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Floating on Excuses 

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New Orleans sticks in the memory. Along with New York City, it’s one of the few cities in the United States that confronts all five senses. Ask anyone who’s been there.


The taste of beignets and chicory coffee linger a long time, to say nothing of New Orleans’ outstanding food, even after partaking of your first-ever alcoholic drink'oddly enough a “Hurricane”'as I did at the age of 18. The humidity never leaves your pores. Even without Mardi Gras, the voodoo shops and gay district of the French Quarter make for a kaleidoscopic spectacle. Walk down Bourbon Street and you might as well turn the dial of a radio, from jazz to karaoke to disco. Ditto for scents, which range from enchanting to disgusting. Along with Boston, San Francisco, New York City and Chicago, New Orleans is one of the few U.S. cities worth a visit in and of itself. It’s given us some of the best in food and music. It’s a shame, now, that it wasn’t dearer to our hearts.


Ostensibly eager to find out why the world’s sole remaining superpower couldn’t save its own during a natural disaster, President Bush already has said he won’t play “the blame game.” Still, someone might care to ask why Bush appointed an estates attorney and former Arab horse association commissioner as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director. Someone might care to ask why Louisiana received $0'that’s right, zero'from FEMA’s 2003 pre-disaster mitigation funds while Texas and Florida raked in millions. Someone might care to ask why the current administration balked not only at spending $14 billion to improve not just Louisiana’s marshlands under the Louisiana Coastal Area project, but also cut the expense of improving the state’s levees by two-thirds. We are, after all, talking about the source of one quarter of our nation’s natural gas and the port and network to more than one-third of our oil supply. This administration decided long ago that invading a foreign country was far more cost-effective, both in lives and money. Now look at the lives lost and billions we’ve yet to spend.


Forgive the bitter tone. I hardly grew up in New Orleans, but was born there when my parents attended Tulane University. Imagine the rage of someone who made the city their home, living days without food or water, watching the sewage and cottonmouth snakes slither through streets once meant for walking. This was one of our greatest, most unique cities.


I know the cynics have already weighed in. They’ll tell you a city living below sea level was doomed from the start, and that New Orleans’ levees, built to withstand no more than a Category 3 hurricane, couldn’t possibly have withstood the wrath of Katrina’s Category 4. The experts told us the chances were slim. If only New Orleans could float on a boatload of excuses.


Early this week I sent Michael Tisserand, editor of New Orleans’ Gambit Weekly, a feeble but sincere e-mail wishing him well. Now above water in Lafayette, he’s already written about the loss of his home, his newspaper, and of telling his children their school is gone. If a magnitude 7.5 quake hits Salt Lake City during my lifetime'and the experts put that chance at 1-in-3 over the next 50 years'I might write a similar account, I told him. But not half as well as he could.


“Thanks Ben,” Tisserand wrote back. “Hope you don’t ever have to write it.

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