Here’s what the National Hurricane Center has to say (public advisory and forecast discussion) about the storm melodramatically (and cross-dressingly) labeled “the mother of all storms” by the mayor of New Orleans. (How many people remember the origin of that “mother of” formulation? I think it’s time to retire the phrase and try some new personifying descriptions. A hurricane of Gustav’s reputation could be called anything from “unwelcome visitor” to “mannerless brute.” Any other suggestions? While we’re at it, we’d like also recommend a lifetime media ban on use of “The Big Easy” to describe New Orleans. If some hard-up news writers need a colorful handle for the city, let them use “The City that Care Forgot.”)

What’s it like down there in hurricane country? A blogger acquaintance I’ve followed for quite some time is named Rob. He lives near Bush, Louisiana, about 50 miles north of New Orleans. His blog is called Crabapple Lane, and he’s reporting on his preparations for the storm–including explaining why he’s choosing to ride it out at home rather evacuate. It’s compelling, immediate stuff. Thanks, Rob–we’re pulling for you.

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Defining Moment

The Times worked up a bogus take on our president’s image and poll tribulations a year after Hurricane Katrina caught his administration, and just about everybody else who might have known better, flat-footed. In The Times’s telling, our president’s famous post-Katrina flight over New Orleans, gazing down on the blur of floodwaters and the invisible drama of people losing their grip on life, was a defining and damning moment. In the words of Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican:

“Unfortunately, it may be hard to erase the regrettable photo of him on Air Force One looking down at the destruction and devastation below. That’s a searing and very unfortunate image that doesn’t reflect the president’s compassion.”

Maybe the image is as bad as all that. But you have to ask yourself, what had Bush done before that picture was taken to mark him as such a dynamic, effective leader. What did he have in the asset column that was so thoroughly erased by the decision to view the catastrophe from afar? The Times finds the answer in the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center, where Bush made a personal appearance three days after the 9/11 attacks to inspire the Ground Zero workers.

I’m more inclined to think of another, more sprawling disaster scene: Iraq. After watching Bush’s handiwork there, his Hurricane Katrina performance seems like it’s par for the course. If that seems too harsh, consider my favorite Katrina Week utterance. No, not “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Not New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin going off on his profane radio tirade. Those were great, but I like this more: Bush’s remarks at a Southern California event while Katrina was still pounding the coast:

“The storm is moving through, and we’re now able to assess damage, or beginning to assess damage. And I want the people to know in the affected areas that the federal government and the state government and the local governments will work side-by-side to do all we can to help get your lives back in order.

“This was a terrible storm. It’s a storm that hit with a lot of ferocity. It’s a storm now that is moving through, and now it’s the time for governments to help people get their feet on the ground.

“For those of you who prayed for the folks in that area, I want to thank you for your prayers. For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we’re prepared to help, don’t be. We are. We’re in place. We’ve got equipment in place, supplies in place. And once the — once we’re able to assess the damage, we’ll be able to move in and help those good folks in the affected areas.”

Don’t worry, everyone — he’s got us covered.

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The City and the River

I didn’t listen to Bush tonight, much. I did hear the part that was excerpted for the late local news here in liberal-land. If I knew nothing of his history, I’d say I liked what they chose to play: He said he’s responsible, the people deserve better, and there will be an honest effort to learn from the catastrophe. Having seen him on the job for the last five years, the most optimistic sentiment I can muster is “uh huh.”

However, I will not now stoop to the blame game. Let us consider what others might be saying about the present and past of New Orleans and its region and what it might tell us about the future.

First: From Sunday’s Washington Post, an interesting piece of historical perspective from Joel Garreau, a reporter who suggests the city, as it was, will never come back. The biggest reasons, he says: the people who control the resources to rebuild simple won’t pay, and the people who live in the city lack what it takes to make it happen.

“In his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone,” political scientist Robert Putnam measured social capital around the country — the group cohesion that allows people to come together in times of great need to perform seemingly impossible feats together. He found some of the lowest levels in Louisiana. (More Louisianans agree with the statement “I do better than average in a fistfight” than people from almost anywhere else.) His data do not seem to be contradicted by New Orleans’s murder rate, which is 10 times the national average. Not to mention the political candidates through the ages who, to little effect, have run on promises of cleaning up the corruption endemic to the government and police force. New Orleans is not called the Big Easy for nothing. This is the place whose most famous slogan is ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ — ‘Let the good times roll.’ ”

Second: Recommended by the proto-Infospigot (aka, my dad) is an “American Experience” documentary on the 1927 Mississippi River floods. The disasters may differ in origin, but the utter disregard for the poor looks familiar. The show was on Tuesday night (September 14), but public TV being public TV, it’ll be on again.

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Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu appeared on “All Things Considered” tonight. He tried to make nice, like everybody else who might be implicated in the post-Katrina atrocity (amazing to see Bush and crew turn into statesmen so sudden-like: Please! Let’s not play the blame game!), but he made one point that I haven’t heard from other mainstream politicos: A lot of what happened with the people who couldn’t make it out of New Orleans is a much deeper issue than just finding buses and shelters for them, and one most of us have been content to more or less ignore:

“One of the things that troubled America so much was, you know, we didn’t really have to see the poor, because they were dispersed. And everybody got a pretty good glimpse of what all a lot of poor people look like standing together, and I think it made America very uncomfortable. We looked in the mirror and we didn’t like what we saw. Now people are going to talk a lot about, as you have already started, who’s got the blame for not moving people out of where they are. There’s a much bigger question, because poor people get trapped, but they get trapped in poor education, they get trapped without transportation, they get trapped without technology, they get trapped without the things that many other people have. And that trap puts them in front of the Convention Center and in the Superdome. And so the country has to ask itself, what are we going to do relating to poor people, and what public policies are we going to put in place now that they’re standing right in front of us and we can’t ignore it any more?”

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No Warning

An excellent, and bitter, review (registration required) in Friday’s Los Angeles Times about in-depth reporting from three separate news organizations — some as recent as last month — about the danger hurricanes posed to New Orleans and the lack of federal and local response to the widely understood hazards.

“These days, media criticism has become a kind of blood sport. One of its practitioners’ most frequently repeated complaints is that mainstream news organizations have become increasingly — if not solely — reactive, retailing the sensation of the moment to an audience hooked on titillating irrelevancies.

“Well, that didn’t happen here.

“Three years ago, New Orleans’ leading local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, National Public Radio’s signature nightly news program, ‘All Things Considered,’ and The New York Times each methodically and compellingly reported that the very existence of south Louisiana’s leading city was at risk and hundreds of thousands of lives imperiled by exactly the sequence of events that occurred this week. All three news organizations also made clear that the danger was growing because of a series of public policy decisions and failure to allocate government funds to alleviate the danger.”

The Times-Picayune has reposted its 2002 series on the hurricane threat.

Hurricane Hastert

I’m proud to be a native of the state that produced Speaker of the House Dennis “Hurricane” Hastert. At last, a common-sense politician brave enough to speak his mind. As all around him wring their hands over the catastrophe in New Orleans, Hastert alone is clearsighted enough to see beyond the suffering and try to chart a sensible course for tomorrow. “It doesn’t make sense” to spend federal money to help rebuild the city, he said. And: “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.” Sometimes that’s the toughest thing: having the courage to move on.

Hastert noted that federal money is spent on rebuilding other disaster-prone locales sometimes: “But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures and they rebuild, too. Stubbornness.” (I like the fissures part; he must have seen that in “Superman”).

There’s a cost, of course, to such plain-spokenness. People who’ve lost their city react emotionally to your ideas. The principled thing to do amid the wounded yowls is plow straight ahead and enlighten the folks about the careful reasoning behind your blunt honesty. You might say something like this — or at least Hurricane Hastert did:

“ I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated. My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt.”

Truly: A profile in courage.