Thursday, September 29, 2005

Harvard's 'Court' against homosexuality

In 2002, a researcher for The Harvard Crimson came across a restricted archive labeled “Secret Court Files, 1920.” The mystery he uncovered involved a tragic scandal in which Harvard University secretly put a dozen students on trial for homosexuality and then systematically and persistently tried to ruin their lives.

In May of 1920, Cyril Wilcox, a freshman suspended from Harvard, was found sprawled dead on his bed, his room filled with gas — a suicide. The note he left behind revealed his secret life as part of a circle of homosexual students. The resulting witch hunt and the lives it cost remains one of the most shameful episodes in the history of America’s premiere university. Supported by legendary Harvard President Lawrence Lowell, Harvard conducted its investigation in secrecy. Several students committed suicide; others had their lives destroyed by an ongoing effort on the part of Harvard to destroy their reputations.

The above is from the blurb of a book about the matter; I happened upon this subject for the first time ever just now, on this Metafilter thread, whose main link is a lengthy, thorough and devastating article in the Harvard Crimson, backed up with another opinion piece and a Washington Post column. If you find the article link expires in future, contact me for a copy via the comments.

If I lived even close to Harvard, I’d be trying to find out all I could about the members of ‘the Court’ and why, in 1920, they felt privately compelled and lawfully able to not simply investigate and expel gay students in secret, but to then hound them throughout their future lives. It’s not as creepy, exactly, as Yale’s posture photos and the rather Nazi ideals behind them, but it is as glaring and grotesque a story of ceaseless, ruthless, deliberate ruination of lives as any I’ve seen.

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Robert Smithson: Floating Island

Robert Smithson, best known for creating Spiral Jetty (which I previously examined) has had a posthumous triumph with the eventual creation of his Floating Island, first planned by him in 1970. His concept was not detailed: apart from the general form and that the trees should come from the New York region, all that was required was that the ‘island’ was to be constructed on a river barge.

Well, the island finally made it to New York. There’s a flickr photoset of the island here. A blogger eloquently examines a more forgotten Smithson work, Amarillo Ramp.

Just so I don’t neglect them through lack of a better place to file them, here are two oddities: a mysterious oil which acts directly on the central nervous system to produce dangerous delusions which are hard to treat, and a wild, rambling house.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Katrina roundup from Boing Boing

Here, because I can’t be bothered to source and write cogent posts when blocked up with cold. Sorry, people. Back properly soon.

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Friday, September 23, 2005

Bus fire kills Rita evacuees - London civilian harassed by police - NO flood alert

A short post as I battle a cold. Three pieces of news — all bad.

Evacuees on a bus to Dallas, TX have been killed by a fire on the bus carrying them away from Hurricane Rita’s path. The 24 elderly people were trapped and killed when the fire broke out spontaneously and was fed by oxygen they were carrying.

The Times-Picayune reports water seeping back into streets in New Orleans adjacent to the Industrial Canal on its west side.

A civilian in London was detained, checked, found to be innocent and then arrested by other officers while his house was searched and possessions taken.

Police first detained him because he was wearing a jacket ‘too warm for the season,’ did not make eye contact with police at the entrance to Southwark tube station, kept his rucksack with him at all times, and looked at other people while waiting for a train.

His rucksack was checked by bomb squad officers and found to contain a laptop; he was allowed to collect his belongings and start to leave but was then arrested on the insistence of other officers who entered the station afterwards. Further enquiries and a search of his house found nothing untoward but the man has not been reunited with his possessions and no proper apology has been given.

This is outrageous: London Metropolitan Police operations should only be undertaken where there is a credible threat to public safety, and not engaged in when police wish to conjure an illusion of absolute safety for PR reasons by violating an individual’s civil liberties in circumstances where there is clearly no threat. MetaFilter discussion.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Love in Action told: stop that lovin'

Love in Action, the christian anti-gay brainwashing outfit which claims to ‘cure’ those who aren’t heterosexual of their depraved desires, has been ordered to shut down its centres by the state of Tennessee.

For those who don’t know what Love in Action is, here is my previous post on its unlawful detention of a gay teenager unwilling to be brainwashed, here is the aftermath of his detention, and here is the previous MetaFilter discussion. A blog post tracking the issue, and an entire blog about protesting Love in Action. Back to the news:

The state inspected two facilities in Memphis on Aug. 19 and determined Love In Action International Inc. was providing housing, meals and personal care for mentally ill patients without a license, according to a subsequent letter to the organization from the Department of Mental Health.

The department gave Love In Action until Sept. 23 to cease operation of the facilities and apply for a state license.

Now, this is interesting. The Department wrote to Love in Action and closed it down over an objection that it was prescribing medication to people it had classified as mentally ill without a licence.

This could mean one of two things: that the Department is itself anti-gay, as it considers after investigating that Love in Action’s prisoners are mentally ill by virtue of their sexuality (which seems unlikely); or that it is simply using existing legislation in whatever way it can to close down an operation it considers to be heinous in nature (much more likely).

What is even more interesting is what will happen next. What of the people who have been mentally damaged by the cult’s ‘efforts’ thus far? Will they be interviewed by the State? Will they be offered treatment for post-traumatic stress? Will they be assisted to sue the holy asses off these discriminatory monsters?

Additionally, what of Love in Action itself? If you look at its website, and click through to the Refuge section, it is now conspicuously changed from what it was, to promote a more “we’re not just dealing with sexuality” standpoint. Crucially, a careful read reveals that the practice of gathering young LGB people away from their family for a week or more has been shelved — but for the present only, I suspect. It would be very easy for this operation to morph into a different name, a different organisation, move to a different state... I’ll keep you posted.

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New Orleans updates

The probability of New Orleans facing renewed disaster in the future is explored in this article — meanwhile power has been restored to about 78% of the nearly 1m homes which lost it as a result of the hurricane. Power companies have been hit hard by the cost of repairs versus their revenue, with Entergy New Orleans considering filing for bankruptcy despite being able to operate.

Energy companies are, at the same time, evacuating the Gulf Coast area again in preparation for Hurricane Rita, which is expected to hit the Texas coast, well westwards of Louisiana and New Orleans. It is currently an extremely strong Category 4 storm.

Back in New Orleans, cleanup from Katrina continues with residents who returned hospitalised by stepping on nails, falling from roofs, or even stepping in water with cut feet. Federal flood insurance cheques are being rushed to policy-holders in an overdue acceleration of normal payouts, while further claims will have to be filed for nearly one-quarter of a million cars which were lost to the storm.

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Takk... (þessi var fallegur)

Sigur Rós are still most famous for Njósnavélin, their song from the album ( ) which appears near the end of the movie Vanilla Sky. They are notorious among unimaginative denizens of pop culture for the lack of lyrics in their music.

That’s a misunderstanding, and it’s wrong to say they have never sung: lead singer and guitarist jón þór birgisson does sing, but sometimes in a flow of vowel and consonant sounds which sound like Icelandic but actually aren’t language as we know it — it is called vonlenska or ‘hopelandic’. While we’re on the subject, each album, apart from ( ), has had a real-word title and real-word song titles, and has been sung mostly in Icelandic.

This new album, Takk..., contains a few hopelandic songs, and is a happier collection than ( ). Since three of the four members have married since ( ) and jónsi is happily settled with his boyfriend, this is unsurprising:

the album is called takk [thanks]. why?
takk. it’s a word that’s followed us through the years. oh, and it also means thank you.
does this word reflect your outlook towards music?
yes. we are thankful. we are content with where we are now and how things have worked out.
and where are you now?
we’re in a good place. we feel good. we get to make this music. it’s a privilege.
it’s safe to say you’ve done well.
yes. and not just that. we’re happy about our lives. but of course, things will go up and down.
is there a concept behind takk?
no. we have never been much for concepts even though it sometimes looks like it. concepts come afterwards. when you look closely at a work it’s always easy to find a concept there but we have never approached a project with a predetermined concept in mind. it’s not our style, really. sigur rós is not a clever band. there are no deep thoughts behind what we are doing.

Taken in that spirit, this album, as well as being happier than the last, embodies both the quiet and ecstatic frames of mind that arise out of a settled, grounded life. The mood it generated in my mind is the same quiet, centred, aching mood I have had while walking in beautiful, harsh outdoor surroundings: Sigur Rós are known to enjoy the landscapes of their native country, but it is the known and remembered mood that helps the process here, rather than the landscape itself.

inspiration is everywhere and nowhere. i can’t point in any direction. inspiration comes from your environment, the people you surround yourself with, movies, books, soap operas, mom and dad, nature. whatever. i’ve never been in a situation where i’ve felt i’m inspired by it. i have never gotten a great idea standing on a mountain. i’ve been up on a mountain and enjoyed how it made me feel. this might of course influence me as a person but that doesn’t mean it inspires me to make a piece of music.

And while this magnificent lifting of the spirit from ordinary things is evident in the album’s couple of impassioned crescendos, a quieter happiness is evident in tracks like Hoppípolla, whose lyrics are about jumping in puddles. Jónsi says of the lyrics: “when it comes to words we freeze up. we listened to the songs together and let the music trigger words in us. i think we learned something from this experience. the lyrics are very simple and naïve. moments and small adventures. nothing too deep.”

This music is magnificent, and of course while it’s interesting to surf around and find trascriptions and translations of the lyrics, they are not everything. The album definitely doesn’t fit within pop culture, which Sigur Rós seem to creatively dislike. I love it, and I highly recommend it.

As far as interest in the band goes, there is naturally only one place to visit: eighteen seconds before sunrise.

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Saturday, September 17, 2005


This is such a good idea: you’re a writer, adrift in the big city. Or your apartment’s in a mess, or full of people, or there’s a building site down the road that’s giving you some disturbance. Or you just need somewhere else to write.

So, providing you have things to work on and can stump up a few hundred dollars, pop to West 14th Street in New York, enter your PIN number on the door and walk into Paragraph, a writers’ space with a fireplace, a library and a kitchen where you can store your food.

It’s like a hotel for the creative mind. No sleazy assignations, mind.

If I could, I’d open one here called Line, and it’d have an ashtray as well. Heh.

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160,000-barrel oil spill nears final cleanup

160,000 barrels of oil which spilled from a refinery in Chalmette and from other storage facilities in Plaquemines Parish and Port Sulphur have been nearly cleaned up after a third was recovered and the rest evaporated and naturally dispersed.

However, the spill has wrought as yet unknwon havoc on local ecosystems, already fragile and shrinking before Hurricane Katrina hit. Costs incurred by local and State governments which have to deal with the damage are being repaid by FEMA which will release a total of $460m to satisfy costs related to all emergency activities.

The damage done in some areas has passed others by, and houses in areas which escaped flooding are expected to rise in value by 10-15%. The areas which escaped most unharmed are West Jefferson, River Ridge, Kenner, Madeville, Conington and Slidell.

Meanwhile, damage to roads has been estimated as at least $2.3 billion, which does not include damage to traffic signals and signs, ports, airports, levees, or trains and streetcars.

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

9/11 Commissioner says rescue efforts 'national scandal'

The recriminations from slow rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina continue to flare, and former 9/11 Commissioner Thomas Kean, who chaired the investigatory body which made recommendations after the attacks, has said that communication difficulties in the hurricane’s wake are a ‘national scandal’.

Police, firefighters and federal emergency officials should have been able to communicate after the hurricane hit, but were completely unable to do so because of downed phone lines and mobile phone cells, as well as radio systems which were woefully inadequate. Other cities in the US are anticipating similar trouble:

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said that the delays in getting timely help to residents in New Orleans and other nearby communities is further evidence that residents in his city, who face the threat of catastrophic earthquakes, need to be prepared to care for themselves and their families for 72 hours before the government could mobilize a major rescue effort.

The likelihood, he said, is that the two major bridges out of San Francisco would be damaged in a severe earthquake, leaving only one southern route out of the city — making it hard for people to evacuate and for rescue workers to come to the city’s aid.

The retrieval of corpses from the Gulf Coast and New Orleans has also started to be examined, as the effort itself gets underway some two weeks after the disaster. Thad Allen, the new federal emergency chief in charge of the response, has said that a Department of Defense and federal response should have come sooner, with personnel deployed into all areas immediately. In New Orleans alone, there are now 7,000 Army personnel at work alongside coroners and private contractors to find and recover bodies. 34 of those have caused controversy: the residents of a nursing home who were left behind. The home’s owners have been indicted on 34 counts of negligent homicide and are yet to face trial.

Evacuees continue to make choices about whether to stay where they are or try to return, with some being targeted by recruiters near their evacuation sites, a trend which is worrying for the regeneration of New Orleans and other formerly populated areas. PEople who are returning to New Orleans are finding it easier than expected to enter the city, but face waters more toxic than originally suggested — there are indications that the EPA’s original floodwater tests were glaringly invalid and incomplete — and catastrophic difficulties with insurance claims.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Politics and the Wind - Katrina relief latest

Firstly, a devastating, infuriating, very important exposé of the Bush administration in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

At last, repairs and recovery efforts in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are settling into an organised pattern, and while I will still provide updates with links, they will be shorter.

Rescue workers found 45 bodies in a New Orleans hospital yesterday. Some had been laid to their temporary rest in a chapel; others had clearly died on upper floors, awaiting roof rescues that never came. All were patients that staff had laboured to help, without the advantages of power supplies or emergency rescue, until the end.

News continues to emerge every day of buildings and infrastructure confirmed destroyed: among the latest is Bruning’s Seafood Bar in the West End. However, it has also emerged that most property records from New Orleans are salvagable after being found in the basement of Orleans Parish Civil District Court. It is not known whether they include any records for rented properties or whether poorer areas of the city are covered, but news of property reconstruction and transfers has yet to be made and will be known in time.

A levee repair at the London Avenue Canal leaked yesterday afternoon, after being slightly overtopped by water from the canal because London Avenue Pumping Station activated one pump which caused the canal to rise. However, the spill was minor and the repair did not fail.

An electricity worker trying to restore power in the Kenner district of the city was fatally electrocuted as he worked on a utility pole. Meanwhile, FEMA is to provide temporary housing, to last for the next two or three years, for over 200,000 displaced people. There will be dozens of mobile home sites placed around the State of Louisiana, and the first will emerge around Baton Rouge, the State capital. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has made it clear that New Orleanians, rather than State or Federal authorities, will be the lead planners in its reconstruction. He did not make clear whether reconstruction would prioritise housing for poorer residents or not. At present the city is bankrupt after one week of inactivity, having spent its last money on employee payroll.

“The model that we’re looking for to rebuild this city, is to keep New Orleans unique culturally, unique musically, unique from a people perspective, but economically as strong as an Atlanta, where you have a strong middle and upper class of African Americans, of white folks, of Hispanics, of Vietnamese. And if we’re not collectively working toward that goal, then there’s a problem. So don’t worry about this city being hijacked by a small group of people who are trying to take us backward.”

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Religious jokes, Katrina damage photos, Zen antidotes, and Takk

What's the difference between a priest and a pimple?

A pimple waits until you’re 13 before coming on your face.

And that one didn’t even get top place in the ‘most offensive’ category. Heh.

More diversions: satellite imagery, or any high-quality aerial photos of anywhere, hold a fascination for most people. Since Jurricane Katrina reduced the Gulf Coast to a body-strewn wasteland, there has been no shortage of people who want to check out their home or just the comparative damage in general — I linked to Google Earth’s imagery a few posts ago. But the reason Google was able to integrate damage photos with previous photography was through the hard work of the NOAA, which has made aerial imagery available for free despite the harrowing stories coming out of the region.

Finally, some Zen Koan, and Takk, a new album by four-of-a-kind Icelandic group Sigur Rós, which I bought today in a fit of gay abandon.

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Bush visits New Orleans city centre amid further criticism

President Bush visited the city centre area of New Orleans today for the first time. It has been his 3rd visit to the Gulf Coast in the past week, and comes as his ratings in one poll did not reach even a worrying 40%.

“A lot of Americans don’t pay attention to their leaders on a day-to-day basis,” said Robert Blendon, a public opinion analyst at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “They measure presidents, governors and mayors on how they handle big events like a hurricane. This event is not over because the bodies are going to be discovered day by day.”

Criticism has also been directed at New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin for the city’s general response — criticism which argues that the entire city should have been evacuated and centres around the availability of a small number of buses which were unused.

As concerns abated slightly over the state of floodwaters — major toxicity has not been found but there are exceptionally high levels of E coli and lead — the city was sprayed yesterday at dusk to kill mosquitoes which have infested the waterlogged areas. Today, work began on rebuilding Interstate 10, also called ‘the twin span,’ which suffered heavy damage in the storm. The road was constructed over a body of water in short concrete sections and provides an exit to the north. It will be rebuilt by Boh Bros. of New Orleans.

That houses, roads and other infrastructure will not be rebuilt by providing Gulf Coast workers with jobs is a possibility which worries many politicians and commentators:

Tourism brings $10 billion to New Orleans annually and accounts for about 15 percent of the city’s jobs. Because those jobs tend to be relatively low-paying, they are held mostly by the poor minority residents of New Orleans who were disproportionately harmed by Hurricane Katrina.

Some commentators have suggested that some of the poorest residents of the Big Easy will never come back. With no homes or other possessions to connect them to New Orleans, the theory goes, they will simply stay wherever Katrina and the Red Cross blew them.

But for better or worse, the tourism industry in New Orleans needs the poor and will probably draw some of them back. That means the city’s low-income housing, largely destroyed by the post-Katrina flood, is likely to be rebuilt.

With so many opportunities to redevelop wealthier areas, developers will probably have very little interest in building low-income housing in places like the Ninth Ward, which is one of the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods. The federal government has been trying for decades to get out of the landlord business.

A shortage of affordable housing may cause some further contraction of the city’s population, which has shrunk about 30 percent over the past 40 years.

Further news is given day by day of the drainage effort, and on Sunday 67 pumps, both fixed and temporary, were operating in the city. A pump status map has been made available by the Army Corps of Engineers, and currently shows that 26 of New Orleans’ 120 pump stations are operational.

In Mississippi, the Corps has been working to restore power, provide water and ice, remove debris and provide temporary rooves to damaged buildings.

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Saturday, September 10, 2005

Water recedes in NO - toxin results published - streets covered with mud

In St. Tammany Parish of New Orleans, nearly 50% of residents had power yesterday as work goes on to restore vital infrastructure to the city’s districts. Although the city is mostly empty due to the toxic nature of the floodwater — the first test results were published today by the Environmental Protection Agencypower needs to be restored to allow relief and reconstruction workers to tap into supplies.

The water level in the city is falling as temporary pumps are being used, and more of the city’s pumping stations are repaired by the Army Corps of Engineers. Their latest estimate is that water will be drained from New Orleans’ central area around the 2nd of October, with more districts becoming dry thereafter.

But the falling water is leaving a thick layer of mud on the streets and houses of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, and exposing more bodies. Thankfully, rescuers are so far not finding as many bodies inside houses as they at first feared, although the final toll is still unknown. Finally, and long overdue, Michael Brown has been removed from his post overseeing the FEMA relief effort and sent back to Washington as the relief process gets a much-needed shakeup.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

First reconstruction of flooding: results expose delays

The first computer reconstruction of the progress of the flooding in New Orleans has been completed and it lays bare delays in informing federal authorities of levee breaches.

Early in the morning on Monday 29th August, storm surge waters came into the city from the east. Within a couple of hours of that time, water was already pressing against levees and floodwalls. It’s thought the surge rushed up Lake Borgne near St Bernard, and was funnelled by v-shaped levees. This caused it to rise even further in height, overtopping the floodwalls by perhaps 5 feet.

It poured into the Industrial Canal and overflowed both sides of it, first little more than soaking surrounding streets. However a barge is thought to have broken loose on the canal and crashed through the floodwall, opening a breach which would have been opened further as the water rushed through.

The Lower Ninth Ward and St Bernard Parish were immediately flooded, and authorities were reporting water on both sides of the canal around 8am. By 9am, there was 6-8 feet of water in the Ward, one of the most low-lying areas, and by 11am most of St Bernard was under 10 feet of water with Interstate 10 covered at one low point near the Canal.

Around this time, it is thought, the 17th Street canal levee burst from a more gradual process: surge waters pressing against it. This was not seen to happen by officials: a police officer reported it from a distance later. It happened when the eye of Katrina had passed, so northerly winds would have pushed surge water in Lake Pontchartrain in a southerly direction, directly against the levees and canal locks. It is not clear when the floodwalls on the London Avenue Canal broke, but a similar time is probable.

The broken levees caused water to rise steadily overnight and into Tuesday which was when the world noticed that 80% of the city had succumbed.

However, federal officials, including FEMA, were not aware that levees had broken and caused such a massive inundation of water at the same time as the eastern surge. In fact, according to the above link:

“It was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the (17th Street canal) gap and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city. I think that second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Sunday, adding that he believed the breach had occurred Monday night or Tuesday morning. By that time, flooding from at least one of the two breached canals already had been under way all day Monday, evidence shows.

Even on Tuesday, as still-rising waters covered most of New Orleans, FEMA official Bill Lokey sounded a reassuring note in a Baton Rouge briefing.

“I don’t want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl,” Lokey said. “That’s just not happening.”

As more news emerges which confirms tragic delays and lack of federal understanding and action, it has been announced that a House-Senate panel will investigate the US government’s preparation and response to Katrina. The panel will issue its findings by the 15th of February 2006.

House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi is calling for Michael Brown, FEMA’s second most important director, to be sacked as he has “absolutely no credentials” to do the job.In the Senate, Minority leader Harry Reid said the investigation should ask “how much time did the president spend dealing with this emerging crisis while he was on vacation”.

News from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has slowed as police deal with evacuating the remaining residents and pumping water out. The Army Corps of Engineers has made progress with repairing the city’s original pumps, and 23 of them are now working.

People are still being urged, rather than required, to leave, but GPS co-ordinates are noted for those who remain: they are expected to be forcibly removed soon as concerns rise over the harm floodwaters might do, contaminated as they are with bacteria and chemicals and what may eventually prove to be 25,000 corpses.

There is cultural news too, as reports emerge of museums, gardens and even ships damaged or spared by the hurricane’s advance. Louisiana’s historical paper materials, including civil war documents and city blueprints, are to be salvaged starting this week.

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Nagin claims 10,000+ dead, orders New Orleans cleared of residents

Arkansas National Guardsman Mikel Brooks stepped through the food service entrance of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center Monday, flipped on the light at the end of his machine gun, and started pointing out bodies.

“Don’t step in that blood — it’s contaminated,” he said. “That one with his arm sticking up in the air, he’s an old man.” Then he shined the light on the smaller human figure under the white sheet next to the elderly man.

“That’s a kid,” he said. “There’s another one in the freezer, a 7-year-old with her throat cut.”

Three days later, efforts continue all along the Gulf Coast to assess damage and start drainage and cleanup operations. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said that more than 10,000 are dead in his city alone, and ordered all remaining residents to leave due to obvious safety concerns, the chemicals and toxic waste under parts of the city proving more of a potential hazard than cholera at this stage.

Mike McDaniel, the state secretary of environmental quality, told CNN floodwaters had swirled through wrecked sewerage plants and were fouled by natural gas and petrochemical leaks all over south Louisiana.

He said crews found an oil spill of 68,000 barrels at a Bass Enterprise storage depot in Venice, and another of 10,000 barrels from the Murphy Oil facility in Chalmette.

“Everywhere we look there’s a spill. It all adds up,” he said. “There’s almost a solid sheen over the area right now.”

Besides the petrochemicals and human waste, officials said, the water was surely polluted by a variety of other pollutants, including pesticides and a catalogue of industrial solvents.

And there was another dreadful component: the bodies of uncounted dead humans and animals that rescuers have seen in a week of frantic life-saving efforts, but pushed aside to do higher priority work.

Officials said they did not know whether ejecting billions of gallons of foul pollutants would trigger a massive environmental disaster in the state's wetlands.

However, their evacuation is proving difficult as some are refusing to leave, even in the face of utter ruin. Downed power lines and flaming gas leaks — general all along the coast — are hampering progress in boat rescues, especially in New Orleans where some gas mains have had to remain on to allow the pump generators to function.

Temporary pumps have been put in place locally as levees are repaired more than a week after the storm: the 17th Street / Florida Avenue breach is closed; city Pumps 1 & 5 are in operation (out of a total of 148), and water levels are slowly receding. As the levels recede further, officials expect to find many bodies and a disaster mortuary has been set up that can process 140 corpses a day.

Crime has receded since National Guard and active-duty federal troops have entered the city: the first federal arrest has been made against a man who shot at a military rescue helicopter. However, a police officer has committed suicide.

Accardo — who also lost his home in the flood waters — looked like a zombie, like someone who hadn’t slept in year, Defillo said. But so did so many on the 1,600-member force.

Officials said Monday that between 400 to 500 officers were unaccounted for, many tending to their homes or looking for their families, and some dropping out. To lessen the stress, officers were being cycled off duty and given five-day vacations in Las Vegas and Atlanta, where they also would receive counseling.

Said Mayor Ray Nagin: “I’ve got some firefighters and police officers that have been pretty much traumatized.”

News also emerges that the fate of the New Orleans Superdome hangs in the balance and the building could be scrapped after it is decontaminated and examined. Whether this is due to association with the vile scenes it housed last week is unclear.

Political controversy still rages. While federal efforts continue, anger over the slow and often confused response has prompted Bush to chair an investigation into why this was so. A President chairing an investigation into something he and his key officials have been blamed for has caused yet more anger, and the investigation is not expected to be impartial. (Personally, I think it’ll be a crock of shit and they need an independent commission.)

Update 1

The water in New Orleans has just been revealed to be rather dangerous, so UAVs are being used:

12:48 P.M. [Local time] — (AP): Tiny, unmanned surveillance planes are being pressed into action for reconnaissance over Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in what defense contractors call the biggest civilian deployment ever for the technology.

Ten of the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been taking turns this week flying from the New Orleans Naval Air Station and relaying photos of the devastation below to the Air Force.

[They] are being used to assess damage to oil and gas distribution, dikes, berms and other aspects of the region's infrastructure.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

One levee fixed - Texas full - Contamination

Brief news now, with more to follow: as George Bush pledges long-term aid in another visit to the stricken city, the 17th street canal levee has finally been sealed by the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans, and they are starting to pump water out of the canal to reduce its high level before starting to empty the neighbouring areas.

Meanwhile, now that the city has been emptied of residents and work is starting to empty the coastal regions of other people now without homes there, evacuees are finding that Texas can absorb no more of them:

Texas has put up the “state full” sign after absorbing 240,000 evacuees in less than five days and Governor Rick Parry has made arrangements for new arrivals to be flown to West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Iowa. One flight of evacuees from New Orleans was diverted to Phoenix, Arizona, after a brief stop in Dallas.

Power has been restored to parts of Jefferson Parish but Orleans, St Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes are still without electricity. Standing water in New Orleans — and in other Gulf Coast communities — has been tested and officials have found that in all areas it is depleted of oxygen. They warn that it will become technically septic in a few days’ time. John Pardue of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute also said that because of so many submerged vehicles, there is a sheen on the water in many areas and he is concerned about household chemicals. Because of the obvious public interest, his team is releasing the results of its tests quickly:

Pardue said he hopes releasing the data also will force the EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality to release the results from similar sampling they now are doing.

“After 9/11, there was a lot of data collection and not a lot of reporting of the results by the EPA,” he said. “If we do it, that’s a separate, independent entity doing it, and will force them to release their information.”

Pardue said he expected significant environmental effects to result from the pumping of the contaminated stormwater into Lake Pontchartrain.

When it comes to rebuilding after the floodwaters are drained, Jesse Jackson has called for Louisiana evacuees who wish to return to be moved back to the state immediately and given temporary accommodation in military bases there. “The people who are displaced ought to have first dibs on the reconstruction jobs, but they can’t do that if they are in Utah or Minnesota.”

More later.

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Evacuations nearly over in NO - Dysentery outbreak - American society under severe scrutiny

New Orleans was finally little more than a ghost town today as evacuations from the Convention Center and Superdome were completed. Tens of thousands were evacuated in less than 24 hours, but help did not arrive quickly enough for the hundreds who lay unseen, dead and dying, in houses all over the city.

News also emerged earlier today that with tens of thousands already dead from the effects of the hurricane and flooding, dysentery has broken out in Biloxi, a town along the coast to the east in the region directly hit by Hurricane Katrina. The water currently standing in all areas of the region is thought to be heavily contaminated with chemicals, sewage, and human waste, and adding to the fears of disease is the knowledge that bodies are inside houses in every street in nearly every neighbourhood.

In Chalmette, one of the poorest districts near New Orleans entirely under water, teams moved from house to house, painting numbers on the outside of each to note how many bodies were inside. The bodies will remain for the time being.

But overshadowing the start of operations in the region were widespread reports of anger and frustration from across America which have significantly transcended economic, ethnic and party lines (that link is to a clip from Fox News, highly recommended as an illustration of the outrage felt).

Particular anger was raised by comments from the Director of the US Homeland Security department, Michael Chertoff, who said that Government planners had not prodicted that such a scenario could occur. In fact, scientists have known for years that the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular were certain disaster areas if a category 5 hurricane struck, and that the levee system in New Orleans was only rated to category 3 — a lengthy series of specials was published 3 years ago by the Times-Picayune on that exact subject.

FEMA has also been the target of criticism. As it is the nation’s disaster management body, it is expected to provide preparation and relief before and after a known natural disaster such as this; people are now asking why it did not pre-position supplies in advance of Katrina’s landfall and why, in recent days, it has delayed army supply-drops and civilian boat rescues due to lack of decision-making.

President Bush is also being heavily criticised by all sides for not responding quickly or thoroughly enough to a letter begging for help sent to him by Louisiana’s State Governor on the 28th of August.

It can hardly have escaped the notice of the President and his administration that the vast majority of those who lived in the most low-lying, poorest homes, and who could not afford to evacuate, were black. Many commentators are saying that this fact emerges above all as the most compelling and relevant lesson in the disaster so far:

It isn’t the failure to act in New Orleans that is the story here, it’s the sheer, uninsured, uncared for, self-disenfranchised scale of the poverty that lies revealed. It looks like a scene from the Third World because that’s the truth. It’s a quiet disaster that’s been going on for years — a pudding-basin-full-of-poverty situation.

New Orleans’ newspaper, the Times-Picayune, sent an open letter to President Bush today, pulling no punches on his weak and ineffectual response:

Dear Mr. President:

We heard you loud and clear Friday when you visited our devastated city and the Gulf Coast and said, “What is not working, we’re going to make it right.”

Please forgive us if we wait to see proof of your promise before believing you. But we have good reason for our skepticism.

[...]the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.

We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.

Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.

In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn’t known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, “We’ve provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day.”

Lies don’t get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.

Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, “You’re doing a heck of a job.”

That’s unbelievable.

As all the recovery operations are accelerated and more happens, I will provide further updates. But at present, the White House is also worrying about whether, not how, it can sidestep serious questions about the poverty/race issue:

...some Republicans said the perception among some blacks that the White House had been slow to respond because so many victims were poor and African-American undercut what had been one of the primary initiatives of the new Republican chairman, Ken Mehlman: making an explicit appeal for support among black voters, a constituency that has traditionally been overwhelmingly Democratic.

“Given the racial component of this, and given the current political environment, there certainly seems to be a high level of risk to this story,” said a Republican Party official, who, citing the concern among party officials about the criticism, would only discuss the question on the condition of not being identified.

The week of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans will be remembered as the week in which America’s hidden faultlines were exposed: when race, extreme poverty, racism and crime were revealed not to be the exception but the undercurrent potentially, and for that matter certainly, present in every one of America’s cities. It will be remembered as the week in which the response of a country’s leaders showed that, instinctively, those in power still cater for their own and are ready to spin a disaster; the week in which an American President failed America.

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Washing away

Washing away” — a five-part Times-Picayune serial published in 2002, dealing with the hurricane threat as it was then perceived.

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Blame and counterblame as efforts finally start in earnest

New Orleans’ newspaper, the Times-Picayune, joined the city’s Mayor Ray Nagin in condemning the unforgivably slow start to relief efforts in the city and wider region.

We applaud the mayor for giving voice to an entire city’s frustration. How could the most powerful and technologically advanced nation in the history of the world have responded so feebly to this crisis?

The president’s admission of his administration's mistakes will mean nothing unless the promised help is deployed immediately. Each life is precious, and there isn't a second chance to save a single one of them. No more talk of what’s going to happen. We only want to hear what is being done. The lives of our people depend on it.

Official statements on the progress of rescue and relief efforts have been listened to by those on the ground in the affected states, and found to be misleading or wrong. There is already racial discontent at the lot of the poorer victims and survivors; media attention has lagged behind the concerns of people on the scene — it is only now that newspapers are printing stories that report help was slow to arrive and ask why it was so.

Latest Reports

More on the political ramifications below. Latest reports are that aid convoys are starting to reach the city with military helicopters taking the supplies to various areas; the Army Corps of Engineers has said that it will take 3 months to initially drain the city of water; hospitals in the city have resumed evacuation which was delayed because of violence on the streets and even in hospital buildings; people still in hte Superdome are expected to be there until Sunday; Jesse Jackson has said that racism is partly responsible for the aftermath.

Everyone is now asking what could have been done differently and what was known in advance about the likelihood of damage. A preliminary examination of what is available online shows that knowledge of the likelihood and effects of flooding were very well known [#1] [#2] (no. 2 is a good summary) [#3] [#4].

All this has led to criticism of the lack of forward planning and funding. It appears that the Gulf Coast states have long known, and agonised, about the certainty of a big disaster happening someday — and that their appeals for enough money to adequately fortify themselves have been ignored. A plan to renew the New Orleans levees has been in existence since the year 2000 but stalled because of lack of Federal funding. The link in this paragraph is to a Slate story on newscasters’ anger — often coming from the least likely sources. From the column:

We knew it was coming. And yet, the poorest and the neediest and the most helpless of those in New Orleans, well, they’re still there, aren’t they? Despite the many angles of this tragedy — and lord knows there’ve been a lot of them in New Orleans — there is a great big elephant in the living room that the media seems content to ignore.

...we in the media are ignoring the fact that almost all of the victims in New Orleans are black and poor. [...] Almost every person we’ve seen, from the families stranded on their rooftops waiting to be rescued, to the looters, to the people holed up in the Superdome, are black and poor.

Recent photos

Both news and satellite photos continue to be updated and posted online. The most interesting if you have time to browse are always large-scale satellite updates: NOAA has posted New Orleans urban satellite sweeps. Google Earth has updated its photos to provide a more user-friendly before-and-after experience. There is a page of conventional photos too. FEMA has a page of maps indicating affected areas by county, giving a good overview of closed roads and flooded areas. The New Orleans Times-Picayune remains an excellent source for news photos covering all developments.

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Friday, September 02, 2005

Explosions, armed prisoners in jail - reports

New Orleans is waking up to another morning of lawlessness and gradual evacuation as the first influx of military arrives and a heated nationwide debate takes place on the rescue and protection efforts.

The first priority for all personnel remains the evacuation and drainage of the city. The Times-Picayune reports that levee breaches occurred because the water pouring over the top of the flood walls eroded the ground on the other side to a depth of 26 feet, causing sections of floodwall to become mobile. The death toll estimates rise all the time:

State lawmakers and local officials who have made tours of the flooded areas have reported that bodies are floating in the streets but are being ignored in favor of having a fleet of more than 300 boats rescue survivors.

“It is not a pretty sight,” said Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who has toured the stricken area participated in some rescue missions.

Blanco estimated as many as 200,000 to 300,000 area residents may have remained at their homes and refused to evacuate, heightening the death toll.

At this moment, reports are coming in that fires and an explosion have erupted near Chartres Street, which is where the city’s streetcars are housed. See the CNN link above for now — there will be more links and stories on this throughout the day. The State Governor has warned armed gangs, thieves and rapists in the ruined city that military personnel moving into the area are freshly back from Iraq and are more than willing to use their weapons to quell lawlessness.

More on this later, but for now the most updated news sources are WWLTV’s update page (republished every few minutes), (the Times-Picayune’s token page, which also publishes a daily paper in PDF format), CNN and Google News.

Update 1

The explosion was at a chemical facility near the French Quarter, recent reports say. Also, Bush has just embarked on his tour of the region, to the refrain of New Orleans city mayor Ray Nagin’s comment: “I keep hearing that it’s coming. This is coming. That is coming. My answer to that is B.S. Where is the beef?”

Bush said that the results of the relief efforts mounted so far “are not acceptable”.

A lot of people [have been] working hard to help those who’ve been affected. And I want to thank the people for their efforts. The results are not acceptable.

I’m heading down there right now. I’m looking forward to talking to the people on the ground.

I want to assure the people of the affected areas and this country that we’ll deploy the assets necessary to get the situation under control, to get the help to the people who’ve been affected, and that we’re beginning long-term planning to help those who have been displaced, as well as long-term planning to help rebuild the communities that have been affected.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Preserving New Orleans?

This post is a duplicate of a reply I made within this Metafilter thread.

I started thinking ahead a few months, and my question is: will New Orleans be restored, rather than rebuilt sited elsewhere?

The Historic Preservation Institute has lots of links to other informative sites, but the problem with so many of these organisations is that, like the presidential order "Preserve America", they seem only to cater to historic sites which actually exist undamaged at present.

FEMA says:

Environmental and Historic Preservation Review may occur for projects that involves repairing a structure to pre-disaster condition. Structures typically include:

  • Roads and Bridges
  • Water Control Facilities
  • Utilities
  • Parks and Recreational Areas
  • Buildings and Equipment

  • Typical Environmental and Historic Preservation Laws and Executive Orders that may apply include the National Historic Preservation Act, Clean Air Act, and Floodplains Executive Order. Typical concerns may include historical impacts, air pollution, and re-development within a floodplain (if applicable).

    So I’m still worrying about the status of the city. New Orleans has a lot of ‘officially’ historic buildings but what do the owners of these buildings do now?

    Let’s say a guy owns an old bar on Canal Street — if he has to rebuild elsewhere, he’ll lose the tax incentives he formerly enjoyed. But if he has to restore his old building, who gives the permission and where does the money come from? And even if he can, won’t the insurance be so expensive that it’ll force him out and give some soulless businessman free reign over what used to be a great, locally-owned bar?

    These people could be a great help in stepping in and showing over-eager planners that New Orleans’ historic buildings could still be structurally viable, but somehow I don’t think anyone will make the call.

    So where does that leave a city which has badly-damaged historic buildings, and which contains 2 national parks?

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    Officials forecast economic shutdown for months

    After all that has befallen the Gulf Coast states, it is surprising to see any normality. If there are to be functioning places at all, it is fitting in this area that one of them should be a bar; and no surprise that New Orleans’ only open bar (The Avenue Pub) does some trade and arms its bartender with a shotgun.

    It is no surprise either that Mayor Nagin of New Orleans declared “For the next two or three months, in this area, there will not be any commerce at all. No electricity, no restaurants” but my fear is that as with most predictions after a major disaster, realtime recovery will take a very much greater time.

    Why do I fear this? Because, for reasons I can’t explain, the effects of this hurricane have emotionally touched me more than the Boxing Day tsunami did. Perhaps that’s because the tsunami was so utterly devastating in its extent that it was impossible to really comprehend: Hurricane Katrina is pushing towards the limit of a person’s ability to understand.

    Whatever the philosophising done over the coming months, there are still developments and things to report. People are running out of fuel for their cars after trying to return to outlying areas because there is simply nothing left in entire swathes of the landscape. Bush has assured the suffering regions that enormous federal help is on the way, that “zero tolerance” should be shown to looters, and that New Orleans will be restored to a great city. (What his conception of a great city is may perhaps give some worry — see the next post up.)

    National Guard troops in Louisiana and Mississippi are to be increased to just over 18,000 as gunfire threatens military helicopters and relief efforts. Other than this news, not much more is emerging: we are seeing a coalescence and repetition of general trends: flooding, lack of power, unknown casualties, unknown rescue times, civil unrest, promises of aid.

    As usual, get your news updates from the Times-Picayune (which now operates as a weblog and a PDF-based newspaper) and the other links given in the posts further down this page.

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