11/22/2005 06:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There Are Crucial Issues In New Orleans, Is Harry Listening?

Last week there was a piece in Slate on Katrina Cough, and how residents in New Orleans are concerned about the integrity of the environment they are living in, and how they are fighting to get some pretty basic questions answered. The head of a group representing the Latino immigrant workers says, “I know men who have gotten so sick with diarrhea, skin inflammations and breathing problems they can't work [because of reactions to the debris and sediment.]” Meanwhile, Harry Shearer told the world that at Herbsaint, “the shrimp and tomato bisque and the shortribs just as delectable as in pre-K days.”

Just before that, it was reported that the EPA refuses to clean-up the interior spaces that have been contaminated with sediment in New Orleans, leaving that job to a state and city that are already severely overburdened. Harry Shearer? Apparently at Bacco, they’re using silverware again.

Last night was the kicker. 60 Minutes dared to air a story quoting a scientist that says New Orleans might be so far below water in 90-to-100 year that it might need levees of 100 feet to keep it safe, and questions whether that is worth it. The scientist bases his opinion on coastal erosion rates that are expected to increase because of the effects of global warming. Harry? He repeats attacks on the scientist’s credibility.

Nevermind that the findings of the scientist quoted by 60 Minutes are widely accepted. Al Gore has warned that New Orleans would be submerged if global warming was allowed to continue. CNN reported on it back in 1997. The Washington Post has an excellent piece on the history of New Orleans sinking. Science Daily has reported on it. So has NPR.

I know from personal correspondences with him that Harry is fearful that bad press might keep New Orleans from coming back strong, and I definitely empathize. I can only imagine if my hometown of Philly was hit in the same way New Orleans was, and there was any suggestion that people not go back, my heart would be exploding with emotion. I wouldn’t want to believe what they were saying – that maybe people could get cancer by heading back or that maybe one day the city would be eaten up by the sea.

At the same time, I know it would be completely irresponsible of me to whistle past the graveyard on certain scientifically valid health warnings, push counter stories, and attack the credibility of others who are merely repeating what has been said for years. Essentially, those are Bush tactics and Harry should know better.

TIME Magazine
has a cover story this week on all that is going wrong in New Orleans and how much help people need. Much of it isn’t new, and the practical effects have been well known to people down there for some time. Instead of spending his time in New Orleans to dig deeper into those issues, and advocating on this blog for the people and their needs, Harry offered up reviews of restaurants in the French Quarter. For all practical purposes, it was no different than the Pentagon pushing stories about the US handing out candy to Iraq children after Abu Ghraib erupted. What about all the good things in Iraq/New Orleans?

As for Harry repeating Governor Blanco’s attacks on the scientist in the 60 Minutes story, look no further than Joe Wilson for what the Bushies do to people who make arguments they don’t like. Or take John Murtha. He dared to ask a question Republicans don’t want to hear – is Iraq worth it? Here’s a scientist asking a question Harry doesn’t want to hear, and Harry’s reaction is quite the same as the GOP’s was to Murtha.

By the way, I don’t agree with the scientist’s conclusion – that New Orleans is a lost cause. I think the city is worth it. I think we’re going to need to spend a lot of money to make it safe, but we should do it. However, we should heed warnings about the serious dangers facing the city rather than trashing messengers, or ignoring them. It is the only way to curb the longterm threat that coastal erosion and rising waters pose to the city. Had scientists’ warnings not been ignored or called crackpots when they said New Orleans needed better hurricane protection, we might not be in this position in the first place.

Finally, Harry asks two questions that I think I am entitled to answer. First, he asks if 60 Minutes would have run such a story about New York just after 9.11. Only if 60 Minutes would have run such a story on potential dangers to New York! Lord knows I begged them, as press secretary for Jerry Nadler, to report on the toxic contamination and how people were getting exposed to it because of the EPA’s nonfeasance. A 60 Minutes story would have been the best thing to happen to New York. It could have saved lives then and down the road.

Second, he asks if anyone dared to ask, “How much is New York worth,” after 9.11. In fact, people did ask, specifically, was it worth rebuilding the Trade Center, and how. We did ask whether or not we should rebuild the area, and how it should be done, and how tall that building should be. Some said we should rebuild tall buildings, others said a bunch of smaller ones. Some said nothing should be built there at all! There was a healthy debate, weighing all the pros and cons, and it was decided that the Freedom Tower was the way to go. But the point was that all opinions were taken into account, not summarily dismissed.