The Choices They’ve Made

I’ve had choices, since the day that I was born
There were voices, that told me right from wrong
If I had listened, I wouldnt be here today
Living and dying, with the choices I made.

–Billy Yates and Mike Curtis*

As noted elsewhere, Ray Nagin was improbably re-elected mayor of New Orleans yesterday. Glenn is unimpressed, but I think he and others are missing part of the mark on this one. He’s quite right when he says, “Louisiana’s political class isn’t just greedy — it’s greedy and stupid,” but Ray Nagin is not a part of Louisiana’s political class. That distinction belonged to his opponent, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, the brother of US Senator Mary Landrieu and son of the last white mayor of New Orleans, Moon Landrieu. This was only Nagin’s second election, and he campaigned the first time as a political neophyte running against the old corrupt machine of former mayor Marc Morial (the extra-legal machinations of which were, not coincidentally, the only reason Mary Landrieu was ever elected to the Senate).

I’m not here to defend Ray Nagin. I think he acted stupidly in the run-up to Katrina, his buffoonery in the aftermath speaks for itself, and I have low expectations for his second term. Frankly, after being in the city a couple of weeks ago, I was not expecting Nagin to win. Like a lot of bad choices Louisianans have had to make in the past, this election came down to incompetence (Nagin) vs. corruption (Landrieu and the old Democratic machine).

After seeing the state of the city and snails-pace of the recovery, I figured the scattered electorate would be happy to settle for a corrupt but quicker rebuilding process in the hands of the old guard. Add to that Nagin’s recent pandering to Al Sharpton racialism (he was originally elected with a strong majority of the white vote), I fully expected Landrieu to pull in almost all the white vote and enough of the black vote courtesy of the Democratic machine to win easily.

Instead, Nagin was re-elected. Whether the vote reflected a genuine disgust with old Louisiana politics or was more a case of choosing sides racially, I don’t know, and in the end it doesn’t matter. The scattered tribes of NOLA have made their choice, and they’ll have to live with the good and the bad.

Now for the hard part.

I’d mentioned something an oyster shucker said to me last week, “If the military had gotten here when they should have,” referring to the much-discussed ‘late response’ of the federal government after Katrina. His unstated follow-on was, I feel safe in assuming, ‘… a lot of bad things wouldn’t have happened.’

He was almost certainly right, but when you consider what that statement really means, it says a lot more about the state of New Orleans on August 29, 2005 than it does about the Feds. I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes in my life, but I’d never seen anything like the complete societal breakdown that occurred after Katrina.

Eloise in 1975 and Opal in 1995 both wrecked, shut down and isolated my hometown of Enterprise in south Alabama. They and other storms did even worse damage to a lot of other towns in the area. Nearby Geneva and Elba have both been flooded as badly as New Orleans was, and on multiple occasions. All of those towns have substantial black populations, and much of Geneva and Elba are as poor as poor gets. None of them ever needed the National Guard to step in and end a “Mad Max” reign of chaos.

(Just an aside here.)

(We’ve all read and heard innumerable complaints about how long it took the Guard to get in and start cleaning up. Let’s set aside the physical realities of mobilizing troops or traveling on shattered highways, and just assume for the moment, that oh, say 24 hours before Katrina had hit, George W. Bush had issued the following statement:)

(“My fellow Americans, a category-five hurricane is bearing down on New Orleans. Because of the high likelyhood of looting and violence, and because the local authorities are not competent enough to conduct an evacuation or to adequately shelter those who cannot evacuate, I am sending in the National Guard immediately to preserve order and public safety.”)

(Can you even imagine what the reaction to that statement would have been? But I digress.)

This isn’t fun to say, but it still has to be said. The worst destruction of Katrina was man-made. We can fix broken levees. We can rebuild flooded houses. We can’t, however, fix a broken society as easily.

Louisianans in general and New Orleanians in particular made too many bad choices for too long. They acquiesced to governmental corruption and incompetence with a shrug and the inevitable, “that’s just Louisiana.” They allowed an unfettered criminal class to fester and thrive, until it literally took over the city. They put too much trust in luck and “the great elsewhere,” as local author Chris Rose puts it, to bail them out when things were at their worst.

And so they lived and died with those choices.

Now it’s time for them to choose again. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but what the heck, I’ll speak for myself and we’ll see who agrees.

Here’s the deal, Louisiana. We’re going to help you. We really are. You are our neighbors and our countrymen and our friends, and we love you today as much as we ever did, in spite of and in no small part thanks to all the weirdness and flaws down your way. It’s hard to see it from where you are, but we’re helping you now, in our slow and ponderous way. We’re not going to let it end like this.

But like every deal, this one has two parts, and I’m going to state yours very bluntly: You people are going to have to get your act together. You’re going to have to end a lot of the old ways of doing things. You’re going to have to get serious about corruption. You’re going to have to get serious about crime. You’re going to have to get serious about joining the 21st century economy. You’re going to have to pick up the trash and take care of your yard, and nag your neighbor to take care of his. Yes, all that is going to change you, and we know you don’t like to change, but you can’t go back now.

One thing I can promise you is, you cannot go back to the way things were Before. You have been down that road, and you know exactly where it ends.

* The definitive version of “Choices” was of course recorded by George Jones. The song’s been on my mind since I heard the Driskill Mountain Boys play it at Jazz Fest two weeks ago.


34 Responses to “The Choices They’ve Made”

  1. Ellen Says:

    I’m a resident of coastal Florida and just a couple of years ago spent many months working in Louisiana and New Orleans. I know hurricanes firsthand, and I know the “everyone helps everyone aftermath” we experience here; I have seen and experienced the corruption of Louisiana politics, the ignorance and low expectations of much of the residents of NO and the disgusting greed of its politicians. You’ve nailed it!

  2. Melinda Says:

    Everywhere New Orleans refugees went, the crime rate went up. Meanwhile back in New Orleans, crime went down. How do you figure that?

  3. leah Says:

    How’d those Landrieu’s pay for those fancy, schmancy beach houses they all have? Wonder where all that federal infrastructure maintenance money went years before the hurricane? Wonder which political party’s been in power since Huey Long?

  4. Christopher Says:

    Maybe the MSM can get obsessed with the corruption down there like the Times was obsessed with Hootie and Augusta. Then maybe not.

  5. Don S Says:

    The way I understand it, Washington DC is the ‘crime capital of the US’ only because New Orleans is too small to fit he criteria they used. New Orleans was and probably is the most crime-ridden US city.

    That fact isn’t widely reported probably because of a fear that it would adversely effect tourism.

    So it comes as no surprise that New Orleans fell into chaos whereas other parts of Lousiana and the Gulf Coast did not. Nor does the blocking of one of the bridges out of New Orleans by the police of a neighboring town seem quite so damning as it did. They were also destroyed by the hurricane and didn’t want to import the violence as well.

  6. doctorj Says:

    We in Louisiana are on our own anyway. That has been the lesson I have learned from all of this You cannont depend on local , state, and for all their lofty promises, the federal government. You can depend on your neighbors, church groups and college students on spring break. You have made many valid points but I have one quibble…. What makes you think people have NOT been trying to do just what you speak of? I know I am exhausted from fighting the good fight to reform government. An unbelieveable amount of grass roots activism has come into being in the past nine months.

  7. K Says:

    No matter who won, Bush and the Feds were going to be blamed for the Katrina aftermath.

    If Landrieu won, however, the attention would be entirely on the fed’s “failures” instead of NO’s local stupidity.

    With Nagin in place, it will be just a little harder for folks outside of NO to forget his instumental role in what happened.

  8. someone who isn't a racist asshole Says:

    “You people.” Nice.

  9. American Mother Says:

    Yup, you really need to quit using that word, “people”–and the word is “specist”, not “racist”…

  10. Machiara Says:

    Was it my imagination, or did “you people” = “residents of New Orleans?” What’s the problem with that?

  11. Buck Says:

    someone who isn’t a racist asshole: Your Majic Dekoder Ring is broken. Here. Let me help…

    Y –> L
    O –> O
    U –> U
    P –> I
    E –> S
    O –> I
    P –> A
    L –> N
    E –> A

    What a maroon.

  12. ahem Says:

    What a maroon.

    Sorry, if that’s a simple substitution cipher, then ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘E’ can’t translate to different letters.

    Also, this. At least he didn’t call Nagin ‘boy’. Small mercies.

  13. AST Says:

    If you live below sea level and get flooded, don’t expect everybody else to chip in for rebuilding the same old swamp.

    Nagin has succeeded with the help of the MSM in shifting blame to George Bush. I sent $400 to help. No more.

  14. monkyboy Says:


  15. Californio Says:

    So… when Bugs Bunny used the phrase :”what a maroon!” He was actually making a super semi-secret veiled reference to a fugitive slave from the West Indies. A Ha! J’accuse’! Heh, ahhh! Yep, sure caught those nasty racists! Trying to sneak THAT one by! They can go sulk, like Achilles in his tent! Hey! What are YOU looking at? I bet you are a racist!! (louder) I said, I BET HE IS A RACIST! (snickering) yep, makes ’em embarassed everytime – so they ARE racists, correct?

  16. El Duderino Says:

    New Orleans was and is a cesspool of corruption, crime and municipal malfeasance. People get the government they deserve, New Orleans is no exception. Nagin, Landrieu, Jefferson. Get Gutzon Borglum

  17. doctorj Says:

    This next statement isn’t directed towards you for you have always directed critism in a positive corrective way. BUT..another thing I have learned through this disater is that there are an awful lot of judgemental , cruel, creepy people that spout out their opinions without a clue of the local condition. For all the problems New Orleans is facing, we are united in our love of the city and the love of its citizens. It is a unique, beautiful culture and if middle America doesn’t “get it” that is their loss. And , guess what El Dude, your tax dollars ARE coming to our aid without your approval, because when all is said and done, a majority of Americans have a good heart, not a selfish one.

  18. Steve T. Says:

    You’re right, Doctorj, and the generosity of Americans all over has been a great blessing here. But there is the dictum of Lazarus Long that one should avoid appealing to a man’s better nature because he may not have one. Self interest gives you more leverage. There are plenty of self-interest reasons why the most hard-hearted American should support the rebirth of the city. Here’s two:

    The port issue. Ships don’t load themselves, you can’t run a port without a city to support it, and the Port of New Orleans is one of the most important in the world. Do we really want to cut off Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota from international shipping?

    The you’re next issue. There is no inhabited part of the country that is not subject to its own type of natural disaster. The next time a killer quake hits San Francisco or L.A., do we really want a precendent in place that says, sorry chumps, you’re on your own? After all, they’ve known for a century they were sitting on top of earthquake faults. Why didn’t they move?

  19. Sandy P Says:

    As it is, I do think NOLA made the correct decision. Nagin was trying to fix it, the Landrieus are 1 of the families that messed it up bad – and Landrieu went down even tho the DNC was involved. I wonder what this says about Mary’s re-election chances?

    Well, that and it’s froggie influence.

    After 300 years, we may finally be able to put and American gloss on NOLA. And it’ll improve.

  20. Eric Says:

    Steve T-

    Re: the port. Galveston was the main port of Texas until being destroyed in the 1900 hurricane. Port operations migrated up the bay to Houston over time.

    There’s no reason a free market won’t drive the port operations to Baton Rouge or Laplace over time. It makes economic sense to get them away from the potential storm surge.

  21. BeachBum Says:

    LA doesen’t have a total collapse every time a portion of the City goes beserk. And when the ’94 quake damaged the place badly, the govenor bid key freeway repair jobs private companies-that got them fixed in 20% of the time estimated by the govt thumb twiddlers. The mayor didn’t flee to Houston. People went to work. The LAPD worked overtime not undertime. Even illegals were out working, not fleeing to nearby towns. In New Orleans, the whole city seems to feel their lives are someone else’s responsibility.

  22. surf-actant Says:

    To: someone who isn’t a racist asshole
    From: surf

    re: you’re a fucking dunce

    “you people” means me too, a white middle class Armed Forces Service Member currently stationed in NOLA. Jesus Christ, get some fucking sense of proportion. After all, it was Nagin’s campaign that ran with the billboard/placard slogan of “Re-Elect…OUR MAYOR…Ray Nagin.” Would have been more subtle to just run over people with those buses he never sent.

    I appreciate your love of NOLA, and by all means, pls contiue with your efforts. But until those with real power, the people living in the Garden District, Metairie and out at English Turn, you know, the only three places in all of greater NOLA with even passable roads and a glaring dearth of litter everywhere, decide that things must change, NOLA will continue to be the place that everyone else in America feels they can come to for a weekend to perform acts in public that they would be too mortified to perform in private in their own hometowns. The culture of NOLA must change, along the lines of Savannah, GA and Chrleston, SC, otherwise, there is no hope.

  23. Bill Says:

    Perhaps I’m being a bit cynical here, but I’m not entirely convinced that the sort of governmental malfeasance that we’ve witnessed here is per se specific to NOLA or Louisianna. Specifically, I’m inclined to venture that if a similar natural disaster were to befall,say, New Jersey, the results would not be terribly different. The bottom line is that corrupt one-party rule leads to certain results.

  24. Ken Says:

    Let’s not get too overzealous here.

    A lot of the tales of savagery and violence in the aftermath of the storm turned out to be complete bullshit.

  25. roux Says:

    I think NOLA made the right decision as per Nagin. Mitch Landrieu is a insider’s insider and Pre-K Nagin was a reformer. All the corrupt politicians hated him.

    Most of New Orleans was in deep trouble before, all the storm did was expose it for all to see. Orleans parish had the worst 50 schools in a state that was ranked 49th.

    I’m near Baton Rouge and was in New Orleans Sunday. It’s getting better but not as quickly as I’d like. There are some parts of the city that will never come back. Now that the election is behind them, those decisions can be made.

  26. CSM "BigBird" Says:

    Hey Folks,

    I am a Battalion Command Sergeant Major from Mobile, AL. After swimming through neighborhoods here in south Mobile county all day during “Katrina”, I went home, patched my own roof, and my boss and I were in Belle Chase on Friday. That’s four days after the storm. My Battalion 300+ soldiers, all from a Storm damaged area, were “At work” in LA, on Saturday. Just what is the “Slow response?”

    But the real question is, look at the damage to South MS, and after looking at it, Why is there no screaming, crying, bitching from South Mississippi. They got beat just as hard or harder than NO.

  27. doctorj Says:

    Thank you for your help. And the reason you were not hearing from MS is they were not getting the media’s attention. When they were moaning, that is what they were moaning about. My mother lives in Pass Christian, MS right off the beach and believe me , they have PLENTY to be “bitching” about. I was there this last weekend for Mother’s Day and it is totally depressing.

  28. JD Says:

    BigBird – perhaps the reason you didn’t hear such screaming and bitching from SoMS is that the better part of Hancock County was scrubbed clean from the earth, and the debris deposited in Harrison and Pearl River. The only thing the people in Waveland and its environs could do is shrug their shoulders and get to work.

  29. cliff Says:

    To: “Posted by someone who isn’t a racist asshole”
    From: Cliff

    Like Roux, I live north of New Orleans (in Baton Rouge). I was born in New Orleans, and my wife and I were raised in Lakeview. Both our parents lost their homes to the flooding. We are down there most every weekend, cleaning out houses, and we have been at it since last September.

    That said, I, and my parents and in-laws, qualifty as “you people”. We are white. And the people who we helped in Baton Rouge who had escaped the flooding – nearly all black – well, they are “you people”, too. But to me, they are “my people” as much as anyone, and I am “their people”. I have more in common with a brother from the Lower Nine than I do with the likes of you. You, sir/madam, clearly do not understand New Orleans, and what it means to be from there. THerefore, I would appreciate it if “you people” keep your ignorant comments to yourself.

    That said, here is my $.02 on the Mayor’s race: Nagain represented the failures of the immediate past, Landrieu the failures of the past generation. Not an appealing choice. If I had to choose (and thankfully, I didn’t) I’d have gone with Nagan. Baffoon? Maybe. But he is (still) an outsider, and he really has nowhere else to go but up. He is so underestimated that he may just have a chance. Landrieu is the return to dynastic Democratic politics of the Marc Morial/William Jefferson cabal. Not the ones I want in control of a couple of billion in taxpayer dollars.

  30. Cybrludite Says:


    Actually, there’s market forces that are likely to keep the port right here. As it is, it’s 8 hours from the mouth of the river to the city. A move up to Red Stick will only make that worse. You want to pay for an extra shift of river pilots on everything shipped downriver. If the port shifts anywhere, it’ll be to Morgan City, and then because the same folks who built our levees also built the Old River Control Structure…

  31. Steve T. Says:

    Besides, the Galveston hurricane happened in 1900, when modern patterns of shipping, by sea and land, were just beginning to take shape. The vast infrastucture that supports a port was just being built, like the roads and railways to move freight in and out. It was a lot easier to move the shipping locus from Galveston to Houston at that time then it would be to move it from New Orleans to anywhere today.

  32. Rhonda Says:

    Right on Cliff – from a white chick in Slidell who just got to move back into her house post-Katrina from a tree through the roof.

  33. dick Says:

    I can understand that the residents of Louisiana and New Orleans might take offense at outsiders telling them what to do. The problem is that the outsiders were not there before and we see what the people of New Orleans and Louisiana did with all the money to fix the levees. We see that happened to all the fine storm emergency plans. We see all the crime that the residents of NOLA have committed in the cities that have put them up and supported them since Katrina.

    Now it is time to fix it all up. The people of Louisiana expect the rest of the country to pony up the money again but they don’t want the controls in place to see that it gets done right this time. Why not? Seems that when the money went there the first time it all disappeared into the political connections and other payoffs. We should come up with the money and see it happen all over again?

    BTW I would say the same thing about the Big Dig in Massachusetts. That is just as bad and the political payoffs and rakeoffs there are not that different from normal political processes in Louisiana.

  34. Cybrludite Says:


    As I mentioned in another comment thread here, part of the reason for slow progress here is all those controls are gumming up the works and keeping the money from being spent at all. And not just anti-corruption controls, either. We were left with a pile of debris that was about 10 times the amount of trash hauled off from the city in 2004, and the EPA is insisting on dotting every “I” and crossing every “T” before the pile of moldy lumber you used to call home can be hauled off to clear your lot for rebuilding. Folks who haven’t seen the damage in person just have no concept. To put it into more familiar terms, a one megaton thermonuclear airbust over NASA’s Michoud facility would have done less damage to the city. Does that perhaps give you a sense of scale?

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