NOLA1Earlier this week, Bwog daily editor Jessica Cohen spoke with Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History at Tulane and official historian for CBS News. The
New York Times recently named his book recounting the short-term aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, The Great Deluge, one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year.  Over spring break, Cohen and 38 other Columbia students worked for the Common Ground Collective, gutting homes and weeding abandoned land plots in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Bwog: How effective do you think the volunteers for Common Ground have been in their efforts thus far?

Brinkley: I can’t praise Common Ground enough. When the government abandoned the Lower Ninth Ward, Common Ground stood up and became a great organizing enterprise, a real galvanizing vortex of the rebuilding effort.  It’s the best of what faith-based groups and college students and caring citizens can do in the sense of physically picking up debris, gutting houses, trying to help residents reestablish a life in their neighborhood. So out of all the organizations I’ve seen operating in New Orleans I think that Common Ground deserves the most pats on the back.

B: I think that many of us felt that a lot of the physical work we were doing wouldn’t be fruitful in the long run. We felt that the government may still bulldoze houses that we gutted or repossess lands that we cleared.

DB: It could be a lost cause, individuals and groups like Common Ground can only do so much. The Lower Ninth is below sea level, it has faulty levees built around it and there’s been no commitment to properly rebuild the neighborhood with electricity, water —  basic amenities for survival in America. You may have very well been on a fool’s errand if the neighborhood can’t get back, but by you coming there and saying “we care,” the message to people is that we’re going to reclaim this neighborhood, house by house, block by block. And that’s all you can do, we’re not miracle-makers. The main thing to do is keep some attention focused on it – to remind people there’s something worth saving.

NOLA2B: Are you familiar with new ordinances placed on houses saying that if residents’ lands aren’t cleared in 30 days they will be repossessed?

DB: Yes. There’s a lot of disingenuous politics going on. On the one hand, the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, tells people to come back, and on the other they don’t provide any services. But there will be a renewed consciousness; there are a lot of people starting to gear up now who will embarrass government officials for their policies.

B: Do you think there’s any hope of a Marshall Plan-like package for the region at this point?

DB: Well, not yet. The Bush administration has been terribly delinquent in abandoning poor neighborhoods. The only hope is that this gets to be front and center in the presidential campaign and there are efforts to have a major presidential debate in New Orleans. And every little bit that we can do is a ripple. We’ve just got to keep reminding people because the media has a short attention span. They’ll gear up again for the second anniversary and come down here.  This time, we’ve got to have the stories ready to show them what’s really going on and trigger new interest. People have gotten Katrina-ed out.  Everybody must re-energize their batteries and push forwards.

NOLA3B: When we were down there, a native of New Orleans told us that we may think we’re cleaning up after the Hurricane, but this is really Katrina, right now. We’re living through the storm.

DB: That’s exactly right. We’re in the middle of it.