Nagin, the McAlary’s and FEMA Trailers
I find myself in a rather surreal position these days. I have been reading words written during the time period Treme is depicting, thousands of them, for weeks now, as part of another project. I was also here during that time. Now I’m watching it on my TV every Sunday night.
This week, in a very busy episode, Simon and the guys got me several different ways. I couldn’t decide which thread to write about as they were all viable, so have decided to do little snippets on each of them.
First up: Ray Nagin
In reading all the words these weeks, I’ve noticed over and over again references to Nagin as Hero. Stemming from his radio interview shortly after the storm, most of us were thrilled that our Mayor was saying what needed, in our opinion, to be said. He was cussing on the radio, pulling no punches, people were dying, we needed help. Oh yeah. We loved it. I heard from two writers this week whose work I’ve been reading. Both were concerned that pieces I chose included laudatory comments about Nagin. They asked if they could remove them. One guy wrote that in Alabama there were evacuees holding up signs for the press that said, “Viva Nagin.” Another writer had written, “Nagin for President.” In our household we had jumped up and down screaming and hugging when we heard that radio interview. Finally, finally, someone had said what needed to be said. We weren’t the only ones who felt that way. On Treme this week, Nagin was skewered, becoming a, um, self-pleasuring papier mache effigy. Please remember that the series is now around about January/February of 2006–a mere five months after that interview.
How did he go from hero to hated? Lies, inaction, divisiveness, that’s how. As it turns out there was also a mighty large dollop of corruption mixed in with all that, but at the time we didn’t know that. We only knew that we felt let down. We were hurt. We were very, very angry. Yeah, we were pissed at the Feds, and Bush/Cheney in particular, we were pissed at the State, Madam Governor will you please quit equivocating, and we were pissed that the guy we thought would be the one to fight for us, for our City, turned out to be a peacock who really liked the color green and didn’t really give a hoot about human colors, black or white–regardless of his polarizing chocolate city remark. We were defending ourselves in the national media, defending our right to exist as a city, our right to rebuild, frantically typing facts against “below sea level” bullshit in comments sections all over the nation, and the one guy we thought was with us on our side of the barricade was actually on the beaches of Jamaica looking at real estate ads for homes in Dallas. (Quick aside: Loved Toni’s phone conversation with Creighton on the way to Port Arthur: “YOU swore a solemn oath. I didn’t.”) We felt utterly betrayed. Yup. All that happened in those five months. Nagin as a KdV float has pretty much been standard ever since.
Next up: The McAlary Family
The Treme writing team did a great job showing the disparity of conditions here at that time. The McAlary family, obviously well to do, are having martinis in their unwatermarked, perfectly furnished, unblemished parlor. Only sunlight and intact paintings and upholstery are seen through their un-boarded up windows. Truth is they probably had a couple of Blackwater’s hired guns sitting on their porch during the darkest days. They no doubt hired someone to get rid of any unsightly and annoying tree branches that may have been broken in the storm. They are not talking about insurance adjusters or FEMA. They were covered in every conceivable way. The storm has had very little effect on them. Their conversation with Davis, pointing out their strong ties to the Confederacy, is marvelous. His saying that he usually tells people he was named for Miles, Sammy, Ossie or Angela was hilarious and his “veiled racist” statement was far more restrained than my response was to comments about “that element” now being gone from the city. I heard similar sentiments from my own not-from-NOLA family and I came unglued. That element. Last week Davis got punched out for using the N word. No one punches Mr. Perlis-wearing McAlary for sitting mum as his wife, pinky raised, says those words: Code for black people, black neighborhoods, all filled with criminals and drug addicts and welfare queens. Davis’ family has a bottle of Jim Crow right next to the Jim Beam on their bar.
Meanwhile on Miro Street, Big Chief Albert is cutting and sewing in a barely lit, empty but for tables and supplies, bar where he is living with several other men. None have a place to live. Vans and cots in a bar are their only choices. The number of men living with Albert keeps growing. The Feds won’t open the projects (from the McAlarys’ point of view the best news EVER) and those who had homes, like Albert himself, will have to wait for the insurance company’s pennies on the actual dollar value checks (should that actually come through), FEMA, gutting, stud drying and mold deterrent application (a process that takes months, I might add) before they can even think of putting in new drywall. Nevermind the various plans that were bandied about back then. You might get to come home if your zipcode happens to be printed on the piece of paper they pulled out of the hat last night. You might get to stay if after the latest plan is accepted your neighborhood is considered “viable.” Next year it might not be considered viable. Roll the dice. You might have to re-do any rebuilding you already did if they decide that your house has to be raised. Oh yeah. Didn’t tell ya? Insurance which already screwed ya isn’t going to pay for the raising. There were raging arguments about the use of the word “refugee.” I wrote a piece sometime back then defending its use, as opposed to “evacuee.” I got emails. Lots of emails calling me lots of names for using the term refugee, but when all was said and done, the guys on Miro Street are for all intents and purposes refugees. Albert saying that they were making it impossible for “folks” to come back: folks being his own code word, and that he felt like a refugee in his own country was absolutely right on. The Lambreaux clan and the McAlary clan are having very different experiences only a few miles apart in the same city.
And finally: FEMA Trailers
Antoine with the stripper asks how she got a trailer so fast. The answer is obvious. City official’s assistant comes to the bar and tells Albert that the official pulled some strings and got, wait for it, ONE FEMA trailer. Nothing he can do about housing, it’s the Feds issue to deal with. Only one trailer. Take it or leave it. After the storm there were some great ideas for housing, including something called a Katrina Cottage. These were basically modular homes that would be permanently installed on the property where your house used to stand. They would be tricked out a bit so that they would fit in with existing architecture. They were cheaper than FEMA trailers. FEMA said no can do. Stafford Act. FEMA can pay for nothing permanent, no infrastructure, no Katrina cottages, nothing permanent even if it was more cost effective and humane. So instead they bought the formaldehyde exuding trailers. Thousands of them. Nearly 40,000 of them died a useless death in Arkansas after sinking into the mud there. Millions of dollars wasted and 40K families still waiting to come home. There were also arguments about where to put the trailers with 50% of the parishes outside Orleans saying no to any FEMA trailer set up sites as they were afraid they would become permanent like some did in Florida years ago.
While the rest of the country had gone on about their business, these issues were real here. I remember being astonished when I finally saw a FEMA trailer. It wasn’t an apparition but it certainly was a rarity at that time, and I had no idea they were so small. A friend of mine who is an elementary school teacher knew entire families of two or three adults and several children all sharing ONE FEMA trailer. Albert’s astonishment and disgust was the only reasonable reaction to the housing debacle. I’m expecting that story line to develop well. I can see the militance in his face.
These guys have the big issues nailed dead to rights. I actually had to re-read some of my old pieces to remember the numbers and some of the issues. Clearly the writers have some killer researchers. This episode was rich with portent. I only wish they hadn’t rushed through the first few months as fast as they did, bypassing the holidays almost entirely as the holidays of 2005 were tough stuff. But I figure they didn’t know they’d be picked up for another season and were trying to get as much into 13 episodes as they could, if that was all that it was gonna be. I am looking forward to the watching the development of these story lines as so far, these guys are diving into the deep water with their eyes open wide.