Call from New Orleans

Lew Frederick

The tears were flowing through the phone. So was the outrage. The words “Criminally Negligent Homicide” kept coming to my mind, placing W and his crowd as perpetrators at the top of the indictment.

5:54 am. Friday:

Just got off the phone with Gwynedd. We spent about 30 minutes. She was crying when I answered. She said, “You told me to call at any time, so I really needed to call now.” I was glad I was there.

She started by telling me that she didn’t realize until she took a walk in her neighborhood this morning what the numbers were on the houses in New Orleans. Then she found out that as she walked to the store that the numbers were the people who died in the homes next to her. People she knew. People she considered the best people in the world. In poverty, yes. Barely making it through the week. But people who would come to her aid in a flash and be joyful about the world around them.

“How could they let this happen?” She kept saying that over and over. “It was so easily prevented.”

The tears were flowing through the phone. So was the outrage.

The words “Criminally Negligent Homicide” kept coming to my mind, placing W and his crowd as perpetrators at the top of the indictment.

She told me of Granny, who lived next door to her with a thousand grandchildren who would be dropped off every day after school. Gwynedd handed them bandaids when they needed them. Which was apparently very often. She said, “No one knows where Granny is or her cluster of grandchildren. Or even if they are still alive. And these people had no money.”

She told me that the rents in New Orleans have gone up while the people have no jobs and no way to pay those rents.

She said, “How are they going to have their touristy thing without the people who did all the work? And the poor people did all the work.”

She said when she arrived there, by bus from Atlanta, she first passed through Biloxi, MS. “It is gone Dad. Nothing there. Foundations of homes, thousands of them just eliminated along with all of the possessions people had.”

Her arrival in New Orleans confirmed her compassion for the people there. She went to her favorite bar. Inside the bar was a water line above her head where the flood reached during the hurricane and the break in the levy. She told someone there that this was her first time back in New Orleans since last July. Apparently all of the patrons in the bar immediately came over to her to ask if she was alright because they knew how difficult it was for people to deal with returning.

Her friends warn her, as they drive around the city, when they are about to pass an especially egregious example of death and destruction. She said she hasn’t been to some of her favorite places, where she lived and where she wrote, because they are still devastated. Houses next to where she lived are gone. “And the people Dad, the people are gone and no one knows where they are! The ones making the decisions don’t seem to care one bit for these people. How can that be?”

It is very hard on her. This is a city she loved. People she loved. It was a third world country before the Katrina incident. It is in even direr straights now. And there is a level of manipulation and complete lack of compassion by others that she felt at the core.

She knows about the three homes family and friends lost during Katrina. They have money and jobs available to replace some things.We haven't talked much about the death of my babysitter who died in her wheelchair when the floods came into her house. No car. No way to get out of the city.

I always tell her I love her before we hang up. She had reached the store and was going in. I told her to call back anytime. This time “I love you” was not just a quick goodbye. She responded with a slowed and heart felt “I love you, too” that has tears welling up in me as I am just typing these words. 

I just wanted to wrap my arms around her and hold her for a bit.

(Gwynedd is 24. Went to school in New Orleans for a couple of years and worked there for a year or two. She’s a writer, artist and dancer. She now lives in Atlanta and plans to become a teacher. She almost moved back to New Orleans on August 27, 2005 but decided to wait out the storm first. Dad is happy she waited.)

  • Righteous Indignation (unverified)


    Are the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana guilty of criminally negligent homicide?

  • Ben Dover (unverified)

    Yes, why didn't the N.O. Mayor have fleets of school buses lined up the day before to evacuate those who could not afford to leave on their own? Why didn't the Mayor follow the emergency evacuation plans the city had crafted several years before?

    As regards personal responsibility, why did so many N.O. residents who lived below sea level not have flood insurance?

  • dan (unverified)

    "As regards personal responsibility, why did so many N.O. residents who lived below sea level not have flood insurance?"

    Because it's insanely expensive and the people who lived there were dirt poor. Any other brilliant questions?

  • Lew (unverified)


    Frankly... No.

    I believe the mayor and the governor expected a federal response and asked for one in time for the response to be effective. (Documents indicate that the requests came in well before the hurricane hit.) As we saw with the video of the preparation for the emergency, w's disengagement, direct stories from staff about the VP (gone fishing) and White House reaction and the utter lack of response when it became clear that the problems were huge, the finger points directly at the federal response and the attention to photo opportunities versus adequate reaction when facilities, supplies, materials and human resources were available.

  • Lew (unverified)


    (Something tells me the blogosphere has been dealing with this issue for some time.) I do not know why the buses were not set up. I do know that there were more than adequate response teams placed outside of the city that were not allowed in. That volunteers were turned away by federal officials. That water and food were not airlifted into the scene when that could have been easily accomplished. That medical facilities were waiting to be called upon and delayed by federal officials. That people were expecting a response from their own federal government in the same way that the government had responded to disasters in other countries and were greatly disappointed.

    Regarding insurance: The poverty level of New Orleans was and is extremely high. Many of these people live barely paycheck to paycheck. The expectation that many also had was that the federal and state authorities had prepared the levy system to handle possible problems. They had lived through decades of hurricanes without a breach. Many thought that would continue.

  • Larry (unverified)
    <h2>"she first passed through Biloxi, MS. “It is gone Dad. Nothing there. Foundations of homes, thousands of them just eliminated along with all of the possessions people had.”</h2>

    I agree that W was to blame for the NOLA problems, but how come we don't hear people blaming W on Biloxi's problems also? Thousands of homes gone. That is also a huge catastrophy. Can't we blame W for that mess also? If we keep repeating it often enough, I think we can make it stick. Same Katrina storm, same administration, same fault. Let's just keep repeating it, and W will have to answer for it sometime.

    <hr/> <h2>"The words “Criminally Negligent Homicide” kept coming to my mind, placing w and his crowd as perpetrators at the top of the indictment."</h2>

    What we really need here is a really smart, progressive lawyer who will take the case. Now, we will probably have to wait until after he is out of office (although maybe not, maybe we can get him while he is still in office), but either way, W should be personally indicted, tried, convicted, and punished just like any other common criminal. For each and every homicide that he caused. Homicide....go look up the word in the dictionary...kinda like murder. If he only gets 3-5yrs per each homicide, that should lock him up for 100s of years.

  • David (unverified)

    Frankly, everyone f-ed up the response to Katrina, it was a failure from the top levels of government to the lowest. However, the federal government bears the bulk of the responsibility for a few reasons:

    1. They failed to get aid into place for several days following the hurricane.
    2. They have shown incredible waste in handling the aftermath, e.g. all those trailers sitting in some town in Arknasas.
    3. The Feds were the only body that could have funded levy imporvements, they knew this was going to probably happen at some point and they did nothing.

    All that being said, none of the top government officials at any level at all impressed me.

  • Varner (unverified)

    I guess I'm not sure what having flood insurance would have done to prevent the human tragedy. Certainly after everything it would have been better to have insurance, but it isn't like State Farm was going to go in and airlift their policy holders out or deliver water.

  • (Show?)

    The flood insurance argument's really not unlike Senator Rick Santorum's response -- let's make tougher laws against victims of flooding who don't vacate quickly enough. Talk about blaming the victim. Nevermind the obvious problem of those without cars, those caring for the disabled and the overall extreme poverty of the communities affected.

    re: the Buses.... yeah, I saw that on fox news too, but you know what? Buses don't operate themselves. Kinda hard to get those moving without the drivers.

    New Orleans needs help right NOW. They need Level 5 protection and a sustained committment from the federal government to rebuild the city. Did Nagin make mistakes? Of course. And chances are better than not that he'll be out of a job after the Mayoral runoff.

    I believe he's a good man and an honorable public servant, but new local leadership's for the best. But guess what Republicans? Just trashing local and state officials isn't going to get a single family back into a home, or do anything to provide the hurricane protection that's needed to truly bring the city back.

    A little less GOP spin and a little more action would be a truly welcomed change.

  • Sid Leader (unverified)

    The dozens and dozens of released FEMA e-mails show Mr. Bustamante, Brownie's boy, BEGGING President Bush and pals for help as the waters rose and the dead bodies floated by. New Orleans drowned while The White House slept.

    But, as usual, President Shakey was ON VACATION, and too busy to hear the screams. In fact, Bush admitted he never saw the news, at all, that weekend, and his aides had to edit together a "greatest hits" of Karina so W could actually understand the problem since he's a bit on the slow side, according to his college professors.

    On a personal note, I lived in St. Thomas, USVI, where hurricanes are a yearly event, and when disaster strikes, like Karina or Andrew, the Mayor and Governor advise the FEDS who then make the calls. FEDS should have had buses and trains ready to roll, but W was busy chopping wood and falling off his bike in Texas.

    It's hard work, America, hard work. Being an idiot, that is.

  • Alice (unverified)

    Y'all are delusional: the volume of Kool-Aid required to believe that Bush caused people to die in New Orleans is scary. Quit drinking the Kool-Aid!

    What part of "mandatory evacuation" don't you understand? If you died in New Orleans, it's because you failed to heed the Mayor's repeated warnings, and because the city's bureaucrats failed to execute their emergency plan (which would have worked fine, had they actually coordinated the school bus evacuation of the poor and infirm: they didn't).

    Not to mention all the graft and corruption that has plagued the region since Huey Long ran the state....Nooooooo: it's all W's fault.

  • (Show?)

    Thanks, Lew, for writing this. Everything is not OK in New Orleans now, and I fear that it's fading from public consciousness. I was in New Orleans last week at the Democratic National Committee's fall meeting. (Writeup and photos at the link.)

    I know everyone is pissed at someone. I know things really got screwed up. (You should hear Charmaine Neville sing about it!) I'm sure the finger-pointing will continue for a long while. But..

    The fact remains: 8 months after the disaster, things are still a shambles in much of the city. The amount of work to be done down there is immense. All the DNC members went out and worked. I helped salvage a kitchen that had been used to prepare meals for delivery to HIV/AIDS patients. Others worked cleaning out The House of Black Mold (we even got Howard in a bunny suit for this) or packaging stuff at the food bank.

    It's been 8 months, people, and much of the work hasn't even been started. We were duct-taping still-full refrigerators and hauling them out to the street.

    It felt good to do something, but it was like trying to move a sand dune with a teaspoon. And the work to clean things up seems to be mostly being done by volunteers, one house at a time. I kept thinking that what the city really needs right now is an army. Ours, however, is occupied.

    People can't move back because the schools aren't open, even if their houses could be cleaned up. Others came through the storm OK and missed the flood, but as the director of the Food for Friends program said, "My friends aren't here, the places I used to go aren't open. Nothing is the same."

    Lots of volunteer groups have set up programs, and I urge anyone with the desire to help to go down there. Most of them won't let you stay more than two weeks as it is too depressing. The work is hot and dirty, and the mold is everywhere.

    This job is too big to be organized by a hodge-podge of American volunteers, as hard as they're working. I'd like to see our government sponsor an Americorp program to help get workers where they're needed. That's the kind of vision and leadership needed to turn this around.

  • Ben Dover (unverified)

    I blame the Mayor for not providing school buses to evacuate his citizens.

    I blame the Governor for not having emergency communications available for responders.

    I blame the President for not getting basic human relief supplies to flood victims in a more timely manner.

    Yes, there is plenty of blame to go around. Another hurricane season is almost here and it seems not much is being done to prevent the same type of catastrophe from reoccurring. FEMA needs to be strengthened, not disbanded. Get our troops out of Iraq and use these resources to protect and defend us at home.

  • Gregg (unverified)

    As long as random finger pointing is going on here, Can I add a few? How on earth did we get to the point where a major population was living below sea level?. That kind of stupidity deserves everything we got. When Mt. Vesuvious erupted, Did the citizens of Pompei build a ROOF to protect them from future eruptions? It wasn't anyone's fault who is still alive. GBC

  • (Show?)

    What part of "mandatory evacuation" don't you understand?

    Alice, what part of "they don't have cars" don't you understand?

    It's not like everyone could just load up the SUV, get some cash from the ATM, and head up to the in-laws in Nashville...

  • Travis (unverified)

    I'm just reading this thread now, and I've been back from New Orleans exactly 90 minutes (Red Cross/Urban Planning). I shared much of the harsher outrage before, but now I say:

    EVERYONE (common folk, city, parish, state and feds) KNEW that the levy system would fail eventually. EVERYONE was playing Russian roulette.

    EVERYONE knew their lives were in jeopardy on the flood plain, over the last fourty years, and KNEW that there was nothing that "government" could do about it (immediately) once it hit. I talked to thousands of locals, and not a single person expressed the opinion that they thought "it could never happen to them". Quite the reverse, they all said they knew it was coming, they just hoped it would be their children or grandchildren's issue. How SICK is THAT?

    Why do they still choose to live where they do, despite the DEEP-ROOTED knowledge of the inherent risks involved? 1) cheap rent and 2) close to city services.

    It was a cross generational cost benefit analysis and SOMEONE was going to DIE sometime because of it. Now, later or whenever.

    Personal choice meets societal interest.

    Do NOT let folks live on the resurveyed 50 year flood plain. Do NOT subsidize stupidity by spending the community treasure on individuals that KNOWINGLY accepted the risks.

    Get beyond the enormity of this tragedy, acknowledge that nobody's best effort was put forward, but first and foremost we can chalk up the magnitude of the human disaster to the individual's desire to assign risk in a manner that they feel will best, on balance, benefit themselves. As they sowed, so shall they harvest.

  • Gregg (unverified)

    Nicely stated Travis. The TRUTH is ugly, but we all have to face it and deal with it.

    italic Do NOT let folks live on the resurveyed 50 year flood plain. Do NOT subsidize stupidity by spending the community treasure on individuals that KNOWINGLY accepted the risks.

    Recently, I watched a program that the History Channel aired, its was called "Engineering Disasters: New Orleans" Those poorly designed elements caused many deaths. They spent their money on Bourbon Street and forgot about the pumpstations that had their electric motors placed below sea level! I was furious after watching that program. And now, some engineer wants to build a sea wall to keep the Atlantic Ocean at bay. The scope and cost of this will make the "Big Dig" look like a pedestrian tunnel under a sandbox. In the words of Forest Gump, "stupid is, as stupid does".


  • Ben Dover (unverified)

    The neighborhoods that were totally destroyed by the flood should be bulldozed and built up with 10 feet of soil. Then, new homes could be built that would not get damaged by future floods.

  • engineer (unverified)

    The moral of the story is that it is up to the individual to look out for themselves.

  • askquestions1st (unverified)

    There simply is no other word for the attitude and failure of responsibility of this adminstration and their supporters towards those devastated by Katrina, and that word is "monstrous". Well maybe one other word --- "criminal" --- as others have capably pointed out here.

    Travis -

    Just one clarifying question: Do you also argue that folks up the income scale around the Gulf Coast should not receive Federal dollars to rebuild in similarly vulnerable areas as they have in the past and continue to?

    The reason I ask is that, from the press reports, there are a lot of speculators who want to get their hands on real estate in hurricane damaged areas around the Gulf Coast, and they have every confidence that a large portion of U.S. taxpayers would support aid for them in the event of future hurricane strikes because they are the "right" kind of people.

    Gregg -

    You really are utterly uninformed. Despite your desire to "blame the victim", the bottom line is that the levees failed because they were in a state due to lack of maintenance that they were undermined by the storm surge (not overtopped). No number of pumpstations above sea level could change that, or have significantly reduced the devastation. Maintenance of the levees by the Corp of Engineers is the responsibility of the Federal government. And the blame for the lack of maintenance goes solely to the low-life that Americans sent to D.C. in the last two elections refused to live up to their responsibility to direct and fund that maintenance.

  • Shaking (unverified)

    To turn the question back to the people who post here: How come there isn't any significant seismic retrofitting of the bridges and infrastructure of the Portland metropolitan area?

    Are we the same as the people in New Orleans?

  • KittyJ (unverified)

    Shaking, I was thinking that exact thing as I was reading through these comments. What happened to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was like the canary in the coal mine. A lot more is at stake for all of us than the rather narrowly-focused Katrina discussions I've read so far would indicate (and I'm not singling out BlueOregon for that.) Denial is a very hard thing to get out of. It's easy to sit in your living room and second guess people in the hurricane area. It's a lot harder to take the same kind of action regarding your own life that you're criticizing Katrina survivors for having not taken. Unless you're pretending that something like that can't happen to you.

    For the record, I lived the first 43 years of my life in New Orleans, was living on the Mississippi Gulf Coast at the time of Katrina, and relocated to Portland at the beginning of 2006, after salvaging what little I could of my former life. It has been very interesting, as someone who was intimately involved in living through that experience, to see what other people do with it ... using it for political purposes, making judgments based on a very limited and often erroneous view of the facts, getting riled up and ranting about things that have little basis in reality, and, unfortunately, saying hateful and mean-spirited things about their fellow human beings. Most disappointing, I think, is the relative lack of meaningful, creative thinking, beyond criticism of the current administration's failures and recognition of the racial issues (which criticism I am in agreement with; but there are so many implications that are just not being addressed.)

  • Karl (unverified)

    It amazes me that the devastation to our country from Katrina and the negligent response to it was so much greater than what happened on 911 and yet it seems to be fading from the public consciousness so quickly. And nothing is being done about it.

  • David (unverified)

    As a Christian, my perspective is that "loving one's neighbors," which in the Bible is called the "royal law" (James 2:8), includes knowing what they can and cannot do, and helping them in the face of adversity. Community leaders are responsible for knowing the strengths and needs of their communities, and national leaders -- especially Christian ones -- should treat all the members of their nation as neighbors. It's a tremendously high standard, certainly, but it's one that the current administration has refused to even acknowledge.

    With regards to Katrina's implications for the Portland metropolitan area, I'd like to point out that Lew Frederick is in fact running for county commissioner (district 2) on a platform of community preparedness. Lew wants to empower communities and individuals to effectively respond to emergencies without having to bank on federal support. He's spoken about organizing through neighborhood associations, and even on a block-by-block basis. Some of his ideas include stockpiling basic supplies like water and blankets, and identifying who among neighbors owns potentially life-saving tools, such as crowbars or a coleman stove. Lew's lived in Portland for 30 years, and he does know and love his neighborhood. For more information about him as a candidate, check out his website at

  • (Show?)

    I lived the bulk of my life on the Gulf Coast, so I know what it's like to be living in an area barely above, or below, sea level.

    Being below sea level is a huge problem all along our coasts. In Galveston County, where I'm from, much of the land is below sea level. I'm not sure how many remember, but the Storm of 1900 (Galveston, TX) is one of our worst natural disasters ever. We know that more than 6,000 died. The island was horribly under sea level, which is what caused the problems.

    What did they do?

    After cleaning up the mountains of debris, they began hauling in dirt. They raised the island, build a seawall, and placed large chunks of granite in front of the seawall.

    The granite helps break the waves so they don't hit the seawall with such force.

    The seawall helps to raise the sea-facing part of the island, keeping out many storm surges.

    And raising the island makes it hard for the enormous floods and waves to roll across the island.

    Is it enough? No. But it made the island a heck of a lot safer.

    We're never going to be able to move people out of harm's way. No matter where you go, you're going to have to deal with hurricanes, floods, blizzards, volcanos, earthquakes, etc. You're just moving people from one danger zone to another.

    The best thing to do is prepare for the worst so that things won't be as bad.

    A few years after they finished the work in Galveston, they were hit with a similar storm. The tally? Very little damage and lives lost.

    The problem is that many of the people living along the Gulf Coast are poor. And as such, they get very little attention or help.

    The Bush Administration learned nothing from Katrina, which was evident when Rita beared down on the Gulf Coast. Many of the poor people living in harm's way ended up stuck on highways or at home because those living in the affluent neighborhoods in Houston (not in the mandatory or suggested evacuation areas) were allowed on the evacuation routes prior to those in the mandatory areas.

    Gas, water, and food was nowhere to be found.

    People sat on the highways for 20+ hours. Had Rita slammed into the Galveston area, as had originally been predicted, we could have seen tens of thousands die near/in their cars.

    Where was the federal government? Where was Bush? Where was Bush's right-hand man, the governor of Texas? Nowhere to be found.

    The county and city governments did everything they could. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee was on tv and radio giving people advice on sideroads and such they could take that would get them out of town.

    People in Houston volunteered to hand out water using METRO buses.

    It's estimated that more people died in Texas trying to escape Rita than actually died from the hurricane.

    <h2>With the come of warmer weather also comes hurricane season. And thus far, I've seen nothing to show that the federal government has learned anything or changed anything.</h2>

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