We recently spent a week in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana interviewing relief
workers, community activists, urban planners, artists, and neighborhood folks.
Even as the latest flood waters from Hurricane Rita recede, the city remains submerged
in anger and frustration.
Indeed, the most toxic debris in New Orleans isn't the sinister gray sludge
that coats the streets of the historic Creole neighborhood of Treme or the Lower
Ninth Ward, but all the unanswered questions that have accumulated in the wake
of so much official betrayal and hypocrisy. Where outsiders see simple "incompetence"
or "failure of leadership," locals are more inclined to discern deliberate
design and planned neglect -- the murder, not the accidental death, of a great
In almost random order, here are twenty-five of the urgent questions
that deeply trouble the local people we spoke with. Until a grand jury or congressional
committee begins to uncover the answers, the moral (as opposed to simply physical)
reconstruction of the New Orleans region will remain impossible.
1. Why did the floodwalls along the 17th Street Canal only
break on the New Orleans (majority Black) side and not on the Metairie (largely
white) side? Was this the result of neglect and poor maintenance by New Orleans
2. Who owned the huge barge that was catapulted through the
wall of the Industrial Canal, killing hundreds in the Lower Ninth Ward -- the
most deadly hit-and-run accident in U.S. history?
3. All of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish east of the Industrial
Canal were drowned, except for the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District along
Chef Menteur Highway. Why was industrial land apparently protected by stronger
levees than nearby residential neighborhoods?
4. Why did Mayor Ray Nagin, in defiance of his own official
disaster plan, delay twelve to twenty-four hours in ordering a mandatory evacuation
of the city?
5. Why did Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff
not declare Katrina an "Incident of National Significance" until August
31 -- thus preventing the full deployment of urgently needed federal resources?
6. Why wasn't the nearby U.S.S. Bataan immediately sent to
the aid of New Orleans? The huge amphibious-landing ship had a state-of-the-art,
600-bed hospital, water and power plants, helicopters, food supplies, and 1,200
sailors eager to join the rescue effort.
7. Similarly, why wasn't the Baltimore-based hospital ship
USS Comfort ordered to sea until August 31, or the 82nd Airborne Division deployed
in New Orleans until September 5?
8. Why does Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld balk at making
public his "severe weather execution order" that established the ground
rules for the military response to Katrina? Did the Pentagon, as a recent report
by the Congressional Research Service suggests, fail to take initiatives within
already authorized powers, then attempt to transfer the blame to state and local
9. Why were the more than 350 buses of the New Orleans Regional
Transportation Authority -- eventually flooded where they were parked -- not
mobilized to evacuate infirm, poor, and car-less residents?
10. What significance attaches to the fact that the chair
of the Transportation Authority, appointed by Mayor Nagin, is Jimmy Reiss, the
wealthy leader of the New Orleans Business Council which has long advocated
a thorough redevelopment of (and cleanup of crime in) the city?
11. Under what authority did Mayor Nagin meet confidentially
in Dallas with the "forty thieves" -- white business leaders led by
Reiss -- reportedly to discuss the triaging of poorer Black areas and a corporate-led
master plan for rebuilding the city?
12. Everyone knows about a famous train called "the City
of New Orleans." Why was there no evacuation by rail? Was Amtrak part of
the disaster planning? If not, why not?
13. Why were patients at private hospitals like Tulane evacuated
by helicopter while their counterparts at the Charity Hospital were left to
suffer and die?
14. Was the failure to adequately stock food, water, potable
toilets, cots, and medicine at the Louisiana Superdome a deliberate decision
-- as many believe -- to force poorer residents to leave the city?
15. The French Quarter has one of the highest densities of
restaurants in the nation. Once the acute shortages of food and water at the
Superdome and the Convention Center were known, why didn't officials requisition
supplies from hotels and restaurants located just a few blocks away? (As it
happened, vast quantities of food were simply left to spoil.)
16. City Hall's emergency command center had to be abandoned
early in the crisis because its generator supposedly ran out of diesel fuel.
Likewise many critical-care patients died from heat or equipment failure after
hospital backup generators failed. Why were supplies of diesel fuel so inadequate?
Why were so many hospital generators located in basements that would obviously
17. Why didn't the Navy or Coast Guard immediately airdrop
life preservers and rubber rafts in flooded districts? Why wasn't such life-saving
equipment stocked in schools and hospitals?
18. Why weren't evacuee centers established in Audubon Park
and other unflooded parts of Uptown, where locals could be employed as cleanup
19. Is the Justice Department investigating the Jim Crow-like
response of the suburban Gretna police who turned back hundreds of desperate
New Orleans citizens trying to walk across the Mississippi River bridge -- an
image reminiscent of Selma in 1965? New Orleans, meanwhile, abounds in eyewitness
accounts of police looting and illegal shootings: Will any of this ever be investigated?
20. Who is responsible for the suspicious fires that have
swept the city? Why have so many fires occurred in blue-collar areas that have
long been targets of proposed gentrification, such as the Section 8 homes on
Constance Street in the Lower Garden District or the wharfs along the river
21. Where were FEMA's several dozen vaunted urban search-and-rescue
teams? Aside from some courageous work by Coast Guard helicopter crews, the
early rescue effort was largely mounted by volunteers who towed their own boats
into the city after hearing an appeal on television.
22. We found a massive Red Cross presence in Baton Rouge but
none in some of the smaller Louisiana towns that have mounted the most impressive
relief efforts. The poor Cajun community of Ville Platte, for instance, has
at one time or another fed and housed more than 5,000 evacuees; but the Red
Cross, along with FEMA, has refused almost daily appeals by local volunteers
to send professional personnel and aid. Why then give money to the Red Cross?
23. Why isn't FEMA scrambling to create a central registry
of everyone evacuated from the greater New Orleans region? Will evacuees receive
absentee ballots and be allowed to vote in the crucial February municipal elections
that will partly decide the fate of the city?
24. As politicians talk about "disaster czars" and
elite-appointed reconstruction commissions, and as architects and developers
advance utopian designs for an ethnically cleansed "new urbanism"
in New Orleans, where is any plan for the substantive participation of the city's
ordinary citizens in their own future?
25. Indeed, on the fortieth anniversary of the 1965 Voting
Rights Act, what has happened to democracy?