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Three Little Words: We Moved On

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Barack Obama delivered a rousing didn't-I-almost-win speech Tuesday night in New Hampshire, and John McCain delivered a stirring I'm-the-comeback-don't-call-me-kid address on the occasion of his victory. What they, and all the other candidates in the first primary in the nation, had in common was one thing: they were totally, utterly, stunningly (to this observer) dedicated to ignoring the greatest disaster to befall an American city in modern times. What is there for a presidential candidate to say two and a half years after the levees breached and flooded New Orleans? Well, judging by this piece in the New Orleans alternative weekly Gambit, the US Army Corps of Engineers, which built the defective structures and is responsible for planning the improved ones, is still letting the community down--in this case, missing a deadline for submission to Congress of its report on a system to afford protection against Cat 5 storms. A theoretical candidate could offer to repair the city's breached faith in its nation, to re-think the way great public works in this country are designed and built, to commit to a program of infrastructure repairs before more levees beach and more bridges collapse.

I was in New Orleans the first week of this year, and, as the city shook off its sudden attack of Arctic air and welcomed the second consecutive Big Game crowd in a week, as the French Quarter filled with so many visitors in purple (for LSU) and red (for Ohio State) that Regina, my friend who co-owns a restaurant, said "It looks like New Orleans again", it was possible to do the post-K squint and believe that everything was okay. That squint, which entails just looking at the grass-roots recovery and ignoring the affordable housing crisis just blocks away, is pretty convincing when the temperature is in the 70s, and Carnival season starts up just as the city gets a $200 million jolt from big events that, if you believe the Presidential Debate Commission, New Orleans isn't yet prepared to host.

The Times-Picayune reports on the chefs who moved away and couldn't stay away, and musician friends of mine are returning home, and Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation has apparently doubled its matching fund goals for building new green homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. So there are stories of hope and progress as well as of delay and betrayal in New Orleans. None of them worthy of a mention as candidates left and right outlined their visions for the future.

Obama's speech ended with a ringing evocation of three words he claimed were emblematic in the life of the nation: "Yes, We Can"; and the crowd joined in chanting those words in response. But, in their turning away from a "man-made engineering disaster" (in the words of UC Berkeley's Dr. Bob Bea), in their turning away from a city that was betrayed by its country twice--in the faulty construction of a "protective system" and in the refusal to follow the letter of the nation's own National Response Plan when that system failed--the candidates, Obama included, are paying silent tribute to the three words that more accurately describe America's contemporary approach to problems: We Moved On.