Katrina’s echoes

The great oil-spill off the southern shore of the United States spells disaster for fishing fleets and brings to mind a terrible legacy, writes Jim Gabour in New Orleans.

This dispatch from Louisiana, in the southern United States, was written on Sunday May 2, 2010.

Today, a stormy Sunday here in New Orleans, we are celebrating the last day of JazzFest, preparing to party even as massive thunderstorms are predicted to roll through town. The winds have been howling at my windows all night, the citrus trees outside dropping newly-set fruit to the ground, covering my patio in a layer of tiny never-to-be-harvested lemons and limes, oranges and satsumas.

The mud will be knee-deep at the Fairgrounds site of the Fest, as fans dance in the weather and water to watch the Neville Brothers do their traditional closing act come sundown. But that there will be well over a 100,000 braving the threat of any storm, for one more chance to howl, is a certainty.

We have come to realise that is simply our destiny.

We are at the same time ignoring another horror slowly creeping up to our shores. We are ignoring it, at least for the moment, because like the weather there is nothing we can do about what happens. The giant British Petroleum oilrig that went down in flames in a mile of water on April 22, 2010, has refused to be capped, refused to be plugged. The tens of thousands of barrels it is spewing out daily have now touched our shores. The government has stopped the work of shrimp- and oyster-boats. A billion-dollar business, and 20% of the nation’s seafood, is now on permanent hold, right at the start of the largest season. The government even allowed shrimpers to go out to sea this past week in advance of the slick and days before the season was to officially start, in hopes that some small part of the harvest could be gathered before the oil hit the shore.

It is here now.

The same stormy weather that is rolling into the Fairgrounds party has damaged miles of booms and floating barriers placed along the edges of the Gulf of Mexico to impede the flow of oil. Waves and wind have rendered them, for the most part, useless. The aviaries of rare, and ordinary, birds on the outmost barrier islands off the coast were hit first; the pictures of blackened pelicans, terns and egrets have started to appear on the pages of local newspapers and on TVs and iPods throughout the country.

In another portion of the ongoing whirlwind of political irony, Barack Obama is flying into New Orleans today, a mere week after he signed off on allowing more drilling near national refuges and coastal marshes. He will visit the beaches. He will not swim. He will look and probably fly right out, since he won’t be able to get a hotel room – due to the Fest.

At least he plans to get off Air Force One this time, unlike George W Bush who looked at us from above when hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. What pity the president bestowed on those deluded enough to live in a place like this, where even the best efforts of his Corps of Engineers could not prevent the poor fools below being drowned and washed away. All he could do was look out his airplane window, adjust the airflow above his seat, then entrust our lives to “Brownie”: his disaster minion.

This president is getting off the plane. But whether or not he gets on the message is another matter.

Only 28% of Louisiana’s fishing-fleet was able to come back after Katrina. Boats are being pulled from the bottoms of the bayous and swamps to this day. Public and private alliances are still clearing the waterways as we near the fifth anniversary of the storm. And a new hurricane season is one month away.

Many of those remaining fishermen are predicting this BP spill may be the death blow to their ways of life. If the intrusion proceeds as predicted, then even in the lightest scenario the fertile fishing-grounds off the coast will be poisoned for as long as two decades. For centuries, families around here have depended on the Gulf of Mexico for their livelihood. But they cannot be fed if the boats can gather no fish, no oysters, no crabs, no shrimp. The gasman cannot be paid. The boat-note will not go away, but the boat may well have to be given up.

So national leadership is important. Barack is arriving. State leadership is also important. The bright political light and dim social conscience of Louisiana’s governor, Bobby Jindal, will greet the president. Meanwhile, in the last 15 hours of his office, the walking disaster of New Orleans’s mayor Ray Nagin will also meet the president.

This is the chronically deluded figure that for the last two years has refused to directly talk to any media he could not control. This is the man who contributed to the ruination of the city with his impulsive, disorganised and self-aggrandising conduct during the worst natural disaster in America’s history. Nagin’s troops have, like their boss, systematically looted the town for the past eight years, and yet he has prided himself in recent speeches on how clean and honourable his reign has been. This is the man who told a Nagin-partisan New Orleans radio station a few days ago that he will make his fortune on the lecture circuit and that all his critics can “kiss my chocolate booty”. At midnight on Sunday he is on the street, once again a civilian.

Today, a stormy Sunday here in New Orleans, we are celebrating the last day of Nagin and are preparing to party. On Monday at 10am a new mayor, former lieutenant-governor Mitch Landrieu, is sworn in. A large public celebration takes place on Lafayette Square, in front of the historic old city headquarters, Gallier Hall.

But while beer and the new season’s crawfish are again being swilled, the newest disaster is just downriver, headed our way.

Jim Gabour is a film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures.

This article first appeared in openDemocracy. It is translated and reproduced here with permission.
Homepage image from Greenpeace USA