Wine From Outer Space

Wine From Outer Space is intoxicating, unearthly and surprising. It's also where I write about whatever I choose, and that's nice.

28 September 2005

Katrina's Aftermath: Race and Class in America

A great deal has been made about race in terms of the sluggish federal reaction to rendering aid and assistance to those wracked by Katrina; at least, a great deal has been made of it in the media. Kanye West's outburst during a fundraiser for victims of Katrina soon became late night talk show fodder. "George Bush hates black people," said West, who I have to assume was going off-script. West was angry and frustrated; his co-presenter for that segment, Mike Meyers, tried hard not to look mortified; Chris Tucker, who followed West, looked like somebody took a crap in the middle of the stage. Tucker's reaction was pretty right on the mark, however, and it wasn't necessarily because West overstated the point.

I remember one election year, maybe 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for President of the United States. He was speaking to a group of people, among them a white family. Their son, who was probably eight or nine years old, asked Jackson, when he was President, if he would make white people into slaves. Jackson just hugged him and held him, and I remember realizing that this signified something important, but I was mystified at the time.

Many of us are so damaged in our ability to deal with people of different ethnicities and cultures that we might not even know the extent to which we've been harmed. Thus was the case of the little boy, asking a Presidential candidate if he would "go despot" to achieve some sort of racial revenge on those who had kidnapped and enslaved his ancestors.

The same is true in terms of classicism in the U.S. Many notions are so ingrained in our being about economic class that a lot of people take them as truisms. I know one person who was furious about FEMA and the Red Cross distributing debit cards to the victims of Katrina. "They'll just waste the money--they don't know what to do with it!" she seethed. "They're all a bunch of worthless fucking criminals and they'll just sped it on drugs!" My lower jaw swayed in the breeze.

Others take a different approach to the poor and disenfranchised, viewing them as plucky if not downright heroic figures, chinning it out against adversity. A nice thought to have while you're flipping through your latest Williams Sonoma catalog while the reality for others is starkly less comfortable.

One of the stories I read in the wake of Katrina's aftermath discussed the reconstruction of New Orleans in general and the creation of new middle-class housing in particular. New apartment complexes, new condomeniums. Houses--no, homes--for rent and sale. There would be no reconstruction of the shotgun shacks inhabited by that city's poorest residents, even for the purposes of adding "color" or "character" to the community. No, it was all a force majeure gentrification project, because this time they were going to do it better than ever before. This time, they were going to do it right.

19 September 2005

Katrina's Aftermath: Reconstruction of New Orleans

The destructive wake of Hurricane Katrina has revitalized discussions about official U.S. policy towards the environment, the role of federal and state government, city planning, race relations in America, federal fiscal responsibility, governmental bureaucracy and our approach towards energy policy in the U.S.

I will explore all of these matters in a series of posts, but currently the more immediate concern is the process of cleaning up New Orleans and the other communities that were damaged and destroyed by Katrina. Many cities and towns in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi were completely washed away, their residents sent on a diaspora until such time as those hometowns can again be considered habitable. New Orleans, however, faces a special problem in that much of the city was and continues to be underwater and heavily polluted. How to go about recreating the Crescent City is a challenge that is perhaps unprecedented in U.S. history.

The Gulf Coast region was devastated by a natural disaster which in turn brought about a man-made one: billions of gallons of standing water in the New Orleans area are now teeming with all manner of toxic chemicals, oil, gasoline, raw sewage and harmful bacteria. Civic, state and federal officials cannot attempt full-scale reconstruction until this water is pumped out of the city; processing the bilge before it is dumped back into the Gulf of Mexico, however, will have not place in the plans for rebuilding the Big Easy.

It seems that the American penchant for short-term solutions will likely create another long-term problem in returning all of this polluted water to the Gulf. Imagine how many cans and bottles of detergent, disinfectant and cleanser--of the industrial and common household variety--are now a part of that festering stew in New Orleans. Imagine the fluids and chemicals inside each automobile and boat (gasoline, oil, anti-freeze, brake and steering fluid, Freon) that were leeched into that standing water. Consider also the industrial chemical plants, refineries, the garbage dumps and junkyards, rendering plants, paint shops and plastic production facilities. Add to this swarming broth the bacteria from sewers, decomposing bodies and rotting food. I'm hopeful that this fallout will urge policy makers to critically re-assess how and where food, chemical and fuel processing centers are constructed and operated, but as of right now it seems that our attitude toward and interaction with our environment is not on the government's radar screen. Getting rid of the polluted water, rebuilding almost an entire city from scratch and bringing residents back to these devastated areas seem to be of the utmost concern at this time.

I don't know if city, state and federal authorities involved in the cleanup and reconstruction of the hardest hit areas are even considering NOT rebuilding on the same site--certainly it seems in their mind that the major fuel refineries will stay right where they are, as repairing something is cheaper and more expedient that recreating it. Is it wise to maintain these chemical and energy concerns in an area that is proven to be open to such natural destruction? It's like building a nuclear reactor at the base of an active volcano and just hoping for the best.

I read an estimate recently that states approximately 90% of the buildings in the New Orleans area that was flooded will have to be torn down. This seems prudent in that the damage to structures left in standing water for weeks would not be conducive to maintaing a building's structural integrity. Added to that, however, is the damage created by mold. Mold born out of not only a wet environment, but one infected with all manner of dangerous chemicals.

Knowing the bowl-like geography of New Orleans; knowing that it is located in a hurricane alley; knowing that almost all of the entire city will have to be rebuilt from the ground up, and having a sense of--yet not knowing--the full extent of long-term damage created by so many harmful chemicals and fuel products seeping into the ground, it is valid to ask should New Orleans be rebuilt, and to what extent should it undergo reconstruction? I believe it was Dennis Hastert who made a comment a day or so after Katrina swept through New Orleans to the effect that the place should just be bulldozed. This of course invited an outcry from city and state officials and the general public at large. Obviously it does not seem to be a viable approach, but I do have to wonder the lengths to which the various levels of government involved will go to resurrect that glorious old city? New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is already swinging open the gates, telling displaced residents of certain areas of the city to come back. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who is heading up the federal response, recommends no such return at this time--most of New Orleans still lacks clean drinking water, electricity or a police force capable of general patrol and response.

A sense of urgency in contending with the cleanup and rebuilding of New Orleans is certainly a good thing, and was sorely lacking in the first few days after the hurricane. Unfortunately, it seems that most officials are interested in hurried action and not planning. Allowing residents to trickle back into the city seems highly problematic--these people will require services and resources that are not in place, or at best not there in abundance. Electricity, water, natural gas, law enforcement, fire departments, grocery stores, sanitation services, hospitals, clinics, schools and clothing stores are not yet up to a level sufficient to provide for the general population. The added difficulty of course is that the continuing cleanup and reconstruction efforts that may be impeded by residents in the area.

It is unknown at this time what the environmental cleanup process would entail. Certainly removing all of the debris will likely be the first step, but again the underlying and long-term danger is all of the chemicals that have seeped into the soil. A massive amount of testing and research will have to precede any attempt at chemical removal, and it may yet prove to be an undertaking so vast in required funds, manpower and time that relocating the displaced citizens of New Orleans would not be feasible for many months.

The financial costs of cleaning and rebuilding the Gulf region affected by Katrina--an area equivalent in size to Great Britain--is truly staggering. The federal government has already asked for and received nearly $63 billion in funds, and it was noted in a recent address to the nation by President Bush that $200 billion might be necessary when calculating the enormity of this situation. At the same time, Bush pledged that the money would not come from increased taxes. It seems, then, that in light of an ongoing war in Iraq, America's continued presence in Afghanistan, the largest cleanup and reconstruction effort in the nation's history, the pledge to continue to fund Social Security and now a new announcement by NASA of a $100 billion project to return to the Moon, the U.S. will continue to dangerously indebt itself to China and South Korea. Add to this the possibility that billions of dollars in the funded pensions of two commercial airlines may be left to rest on the government's doorstep in bankruptcy hearings, and we have the potential for an economic crisis of grand proportions.