2010 - %3, May

A Strike Against Oil Spill Lawsuits

| Mon May 10, 2010 9:46 AM EDT

With the Deepwater Horizon leak pumping 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico and the outer edges of the slick now hitting Louisiana, the state has a lot on its plate. Including a new proposal to immobilize the legal clinics that could help residents bring suit against BP or other parties involved in the spill.

Tomorrow, the Louisiana State Legislature is scheduled to hold a hearing on Senate Bill 549, the baby of Sen. Robert Adley (R-Benton), who wants to stymie the work of university law clinics that represent low-income clients while providing hands-on training for future lawyers. Under the measure, the clinics would be barred from filing suits against government agencies, suits seeking monetary damages, or suits that raise state constitutional challenges. Adley has admitted that a key target of the bill is the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC), whose students and attorneys have successfully litigated dozens of suits against industrial polluters and other environmental offenders on behalf of Louisiana citizens.

The timing couldn't be more crucial—or absurd. In fact, the hearing on SB 549 was originally scheduled for last Wednesday, but was postponed while the state government was busy trying to figure out how to deal with the disaster. When I asked Stephen Griffin, the interim dean of Tulane Law School, if TELC might play some role in post-spill litigation, he said it's definitely a possibility. "Suppose local citizens got upset about their beach being fouled, or their shrimp grounds being destroyed, the shrimpers getting upset." Suppose they did.

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New Orleans Notebook: Freezing Budgets, Overheating Pants

| Fri May 7, 2010 5:31 PM EDT

Recommended playlist for driving around New Orleans: Songs off the CDs my friends sent each other while we were spread around the country for several months after Katrina. Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," of course. Concrete Blonde's "Bloodletting," where "I've got the ways and means" rhymes with "New Orleans." (It's okay because it's a song, though employing that long "e" under any other circumstances would be supremely uncool.) The New Pornographers' "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism" for obvious reasons; an Erasure cover of Abba's "S.O.S." because we thought a reference to a sinking ship was kind of funny.

My destination: The University of New Orleans. I'm working on a story about the state of higher education post-Katrina, which may or may not end up being a story about how Bobby Jindal's a douchebag.

My first interview was with a former provost and current faculty member. He does not like it when legislators blame UNO's drastic budget cuts on diminished state revenues without mentioning that the tax code was recently revised specifically to diminish revenues. Back in 2002, an amendment called the Stelly Plan eliminated some sales taxes but implemented a new income tax. Two years ago, Jindal eliminated the new income tax without implementing anything to make up for the revenue loss.

Rights Stuff to Read

| Fri May 7, 2010 4:51 PM EDT

Multimedia/infographic edition, apparently.

 

Mother's Day Gifts for Do-Gooders

| Thu May 6, 2010 12:11 PM EDT

If you're like me, you a) have a mom who calls to remind you every time PBS airs a documentary about people suffering and b) have not yet sent her a Mother's Day present because you're a bad kid. And if that's the case, you might find it useful to know that a couple of aid organizations are offering inspiring presents for varying prices but all with the option of a nice-looking, instantly deliverable e-card. The International Rescue Committee has a store stocked with life-saving goodies you can donate in your mom's name, everything from $18 worth of mosquito nets for a whole family to an $87 bicycle to $5,000 for clinic supplies in a war zone. Mercy Corps makes kits, like the Women's Leadership Kit, which supports programs that educate and train women. I think my favorite is the Camel Kit, which delivers enough vaccinations to protect five camels from camel-killing diseases to herders in Mongolia. If you're incredibly broke, and/or your mother is really hardcore, Amnesty International has made an electronic Mother's Day card that says, essentially, "I'm not getting you flowers or breakfast in bed, and you should write a strongly worded letter about maternal health to Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius." (Or you could send flowers, but from a company that donates to Amnesty.) Either way, we've got two days left to get it together.

 

Can You Eat Oil-Slick Oysters?

| Wed May 5, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

A researcher from the University of New Orleans happened to tell me the answer yesterday. Find it on MoJo's environmental blog, The Blue Marble.

Who's Trying to Kill New Orleans?

| Tue May 4, 2010 3:33 PM EDT

Everyone does seem to be feeling a bit besieged around here. The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac thinks it might be because Houston's taken a hit out in a sexy jealous rage.

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The Plessy Next Door

| Tue May 4, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

The wireless networks that pop up when I open my computer in the Northwest Carrolton neighborhood (which I just found out has its own blog) I'm staying in are way more interesting than the names at home in San Francisco. Specifically: plessy. Turns out my temporary next-door neighbors are relatives of, yes, that Plessy, the plaintiff in Plessy vs. Ferguson. Turns out, also, that one day one of these Plessys ran into Phoebe Ferguson (yes! Great-great-granddaughter of that Ferguson!), and they decided to start a foundation and now they give talks about reconciliation together. Bonus Plessy trivia: One of the Plessy descendants was featured as Playmate of the Month in an issue of Playboy several years ago, and if you befriend my neighbors, they'll show you a copy. (For more [and way more important] details about Plessy vs. Ferguson, I recommend Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.)

Take Me Back to New Orleans

| Mon May 3, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

I got a little choked up finally watching the pilot of Treme last night.

It wasn't when the Mardi Gras Indian chief walks into his flood-destroyed house for the first time and his shoulders fall like my best friend collapsed in sobs on the sidewalk after she'd broken down the swollen wooden door to her apartment in late 2005. It wasn't when the restaurant owner tries to take a shower in the morning but can't get water pressure, just like I had to turn my faucet on half an hour before I could splash around in just a few inches of water in my cast iron tub, even in the spring of 2006. It was actually when the fiery professor played by John Goodman says he won't eat lemon ice until Brocato's opens. It's apparently a very emotional subject for me, gelato. Angelo Brocato's was right by where I lived, and if you ever had this gelato, you might almost cry too.

The reason I was catching up on Treme, besides its general awesomeness, is that I'm on my way to New Orleans on assignment today. I don't know that there is an emoticon or number of exclamation points that would adequately express my excitement about posting from the Crescent City. I'll be talking with exploited strippers, heroic and besieged public defenders, the guy who plays the bicycle-rickshaw driver in upcoming episodes of Treme. I'll revisit the restoration situation of the key public university, my alma mater, the University of New Orleans (hint: it's not good). Don't be surprised by a drunken, guiltily post about what a pussy I feel like for frantically moving, in the summer of 2006, right before the first post-Katrina hurricane season started. All while possibly puking up gas fumes! How thrilling! Fingers crossed for a trip to an oyster reef covered in BP's leaking crude. A friend of mine suggested some weekend kayaking, to which I responded that if he could locate some oil-befouled sensitive marsh or wetland area in Plaquemines Parish, that'd be perfect.

"We can't just go to a [clean] swamp and have a nice time?" he asked.

Nope.

So I've packed for most of the rest of May. When I was getting things together, my friend the kayak enthusiast warned me that the sky was completely black, with super dense and dark cloud cover but not a drop of rain. "It's like the end of the world here," he said.

"It's okay," I said. It's a completely empty, throwaway phrase, and I wasn't speaking to the encompassing, capital It, but still he paused, standing there in a house on a street that's still mostly deserted, surrounded again by a flurry of national and international headlines in a city where attention so often fails to lead to necessary action, then said, "Well. It's not okay."

Okay, it isn't. Still. I can't wait to touch down at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International tonight and get to work. I'll try to keep the ice-cream weeping to a minimum. Maybe.

 

The Drug Army That Could Take Out the Taliban

| Mon May 3, 2010 10:01 AM EDT

I've made it two weeks without a Burma post, but I'm going to let myself off my well-deserved Burma leash to talk about this bit of news:

China's army has moved 5,000 troops to its side of the Burma border. Why? Because tensions are running high between the Burmese army and the 25,000-soldier United Wa State Army, one of the world's largest insurgent groups. Scared civilians have been scattering in case a war erupts, which apparently the Chinese government also thinks is a possibility. I know, it's just a civil war between a government and rebels and that happens all the time without impacting our lives and certainly not our media, but it makes me ache a little that the world has never heard of the Wa, because their backstory is sooo good. Allow me to plagiarize myself liberally:

The Wa are former headhunters (official open season was March to April) who claim as their ancestors not, like most peoples, gods or majestic sea creatures or rainbows or whatever, but slimy tadpoles and ogres. In colonial times, one European visitor to this mountain-dwelling collection of tribes said that they were so dirty that the only thing that kept them from getting dirtier was that more dirt couldn’t stick to how much dirt was already on their bodies. They were naked. They were pretty much the closest existing things on earth to actual bogeymen, and the British were terrified of them and left them largely alone, as the Wa couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t kill white people who wandered into their territory, their towheads being quite the catch on the headhunting scene. [...] Now the Wa just have the biggest nonstate army in Burma, which they fund by running probably the biggest drug army in the world, a commander of which is wanted by the US government for druglording. So if you want to collect $2 million from the State Department, find out where Wei Hsueh-kang is.

Sometimes another Burma geek and I like to geek out by speculating about what would happen if the United States paid the Wa to take on the Taliban. They're totally natural adversaries, as Burma and Afghanistan have long vied for the title of World's Top Opium Producer, and these groups have a history of controlling big pieces of those countries' respective drug pies. My friend contends that the fight between these powers would rip the universe apart, and then we laugh, in the way that geeks laugh at jokes no one else would think were funny.

Anyway, the United Wa State Army is my pick for ethnic insurgency to watch this year. It's always had a cease-fire with the Burmese government, but its forming alliances with other local insurgencies and getting bigger than its already-huge britches could force serious military action on the part of the junta. Which could force the involvement of China, which is friendly with both the ruling Burmese and the Wa, and is close enough to Wa territory to bear the brunt of any resulting refugee crisis or even stray fire. So maybe the Wa won't remain unknown to the world after all.

 

Can Women Peacekeepers Stop Haiti's Rape Crisis?

| Mon May 3, 2010 9:01 AM EDT

An all-woman police unit from Bangladesh has been dispatched to UN headquarters in Haiti, to the relief of groups trying to curb the epidemic of rape in post-quake tent cities. "It's a whole world of difference for women who have been victimized to see women police, and we see the reporting of cases of gender-based sexual crimes increase when they are there," a UN worker said. I hope the UN releases some photos of them in the field; I love this picture of the UN's first female peacekeeping force, which was sent to Liberia with similar objectives in 2007.