The Mysteries of New Orleans

Twenty-five Questions about the Murder of the Big Easy

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

We recently spent a week in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana interviewing relief workers, community activists, urban planners, artists, and neighborhood folks. Even as the latest flood waters from Hurricane Rita recede, the city remains submerged in anger and frustration.

Indeed, the most toxic debris in New Orleans isn't the sinister gray sludge that coats the streets of the historic Creole neighborhood of Treme or the Lower Ninth Ward, but all the unanswered questions that have accumulated in the wake of so much official betrayal and hypocrisy. Where outsiders see simple "incompetence" or "failure of leadership," locals are more inclined to discern deliberate design and planned neglect -- the murder, not the accidental death, of a great city.

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In almost random order, here are twenty-five of the urgent questions that deeply trouble the local people we spoke with. Until a grand jury or congressional committee begins to uncover the answers, the moral (as opposed to simply physical) reconstruction of the New Orleans region will remain impossible.

1. Why did the floodwalls along the 17th Street Canal only break on the New Orleans (majority Black) side and not on the Metairie (largely white) side? Was this the result of neglect and poor maintenance by New Orleans authorities?

2. Who owned the huge barge that was catapulted through the wall of the Industrial Canal, killing hundreds in the Lower Ninth Ward -- the most deadly hit-and-run accident in U.S. history?

3. All of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish east of the Industrial Canal were drowned, except for the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial District along Chef Menteur Highway. Why was industrial land apparently protected by stronger levees than nearby residential neighborhoods?

4. Why did Mayor Ray Nagin, in defiance of his own official disaster plan, delay twelve to twenty-four hours in ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city?

5. Why did Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff not declare Katrina an "Incident of National Significance" until August 31 -- thus preventing the full deployment of urgently needed federal resources?

6. Why wasn't the nearby U.S.S. Bataan immediately sent to the aid of New Orleans? The huge amphibious-landing ship had a state-of-the-art, 600-bed hospital, water and power plants, helicopters, food supplies, and 1,200 sailors eager to join the rescue effort.

7. Similarly, why wasn't the Baltimore-based hospital ship USS Comfort ordered to sea until August 31, or the 82nd Airborne Division deployed in New Orleans until September 5?

8. Why does Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld balk at making public his "severe weather execution order" that established the ground rules for the military response to Katrina? Did the Pentagon, as a recent report by the Congressional Research Service suggests, fail to take initiatives within already authorized powers, then attempt to transfer the blame to state and local governments?

9. Why were the more than 350 buses of the New Orleans Regional Transportation Authority -- eventually flooded where they were parked -- not mobilized to evacuate infirm, poor, and car-less residents?

10. What significance attaches to the fact that the chair of the Transportation Authority, appointed by Mayor Nagin, is Jimmy Reiss, the wealthy leader of the New Orleans Business Council which has long advocated a thorough redevelopment of (and cleanup of crime in) the city?

11. Under what authority did Mayor Nagin meet confidentially in Dallas with the "forty thieves" -- white business leaders led by Reiss -- reportedly to discuss the triaging of poorer Black areas and a corporate-led master plan for rebuilding the city?

12. Everyone knows about a famous train called "the City of New Orleans." Why was there no evacuation by rail? Was Amtrak part of the disaster planning? If not, why not?

13. Why were patients at private hospitals like Tulane evacuated by helicopter while their counterparts at the Charity Hospital were left to suffer and die?

14. Was the failure to adequately stock food, water, potable toilets, cots, and medicine at the Louisiana Superdome a deliberate decision -- as many believe -- to force poorer residents to leave the city?

15. The French Quarter has one of the highest densities of restaurants in the nation. Once the acute shortages of food and water at the Superdome and the Convention Center were known, why didn't officials requisition supplies from hotels and restaurants located just a few blocks away? (As it happened, vast quantities of food were simply left to spoil.)

16. City Hall's emergency command center had to be abandoned early in the crisis because its generator supposedly ran out of diesel fuel. Likewise many critical-care patients died from heat or equipment failure after hospital backup generators failed. Why were supplies of diesel fuel so inadequate? Why were so many hospital generators located in basements that would obviously flood?

17. Why didn't the Navy or Coast Guard immediately airdrop life preservers and rubber rafts in flooded districts? Why wasn't such life-saving equipment stocked in schools and hospitals?

18. Why weren't evacuee centers established in Audubon Park and other unflooded parts of Uptown, where locals could be employed as cleanup crews?

19. Is the Justice Department investigating the Jim Crow-like response of the suburban Gretna police who turned back hundreds of desperate New Orleans citizens trying to walk across the Mississippi River bridge -- an image reminiscent of Selma in 1965? New Orleans, meanwhile, abounds in eyewitness accounts of police looting and illegal shootings: Will any of this ever be investigated?

20. Who is responsible for the suspicious fires that have swept the city? Why have so many fires occurred in blue-collar areas that have long been targets of proposed gentrification, such as the Section 8 homes on Constance Street in the Lower Garden District or the wharfs along the river in Bywater?

21. Where were FEMA's several dozen vaunted urban search-and-rescue teams? Aside from some courageous work by Coast Guard helicopter crews, the early rescue effort was largely mounted by volunteers who towed their own boats into the city after hearing an appeal on television.

22. We found a massive Red Cross presence in Baton Rouge but none in some of the smaller Louisiana towns that have mounted the most impressive relief efforts. The poor Cajun community of Ville Platte, for instance, has at one time or another fed and housed more than 5,000 evacuees; but the Red Cross, along with FEMA, has refused almost daily appeals by local volunteers to send professional personnel and aid. Why then give money to the Red Cross?

23. Why isn't FEMA scrambling to create a central registry of everyone evacuated from the greater New Orleans region? Will evacuees receive absentee ballots and be allowed to vote in the crucial February municipal elections that will partly decide the fate of the city?

24. As politicians talk about "disaster czars" and elite-appointed reconstruction commissions, and as architects and developers advance utopian designs for an ethnically cleansed "new urbanism" in New Orleans, where is any plan for the substantive participation of the city's ordinary citizens in their own future?

25. Indeed, on the fortieth anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, what has happened to democracy?

Mike Davis is the author of many books including City of Quartz, Dead Cities and Other Tales, and the just published Monster at our Door, The Global Threat of Avian Flu (The New Press) as well as the forthcoming Planet of Slums (Verso).

Anthony Fontenot is a New Orleans architect and community-design activist, currently working at Princeton University.

Copyright 2005 Mike Davis and Anthony Fontenot

This piece first appeared, with a short introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.