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September 06, 2005


One of these days, who knows when and not that I pay much attention, some news organization is going to bring you a story from a street called Derbigny. I'm not going to do you a favor by pronouncing it for you.

One of the marvelous tools that has arisen from the creativity of the geniuses that be is the Google Maps overlay at Scipionus. I've been checking it regularly in order to get information about the water level in my aunt's neighborhood. Generally speaking, I've been able to make a decent determination. But there's a problem with this technology, which is that only a certain class of people are going to benefit from it. Period.

I wrote, during my trip to New Orleans this spring:

Poverty is the same where ever you go in America. It's instantly recognizeable. You get off the grid and suddenly people are hanging off stoops where the houses have no A/C. The day after rain, the curbs are still flooded where the pavement turns to dirt.

I took Canal up to Rampart Street and took it out to where it splits off with St. Bernard. By there I was in the heart of somebody's hood. So I took Elysian Fields north to Claiborne and flipped some circles around there and hit ghetto. It was around Derbigny that I dropped off the precipice into that 5th Ward Houston look and feel, three classes below the middle where the streets ain't paved. Sure enough the horse cart clops by.

So as I was checking out the Scipionus map I wondered if anybody had used it to update the status, or even post the basic status, of some houses in the 'hood, the ghetto or the projects. No such luck. In fact, there's a huge empty space on the grid, much larger than I've indicated here, right smack in the middle of poor black New Orleans, where there are no markers.

Of course there are thousands of people who know these neighborhoods very well, and they know exactly what's going on there. But they are not showing up on our radar. The Lafitte Projects are definitely underwater. Derbigny is underwater. But Derbigny was underwater long before the storm. Those were the faces at the bottom of the well.

It's uncomfortable for people to look at this stuff in the face, especially when it's not usually seen. But in America, right now, in your city, you know where the poor blackfolks in the projects live. And you know that place hasn't changed in three generations. It was poor and black when MLK was marching and it probably still is today.

I've rather had my fill of people second guessing the state and local officials in this matter. I'm sure we'll all have our long knives and lawyers at the ready when investigation season opens. If I watched TV, I could probably tell you by now which CNN reporter is going to make a Greta Von Susteren-style career out of the Tragedy of the Century. But I simply bring up this entire point of Derbigny to bring it home to you. Where is the Derbigny Street in your town and how many tax dollars are you ready to get off of in order to save them from a once in a century freak accident?

I thought so.

I'm going set a calendar date in my Palm to remind me to bring this post up again 6 months from today. And I want to ask again where is our commitment in tax dollars to the least of our brothers. It's not a generally 'conservative' thing to do, but I know it's a Christian thing to ask, especially of the scribes and pharisees of the Katrina timeline - those of us who rub out hands in anticipation of dragging somebody in front of a committee and asking pointless but pointed questions about 167 buses approximately 1.2 miles from the Convention Center sitting in .76 meters of water. And what would you say if the bus drivers demanded to be in a union? What would you say then, oh compassionate one?

Ask yourself, for New Orleans, how much moral outrage and finger-pointing would we be spared if we gave enough tax appropriations to the Commission for the Prevention of Levee Failure, The Emergency Bus Driving Authority and the Bureau of Satellite Phones. Sure we'll pay the 100 billion now. And somehow somebody is going to have to figure out how, in 2005, to build houses so cheap that people will spend the kind of rents they spent on 80 year old clapboard shotgun shacks on Derbigny. Wait. Isn't that called Affordable Housing? Eew!

It's the bullet we all hate to bite because it goes straight to principles. There is no moral high ground to be had when it comes to the bottom line of "you're on your own". That, as they say of police who are supposed to do their jobe, is the way it's supposed to be. You get no praise for just telling it like it is. You get praise for the uncommon gesture, for going above and beyond the call of duty, for walking the extra mile. And as much as right ideologues hate it, it means expanding government services and providing some ironclad guarantees.

I know a lot of people are going to make hay over the backhanded effects of government dependency. But somewhere between laissez-faire and 100 billion dollars in relief is a smart compromise. Moreover, when anyone, Republican or Democrat takes office, they damned well better be able to demonstrate some competence. It's the least we can expect from Americans. That means guarantees. In my industry we call it SLA for 'Service Level Agreements'. You don't get paid unless you can guarantee a certain level of service, and a contract is a contract. There was a time when Republicans weren't afraid to make contracts with America.

I think it's about time again. You can start in your own backyard, but this time I don't mean old socks in your garage. I mean your state and local government. You have looked at the face of your fellow Americans in their time of need and know deep in your heart that we could have done better by them. Admit it. Now make it an issue in your next local election. Make a promise to your fellow Americans, and by God keep it. We must do better.

Posted by mbowen at September 6, 2005 10:48 PM

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It is not anonymous, it is me, Liz Ditz, from I Speak of Dreams.

If you want to do something small-scale and hands-on, Jesse Robbins is building shelters for transport to the South. The company, World Shelters, has decades of disaster relief experience.

Posted by: Elizabeth Ditz [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 7, 2005 12:07 AM

Wise words, I live in Manchester, England and have recently discovered your blog. Blogsites are a new phenomena in GB and I am only just begining to find my way around.We understand the incompetance of local officials, they look inwards,always being supported by public money,never acting always reacting. Serving out their time until the pension arrives.Those buses in two and a half feet of water tell their own tale. The difference between laissez faire and 100 billion dollars is a question no Democrat can answer.Incompetance cannot be cured by taxes but by democracy. Vote them out.

Posted by: Nigel Johnson at September 8, 2005 03:39 PM

Are trying to say not enough money has been spent on the welfare society? I think money is not the problem but how it has been spent and who has thier fingers in the cookie jar."No attack ever feed a hungry child"

Posted by: JR at September 8, 2005 08:14 PM

Yeah well look who just created a 150 billion dollar cookie jar. I only wish I was in the roofing business...

But seriously this is not about the welfare state, it's about christian charity. Further, it's about a Conservative antipathy towards good government and about whether or not tax abatement has run its course in serving the good of the nation.

There's nothing Socialist about funding the Army Corps of Engineers. I'm getting fed up with thoughtless conservative knee jerking about anything that cost taxpayers money is bad by definition. When it comes to boring stuff like bus driver salaries somebody had got to take it seriously, not just Democrats.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 8, 2005 08:30 PM

I am certainly not saying the government we have is fiscally conservative because it is not. I think that taxes are necessary for government to function and there are things that requires its existence. But I think what we have today is an over sized bloated bureaucracy that is not limited in its size and scope at the expense of personal liberty. I do believe in helping those unable to defend themselves and teaching those capable how to fish. More goverment will not make things better, what do you think? I mean the Federal budget is what 12 Trillion, is all of that spending is absolutly needed?

Posted by: JR at September 9, 2005 09:41 PM