In June 2008, Tom and Huck (Saul and his friend Marin) return as two senior citizens not on a raft but in a rented car, driving from New Jersey south and then west through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and into Illinois where we see the Mississippi River near Murphysboro.
We had driven through the territory on which Daniel Boone had hunted bear, that Lewis and Clark had traversed two centuries before four lane with fast food and expensive gasoline rest stops cut through it. We headed for the land where Louis Joliet and Pere Jacques Marquette in 1673 took their river journey with an Indian guide.
A decade later, in 1682, Ferdinand La Salle and Tonty (Frenchmen) canoed down the river and met and entertained some Indians. Deciphering the gibberish most of us learned in grade school, here’s what happened. After playing some fiddle music, the priest who accompanied the “explorers” performed some mysterious ceremony with a cross. The Indians applauded the performance and the land scammers interpreted this as formal approval to deliver the Mississippi River Valley to King Louis XIV. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris – end of the French and Indian Wars—France ceded that ill-gotten territory to England. Much of the vast area that French priest and land grabbers conned from Indian nations “belonged” to England.
The American Revolution rectified that. According to the 1783 Treaty of Paris the Mississippi “shall forever remain free and open to the subjects of Great Britain and the citizens of the United States.”
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson bought the land the French stole from Indian nations. He paid Napoleon practically nothing for the immense amont of real estate, but he could have just taken it from him. Nappy was caught up in imperial wars in Europe at the time.
Jump ahead two centuries to modern Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. Most downtown businesses have closed. Vacant houses abound amidst ramshackle dwellings. The 2000 Census estimated some 61% of Cairo school children lived in poverty, the 15th highest in the United States. The Cairo streets look like a movie set for a dying town, replete with houses with broken windows, boards over store fronts and poor people hanging out.
Even its Fort Defiance State Park, which overlooks the joining of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, has gone to seed. From the cracked cement of the observation tower we watched the barges moving slowly down river. From the place where the rivers join, we looked into Kentucky on one side and Missouri on the other. The Cairo City and Canal Company founded Cairo in 1837. The Illinois Central Railroad ran through it by the late 1850s and it became a major steamboat port with its own Customs House, now a museum with few visitors. On the shore, the plastic and glass bottle debris from trysts and informal drinking parties remain for future archeologists to decipher the meaning of modern cultural life on the Mississippi in 2008.
Tragedy or just evolution? Not a question you would put to a descendent of the Cherokees in the nearby Trail of Tears State Park. The middle-aged woman who asks us if we need help in the visitor center got laid off from her last job in an old age home and now works ats a guide for visitors. She’s part Cherokee, she tells us. Her grandfather told her as a child what his father told him about how in 1830 President Jackson pushed through Congress The Indian Removal Act so he could negotiate treaties with Indian nations. If they would leave their lands, Jackson promised, they could settle on new and good land in the west. Over the next seven years Jackson removed some 50,000 Indians. They had no choice but to give up twenty five million acres of forests and farms for arid dirt on reservations west of the Mississippi. The Creeks and Seminoles refused. Jackson ordered the army to force them out at gun point or drag them away in chains.
Jackson’s motive? White “settlers” – speculators? — had their greedy eyes on Cherokee land. The Cherokees took their case to the Supreme Court in 1831 claiming sovereignty. In 1832, the Court ruled the Cherokees did have the right to the land, but Jackson sneered at the ruling. “Justice Marshall has made his ruling, and now he may enforce it.” So much for separation of power and checks and balances!
The Georgia legislature offered Cherokee homelands to whites despite the fact the Indians still inhabited it. Cherokee Chief John Ross refused to sign a treaty with Jackson swapping good land for unknown “reservation land.” Jackson found an ersatz Indian chief to sign in 1833. He presented this fraudulent document to Congress, which ratified The Treaty of New Echota in 1835.
“Colonel Jackson was a no good double crosser,” the visitor center woman declared. “The Cherokees fought for him in the 1812 War and this is how he paid them back. Took their land cause it was valuable and his political pals wanted it.”
The white farmers and developers adored Jackson. The Cherokees left a Trail of Tears, as they were forced to march from their eastern farms across rugged terrain in winter to Oklahoma. Thousands died; meaningful nationhood lost without their land.
Kids in grade school still learn about the glorious settling of the west, which Indinas had already settled. As we drove down the highways paralleling the banks of the Mississippi we saw the rich agriculture. But the small farmers who benefited from Jackson’s perfidy have long given way to agribusiness, Cheap labor tends to vast acres of soy beans, cotton, corn, wheat, sorghum and rice. Crop dusters blast them with chemicals.
In his prize winning book on Jackson, the recently deceased and much celebrated historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: “White resentment of the Cherokees had been building and reached a pinnacle after gold was discovered in Georgia, and immediately following the passage of the Cherokee Nation constitution, and establishment of a Cherokee Supreme Court. Possessed with ‘gold fever,’ and a thirst for expansion, the white communities turned on their Cherokee neighbors.” Schlesinger acknowledged that Jackson’s “command and life was saved due to 500 Cherokee allies at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.” He characterized Jackson’s removal of his former saviors as “unbelievable.” Yet, he continued, “the U.S. government decided it was time for the Cherokees to leave behind their farms, their land and their homes.”
“Time’s up for the Indians. Tough luck! Move on.” That’s how millions learn history. I wonder if Israeli grade school teachers use language similar to Schlesinger’s. “The Israeli government decided it was time for the Palestinians to leave their homes.”
The post civil war small town white and even black populations have not suffered that level of atrocities, but they have seen their way of life become downright “Wal-Marty.”
In Jonesboro, Illinois, where Lincoln debated Douglass, Fred, a Korean War vet, observed that “Wal-Mart promised everything at lower prices and now they’ve put the small stores out of business, well you get what you get there, a bunch of bad Chinese toys and such.”
In the nearby Bardwell, Kentucky “business district” the once ubiquitous stores of typical small town America were closed. Fred, who volunteers at the visitor center in Jonesboro, shook his head. “The people are leaving. No jobs. Why would anyone want to come here with big money to invest?” He smiled. “Different times,” he said, “and you can’t blame it all on Bush. The factories started shutting down quite a while before he put his backside in the Oval Office.” He chuckled wryly. “He sure has wasted a lot of our money though in that war in Eye-Rack. But business wouldn’t come here anyway. Hardly any of the companies I remember as a kid are here any more.”
He didn’t mention the New Page Corporation, which emits an acrid stench from its sulfur plant in nearby Wickliffe, Kentucky, (population 749). The nose-searing redolence almost drove us back to the interstate highway. At a time of rotting factories and empty warehouses, which means almost everyone loses his job, “you get used to the smell,” said a local man.
Hickman and Dyersburg, the Kentucky towns on the road to Memphis, parallel to the Mississippi, have similarly depressing main streets. Some antique stores have replaced furniture, shoes, jewelry or dry goods stores. Their commercial death stands in dramatic comparison to the full parking lots at Wal-Mart at the edge of town – the metaphor for early 21st Century small town America. A depressing eye opener for old Tom and Huck.
* * *
Elvis was to rock and roll what Marilyn Monroe was to Hollywood movies, a great box office star, provoking teen-agers and, with Marilyn, the world’s “sex kitten,” even “mature” men. Like Elvis, she also failed to find contentment. At age 42, in 1977, Elvis overdosed on “prescription” drugs. You can find Graceland, his 14 acre estate with old fashioned white-columned mansion, on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee, just north of Mississippi. In 1983, this “shrine” invited the public to a post mortem view of Elvis’ life. In 2006, it became a National Historic Landmark. Indeed, the parking lot contains cars bearing license plates from many states.
He paid $100 thousand for the land and house in the late 1950s. Now, highly organized tours begin by extracting a hefty parking fee, followed by $24 per person fee for a minimum walk through. A small bus shuttles crowds from the ticket office and store area across the road—a few yards. The group of 25 snoops around Elvis’ mansion, not including his upstairs bedroom and bathroom, because “he liked privacy,” says the audio tape. In fact, Elvis pooped on his pooper and some sickos now yearn to examine the exact place of his drug death.
The tour organizers provide ear phones over which one hears a Clorox version of Elvis’ life and career, replete with audio detours promoting Elvis products from CDs to t-shirts, jackets, coffee mugs, calendars and reproductions of Elvis’ costumes. Elvis guitars cost over $1,000, but poor or stingy visitors can get an Elvis refrigerator magnet for only $7. At the onset of the tour a bored employee took our photo with a Graceland set as the back drop. At the end of the tour, we bought the developed print for only $25.
We peered into Elvis’ living room, dining room and other chambers, decorated in mixed kitsch-nouveau-riche style, including a mini-waterfall in his “jungle room.” The walls held photos of a young man dressed in fabulously gauche costumes. He performed on stage with confidence, but never discovered who his identity. His gold record sales poured in, and he built a racket ball court and a recording studio in his house. Hey, compared to Hearst’s Castle, Graceland is barely ostentatious.
The overwhelmingly white tourists with whom we shared the Graceland experience behaved remarkably well. Like much of what we saw on the road, Americans tend toward plumpness and dress in an aggressively casual mode. No one screamed “he’s still alive,” although the tour provided no convincing evidence of his death. A gravestone supposedly covers his remains. Next to his grave are those of his parents Gladys and Vernon, and his grandmother. The mini graveyard bears the name “Meditation Gardens.” Only God knows whether Elvis really lives or whether he was Jesus reincarnated. Not one person in our group swooned or fainted. Did they do so as teenagers?
In the basement Elvis had three TV sets he supposedly watched at the same time, next to the pool table and bar. Elvis had a jewelry collection and a model of the Mississippi house in which he grew up. His “Trophy Room” abounds with gold and platinum albums – denoting millions in sales. Needless to say, the tour would not be complete without seeing Elvis’ spangled and studded outfits, copies of which one can buy for $3,200. Elvis also owned two jets and several fancy cars.
Graceland’s pasture and stable area seemed downright bucolic. The audio tape reminded us that Elvis the Pelvis, the “Nothin’ But A Hound Dog” man, gave money and time to mainstream charities and non controversial causes. If you buy a membership in “Elvis Insiders,” one can get 10% discounts for lots of wonderful opportunities, like access to the private Web site where you get a “view looking out of Elvis’s bedroom window at the front lawn of Graceland.”
In addition, members receive rare Elvis photos, artifacts, video clips and documents from the Graceland archives. Other rewards include 10% discounts on rooms at Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel. The cynical Huck and Tom remained un-lured. We decided to wait for the new 500-room convention hotel and a redone and super high-tech museum – coming within a few years.
Elvis’ widow, Priscilla, used her hubby’s estate to direct Elvis Presley Enterprises. She shaped it, according to Wikipedia, “into the second most visited private residence in the United States, behind the White House.” In 2002, some 40,000 people assembled there in a downpour – God always tests the faithful—to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death.
“Well,” Huck said to Tom, “we saw it,” as we drove south into Clarksdale Mississippi to visit the Blues Museum. Muddy Waters videos show how Elvis and the Rolling Stones lifted his material as well as BB King’s and the gyrating act from Bo Diddley. Some white academics wrote about blues asmusic representing black pain. But they downplayed the humor.
“I got my mojo working, but it just don’t work on you,” sang Muddy Waters.
B.B. King moaned: “The iceman came by this morning, And you know he didn’t leave no ice, The postman came by later baby, And he didn’t even ring twice
I think you’ve been cheating on me, I think you’re running out on me, I believe to my soul baby, that you’ve given me some outside help, That I don’t think I really need.”
Not the blues that come from slavery or from Nature flooding your house and killing family members and friends!
In Rosedale, Mississippi the levee protects the town – hopefully—from flooding. We watched barges cruise downstream with the River’s gentle flow. Who would have thought that the same waters were inundating Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois cities and towns? Will FEMA officials have learned from their ignorance and subsequent judgment errors during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and respond to peoples’ emergency needs? One Mississippi man said “FEMA officials will learn when pigs learn to fly.” Another said: “Michael Brown lives in FEMA and many other federal agencies.”
A small town Mississippi doctor, the town’s only doctor, treated the approximately 2,500 townspeople – the majority African American. The nearest clinic was some 15 miles away and the closest hospital twice that distance. “95% of my patients don’t have insurance. Some have Medicaid or Medicare, but many have no protection.”
Some paid him in kind with food or other “gifts.”
“Say what you want about the drug companies,” he offered, “but without those samples they offer to doctors I wouldn’t be able to give my patients the drugs they need since they can’t afford to buy them.”
The radio news warned of flooding further south as we drove from Graceland to Oxford, Mississippi. We would peer at the gracefully flowing River as we listened to delugue stories from Wisconsin, Iowa and northern Illinois.
In Greenville, a major Delta city on the River, we sat at Doe’s Eat Place next to local farmers and their wives. The woman who insisted we foreigners taste the local shrimp, almost spat out her contempt for all things Bush.
“I’m voting for Obama. I’ve had enough of that man [Bush] and his friends.” Her husband shook his head in agreement at the negative comment, as he cut into what looked like a three pound porterhouse steak. “Yeah, farmers do better under Democrats,” he stopped to chew. “But I don’t know yet,” indicating he still had not mustered the assurances he needed to actually confirm his intentions to vote for Obama. The couple at the next table shook their heads in agreement with the farmer’s wife.
Marvin asked if Mississippi might go Democrat in 2008, a comment offered by an art gallery owner in Oxford, MI. All four shook their heads. Yes, it was possible. We finished our meal, Marvin his juicy steak and me my superb hot tamales, corn ground with spicy sausage.
The Mississippi of the 1960s, when I had made several trips related to civil rights activities, had changed. A middle aged black woman emerged from the back room the restaurant. She shook hands with several customers.
“She’s our mayor,” informed the white farmer’s wife.
We asked about her performance. She hesitated.
“She’s alright,” she said, without enthusiasm.
Outside, the “Security poster man accompanied us to our car so that invisible stalkers would not attack. He graciously received the $5 tip and dramatically guided us out of the parking space – even though there were no cars behind or in front of us.
As we made our way south to Natchez, we shook our heads in awe and wonder at the complexity and diversity of the people who populate this great and crazy country.
* * *
We (Huck and Tom –Saul and Marvin) stopped in Vicksburg, population 26,000, the site of the biggest battles of the Civil War. Imagine standing on the roof of the Cedar Grove Inn, a “preserved mansion.” 155 years ago, General William T. Sherman supposedly used the place to observe the River from where Union gunboats pounded the city. General Grant ordered a siege to cut off food supplies. It worked. On July 4, after a month and a half long battle and faced with starvation, Rebel General John Pemberton surrendered. Confederate diehards will never forgive him.
After the battle of Vicksburg, Lincoln’s armies controlled the Mississippi River. One day earlier, Robert E. Lee had conceded defeat at Gettysburg. Not a drop of Civil War blood remains on the upscale B&B, but popular myth asserts that a cannonball is still lodged in the Inn’s interior.
The mansion once belonged to John Alexander Klein, a banker, lumber and cotton baron who bought marble fireplaces in Italy and shipped them home to Mississippi, along with French gasoliers, Bohemian glass, gold leaf mirrors and old fashioned clocks and paintings that hang throughout the Inn.
Klein’s wife was related to General Sherman. Family ties apparently persuaded her to let the Union use their home as a hospital. The pro Dixie elite shunned her ever after.
We breathed in the trivia of southern history along with steamy June air in Vicksburg’s sleepy neighborhoods. In 2007, the city’s official unemployment rate was listed as almost 8.5%. 60% of Vicksburg’s population is black where unemployment was higher than white. The median family income was $28,000, $6,000 less than the state average. But the old “preserved” houses sure looked stately.
We continued south parallel to the gently flowing River. Iowa towns suffered heavy flooding, but we saw no dead hogs or soggy ears of corn floating downstream.
In Port Gibson, MS we stopped to film a gold-leaf hand atop the steeple on the First Presbyterian Church. Inside the forbidding structure the chandeliers that light the services were supposedly bought or stolen from the Robert E. Lee steamboat – “it was never there on time,” sang Tom Lehrer.
People in passing cars stared at two seniors with one camera standing in intense heat and humidity trying to capture the best light on the shiny object high above.
“Historic” Port Gibson has an even lower median family income than Vicksburg. From there we drove down the Natchez Trace, the 400 mile road—once trail—Indians utilized to go from what became Nashville to Natchez, a road that also links the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. Supposedly, Indians also showed the route to the “explorers” who converted it into a trade trail in the late 18th Century.
A bucolic highway has replaced the narrow horse path as the Mississippi River has replaced the Trace as the efficient commercial route for getting goods down river. We saw no trace of legendary criminal gangs like those of John Murrell and Samuel Mason who once assaulted travelers along the road.
Crossing the Mississippi into Louisiana, we anxiously stared as if somehow the River would tell us whether the flood inundating more northern states was intending to move south. The battle against Nature – now called Global Warming or Climate Change—did not begin this century.
In 1927, the Mississippi flood changed the demography of part of the country, according to John M. Barry. (Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and how it Changed America, 1997)
In the Fall and Winter of 1926 Midwestern states got drenched with heavy rain and then snow storms. By April 1927, the Mississippi began to rise with its new replenishment. The Mississippi River Commission fortified existing levees and shut down the Mississippi’s natural outlet, the Atchafalaya River. Just above Greenville, Mississippi where the levees had held previous rises in River level, 100 feet of water submerged them and everything else around, even the tallest trees.
The flood on the Mississippi Delta forced people to evacuate – some of them forever. Barry calculates that “by early 1928, the exodus of blacks from Washington County, and likely the rest of the Delta, did reach 50 percent.” A new planter class later emerged with its concordant political power and white supremacy attitudes
In New Orleans, the banking elite – the best and brightest—decided to dynamite their city’s levees, which they predicted would protect the commerce of the city. After the 1922 flood, The Army Corps of Engineers advised these Poo Bahs to blow a hole in the levee in order to save the business center.
Boom went the explosives. The ensuing floods covered the city and nearby parishes as well. A few engineers had predicted such devastation, but their voices went unheard.
The aftermath of the floods produced not only black exodus, but a new plantocracy in Mississippi. The power of the old Louisiana banking clique waned and Huey Long rose. Nature in the form of a major flood dictated changes in demographics and politics.
By 1927, some engineers understood (remember Moby Dick?) that man cannot rule the river. FEMA by its very name recognizes that obvious fact. But its officials’ incompetence after the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophes also challenged the government’s ability to deal with post disaster damages.
The Corps of Engineers’ now “protect” the Mississippi Delta with “Project Flood.” They built various exits for the raging river to vent – like emergency truck lanes where semis with bad brakes can choose an uphill path on a downhill section of highway.
The Corps learned from the 1927 fiasco to split the flooding river between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi. But they didn’t have enough money to do the safety work; nor can they predict the behavior of the Atchafalaya, which steers a more direct route to the Gulf than the Mississippi.
We explored the banks of the Atchafalaya and took note of the sign indicating the location of The River Project, which the Corps credits for diverting the Atchafalaya from joining Mississippi and thus “saving” New Orleans during the 1948 flood.
We stopped at a campground on the banks of the Atchaflaya outside of Krotz Springs, and met Tony, his bloodhound and his friend Kyle, an unemployed welder. Tony sneered at Bush’s “throwing away money on Iraq” while the structures meant to hold back the raging rivers went un-repaired. He told us of poorly publicized horrors surrounding Katrina. We discovered – read about it next week—that incompetence, ignorance, negligence and stupidity abounded, but even worse behavior took place involving the New Orleans police – looting and killing.
When Tony left with his bloodhound, Kyle asked us to drive him to town to buy some food—three 12 packs. He showed us the vast Valero refinery on the edge of town where he suffered several accidents and got laid off. We drove to Beaux Bridge, outside of Lafayette, Louisiana, ate dinner at Prejean’s, listened to an inaudible Cajun band while chewing boudin (usually pork, sausage and rice) of alligator, stuffed eggplant (with crawfish) and crawfish etouffee – the sauce containing flour, butter, onion, cayenne pepper, and lemon slices.
Our stomachs coated with Tums, we headed for New Orleans, via St. Martinville, where we gawked at the St. Martin de Tours Church, the oldest parish in southwest Louisiana. Martin, a Hungarian knight, saw a beggar, took pity on him and, according later that night had an epiphany. The beggar was Jesus. Based on that “revelation,” Martin switched careers from knight to priest, rose to bishop and got sainted.
The small statue on the pulpit, Jerry Dohmann Jr., the church handyman, told us, led to a New York City priest getting bounced from the parish. He disliked the statuette and ordered it removed. “That New Yorker didn’t last long down here,” Jerry smugly boasted.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about St. Martinville, a historic sign marker informed us. We see the magnificent oak where Evangeline waited in vain for her lover. In 1928, Huey Long delivered a major campaign speech in St. Martinville, beneath that sad tree.
“Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come?” Long asked, “the roads…that are no nearer now than ever before?
“Evangeline wept bitter tears in her disappointment,” he concluded, “but it lasted only through one lifetime. Your tears in this country, around this oak, have lasted for generations.”
In New Orleans, tens of thousands continue to weep in disappointment. Like Evangeline’s lover, their government has yet to appear – except as an adversary.
* * *
The French Quarter vibrates with sounds and smells of perpetual Spring Break. Was a film crew shooting the young men and women, drinks in hands, screaming “let’s party.” No. The celebrants were acting goofy on their own, as they routinely do in Ft. Lauderdale and Cancun.
Just inside the Hustler Club doorway, two women wearing forced smiles and a few strings, stood beside the barker, trying to lure “partying” crowd members inside. “Look at the rack on these babes,” he pointed at her uncovered milk producing organs.
I vaguely recalled such a sight as an infant. We saw people buy drugs, light joints, and shout “yeah” and other profundities. Some vomited in the street, stumbled, fell and generally had a terrific time. Tom and Huck (Marvin and Saul) must have also enjoyed such terrific “partying” in their youth.
Four college-age kids, reeking of booze, shared the hotel elevator. “Join us, you’re not too old,” a young man invited. “We’ve got more,” pointing to his paper cup containing a rum drink. “We also got you know what in the room,” making an inhaling sound and putting two fingers to his lips.
The next day, we drove through the once densely populated 9th Ward, now a semi rural looking expanse of empty streets and stray dogs. Amidst boarded up houses and empty lots, we heard sounds of wind and birds chirping. Downright bucolic!
Had a neutron bomb hit? Almost three years ago the vacated homes were the stages for social life: people ate, played, did homework, screwed and had family spats.
Approximately 225,000 people left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded most city neighborhoods in August 2005. A sizeable number came from the 9th ward. Some 1800 people died during the floods; later, hundreds more succumbed to stress-related ailments.
“The richest country in the world should do something to help people,” said a woman resident. “Bush and them spend more money in one week in Iraq than it would take to fix up all our homes.” Two plus years later, out of almost 200,000 households in Orleans Parish, only 133,966 could receive mail 40% of pubic schools had reopened.
She shook her head. “Just look at this place.”
Late August 2005 TV image of the 9th Ward showed people floating in rising waters; others waiting helplessly in the streets. No response from government agencies! Dead bodies festered in the summer sun!
Reports of looting! Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco finally called out the National Guard. One local lawyer said: “rumors had it she was on quaaludes during the Hurricane.” Blanco warned: “These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will.” She didn’t mention punishing those police seen looting.
TV cameras recorded dazed people in flooded streets filled with debris and corpses, some heading to temporary refuge at the Superdome stadium. Bush remained at his ranch. Five days later, he flew over the disaster. Mayor Ray Nagin remained confused. Republican Senator David Vitter dragged himself away from his busy schedule – the Washington whorehouse? “The death toll will start at 10,000, but that is only a guess,” he guessed
After his late arrival and notorious compliment to the now disgraced FEMA Chief Michael Brown – “You’re doing a heckuva job Brownie” – Bush finally admitted: “The results are not acceptable.” Duh!
Congress reluctantly returned from holiday to offer $10.5 billion in aid. The Pentagon offered national guardsmen to stop looting, not to save lives or help people.
Hungry, thirsty and sick refugees at New Orleans’ Convention Center waited for food, water and medical attention. Bodies wrapped in sheets lay on the convention center floor. At the hospital, staff had piled corpses on the stairs. Mayor Nagin cried on radio. He had failed to tell people to leave before the Hurricane hit, to send school busses to get people out after it struck, or to mobilize any city resources.
By June 2008, Nagin and other local, state and federal government officials had still not mobilized major resources to bring back 9th ward residents or rebuild for those who stayed or returned. Shirley pointed to the FEMA trailer where she lived. She hoped it wasn’t toxic like so many of the others.
Shirley Jackson, president of a neighborhood council in ward 9, pointed to the vast acreage of empty lots. “Every lot used to have a home on it,” she explained. Since the government has not helped, she continued, volunteers have to do the job. She runs a mini tractor helping high school volunteers from Concord Massachusetts with their land clearing project. She pointed to a pseudo sculpture she’d erected on the site where her house once stood—a few concrete blocks in a pile.
“The politicians don’t have anything to do with the people. We elect them. They’re supposed to do something for us. All they do is something for themselves.” She spoke of collusion between the mayor and other government agencies and real estate developers trying to grab the titles for the empty lots in the 9th Ward.
A woman from Needham Massachusetts explained that she and other volunteers had come down to help “because these people need it. That’s all. Just being good neighbors.”
“Like new.” The elderly black man admired the floors of his redone house and then praised three young college students from Americorps for dedication and craftsmanship. The young women beam, but won’t talk for camera because they are “working for the government” and didn’t want to make remarks that could cause them trouble. Hey, they might lose their $8 an hour jobs.
The man recalled waiting for the insurance payment. “I thought I had bought it. They said I didn’t” He still awaits electricity and water, but “it’ll come.” He smiled. “I get mail now and nice young folks cleared my yard and washed away the mold. I can live here again. I hope some of my neighbors return. I’ve lost track of them.”
Another resident felt less optimistic. “The FEMA people pissed away $85 million of food and beds and stuff that was supposed to go to the Hurricane victims,” the middle aged black woman commented. “I saw this on CNN. FEMA kept the stuff in warehouses.”
General Services Administration records prove that for two years FEMA didn’t distribute needed goods to Hurricane victims and then gave 121 truckloads of material to other agencies. http://www.planetizen.com/node/33442
On the way to New Orleans, Tony the disabled oil rigger we had met in Krotz Spring told us of a “plot” in which Bush “colluded with local and state officials and real estate interests to force the poor blacks out of New Orleans.” Evidence, we asked?
“It’s logical. Look how people got flooded out and can’t come back.”
We asked a New Orleans lawyer if the local police had links with the mafia. “They are the mafia,” she laughed.
Paranoia? Or the thinking that inevitably develops when corruption marries venality and lives in the White House and lesser government palaces?
It doesn’t take Sherlock Homes to understand that the Mississippi River’s power alone didn’t kill and dislodge hundreds of thousands of mostly poor and black people. Nature also needed Bush’s priorities, appointments, and values to accomplish its acts of mass obliteration.
Before Katrina, Bush and company paid little attention to poor people or weather reports on TV. Indeed the world watched as government officials at all levels ignored the flood victims’ plight. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Bush played video golf while New Orleans flooded. In light of such dramatic negligence and incompetence, and downright cynicism, how can you blame a mighty river?
In mid June, we watched a ferry disembark from New Orleans to transport people and cars to cities on the other side of the Mississippi. The water flow barely rippled, although upstream it continued to force thousands of people from their homes.
In ten days of travel, we had witnessed the erosion of small town America, its business districts boarded up; its young people leaving as old factories rusted. People in these now flooded towns and cities saw their bridges floating away, their dams and levees surrendering, their aging sewage systems collapsing. Their crops and animals floated away.
On July 4, politicians repeated the same old crap: “We’re the greatest” this and that. “Stop lying,” I want to scream. The U.S. infrastructure needs “about $1 trillion more …to bring infrastructure up to par with modern needs and standards,” not counting costs of “new roads, rails, and sewers … nor the cost to repair damage inflicted by the recent Midwest floods.” Wastewater treatment plants mean sewage doesn’t mix with drinking water. (Andrew Stern Reuters July 1, 2008)
Bush requested $1.8 billion for flood recovery. A drop in the proverbial bucket! While billions per week flow to Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of deteriorating bridges, levees and dams await attention.
A road trip through middle America convinced Old Tom and Huck that Walmart should replace the Bald Eagle as the American symbol. In New Orleans, however, we saw how Katrina overwhelmed commerce. “Partying” reemerged on Bourbon Street. Locals folk dance to Cajun music near the wharf.
Yet, Nature’s forces seemed to loom over the city along with shadow of energy-sapping government corruption. Bush continues to offer this model to the rest of the world! Mark Twain would have said something caustic. George Carlin, (may he rest laughing) winner of this year’s Mark Twin award, expressed my thoughts: “A politician’s insincerity can best be measured by how far around the world our soldiers are…”
SAUL LANDAU received the Bernardo O’Higgins award from Chile. He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of A Bush and Botox World (AK/CounterPunch).. His films can be found at: http://roundworldproductions.com/Site/Films_by_Saul_Landau_on_DVD.html