Dirty South Bureau

June 6, 2011

Open letter to Louisiana Congressman John Fleming (R-Minden)

Filed under: energy,environment,Labor,Louisiana,New Orleans Economy,The Feds — christian @ 1:05 pm

I was greatly disappointed by the lack of vision or even contact with reality betrayed by your statements at a recent U.S. House Natural Resource Committee hearing, where you stated that you had never met anyone who has a green job.

I am one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who has a green job, writing about the global solar industry. This industry alone employs 93,000 Americans.

The Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st century estimates that there were 3 million renewable energy jobs globally in 2009.

It is true that many states, particularly Louisiana, do not have the share of green jobs that we could have – largely due to the actions the Republican Party, of which you are a member, at the national level, and of a painful lack of foresight by politicians from both parties in Louisiana.

However, even here green job growth is a reality on the ground. Notable examples include Blade Dynamics’ plans for a new factory in New Orleans East to make wind turbines, which will create 600 jobs by 2015 with an average salary of $48,000 annually.

In recent weeks, Alexandria metal manufacturer AFCO Industries received one of its largest orders ever for an estimated 37 truckloads of aluminum for a solar energy project in California.

We have a stark choice in Louisiana as to whether we will join in the global energy revolution, or be left behind. The lack of vision shown by leaders including yourself puts the future of the state at great risk.

Christian Roselund
New Orleans

April 9, 2011

Fukushima on the Gulf Coast: What the media isn’t telling you about the human costs of energy disasters

Watching the tragedy in Fukushima unfold, in recent weeks, I saw a sickening replay of a familiar script. As the magnitude of the dangers posed by the radiation leaks and ongoing failure to control the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were unveiled, their coverage on the main pages of world news outlets decreased.

You could blame it on the public; we have short attention spans. You don’t have to be very far away from these disasters, it seems, to become easily jaded. But if the American public has short attention spans, I will argue that it is because we have been trained to be so, by the Pavlovian conditioning of the daily assault of mass media and advertising. Easily distracted people are easy to sell things to.

But more importantly, easily distracted people also easily forget what their neighbors are going through, even if these are grave crimes. Which serves the spin-masters in the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company just as well as it has our own U.S. government and BP for the past year. If you can hide the worst details of a disaster in the early days, when they come out later fewer people are paying attention.

Which is exactly has happened in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Not yet a year has passed, and the coverage of the real costs to people who live on the Gulf Coast of this disaster are utterly absent from the pages of mainstream American media.

Which is what I am asking you, reader, to overcome.

The gross failure of the media

As a journalist I am particularly angry about the role that the media has played and is playing in downplaying the risks that people face from these disasters, a pattern which I have witnessed both in Fukushima and in the oil flood following the Deepwater Horizon accident.

In our complex, technological, contemporary society the media fills a very important role in informing the public about what is actually going on in the world. However, it seems that to many media outlets and journalists, this role is secondary to managing public perceptions. The role that journalists take mirror that of government and corporate public relations, in that keeping the public calm takes priority.

Or it could be that many journalists themselves do not do sufficient research to find out what the real dangers are. However, I find that highly unlikely given how easy it is to find much of this information from credible sources.

Regardless of why, in both disasters the majority of large, and some local media outlets have failed us by failing to warn the public of the actual dangers that we face from these disasters. The most obvious way was by not warning the public of the worst health effects, though it is significant that the media also frequently fails to report on these health effects as they are revealed.

Media failures in Fukushima

For a long time I was a big fan of the BBC. I felt like I was getting a more balanced, more global, less corporate-influenced version of the news. That confidence is gone. Again and again I have watched the BBC downplay the dangers that the Japanese people face, even as the United States government set a much higher recommended evacuation zone and the head of France’s nuclear agency stated that the accident is an INES level 6 – the second highest rating, less severe only than Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, the BBC, which seems to be taking its cues from the Japanese government, has repeatedly cited the Japanese government’s absurd initial rating of INES level 4. The Japanese government later admitted that the accident is an INES level 5, days after U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the world that the accident was worse than Three Mile Island (a five on the INES scale.)

I now realize there are Judith Millers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Japanese government is interested in downplaying its own liability for allowing Tokyo Electric Power Company to build these plants on a fault line. It doesn’t want a huge health disaster on its hands, and it appears to be doing what President Barack Obama’s administration did after the Deepwater Horizon oil flood – lying its way out of responsibility for what had happened and its inability (unwillingness?) to control a large corporation.

Meanwhile, not only the BBC but a number of media organizations seemed to go out of their way to downplay radiation fears, regurgitating official statistics about the lack of cancer deaths associated with past nuclear accidents. But as the child of a cancer survivor, I know that when someone gets cancer, you never know exactly why, so it is impossible to track all the cases of cancer to which exposure to radiation contributed.

And again, I must cite conflict of interest: government officials have a material interest in not being liable for giving people cancer, not having to deal with public health crises in which they may be implicated, and not interrupting the status quo of power generation.

It is interesting to note that I have seen this in other stories by the BBC, including a story about an Taiwanese factory producing iPhones were workers were exposed to n-hexane, a chemical found in the blood of Gulf Coast residents. The article mentions more superficial effects, but never that n-hexane is toxic to the nervous system.

In high enough doses radiation causes cancer and birth defects. Let’s be clear on that one. The Fukushima disaster has led to very high levels of radioactivity in the ocean and in the air near the plants.


Media failures in the Gulf Coast BP oil disaster

This all follows the play book I saw after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Again and again I watched both U.S. national media and the New Orleans Times-Picayune fall down on the job.

In May 2010, Journalist Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine reported that one of the main ingredients in one of the two varieties of Corexit that BP was spraying contained 2-Butoxyethanol, which causes birth defects and testicular damage in rats (no data for human testing is available for obvious reasons). NIH analysis here: http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/hazmap_generic?tbl=TblAgents&id=129

I never saw the words “birth defects” “reproductive harm” or “testicular damage” in any of the media coverage following the gulf oil flood until a group I worked with organized a rally in Baton Rouge to call for an end to the spraying of Corexit, specifically citing these dangers. After that, the concept again disappeared from the media.

Even when legendary Chemist Wilma Subra (winner of the 2011 Global Exchange Human Rights Award) came to New Orleans to directly address the issue of impacts of the oil and dispersant, and specifically addressed the potential for birth defects, miscarriages and reproductive harm, the Times-Picayune still failed to talk about these dangers.

The article produced, which was better than many before it, specifically mentioned: “skin irritation, nausea, headaches and vomiting… liver and kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia and chronic respiratory problems”. Journalist Bill Barrow also mentioned that benzene causes cancer – one of the few times that I have seen the word “cancer” in the media connected to this disaster.

Having your child born deformed is many magnitudes of severity greater than skin irritation.

On a technical note, a common practice has been to solely quote Material Safety Data Sheets. Which is dumb. Producing MSDS sheets is the responsibility of the manufacturer, which is a clear conflict of interest. They frequently do not include the most dangerous long-term effects. For a serious accounting of dangers, I refer to the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program – a program produced by a credible government organization that is a few steps removed from liability, and does not have the direct competing interests as do the corporations that make dangerous chemicals.

I must also note that in addition to Grist, one other media outlet deserves praise for their forthright coverage of what is happening in the Gulf: Al Jazeera. Looking at their coverage of this disaster, one wonders if Al-Jazeera exists on the same planet as the Times-Picayune and the BBC.

I never thought I would join the activists in Mobile Alabama in praising a media network from a monarchy in the Middle East for their coverage of a local issue. We truly live in strange times.

What is going on in the Gulf

I have very bad news for Gulf residents, which I have waited until after Mardi Gras to deliver for my New Orleans readers.

We have evidence that the seafood from the Gulf is contaminated with high levels of poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, and that the FDA instead changed the acceptable levels to avoid warning you.

Cleanup workers and residents who live in coastal parishes and counties the near the Gulf have been poisoned. A large number are reporting serious health effects, and the blood tests that have come back from some of those suffering these health effects show highly elevated levels of highly toxic hydrocarbons including benzene (which causes cancer), ethylbenze (which may cause cancer, damages the liver, and is toxic to the nervous system), xylene and hexane (which is toxic to the nervous system).

This information is all from the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program and Chemist Wilma Subra. The full information from Ms. Subra is available here: http://leanweb.org/news/latest/making-the-connection-2011.html.

I refer you to the earlier information about 2-butoxyethanol and birth defects and reproductive harm. Since we have seen every other health impact associated with these chemicals, there is no reason to believe that we will not see these.

In case you didn’t get the memo the first time around, the government will not tell you, there is a serious health crisis in parts of Southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Gulf Coast, and it is not going away because the cameras have left.

We must transition from fossil fuels and nuclear power

I pray for the residents of Fukushima Prefecture and the residents of Northern Japan, as well as for the residents of the Gulf that none of their families must suffer this terrible outcome, as did families in the Ukraine and Belarus following the Chernobyl disaster.

But we must be clear – cancer, birth defects, and the poisoning of whole regions – these are the human costs of our dependence upon unsustainable energy sources, the drive of large corporations to make a profit at any cost, and the deep collusion between governments and corporations. We will pay them again and again until we make profound changes in the way we use energy, and change the structure of our society.

Moving to a sane and sustainable energy and transportation infrastructure – meaning renewable energy, high speed rail and other forms of efficient mass transit – isn’t just about feeling good about “going green”. It is about people’s lives – whether that is in Navarre Beach Florida, Venice Louisiana, or Fukushima, Japan.

In the short run, people on the Gulf Coast need to have this addressed as a real health crisis and the result of a poisoning, so that they can access the resources that they need.

October 15, 2010

Voting records on energy issues, Louisiana candidates in Nov 2, 2010 federal elections

Filed under: energy,environment,Louisiana,New Orleans Politics,The Feds — christian @ 10:41 pm

I’ve talked a lot on this blog of late about the importance of energy and environmental issues in the November 2, 2010 congressional elections, and I feel like it’s time to back that up with some data. Things like party lines are not always indicators of the way an elected official will vote on a particular issue, though for Republicans, voting patterns on party lines have been more clear lately.

So how do the candidates we are going to vote for in the November 2, 2010 election measure up on energy issues? Obviously I have my own opinions about which policies are the most important, but I decided it would me more complete and fair if I used the list of legislation collected by Project Vote Smart for the last two years. Here we go:

Louisiana Senatorial Candidates

U.S. Representative Charlie Melancon

HR1 – American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“stimulus package”) – yes
HR2454 – American Clean Energy and Security Act (“cap and trade”) – no
HR5851 – Whistleblower protection for offshore oil workers – yes
HR2751 – “Cash for clunkers” – yes
HR3534 – Offshore drilling regulations – yes
HR4875 – Energy efficiency loans – yes

U.S. Senator David Vitter (incumbent)

HR1 – American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“stimulus package”) – no
HR2454 – American Clean Energy and Security Act (“cap and trade”) – no vote taken
HR5851 – Whistleblower protection for offshore oil workers – folded into HR3534 – see below
HR2751 – “Cash for clunkers” – folded into unrelated bill*
HR3534 – Offshore drilling regulations – no vote yet
HR4875 – Energy efficiency loans – no vote yet

* – it would be unfair to rank a vote on this bill, as Cash for Clunkers became an amendment to a much larger spending bill in the Senate, so the vote by Vitter could have been for or against the larger bill, not this amendment.

Louisiana Second District Congressional Candidates

U.S. Representative Joseph Cao (incumbent)

HR1 – American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“stimulus package”) – no
HR2454 – American Clean Energy and Security Act (“cap and trade”) – no
HR5851 – Whistleblower protection for offshore oil workers – yes
HR2751 – “Cash for clunkers” – yes
HR3534 – Offshore drilling regulations – no
HR4875 – Energy efficiency loans – no

Louisiana State Representative Cedric Richmond

Now, this is going to be a little different. Cedric Richmond has been in the Louisiana legislature, where the bills are different, and VoteSmart had no records, so I took a sampling of the bills that renewable energy advocates the Alliance for Affordable Energy supported in 2009, and added the solar tax credit passed in 2007.

2007 HB90 – solar tax credit – yes
2009 HB858 – expands eligibility for the solar tax credit – no
2009 SB224 – allows for construction of municipal finance program for solar and energy efficiency – yes
2009 HB733 “green jobs” tax credit – yes

Legislation sponsored in 2009:

H.B. 850 – Providing incentives to utility-scale renewable energy producers. Bill died in committee.

So there’s my data, as objective as I could find. The objective part ends here.

Analysis

Key national bills: I personally think the stimulus (HR1) was the creme de la creme of progressive energy bills. The $23 billion for renewable energy projects has funded renewable energy projects in most states. The investments in regional passenger rail are critical to reducing petroleum usage, and hell, reducing traffic. Section 1603, which turned the federal solar tax credit into a grant has been critical for the solar industry since tax equity funding dried up with the recession. But don’t take my word for it – ask the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Second in importance I would rank HR 2454, the “cap and trade” bill. However, do not mistake that for an endorsement. The bill was over a thousand pages long and full of loopholes, but never mind that – cap and trade was the worst carbon regulation idea that has ever been taken seriously. I’m personally much more fond of greenhouse gas regulation at the EPA level, or at least a “cap and dividend” approach, as was sponsored by Chris Van Hollen (D-Delaware), that would refund the proceeds of the program to American public in our tax refunds. Better yet is the national renewable portfolio standard that Senator Udall (D-New Mexico) has proposed.

However, HR 2454 was a key bill and a barometer of how much a candidate supported the idea of carbon regulation. Needless to say, none of the three candidates who could have voted on it from Louisiana supported it.

The other bills, while important, kind of pale before these two, large measures.

Now, for an analysis of candidates – Melancon is a Blue Dog who is not progressive on energy issues. Nonetheless, he is the only one of Louisiana’s seven congressmen who voted for the stimulus. That was, in the words of our Vice President Joe Biden “a big f***ing deal”.

Vitter is a loyal member of the party of No and would have voted against ACES if he had the chance. While there isn’t much to see from his voting record, besides the “No” vote on the stimulus, that is because most of these bills couldn’t even make it to a vote in a Senate which has set a new bar for obstructiveness.

Joseph Cao: Cao voted as a loyal Republican on party lines in key energy votes, voting against the stimulus, cap and trade, and most every other key vote for the Obama Administration. That means that he was a disaster for progressive energy policies.

Cedric Richmond: Hard to say by the votes alone. I’ve seen the Louisiana Legislature vote almost unanimously on any uncontroversial bill that comes out of committee. So in Richmond’s “yes” votes, he was joined by nearly every other member of the Louisiana house.

However, I would also note the bill that he sponsored, H.B. 850. While the bill hadn’t a snowball’s chance in hell given the budget war between Jindal and the Legislature and never made it out of committee, it was by far the most aggressive bill I saw in that session for expanding renewable energy in the state. Judged by his legislative record, Richmond appears very supportive of progressive energy policies, and even a leader.

Feel free to comment, particularly if you have any other votes that you think should be tracked, or if you want data for other federal races in Louisiana.

May 28, 2010

BP Oilmaggeddon update – protest Sunday May 30

Filed under: BP oil spill,environment,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 10:43 am

So Lisa Jackson has “clarified” that they merely “asked” BP to look into other dispersants. She is showing herself to be a total invertebrate and the Obama Administration so far has utterly failed us. I don’t care if Obama comes down here for a photo op; they need to make BP stop using dispersants that cause birth defects and destroy marine life, and they need to actually enforce health and safety instead of letting BP use South Louisiana fishermen and first responders as disposable. The reports that fishermen are not allowed to use masks is particularly horrible.

So you may ask, what are you doing about it? This Sunday, pissed-off New Orleans residents are having a rally at Jackson Square, at 1 PM. If you are in the region come by. Paul Orr from the Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper and someone from the Fishermen’s Association (probably George Barisich) will be speaking.

Among other things, we are calling for an end to the use of Corexit, the seizure of BP’s assets, and the declaration of a disaster.

more at murderedgulf.wordpress.com

I sincerely hope the “top kill” works. But whether or not it does, we still have a disaster of unbelievable proportions down here that will continue to go on long after the news cameras leave.

May 20, 2010

Update – EPA orders BP to use different dispersants

Filed under: BP oil spill,environment,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 2:39 pm

Today the Washington Post reports that the EPA has ordered BP to use less toxic dispersants to break up the oil in BP’s petro-Hiroshima.

I have no definite confirmation yet that this means Corexit, but this certainly sounds good.

Thanks to everyone who wrote letters on this. Every little bit counts. BP and the EPA must not be allowed to treat the people of the Gulf Coast as disposable any longer.

May 19, 2010

Open letter to Lisa Jackson, EPA on toxic dispersants

Filed under: environment,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 6:10 pm

Ms. Jackson,

As a resident of South Louisiana, I am writing to call on your agency to rescind approval of the dispersants Corexit EC9527A and Corexit 9500. The National Institute of Health on its Haz-Map website reports that 2-Butoxyethanol, an ingredient in Corexit EC9527A, causes birth defects and reproductive damage in animals, which has been confirmed by scientific studies. Britain and other nations do not allow the use of Corexit EC9527A, and the state of California has identified 2-Butoxyethanol as a hazardous substance. While not as bad as Corexit EC9527A, Corexit 9500 is reported to be more toxic than several commercially available alternatives and we ask that you rescind approval for this dispersant as well. It is bad enough that the people of South Louisiana have been exposed to this horrible oil spill without making it worse by exposing us to toxic chemicals with these kinds of extreme dangers, especially when less dangerous dispersants are available.

The Commercial Fishermen’s Association has already requested that you order a halt to the use of dispersants, and I and my fellow residents of South Louisiana support this call. But even if you do not discontinue the use of all dispersants, we need you to stop allowing BP to use Corexit dispersants.

The public information that your agency has provided is also woefully inadequate. As a partial step in remedying your agency’s extreme failure, you need to immediately post information on the health risks of all dispersants being used, in addition to the warning to use respirators. Furthermore, we do not believe your air quality testing. The air in New Orleans smells like petroleum, people are getting sick and we know something is wrong. Retest and give us accurate information.

As another partial step, you should immediately assist the state of Louisiana in obtaining information on the health dangers of dispersants as requested of BP by Louisiana DHH Secretary Levine, Louisiana DEQ Secretary Peggy Hatch and Louisiana DFW Secretary Barnham.

I cannot adequately express to you my anger in your agency’s failure to adequately protect our health and safety here. When Obama was elected, many of us thought we would be under an administration that would protect us better than the Bush Administration. You and your agency have proven us wrong, and we will not forget this.

Christian Roselund
New Orleans

May 18, 2010

Notes on a disaster, part 3: mutagenic poisons, corporate dominance and failures of the American Left

Filed under: Class,environment,Media,Race,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 4:46 pm

I had originally only intended to write two parts of Notes on a Disaster, however what I have learned in recent days has caused me to re-evaluate. In particular, the failures of Obama’s EPA has dramatically exposed how much the US Government can be a tool of the large corporations. There is an urgency in this issue that must be addressed.

The most overlooked aspect of this whole disaster is the potential impacts of the dispersants, which have been used to break up the oil. It has been revealed that BP and the Coast Guard used two dispersants, called Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527A. Corexit 9527A contains 30-60% of a chemical called 2-butoxyethanol, which the National Institute of Health via its Haz-Map data indicates causes birth defects and reproductive harm in animals. The Coast Guard has dumped and sprayed hundreds of gallons of this toxic substance into the gulf, and we don’t know how much more is on the way.

The only way that I found out about this risk is due to the work of journalist Tom Philpott at Grist.com. Tom is a real hero for putting out this information. While some other media outlets, like the Mobile Press-Register, have expressed strong concerns about the dispersants, no other outlet drew the link to reproductive damage, and the media in general has massively fallen down on the job here. Which should not be surprising, as under our stage of corporate domination, the corporations

The New York Times, however, has at least let us know that Corexit was not the only available dispersant. No, instead it was the only dispersant that was made by a company that BP has a close relationship with.

 

The “free market” and corporate dominance

This is the way that the “free market” actually works in many cases. The natural tendency of capitalism is towards monopoly, and corporations act in their self-interest, whether or not that follows the so-called “rules” of the market. Once corporations get big enough, they make the rules, whether that means overlooking better or cheaper products and/or destroying any competition in the market. BP, like may large companies, does whatever it wants.

This spill and its aftermath should serve as a stark warning that the big corporations are calling the shots here and that the government has been mostly a tool. While Obama gives lip-service to ending the cozy relationships with oil companies, not only has BP not been held to task for the incredible damage they have caused, but they have been allowed to manage the disaster, while the EPA looks the other way. And we who live on the Gulf Coast are treated as disposable.

The lack of information on the dispersants is a perfect example. I encourage all of you to read Mr. Philpott’s article on Grist. Even the Louisiana government is demanding to know more about the dispersants, while the EPA continues to shuck and jive.

In the past the government has been important in reigning in the worst abuses of the corporations. But when we are at this point of corporate dominance, it is essentially the same as Mussolini’s description of fascism – that the government and the corporations are one.

 

The disposable South

Again, it isn’t surprising that Louisiana is getting screwed. The same thing happened after Katrina. I’m reminded of the Legendary KO’s words in George Bush Don’t Care About Black People, written in late 2005: “He would have been in Connecticut twice as fast – after all we’ve been through, nothing’s changed – you can call Red Cross but the fact remains.” If you think that is different under Obama, think again.

The people and land of the Deep South are treated as disposable for reasons of regional, class and race biases that have everything to do with power. It’s easy for the rest of the nation to pass off the whites down here – who are portrayed as ignorant, backwards racists in much of the mainstream media. It’s a poor region with low education, and that allows people in other parts of the country to sneer at Southerners, and then, and when we suffer for the nation’s oil supply, to intimate that we somehow deserve this. Black Southerners have always gotten the short end of the stick, but all of us in the Deep South – especially whites – have to realize that as it is easier for large corporations and the federal government to disregard blacks, this allows them to prey on the whole region.

Let’s be clear here – Louisiana is suffering for the nation’s oil.

 

Failures of the Left

This is a time when we need leaders to organize the people take on the corporations. Unfortunately, the American Left for decades has been a marginal force that is content to sit back and make absurd, maximalist demands instead of organizing for real change. Another failure of the Left is attachment to historical terms and cultural identifiers that, if they do mean anything to the people they would organize, merely associate leftists with failed models and foreign dictatorships.

People down here need real help and real solutions. We need to be safe, and we need a movement that will make sure that this never happens again. That will only come when we stop the corporations. And that will only come when we have a real movement that can speak to and work with people in places like Louisiana. We are on the front lines.

May 13, 2010

Notes on a Disaster, part 2

Filed under: culture,environment,New Orleans Economy,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 1:11 pm

Readers will pardon the delay in delivering part 2 of Notes on a Disaster. Ten days is a long time in many disasters; however in this one it isn’t. Not only does oil continue to gush, unchecked, from the ocean floor, but we are going to be living with this spill for a long, long time.

Before I get into the meat of this post, what have we learned in the last few weeks?

1.BP could find out better estimates of how much oil is leaking, but either won’t or won’t share what they do know – courtesy of NPR.

2.The air quality in Plaquemines Parish is f***ed – courtesy of chemist Wilma Subra and Louisiana Environmental Action Network. The amounts of hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds are hundreds of times the levels for physical reactions.

3.While offshore drilling carries significant inherent risks, BP fucked up really bad on this one, and the lack of regulation is finally being noticed by the media. Which goes to my point in part 1 about thirty years of dismantling health, environmental and safety regulations, led by the Republican Party, unchecked by weak institutions of organized labor. Failures of batteries, blowout preventer, Ongoing failures of regulation.

4.Containment will be harder than we hoped.

5.No one wants to tell us what the oil dispersants will do to our health (courtesy of LEAN).

 

Louisiana, Oil and the Spectacle

Oil is far from the only industry in South Louisiana. Very significantly, we have an enormous tourist industry; when conventions are included this is estimated to be about $5 billion in the city of New Orleans alone. And while much of the tourism hinges around the reputation of the City of New Orleans as a place of wildness and decadence, the culture of the region – largely the music and the food – are perhaps more important. In the rural areas, food and music absolutely are the draws.

However, as Gulf Restoration Network often points out with their No Coast No Music festival and advertisements, the music is a product of the land of South Louisiana. If this is true of music, it is moreso true of food.

The oil industry burrows itself into the cultural economy, to assure that when these contradictions do emerge, they are insulated. The largest example is Shell Oil’s sponsorship of Jazz Fest, New Orleans’ second largest tourist draw (after Mardi Gras) and a PR extravaganza for Shell. Shell has used their sponsorship of this festival in the past to try and muzzle musicians like Dr. John, who has been outspoken about the way that the oil industry has ruined the coast. Gulf Restoration Network has also used the festival as a public education opportunity, flying planes with banners over the festival asking Shell to “Hear the music – fix the coast you broke”.

There is also the function of keeping the spectacle going as a way to prop up the city’s economy and a distraction from the very serious realities of life in South Louisiana. Everybody likes music and food, and we are masterful down here at living Le Bon Temps while the world sinks around us.

Jazz Fest is not the only place the Oil Industry inserts itself into the cultural landscape. Every September, the city of Morgan City, in the heart of Bayou Country near the mouth of the Atchafalaya River holds the (yes, this is real) Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. It will be interesting to see how well attended that festival is this year.

But perhaps the most cynical move by the oil industry is creation of the America’s Wetlands organization; a faux-grassroots effort by big oil to pressure the federal government to put money into fixing South Louisiana’s wetlands so that they won’t have to. Tragically, since locals have organized few other mechanisms to address these needs and America’s Wetlands is so well funded, many locals in South Louisiana will half-heartedly support the effort – even though they know it is a sham.

 

Our addiction to fossil fuels: policy

When faced with a disaster of this scale, people want quick answers. But America didn’t get into this addiction easily and even under the best case scenarios we won’t get out of it easily. We can’t just stop offshore oil drilling – we have to reduce our use of petroleum, otherwise that oil will have to come from somewhere. The best moves we can make to change this dependence will take decades.

It was a series of policy moves over decades at the national level that created this monster. Where shall we start? Autmobilies were emerging on their own as a popular product in the early 20th century, but there were a few steps along the way where they got a little help in taking over our landscape.

How about the Great American Streetcar Scandal where Standard Oil, Mac Truck, Firestone Tires and other companies got together to buy up the mass transit in 45 cities, so they could destroy them?1

Better yet, the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950′s and 1960′s – the creation of the world’s most aggressive automobile and truck infrastructure paid for with our tax money.

Let’s not forget the building of the roads system in our national forests, which subsidized big timber and left us with more miles of publicly constructed roadways than the insterstate highway system.

It is ironic that the “free-market” right supports the oil and nuclear industries, pretending that they came to dominance by the rule of the market, when in fact they were greatly assisted by specific policy decisions. Big government intervened heavily to create a dependence upon the automobile and fossil fuels. In making these arguments “free-market” ideologues are denying the historical reality that got us here.

 

Policy, Energy and Infrastructure

The policy decisions that we are making today are likewise crucial, and it is here that the Left has an important role.

Marxist-Leninist regimes are not known for progressive environmental policies (with the significant exception of post-1991 Cuba); however the Social-Democratic Left has been a world leader. When looking at the rise of the solar industry, many are quick to forget the policy that started in Denmark and Germany and has been replicated across Europe, the feed-in tariff, was passed in both countries by coalitions of Greens and Socialists. Because of the feed-in tariff not only has Europe installed 80% of solar panels used globally (not to mention dozens of offshore wind parks and other renewable development), but they have essentially created a booming global industry.

Likewise, the battles in the United States over policies that move us away from fossil fuel dependencies have been in recent years a battle between the left and the right of the extremely narrow American political spectrum. Spurred on by a large if problematic environmental movement, the Democrats in congress under Obama’s leadership have passed policies that are extremely important first steps for moving away from this dependency.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus package”) in particular has supplied funding for both passenger rail and renewable energy development. And while much more is needed for the kind of wholesale changes in our mode of life, these moves have been groundbreaking. Let’s not forget that in doing so, Obama was influenced strongly by a former self-described communist – Van Jones. Again the left has led, but this time, it has found institutional support in Obama’s administration.

Likewsie, the Republican Party and the “Blue Dog” Democrats – like Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu – have blocked significant progress on policies that would move us away from this dependency. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal even rejected stimulus money intended for passenger rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Republican and “moderate” Democratic politicians, elected by voters nationwide including in Louisiana, are keeping this addiction going.

However, it is a national addiction and most of the oil that is coming out of Louisiana is not going to Baton Rouge or Lafayette – it is going all over the nation, including to cities like Cambridge, Massachusetts, Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, full of smug progressives and liberals, who, even if they don’t drive, live the rest of their lives on our petroleum infrastructure. Louisiana has a tragic relationship to the oil industry that in many ways is like an abused spouse. But it is extremely important not to blame the victims here.

The world is already moving in this direction. But we won’t get there by alienating poor and working people, or by blaming the victims. Some of the solutions, like a move to biomass from agriculture and forestry wastes for a portion of electricity production, will upset environmental fundamentalists but will be extremely important for the Deep South.

Van Jones has set an excellent example in his call for Green Jobs. There is a way to move away from fossil fuels and create a more broadly prosperous society. It is time for Louisiana to become a leader again, like we were in the 1930′s.

May 4, 2010

Notes on a disaster: Louisiana pays again for our nation’s oil addiction

Filed under: environment,Labor,Louisiana,New Orleans Economy,The Feds — christian @ 9:05 pm

Like many people in South Louisiana, I have been utterly overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster represented by the Deepwater Horizon oil leak. To witness another catastrophe of this scale, less than five years after post-Katrina levee failures, is almost too much to comprehend. There is a tendency to block it out; to think that this really can’t be happening. But it is.

News accounts will talk of leaked memos, of containment strategies, of the small armies of volunteers and of the volume of oil. Thousands of barrels per day. First it was 1,000, then 5,000, and on April 30 we find out that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration thinks we could be facing a leak ten times that size, of 50,000 barrels per day. The numbers begin to lose meaning, because the truth is that we are screwed.

But this volume of oil is the only real thing. All the containment strategies are too late, the fires ineffective, the same with the dispersant chemicals.

A question of scale

This disaster didn’t happen on April 20. It happened long before, and all of this was just waiting. It is difficult to disaggregate how much of this is the result of safety failures on the part of BP and how much is the inherent risk we run with offshore drilling. This particular rig had a series of accidents, yet still was drilling offshore wells that set records for their depth. Obviously better safety procedures lower the risk of these kinds of accidents; but sooner or later, people make mistakes. In the offshore oil industry, like the nuclear industry, it is the magnitude of the consequences of these mistakes that is damning.

We’ve been sowing the seeds of this for roughly a century, by building an economy on the use of finite fossil fuel resources, which we now must go farther and farther to find, and by under-developing the regions where we extract these mineral resources, including lax workplace and environmental safety concerns.

And in the absurdity of this disaster, this is perhaps the most absurd thing; that we are so intently focused on utterly ineffectual short-term responses. It is not surprising that there is a lack of larger analysis in our short-attention span corporate media. Not surprising, but a dis-service nonetheless.

Multiple disasters

In this immediate, dramatic disaster, there is the background of the other, slower disaster: land loss in South Louisiana, accelerated by canals cut through the wetlands by oil companies for petroleum exploration and navigation. Non-profit Gulf Restoration Network estimates that we have lost 50% of the wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico already. Others throw around figures about how long it takes to lose a football-field sized chunk of land (under an hour).

But all of that is abstract until you stand on the edge of brackish water where people’s homes and businesses once were. Because this land loss has not only meant that South Louisiana residents, including in the city of New Orleans, are more vulnerable to hurricanes, but the displacement of entire communities. For those who live in South Louisiana and are flooded every time a major hurricane comes, sometimes every few years, it means a losing battle to hold on to land, community and ultimately culture.

The oil companies have never been held accountable for their role in this other, slower disaster. With the Horizon Deepwater leak, the livelihoods of many in these communities is on the line. Louisiana produces a large portion of the United States’ wild seafood. This seafood – boiled shrimp, oysters fried and raw, crabs, seafood gumbo – is an important part of the culture of South Louisiana, and has been a family business for many in rural South Louisiana for generations. The oyster beds offshore of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes are already closed. We don’t know when they will open again. Shrimpers have already filed a lawsuit. Many shrimpers and oystermen, who have had to fight rising fuel costs, hurricanes and floods, and in the case of shrimpers, dumping of farm-raised shrimp from other nations, are now out of work again. Again this time, more will look for work elsewhere. In a cruel irony, many who have been forced out of shrimping have gone to work on the offshore oil rigs.

Louisiana as an underdeveloped petro-state

It may be hard to understand this outside of the Deep South, but it is not really that surprising that when this happened, that South Louisiana was the first place to be affected. The oil industry has been doing whatever it wants down here in our home-grown banana republic for a long time.

Huey Long, who created the foundation of modern Louisiana, was the first political leader to take on big oil and win substantial victories. Long paid for much of the economic modernization of the state (importantly roads and bridges) and the undergirding of social reproduction (schools, hospitals, textbooks) with oil money. He succeeded in using a portion of the mineral revenues to help create a mildly social-democratic order in the state, but failed to ever really control the oil companies. Long’s approach was not to nationalize, but, as he had said of the nation’s millionaires, to “file their nails and let them live.”

This petro-populist approach may have won some victories for poor and working people, but it left a legacy of a state dependent upon mineral revenues, and politicians who are utterly sold out to big oil companies. It has been a long time since Louisiana had strong labor unions, so the forces to counter these tendencies have been few and weak. Our “right to work” laws and anti-union culture have prevented unions from seizing the power that is necessary to bring workplace safety to the forefront, as unions have in other states. It’s common knowledge that the oil industry in refining and petrochemical processing gets sweeter deals and more leeway here in Louisiana, particularly in terms of environmental enforcement and health and safety.

The results of this oil fiefdom, coupled with a dismantling of health, safety and environmental laws at the national level over the last 30 years, leaves us in a situation where these kinds of disasters are entirely predictable. Dismantling regulations seems so distant and arcane, and yet ultimately these are the results.

March 22, 2010

Thank God the health care vote is finally over

Filed under: The Feds — christian @ 10:50 pm

And we can get on to other issues. This whole thing went on way, way too long, and I for one am relieved that it is finally over. What we got: an end to denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and the other worst abuses of health insurance companies. These sketchy tricks were really too atrocious, even for the US Congress.

Or is it the end? My understanding of the bill is that now we’re all going to be required to buy insurance, which creates an even bigger market for insurance companies. Which means they grow.

All in all, this move seems to resemble the sort of regulation that was taking hold in the first decades of the 20th century in other areas – such as transportation and utilities. But instead of guaranteeing an individual company, like, say, Entergy Corporation, a monopoly, we’ve guaranteed an industry a monopoly on the American public.

Which means that they’ll still be here to screw us, any way that they can. As I learned at the age of 14 when my family had to sue to get our insurance company to pay for our house, which was destroyed in the 1989 earthquake, insurance companies don’t make money by paying on claims.

This is the problem with regulation and other corporatist and mildly social-democratic solutions that do not embrace nationalization. You can’t “file their nails and let them live” like Huey Long tried to do with the bankers and the oil companies. Like the banks and the oil companies, health insurance companies are aggressive parasites, and will take more and more power when you aren’t looking. As the corporations have generally done in the last 45 years since LBJ’s Great Society.

Side note – one of the stranger aspects of this whole debate was Tea Partiers complaining about the threat to Medicare. Please, some ideological consistency. I thought you guys opposed big government? What is more social-democratic big government than Medicare? The right fought Medicare bitterly in ’65 as being socialist and now the Tea Party is claiming to be its defender? The lesson here is that when people get successful socialist policies and institutions (the fire department, anyone?), they cling to them desperately, even when they don’t understand them.

Let me be clear. I don’t believe in entirely eliminating the market. But as long as you have big companies who make money off of destroying our land, stealing our homes and not paying on claims, you have a problem. And one that only gets worse as they get richer and consolidate power.

However, it is important to realize that change has rarely come overnight in America. The American system has proven to be remarkably resilient and flexible. We don’t have revolutions every fifty years like some countries. Reversing the tide of free-market fundamentalism is going to take time. We aren’t going to get a single payer system in America without a major change in the dynamics of power, which means people re-learning how to organize like we did in the 1930′s. A few people shouting in the streets never cut it, and certainly not against the power of big business in 2010 America.

Will this lead to a public option? Who knows. For now, I’m just hoping that we can move back to energy legislation and get a national renewable portfolio standard, so we can start to address our tragic addiction to fossil fuels. Obama has won a victory, and that is good for all of us, because within the limited options of our national political system, the other option – a strategic win for big insurance and the Republicans – was not going to be pretty.

January 23, 2010

The pathology of elections, episode II – the empire strikes back

Filed under: New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,public housing,The Feds — christian @ 4:09 pm

It’s that time again.

Election season. Which in New Orleans seems to be about every three months or so. This election season finds me particularly pessimistic about any possibility of any change for the better. Perhaps it is the quagmires at the national level around health care “reform” and carbon regulation. From those of us who said during the presidential election that Obama would not bring the change we need, well, I for one didn’t want to be right on this one, but Obama is looking more like a black Jimmy Carter by the day.

But the real news is the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow corporations unlimited access to finance campaigns. This one has to go down with Plessy v. Ferguson as one of the most monstrous decisions ever made by those miserable old black-robed bastards. Whatever Democracy you thought we had, kiss it goodbye.

But how much Democracy did we have to lose, anyway? We voted every few months or years for elected officials with limited powers, and then most of us spent eight hours (or more) a day in a dictatorship. Did you vote for your boss? Your landlord? Your mortgage company? The oil companies that cut canals through South Louisiana, destroying our coast? We took one small part of public life and held elections for people to run it, and then left the rest to that “invisible hand” of the market that’s been slapping more and more people out of their homes and into unemployment lines of late.

Here in New Orleans, that Democracy has meant even less. Before the storm 40% of adults couldn’t read or write well enough to fill out a job application. I don’t know what the number is now, but there is a large portion of this city whose education level precludes meaningful participation. As if, between the political machines of the city, the tendency for race/class based castes to reproduce and the factors that I already mentioned, there was much to participate in.

This is part of our pathology of elections in America. We have been bamboozled into thinking that politics only happen on election day and only happen through elected offices. Politics happen every day. They happen when we go to work, they shape our intimate relations, they are there when we pay rent and when we pay bills. And these relations are typically not Democratic.

I’m still going to vote, to exercise what little power I have and to make what little statement I can. At least I can say I voted before corporations ran that, too. But for city offices, this is a grim election. My professional work prevents me from saying much of what I would like to about various candidates, which is not pretty. Isn’t that the way it works? The more you know, the less you are at liberty to talk, as you may have to do business with these people some day.

Notes on particular races:

Mayor: We all know Mitch is our next Mayor. At least he’ll be better than Nagin, and this office doesn’t give him authority to screw us in the same ways that his sister does. I’m voting for James Perry, who is a hell of a guy. He won’t win, but any percentage that he gets makes a more meaningful statement to me than victory or loss by other candidates.

City Council: I find myself, over and over, not voting for people, but against them. Particularly in District B. Seven years ago I participated in an abortive effort to recall Renee Gill-Pratt. Look who we got instead. District C: Can we get another option? Please?

I would say that my frame for many of these races is the lesser of two evils, which, considering the level of evil involved, is weighty. My favourite people on the council had a group of former public housing residents, and me and my fellow protesters pepper-sprayed and tazered (I only got the spray, thanks guys!) two years ago, when we tried to keep them from authorizing the senseless destruction of thousands of units of livable housing during a region-wide housing crisis. All are guilty of participating in gross human rights violations against New Orleanians displaced by post-Katrina flooding.

On a side note, at least district A has some interest in energy policy issues. Fielkow seems to take these matters seriously as well. He’s my favourite person who’s ever had me pepper sprayed. Real decent guy in person, under better circumstances.

But as I stated before, I’m not pinning my hopes on any of these people. When this city, this state and this country made real change for the better, it took a long, slow process of education and organizing. Short cuts don’t work for the long run. If we want to see the change we need, this is what it will take – not electing someone from an oppressed group to be the figurehead for machines of oppression.

And that’s all for today. See y’all in a bit, hopefully before I have to find corporate sponsorship for this blog. Remember – what you read, and if you have access to read it, is also politics.

August 31, 2009

Waveland

Filed under: Class,Louisiana,New Orleans Politics,Other,The Feds — christian @ 1:12 am

I think I can speak for many of my fellow residents of New Orleans when I state that I wanted nothing to do with the Katrina Anniversary this year. Frankly, many folks have felt like that since 2006. At that time you really couldn’t help but remember the storm because so much of the physical evidence was here, in your face, day after day. By now, even though everyone’s lives have been permanently altered, many of the people I know are settling into a new reality. We want to move on. Many here will never be able to forget, so forgive those who want to.

I got the hell out of town. A trip to the beach seemed perfect. Of course, due to a number of unforseen circumstances, such as my friend Jewels almost getting arrested looking for my house (glad to know my part of the Irish Channel is well-patrolled), we ended up where the eye of the storm hit: Waveland, Mississippi. Go figure.

First we made it all the way out to Biloxi, where I got to check up on Sue at Le Bakery. I featured Sue in a radio piece I recorded about the Vietnamese community in Biloxi a few years ago, and was honored that she and all the Le Bakery staff remembered me. Of course, Sue made it easy; with her darling Southern Accent and her sign that “the bread will rise again”, it was too touching. That, and the vile disregard for the Vietnamese Community in the city’s official planning effort made for a hell of a story.

Biloxi looks pretty similar today, only with less debris. The empty lots still line stretches of Highway 90, steps leading to nothing, just like the ghosts of homes in the Lower 9th. The casinos are as big and as obscene as ever. The Vietnamese community in East Biloxi has largely not returned to their original neighborhood; similar to the gulf shore there is empty lot after empty lot. Sue says they’ve moved to the north part of town. However, also like New Orleans the official planning effort seems to have come to naught, so East Biloxi has been spared the fate of being erased with new casinos, hotels and a large park. (I have pity for planners. They’d be really dangerous people if anyone ever listened to them.)

Regardless, Le Bakery is still there. The banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwiches on French bread, are excellent, as are the sweets, including the yucca-coconut pastries.

However I can not speak as highly for the beaches in Biloxi. Despite the water being the temperature of God’s own bathtub, this part of the gulf features opaque brown water and you can walk out for about half a mile before the water rises above your knees. For someone from the West Coast like myself, this is hardly inspiring.

But Waveland was lovely. Taking 90 west from town, the water is clearer, and gently slopes in to the Gulf. We went in at a spot where Katrina had wiped our nearly everything, near a quansit-hut church, where the sign says “Katrina was big but God is bigger”. I was struck by how similar this expression of faith is to the Muslim saying “Allah akbar”. The clouds streaked the sky, and despite all the debris that must be somewhere in that water, there was nothing but mud in our toes and gentle waves.

For a little while I even forgot about the health care fight that is raging. In some ways it is welcome that now the rest of America is engaged in an issue that has been huge in post-Katrina New Orleans: access to health care. Sadly, it appears that many are engaged for all the wrong reasons; including an almost superstitious fear of “big government” (as if nearly a trillion dollars spent on foreign wars and spying on civilians under Bush was not big government). I am shocked at how many of my fellow Americans seem to equate Obama’s tepid version of a national health plan with Soviet-style central planning. Folks: wake up. The rest of the industrialized world has some form of universal health care, and they aren’t suffering under some awful tyranny; instead, they are healthier than we are because anyone can go to the doctor when they need to and get cared for. There are no death camps and there is no rationing. The closest thing to rationing that goes on is in this country, where those without coverage can’t get treated except in emergency rooms.

It would be one thing if those protesting the health plan were all affluent. But I see on television a number of what seems to be working people who have been so bamboozled by the right and the medical-industrial complex that they actually think they are better off under the current system. There really is no end to the ignorance some of my fellow Americans exhibit. This is the reason we’re last in geography, folks. Time to open at atlas once in a while, check out the BBC website, and learn about the rest of the world!

We can’t let a few misguided ignorant folks and wing-nuts get in the way of our having universal health care, just like any other advanced, affluent nation. This is personal for me. I for one spent over ten years without health coverage, and thank God I didn’t have any serious health problems. I am damn worried about how my brothers and I are going to take care of my mother’s medical expenses as she gets older. And I’m not even getting into my friends, most of whom are lucky to be healthy – now, because many of them don’t have medical coverage.

I’ve been lucky to make a few of the health care forums. Cao bullshitted us, but at least he had the courtesy to hold forums during the evening when working people could attend, whereas that worthless low-life Vitter had to hold his at 2:30 pm during a workday (Heelllloooo David… most of us aren’t running around on weekdays screwing prostitutes! We have jobs!). But the real prize goes to Mary Landrieu. A forum on Thursday at 2pm in Reserve? Now that you’ve made sure that the vast majority of those who can get there from the largest urban area in the state have cars and either don’t work or can get off Thursday afternoon, I’m sure you’ve had a real sampling of Louisiana, especially the uninsured. Way to go Mary.

For those of you outside the state, we in Louisiana have a bunch of the worst whores in government imaginable, and Mary Landrieu takes the cake – both for selling out to big pharma and the oil industry, giving us lip service all the while. For those of you here, it is time to get active, because you know for sure these swine – Vitter, Landrieu and Cao – aren’t going to do a damn thing unless you make them.

God is greater than this.

March 29, 2009

Mr. Go, the future, and hope.

I don’t know what has gotten into me. This week, yet again, I find myself posting positive news on Dirty South Bureau.

I have an innate aversion to this. Perhaps because there is so much misery and pain that people don’t want to talk about but that needs to be learned from, I have taken it on as my personal role to work in such territory. Or maybe it is a deep revulsion to the sunny voices that dominate certain types of media, such as many shows produced by NPR affiliates. For the stories I produced for such venues when I was a radio reporter, I recall the premium placed on resolution of the crisis in the story, which contrasted with the absence of easy resolution in post-Katrina New Orleans. Either way, I tend to avoid overly cheery accounts; after all Sheila Stroup might get testy if I start to tread on her emotional market share.

And yet there is no other way to express my experience yesterday of attending a ceremony to mark progress on the closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO).

For those of you not living in this region, Mr. Go, as we like to call it, is a 76-mile shipping channel leading from the Gulf of Mexico into the Intercoastal Waterway, a few miles before the Interharbor Navigational Canal (AKA the Industrial Canal), which cuts through the 9th Ward and divides New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward from the main part of the city. It is also the “hurricane superhighway” that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, carried a brutal storm surge into the Intercoastal Waterway and the Industrial Canal, where it destroyed levee walls on both sides, flooding the 9th Ward, the Lower 9th Ward and large swaths of St. Bernard Parish, particularly the parts where most people live.

Of course, there were other factors: the loose barge left in the industrial canal that went through the flood wall into the Lower 9th, not to mention the poor design, construction and maintenance of levees, much of which was revealed in a forensic investigation by a UC Berkeley team in the summer of 2006. Even with these qualifications, Mr. Go is not a popular waterway for many here.

The boat launch was at 8 a.m., and, needless to say, my companion and I arrived late. This was in part due to the fact that we had never been to Yscloskey, Louisiana, before. I believe that by the time we found Yscloskey we had seen much of rural St. Bernard Parish, which is a hauntingly beautiful landscape. I was reminded of how Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s describes the bogs in Jutland – wild, desolate, utterly empty areas of grassland and swamp, broken in areas by stands of trees, many of them dead.

Our timing turned out to be good luck. Immediately upon finding the Yscloskey Marina we encountered a lost Argentinian photographer, in a very Down By Law moment. With his help we flagged down a passing motorboat, containing not one but two councilmen from St. Bernard Parish, Wayne Landry and George Cavignac, who were kind enough to give us a personal tour of the Mr. Go closure.

Mr. Go is a very impressive waterway. During the high-speed boat ride (we were advised to close our teeth) Landry and Cavignac patiently and cheerfully explained the ins and outs of the waterway, as we passed barge-loads of large rocks and earth-moving equipment. Originally built to be around 500 feet wide, Mr. Go is now between 1,000 and 2,000 feet wide, enough for many cargo vessels to pass each other, ships that now have to use the Mississippi River as they did for the first 250 years of this city, and as many did anyway afterwards.

The rock wall that we reached was not particularly impressive, despite the crane atop it. It spanned only part of the waterway, and to our disappointment it appeared that no heavy work was being done that morning. Are we being overly impatient? It should be noted that the entire industrial canal took only nine years from legislative approval (1956) to completion (1965). As a nation, we can accomplish incredible feats of engineering (particularly with the Army Corps of Engineers) when, and only when, there is the political will. How about our white flight superhighway, the 24-mile causeway spanning Lake Ponchartrain, that we built to allow middle-class and affluent whites to escape the city and still commute in the 50′s and 60′s? It is now three and a half years after Katrina. How long will it take to build a rock wall across a mere 1,500 feet of canal?

Some say that a rock wall is not enough – that Mr. Go should be filled. I am in no position to evaluate such proposals, but Cavignac and Landry indicated that a rock wall, while it won’t entirely stop a storm surge, would at least act as a brake on the speed and intensity of any storm surges traveling up the waterway.

But the important part to all of us is that it is there, and that it is being built. It meant something to me. As absurd as it may sound, I saw hope in that pile of rocks.

It was also a lovely day, just cool enough to be invigorating, with pelicans and hawks passing overhead and dolphins swimming in the waters. All of that is enough to make us forget, temporarily, that New Orleans and Southern Louisiana are ground zero for the impacts of global warming. Sea level rise due to the melting of polar ice adds to other factors that cause the wetlands that protect this city to increasingly disappear. And of course, there is the link between global warming and more severe hurricanes. In the end, the levee walls constructed after Katrina and severely tested during Hurricane Gustav (anyone else remember watching Geraldo Rivera narrate water splashing over the top of levee walls on a television in a distant city?), may not hold back the next major Hurricane to hit this region. We are all guinea pigs here.

I am reminded of the end of the movie Blade Runner, when the Harrison Ford character, escaping the city to the north, explains that he doesn’t know how much time he and his genetically manufactured girlfriend have before her internal clock stops ticking. “But who does?” he asks. New Orleans is in deep shit for a lot of reasons, and may not survive this century. But many of us, who choose to live here because we love this city, don’t need forever. We just need some reasonable assurances of short-to-medium term viability, including some effort by the feds to fix any infrastructure problems that threaten us with total annihilation. It’s just not too much to ask for a medium-sized American city.

Coming back in the motorboat to the safety of the launch, past the enormous piles of rock fill, I was given just enough of that assurance.

(Big thanks to St. Bernard Councilmen Wayne Landry and George Cavignac for their superb hospitality.)

August 30, 2008

Gustav

Filed under: environment,New Orleans Politics,The Feds,We Are Not OK — christian @ 9:36 am

I’m at the airport as I write this, looking at a line of maybe one hundred persons to get to the gate. Ordinarily this would be strange, however over the last twenty-four hours there have been several such lines. I left at 6AM to beat traffic, (hours before my flight time), and my not-so-secret route out of town, AKA the wormhole, was nearly empty. However as I approached the airport, things were very different; parking in particular was difficult to come by.

I recall watching Nash Roberts on Fox 8 news last night with a sinking feeling in my stomach. For those who don’t know, Nash is the semi-mythical meteorologist they bring out of retirement when the shit hits the fan, hurricane-wise. An ex-girlfriend admitted to me once that just seeing Nash on TV scared her. Roberts seemed to think we are likely to be OK; he predicts that the storm will head westward. I hope he’s right.

With Gustav headed towards the Gulf on the south side of Cuba as a Category 1 Hurricane as of this morning, someone, somewhere, is going to have hell to pay. I’m not sure it will be us, but no-one I know is taking any chances.

The level of general panic yesterday was high. I went to the bank in the afternoon and the ATM was out of money; inside was a line of perhaps fifty people. I recall seeing music critic and Jazz-Industrial complex darling Alison Fensterstock in that line. The look on her face was not good, (or was that her everyday scowl?). Others I spoke to reported the same thing at pharmacy counters, and other businesses; generally ATMs are out of cash. I had business at a notary public, and the experience was identical; there had been a rush on auto titles. In the grocery store, it was all canned food and bottled water in the checkout lines.

Some of you reading this may say that this is all silly and out-of-proportion. Well, fuck you.

Here’s why: the Army Corps(e) of Engineers refuses to guarantee our levees, saying at best that they have been returned to “pre-Katrina levels”. Are you kidding me?

At the end of the day, the only thing that I can say is that we should not have to live like this. It is an uncertain universe. Natural disasters happen. But in the richest country in the world, the failure to protect the citizens of a major city is totally pathetic. This would never happen in Connecticut.

And don’t give me that “they shouldn’t have built a city there” or “New Orleans is below sea level” bullshit. First off, have you heard of Port of New Orleans? Second, half the city is at or above sea level. Third, there are plenty of cities in America that are protected by levees, and plenty of large cities around the world at or below sea level. Iowa floods, anyone?

I blog about a lot of other things; education, public housing, race and class, etc. But this is the biggest issue here – that the government has totally failed to protect us. And I for one am convinced that it has everything to do with race, class and regional bias. There is no reason why New Orleans cannot have adequate storm protection starting with levees that would protect us from a category five storm except a lack of political will.

We cannot survive as a city evacuating like this every time a hurricane comes to the gulf. I don’t know what it is going to take, but in order to survive, we need a political re-alignment that will get us the basic infrastructure that we need.

Levees.org
Leveesnotwar.org

April 15, 2008

Mixed Income

Looking back recently, I’ve realized that in all the rush to fight the impending demolition of public housing as we know it in New Orleans, that I and others have never really taken the time to explain the specifics of why we oppose the demolitions. Maybe it just seemed to obvious that the demolition of hundreds of units of livable housing was simply too absurd and too wrong to even bother to explain given the institutionalized displacement of over one hundred thousand residents of New Orleans and the severity of the housing crisis that we are experiencing.

But it is worth explaining, and the details are important.

First, let me be clear that I speak only on behalf of myself and that others in the movement to stop the demolitions may disagree with me on some or all of these points.

Some may be surprised to hear that both I and some other allies of public housing residents agree that mixed income developments are a better strategy for public housing than the old, Fordist warehousing of poor people. Yes, you heard me right— concentrating large numbers of poor people in massive developments may have seemed OK in the 1930’s- 1950’s, but I don’t believe it is a good idea today.

As a caveat, I don’t think concentration of poverty is at the root of the social ills that policymakers describe in their rush to destroy public housing. Policymakers are frequently confusing the problems of concentration of poverty with the problems of poverty itself. For instance, there is violence around the drug trade in low-income communities in many American cities. This is true if the poor are concentrated or spread out; in fact since the mixing up of returning New Orleanians post-storm there is generally more violence, reflected in our higher per-capita murder rate. No amount of moving people around in the shell game that we call our housing policy has changed that.

Why then, are we opposed to the demolition of public housing if it results in mixed-income redevelopments? First, because it doesn’t.

There is simply no reason to believe that any of the entities involved in the redevelopment of public housing— developers, the assorted opportunistic non-profits or HANO/HUD— have any intention of allowing the vast majority of the poor who lived in these developments pre-storm to return to the new developments. Developers like Columbia Residential, who has the contract for the St. Bernard Redevelopment, are corporations like any other and exist to turn a profit. It is simply more profitable to skew the numbers to create more “market-rate” units, and it is easier to sell, lease and rent these units for larger profits if there are fewer poor people living near by.

These sort of mixed-income developments could potentially work if there was stringent government oversight of the process to assure compliance with an income mix that allowed the majority of low-income residents to return. This approach appears to have worked in such cities as San Francisco, where the Valencia Gardens Development appears to be a successful HOPE VI redevelopment.

However, can anyone argue that known crooks like Alphonso Jackson- who resigned amid an FBI investigation, or the HANO bureaucrats— who had their office taken over in 2002 for massive mismanagement— are effective stewards of the public good?

More importantly, we watched this process go down in River Gardens, the St. Thomas Redevelopment. An excellent master’s thesis by Brod Bagert Jr., now an organizer with the Jeremiah Group, lays out much of what happened when the foxes guarded the hen house. In a nutshell, Pres Kabacoff of HRI, the developer, fudged the numbers and the New Orleans City Council, as now, looked the other way.

There is no reason to believe that homes in these mixed-income redevelopments will ever materialize for the vast majority of public housing residents.

(Side note- Kabacoff is now trying to redevelop his own image with the assistance of a white voodoo-priestess girlfriend and a new development on St. Claude in the 8th ward that includes a police substation and a food co-op housed in a “healing center”. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)

Second, even given the laughable contention that any significant numbers of public housing residents might be allowed to return to the new developments, there is still the issue of time. It will be years before any of these redevelopments are rebuilt; some units may be opened as soon as 2009. So for every public housing resident who returns to a “mixed-income” redevelopment, there is first 4-6 years of unnecessary displacement.

Scott Keller, assistant to Alphonso Jackson, called the post-Katrina situation an “opportunity” in 2006. I again feel the need to tactfully explain to all the big wigs and suits out there that this was not an “opportunity” for the tens of thousands of men, women and children evacuated from public housing, this was a disaster. Losing your home and having to find a new one for 4-6 years in a city where rent has more than doubled is not an “opportunity”.

If there was even a shred of consideration for the residents of public housing, redevelopment would have occurred in stages, with residents moved back in to a majority of easily cleaned-out units while the redevelopment occurred one development at a time. But there wasn’t.

The situation of Charity Hospital is very similar. If LSU Health Sciences Center had any concern for the low-income residents of the city who depended on Charity, they would have allowed the crew of military and hospital personnel to re-open Charity while they work on their “dream” hospital. But they don’t. In the case of both Charity and public housing, the people of New Orleans are pawns to be swept aside in the grandiose dreams of the powerful.

Lord knows pubic housing in New Orleans needed an overhaul; most significantly some maintenance of otherwise excellent buildings. How about keeping the developments but reintroducing the street grid, as was recommended in District 4 of the Unified New Orleans Plan?. Frankly, I would support an overhaul of public housing if it was done with real involvement of the residents and a plan to bring back those who wanted to return while redevelopment occurred in stages.

What is happening right now is not an overhaul, it is wanton destruction of not only buildings but lives. It is a totally unnecessary human rights catastrophe, and makes a mockery of the concept of mixed income.

April 1, 2008

Alphonso Jackson’s Resignation: Too Little, Too Late

Filed under: Class,Race,The Feds,We Are Not OK — christian @ 3:48 pm

HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson stepped down yesterday. If I am saddened by this news, it is only because he resigned after doing so much damage to the lives of so many men, women and children in the city of New Orleans, and that he was not stopped earlier.

It is ironic that Jackson’s resignation comes less than a week after the final accomplishment of his wantonly destructive tenure at HUD- the granting by the city of New Orleans of a demolition permit for the Lafitte Housing Development.

But not to fear; Jackson losing his job will likely not be a time of instability, like it would be if you or I lost our employment. I am sure Jackson’s friends at Columbia Residential, Jackson’s former employer and the company he awarded with a contract to oversee the redevelopment (read: destruction) of the St. Bernard Development, will not allow Jackson to see tough times. Like most former cabinet-level officials, Jackson will be free to return to the world of private industry which did him so well on his way to the top.

There are more than a few similarities between Jackson and another prominent Bush appointee who resigned amid scandal, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Both have lives that read like sinister versions of the Horatio Alger myth. Both are men of color who were born into poverty in large families, to fathers who labored in humble jobs. They are amazing examples of the kind of class mobility that America has prided itself on, often exaggerated in our national mythology of who were are. But Jackson and Gonzales were the real deal; hard-working, ambitious men whose rise would be unthinkable in the pre-civil rights era.

What happened to make these men forget where they came from, and to turn them into the monsters they became? They represent a curious trend in American society. Unlike the blue-bloods who run, say, the Times-Picayune, these men knew poverty and want, rose above it, and then proceeded to mercilessly sacrifice those still trapped below them to their own massive ambitions.

The administration of Bush Jr., himself a patrician and a faux-Texan, will be remembered for promoting a large number of minorities to cabinet-level positions. They appear to have made a study of finding the most ruthless, unscrupulous and spineless African-Americans and Latinos to fill these positions. It is truly a PR feat. Rove, or whoever else has been running the Bush machine, is very clever to have used these individuals to do their dirty work while still paying homage to equal opportunity employment. In this case, it reads more like equal opportunity oppression.

Ultimately, Jackson’s resignation is too late for the homeless under the interstate, and for those in semi-permanent exile in Houston. The Magnolia (C J Peete) Development has already been flattened, and demolition is underway on both parts of B W Cooper and St. Bernard. New Orleans now has a 4% homeless rate, four times that of most major US cities. Most of them, like the overwhelming majority of the poor in New Orleans, are of course black.

Maybe Horatio Alger wouldn’t be the best person to write Jackson’s story. It’s a pity Theodore Dreiser isn’t still around.

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