For most of last week ' the second week following Hurricane Katrina making landfall ' it was hard not to be enraged.
FEMA Director Michael Brown, the man with the dubious résumé who was fired from his previous job as director of the, ahem, Arabian Horse Association, was reassigned to Washington. Not fired for his gross incompetence, just relocated to Washington to "return to administering FEMA nationally," said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Is there anyone left in the entire universe who trusts Michael Brown's credentials or leadership?
Then the Washington Post and Newsweek allowed an anonymous "senior Bush administration official" to claim that Gov. Kathleen Blanco still hadn't declared a state of emergency as of Wednesday, Sept. 3. That's a flat-out lie ' Blanco declared a state of emergency the Saturday before Katrina hit ' and the spin driving such an attack on Blanco is disgusting.
Next consider the announcement of a "bi-partisan" committee to investigate the agonizingly slow relief efforts ' except it isn't an independent commission like the one formed after 9/11, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wasn't even told about the commission before Sen. Bill Frist and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (who suggested that New Orleans wasn't worth rebuilding) announced the committee.
FEMA followed that by announcing it would not allow media to take pictures of dead bodies recovered in New Orleans. There's one word for this: censorship. How can the nation fully understand the magnitude of this tragedy without seeing the death that accompanies it? (CNN immediately filed a lawsuit over the policy and won a temporary restraining order.)
By Friday morning, I'm sure my blood pressure levels were off the charts. Then in my office mail, I saw a small envelope marked "Personal and Confidential." I recognized the handwriting immediately. It was from Chris Marshall, one of my best friends from high school whom I'd lost touch with for the past 15 years.
Inside was a five-page handwritten letter. He wrote:
"I've been meaning to get in touch with you for some time. â?¦ Now there's this hurricane, and to my disbelief, the news of it seems to be getting buried as a political embarrassment to the President. His trips down there seem more like PR campaigns than anything else. It appears to me as a huge tragedy of national significance, which is still unfolding, yet it's not even headline news anymore, less than a week after Katrina hit.
"There have been various fund drives around here: the Chicago fire department has been standing at busy intersections filling up firemen boots with cash, and I put some money in. But it seems so indirect. I imagine, with half a million people out of New Orleans you must be seeing many people in need. (I haven't seen how Lafayette fared.) I also imagine you're seeing more than you can help. So I'm enclosing some cash, which you can just give to a person/family who needs it. If this seems wildly inappropriate then send it back. To me it seems wildly inadequate. ... I hope you make it through this rough time okay."
I read Chris' note to the displaced families and friends staying with us that night in Carencro, and we put the money in a communal jar where it's accessible for groceries, clothes, or unexpected costs.
The rest of the weekend was heartening. The phone still rings off the hook and hurricane-related e-mails come in every few minutes, but managing the flurry is starting to feel like second nature. Between the chaos, we read books to our kids, took bike rides around the neighborhood, catnapped when possible, and sang along when Zachary Richard and Roddie Romero teamed up for "When the Saints Go Marching In" to close Saturday night's "Band Together" relief concert at Parc International.
And we were overwhelmed by random displays of kindness. One neighbor brought a computer monitor from his grocery store in Mamou for a displaced photographer at our house. Another neighbor brought a bean casserole and rice steamer. We ate watermelon and fried turkey between discussions of food stamps and flood water levels, and laughed at the joyous sight of six kids taking a bath together. And yes, we all let out raucous hollers when the New Orleans Saints beat the Carolina Panthers.
I came into the office this morning ' Monday, Sept. 12 ' with a renewed sense of optimism. Scanning the morning news, I heard U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany give an interview to MSNBC. Here's what he said: "Most of the red tape and problems have been at the state level. I have to say that the federal response has been focused on New Orleans with search and rescue operations which is going very, very well at this stage. But we've had a completely ineffectual state response and this is being borne by the local communities to help now. I have asked the president to take this into consideration, consider that the state response is completely ineffectual and the full range of social and health care needs to be met."
My blood pressure's rising again; that's not what Boustany said after touring the Cajundome last week. He told The Advocate he was dissatisfied with the federal government's response to Katrina. He also told the Washington Post in its Friday, Sept. 2, edition that he'd spent the past 48 hours urging the Bush administration to send help. "I started making calls and trying to impress upon the White House and others that something needed to be done," he said. "The state resources were being overwhelmed, and we needed direct federal assistance, command and control, and security ' all three of which are lacking."
Maybe Rep. Boustany should stop changing his story and just admit that the failures post-Katrina stretch across local, state and federal levels. CNN's Web site now has damning video evidence of Blanco admitting to her press secretary that she didn't ask for military reinforcements in her first conversations with President Bush. Between interviews on Wednesday, Aug. 31, while the audio and video feed is still running but Blanco doesn't realize it, she says, "I really need to call for the military. I really should have started that with the first call."
So another week begins in this time when any sense of normalcy is difficult to find. But as the politicians keep spinning and their incomprehensible mistakes come to light, there's comfort in the heroic and nurturing efforts of Louisiana's citizens, friends and family. No matter what happens in the next seven days, I'll put on a pot of red beans and rice for the Saints game on Monday night against the Giants. And our crew at the Carencro commune ' along with Katrina evacuees scattered throughout Louisiana ' will have a few hours where we can forget our government's failings.