Every year around this time, I snarl out again the story of how the tragic and avoidable Federal Flood of 2005 came to be.
Not this year, though. I figure y'all have heard it too many times, and besides, the whole dang thing's been on the internet for years, so it's not like nobody's heard the story.
There are some stories I know that haven't been told, though. I'd like to relate a couple of them now, maybe pass on an opinion or two.
We left. Because we could. A lot of people couldn't, or just didn't, and there are a lot of stories about what happened then. Some of them are true.
And some aren't.
We came back about a month after, against the advice of the Marshals and Guardsmen. We were pretty much the first in our neighborhood, except for R across the way, camped out in his mom's attic, looking after the place. And another neighbor, M, who lived up the block, but wasn't in her house.
Her employer had brought in a trailer for her, set up under the 610 as soon as the water went down. The feds helped expedite that, as she was deemed an essential worker.
She worked in a funeral home.
M was one of many who sat around our kitchen table in the months after the Flood, sharing chow and drinks and the illusion of normalcy, and telling stories. She told of grueling days and nights, "processing clients," some with names and families, some not. She also told us a number, which made clear that some stories told weren't true.
"Our home by itself processed over 2,000. I don't know how many total, but we weren't the only ones working."
The official death toll is 1,836.
What happened to the rest? We're told "we'll never know how many," but there are a lot of people who know the official number isn't right. Like the Guardsmen who drove the trucks over the St. Claude Avenue bridge night after night, past the apartment where our friends J and A hunkered on their balcony, filming, until they were ordered at gunpoint to turn off the camera. The footage remains.
There were also the police who, along with the Guardsmen, were dispatched to "take care of" the neighborhood kings and "soldiers" who declared that, if nobody was coming to help, then they were in charge. "Our city now."
Those numbers are also unknown, though I've heard the same approximate figure from three sources, and the same approximate quote from two: "It's like they never heard of night vision scopes."
How could anyone, especially someone who'd lived under the often ungentle authority of a police force like ours, assume that they could simply, with a couple of AKs or TEC9s, declare their own sovereignty over a neighborhood in America? What could possibly lead to such an insane assumption?
Silence, mostly. The lack of footsteps made by shiny, black boots.
We don't know why the Pentagon decided to pull COE funding from levee inspection and repair in the years before the Flood, causing work on our protection to stop for the first time in 37 years, though the people with the best understanding, in the Corps and local emergency preparedness agencies, concluded the war in Iraq was sucking up too much dough.
Nor do we know exactly why, when the consequences came down, the administration (the Bush administration, btw, in case anyone's still not clear on that) chose to withhold assistance for days after the Flood. Democratic state, Democratic town, black, poor, terrorist? Like the number of dead, we'll probably never know.
But we know the consequences of that choice. Lawlessness. Fear. Needless, pointless suffering.
Unlike the Flood, not every disaster can be prevented. Sometimes shit, as they say, happens.
And, even with all the good will in the world, governments sometimes simply can't do what needs to be done to help. People get missed. Trucks get misdirected. Time and chance.
But there is one basic function of government that must be present after disaster strikes, or people will (rightly) assume they've simply been abandoned and seek their own solutions, for good or ill, and that is government itself. Shiny. Black. Boots.
People will give you a day's grace, twenty-four hours of doubt's benefit, assuming no one could get through, but by day two there must be boots. The men and women wearing them might have water or MREs or first aid kits or maybe nothing but a loudspeaker repeating, "We are here. Stay calm. Stay in your homes. Help is coming."
But people must know they have a government, however imperfect.
In the Ninth Ward, Johnson visited the George Washington Elementary School, on St. Claude Avenue, which was being used as a shelter. “Most of the people inside and outside of the building were Negro,” the diary reads. “At first, they did not believe that it was actually the President.” Johnson entered the crowded shelter in near-total darkness; there were only a couple of flashlights to lead the way.Things will always fall through the cracks. Ignorance and incompetence will have their day, and, always, corruption. Even absent those, sometimes the problems are just too damn heartbreakingly big.
“This is your President!” Johnson announced. “I’m here to help you!”
But to not even try, to not pace floors and yell into phones and threaten to have asses nailed to walls to get the basics--food, water, light, warmth, even simply shiny black boots worn by well-meaning liars--that is something new and unfamiliar to us, a philosophy of "governance" so callous and cruel as to seem the stuff of nightmares.
One last story and I'll let you go.
A couple weeks after we got back, I was shuttling back and forth to Bay St. Louis to help put a friend's mom's house back in order. One afternoon, instead of rushing back to town to beat the curfew, I decided to take a quick tour along Beach Boulevard and Cedar Point.
Driving down Boardman, I saw my friend C sorting through the woodpile that was once his house. We talked for a while, then walked down past Congressman Taylor digging a trench for his new sewer line to where C's sister had set up a tent on her slab.
Now, you have to understand that C's sister isn't the most liberal-minded person you could meet. In the course of that conversation, more than a few stereotypes and slurs might have been heard.
So I was shocked when she said, so definitively as to be affectless, "I'll never vote Republican again as long as I live."
She didn't think Democrats were great. Probably thinks all government is a scam. Likely enough, she won't vote for anyone any more (unless Taylor runs again).
But even a cynic like her understood there are basics that must be covered in the worst times. Every government, sadly, will fail to cover them.
Those that will not even try are not worthy of support.