The Shame of Katrina Hangs on FEMA

Six Months After Katrina

Commentator Andrei Codrescu says the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina was a national shame. He blames FEMA — and mocks it for still posting key jobs for crisis managers as late as this summer.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We asked our commentator and poet Andrei Codrescu to help us take a measure of New Orleans one year later.

ANDREI CODRESCU reporting:

Katrina was just a storm, but what followed was so hideous that one year later we can still only shake our heads and vomit. On July 9, 2006, well into the hurricane season, FEMA was advertising in the New Orleans newspaper for the following regional jobs. Chief of staff, finance director and emergency management specialist. I have to say this again because I still can't believe it. On July 9, 2006, FEMA, our national disaster relief agency, was advertising - let me repeat - for a chief of staff, finance director and emergency management specialist.

At this point, I think that those jobs can be filled by any three people passing by on the street with go-carts. It doesn't take but a few minutes to train anybody in New Orleans for those jobs. The chief of staff parks on high ground and goes golfing, the finance director steals all the money and hands it to his friends and the emergency management specialist tells everybody to scram.

In the space of one year, our commander in chief has evolved from a flyover disaster observer to a profligate dispenser of cash. The only thing wrong with the vast billions that are supposedly heading our way is that they may actually be handed out in the form of checks instead of being thrown down from helicopters so that the groveling masses can wrestle for them like a proper Mardi Gras crowd. Hurling cash into the streets would, in fact, be a much more equitable way of dispensing the treasure than handing it over to people like Congressman Jefferson or a mayor who has been invisible to us since his reelection.

The inhabitants of New Orleans who were foolish enough to come back to the city after being screwed in a myriad of ways by their local, state and federal government have now taken refuge in mental illness. I hear a lot of my people talking to themselves without cell phones these days. I hear them praying out loud for Huey Long, Roosevelt or even Stalin and Mussolini. I see people staring at their feet and saying Marshall Plan or people deeply immersed in their third drink and second Xanax speaking in tongues. One guy said what's the big deal about Jefferson? I have $90,000 in my freezer, too.

Who the hell is this city, anyway? My friends, that's who.

In all fairness, New Orleans is making progress in one area, artistic material. Never have there been so many rich and rewarding metaphors taking place in order to provide artists with absurdities. FEMA, yes the same people, threatened to take away Voodoo One and Voodoo Two, the firefighting helicopters the agency rented to the city.

We are now in the middle of a drought, with arson fires raging, low water pressure due to busted mains. One fire that either Voodoo One or Voodoo Two never got to destroyed a local motel. The hostelry went up in a blaze because, according to the motel manager, a romantic rendezvous went awry. A woman prepared the love nest by lighting candles and draping a pretty covering over a lamp in expectation of her lover's release from jail. Happily, all the residents were able to flee their rooms and escape unharmed.

What a lovely metaphor for your poet social observer. The motel was the city of New Orleans, the lovers were FEMA and Louisiana, the motel manager was George W. Bush, the people who escaped were us - or whatever. You can change the elements to suit your own fable.

SIEGEL: Andrei Codrescu's latest book is called New Orleans, Mon Amour. Our Katrina anniversary coverage continues at NPR.org.

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