The first time we met, we boarded a bus at the New Orleans Arena to spend a weekend in the locker rooms of the Pensacola Civic Center and the Biloxi Coast Coliseum with now-defunct New Orleans minor-league hockey team the New Orleans Brass. For subsequent assignments, we spent the day with Jake Delhomme on his farm in Breaux Bridge when he was still a backup quarterback with the New Orleans Saints, and we hung out with Saints running back Deuce McAllister for a day in his Mississippi hometown. Photographer David Rae Morris ' son of late legendary Harper's editor and North Toward Home and My Dog Skip author Willie Morris ' has the same gift for visual imagery that his father had with words, and we became fast friends while working together.
David Rae had a number of hurricane Katrina-related photographs selected for the Acadiana Center for the Arts' recent Southern Open 2007 exhibit, and he asked me to pick up and hold onto a few of his photos when the exhibit ended. Can't make it to Lafayette to get the pictures right now, he said. He was going to be traveling and working in Mississippi, but he'd be back for the anniversary.
His shorthand description has stayed with me. No need to mention the name or date of the event that killed 1,800 people, drove more than 200,000 people from their homes and irrevocably changed Louisiana forever. If you were affected, the anniversary is understood.
Unfortunately ' no, tragically ' it's a travesty how many people both outside and inside our state don't understand the real reasons why New Orleans was devastated on Aug. 29, and how their uninformed viewpoints have devolved into talking points that continue to chip away at Louisiana's recovery efforts.
It all started with former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's ridiculous comment that it didn't make sense to him to spend billions of dollars rebuilding New Orleans since the city was below sea level. Hastert backtracked, of course, but the damage was done. That opinion still gets trotted out two years later on television talk shows and in letters to the editor across the country, often presented as a civil, measured, even logical argument. It's now a springboard for additional, equally insidious assertions: Why should U.S. taxpayers give money to a local and state government known for its corruption? After all, President George W. Bush has authorized $110 billion in recovery funds, and it's Louisiana's fault that the state doesn't have a recovery plan.
Pardon my French, but that's a load of merde.
A recent study by Tulane University notes that 51 percent of New Orleans is at or above sea level. And New Orleans was devastated because the levees designed and built by the federal government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ' levees constructed so the rest of America could access the rich oil reserves that supply 30 percent of our nation's energy ' failed in the most horrific way possible. But instead of honoring his pledge to "do what it takes" and "stay as long as it takes" to help the Gulf Coast recover, the Bush administration still refuses to commit to Category 5 levee protection for the Crescent City, claiming it's too expensive.
Meanwhile, the price tag for the war in Iraq is now estimated at $1 trillion.
Yes, New Orleans has serious problems with its crime rate, leadership and education system. And New Orleans Councilman Oliver Thomas' recent guilty plea to corruption charges and Mayor Ray Nagin's beyond-idiotic statement that the high murder rate is a double-edged sword because it "keeps the New Orleans brand out there" are not helping the city's image or its recovery.
But that is no reason to let the callous, uninformed naysayers spout their nonsense about our state's recovery. Left unchecked, it spreads like a virus and inhibits the ability to see all the positive things ' especially the tireless activism and inspiring devotion to the rich cultural traditions of the Cresent City. Relentless negativity dishonors every honest, hard-working person, family and volunteer who spends their waking hours trying to rebuild one of America's greatest cities.
And what about Buras, Port Sulphur, Chalmette, Arabi, Meraux, Violet and every other community that was devastated by the storm? Like the victims of Hurricane Rita a month later, these towns and regions find themselves overshadowed by the lightning rod of New Orleans, but their struggle is no less painful, difficult or important.
As Louisiana faces continued challenges in our recovery, the anniversary is also a time to remember Acadiana's incredible response to Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, countless volunteers' actions at the Cajundome and the relief and sheltering efforts from local nonprofits, churches, schools and businesses provided hope when it was in short supply. Despite immense hardships, our region sent a message that we can face this crisis together. Two years later, we cannot let that unity fade, and must stand together as one and continue to hold our leaders accountable as we rebuild our cities, homes and lives.