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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Most Pleasant Way To Do The Right Thing

While I'm on vacation, I'm re-posting some articles I wrote in 2008 that I think are very pertinent to the current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.  When I visited New Orleans to research Floodgates, I came home terribly distressed by what I saw.  Nearly three years after Katrina, there was so much work left to be done.  I just saw New Orleans again last week and...there's still a lot of work left to be done.  I wish the things I said in 2008 weren't still so true.
A Most Pleasant Way To Do The Right Thing
I just got home from New Orleans, where my next book, tentatively entitled Floodgates, will be set.  (And Poisoned Pen Press approved the plot, such as it is, and started preparing the contract yesterday, so it's a happening thing.)  I guess I'll share my other publishing news before moving on to the actual topic of my post.  I have had a fabulous week, from the standpoint of receiving recognition of my work.  Aside from receiving fan mails, which are a writer's best reward, I received word that Effigies had received a bronze medal from the Florida Book Awards.  While I was basking in the good feelings this news generated, I learned that it was also a finalist for ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year.  I had already recovered from that bit of excitement when I learned that it was also nominated by the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance for its SIBA Book Award.  I'm sending out sincere thanks to everybody who had a part in giving my book such high praise, and to all the people who read and enjoyed it.
Now...let me tell you about my trip to the Big Easy.  It was fabulous.  I've been there many times, and it's always fabulous, but this was my first trip since Katrina struck, so I was happy to see that this fabulousness had survived the storm.  But folks, the storm ain't over.
The French Quarter is virtually unchanged, except for the locked stores and for sale signs.  (More on that later.)  But where people really live...there was hardly a neighborhood in New Orleans that wasn't affected.  And there are many, many neighborhoods that are even yet unliveable.  Folks, this is not the way our country should support any of its cities, particularly one of its oldest.  Again and again, I was told that government aid had been promised, so everyone presumes it will come, but that approvals and red tape hold that money up at every step in the process.  All the while, families are living in travel trailers parked in their own driveways, while their home sits empty.  And I do mean empty, because so many of them are completely gutted out...the ones that are even still there at all.  Our country has mechanisms to care for its citizens through this kind of disaster, and one of them is called FEMA.  I'm here to tell you that it's not working.
Before we tar the name of our nation by blaming them for all this bungling, I hasten to point out that many, many of these homes had insurance that should have covered their owners' losses--even the homes of those people misportrayed on national TV as poor and helpless.  They were taking care of themselves quite nicely, but that makes far less interesting television.  Home ownership in the Lower 9th Ward was very high, and many of those people were insured.  I know that rebuilding New Orleans will cost the insurance companies a lot of money, but that's what insurance is for.  If those companies failed to set their rates based on the very real possibility of such a disaster, then that was their own poor business decision.  Their policyholders should not have to hire lawyers to enforce those policies. 
And if the plight of those citizens seems very remote to people not in hurricane-prone areas, then pause to consider what it would be like if we had another earthquake like San Francisco in 1906, or New Madrid in 1812.  And pause to remember that New York City, though far from tropical waters, is quite vulnerable to a hurricane's ravages.
Now that I've vented, let me get back to my original point.  New Orleans is still one of our nation's most culturally and historically important cities.  Turn on the radio, and you'll hear its influences.  Go to a fine restaurant, and you'll taste New Orleans.  Spend some time with the fine literature that's been written in and about this unique place.  But New Orleans needs us, and not just our tax dollars.  We can't control how fast that money trickles into town, but we can go there and take our dollars with us.
Tourism is down, because of reports of destruction and crime.  I have no doubt that there are places in the city that you don't want to be.  (And what city doesn't have those places?)  But the tourist areas are quite safe--when you depend on tourism dollars, you police the places they go pretty thoroughly.  I spent the last week roaming the French Quarter alone.  My sister and I went out in the evenings on foot.  I'm a small woman, and it's not hard to set off my alarms.  I never for a single second felt less than safe.
But I was alarmed.  I didn't like seeing empty chairs in restaurants like Arnaud's ( ) and Antoine's.  I didn't like having to struggle to find a tour, not because all the seats were gone, but because the company couldn't get enough paying customers to make enough money to pay the tour guide and put gas in the van.  Antoine's  ( ) has been owned and operated by the same family for 160 years.  Galatoire's ( ) is an upstart, having only been in the family for 103 years.  Dining at one of these old-school, white-tablecloth establishments is a true experience, and the people are part of that experience. The historic buildings of New Orleans are, for the most part, still there.  We're not going to lose them.  But we could lose the people and the culture.
So...suffer a little for a good cause.  Take a vacation in New Orleans.  Schedule your company's conference there.  If you can't go, then go to one of the restaurants' websites in the last paragraph.  Read it.  Suffer a little because you can't go.  Then buy a cookbook or something.  You can have a little elegance at your own table, and a great American city will get a little of the support that it needs.
This is getting long, so I'll close, but I'll probably blog about this for a while.  Tell your friends to go to NOLA and think of me while they're chewing on their beignets.

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