Saturday, February 9, 2008

New Orleanians Deserve More than Sen. Obama's "Check's in the Mail" Speech

After having listened to Sen. Obama’s speech in New Orleans on Thursday, I came away from it with that “Check’s in the mail” feeling. He was, as usual, long on passion and ambiguity and short on accountability, facts and concrete solutions but he said all the things people with little or nothing want to hear. Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for the disaster in New Orleans, but it was not the cause. The cause was two-fold: government destroyed wetlands and, government-built levees whose design, construction and maintenance were knowingly flawed. Fearing exactly what happened that horrible day in August of 2005, residents of New Orleans, particularly those in lower St. Bernard Parish, had been demanding the shutdown of the man-made navigation channel – the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (NOT affectionately referred to as MR-GO) - which connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of New Orleans' Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in eastern New Orleans since 1989. Constructed by (you guessed it!) the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in 1965, its excavation, construction and maintenance (mainly dredging) had a devastating, environmental effect on the virgin wetlands of St. Bernard Parish - wetlands which NATURE provided as a barrier against tidal surge from storms and hurricanes. But of course, MAN came along and (read - “dollar bills ya’ll”) decided that the 40-mile shorter route through St. Bernard” promised a safer and more efficient passage to the Port of New Orleans than the Mississippi River.” I received this primer on MR-GO from an ex-lifelong resident of New Orleans back in September of 2006 when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. As we stood on Shell Beach where the monument to Katrina victims of St. Bernard stands, he showed me how the channel had widened from the original 650 ft. to approximately 2,000 ft. since the construction of MR-GO. I need not go into the specifics about the levees again, but just picture this: You're 6ft. tall standing in a 2ft. hole of mulch. A 6ft. wall of water hits you. Where the hell would you end up? By the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' own admission, areas where the levees broke could not even have withstood storm surges of six feet, forget what Hurricane Katrina threw at them! The New Orleans primary is today and I have no doubt that Sen. Obama will win it (call it my profound understanding of the "twoness" of us Black folks). If he goes to Washington, I hope he’s got more in store for New Orleanians than “Check’s in the mail.” Though the Corps is legally "immune" from prosecution or financial accountability for what has been lost, I hope he's got the cojones to use all this charisma and consensus-building to make them plug MR-GO and construct levees that will truly protect New Orleans.

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