[altroots] Fw: RE: Jose Torres Tama "Hurricane Katrina" Revised

To all loved ones, friends/amigos, I am safe at Andrei Codrescu's house and 
writing from there. Below is an account of how I escaped through a wormhole in 
the madness. --Jose

Hurricane Katrina and the chaos of New Orleans in her aftermath

Amigos, how do I begin to speak a picture of the aftermath that was an even 
greater terror than the physical damage that Hurricane Katrina spawned as some 
kind of water fury birthing an urban Kali-like chaos fueled further by the 
incompetence of local and state officials? The continuous quantity of 
misinformation that local and national media began spewing out was 
irresponsible and more than incorrect at times as the resilient and mythic city 
of New Orleans was already being pronounced dead and those of us who 
voluntarily chose to stay behind in hopes of helping to repair whatever damage 
Katrina might inflict were eventually sequestered by bad news, the ineptitude 
of local governance and currently the national disaster relief creating an 
apocalypse. 

I chose to stay because I am devoted to a city I love and was willing to ride 
out any natural storm in a metropolis that has survived yellow fever epidemics 
and two early fires that cindered the old French Quarter to the ground so that 
the Spanish could rebuild it when it was a capital of its providences?even 
before there was a United States. New Orleans has a history before the 
imagination of thirteen colonies dreamed a revolution against the British to 
proclaim their independence. This city is African, Latin, Caribbean, French, 
Spanish, Irish, Italian, Vietnamese and Honduran and only after the Louisiana 
Purchase in 1803 did it have an ?American? presence and become part of the 
Union that is now denying it its last breath. 

So I ask you where is the compassionate conservative regime that seems 
politically poised to punish this first multiracial port city in the 
hemispheric Americas that recently voted itself the color blue in a red state? 
Is a Christian maniacal executive chief whipping New Orleans into submission 
like so many African slaves were whipped by similar bible-toting masters only a 
century and half ago? 

I am offering such a historical timeline and perspective on how the past 
effects the present because we are generally uniformed about this city that is 
more than Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and the party town of the Old South. I am 
pleading for a collective scream from coast to coast to save this eclectic 
relic of a city that has been a home for many--from one century to another. New 
Orleans deserves an organized effort of heart and efficiency. It has survived 
hurricanes before, but it is having trouble surviving the official storm 
masquerading as a savior. How is it that this great empire of capital and 
industry cannot manage to organize its technology to mount a proper rescue for 
the most precious pueblo in its possession?

I was able to get out on the Wednesday after Katrina hit when the city 
officials ordered the water shut down. The water was cut and it was time to go. 
And I had to flee this city that I have lived in for the past twenty years not 
via the efforts of authorized personnel but via a pirate bus, a yellow vehicle 
with the Jefferson Parish School Board brand on its side?a bus that operated 
the kind of rescue mission only imagined in a Louisiana Hollywood bayou version 
of ?Hotel Rwanda.? I escaped with my partner Claudia Copeland, my writer friend 
Jimmy Nolan, who is a fifth-generation native born in the middle of an unnamed 
hurricane, and his neighbor who I only know as Kip. Kip was on his third day of 
survival without access to a dialysis machine that cleans his liver and allows 
him to live. 

We, the ones who stubbornly stay from one hurricane to another that places us 
in the ?cone of uncertainty,? do so because we understand that our human 
resilience after the natural storm will help rebuild and weather whatever 
mother nature decides to throw at us. We know how to live with hurricanes and 
their aftermath, but we were not prepared for the official sequestering that 
unleashed an even more furious storm of urban desperation. Desperation that 
festered like an untreated wound in an August summer. 

Yes, Katrina was a force to be reckoned with and her damage was more 
catastrophic than Hurricane Andrew which hit west of New Orleans in the early 
?90?s. Yes, there was flooding in East New Orleans, the ninth ward, the 
Bywater, the Lakeside area, but it was never reported that most of the French 
Quarter and parts of the second historic neighborhood called the Faubourg 
Marigny that borders the old city was mostly above water and actually very dry 
only hours after the category five pounding of Katrina. 

We were recipients of all the prayers and rituals that keep New Orleans from 
total destruction because the Virgin Mary, Yemaya and the river goddesses 
always protect us at the last possible minute and even Katrina did not hit us 
directly with her unrelenting winds and water. In this city that knows respect 
for the ancients, this city of ghosts and ancestors is ultimately protected by 
the magic chants, offerings and incantations of the local voodoo practitioners 
who are at work every hurricane season to make their voices heard so that 
mother nature veers her force just enough to allow us another year of life. I 
have more faith in the voodoo practitioners and their prayers for the city than 
the officials of local and state government whose perplexing decisions began 
plunging us into greater despair after the storm.

I live on Dauphine Street in the Marigny neighborhood that extends down river 
of the Quarter. We were mostly dry and the camel-back house that I rent had 
very little damage with some of the siding blown along the side yard. I am a 
pantheist and like other New Orleanians, I have altars at my house. I am in 
belief that the one altar to ?La Virgen Maria? inspired the large fig tree to 
fall towards the spacious yard and away from the back porch. Had it fallen in 
the opposite direction, it would have crushed half of the house. As such, most 
of the houses in this area were intact?structurally with one or two houses 
compromised by a fallen tree. Yes, trees lined a variety of parallel streets 
with names like Royal and Burgundy. These streets were impassible, but this was 
minor as compared to the more eastern sections of the city that were closer to 
the eye of the storm. We were spared Katrina?s eye and the Northeastern 
quadrant that always carries a greater punch as demonstrated by t
 he destructive remnants seen in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi.  Overall, 
this area and the middle of the French Quarter where I rode out the storm at 
Jimmy?s house was not flooded in contrast to local and national reports that 
were carelessly assessing the Quarter as being ?destroyed?.

Can you imagine the terror that this bad information evoked in my mother who 
lives in Jersey City, New Jersey and had been praying for me Claudia and my 
friends since before Katrina hit on Sunday night? My mother is a devout 
Catholic and she prays with heartfelt belief that God will hear you in times of 
despair.    

But the misinformation and irresponsible reports began at 10pm that night when 
the local CBS affiliate Channel 4, which had relocated a crew to Baton Rouge, 
began reporting that the weather conditions in the French Quarter had already 
deteriorated.  They began sounding off a false alarm to anyone that had changed 
their minds at this time of night and were considering to seek safer shelter.  
Their ?news? was that it was too dangerous to walk the streets of the Quarter 
now in search of shelter at the Superdome because the weather conditions had 
?deteriorated.?  This was absolutely untrue- false, a fabricated ?news? lie by 
reporters who were 85 miles away at the state capitol.  I was there in the 
middle of the French Quarter and the conditions were such that some light rain 
and wind was all that you could experience.  

In fact, I was on a second floor balcony in the heart of the Vieux Carre at 
Dumaine and Royal Street, and certainly if anyone was in belief of this 
information, they would have lost a chance to seek shelter.  Where these 
reporters were getting their misinformation from and recycling it out to the 
local community is unknown to me, but for a crew safely stowed away in Baton 
Rouge, they had no right to spew out this nonsense.  Not only was this more of 
the sensationalized rubbish disguising itself as journalism, but these 
reporters began selling panic as a consumer item.  Yes, it was beyond being 
irresponsible because while they were sitting over-caked in make-up in a safe 
makeshift studio, they became an ugly metaphor for the spewing of 
misinformation and panic mongering that grew into an apocalyptic speculation 
that already had the city under twenty-feet of water even when Katrina was 100 
miles away and moving eastward.  

They digressed into a reality TV news show that was now using Katrina as a 
measure for high ratings. Be aware that when a hurricane is in the Gulf the 
reporters and weather men and women are the stars of the show. These were not 
journalists bringing you information, for they resembled chattering egos 
positioning themselves for ?glorious coverage?- not unlike the city council 
officials who were also gloating in the applause for themselves for their 
?contra-flow? evacuation strategies that again turned the interstate 10 east 
and west into a parking lot of more desperation.  It seemed that very little 
had improved from last year?s highway experiment that clogged evacuees for ten 
hours to move thirty miles outside of the city in either direction as Hurricane 
Ivan ?the terrible? had us in its ?cone of uncertainty? then.

Come every June, we, as citizens of New Orleans, know that we will be placed in 
the ?cone of uncertainty? again and again by newly-named storms and depressions 
that may organize themselves into hurricanes of categories from one to five.  
We prepare as always by shuddering our homes, boarding any exposed windows, 
gathering batteries, canned foods, candles, flashlights, wine and bottled 
water.  We are efficient in such rituals and can make our environments 
hurricane ready in a few hours of concentrated energy.  We are not made 
desperate by the threats of hurricanes that come into the Gulf of Mexico every 
year, but after Katrina hit, we became some kind of social experiment as water 
supplies were cut off and rumors that the city may not be brought back to even 
the least of working conditions for the next two to three months spread as much 
as the other information that had the French Quarter flooding on Tuesday 
afternoon because of the levee breaches and the failure of the nation
 al rescue efforts to secure that damage.

By the afternoon of Wednesday, August 31, on other rumors that private hotels 
like the Hotel Monteleone at the Canal St. end of the Quarter were possibly 
having buses evacuate their guests to safety, we purchased the hope of a $45 
dollar ticket to Houston, TX on a fleet of vehicles that were to arrive by 6pm. 
 The hotel management had organized a twenty-five thousand dollar rescue 
mission of chartered buses escorted by state police to take their trapped 
guests to safety.  A few hundred residents had learned of this priceless 
information, and most notably only a few feet away Allen Toussaint, the 
legendary composer and musician, was standing in line with myself, Claudia, 
Jimmy, and Kip, the three hundred hotel guests and the other two-hundred lucky 
residents holding tickets out of the apocalypse.  

By 9pm the buses had not arrived and the hotel management was as confused us 
all of us waiting as to why we were still standing there at this time of night 
with the city police escort they had also hired just in case their missing 
buses were rushed by people without the proper tickets to board.  When the 
yellow pirate school bus cut the dark like some night creature on the street 
pointing its blinding headlight eyes to the waiting hundreds some cheers broke 
the whisperings, and we finally thought our hired fleet of heroic rescue 
vehicles had arrived.  The bus only arrived with the information that the fleet 
had been commandeered?confiscated--stolen by local police officials acting on 
martial law.

All along, I had placed myself in waiting close to the hotel management at the 
corner of Royal and Iberville to be in proximity to hear any information on 
what was unfolding.  Only then did I speak to one of the yellow bus crew of two 
that told me there were no buses coming and that they were there relaying this 
difficult news while offering passage to Baton Rouge at fifty dollars a head.  
Imagine how this conversation was taking place in the flashlight lit dark of 
night on a French Quarter street corner where the sounds of madness were 
audible a block away on the infamous Bourbon Street that normally hosts an 
all-night party for Puritans and yahoos that come to unwind, drink, and throw 
up from all parts of the country because they cannot have that much fun in 
their own cities of social convention and Christian repression.

Certainly, we made an offer to the bus driver for the four of us that was quite 
below their asking rate, and like any other transaction under the table in this 
city, it was accepted.   We got on the bus as the Monteleone management was 
trying to figure out what to do and if to relay the bad news to the 
five-hundred people that were losing hope as the night grew more ominous. We 
handed over our collection of dollars to the bus driver and sat on the cold 
steel floor, with Allen Toussaint already having been the first to mount this 
pirate bus when it pulled up to the street. He sat among a small group of folks 
that were already on board--occupying one of the coveted seats. I was ecstatic 
to be on any vehicle ready to drive me out of town and would have sat on the 
roof if I had to.  

If the Monteleone could privately engineer a rescue effort to bring in ten 
buses, then how is it possible that the city and state could not organize a 
fleet of 100 buses to rescue all the people left behind?  These officials could 
have used the stealth training of the pirate bus crew that seemed to come in 
and out of town through back roads that were quite dry as opposed to news 
accounts that water compromised all land rescue efforts.  We, the citizens of 
New Orleans who have managed to escape, are willing to mount our own pirate and 
private efforts to come and rescue our friends and family members who are still 
trapped by the infinite and mounting incompetence of those in command.

I ask you to mount a collective scream of outrage and wolf howls into the 
airwaves, radio and TV stations, so that we can come in to do what we have 
always done in times of disaster and that is to lend a genuine human effort 
that is tribal community oriented and truly compassionate.  We are being played 
as a reality TV show for political sadists who have the audacity to publicly 
say we are not worthy of governmental support because we are an old city.  Just 
yesterday, I heard that a Republican politician spewed some vitriol to that 
effect. Yes, we are an old city in these young United States, and we have 
survived a few bad governments, slavery, and tropical plagues. Right now we are 
bearing witness to the social plague of heartlessness and racism, political 
inefficiency and it is denying life to this gumbo city of African, Caribbean, 
Spanish, French, Irish, and Italian influences.  We are being denied the 
opportunity to rise into the future of this century. We are being denie
 d the opportunity to return to the city we love and rebuild it as only we 
can?re-shape it into the grand dame that it has been from one century to 
another. 

Jose Torres Tama
Baton Rouge, LA
Saturday, September 3, 2005 


   













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