September 03, 2005

New Orleans: One jubilant statement

After my last post, I tried to write a regular travel story today but found I couldn't leave New Orleans just yet.

Only today (would I have made it to today?) are bits of organized, effective, life-saving relief beginning to touch the tens of thousands who haven't had a piece of food or a sip of water in half a week.

Because I like harmony, I avoid, except when I simply can't, injecting opinions about politics and other divisive subjects into this blog. I'll get back to travel stories in my next post, but I simply can't, at this moment, avoid expressing my disgust at the ineptitude, inaction, finger-pointing and buck-passing at all levels of American government since the moment the levees were breached and New Orleans began to disappear.

Allow me this post to vent.

The epic failure to quickly and decisively deliver food, water and medicine to our fellow citizens in their time of crisis is a breach worse than a levee failure. It's a massive breach of faith. Like so many, I watched and listened, increasingly stunned, as people died, languished and pleaded and no one took responsibility, no one took charge, no one took action.

If news crews, private relief organizations and country singers could get into and out of the city center, then why couldn't all the might of the United States get vehicles -- trucks, tanks, buses, vans, RVs, SUVs, jeeps, Hummers, airboats, rowboats, wheelbarrows, little red wagons -- laden with emergency rations that would keep people from dying into that same city center?

Something was made terribly, awfully clear in the past three days. We are, at all levels of government, unprepared to keep our people alive in the wake of a massive disaster on our soil.

When disaster strikes elsewhere, we look effective and heroic. But elsewhere, we're not in charge. We are not responsible for righting everything. We quickly send people, supplies and money, but our government doesn't have to run the show and make the decisions. Nor live with the consequences. We perform well in supporting roles.

The utter lack of leadership that forced American citizens to survive like animals in a hellhole while bureaucrats in suits talked and talked until I could stand their talking no more, scares me upright. I watched, on all the news channels, a reality show. The reality is that in the event of major disaster, we will, like our fellows in New Orleans, be on our own.

Perhaps we should let the Red Cross, magnificent and fast-moving in this as in all disasters, run homeland security. "Who's in charge? Where's the Rudy Giuliani for New Orleans?" cried one radio commentator.

I listened to a National Public Radio interview this afternoon with Kermit Ruffins, beloved New Orleans jazz trumpeter and vocalist and leader of the Barbecue Swingers. After each hometown performance, Ruffins would treat his audience to barbecue prepared on a pit rigged up in the back of his truck. "My truck's underwater now," he said. "I probably won't see it again." But, asked if he'd get a new truck and start singing and cooking again, he said he sure would, even if it took a year or two to get it all back together.

The jazz funeral is a New Orleans tradition. A ritual. A rite of ultimate passage. A blowout and grand farewell that turns death into a celebration of life. The interviewer, speaking of all the deaths and funerals New Orleans will have to bear in the near future, asked Ruffins whether jazz would be part of those, or whether it was inappropriate at this time because it's "too overwhelming."

"It's too overwhelming," whispered Ruffins. "But," he continued, "once everybody gets back into New Orleans and settles down, there's gonna be a jazz funeral like you never seen."

If you've traveled in the South, you'll recognize in Ruffins's words and spirit and hopefulness the deep faith that's part of the fabric of life there, especially among the poor who need and use it as basic, everyday soul fuel and sustenance. This isn't in-your-face religion that's worn on the sleeve and shouted loudly from anything that might metaphorically be a mountaintop. This is the real thing -- quiet, abiding, tolerant, gentle and true. It's a beautiful thing to be around, and I saw and felt lots of it in New Orleans. People who have the least materially, are often the richest spiritually.

I saw it as the kids and I drove our van, New Paint, on the thin, levee-side roads that would carry us into the city. An excerpt from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America:

New Paint meandered toward New Orleans on small roads dominated by oil and petrochemical plants and punctuated by sleepy towns, churches, cemeteries, antebellum plantations and sugar cane fields. Being Sunday, Pinnacle Polymers and Dupont Elastomers were quiet, but churches were open all day for business. We passed one in Ascension Parish about 3 p.m., and members of the congregation, dressed to the nines, were gathered in the parking lot, chatting and socializing. The same at Mt. Calvary Church, where the men wore pressed dress pants and crisp snow white long-sleeved shirts, buttoned up proper even in the stifling heat and humidity. The women’s dresses were jubilant statements in red and orange. The church sat near Pecan Street and looked directly onto the massive levee that hid and held back the Mississippi just beyond. You knew the river was there when a barge or tanker passed, showing only its top as it slid by.

I just watched the news and listened in awe as a young man, trapped for days in the horrific convention center and still with no way out of the city, sat on concrete steps in the sweltering sun and uttered a jubilant statement as he was handed one small bottle of water from the back of a just-arrived supply truck.

He tilted his head back toward the sun. "We'll do alright. We takin' it one day at a time. Thank you, God!"

I will donate half of my book royalties to the American Red Cross for an indefinite period -- $2 per copy if purchased through me or Booklocker and $1 per copy if purchased through Amazon or other online merchants.