Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Friday, December 9, 2016

Deep in late summer, cicadas still sing in the dark, but they won’t be here for long. It’s the ripe season my Wisconsin grandmothers spent canning. Coloring city gardens, zinnias and cosmos are going strong, but gold black-eyed Susans are fading, some with only black eyes left.

Congress stays away till after Labor Day, so it’s blessedly quiet. Except for one thing. August’s waning days bring more than an ordinary wistful sigh as we say so long to summer. A cup of memory travels south.

Ten years ago, this last stretch of August was the calm before an unimaginable storm laid bare a beguiling city and a feckless president, overnight.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans hard on Aug. 30, 2005, her fury breaking the city’s levees. George W. Bush’s presidency shattered in the wake when he cavalierly flew over the drowned city and dipped a wing of Air Force One. He was on his way to Washington, I guess, and had better things to do.

Just like that late August day in 2001, when Bush blew off his CIA briefer who told him about the terrorist plot involving American planes. The September 11 attacks were closing in, days away. He got a pass.

Frankly, my dear, Bush was gone with the wind and water in 2005. Any faith left in the Iraq War he started in 2003 collapsed. It’s a usually long way from New Orleans to Baghdad, but not on that late summer day.

The public suddenly connected the dots between the government failing at home and failing abroad. Just like that. The American people, who like to like their presidents, saw clearly how shallow the Bush White House was, come high water.

The hurricane, followed by the Biblical flood, was an utterly unforgettable event, which caused a large American city to be evacuated for the first time; which caused some to drown in their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward; which caused human misery and lawlessness in the Superdome. These were the city’s underclass, blacks who did not have the resources to escape. Many never got home again.

The gale force of Katrina kept us bewildered at our screens, wondering if we had the right country. What was happening did not equal our notions about, you know, American can-do and capability. Where were the Marines and the Army Corps of Engineers? Not on CNN.

Where was the president’s spiffy Homeland Security department, founded after 9/11? Surely not that clownish man, Michael D. Brown (“Brownie” to a jocular Bush). A sense of haplessness governed the scene.

A forthcoming book, Shots on the Bridge, by Ronnie Greene, tells a tale of police brutality toward unarmed civilians after the hurricane hit. To the public eye, very little was being done to aid distressed people in a disaster.

Where was the President of the United States? Years later, Bush admitted his unserious response was “a huge mistake.”

By the way, weren’t we the country that wrote the book on emergency preparedness? Yes, the term dates back to Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. And wasn’t that where General Andrew Jackson whipped the British in the Battle of New Orleans 200 years ago in 1815? That’s the America we like to think is still around.

The Crescent City with a song in its heart, a lark for love, a laugh ’round every corner in the enchanting French Quarter. Yes, that city broke our hearts 10 years ago. The city with the winding Mississippi River, which you can watch roll by with Cafe du Monde beignets, chicory coffee and charming company and conversation any time of day or night. Fancy-free, the city’s not meant for crying. It’s supposed to bend, not break with tragedy.

Bard Bob Dylan was inspired by the poetry in the air he found here: “Everything about New Orleans is a good idea.” Oh, yes, Bob. And one more cup of chicory coffee before I go.

As summer surrenders to fall, few will forget seeing a beguiling city drown in the rising sun.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com

Photo: Neighborhood cleanup effort along Bayou St. John creates a trash art piece out of some of the junk to be hauled away. “Bush Mobile” is a negative reference to then-president George W. Bush. Via user Infrogmation, Wikimedia Commons, uploaded January 29, 2006.