New Orleans Diary: Catching Up

A major national news organization finally recognized, at this late date, that it had not yet reported "the story" in all its triumphs and betrayals -- the resilience and self-reliance of the citizens of the battered but unbowed city.
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I got to spend a month in New Orleans, a month so full of activity that there was, in fact, no time to blog about it, hence my recent online silence. But plenty was going on in the city: the French Quarter Festival, about which I'd only heard before, but which filled the historic neighborhood (in which my wife and I live) with music and food and visitors -- a hundred thousand, by one merchant's estimate; the Big Easy Awards, an annual event honoring the musicians of the city (and, until this year, when they were split off into their own evening, the theater artists), and which featured some splendid performances and some raw emotion, as Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas, among others, received well-deserved recognition for their talent and their work; Jazzfest, of course, about which you can read all over the place, but which was notable in my family for the Fest debut of my wife Judith Owen on the second Friday, the only day that came close to being rained out, but on which the skies miraculously cleared just in time for her set (on which I sat in, marking my Fest debut, as well). There were also news stories of a less celebratory nature: the Road Home program, Louisiana's attempt to funnel Federal money to NO homeowners for repair/rebuilding/resettlement, announced, through the private company that administers the program (ICF of Virginia) that it was at least $2 billion short of what would be needed to pay the claims of all the homeowners who had applied (estimates of the claimants and their damage from the federal floods had apparently been seriously short of the mark); the same program was reported to have imposed an impossibly short deadline on homeowners who opted to sell out and buy a new home in-state, a deadline that was repealed almost as soon as the story hit the Times-Picayune; and of course there was that Biblical rainstorm, sheets and sheets of water coming down on May 4, proving that the famous pumps, long able to clear the city of the most abundant rain, had been compromised by the flooding and its aftermath -- television news that day was full of video of flooded neighborhoods and, most memorably, a car at a Canal Blvd. underpass that was up to its mid-windshield in water, its wipers still running.

And there was a remarkable evening, in which the editors of Time Inc. publications met, after a three-hour disaster tour, for dinner with folks from all over the city, from a sports team owner to the head of an organization helping poor people, and asked each of them to take two minutes to tell the assembled editors what "the story" was that they should take home.

It was remarkable in that a major national news organization finally recognized, at this late date, that it had not yet reported "the story" in all its triumphs and betrayals -- the resilience and self-reliance of the citizens of the battered but unbowed city, the insistence of the Feds on remaking the city's public housing and medical infrastructure in a new, Republican model, that, whatever its putative benefits, means poor folks will wait additional years before having a place to live and reasonable medical care in the city.

And then, there was the day when I had to take a family member to an emergency room for medical care, and I experienced what, despite all the shortcomings in the health-care system, seemed like a little miracle: At Touro Medical Center's ER, the long process of answering all the questions about insurance and financial details occurred after, not before, the doctor had tended to my relative. In all my visits to emergency rooms, I'd never experienced that before.
Partly as a result of linking to his excellent work, I befriended Dan Baum (of's New Orleans Journal) and his wife Margaret Knox, two folks who brought a love and understanding of the city to what is probably the only blog that's fact-checked by a major magazine. Although they're ending their sojourn in the city next week, the material will probably remain online for a while, and, if you haven't read it yet, it's one of the best ways for you to understand the joys and sadnesses of New Orleans life almost two years after the city was flooded by Federal mal- or mis-feasance. Be sure to read Dan's story of buying shirts at the Brooks Bros. in Canal Place.

And while I was in the city, the total number of restaurants open in New Orleans rose above the pre-Katrina figure, a remarkable achievement given the fact that restaurants are still unable, due to the rental housing shortage, to staff up to customary levels, despite offering serious increases in wages.

It was an amazing springtime in New Orleans; at one of my last dinners in town, the Formosan termites finally started swarming around the streetlights just outside the window, and, when I got home, the dreaded phrase "first named storm" was all over the local news.

And still less than half of the members of Congress have deigned to visit New Orleans to see the scale of the damage Federal engineers have wrought.

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