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The Ground You Fall Through

Art by John E. Miner“The five hundred darkies” in this courthouse can’t be fed, and the place smells like a slaughter-pen,” the sheriff of Greenville, Mississippi, reported to Will Percy during the Great Flood of 1927. When the Mississippi River flooded Greenville, the mayor put Will Percy, the 42-year-old cousin of novelist Walker Percy, in charge of the Flood Relief Committee and the local Red Cross. Percy commandeered bootleggers’ motorboats to rescue residents from their rooftops. The next order of business was confiscating every bit of food and every form of transportation to head off looting and burglary.It was down-home martial law, and by Percy’s account in his 1941 book, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son, it worked. That is, except for Percy’s attempt to evacuate the African-Americans who had been pressed into service to shore up the levees, which was sabotaged by other white planters. The black laborers watched from shore as mostly empty relief boats carried 33 whites out of harm’s way.Plus çe que la change, as they say.Many people are grateful they saw New Orleans before the deluge. Pompeii comes to mind. I have been grateful, too, and angry, worried and unutterably sad, thinking about the time I lived half a block away from a café called Rue de la Course on Magazine Street — a coffee shop where the baristas discussed epistemology and nervous breakdowns with equal aplomb. I wanted to write today about the people dying in New Orleans, and why they are dying. I wanted to write about bayous where dark eagles rise like smoke in the air and egrets circle the oil rigs as if rusted iron and slick petroleum were their natural habitat. I wanted to write about the destruction of one million acres of wetlands, first by levee construction on the Mississippi after the Great Flood of 1927, and then by the damage done when oil companies dredged canals to haul in oil from the Gulf of Mexico, and how all of this left New Orleans without a natural buffer that could have stopped this hurricane from killing so many people and destroying so much architecture. But it’s impossible not to think about Cedric. I met Cedric at the Rue de la Course the morning after I got to town. He was sitting at one of the outside tables, a black man with a grim visage who looked one f-stop above homeless. I eyed him cautiously and wondered if I’d ever see him again. About a week later, he showed up at my apartment — hired off the street by the New York mover who’d arrived with my stuff. He introduced himself and called me “Miss Susan,” which shocked me. It became quickly apparent that Cedric couldn’t read — not even the numbers on the boxes we were checking against a list. He told me, though, that he could read the Bible, “the whole Bible.”Someone who knew about such things told me that Cedric couldn’t actually read the Bible, but that he’d memorized it. That fall, I volunteered for an adult literacy program, but the program fell apart when the Bush administration cut its funding.Cedric lived a couple of blocks away. When we were done with the moving, I told him I hoped I’d see him again. I went back to the café many times after that, but I never did see Cedric. The Garden District didn’t get the worst of Katrina, so I’m hoping he’s still alive.There are a lot of stories about the administration’s refusal to adequately fund reconstruction of the levees and restore the coastal wetlands. But much human suffering also could have been avoided if the class and race divisions of New Orleans weren’t so ossified. No one is talking about this realistically or sensitively enough. Doing justice to New Orleans starts with schools. The illiteracy rate in New Orleans is between 38 percent and 60 percent. That’s roughly the same as the Sudan. The oil companies say they don’t hire blacks because they’re not well-educated. If more African-Americans in Louisiana had jobs, they’d own cars. And if they owned cars, more of them would be alive today.It’s a vicious cycle. A Sierra Club study showed that doing away with state tax breaks given to the petroleum industry could go a long way toward adequately funding schools in Louisiana. But oil is the state religion, and that study was submerged like so many of the bodies trapped in houses in the 9th Ward.The greatest irony of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the only one, came when Kofi Annan offered flood-relief assistance to the United States as if it were a Third World country.A few years ago, an environmentalist with the Coalition To Restore Coastal Louisiana managed to get an audience with a bank president named R. King Milling. This white-haired patriarch once was a successful oil and gas lawyer, and, even more notably, he’d been king of Mardi Gras. The environmentalist, a guy named Mark Davis, explained to Milling that one million acres of the swamps south of New Orleans — one-fourth of the wetlands that existed before European settlement — had already been lost. Every year, 25 square miles of wetlands, an amount totaling the size of Manhattan, were dropping into the Gulf of Mexico.That wasn’t good for the oil business. Thirty percent of our domestic crude oil production comes from the Gulf of Mexico, nearly all of it pushed up pipelines and canals through the coastal wetlands to Port Fourchon. As the wetlands falls away, pipelines are exposed to the vagaries of open water.Because this was New Orleans, Milling wasn’t a nouveau riche who would simply pull up stakes and move the operation to Nigeria. Three years ago, Milling became chair of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration and Conservation. He rounded up his friends to support the cause of restoring the bayous. Those friends included everyone from Shell Oil to the Tabasco company. With strong support from Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, they have been lobbying for federal funding to restore coastal Louisiana. Restoring the wetlands of Louisiana is estimated to cost $14 billion, almost twice as much as the similar effort now under way in the Everglades.People in Louisiana have always understood the connections between the natural and the constructed world; perhaps now others may, too. What made me cry when I looked at the news wasn’t coastal wetland erosion; it was the faces of people like Cedric. But restoring coastal Louisiana is as much part of the equation as reducing poverty. I remember the odd stillness of the cypress swamps, the startling sight of eagles and the ubiquity of water in Louisiana as much as I remember anything else about the place. Water is the ground you fall through here; it is everywhere, shooting past you on the causeways, surrounding you like breath.Louisiana may be even richer biologically than the Everglades, which accounts for its resilience in the face of such depredation. Coastal Louisiana is first in oyster and shrimp production, and also provides one third of the nation’s fish. It’s also the country’s second largest avian flyway after the Pacific flyway.Earlier this year, over the president’s protests, Congress included in an energy bill a provision that would give Louisiana about $135 million a year to restore coastal wetlands. Sidney Coffee, the Louisiana director of the America’s Wetlands campaign and a former aide to Governor Blanco, says not only is this inadequate; it’s unfair. Louisiana’s royalties to the federal government from offshore drilling average $5 billion a year. Since the deficit-happy Reagan era, these royalties, which by law were supposed to go to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, have been funneled into federal general funds instead.“Wyoming and New Mexico get 50 percent paid directly back to them on oil and gas,” said Coffee. “We want only a tiny portion of that so we can address this problem.“What happens on this coast is huge,” Coffee added. “It has huge, huge implications for the rest of the nation. This isn’t just an environmental story. That’s what’s changed. This is a huge economic and security issue. You just can’t separate it anymore.”This is only the beginning of a storm cycle predicted to last nearly half a century. Hurricane Katrina may not have bankrupted the entire country, but what about the next time? And the next? The Enlightenment itself began in disaster, when an earthquake decimated Lisbon in 1755, calling into question notions of an all-powerful god. This hurricane has stripped away our illusions, too, laying bare the bones of our affluence. Businessmen like Milling know the bill for our way of life is coming due, and they’re realistic enough to accept that it’s time to pay up — especially if most of the money comes from the federal government. “Nature Bats Last,” reads a radical-environmentalist bumper sticker. It did, and New Orleans lost. The winds changed, as Randy Newman wrote in “Louisiana 1927,” one of his many prescient songs about America, and one can only hope they will again, before the waters come back to haunt us.


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