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The Tentacle


February 8, 2006

As I Was Saying.

Roy Meachum

As I was saying before the accident cut me off: The most devastating aspect of Katrina can be found in the failure to recover and rebuild. Five months after the hurricane pulverized communities in its wake, the governments, federal, state and local, still have not hauled away the debris.

All over the Lower Ninth Ward and adjoining St. Bernard's Parish, piles of assorted trash have been neatly placed next to sidewalks. Abandoned automobiles, as I reported here, hang around although rusted through where it really mattered.

In its way, Mississippi's Gulf Coast is even more frightening. The beach communities were savaged by Katrina's tidal wave that threw houses, buildings and hotels about. The hypocritical law demanding gambling casinos being on floating barges saved their syndicate owners lots of moolah; they represented the only businesses open along the shore coast.

Driving along the beach highway unrolled the totality of Katrina's destruction. While hurricane winds hit sporadic targets, tidal waves devour literally every thing in their paths and this made clean-up much easier than in New Orleans.

Among the ruins only cement columns lie about, imitating Mediterranean lands where they stand in mute testament to civilizations crushed and departed. They are the modern equivalent of the Biblical "whitened sepulchers" but, in Mississippi's instance, the "dead men's bones" were hauled away with the storm's other detritus.

With this considerably under-sketched reality of the present situation, you must understand the depth of my despair. The president's State of the Union address provided zilch comfort. But in this election year, he needs to placate and tease all his other constituencies. GOP strength in both states allows him to play wink and blink poker.

George W. Bush is not alone.

For the first time in 125 years, Louisana's legislature assembled in New Orleans, not Baton Rouge, a gesture to their fellow citizens and their losses. But when Gov. Kathleen Blanco invited the body to see for themselves what no words or photographs can actually show, less than half showed up for the tour.

The response may have signaled up-state political disdain for the city. In places like Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria and, of course, Baton Rouge, New Orleans rates as a filthy cesspool, home to drunks, homosexuals and prostitutes and heavy with African Americans who are invariably considered criminals.

Bigotry figures prominently in their reckoning, but prejudice against blacks is also accompanied by the depth of antipathy for the Roman Catholic southern part of the state, and especially Big Easy herself. The Bible Belt runs strong in the northern countryside where the derogative Papist was uttered by people who genuinely feared a Vatican takeover of the United States.

But as Huey P. Long's reign demonstrated, pork has always been a significant factor in Louisiana's north-south feud, which obviously contributed to the state's failure to assure and protect its largest metropolitan complex from natural disasters, like Katrina. We witnessed Monday only the latest battle in the long-running war.

"If they can't decide what they want," I've heard, "why should the rest of us bother?"

Louisiana's historical politician dissonance certainly contributes to the federal government's reluctance to commit. I don't know. I am convinced, however, that my hometown will suffer considerable shrinkage while the debate goes on.

My old school presents an example. Since Katrina struck, Holy Cross watched dismayed as approximately 50 percent of its enrollment disappeared. Some went to different schools and others withdrew because my former boarding school was the most prominent ingredient in the Lower Ninth Ward. Holy Cross was there first.

In 1858, the brothers of Holy Cross purchased a sugar plantation that ran from Lake Ponchartrain to the Mississippi River, intending to fulfill their mission of educating boys. That's the reason they had been summoned to New Orleans, from Notre Dame and the mother house, still in France.

The brothers brought me up, a fact I recognize by the ring on my left hand. I came under their care when I was only nine and departed seven years later. >From them I learned more than classrooms' offerings. They broadened and strengthened the man I became and I will always be grateful.

On the recent visit I upbraided the headmaster about a story I was told on Christmas Day: Holy Cross plans to vacate the former plantation, taking along some of the most precious memories of my childhood. In answer to my earnest protest, he was the one who ultimately revealed the enrollment decline.

Our conversation took place on plywood platforms that covered the extensive campus; they were built with FEMA funding. We talked the day before the first classes since Katrina; after the hurricane's flooding, he had little choice but to move Holy Cross en masse to Baton Rouge. After this spring's semester, he said, they will relocate to a site near City Park.

I drove out of New Orleans with a broken heart.



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