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January 25, 2006

The City that God Forgot

Roy Meachum

NEW ORLEANS - The chief radical fundamentalist among us can generally be ignored. Pat Robertson's always blaming the wrath of God. He attributed Ariel Sharon's stroke to the Israeli prime minister's willingness to restore land to the Palestinians, for example, thus breaking the Divine Word.

And, oh, yes, Hurricane Katrina was punishment for New Orleans' devotion to the depravity depicted in the Bible's Sodom and Gomorrah.

Surprisingly, however, Ray Nagin agreed, but in a different way. The city's African-American mayor said the lacerating winds and drowning deluge were caused by the sins African Americans committed against each other. He cited the number of young blacks who killed one another.

Neither gentleman bothered to explain why the overwhelmingly white and generally upright property owners along the Mississippi Gulf Coast underwent the same punishment. In some ways, their suffering may have been even worse.

Beach-front mansions, motels, luxury apartment complexes and buildings that still survived from the days when land was literally dirt-cheap, they all disappeared; swept away in Katrina's great tidal wave.

After all, the powerful hurricane's eye shifted focus at the last instant away from Rev. Robertson's Sodom and Mayor Nagin's Gomorrah and came ashore on Louisiana's neighbor.

Mississippi's summer playgrounds have never known a winter like this, not since the nomadic Indian tribes moved on, at least. No words can describe or finite photographs portray the breadth and depth, the totality of the wreckage spread out for miles along the Gulf, reaching into its inlets and creeks.

The enormity of the devastation hardly can be imagined, let alone spelled out in any medium. Confederate President Jefferson Davis's final retreat received no dispensation, nor did the nearby home for old soldiers, open now to all military retirees. It's not "open" now, of course.

But at least the state and federal governments are attempting to rebuild and refurbish their properties. Private homes that provided the by-far greatest element in the development mix close to the Gulf of Mexico show no signs of coming back to life some five months after the great disaster.

Shredded insulation and tarpaulins, together with invisible sand from the adjoining beaches, provide the only movement, for the most part. Work crews are few and far between in the neighborhoods that front the Gulf highway and extend back as much as half-a-mile, by my guess. There is no exact boundary at any point.

There are exceptions, of course.

Mr. Robertson's God might have disapproved of the numerous casinos that what is arguably the nation's poorest state licensed, hoping to turn around its wretched schools and stop the outflow of its best and brightest youths.

But since most of Mississippi shares some version of his Protestant faith, the facile minister may have decided he had no real "explanation." Especially since local church attendance reportedly runs high.

Forming the vast majority in the interior, the state's African Americans "thin out" down toward the Gulf's "Riviera." So the mayor's lecture scarcely applies.

But on the ground, moving back and forth over still familiar territory, I witnessed examples that, however speciously, could be used to "prove" both cases. Ray Nagin's first.

Except for FEMA blue plastic on an occasional roof and a sidewalk clutter from broken plaster and such, the city's predominately white neighborhoods appear untouched. The most evident problem I found driving uptown was the lack of help.

Along St. Charles Avenue, restaurants, cafes and fast food joints advertised for new employees. Some locations recruited with promises new recruits would receive a bonus each and every week they stuck around. Still, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises close early and open late.

With the world's oldest continuous street car service due to resume this week and spring on the way to revive palm trees, the white neighborhoods show little sign of God's wrath, if that's what it was.

Going downtown, especially into the Ninth Ward, Mr. Nagin's premise bears more fruit.

As with Mississippi's Gulf Coast, the extent of the devastation defies wild imagination. One single insurance company (State Farm) supposedly wrote off some 150,000 autos in the region, many from East New Orleans, which includes the Ninth.

Block after block, it was quite impossible to tell if anyone still lives there. Many of the houses appeared untouched, some sported what looked like fresh paint, but the only people I saw, and they came singly and in pairs only, were crews attempting to undo what Katrina had wrought. Or was that Mr. Nagin's God?

Outside the mayor's city, in the white-flight communities along Lake Ponchartrain and in the blue collar precincts of St. Bernard's Parish, the same general desolation prevails. In lake neighborhoods, however, I saw a great deal more FEMA-provided mobile homes than in the parish, which hugs the river that stayed safely behind its levee.

The usually torpid Ponchartrain was the instrument for Mr. Robertson's vengeful God; at least those are the waters that really brought the entire community low.

How low?

That's the subject for another report.

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