Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Don't Blame Nature, New Orleans, My Home...

South Louisiana is the land of my birth, and that of my mother, and her mother, and her mother, and so on. It’s a place of strange beauty that is appreciated in the same way that one appreciates a painting by Edvard Munch; it’s so bizarre, so unreal, so “out there,” that it is beautiful in its total uniqueness. The wetlands of the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf coast have for thousands of years been murky with a brackish mix of water from the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, the Chattaoochee River, and the countless bayous and swamps that make up the vast system, and are home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, both animal and human. It is a precious system that has nurtured its environmental biodiversity over these millennia, and for at least several hundred years, has helped to protect the city of New Orleans and other communities of southern Louisiana as one of the most effective natural defenses against hurricanes anywhere in the world.

My hometown of New Orleans, (which for purposes of this article will be shorthand for all of southern Louisiana) has weathered a number of hurricanes over the modern era, most notably, a direct hit by Hurricane Betsy, a category 5 hurricane with winds clocked at Grand Isle, just off the Louisiana Coast, at 160 miles per hour. The storm surge driven by the hurricane was largely absorbed by the wetlands south of the city before pushing across Lake Pontchartrain, which overflowed its banks and the levees and flooded the city, but water in most places only reached the eaves of the lowest-lying houses, and producing the country’s first Billion Dollar hurricane. As a child living in southern Mississippi at the time, I remember riding out hurricane Betsy, and listening to the freight train-like noise from under my grandmother’s bed, as we wondered aloud to each other about the fate of relatives living lower in her path.

This reference is important because of the comparisons which can be made to the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which pounded southern Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday, and missed directly hitting New Orleans by veering just to the east at the last minute.

The wetlands that have protected the city of New Orleans for hundreds of years just aren’t what they used to be. The effects on real people’s lives of environmental stupidity and greed are right there for anybody to see. The draining of the wetlands since the 1960s, which ignored the recommendations of the Army Corps of Engineers (lengthy and expensive studies paid for by taxpayers) for the building of housing developments, commercial developments, oil and gas exploration, and highways, has had a disastrous environmental impact on the wetlands, even if measured only in the effects on wildlife and shrimping. Take into account now that the storm surge which followed Hurricane Katrina washed right across the now chopped and hacked wetlands, or what used to be the wetlands, into Lake Pontchartrain, which flooded its northern banks, broke through levees and overcame the low-lying city of New Orleans, now virtually defenseless against the fury of even a glancing blow from a category 3 hurricane.

Wrought iron balconies in the French Quarter which had stood since the 1600s have fallen into the street onto parked cars, oak trees in Jackson Square which have stood for hundreds of years in front of St. Luis Cathedral were uprooted and toppled, not to mention the devastation of countless other trees, businesses and houses across the city.

Are we to view this as simply the wrath and fury of Mother Nature or God, which is given us, as mere mortals, to endure? It wasn’t God who drained the wetlands that have protected south Louisiana for thousands of years from the fury of hurricanes past. And it wasn’t God who, in the last session of congress, cut $72.5 million from the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers, earmarked for the study of hurricane preparedness in southern Louisiana. And it certainly isn’t Mother Nature receiving the profits from all the oil and gas exploration which has been allowed time and time again in this environmentally delicate area so crucial to the security of southern Louisiana for hundreds of years.

Add to this the effects of global warming on the severity of Atlantic hurricanes, and you have a recipe for disaster which has only begun to reveal itself. The year 2004 ended as the fourth warmest year since records started being kept in 1861, with 9 of the past 10 years among the warmest on record, according to the national weather service. We know that hurricanes derive their strength and destructive power from warm water as it evaporates and transfers heat into the air. Consider this in light of the severity of the hurricanes we have experienced just in the last 10 years as compared with those for the preceding 50, and a pattern emerges of increasingly stronger and more devastating storms. Now remove the natural defenses of the southern coastal areas, which cost us billions in public and private dollars and human lives, and you get the picture.

The president promises prayer, and Federal disaster relief. If this man actually prays, I can’t imagine why he doesn’t turn to salt. As far as disaster relief, great. We’ll need it. Write some more hot checks to pay for the wages of greed drawn by fat cat oil barons and developers at the expense of one of our most unique and treasured natural landscapes. Somebody else’s children and grandchildren will pay for it long after he’s dead, and hopefully, remembered as the empty suit that he is.

Today, the streets of New Orleans run with brackish water full of sewage and chemicals, and teeming with poisonous water moccasins, fire ants, rats, nutrias and alligators, all looking for someplace to crawl up out of the toxic sludge that washes against the antebellum homes of the rich and poor alike. The legacy of my ancestral homeland has been raped and ravaged, not by nature or by God, but by a bunch of bastards. Short-sightedness, avarice, and corruption in government and big business have destroyed much of what made Louisiana the exotic, funky, beautiful place that it was created to be, and today, I weep for it. God and Mother Nature will not be blamed this time.

Friday, August 19, 2005

You may ask yourself, as I have...

How have we come to this? As I look around at my fellow Americans, I find them to be either in a place of complacency, despondency, helplessness and despair, or stubborn arrogance, false patriotism, bizarre religious zealotry and complete self-absorption.

Never before in the history of this or any nation has such all-out war been waged in the name of a people and their civic ideals, while virtually no sacrifice has been made by, or asked of, those same people other than the blood of their sons and daughters, and the treasure of their future generations. Never before in “war” time has our government responded to the crisis with tax cuts which benefit only the wealthiest Americans and American companies. No war bonds have been bought or sold; no recycling program or victory gardens. Nothing to distract a fat and lazy populace from Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, stuffed-crust pizza, Nascar or Natalee Holloway. Ask most Americans what the latest body count is of Americans who’ve died for their “freedom” in Iraq, and they’re more likely to know who was eliminated on “The Bachelor” last night.

It’s just appalling, and we should all be profoundly ashamed.

When did we decide that the lives and deaths of Americans were so much more sacred and important than the deaths of anyone else, especially if they’re brown-skinned? The deaths of Iraqi civilians, women, children, and the elderly, are so unimportant to our government that officials are forbidden from counting them. They literally do not count. But this attitude isn’t limited to Arabs.

After the bombings in London this summer, our President, who was in London at the time, gave a speech in which he actually said that this is why we fight the terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq; we fight them there, so we don’t have to fight them in our own streets. Apparently, if we have to fight them in the streets of London, that fits his strategy just fine, because after all, London isn’t in America.

The “great beast” that is the American people seems to have been slowly waking from its lethargic, gluttony-induced stupor, and is starting to rub the stupid out of its eyes. Most Americans polled recently understand that we were basically lied into this “war” by Bush and his neocon dinosaurs recycled from Iran-Contra, when most of them should have been indicted and locked up, thus saving us from our current Vietnam-esque nightmare. But still we are bombarded almost 24/7 on the talk and news channels with surreal logic worthy of Lewis Carroll, or better yet, George Orwell, from vile Hannity, fat, drug-addled Limbaugh, and reptilian Coulter, to name just a few, who vomit in our general direction words to the effect that “liberals hate America” and opposition to the war is tantamount to supporting the enemy and endangering the troops.

As their disgusting excrement slides slowly down the inside of my TV screen, I ask myself again… How did we come to this? How did we let this happen? Are we really this stupid?

I used to wonder when my dad would cut a yearling steer out of the herd to send to slaughter, why it put up such a fight. I mean, that steer has eaten out of a bucked held out by daddy’s own hand ever since it was weaned from its mother. It’s practically tame. But somehow, that day, I wondered if that “stupid” animal somehow knew that he was, literally, being led off to slaughter. Imagine my surprise to realize that the general awareness level in this country is way, way lower than that of one of the dumbest farm animals I’ve had the experience of growing up around.

On some level, we have Cindy Sheehan to thank for some of this. She’s the California mother whose son Casey was killed in Iraq, and when the president said that our troops had to stay in Iraq to finish the mission in order to honor the fallen, who had given their lives in a “noble cause,” Cindy Sheehan snapped. Now she wants to know what this “noble cause” is, and until she was forced home to the bedside of an ailing mother, she was camped on the side of the road outside Bush’s country manor in Crawford, Texas demanding an answer, and a halt to the cynical and insulting lies.

I am personally unaware of any instance in the history of our country when a president, during “war” time, can take over 300 total days of vacation, but this one has. And now, on this little 5-week junket, the president can’t take time away from fishing, bike riding, brush clearing and fund-raising long enough to stand there and let Cindy Sheehan have her say. That’s his version of bringing “honor and dignity” back to the White House.

While we wait to see what will happen to the anti-war movement in Cindy Sheehan’s absence, we still have a budget deficit exceeded only by our trade deficit -- we can think about that-- plus the highest gasoline prices ever in response to the highest crude oil prices ever.

Most analysts will tell you that these economic factors are a direct threat to national security because they endanger our ability to protect ourselves, to fuel our economy, to generate energy, to manufacture goods needed both in peacetime and wartime, and for our domestic economy to employ people so they can earn enough money to buy the products they need to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families.

Of course, these analysts aren’t on Dr. Phil, so most people don’t know about that. They do know, however, that if you’ve got a “Support Our Troops” magnet on the car, and matching U.S. flag t-shirts for yourself and all the kids that read “These Colors Don’t Run”, you’re doing all you can to “spread freedom.”

God Bless America. Whatever that means…