Dirty South Bureau

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.

March 7, 2010

Nutriapalooza II

Filed under: culture,environment,Southern Louisiana,We Are Not OK — christian @ 3:57 pm

There are those nights when you say to yourself – this is why I live in the greatest city on earth, New Orleans. For the record, I felt this sentiment in fully sobriety, as has been my less-than-ideal state for all two weeks and five days of Lent.

Nutriapalooza is one of those events that could only happen in this city. Billed as a fashion show, it was actually simultaneously a fashion show, an environmental education event and a cultural celebration of South Louisiana and our city of beautiful freaks. Saturday night was Nutriapalooza II (I missed the first one, which I have heard was also great).

Where to begin? The tattooed models on the runway in Audrey Hepburn-esque fur outfits made from our favourite invasive species? The outrageous rock and roll auction of nutria fur? The beautiful work that went into turning rodents into fashion?

Again, only here. Before I go further, let me explain for those of you unfamiliar with what they called on Broad Street “nutria rats” that the nutria is a member of the muskrat family that was imported into Louisiana in the early 20th century to be raised for its fur. Nutria got loose, bred like, well, rodents, and have been helping the oil industry sink out wetlands into the Gulf of Mexico for over 50 years. So we have to get rid of them, one way or another. Which means killing them off. It’s them or us.

Also, they happen to have really fine fur.

The show was sold out, and my friend and I got the last two tickets for standing room only. It started fairly slowly, with a presentation by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) and its charismatic “invasive species” guy, Michael, who was frequently interrupted by questions from a rowdy audience that wanted to know, among other things, why nutrias had such poor dental hygiene. (They don’t. Their teeth are naturally yellow-orange.)

There was also a discussion of nutria as cuisine, an idea that State of Louisiana officials have, in the past, devoted millions to. This was not particularly successful. And while I strongly believe not wasting the flesh of dead animals, my own experience with nutria, as have been documented on this blog, were not pleasant. I think it could work out roasted with a honey glaze, but for God’s sake, DO NOT STEW. It is not a good idea to stew any particularly gamy meat, and especially NOT NUTRIA. Maybe I hadn’t cleaned it properly, but I ended up with a broth that was really only suitable for chemical warfare. Also, I will note that the hindquarters were much gamier than the rest.

There was also a presentation by Mr. Pitre, the last nutria furrier in Louisiana and the man who supplied the rodent furs for the fashion show. This was a rare moment – in a freak venue on St. Claude, to have a second-generation furrier from rural South Louisiana explaining his family business and the fluctuations in the price of nutria pelts to a fascinated audience.

Finally, after a few more shows including the inadequately-miked but charming Jurassic Parish Folk Ensemble and their song about five dollars a pelt, the models came on.

Before I go any further, I have to say that I’ve never really been able to understand why scantily clad tattooed women in fur bikinis do it for me. Maybe it was growing up reading too many Savage Sword of Conan comics, but this was hot.

The designs were not only beautiful but daring and broad in scope. We saw and entire gamut from Red Sonjaesque and Native American-inspired designs (where did the gutterpunks get the idea to all dress like late-19th century Native American train robbers, anyway?) all the way to 1940′s and 1860′s styles, and a hauntingly beautiful homage at the end of the show to recently deceased fashion designer Alexander McQueen. There were even nutria designs for men, but unfortunately few of these items were on sale at the auction later.

John C. Calhoun was one kick-ass auctioneer, regularly performing multiple kicks in the air and stage dives, backed by the newly-formed Invasive Species, which is actually they guy who works as a notary public on Prytania on guitar, and Helen the cellist on drums.

But what’s amazing about all of this is that this was an environmental awareness event, and worked as such. It was also a tiny bridge between the urban-rural divide in South Louisiana, where rural residents often show contempt, financial jealousy (“they get all the federal money and we have to make do on our own”) and fear of our city, and people in New Orleans forget that rural Louisiana even exists. Which is not in our best interests, if for no other reason than we need the wetlands for this city to survive. More and more people here are getting it, which can be the basis for a political movement which will be necessary (and which may not be enough) for South Louisiana to survive this century.

Every student of environmental communications should study the Righteous Fur movement. This truly was making environmental issues sexy. In our own weird and beautiful way.

Thanks to Cree McCree and Righteous Fur, Micheal and BTNEP, John Calhoun, Helen Gillet, Notary Guitarist/MC Guy, Mr. Pitre the furrier, all the designers and models (especially the Rat King) and everyone else for a superb event.


Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program

Righteous Fur

December 20, 2009

What is wild?

Filed under: Class,culture,environment,Southern Louisiana,We Are Not OK — christian @ 10:13 pm

Exciting news for Dirty South Bureau: tomorrow I am going to an interview on a short film that flimmaker Ed Holub and I produced on the impacts of hurricanes and loss of wetlands on communities in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. It’s thrilling to know that our short, the Human Cost, will be shown along with the other winners of Gulf Restoration Network’s Defend Our Wetlands, Defend Ourselves film contest on local television courtesy of Timecode NOLA. When Ed and I shot the footage and the interviews we knew we were on to a big story, but didn’t figure that we would make local TV.

For those of you who weren’t aware of this, Southern Louisiana is experiencing an environmental catastrophe unparalleled in our nation. We are literally losing the land in our coastal parishes, as the wetlands and marsh slip away into the Gulf of Mexico. Why this isn’t a bigger national story says a lot about the warped priorities of our media, but also about our own ideas about what the “environment”, “nature” and “wild” mean.

Part of the film focuses on the struggle of the Point-aux-Chenes people, a native people living in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, to survive. The Point-Aux-Chenes and other native groups in South Louisiana are not recognized by the federal government. Like the native Americans in Southeast Alaska, natives in South Louisiana waged no wars against the United States and were never put on reservations. The old folks speak French and they live next door to Cajun and other bayou communities, with a history of intermixing that appears to predate the purchase of the land by President Jefferson in 1803. With their French language, their diesel powered shrimping boats, and their assimilated way of life – not much different than their neighbors – they are about as far from the American cigar store, feather headdress image of Native Americans as you could get.

But is it European culture that assimilated these indigenous people, or the other way around? In many practical respects, if you forget about the diesel fuel and modern wooden houses, the way of life for those living off the bounty of the sea and the land is not fundamentally different.

The natives of South Louisiana challenge our post-Rousseau Western notions of what is “wild”. In the “untamed” West of the United States, we set aside huge areas of land as “natural” preserves, to protect some pristine notion of wilderness from our own impacts. After, of course, we removed the people who lived there. In this dichotomy of “wild” vs. “civilized”, the space for contemporary indigenous people is in a museum or on a reservation.

By these notions the land of South Louisiana is hardly “pristine”; but does that make it any less worth saving? What about the people who live there: Native American, Cajun and just folks who live down the bayou?

Much of the failure of modern environmentalism has been rooted in false dichotomies – nature vs. people, trees vs. jobs – which the large corporations who perpetrate environmental crimes, be they Shell or International Paper – are more than happy to perpetuate. But environmentalists are part of the problem. When environmentalist and their organizations – and the big national ones have been among the worst – speak the language of yuppie environmentalism, where the environment is something on the outside, separate from us, that needs to be “saved” (at times by removing people), the seeds of these conflicts are sown.

The truth is that we are dependent upon our environment, and the most pressing reason to be concerned about environmental issues is that they affect us, our health, and our ability to survive. We are the ones that need saving. Nowhere is this as clear as South Louisiana, which is ground zero for environmental issues.

A big thank you to Chuck Verdin, Nathalie Bergeron, Robert Bergeron, Marylee Orr, Paul Orr, Aaron Viles and everyone who made this possible. The Human Cost can be seen on YouTube.

December 12, 2009

The value of life: Jacquian and the Iraqi dead

Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Economy,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 9:41 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about the different value that we, a society assign to different human lives; how some lives, such as the lives of white people from affluent families, are seen as almost infinitely valuable, and how others, such as the lives of young black men from low-income neighborhoods, are treated as almost infinitely cheap. This is hardly news, but we, myself included, end up getting so used to this paradigm that after a while we don’t even notice that we have internalized these values.

One of the reasons that I have thought about this is the untimely death of Jacquian Charles, a young man who worked in the workforce training program at my day job. Jacquian was murdered shortly before Thanksgiving in Algiers, and the Times-Picayune story that ran after his death was boilerplate young-black-man-with-criminal-record-is killed-in-New Orleans.

Now I understand that writers some times have difficulty finding biographical information for stories, especially those written on short deadline. My non-profit wrote a letter to the editor that offered to augment the information in the article by telling readers about the Jacquian that his co-workers and friends knew; a hard-working, kind, humble man who was trying to turn his life around and provide a future for his children. As of the writing of this blog post, the T-P has yet to print this letter.

I have to contrast this treatment of Mr. Charles to the sensationalized stories that come our from time to time, such as when the young white woman went missing in Bermuda a few years ago, that are all over the television and the papers for weeks on end. I understand why different news outlets run this story: it’s good for ratings and ultimately ad sales. We, especially those of us who are affluent enough to be good to advertise to, are titilated and intrigued by sexual/violent fantasy images of the danger to this young woman’s virtue and life by dangerous dark-skinned savages.

But that doesn’t excuse anything, especially not on our part.

Several young black men die in poor neighborhoods every week in New Orleans. Their lives are trivialized by the poor educations they receive, by the low wages that are available to them in the tourist industry, and by a society that tells them that if they don’t have money they aren’t worth a damn. And these lives are further trivialized by the treatment they receive in the press, particularly the Times-Picayune.

I have to wonder how much of this is the result of a society that, particularly since the 1980′s, has taken a turn towards turning as many aspects of our lives as possible over to the market. I have to wonder if our net worth (including realized or unrealized cultural and intellectual capital) has become the sole social yardstick of our human worth.

A particularly egregious example of this is the dead from the Iraq War. And I am not talking about the U.S. Soldiers, who are meticulously counted. I am talking about the hundreds of thousands of nameless, faceless Iraqi men women and children who have died since we invaded their county seven and a half years ago. We don’t even know how many have died; though a 2006 study put this number at around 655,000.

Every American that dies is this senseless war is a tragedy. But I refuse as a human being to value the lives of Americans above the lives of others. It is a tragedy that over 4,000 American men and women have died in Iraq. But the Iraqi deaths are a tragedy of a far greater magnitude because so many more Iraqis have died.

But who cares about Iraqis? They are poor, brown heathens. They are camel jockeys, sahibs, sand niggers. Just like when we bombed North Vietnam and Cambodia, we were only killing gooks – not the ivory-skinned princes and princesses of Connecticut and Texas, California and Kansas. Just like the “thugs” in our city, their lives are cheap to us.

This attitude is an affront to our humanity. When we value one life above another because of wealth, skin tone and/or nationality, we do something obscene.

My condolences to the family of Jacquian Charles and of every young person who has died of violence in this city.

September 5, 2009

Blowout Charity second line report

Filed under: Charity,Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Politics,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 7:57 pm

Due to an even more than usually busy week, I am just now getting to posting about Monday’s second line for Charity Hospital. In a word, it was incredible. Official estimates are between 1,000 and 1,200 for the number of attendees. As with any event like this, we will never know for sure how many people attended. Suffice to say that it was easily the largest event yet to call for the re-opening of our public hospital, much larger even than the event where former Councilmember Oliver Thomas spoke in 2006.

Just as impressive to me as the overall numbers was the breadth of those who attended. From what I saw the crowd was 60/40 black to white. It is damned hard to get large numbers of African Americans and whites to anything together in this town, let alone to protest. But there we were. And I have to hand it to the organizers for doing a superb job in bringing together a wide range of groups and individuals. Big time salute to Eli, Jonah, Jacques and the whole team – finally we have some politicos in this town who know how to mobilize folks.

It was also just a plain good time. Rebirth and the Hot 8 rocked the streets. I’m telling you, if you want turnout for a protest, this is the way to do it. For those of you who aren’t in New Orleans, a second line is a street parade that we do, led by a brass band. Even the legendary Ernie K. Doe (who ranted on WWOZ about being born in Charity Hospital when he was a DJ) came back from the dead to join in the protest.

However, this was also serious business. LSU Health Sciences Center remains utterly committed to not rebuild in the Charity building, and to destroy a huge swath of Lower Mid-City so that they can build a hospital not associated with the Charity legacy. I honestly don’t know the political route the organizers are planning to use to change the game, but I do know that if they can maintain this kind of social pressure, they may find a way to change what even I had thought was a done deal.

Now, to dispel several myths propagated by right-wingers and ignorant folks like the racist trolls in the nola.com comment section:

Myth #1: the crowd was out of town young white privileged activists.

This is the same myth that I’ve heard, typically from folks from Jeff Parish and the North Shore, about many of the fights over public services in this city. In the fight against tearing down the big four public housing developments, there was a grain of truth (but only a grain) to this, as a small group of activists were invited in from out of town (against the advice of many of us here) Even in that fight, there were a large number of people who were born here or who lived here pre-storm. In many high profile events, it was safer for whites allies to be on the front lines instead of black residents of public housing, because 1. whites don’t get treated as harsh by the police and 2. we weren’t in danger of losing our temporary HANO accommodations for political activism.

However in this event, the dozens of people I knew were overwhelmingly people born in New Orleans or had been here a long time pre-storm. I feel like it’s pretty easy to spot the out-of-town activists, and I didn’t see anybody who fit the Common Ground-style bill. Mostly I saw a bunch of poor black folks and white New Orleanians who are damned pissed about the lack of access to affordable medical care in this city.

Not only that, but the sheer size of the march would have been very difficult to pull off with people bussed in from out of town.

This is a pernicious myth used to discredit important political movements, but it’s also problematic when people come to protest something they don’t really understand and don’t have to live with the way that locals do. However in this event I call bullshit on this myth.

Myth #2: Those in the march didn’t go to Charity Hospital for care and would never go to Charity.

Um, if I was shot or in a bad car wreck, Charity is absolutely where I would want to go. As Dr. Tlaloc Alfarez (the daughter of Mexican sculptor Enrique Alfarez who did the sculpture at Charity) noted, if the president was shot in New Orleans pre-storm he would have been sent to Charity. The level one trauma center was among the best in the country for dealing with these kinds of injuries. Also, if I had a loved one with a mental illness that I, my family and my community were unable to care for adequately, I would absolutely want them to go to the third floor of Charity. I would certainly rather have them in Charity than OPP, our default mental health facility where a beloved mentally ill woman died in January after being put in restraints.

I for one didn’t go there for checkups. Because I didn’t have medical insurance until a few years ago, I didn’t go anywhere for checkups, though I technically could have gone to Charity – assuming I passed the means testing. Since the storm I’ve used Common Ground Health Clinic. I am willing to bet that a large number of the hundreds of African Americans on that march did go to Charity – for everything.

I will also note that the march included a contingent of Charity Hospital doctors and nurses, and that since the storm a number of my friends – some of whom were in the march – have gone to the ER at University Hospital, in the Charity system, where the lines are long and the care is not what Charity provided.

So I call big-time bullshit on the right-wingers for that myth.

Myth #3 – We need the jobs that building a new hospital will provide.

Again, total and complete bullshit. Of course we need the jobs – but rebuilding a new, state of the art hospital in the shell of the Charity building will provide a similar number of jobs to tearing down Lower Mid-City and building a hospital there. Hell, if we follow the right on this piece of pure horse puckey, we might as well tear down the entire city to put people back to work – starting with the French Quarter.

Myth #4 – The organizers are proposing moving back into the old, dilapidated building in its current condition.

Actually, what the group at savecharity.com is proposing is that we build a new, state of the art hospital inside the Charity building – as proposed in the study commissioned by Foundation for a Historic Louisiana (FHL) . According to FHL, this option would provide us with a state of the art hospital in two years less time and cost $283 million less than LSU plans. This is also a far more environmentally friendly approach than building a new hospital, and again doesn’t require the destruction of a huge swath of Lower Mid-City.

So for those of you who are serious about getting adequate public health options back to this city, I strongly urge you to come to the September 19 music benefit at the Howling Wolf (8 pm), which marks four years since Donald Smithburg, then CEO of LSU HSC, illegally ordered the emergency cleanup crews out of Charity and closed the hospital, preventing it from being used to provide emergency medical care. Keep in mind that this was less than a month after the city flooded.

savecharity.com

fhl.org

photos of the event

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.)

September 2, 2008

Going Home? (Evacuation Part III)

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Economy,New Orleans Politics,We Are Not OK — christian @ 12:30 am

First off, props to the ACE for the levee repairs. Even if it doesn’t really make up for the last forty-some years, at they worked well enough to save us this time, and that means a lot.

——

So after the drama of levee over-topping and watching Anderson Cooper hanging out in the French Quarter for the last 24 hours in a desperate attempt to get news (or at least entertainment), the latest is that Mayor Ray Nagin may not allow us back in to the city for several days.

This must be a bad joke. The stated reasons: because the power is out? Are you kidding? What do you think life was like in neighborhoods like the ninth ward for the first six months after Katrina?

Or that there are downed power lines? Oh, because we’ve never seen those in New Orleans.

Or because the health care infrastructure might not be adequate? What? Did I miss something? We have a health care infrastructure?

If there was anything that worked in the city of New Orleans, I might be a little less skeptical. But our roads look like four-wheel drive trails (been down Paris Avenue lately?), we pay absurd sums to Entergy every month, I’m more scared of the cops than I am of the drug dealers, and the only thing that I can think that is working right now is the levees.

Nagin apparently will allow those working in “essential businesses” back in to New Orleans a day earlier. I mean, I get it- we need folks to fix the power, man the water plant, repair gas lines, etc. But the irony of that statement is killing me. In the economy we’ve constructed, daiquiri shops are the closest thing we have to an essential business. Maybe if we had “essential businesses” in the city of New Orleans (other than the port), we wouldn’t be in the economic shape that we are in.

I also found it offensive watching that moron Cooper congratulating Nagin for the orderly evacuation. Most people I know got themselves out, because we were terrified of what would happen if it was left to the city. And if the city was emptied out easier this time, it is in part because half of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina poor no longer live here, something that Mayor Nagin is at least complicit in if not directly responsible for.

The only thing worse than the government’s failure to supply essential services are the things that are done ostensibly for our own good, like keeping us out of our city unnecessarily. I know very few people who live in New Orleans who don’t have survival skills, and I for one want to go home.

And we wonder why some people don’t evacuate.

August 31, 2008

Evacuation

Thanks to everyone who has checked on my safety and sent both kind words and a factual correction.

So the weekend trip I had planned to New York is looking like it will be my Hurrication, and potentially indefinite. To say that things do not look good seems like too massive of an understatement. Since we’ve been living in disaster for the last three years, the idea of a storm worse than Katrina kind of boggles the mind.

But there it is, less than 24 hours away. The good news is that nearly everyone I have been able to contact has evacuated, and is relatively safe.

I’m not sure how to feel about the 311 system the city put in place to deal with evacuating folks who don’t have cars. It worked for a friend of mine who is now in Birmingham, but it took him six hours to get through. But for that it worked at all I have to give the city credit. Other friends were not able to get through and found another way. There is still the question of how many people, if any, have been left behind.

So far I have heard from two people who are planning on riding this storm out. I personally do not think this is a good idea (and have said so), but since I can’t stop them, I will be reposting their accounts of what goes on in New Orleans.

I am personally hoping and praying that the Corps of Engineers is downplaying the repairs that have been made to the levees in the East Bank of Orleans Parish, and that they will hold. However there is a new concern; that the West Bank levees may not.

This puts a large number of people on the West Bank of the Mississippi (Algiers, Gretna and other municipalities and areas in Jefferson Parish) at great risk.

Southern Louisiana, including Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, are also in deep shit. I don’t know about their levee systems, but there is serious danger simply from the winds if Gustav continues at its current magnitude. New Orleans was actually spared the worst of Katrina’s winds; closer to the eye of the storm and particularly on the eastern side the damage, both from winds and a tsunami, was more intense. These places often didn’t receive the magnitude of damage or the press that New Orleans did largely because they were less populous.

Southern Louisiana may take decades to recover from this, if ever. Many in these areas were already struggling economically from the collapsed price of shrimp. The last time I was in Buras, about ten months ago, it looked like Katrina had just hit, but larger towns like Houma were doing better.

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

August 19, 2008

Dark days for both public education and truth

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,We Are Not OK — christian @ 2:16 am

First off, a disclaimer. I am no longer working for United Teachers of New Orleans, as I have been for over a year. So while all the content on this blog was only ever my personal opinion and in no way reflected the positions of the union, well, now it does even less.

Today the School Facilities Master Plan was finally unveiled after months of waiting… or was it? I got a press packet from my good friend RSD Communications Director Siona LaFrance that contained a slim, vague jumble of papers; apparently the details will be released at the school board meeting at McDonogh 35 tomorrow and then made public the following day.

For the best description of what little we do know about the Master Plan I have to again refer you to Eli Ackerman of the blog We Could Be Famous.

We’re shrinking the footprint again. I had the pleasure today of hearing a fascinating exchange between Eli and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, who must the be the most overpaid, under-qualified bureaucrat in the state. Basically it went something like this…

Pastorek: “Those places where we rebuild schools, they will serve as catalysts for neighborhood recovery.”

Ackerman: “So then what is going to happen to neighborhoods where we don’t rebuild schools? By extension, does that mean that if we don’t provide public services like schools, that this will discourage people from rebuilding those neighborhoods?”

Pastorek: “Well, I don’t think the placement of schools will have an effect on all areas of the city… high schools would not be a geographic attractor.”

There we have it in perfect bureaucratese, the sort of sublime logic that only those who make more than $300,000 a year can really understand. Where we build schools, people will come back to those neighborhoods. Where we don’t rebuild schools… oh well, that doesn’t really matter, does it? After all, we’re going to have these “magnet-like” schools…

On another front, last Thursday Paul Tough of the New York Times published a perfect piece of bullshit that I only now have come across. I talked to Paul when I worked for UTNO, and I recall how out of touch he was about the realities of New Orleans schools. He appeared to have no idea that the overwhelming majority of our public school students were low-income African Americans, and also did not seem to grasp the historical role of de-investment in the incredible inequities around education here.

But hey, I guess you don’t have to be too much of an intellectual to work for the New York Times Magazine, do you?

It was enough for Tough to know that 1. schools were really bad before Katrina (no shit) and 2. the free market is great.

Maybe I have just not been smoking from the same Neoliberal bong that Paul has. Maybe I am burdened by the knowledge that experienced teachers make a significant difference in test scores, and that these ivy-league kids with TFA largely don’t have any idea how to manage a class? Or perhaps it is what really shouldn’t be inside knowledge for someone who calls himself a journalist- that the RSD and many of the charters are terrible messes.

Despite all the hype, test scores have not appreciably risen from pre-storm levels. Yes, they improved over last year- but I seriously hope so, given the abysmal chaos of the RSD under Robin Jarvis when the school takeover architects in their infinite wisdom decided they could run a district with half a dozen people as their main office staff.

What Vallas has accomplished he has largely done by more than doubling per-pupil expenditures, mostly by spending one-time monies that are supposed to be going to long-term needs and infrastructure. Give any urban school district in the country that kind of fiscal injection and you are going to see improvement.

But while Vallas has shrunk student-teacher ratios and brought technology into the classroom, he has also failed to fix basic problems. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that RSD professional development is a bad joke, run by salespeople and consultants who largely have no classroom experience. The implementation of the much-publicized technology like the “promethian boards” is abysmal; half the time it just doesn’t work. The discipline policy is toothless, where it is actually enforced. The paperwork errors are legion: in one small example a teacher friend of mine called me tonight and explained to me that the RSD had lost the 11th grade records for a large number of her former students, and has been sending them as seniors back to 11th grade classes.

And the charters? The great wunderkind of public education? Please. Again, most of them have no idea how to handle discipline. A third of teachers in Algiers think their merit-pay scheme TAP should be scrapped, and another third think it should be overhauled. And among the wonders of their decentralized model of education is a situation where no school can afford retiree health care for their employees because they’ve lost the economy of scale that a real school district has.

Charters have largely made what improvements they can claim in test scores by creaming their student populations via a combination of backdoor selective admissions and “soft expulsion”, where the parents of troublesome kids are “encouraged” to pull their kids out so the school won’t have to expel them. This, and their ability to attract private funding.

But don’t believe the hype or the Times-Picayune headlines. Even with these advantages, many of the charters have not improved their test scores, and charter schools here, when you take the test scores of the same schools pre-storm, have largely dropped in performance. This echoes national trends, that charter schools perform on average slightly below regular public schools in standardized test scores.

But again, none of this seems to bother Paul Tough, who is busy chasing down attractive 23-year old ivy leaguers and falling head over heels for their dedication to saving the ignorant savages of New Orleans.

Here’s another story that didn’t make it in to any of these reports: the RSD basically drove out the internationally renowned writing program Students At the Center (SAC) with a combination of neglect, bungling and outright hostility. This year there is no SAC at Frederick Douglass High School in the 9th ward, and the “reformer” Vallas and his cronies who he put in charge of academics, many of whom are overpaid consultants with no educational experience, are to blame.

Paul Tough basically swallowed the PR of New Schools for New Orleans hook, line and sinker, and came up with the sort of dross that Sam Winston was writing for Gambit Weekly before I took him to Einstein Charter in the fall of ’07 to see how badly a school that has no real accountability can go. Tough should know better; he is a professional. I have to wonder; did he even talk to any teachers who weren’t recent TFA graduates?

This sort of shallow, ideologically loaded work is the reason that people in the rest of the country have no idea what is going on here.

August 18, 2008

The Savvy Bureaucrat Presents: A GUIDE TO AVOIDING PUBLIC INPUT IN PUBLIC MEETINGS

Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Politics,Other,UNOP,We Are Not OK — christian @ 11:40 am

Everyone involved in policymaking in New Orleans today recognizes that public input is an essential component of the legitimacy of any plan or policy. But we also know that public opinion is unpredictable; that people will come down and express their opinions in a way that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, cannot be managed and diverted into the self-interest of planners, policy-makers, and the host of bureaucrats and non-profit flunkies who must accompany any process.

So what to do when public opinion, for PR reasons, is inevitable? We at the savvy bureaucrat offer you this handy-dandy guide for avoiding, at all costs, real public input while maintaining the necessary facade to keep your hands clean and bamboozle the majority of the public who will only find out about these things through newspapers which your PR people have good relationships with.

Without further ado, the savvy bureaucrat’s GUIDE TO AVOIDING PUBLIC INPUT IN PUBLIC MEETINGS.

Rule #1: Announce your meetings right before they happen.
Why give your critics advanced notice? If you can put a notice in the Times-Picayune a day before the event, all the better. Websites are also beautiful for this. Just have your webmaster put a little blurb on your website, say, a few hours before the event. If anyone bitches, hey, did you check the website? And the odds of people who are farther away from the process you are managing- in other words, ordinary working folks, checking your website is next to nil.

Bonus points- do this in states like Louisiana that have low levels of overall internet usage.

Rule #2: If possible, hold your meeting in the most obscure and distant location possible.
Why use city hall of the largest city in the state when you can use a hotel in some obscure town in the hinterland?

Rule #3: Hold meetings at a time when no-one who is not part of the bureaucracy could possibly attend.
Daytime meetings are more convenient for those of us who are in the in-crowd. We wouldn’t want to extend our workdays unnecessarily by holding a meeting at, say, 7PM, now would we? We might be tired and cranky the next morning. Most ordinary working folks, in other words the people who will be affected by your plan, can’t possible get off work at 2:30 PM on a Monday. So it’s a great time for all of us who really matter, and it keeps the riff-raff out.

Rule #4: Delay. Delay. Delay.
About to put out something unpopular? Never fear! You can kill public interest by continually extending the deadline. Say you’ll release it at May 31… no, July 17… no, September 1… no, September 18! No one will be paying attention when you finally unveil your plan.

Rule #5: Hold a tedious public meeting that reveals nothing.

Start the meeting by the sort of mutual self-congratulation that will assure everyone in the room who the important and unimportant people are. Talk about how you knew your fellow bureaucrat’s cousin’s daughter in college. Talk about what a great plan you are unveiling, and how much work you put into it. Conduct other business. Whatever you need to do, but by all means DO NOT reveal actual content until much later, hours later if possible. By that time even the fiercest public watchdogs will be doing crossword puzzles if they haven’t left to relieve the babysitter or go back to their day job.

And today, we have to give credit to (drumroll please…. not the New Orleans City Council (good jobs on #1 and #5, but tazers are a little crude, folks), not our long-time champions the Louisiana Recovery Authority (you guys wrote the book on this one), but our new champions of avoiding public input…

Concordia Architects and The New Orleans School Facilities Master Plan Team!

Way to go guys, on #1, #3, and #4! Can’t wait for your meeting this afternoon so we can see you really smoke ‘em!

July 30, 2008

Latest on the Toxic Oil Spill in the Mississippi

Filed under: environment,We Are Not OK — christian @ 1:01 am

Louisiana Environmental Action Network finds “extensive ground contamination”. Lots of pictures.

Story here

July 28, 2008

“Booms”, pom-poms, rickety streetcars and 400,000 gallons of toxic waste.

Filed under: environment,Other,We Are Not OK — christian @ 12:09 am

So I went down tonight to the Mississippi tonight to look at the river from the Moonwalk, near the French Quarter. It is covered with an oily sheen, and against the shore is a line of orange floatation devices, covered in oil. There is still a noxious smell.

What is the point of these “booms”? To keep the oil off the rocks, so the tourists can’t see it next month?

My friend Joanna Dubinsky had been down a few days prior, when a crew of workers in hazmat suits working for an out of town contractor were mopping up the oil by hand with pom-poms.

Yes, pom-poms. Like cheerleaders use.

This is the government’s plan to deal with the 400,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil that leaked out following a barge accident on Wednesday. Today’s Times-Picayune says that 10% of the oil has been mopped up by these crews and a type of boat called a skimmer. The rest has floated down into the wetlands in the delta, where it is doing god-knows-what damage. The article also quotes wildlife conservation officials who say they have found 57 oil-soaked birds.

No source was cited for the 10% figure. I am assuming this means this was the official PR estimate by the state, which means that it was total bullshit. But let’s get real. Even 10% is totally inadequate. It’s like having your doctor say he was able to stop 10% of the bleeding on a wound.

Where the fuck is FEMA? Where the fuck is the EPA? If 400,000 gallons of toxic waste don’t qualify as an emergency, could someone please explain to me what does?

A preliminary report by Louisiana Environmental Action Network (for the record, my former employer) explains that this “#6 fuel oil”, a byproduct of the refining process, contains large amounts of sulphur and heavy metals. This report also details a number of basic safety procedures that could have prevented such an accident.

But let’s be honest. The biggest problem here is our dependence on petroleum. It’s clear that the increased frequency of severe hurricanes in the gulf is related to global warming, which in turn is largely a result of, again, our petroleum use. The oil industry has criss-crossed the wetlands with canals, which also made us more vulnerable to major storms. And now our dependence on oil has caused yet another environmental disaster of untold proportions.

What’s going to happen to the shrimp and oyster beds in the delta? And what’s going to happen to the few shrimpers down the river who haven’t already been put out of business?

Shell and Exxon-Mobil executives should be down there mopping this shit up themselves. Instead they make pretty commercials and donate token sums to wetlands restoration, and the rest of us remain pacified.

And because this shit is all related: after all southern Louisiana has been through as a result of our dependence on oil, why don’t we have a functioning transportation system in this city? Why is our public transit based around a couple of fucking streetcars for the tourists that look cute but go about three miles per hour? Is this the result of the years that we spent in bullshit public planning processes?

July 24, 2008

400,000 gallons of diesel

Filed under: Bywater,environment,Other,We Are Not OK — christian @ 11:45 pm

OK, so, did anyone else notice the noxious gas-station smell last night in the neighborhoods by the river? Here I was at Markey’s, paying $3 for Abita Amber (the rising cost of beer here is a whole other subject) and I go outside, and there’s this Mad Max smell everywhere. Turns out that, as of the Times-Picayune’s reporting this morning, we have a 400,000 gallon fuel oil spill in the Mississippi, just slightly down river from our water plant.

Holy fucking shit. There is something so apocalyptic about this that I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around it. What’s even more profound is that only a few people seem really excited about this.

Is this because the Mississippi is the nation’s urinary canal, carrying tons of nitrates and pesticides past us each day?

Is this because this shit (after treated in a local treatment plant) is what comes out of our tap?

I can still recall post-Katrina when you literally could not drink or even bathe in the water. I still recall my lover at the time spraying herself down with frebreeze as her daily shower.

Welcome to the future.

May 30, 2008

Scattered Notes May 30

Filed under: Class,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 5:55 pm

A lot has gone down since the server that housed my blog went out. The big news:

The lawsuit to re-open Charity Hospital went to its first hearing in Civil District Court. Judge Ethel Simms Julien rejected LSU HSC-New Orleans claims that would have forced the case to go to court in Baton Rouge.

This is a big win. Baton Rouge may only be eighty-five miles away, but it’s another world in many respects. Baton Rouge judges have not been as sympathetic to these issues as our own have.

More by Justice Roars

 

Last week I also had the pleasure of meeting Eli Ackerman of the blog We Could Be Famous. I am impressed by his work, notably his filing of FOIA requests for the contracting process that landed Concordia and Parsons Engineering with the school facilities master plan contracts, requests that so far have resulted in his being stonewalled.

We Could Be Famous on Paul Vallas, Parsons and Concordia

Apparently Eli has a lot more time for research than I do, and thank God someone is doing it.

 

And lastly, there has been a leadership change at United Teachers of New Orleans (for the record: my day job) resulting in Larry Carter and Jim Randels being elected to President and Executive VP of UTNO.

UTNO website

May 12, 2008

Douglass

Filed under: Bywater,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 12:45 am

My readers will pardon the delay with which I am passing on information about a fairly urgent situation. However, the sheer volume of work that the union has sent my way, plus the psychological exhaustion that comes from prolonged outrage have conspired to keep me from relaying this information clearly until now.

Ah, where to start?

Decision makers at the state level are planning on closing Frederick Douglass High School on St. Claude in the Upper 9th Ward. We know this for two reasons; one that no new freshmen were admitted last year, and that several weeks ago teachers at Douglass were pulled into a meeting and told that the school is being phased out.

The very way this is being done is sneaky and vague; likely because if these plans were publicly announced they could result in a huge PR problem for the RSD and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek.

But first, a bit about Douglass for those of you not familiar with the school.

 

Douglass High School

Frederick Douglass High School is in the 9th ward, on St. Claude between Pauline and Alvar. It’s in an old, poorly maintained but still beautiful pink art-deco building that straddles the block, across the street from Charles Drew Elementary. The names, Douglass and Drew, are more recent; those who grew up in the neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s still remember them as Nicholls and Washington, respectively. Times change, demographics change, and with massive white flight, black power and a movement towards a recognition of black history, names change. I have only heard the process of renaming the school from that of a Confederate General to a radical trade unionist, former slave and abolitionist alluded to, and unfortunately have no concrete details for my readers.

The Ninth Ward (upper ninth, that is), with the exception of parts of the newly gentrified Bywater (between St. Claude and the river), is a low-income African American neighborhood with serious problems. The student body that goes to Douglass is almost exclusively black and almost exclusively free and reduced lunch. LEAP test scores are low, graduation rates are some of the lowest in the city.

It also has a lot of community support. Before the storm the Frederick Douglass Community Coalition was very active in school and the neighborhood surrounding it. The school is also one that participates in Kalamu Ya Salaam and Jim Randels’ nationally acclaimed writing program, Students at the Center (SAC). At Douglass, along with other public schools, Kalamu and Jim have been turning inner-city youth into writers and intellectuals for years now. It’s an incredibly hopeful and inspiring project.

Given the socio-economic status of the neighborhood, it would be extremely unlikely for Douglass not to have problems. But many people in the community support the school and see it as a place where there is a struggle to improve things for the children of the 9th.

 

The Plan to close Douglass

We are not sure who is behind this plan, but Pastorek would have to be massively out of touch to not know about it. As for RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas, he is likely not the originator of this plan but he is at least an accomplice, and has been making statements about the state’s designs for the school which range from dire to vague to downright contradictory.

Vallas claims that the decision not to bring in new freshmen in the ’07-’08 year was made before his tenure, which is probably true. However, I was at a BESE (state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) meeting a few months ago where he and his financial team brought forth the RSD capital improvements budgets, and there was a very clear distinction between the schools that were to receive large amounts of funding for building renovations and those that weren’t. Douglass was among the schools that had very few funds allotted to them. Maybe Vallas was counting on the assumption that no-one concerned about Douglass would be at that meeting, as it is held during the work day in Baton Rouge. However there is a plan in the RSD that specifically does not allocate funds for the repair of Douglass and a number of other schools, and to pretend otherwise is dishonest.

This all came to a head at a very disappointing meeting with Paul Vallas last Tuesday, a meeting that was shocking for the sheer level of disregard Vallas displayed towards a group of concerned community members and stakeholders. Now, given that I am used to official disregard for community concerns, but the powers that be usually do a better job of hiding this than Vallas did. And it was not just anyone that met at Douglass- this was a group that included Jim Randels and Kalamu Ya Salaam of SAC, Gwen Adams of ACORN, musician Charmaine Neville, Reggie Lawson of Crescent City Peace Alliance, teachers and students at Douglass, and neighbors who live within blocks of the school.


The meeting

First, Vallas showed up half an hour late. Now, here in New Orleans meetings rarely start on time. But thirty minutes was excessive by anyone’s standards. This was followed by a presentation by Vincent Nzinga of the RSD, who gave one of the more absurd speeches I’ve heard yet, where he tried to associate the spirit of Frederick Douglass with a criminal justice academy in the Lower 9th, planned to replace the art-deco building on St. Claude, because Frederick Douglass was a lawyer.

I feel the need to point out to Mr. Nzinga some facts that he is likely aware of: that the 13th amendment does not apply to those duly convicted of a crime, and that the incarcerated population in America, particularly in the south, is disproportionately black. Many of us have realized that in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, prison is the new slavery. And I feel the need to remind Mr. Nzinga that Frederick Douglass is primarily remembered not because he won a few court cases, but because he was an outspoken abolitionist.

I digress. This was followed by Mr. Vallas taking questions. Now, before we get too far into this, let me explain what a public meeting with Paul Vallas is like.

All of us got lungs at birth. Paul, he got lungs for, say, two or three people. The man can talk. Lord, he can talk. I’ve been at more public meetings with Paul Vallas than I can count. He talks, and talks, and talks. When people talk this much, you may think they have something important and/or profound to impart. However at the end of a meeting with Paul Vallas, one is often left with the realization that he has not committed to anything substantial except what he had already planned.

He also talks over people. Which he did quite a lot of at this meeting. To my knowledge no one has ever accused Paul Vallas of being a particularly good active listener. But this meeting was truly rare form.

Because this group wanted answers. Answers Mr. Vallas did not want to give.

He started off by dodging a question from a woman who had been teaching at Douglass for eight years and is temporarily in Illinois with her sick mother, questioning whether or not she was coming back. Vallas’ questioning the woman’s status was not received well by the crowd. Then Charmaine Neville got up and said that she knew a large number of tradesman and contractors who would be interested in working on the building for free. Vallas interrupted her to suggest that she bring them tomorrow to the school. Whether or not it was intended as so by Mr. Vallas, this was widely seen as a disrespectful brush-off and elicited hisses and angry remarks. But it was easy to see how. The entire meeting Vallas was defensive, awkward, angry.

At some point in the meeting (you will forgive my lack of chronology) Vallas passed out a brief report from Parsons Engineering which suggested that repairs to the school would be in the 30 million dollar range. Vallas repeatedly stated that he had no say in what would happen to the school building, saying that he only dealt with academics. For all of these questions, he referred us to the Master Plan.

Which brings me back to the rally to re-open Morris X. Jeff that I attended on Sunday April 6, 2008, where Torin Sanders of the OPSB (Orleans Parish School Board) stated that as much as he believes we should rebuild schools with that level of community support, that he’d have to refer to the Master Plan.

Master Plan? Many people in the meeting at Douglass were asking questions as they had never heard of a Master Plan.

 

Master Plan

At this point in the meeting I was able to clarify that the Master Plan that he refers to is the one being managed by Concordia Architects and Steven Bingler.

This is problematic for several reasons. One, Steven Bingler was sued by DeSoto Parish Schools in a situation that does not make Bingler and Concordia sound like very competent managers of school facilities.

Two, Steven Bingler is the brother-in-law of Sarah Usdin of New Schools For New Orleans (NSNO). It concerns me when you have those managing facilities with strong family ties to the heads of ideologically driven organizations like NSNO.

And you’ll have to pardon me, but I just don’t feel that NSNO has children’s best interests at heart, and I fear that ideology is clouding their vision. This is the group that, on their website, describes Katrina as an opportunity, and is spearheading bringing in large numbers of poorly-equipped recent Ivy League graduates to replace the veteran teachers in New Orleans. Multiple studies have shown that particularly in inner-city school districts, veteran teachers make a huge positive difference in test scores. But those like NSNO who are trying to replace a population because their analysis is that veteran teachers were the problem have ignored this data.

However, Bingler and his family connections are not the only problem here. Parsons Engineering has done quite a bit of work in Iraq, and the track record isn’t positive. A Washington Post reporter has described their Baghdad Police Academy, which literally rained feces from the ceiling, but this apparently is only one in a string of bad projects for Parsons.

To quote from the article:

“This is the most essential civil security project in the country — and it’s a failure,” said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an independent office created by Congress. “The Baghdad police academy is a disaster.”

Bowen’s office plans to release a 21-page report Thursday detailing the most alarming problems with the facility.

Even in a $21 billion reconstruction effort that has been marred by cases of corruption and fraud, failures in training and housing Iraq’s security forces are particularly significant because of their effect on what the U.S. military has called its primary mission here: to prepare Iraqi police and soldiers so that Americans can depart.

Federal investigators said the inspector general’s findings raise serious questions about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to exercise effective oversight over the Baghdad Police College or reconstruction programs across Iraq, despite charging taxpayers management fees of at least 4.5 percent of total project costs. The Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that it has initiated a wide-ranging investigation of the police academy project.

The report serves as the latest indictment of Parsons Corp., the U.S. construction giant that was awarded about $1 billion for a variety of reconstruction projects across Iraq. After chronicling previous Parsons failures to properly build health clinics, prisons and hospitals, Bowen said he now plans to conduct an audit of every Parsons project.

“The truth needs to be told about what we didn’t get for our dollar from Parsons,” Bowen said.

There are already too many parallels in disaster profiteering between Baghdad and the Gulf Coast.

I left the meeting early, but from what I hear Althea Strong of American Friends Service Committee tried to pin Vallas down to a promise to stand behind the community, a promise he wouldn’t make.

The long and the short is this: Don’t count on Vallas or anyone at the state level for help, and frankly you should not be lulled into waiting for this dubious Master Plan. For the Douglass community, you are going to have to fight to keep your school.

To quote Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

Blog entry by Jim Randels on this meeting

Save Frederick Douglass

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