Right now, we're watching the ridiculous spectacle of the woefully incompetent former FEMA head Michael Brown being thrown
to the Republican wolves in the House of Representatives, while the two
national figures most in charge of the Katrina debacle, Department of
Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff and Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, remain remarkably untouched by their acts. The man who
couldn't wait to invade Iraq couldn't figure out how to get a soldier
into New Orleans. It's a sorry record. Here, then, are some of the
disturbing questions on the minds of those Davis and Fontenot met in
New Orleans -- questions from the frontlines of an American
shock-and-awe disaster of epic proportions. Tom
The Mysteries of New Orleans
Twenty-five Questions about the Murder of the Big Easy
By Mike Davis and Anthony Fontenot
We recently spent a week in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana
interviewing relief workers, community activists, urban planners,
artists, and neighborhood folks. Even as the latest flood waters from
Hurricane Rita recede, the city remains submerged in anger and
Indeed, the most toxic debris in New Orleans isn't the sinister gray
sludge that coats the streets of the historic Creole neighborhood of
Treme or the Lower Ninth Ward, but all the unanswered questions that
have accumulated in the wake of so much official betrayal and
hypocrisy. Where outsiders see simple "incompetence" or "failure of
leadership," locals are more inclined to discern deliberate design and
planned neglect -- the murder, not the accidental death, of a great
In almost random order, here are twenty-five of the urgent questions
that deeply trouble the local people we spoke with. Until a grand jury
or congressional committee begins to uncover the answers, the moral (as
opposed to simply physical) reconstruction of the New Orleans region
will remain impossible.
1. Why did the floodwalls along the 17th Street Canal only break on
the New Orleans (majority Black) side and not on the Metairie (largely
white) side? Was this the result of neglect and poor maintenance by New
2. Who owned the huge barge that was catapulted through the wall of
the Industrial Canal, killing hundreds in the Lower Ninth Ward -- the
most deadly hit-and-run accident in U.S. history?
3. All of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish east of the Industrial
Canal were drowned, except for the Almonaster-Michoud Industrial
District along Chef Menteur Highway. Why was industrial land apparently
protected by stronger levees than nearby residential neighborhoods?
4. Why did Mayor Ray Nagin, in defiance of his own official disaster
plan, delay twelve to twenty-four hours in ordering a mandatory
evacuation of the city?
5. Why did Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff not
declare Katrina an "Incident of National Significance" until August 31
-- thus preventing the full deployment of urgently needed federal
6. Why wasn't the nearby U.S.S. Bataan immediately sent to
the aid of New Orleans? The huge amphibious-landing ship had a
state-of-the-art, 600-bed hospital, water and power plants,
helicopters, food supplies, and 1,200 sailors eager to join the rescue
7. Similarly, why wasn't the Baltimore-based hospital ship USS Comfort ordered to sea until August 31, or the 82nd Airborne Division deployed in New Orleans until September 5?
8. Why does Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld balk at making
public his "severe weather execution order" that established the ground
rules for the military response to Katrina? Did the Pentagon, as a
recent report by the Congressional Research Service suggests, fail to
take initiatives within already authorized powers, then attempt to
transfer the blame to state and
9. Why were the more than 350 buses of the New Orleans Regional
Transportation Authority -- eventually flooded where they were parked
-- not mobilized to evacuate infirm, poor, and car-less residents?
10. What significance attaches to the fact that the chair of the
Transportation Authority, appointed by Mayor Nagin, is Jimmy Reiss, the
wealthy leader of the New Orleans Business Council which has long
advocated a thorough redevelopment of (and cleanup of crime in) the
11. Under what authority did Mayor Nagin meet confidentially in
Dallas with the "forty thieves" -- white business leaders led by Reiss
-- reportedly to discuss the triaging of poorer Black areas and a
corporate-led master plan for rebuilding the city?
12. Everyone knows about a famous train called "the City of New
Orleans." Why was there no evacuation by rail? Was Amtrak part of the
disaster planning? If not, why not?
13. Why were patients at private hospitals like Tulane evacuated by
helicopter while their counterparts at the Charity Hospital were left
to suffer and die?
14. Was the failure to adequately stock food, water, potable
toilets, cots, and medicine at the Louisiana Superdome a deliberate
decision -- as many believe -- to force poorer residents to leave the
15. The French Quarter has one of the highest densities of
restaurants in the nation. Once the acute shortages of food and water
at the Superdome and the Convention Center were known, why didn't
officials requisition supplies from hotels and restaurants located just
a few blocks away? (As it happened, vast quantities of food were simply
left to spoil.)
16. City Hall's emergency command center had to be abandoned early
in the crisis because its generator supposedly ran out of diesel fuel.
Likewise many critical-care patients died from heat or equipment
failure after hospital backup generators failed. Why were supplies of
diesel fuel so inadequate? Why were so many hospital generators located
in basements that would obviously flood?
17. Why didn't the Navy or Coast Guard immediately airdrop life
preservers and rubber rafts in flooded districts? Why wasn't such
life-saving equipment stocked in schools and hospitals?
18. Why weren't evacuee centers established in Audubon Park and
other unflooded parts of Uptown, where locals could be employed as
19. Is the Justice Department investigating the Jim Crow-like
response of the suburban Gretna police who turned back hundreds of
desperate New Orleans citizens trying to walk across the Mississippi
River bridge -- an image reminiscent of Selma in 1965? New Orleans,
meanwhile, abounds in eyewitness accounts of police looting and illegal
shootings: Will any of this ever be investigated?
20. Who is responsible for the suspicious fires that have swept the
city? Why have so many fires occurred in blue-collar areas that have
long been targets of proposed gentrification, such as the Section 8
homes on Constance Street in the Lower Garden District or the wharfs
along the river in Bywater?
21. Where were FEMA's several dozen vaunted urban search-and-rescue
teams? Aside from some courageous work by Coast Guard helicopter crews,
the early rescue effort was largely mounted by volunteers who towed
their own boats into the city after hearing an appeal on television.
22. We found a massive Red Cross presence in Baton Rouge but none in
some of the smaller Louisiana towns that have mounted the most
impressive relief efforts. The poor Cajun community of Ville Platte,
for instance, has at one time or another fed and housed more than 5,000
evacuees; but the Red Cross, along with FEMA, have refused almost daily
appeals by local volunteers to send professional personnel and aid. Why
then give money to the Red Cross?
23. Why isn't FEMA scrambling to create a central registry of
everyone evacuated from the greater New Orleans region? Will evacuees
receive absentee ballots and be allowed to vote in the crucial February
municipal elections that will partly decide the fate of the city?
24. As politicians talk about "disaster czars" and elite-appointed
reconstruction commissions, and as architects and developers advance
utopian designs for an ethnically cleansed "new urbanism" in New
Orleans, where is any plan for the substantive participation of the
city's ordinary citizens in their own future?
25. Indeed, on the fortieth anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, what has happened to democracy?
Mike Davis is the author of many books including City of Quartz, Dead Cities and Other Tales, and the just published Monster at our Door, The Global Threat of Avian Flu (The New Press) as well as the forthcoming Planet of Slums (Verso).
Anthony Fontenot is a New Orleans architect and community-design activist, currently working at Princeton University.