Memorial Day weekend began for me in New Orleans, a city two thirds dead and nearly forgotten, as it faces the next onslaught of storms. Even as Operation Iraqi Freedom grinds onward, operation Katrina has all but disappeared from our consciousness. It was just a storm, right?
I went to New Orleans with my friend Erika, who is determined to leverage her philanthropic dollars to renovate houses and bring people back home. Would that Erika were the U.S. government. We took a helicopter tour of the city. From the air, the sprawl of a thriving metropolis looked to have been the victim of neutron bomb. Most structures were still standing, some at odd angles, but not a person on the streets for miles.
The next day, the head of the largest African American bank in the city took us on a tour of areas in which we could work together to rebuild. We saw his operations center, now an empty shell. He showed us his headquarters building which, before Katrina, had dozens of tenants. How many will he get back? Not one. They've all moved or are not coming back to the city. Before Katrina, he had 150 employees; now he has 81.
And then we drove through those same neighborhoods we'd seen from the air, including the bank president's. He showed us his house. "I've gutted it, but I'm still waiting for the insurance company to decide on a settlement." This from a man tied so firmly to New Orleans that he can imagine life no where else. His bank serves middle and lower class African Americans, the backbone of the city before the storm. He works harder than ever, determined to be the fiber of a community the government has foresaken, but with two thirds of his client base gone, it makes for a dificult ride.
As we looked out over the expanse of stillness that used to be a city, he showed us the view of over 100,000 houses now standing empty. That equates to some 350,000 people, probably more, gone. The longer it takes for the government and the insurance companies to figure out how to rebuild, the less chance there is they'll come back. Life goes on. New friends are made. New realities are found. A city dies.
The French Quarter is nearly back to normal except that there's a shortage of employees to work in the swanky restaurants and antique stores. It feels almost like Disneyland, an enclave of relative normalcy and certain luxury as against the reality beyond. Many establishments cannot stay open regular hours due to the lack of help. It's ironic that folks who have "resettled" in Texas, where Mother Bush thought they'd be better off anyway, cant find jobs, but their hometown is begging for them. The only problem is that they have no where to live and no money to get restarted.
We've moved on to a horrendous earthquake in Indonesia, to riots in Kabul, to front pages dominated by scandal in America and war in Iraq. How is it that the richest nation on earth can fight a $100 billion a year war of choice, but it can't find a way to put people back into their homes, back into an economy that needs them?
Memorial Day gives us all a chance to remember the millions of soldiers who died to keep our nation free. Some of those soldiers died in 1812 defending New Orleans. Imagine how this nation would react had that elegant city been the focus of a military attack, terrorist or otherwise, last August? Instead it was a storm. Somehow, the Bush Administration seems to think that only bullets and bombs are worthy of attention.
We can plan to topple a tyrant and pretend to rebuild a nation we have broken. You'd think someone could plan to save a city and 350,000 lives. But then, New Orleans isn't part of the NeoCon theory of global domination? Or is it?