Beasts and the Ghosts of Hurricane Katrina

Buzz about ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ led me to expect a visually beautiful and inspiring story of childhood resilience, and there is that. But so much more. A review by critic, Rex Reed in the New York Observer gets it…

The setting is the emotionally parched and geographically designed cartographer’s view of hell called The Bathtub—what’s left of an area of makeshift cardboard and toothpick shanties that Katrina devastated, scattering the region’s population to the wind like dandelion fuzz. It lies low between the Gulf and the Mississippi River—a man-made wall has gone up on the dry side of the levee to protect against annihilating floods. This is where nothing grows, catfish and crawdads from polluted water are the only food, and stubborn Cajuns who refused to evacuate to higher ground when Brad Pitt and Sean Penn came down to rescue them on CNN News still live in the ultimate depths of poverty and ignorance. It’s the most sobering view of the uneducated and disenfranchised outcasts the world has forgotten since Precious.

The tone of the movie is deeply sad and brings up unfinished business. Hush Puppy, played by six-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, is the center and heart of the story. She and her father Wink, played by Dwight Henry, struggle to keep above the rising waters of their bayou shantytown, The Bathtub. It’s a desperate and doomed struggle. Wink is dying, and the community of The Bathtub is trapped behind levees–the ocean rising as icebergs melt and the debris and pollution of the more affluent poisoning their waters. They have a survival ethic and skill that is deeply human, they wear the history of the human race tattooed on their bodies. But they are among the majority of the seven billion on our planet who, lacking power, could disappear beneath the waters without a trace.

This Wednesday, August 29th, marks seven years from the landfall of Category 5
Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Residents in the poorer quarters of New Orleans, like the residents of ‘The Bathtub’ in the film, lived below sea level. The levees in New Orleans failed catastrophically and more than 1,800 died. Those walls were intended to keep the water out. Years of other priorities, as foretold in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and Washington Post, left the most vulnerable citizens unprotected against the worst forces of nature. The elderly and handicapped were too often left to their own resources, and many, having survived other hurricanes, stayed in their apartments and hoped for the best. The fall of the levees was an unexpected and overwhelming disaster.

For the rest of America, the news footage of people stranded on rooftops, miles of water where neighborhoods used to be, a woman dying in a wheelchair on an overpass above the flood waters– these images will stay with us.

The news obsessed about ‘looters’ and pumped up stories of violent anarchy that slowed rescue and opened the gates to vigilante tactics by police officers. Crime was real enough, but in the crossfire between the frightened and armed, the innocent were left to die in abandoned rooms and drowning hospitals.

Some stats from the Common Dreams Katrina Pain Index

21 Percent of all residential addresses in New Orleans that are abandoned or blighted. There were 35,700 abandoned or blighted homes and empty lots in New Orleans (21% of all residential addresses), a reduction from 43,755 in 2010 (when it was 34% of all addresses). Compare to Detroit (24%), Cleveland (19%), and Baltimore (14%). Source: Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC).

27 Percent of people in New Orleans live in poverty. The national rate is 15%. Among African American families the rate is 30% and for white families it is 8%. Source: Corporation for Enterprise Development (CEFD) and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC) Assets & Opportunity Profile: New Orleans (August 2012).

33 Percent of low income mothers in New Orleans study who were still suffering Post Traumatic Stress symptoms five years after Katrina. Source: Princeton University Study.

All of us who watched this disaster unfold are left with a sense that we could have done better. A barn-raising sort of mutual aid was needed, and volunteers from every state were eager to help. This good energy was squandered, along with the relief money and the teachable moment that this new level of disaster may be a warning of storms to come.

One of our two great political parties, the GOP, is holding their convention in Tampa, FL. They had to delay the convention by a day for Tropical Storm Isaac, which is predicted to strike land with hurricane force on the very anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

It would be a crime to let the 24 hour spin cycle rob us of the longer view. The struggling poor in Beasts of the Southern Wild are haunted by ghosts from pre-history. America is haunted by ghosts from the drowning of New Orleans who have not been appeased, and will not rest easy as long as we close our ears to their warnings.

Japanese Say ‘No’ to Nuclear

USA Today reports that as many as 200,000 Japanese rallied against re-starting more nuclear power plants.

Led by Nobel-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto and visual artist Yoshitomo Nara, the protesters expressed outrage over a report that blamed the Fukushima disaster on Japan’s culture of “reflexive obedience” and held no individuals responsible.

Japanese officials say that the needs of Japan’s economy require bringing more nuclear plants back online. Protesters want a phase-out of nuclear power. They also want accountability for the human role in the Fukushima disaster…

The demonstrators also said they were offended by a parliamentary investigation that blamed Japanese culture for the Fukushima disaster.

The report, released earlier this month, said, “Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture — our reflexive obedience, our reluctance to question authority, our devotion to ‘sticking with the program,’ our groupism and our insularity.”

Midori Tanaka, a schoolteacher marching at the park, said the right people should face up to their mistakes.

“Things can never change if we blame culture. We need to get to the bottom of this,” she said.

Oe said blaming culture was a cop-out, adding that individuals — including the president of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that operates Fukushima Dai-ichi — should be held responsible.

Imagine if it were harder for individuals to hide behind corporations. Is Japanese culture the problem, or is it the undermining of democracy by big money?

In the days after the tsunami, there was no immediate risk to the established powers. The Japanese people came together for rescue and relief. Now with the passing of time, the Japanese people are demanding to know why corruption and negligence went so far without people being named and held accountable.

Nuclear Offline in Japan

As the US makes plans to build more nuclear power plants, Japan has found none of its existing nuclear facilities safe enough to operate.Public trust is lost… (Photo courtesy of The New Age.)

AP Business Writer

TOKYO (AP) – Thousands of Japanese marched to celebrate the switching off of the last of their nation’s 50 nuclear reactors Saturday, waving banners shaped as giant fish that have become a potent anti-nuclear symbol.

Japan was without electricity from nuclear power for the first time in four decades when the reactor at Tomari nuclear plant on the northern island of Hokkaido went offline for mandatory routine maintenance.

After last year’s March 11 quake and tsunami set off meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, no reactor halted for checkups has been restarted amid public worries about the safety of nuclear technology.

This article from Japan Times,End to Crisis is Years, Fortune Away is worth reading for its relevance to nuclear problems the US has kicked down the road–

The Associated Press

Once Japan’s leaky nuclear complex stops spewing radiation and its reactors cool down, making the site safe and removing the ruined equipment is going to be a messy ordeal that could take decades and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Radiation has covered the area around the Fukushima No. 1 plant and blanketed parts of the complex, making the job of “decommissioning” the plant — rendering it safe so it doesn’t threaten public health and the environment — a bigger task than usual.

Toshiba Corp., which supplied four of Fukushima’s six reactors, including two on which General Electric Co. collaborated, submitted a road map this past week to the plant’s operator for decommissioning the crippled reactors. The study, done with three other companies, projects that it would take about 10 years to remove the fuel rods and the reactors and contain other radioactivity at the site, said Keisuke Omori of Toshiba.

Yamaguchi and Hutzler cite costs of decommissioning US plants like Vermont Yankee and Three Mile Island, which is still a toxic waste site that will require a vast investment of public funds to stabilize long-term.

We just passed the 26th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. A veteran photographer, Paul Fusco, who once worked for Look magazine, has created a photo essay from Russia. Link here to see it, but be warned, it’s enough to keep you up at night.

Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and countless nuclear sites less well known continue to menace future generations. We have no right to leave this mess for the sake of corporate profit and the promise of cheap energy never kept.

The answer? Prepare to spend a lot of money safely decommissioning existing nuclear power plants when their useful life is done, stop building more. When the real costs are added up it’s clear that the money is best invested in diverse, local and smart energy.

Letter to Treasurer Raimondo

A group of civil rights and advocacy organizations in Rhode Island is calling Treasurer Raimondo’s attention to some of the extreme political positions taken by The Manhattan Institute and demanding that she return the award she recently received:

January 11, 2011
Hon. Gina Raimondo, General Treasurer State House, Room 102 Providence, RI 02903

Dear Treasurer Raimondo,

On behalf of a broad range of civil rights and community organizations, we respectfully write to you regarding your recent affiliation with the Manhattan Institute – an extremist right wing group that promotes offensive, ignorant and hurtful positions towards the LGBTQI community, women, minorities and our environment.

Last week you traveled to New York to stand with and be publicly recognized by The Manhattan Institute, where you accepted their “Urban Innovator Award” for your work to alter Rhode Island’s pension system. Your work regarding the pension system has certainly been the subject of significant debate, and our purpose today is not to reexamine the merits of those legislative efforts. Rather, we seek to call your attention to a series of troubling articles and position papers that we sincerely hope do not reflect your own personal or political positions.
· In “Gay Marriage vs American Marriage”, the Manhattan Institute comes alarmingly close to some of the more common anti-equality rants espoused by the so-called National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and the Family Research Council, by claiming that marriage equality (same-gender marriage) is not the same as “American Marriage”. Furthermore, in “Redefining Marriage Away”, the Manhattan Institute claims that the reason to fear marriage equality is that gay and lesbian couples do not value fidelity, that their asserted lack of monogamy is immoral and dangerous. As if these articles aren’t offensive enough, they publish and reference anti-equality articles and books written by former NOM president Maggie Gallagher including “Why Marriage is Good For You”.
· Ms. Hymowitz writes about how “Women Prefer the Mommy Track,” widespread rape on college campuses is a myth, and claims that feminism as a whole is “not so much dead as obsolete.”
· The Manhattan Institute called claims of racial profiling by police “ACLU misinformation,” “promoting racial paranoia,” and “ivory-tower posturing” and compared being charged with racism to being charged as a witch: to be without any conceivable defense.
· The Manhattan Institute rails against President Obama’s green jobs initiative, stands in opposition to wind power, and sees fracking as an alternative energy solution.

Madame Treasurer, the aforementioned articles are just a sample of what is readily available on the Manhattan Institute’s website. We must ask if you or anyone in your office were aware that this organization published such venomous, racially-charged, anti-gay, anti-environment and anti-women positions before you agreed to be honored by them in New York. We are willing to accept that you were not, but that acceptance must accompany a proactive effort by you. Return the Manhattan Institute’s Urban Innovator Award and publicly condemn these harmful writings at your earliest convenience, preferably within the next 48 hours.

We recognize that the purpose of your visit to the Manhattan Institute was to receive an accolade for your pension work and not to discuss the important issues we have brought to your attention. It is simply unacceptable to us as a coalition, or your constituents as a whole, for you to stand with or accept an award from a narrow-minded and hurtful organization. To do so would be seen as nothing less than an implicit condoning of their bigotry.

Thank you for your time and thoughtful consideration, we look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible.

Sincerely, Clean Water Action Rhode Island
Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island
Hope United
Marriage Equality Rhode Island
National Association of Social Workers Rhode Island Chapter
Ocean State Action
Sierra Club Rhode Island Chapter

Meeting About Mashapaug Commons (Former Gorham Toxic Site)

The federal government has done a study of the health impacts of the Gorham site in South Providence, which was rehabilitated into Mashapaug Commons, which now stands mostly vacant, next to a newly built high school, Alvarez High School, which has a system for pumping potential toxic underground fumes away from the school. From Amelia Rose, Director and Lead Organizer, Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island:

Dear Neighbors of the Gorham Manufacturing Site, and friends,

Mark your calendars for an important community meeting coming up in two weeks hosted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which is a federal government agency that looks at the health impacts of contaminated sites like Gorham. They just finished a health assessment of part of the site and will be holding a public meeting to discuss the results.

ATSDR Public Meeting
Monday – August 30, 2010
Time: 7-9 PM
Location: Renaissance Church, 77 Reservoir Ave, Providence, RI –behind Popeye’s in the Mashapaug Commons Shopping Plaza

Come to the Public Meeting to:

· Hear about the work ATSDR is doing at the former Gorham Manufacturing Facility Site
· Discuss the results of ATSDR’s Health Consultation for Parcel C
· Talk one-on-one with ATSDR and State and Local representatives from:
o The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM)
o The Rhode Island Department of Health
o Textron Corporation
o City of Providence
· Ask questions about the work ATSDR, State and Local agencies are doing to protect people’s health and recommendations for future development of the Gorham Site

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) is a public health agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ATSDR works in communities to provide trusted health information to prevent harmful exposures and disease related to toxic substances. ATSDR is located in Atlanta, GA.

Baron Covers Whitehouse in Woonsocket

From great local reporter Jim Baron, an article where we go with Whitehouse to Woonsocket to talk about why the economy stinks so bad:

Whitehouse visits city businesses: Woonsocket Call

August 12, 2010
By Jim Baron

Gil Denomme, owner of Terry’s Tire and Auto, sees TV commercials where banks advertise that “we are here to lend you money,” but he says when a small businessman goes in even for a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan, “you have to do everything but pull out your teeth and put them on the table.

“They aren’t lending small businessmen any money,” he said.

Terry’s used to have five employees on the payroll, Denomme said, “and now it’s down to two, and I am one of the two. I’d love to put five more people on the payroll again, but it just ain’t happening.”

He said auto sales at his Blackstone Street shop are down about 75 percent from what they were five years ago and people today are more inclined to fix a broken-down car — even to such extensive repairs as replacing an engine — then they are to buy another one.

Customers only want to get the work that absolutely needs to be done, he said, and are less likely to spend money for things such as scheduled maintenance.

“They are only coming in when it breaks down.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse talked to Denomme and several other Woonsocket small business owners Tuesday on a tour of the city to discuss the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act currently stalled in the Senate.

Whitehouse said the legislation allocates about $30 billion to small community banks on the theory that they will in turn make loans to businesses in their area that could total as much as $300 billion.

Whitehouse told The Call that, “I just wanted to listen to their stories of how hard it is to keep a small business going. The common theme was that it is really, really tough out there, hard to get customers through the door.”

From my own perspective as a small business owner, these are indeed frightening times. Think of the realtors whose commissions are in the toilet, if they can even get things to sell. Think of the people losing their jobs and their health insurance, going without health care and mental health care at a time when they are likely to be more vulnerable to depression, more in need of support as they carry out Plan B to get themselves back into the job market.

One of the interesting things about Rhode Island’s Energy Independence Day was listening to Greg Gerritt talk about local initiatives to set up composting. It occurs to me that in our terrible economy, one thing worth investing in would be composting for the state. In places where it has been enacted (some parts of California) there have been significant rewards in terms of producing fertilizer locally and doing other ecologically sound things with the compost. There is also the short-term and long-term gain of not putting all that biodegradable material in the landfills. I hope that Senator Whitehouse is aware of this issue and is doing what he can to advocate for research and funding for composting as a way to reuse and recycle in Rhode Island — and provide a few more jobs for our economy.