- George W. Bush, December 11, 2006
As one of my eighth grade students might say, "Oh. My. God." Did the President of the United States of America, the leader of the world's once most powerful nation, really say that? After three-and-a-half years of nothing but mind-boggling ineptness in every possible aspect of his dimwitted invasion of Iraq, is that all he can offer up to the American public. The way forward is to succeed? Really, Mr. President. Thank you for your insight.
Driving along I-10 from Slidell, Louisiana into New Orleans a day later all I can think is why didn't Hurricane Katrina hit Washington, DC instead of the Big Easy. Erase the slate. Start again. We could put the brain-dead, do nothing politicians up in FEMA trailers somewhere out in the desert where they couldn't do much harm. Keep an eye, maybe, on the temperature changes at the world's tallest thermometer in Baker, California, or pick up litter off the shoulders of the Mojave highway.
The next morning I am sitting in the lobby of the Ponchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans still thinking about the President's speech to the nation and I would bet my Robert Earl Keen t-shirt that I could step out into the street right now and ask the first person I met to tell me what the way forward in New Orleans looks like, and they would have some very specific (if expletively enhanced) suggestions for both Congress and the President.
The way forward is to succeed. Yes it is, Mr. President. But, oh Lord, how the devil is in the details. Some 16 months have passed since Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans' Garden District and not even the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar is up and running yet - and this is in an American city that wants, that pleads to be restored and rebuilt. But if we can't even fix New Orleans, which suffered two days of wind-driven devastation, how in the hell will we ever fix Iraq - a country of 30 million or so that has been bombed, blown up, and beat down for nearly four years and sanctioned into poverty and disrepair for ten years before that.
The truth is we can't. It won't happen. That's the real situation on the ground. It's been thirty-two years since we left Vietnam and while they're coming around now, no thanks to us, they are also still digging up land mines and struggling to treat all those suffering the after-effects of the Agents Orange, Purple, Pink, and Green we left behind for them. Speaking of Vietnam, if I'm not mistaken the way forward there was to succeed, too. But it took half-a-dozen years and another 25 thousand or so dead soldiers years for Presidents Johnson and Nixon to figure out how to do that. Even then, the way forward to success was not pretty what with people climbing embassy fences and clinging to helicopter struts as the North Vietnamese Army advanced unstopped into Saigon.
Back in the Crescent City, later in the day, my wife is guiding our car through abandoned and littered streets of St. Bernard Parish just east of New Orleans downtown. This is clearly not where the great decider would like Americans to see his administration's idea of the way forward. I find myself wishing that I was pulling a long flat bed trailer behind me, like a Katrina-ravaged Mardi Gras float, loaded up with the well-fed Washington politicians and their lobbyist benefactors on a holiday tour of this never-never land where people used to lived before they were blown away by the hurricane and blown off by those whose job it is to come to their aid when disasters like Katrina strike.
According to the St Bernard Parish Sheriff's office official web site, "All of St. Bernard Parish was destroyed, but our dignity remained firm. Hurricane Katrina swept through our parish with winds clocked at 170 miles an hour and higher in gusts, but it never blew away our pride. Hurricane Katrina forced tidal surges nearly 40 feet high throughout the parish, but it never washed away our determination to come back and rebuild the most beautiful and family-oriented parish in this wonderful nation."
While there might an abundance of pride and determination in St. Bernard Parish, they are just about all that remains there. We drive through block after block of empty lots, leaning structures, for sale signs, damaged roads, piles of rubble, and FEMA trailers sitting alongside severely damaged homes. We see a couple of people here and there working to clear debris or haul in supplies. Mostly we see them looking out at us from inside the small trailers where they live and wait.
Until last year, I had been teaching school in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit has had no hurricanes, floods, or other major natural disasters befall it in, say, the last 200 years or so. Still, just a four block walk from the front door of my school near Detroit's cultural district would leave you standing in a part of the city that looks very similar to St. Bernard's parish - abandoned homes and businesses, buildings falling in upon themselves, weed and trash-covered fields, vast stretches of decaying urban neighborhoods largely unoccupied except by those who have nowhere else to go.
Motown. The Big Easy. Our own little Baghdads waiting to be rebuilt. In New Orleans, it would take an estimated $10 billion to rebuild or replace all of the homes that were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina last year. In Detroit, that amount would clean up the city and leave enough for a much needed mass transit system. That's just one-tenth of the amount the Pentagon wants Congress to give them next year over and above the $70 billion they've already been allotted for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's the same amount the military brass requested just to train and equip Iraqi and Afghan forces. That's not even rebuilding. That's just for maintaining order.
Go to Detroit, Mr. President. Take a drive down Chene or Mack Avenue or Grand River. Pull off into some of the side streets. Take a good look. Make some mental notes. Then get on Air Force One and fly down to New Orleans. Go east from the airport toward Chalmette. Notice the damaged and empty buildings all along U.S. 10. Take the Florida Avenue or North Claiborne exit and tour through some of what were once neighborhoods north of West St. Bernard Highway. As your eyes scan the ruins consider your own words to the nation of what constitutes the 'way forward'. Do you like what you see? Does it look like success? Have you been successful?
It's all there for you to see.
Auther's note: The St. Charles streetcar went back into service on December 20, 2006