Sunday, October 09, 2005

Surviving in the City of New Orleans 

Michael Lewis, who is almost always entertaining, has written a fabulous article in today's New York Times Magazine. It is the must-read item of the day, especially if you want a good chuckle with a hint of schadenfreude, or just can't handle non-stop coverage of the natural disaster du jour, the monster quake in Kashmir.

Lewis is descended from various of the old families of New Orleans, grew up there, and is able to describe its social structure more effectively than most writers with a blue state readership. And, I should add, his essay casts the mainstream media's coverage of the Katrina catastrophe in a very harsh light.

Lest you are put off by its eleven web-page length, I offer a few samples.

On "Mrs. Perrier":
That's when I arrived - on the heels of the young men who fled town the night before. Unaware of Haywood's plight, I pulled up across the street from my parents' house, into the only spot clear of debris, in front of old Ms. Dottie Perrier's place. For many years now, the easiest way to determine if she was home had been to pull your car right up in front: if she was in, she would throw open her upstairs shutter and ask, sweetly, that you park someplace else. Now, along with going the wrong way down one-way streets, running stop signs and crossing the Audubon Park on the grass, parking right in front of Ms. Perrier's house was one of the new pleasures of driving around a city without any people in it.

The moment I cut the engine, her shutters sprang open. Out the front door she flew, with her white hair nicely coiffed and her big blue eyes blinking behind the oversize spectacles perched on her nose without earpieces. She had the air of an owl who has mistaken day for night. After spending the last five days inside her house, she was intensely curious.

"Where is everybody?" she asked.

"There's been a hurricane," I said. "The city has been evacuated. Everybody's gone."

"Really! So they've all left, et cetera?"

Her surprise was as genuine as her tone was pleasant. Two days before, it turned out, one of the men inside Fort Huger passed by and noticed outgoing mail in her slot. One letter was her electric bill - four days after the entire city lost power. He knocked on her door, told her she really should get out of town and then tried to explain to her that the postman wasn't coming, perhaps for months. Whereupon Ms. Perrier put her hands on her hips and said, "Well, no one informed me!"

On Israeli commandos and Russian helicopters:
Just then a car turned the corner, rolled up to a house in the next block and stopped. Its appearance was as shocking as the arrival of a spaceship filled with aliens - apart from Ms. Perrier, I hadn't seen a soul, or a car, for miles. Four men with black pistols leapt out of it. Two of them looked as if they belonged in the neighborhood - polo shirts, sound orthodontia, a certain diffidence in their step. But the other two, with their bad teeth and battle gear, marched around as if they had only just captured the place. Leaving Ms. Perrier, I wandered down and met my first former Israeli commandos, along with their Uptown New Orleans employers, who had come to liberate their homes.

They had just landed Russian assault helicopters in Audubon Park. Not one, but two groups of Uptown New Orleanians had rented these old Soviet choppers, along with four-to-six-man Israeli commando units (platoons? squads?), and swooped down onto the soccer field beside the Audubon Zoo. Down, down, down they had come, then jumped out to, as they put it, "secure the perimeter." Guns aimed, eyes darting, no point on the compass uncovered. As a young man in this new militia later told me: "Hell, yes, I was scared. We didn't know what to expect. We thought Zulu nation might be coming out of the woods." But the only resistance they met was a zookeeper, who came out with his hands up.

All of this happened just moments before. Right here, in my hometown. All four men were still a little hopped up. The commandos went inside to "clear the house." A nice little yellow house just one block from my childhood home. Not a human being - apart from Ms. Perrier and me - for a mile in each direction. And yet they raised their guns, opened the door, entered and rattled around. A few minutes later they emerged, looking grim.

"You got some mold on the upstairs ceiling," one commando said gravely.

What sort of person knows how to hire Israeli commandos that have Russian helicopters and get them into the United States on short notice? In an inexplicable omission, Lewis does not tell us.

We are only beginning to understand the many consequences of the insanely overwrought press coverage. Not only were absentee homeowners hiring commandos, but the news coverage rattled the people who holed up in the city:
The city on high ground organized itself around the few houses turned into forts....

The biggest fort of all was Fort Ramelli, a mansion on St. Charles Avenue. At Fort Ryan, they joked, lovingly, about Fort Ramelli. "We used to say that if a nuclear bomb went off in New Orleans, the only thing left would be the cockroaches and Bobby Ramelli," said Nick Ryan, Bill's son. "Now we're not so sure about the cockroaches." Bobby Ramelli and his son spent the first five days of the flood in his flat boat, pulling, they guessed, about 300 people from the water.

The police had said that gangs of young black men were looting and killing their way across the city, and the news had reached the men inside the forts. These men also had another informational disadvantage: working TV sets. Over and over and over again, they replayed the same few horrifying scenes from the Superdome, the convention center and a shop in downtown New Orleans. If the images were to be reduced to a sentence in the minds of Uptown New Orleans, that sentence would be: Crazy black people with automatic weapons are out hunting white people, and there's no bag limit! "The perspective you are getting from me," one of Fort Huger's foot soldiers said, as he walked around the living room with an M-16, "is the perspective of the guy who is getting disinformation and reacting accordingly." He spoke, for those few days, for much of the city, including the mayor and the police chief.

If Michael Lewis, who is a great writer but not a "tough guy" like, for example, Geraldo, was able to understand what was happening inside New Orleans, why wasn't the mayor, the cops, and the bulk of the mainstream press?

The politicians and the press, it seems, were far more effective at whipping up hysteria than they were in communicating useful information. Forgot all those buses lined up, unused. Lewis says that people could have walked to food and shelter.
The old houses were also safe. There wasn't a house in the Garden District, or Uptown, that could not have been easily entered; there wasn't a house in either area that didn't have food and water to keep a family of five alive for a week; and there was hardly a house in either place that had been violated in any way. And the grocery stores! I spent some time inside a Whole Foods choosing from the selection of PowerBars. The door was open, the shelves groaned with untouched bottles of water and food. Downtown, 25,000 people spent the previous four days without food and water when a few miles away - and it's a lovely stroll - entire grocery stores, doors ajar, were untouched. From the moment the crisis downtown began, there had been a clear path, requiring maybe an hour's walk, to food, water and shelter. And no one, not a single person, it seemed, took it.


There were no sheepdogs, apparently, to lead the people at the Convention Center across the high ground to food, water, and shelter.

Bush Derangement Syndrome also seems to have flourished in the disaster:
My great-grandfather J. Blanc Monroe is dead and gone, but he didn't take with him the climate of suspicion between rich and poor that he apparently helped foster. On St. Claude Avenue, just below the French Quarter, there was a scene of indigents, old people and gay men employed in the arts fleeing what they took to be bombs being dropped on them by Army helicopters. What were being dropped were, in fact, ready-to-eat meals and water in plastic jugs. But falling from the sky, these missiles looked unfriendly, and when the jugs hit concrete, they exploded and threw up shrapnel. The people in the area had heard from the police that George W. Bush intended to visit the city that day, and they could not imagine he meant them any good - but this attack, as they took it, came as a shock. "Run! Run!" screamed a man among the hordes trying to outrun the chopper. "It's the president!"

This story is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and tragic. Whichever you think it is (and I think it is both), it is manifestly the consequence of the paranoid hatred of the president that animates so much of the Democratic political leadership.

On being "domed":
New Orleans now had a new word for what happens to people unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the authorities purporting to save them: domed. As in "I just got domed," or "If the police knock on your door, don't answer, 'cause you might get domed." To be domed is to be herded into a domed sports building - the Superdome, the Astrodome, the Maravich basketball arena at Louisiana State University - for your own safety. Ms. Perrier hadn't really wanted to leave her house in the first place. She had entrusted herself to me. Now she had been domed.

And here I thought being "domed" had something to do with the Fighting Irish.



By Blogger Sissy Willis, at Sun Oct 09, 01:38:00 PM:

An InstaLink is only a matter of time. SUPERB post! 'Love the "Sheepdog" reference.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sun Oct 09, 03:07:00 PM:

I'm afraid, Sissy, that I've already gotten my InstaLink for the day, to a post I wrote back on August 18. See if you can fine it! :)  

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