New Orleans: Where It’s At & Where it Could Be—10 Years On.

NOLA & Gulf Coast Favorites
NOLA & Gulf Coast Favorites

The city of New Orleans was established by the French, in 1718. 45 years later, the Spanish had taken over the city, and the rest of the Louisiana Territory (by way of the Treaty of Fontainebleau). And then, 40 years after that, the Spanish allied themselves with France, and returned the Territory to the French, allowing Napoleon to sell the reacquired land to the United States (1803); and for about .04¢ an acre, President Jefferson scored the city that would become one of America’s greatest cultural icons.

202 years, and many tropical depressions, hurricanes and other weather related events, later, the Crescent City was pummeled by Katrina. Since official record keeping began, Hurricane Katrina (to include floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain via the compromised levees) has been the most destructive storm to hit the Gulf Coast. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was responsible for more lives lost, and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was more intense, but in sheer devastation of land, buildings, economic loss, and displacement of people, Katrina stands alone.

It should be noted that while Hurricane Katrina was ultimately responsible for producing the weather conditions that caused the levees to fail, the failure of those levees is seen by many as a man-made disaster that exacerbated the naturally occurring disaster that was a storm of epic proportion.

The word “unbelievable” is one that I almost never use, mainly because it’s not applicable. In the aftermath of Katrina, however, I seem to find the word “unbelievable” most apropos when describing the failures of the local, state, and federal, government response. Considering the technology that was available, the wealth of resources our nation (and our allies) had to offer, advanced logistical capabilities, and the extending of hands from tens of thousands of people, one would think that the situations that occurred in the Superdome, with policing issues, foreign aid, FEMA, and displaced citizens, would have been avoidable, but alas, they weren’t. From President Bush lying about “[nobody] anticipat[ing] the “breach of the levees” to Mayor Nagin failing to order a mandatory evacuation of the city, the dereliction of duty was seemingly in every public office; from NOLA’s Central Business District to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, the entire post-hurricane SNAFU was, and still is, UNBELIEVABLE!

But let us not dwell on the past, too much. Instead, let’s think about where NOLA is and where it could be. 10 years is, relatively speaking, a long time in a young person’s life. Most children born in 2005 will be going into the 4th or 5th grade this fall. They are more than 1/3 of the way through their K-12 education. While those who were in 1st or 2nd grade will likely be Juniors or Seniors in high school. And, in New Orleans, that means charter schools, for the most part.

New Orleans Public School system is now (since the 2004-05 school year) an amalgamation of “regular” public schools (operated by Orleans Public School Board (OPSB)) and public charters (managed by the Recovery School Board (RSB) or the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)). As of the 2013-14 school year, a total of 44 Boards of Education were operating 87 schools in New Orleans; 30 of those schools were operating as Independent Charter Schools and are overseen by the (BESE). As The Cowen Institute-Tulane University points out in their annual report, this number of boards, each with its own policies and procedures, does not lend itself to equitable opportunities or equal treatment of students. Nor does it make good sense fiscally.

The students of these schools are not vastly different from students in other large metropolitan school districts, with a couple of exceptions—they are dealing with the traumatic effects of at least one life altering event (for many students, the number is higher) and they are guinea pigs for a post-Katrina education governance system. They have their struggles and successes in and out of the classroom and they are engaged in social media, sports, and music, as well as debate, chess, and theatre. But they also have a district with 92% of students attending charter schools (which have varied track records, just like public schools, but with less stability) and are more likely to have undergone severe stress due to Katrina and the events that occurred in their everyday lives, after the waters receded.

For the past 10 years, New Orleans’ citizens have been trying to get back to some semblance of “normal”. To say its been a tough road would be akin to saying, getting hit in the face with a tire iron might sting a bit. These kid’s lives have been turned upside down, sideways, and inside out; and the adults have experienced just as much chaos but with even more responsibilities i.e. stressors. Events like those that were brought on by Katrina and the ensuing failure of the levees and multiple government entities are enough to make the strongest people break.

Sadly, that wasn’t the only trouble the Gulf Coast would experience in a relatively short time frame. Adding a financial meltdown that started in late 2007, and turned into the Great Recession, heaps trouble on top of difficulty. The impact was, according to some economists, less severe in a Gulf Coast that was just starting to recover. However, with billions of dollars of aid being pumped into specific sectors for rebuilding, outside groups bringing in manpower and putting money into a few areas in the regional economy, and many citizens still not back home, it may mask the true impact of the recession on the locals. Either way, it definitely had an effect on the local industries which had to, post 2005, repair or replace physical facilities (and boats), hire and train new employees, deal with insurance companies and government personnel, and do it all while trying to manage the stress brought on by the initial act and compounded by the secondary and tertiary issues that followed. Then, as if a National Recession wasn’t bad enough, B.P. had to bring international pain to the Gulf.

The 2010 oil spill (TransOcean/BP) that killed 11 rig workers, lasted 87 days (and then some), and pumped about 5 million barrels of oil into the lifeblood of two major industries (fishing and tourism), was the blow that could have sealed the fate of the great cultural entity that is NOLA. And truthfully, New Orleans, and the greater Gulf Coast region, affected by: 1) government malfeasance; 2) the Army Corps of Engineers; and 3) Katrina; have struggled to make it back; many have likely been hanging on by a very thin thread. But don’t “misunderestimate” them; they will not give up, they will not quit.

And this includes the young people. THEY ARE TOUGH! Mentally, Emotionally, and Physically; much tougher than any child should have to be. But that is the hand they were dealt, and they are, All In. The future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is secure, if not quite certain of where It will be in 50 years. The policies that are implemented, and the people crafting those policies, will play an important role in determining what that future looks like.

A lot of policies have been implemented in the post-Katrina era. Many have not had adequate time to be judged, others are failing to one degree or another, and some have had success, if limited. And this is good. If no new policies had been tried, it would have been a sign that the people were giving up. So long as the political affairs continue, imperfect though they may be, the community will survive and eventually, if not quite yet, thrive.

Three major catastrophes in five years would be too much for many cities. But yet, there it is, NOLA! The City that Care Forgot. The people who brought us so much of what is central to many of our everyday lives. Who Dat think they gonna wreck The Big Easy. Resilience, Tenacity, and Fortitude, are key characteristics of a 26.3er; so too are they abundant elements throughout Southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. They endured decades of the “Aints“, the loss of the Jazz (now in Utah, that’s still weird), and gators the size of an AMC Pacer. They don’t scare easy and they’re in it for the long haul.

So when people would say, in the months and years proceeding late August of 2005: “why should ‘we’ rebuild a city that sits below sea level?”, I’d reply, “Because in addition to Mardi Gras, Sazeracs, and Southern Hospitality, NOLA has provided us with 3 iconic pieces of what it means to be ‘American’ (regardless of whether or not you enjoy any of the three): Jazz music, Creole cooking, and Truman Capote. To not rebuild New Orleans would be like the Polish not rebuilding Warsaw; or Japan not rebuilding Tokyo; and our nation, on 26 August 1814, saying, “eh, it’s just our Capital, let’s not worry about it”. Without New Orleans, America would be just another superpower with a bunch of Nukes, a wealth of world-class cheese and beer, and a long list of World Champions who never played a team from beyond our shores (and Toronto’s Jays and Raptors rosters are largely staffed by guys from the country that lies just South of Canada) .

So here we are, 10 years later. New Orleans and Coastal Louisiana, as well as parts of Mississippi’s and Alabama’s Gulf Coast are still rebuilding, still renewing, still rehabbing—lives, physical structures, and the many interconnected pieces of the larger Gulf Coast community. It is hard to imagine what life was like for the residents of this region over the past 10 years. But we know it was hard for all and exceedingly difficult for a good many. And we also know they are coming back, one step at a time. So if you have the means, and you’re not opposed to having “Too Much Fun“, head on down to The Crescent City and Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler.

Here are a few additional links to some music, articles, and information relating to New Orleans and this story.

Rebirth Brass Band: Move Your Body-The Funky Biscuit

Hot 8 Brass Band: Sexual Healing

The Atlantic: The Big Comeback     By: Derek Thompson

Los Angeles Times: Recalling Days of Despair in the Superdome    By: Kim Murphy

The New Orleans Advocate: 10 Years Later 

Preservation Hall Brass Band: Iko Iko

Terence Blanchard: Levees—–From: A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).

Kermit Ruffins: Drop Me Off In New Orleans

The Animals: House of the Rising Sun

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts—–A Spike Lee Documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the entire hot mess of government disfunction.

Treme: HBO Series – Produced by David Simon & Eric Overmyer—-Great series that gives one a taste of New Orleans amazing music scene and what life was like in New Orleans after Katrina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rugged Individualism: It’s Not Really So Real

There is a myth that persists in our society, a myth that the rugged individual (RI)(read: male, usually White, tough, rough, “self-made man“, does it “his way”; think – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Indiana Jones, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and the Marlboro Man) is the one who gets things done and makes our country the military, economic, and “moral” superpower it is. He explores new places or ideas, fights the “good fight”, goes his own way & finds success, and usually saves the day—in one way or another. He is the reason, some believe, that America is great. He is also the role model for those who wish to remake America in his image (that is to say, without government policies that intervene in social or economic affairs—for the most part). They say that this RI personality trait lies within the social fabric of American society, it’s part of “our” DNA. The only problem with this kind of thinking, is that it’s leaving out 95% of the story, and anyone who is not of the male gender. Rugged individualism isn’t really real.

The other 95% of the story tells of how these tough guys were often raised by families that cared about their physical, mental, and likely spiritual, well being. Additionally, they were raised in communities (be it rural, urban, or the netherworld that lies between) where neighbors helped neighbors, believing in the notion that the whole is greater than any individual part. Without this solid foundation upon which they were raised (that the well-being of the local polity and its constituents take precedent over any one individual), it is doubtful that the more interesting 5% of their story would ever occur.

It should also be pointed out that rugged individualism, the American type, is not exclusively practiced by the male species nor dominated by the descendants of European Americans; men & women of all ethnicities have practiced some form or another of this character trait ever since our continent was first inhabited by Native Peoples more than 10,000 years ago.

Whether the communities that raise these RIs chose to act in a collective manner because of the biblical teachings they heard on Sunday’s, or because they knew that their community was stronger if every person was healthy, educated (in whatever professions were important to the continued existence of their inhabitants) and engaged in furthering the group’s well being, they worked together for the common good. This fraternal style of living arrangement does not preclude any RI from performing heroic acts, or spending long, lonely, hours developing a plan/model for a new venture; but at the end of the day, the solo acts are only one small part of the lived experience of every individual’s greater existence. The ongoing support from friends, family, neighbors, teachers, community, et al. is far more important in any success achieved by “The Great One”, and in the telling of the full story. And this is where some of Americas’ Great Divides have their beginnings.

The real history of our great country is not one of solo actors daring to be great, but rather communal actors being supported in their not truly individual endeavors. While the period of the Columbian Exchange and beyond was filled with the efforts of many capable sailors and crew, we only know the names of the ships’ Captains; they are given all the credit for traversing the oceans and seas.  Similarly, those brave souls who took their wagons Westward are only remembered by their family, or towns for which they are a namesake (the Donner Party exempted), yet the first Governor of each state is prominently displayed on public schools and other buildings/parks/etc. Civil War buffs remember that General George Pickett showed extreme bravery when he led his men into certain slaughter on day 3 at Gettysburg, but those thousands of men who followed Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble, also showed extreme bravery by marching into an open field— knowing the Union Army waited 3/4 of a mile ahead. Certainly, we cannot hope to remember the names of every person who has aided in every successful venture, but neither should we fail to recognize the importance of all those hands that helped to make events possible.

On the one side, the pro RI side, we have people arguing that individuals, not the government, are responsible for taking care of themselves. Whether “care” entails work, medical needs, 2nd amendment rights, education, or basic needs (food, shelter, safety), they argue that individuals should bear the burden of providing for themselves. These folks are more prone to argue for policies that decrease: government oversight generally, business & banking regulations, and taxes.

The other extreme is the far left-end of a socialist-style system (which is very different from a liberal progressive form of gov’t.). Governance of this sort provides many, if not all, of the necessities that people need to survive, though not necessarily thrive; from free or subsidized food and shelter, to healthcare, education, and employment. This extreme doesn’t find much support in the U.S. Neither of these systems, as is, are particularly useful in a modern economy, but they both offer ideas that could, through skillful compromise and some tweaking, be used for the greater good. Compromise, however, according to Cadillac (ads by Publicis Worldwide) and Elbert Hubbard, is for weak men. I would disagree with this premise, as would any wise politician hoping to gain passage of a controversial piece of legislation.

In between the far left and the far right are a wide variety of political ideologies, belief systems, and traditions that dictate, to some extent, regional and personal mores, values, and norms. While it is likely that we (our collective society) agree on far more than we disagree on, some “choose” (aided by various forms of media) to focus on those issues that divide us. The divisive list includes: Roe -v- Wade, 2nd Amendment, proper role of government(s), social insurance & social welfare programs, military spending, role of Christianity in schools/society/gov’t, immigration, minimum wage and the wealth gap (ideal and actual), social justice, and marriage equality. This seems like a big list of very important issues, and it is. But it’s not bigger than the list of items that we accomplish every day.

Work (paid and unpaid), caring for family, keeping up our homes, preparing meals, supporting others (mentally, physically, emotionally), taking care of the self, remembering to be nice to people (because one never knows what another is going through), volunteering, and learning, are accomplishments that many people successfully conquer, daily. So why do we insist on arguing about topics that are not of great enough import to get a majority of us to the polls on election day? (I believe they are important enough, but our national voting record tells me I am in the minority).

Part of the problem stems from our lack of understanding each other. We interact with and live amongst people, with whom we share commonalities. This serves to reinforce our beliefs and polarize those who dare to think differently. When we are continually told that our beliefs are right/correct/valid, and we hear the vitriol directed at those with other ideas, it’s natural to assume that “those people” have it wrong. But what if they don’t? Or, what if they do but don’t know it, because no one is willing to engage in civil conversations to understand another perspective. Or, what if the truth lies somewhere in the middle (like the suburbs)? And what about the RIs who claim that all sides have it wrong and that we should rebel against all government action and fend for ourselves (while surrounded by 500 friends and family members, a whole crew of RIs)?

This calls for conversations. Real conversations, one-to-one, face-to-face, “a” to “b”, you get the picture. These conversations take time, and courage, and sometimes cold beer(s). But this is the best way to learn about our differences, our fellow citizens, our brother and sisters, our countrymen/women and those with whom we share so much yet know so little about. Urban and rural people need to connect and learn why each feels the way they do about gun control and gun rights; it’s not as simple as one might think. Republicans and Democrats could learn a lot from talking to each other about the employment, economic, and moral dilemmas that come with income inequality and the pro’s and con’s of unions. Children of privilege could gain new insights into the power of words by talking with Ta’Nehisi Coates. And those Americans in positions of power and/or with greater wealth could speak with folks in middle and lower socio-economic communities and “get in touch” with what it’s like to not be wealthy; possibly giving them pause before spouting off about the minimum wage being one of the Democrats’ lame ideas .

Policies that promote individual risk and reward (such as deregulation of the banking and business sectors or tax cuts that do more for those at the top than those at the bottom) over the needs of the greater society are responsible, by and large, for many of our current economic issues. When more of the wealth (which is finite) is concentrated in the pockets of fewer individuals, it serves to depress an economy. The concept is not complex; if you have less money, you will spend what you have in order to survive and support anyone that depends on you. If you have more money (a lot more), you will invest it, or stash it offshore, or play other sorts of games to keep from paying taxes. Money that is hidden is not helping our economy; money that is spent in local businesses, whether on french fries, fuel, or fixtures for the kitchen, is contributing to the supply and demand cycle that economies rely on.

We have come to this point in our nation’s history (vast economic inequity) in part by crediting individuals with making America what it is today rather than talking about nation-building as an effort undertaken by all of us: enslaved Africans & African Americans; construction, industrial, & agricultural workers; miners; lumberjacks; fishermen/women; teachers; engineers; volunteers; men & women of the Armed Forces; bakers & brewers; salespeople, I.T. professionals, athletes, public servants, thespians & artists of all types, and all the other Americans and immigrants who have taken part in building our country, should be recognized for their substantial efforts in making America the country it is. By placing the elite on a pedestal, we have given them carte blanche to do as they please in all matters financially, legally, and politically; and they have done what is in their best interest, made money for themselves and their friends and left everyone else standing on the far side of the moat.

I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to make money. Money is not the issue; the issue lies in the mindset that those who are the most successful have achieved their goals through nothing more than their own hard work, tenacity, and sheer brilliance, choosing to ignore all the people that have played a role in them reaching their zenith (which tends to lead to less sharing of that created wealth).

While individuals accomplish goals everyday: open businesses, graduate from college, get promoted, win a wrestling tournament, write a book, etc., etc.,;  they don’t do it without the support of their extended family/community. Be it financial, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, they are supported by many people from the various contacts they have made. Additionally, they are encouraged/motivated by loved ones; AND, the Local, State, and/or Federal government(s) provided services (e.g. infrastructure, emergency services/first responders, disaster relief, education, possibly tax breaks, grants & loans, and much much more) that allowed them to focus on achieving their goal.

Rugged individualism is not a myth, but neither is it the whole story. Some people have the innate ability to rise up and conquer whatever is thrown at them. This doesn’t happen through DNA alone, it is a skill that is first learned, then honed, and eventually ready to be used. It only exists because s/he had the opportunity to learn and the time to hone, and finally, the access to a place where using it offers the potential of reaping great rewards.

Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends
Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends

If you’re interested in exploring the political relationship between public and private actors and how policy actions shape societies, read Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox. This book lays out some of the major issues that policy makers have to deal with when considering new policies and the communities they affect.

A few political cartoons about rugged individualism: AlaskaMedia production; RI