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August 28, 2007

"The Big Easy" Ain't Easy

Roy Meachum

Tomorrow brings Hurricane Katrina's second anniversary. The world ended for much of the New Orleans I grew up in, on August 29, 2005. Not my neighborhood though.

A trip to survey the damage five months later discovered flood waters reached the former Freret House but only the banquette: sidewalk in the local patois. Together with the adjoining Garden District, most of uptown and the French Quarter escaped serious damage. But totally gone were all the neighborhoods' colorful sights and sounds that made New Orleans New Orleans.

George W. Bush's Hollywood staging in Jackson Square, with the well-lighted St. Louis Cathedral as a backdrop, may have been the last highpoint of his presidency. It was concocted by the same people who whisked Mr. Bush, in a Navy flight jacket, out to a California-based aircraft carrier to announce triumph in Iraq, with his arms spread wide in a V for Victory.

His image makers were dead wrong on both occasions. The disasters continue in the Middle East and along the Gulf Coast, especially my hometown. For all the administration's pledges and promises, great sections of New Orleans remain two years later untouched by governmental largesse.

It is dead wrong, however, to dump the whole blame on the Oval Office's current resident. Where Mr. Bush erred was in claiming he had appointed the officials who would clean up and restore life to "The City That Care Forgot," as on old tourist motto declared.

The bureaucratic failures that resulted in the extent of that August's destruction extend back beyond when George W. Bush was born. He should have known, but obviously didn't, that his terms will expire long before a form of normality returns to that bend in the river where Louisiana was born.

Generations of officials with good intentions and well meaning business people supported raping the land and waters. They are all guilty, but they lacked malice. They thought they were doing right by the city. They were wrong. Let me give a very personal example.

The school where I literally grew up, Holy Cross was made uninhabitable, not by Katrina, but the collapse of the flimsy flood walls along the Industrial Canal. The canal opened two years after I enrolled as a boarder with the Catholic order that founded Notre Dame University.

The levees behind the school provided many pleasant hours, sitting or standing to watch the Mississippi rolling on, as the Jerome Kerns song said. The massive earthen berms meant to hold out the mighty river never budged.

To call the flood walls "levees" is an insult to the real levees. The hastily installed walls' collapse doomed the school's location that had been bought almost 200 years ago by the Order of Holy Cross. (Katrina chased the lone remaining brother back to his province's mother house.)

Being unable to keep promises that never should have been tossed out, Mr. Bush provided another target for his critics. And that's very unfair. City and state officials, almost entirely from his opposing party, have played a mighty role in keeping the mess a mess.

Count on a slew of Democratic contenders for the White House showing up "way down there" for TV cameras this week; like the chief Republican, they will also raise hope by visions they can't realistically deliver.

Still they will make the pilgrimage to be taped in the totally devastated Lower Ninth Ward, performing political dances on the skeleton of my still-beloved city. What's left of it.

That's how politicians resemble ancient prophets: they summon up futures that defy reality. The contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are simply no better than their opponents, in this regard.

Any publicity helps, to be realistic, that focuses attention on America's failure to rescue the United States' last bastion of civilization's rich ethnic mix. Of course I'm not objective.

But the whole overwrought world desperately needs a city that describes itself as "The Big Easy." And delivers on the premise.

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