote beyond the normal limit until it gets the result it wants.

There are two Gulf Wars going on and neither are level playing fields. Both are heinous waiting games of attrition and profiteering.

During this same time frame, Mayor Ray Nagin was preaching that expanding gambling in New Orleans was going to save it. He called it "out of the box thinking." What he didn't take into account in his "Vegas East" vision is that gamblers only gamble. New Orleans' businessmen have seen the impact of gambling on the city and it leaves a very small footprint...gamblers don't eat outside of the casino and they don't shop. They are not normal tourists. So much for Nagin's vision. The whole thing was sick-making, as was virtually everything I read during that time, even when it was critical of the administration's efforts. I would still get riled up by information such as that in the The Predators of New Orleans which included key information from The Wall Street Journal article "Hurricane Bush", 15 September 2005.

The Bush administration hopes to find its own resurrection in a combination of rampant fiscal Keynesianism and fundamentalist social engineering. Katrina's immediate impact on the Potomac was such a steep fall in Bush's popularity, and, collaterally, in approval for the US occupation of Iraq, that Republican hegemony seemed suddenly under threat. For the first time since the Los Angeles riots of 1992, "old Democrat" issues such as poverty, racial injustice and public investment temporarily commanded public discourse, and the Wall Street Journal warned that Republicans had "to get back on the political and intellectual offensive" before liberals like Ted Kennedy could revive New Deal nostrums, such as a massive federal agency for flood -control and shoreline restoration along the Gulf coast.

But only six weeks later, New Orleans was mostly dry, the public outrage had been shelved, the media blitz was over, and there was very little talk of poverty, racial-class structures or of levees. It was also the first time that many of my officemates had returned to their New Orleans homes. The FEMA travel ban was lifted, but the city was still under curfew.

October 12, 2005
New International Times Post

With the city of New Orleans mostly dry last weekend, the folks from my New Orleans office that have been staying up here went home, some for the first time, to check on their houses. Two secretaries' houses came out okay with minimal damage, three attorneys' houses are complete losses and two other attorneys' homes will require serious remediation. Conditions on two more staffers' homes remain unknown.

I saw a grown man cry as he told of the drive to his house, as he described the ghost town. Three miles in every direction of near complete devastation and the 8 inches of dried gruk that is covering everything. The dried gruk that is becoming airborne as traffic increases through it. And that is before you get to the psychedelic mold inside the buildings still standing. He'll be taking a loss and looking for other digs. It was sad. The water was to the top of the windows in this view of his dining room and you can see the marks on the wall...four distinct levels as the water receded. The photo of his kitchen tells the full story.

After the weekend, the body count in Louisiana went up to 1,021 with people returning to their homes and neighborhoods to find family and friends that wouldn't or couldn't leave.

In Alexandria, we are reportedly down to almost 1,000 in the warehouse shelters. The target of Oct. 15th to have everyone in semi-permanent housing will be missed.

We are still housing around 150 medical needs patients that were transferred from nursing homes and assisted care facilities. They are in a convention hall across the street from my office And there arelots of wheel-chair bound folks. Most are Rita evacuees from the Lake Charles area and further south.. They had a tough time of it even here, as after Rita we had serious power and water issues. For four and a half days, they were being wheeled down a long ramp to chemical toilets in the hot sun. It was tragic, but there were a good number of care-givers and they seemed to be getting along fairly well. Word has it that they will be heading down south before this weekend.

Other notes: The gasoline situation here is still ridiculous. I heard someone say that it had improved 50% and had to laugh out loud....So, instead of having a one-in-ten chance of finding gas, you have a one-in-five chance. Hoo-boy, we are up to 20% availability at whatever cost the distributor chooses. What a difference 100 miles makes. My mother reports no shortages in Shreveport. There were three new cases of West Nile reported in my parish this week. They are down-playing the hurricane factor, but so far this year we have 129 cases; at this time last year we had only 75.

I was in town over the weekend shopping with the Peach for her birthday. It is the first time that I've been to the mall area since Katrina. It was surreal. Hordes of people the likes of which I have only seen at Christmas time. I guess it is a real indicator of just how many folks have been transplanted and how the loss of other retail areas will affect us in the future. I don't like crowds or shopping, so I was a bit of a time I'll be better mentally prepared for the traffic and the people. We used to be a sleepy little town.

The Norseman and I are going to Sam's while the Peach is at soccer practice tonight to buy a replacement generator. The Sheriff's Dept. said the likelihood of our stolen one turning up was pretty remote, so we'll bite the bullet now instead of waiting until we need it again.

The Blackwater Security has descended on us. Blackwater Security has replaced the National Guard at the shelters, FEMA/Red Cross office and at the State Building where the LA food stamp cards are issued. There was a scuffle in the crowd at FEMA Monday morning and Blackwater didn't hesitate to brandish their weapons. The National Guard guys always garnered more respect, I guess, because this scuffle with the Blackwater forces was the first time since a week or so after Katrina that things have gotten out of hand. Mercenaries. I hope they are turning their paychecks over several times on the local economy....

A few more weeks of hurricane season to go. Next on the list is Wilma; then, it is onto the Greek alphabet. Let's hope against that, we could stand for Mother Nature giving us a break.

ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: Welshman, JeninRI, Standingup, Kfred, Vivian, Greyhawk, roxy and cho
about the author: Polydactyl dons her blogger's hat in Central Louisiana between shifts as a wife, mom, cat-herder and computer healer.
photo and song credits: Sheldon Morton, Polydactyl, G. Fesmire/dp design, David Rovics