Check out the massive padlock on the Superdome. That will tell you all you need to know about Hurricane Gustav and the federal government’scarefully orchestrated response. The padlock, which looks roughly thesize of a Frisbee, is set firmly around the doors. It articulates a message that would be clear to even a Bush or a Brownie: this storm will not be Katrina. By that I don’t mean, "We’ve learned a lot in the last three years" or whatever talking points the White House is putting out.
The padlock makes clear that the public relations hurricane battle hasbeen well engaged. There will be no photo ops of 30,000 people herdedinto a luxury stadium that magically morphs into a homeless shelter fromhell. There will be no opening up the stadium to the poor and unwashed,not after spending $185 million bucks to rebuild the dome and not withthe NFL season right around the corner. There will be no one leftbehind, even if it means putting people on buses, taking them hundredsof miles away and not even telling them the destination. And, more than anything else, the padlock in all of its metallic, glistening glory, is a self-indictment. It is an admission that despite what we were told three years ago, a stadium isn’t really shelter; that the act of forcing people at gunpoint into the dome was a criminal act; and that believing any stadium could have redeeming social value as an emergency evacuation center, is a lie.
The padlock on the Superdome prevents any more ugly backdrops for Whenthe Levees Broke II, and preserves the pristine field for Drew Brees,Reggie Bush and the rest of the New Orleans Saints. But it also raises morequestions than answers: if people aren’t in the dome, then where arethey?
Where are New Orleans’ 12,000 homeless residents, double the pre-Katrinanumbers?
Where are the 17,000 residents of greater New Orleans still living inFEMA trailers?
Where will people live when they return? Why won’t the city call for thesuspension of the planned bulldozing of the city’s four largest housingprojects? How will the people being bussed out be able to move back iftheir homes have been flattened? If people can’t make it home, will theyfind their residence somewhere even more frightening than the dome?
New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said over the weekend, "Anybody who’s caughtlooting in the city of New Orleans will go directly to Angola [LouisianaState Penitentiary]. You will not have a temporary stay in the city. Yougo directly to the big house, in general population."
Considering that many of the so-called looters after Katrina werefighting for their lives, and considering that the media had color-codedlooters, with white residents classified as heroes, the implications ofNagin’s dictate are chilling. It’s horrifying to think that they could belaying their head in the former slave plantation known as Angola.
And what will the fate of the wetlands? They absorbed the worst of Gustav, before the hurricane slammed into the great city. As New Orleans resident and comedian Harry Shearer said we’re losing wetlands "at the rate of a football field every hour or so." The padlock is also a reminder of all the people, 25 percent of the pre-Katrina population, who haven’t been able to return to the city. How can they have the hope of return when rents have gone up 46 percent in the last two years? When will this ever be addressed?
The future of New Orleans will depend on our ability to answer thesequestions. And no amount of shameless political posturing can avoidthis.