Sucker Punched

Submitted: Dec 09, 2005

Letters from the River, 2

Gary McMillen

Enough Doppler radar. It was Saturday afternoon when I drove out to Lake Pontchartrain to gather my thoughts and make a decision. Sitting on the seawall, listening to the splash of waves on the concrete steps, I noticed there were no seagulls. That's when I decided to evacuate. If the birds didn't want to be in New Orleans, I sure as hell didn't want to stay, either.

I soon became part of the human wave, looking for hotel rooms at any exit off Interstate 10. Standing in lobbies for hours, getting on a list to take a shower, chasing after rumors of vacancies and shelter, I began to accept that "normal" was something that did not exist anymore. On the outskirts of Lafayette a Vietnamese fishing family took me in. For three days and nights, we ate boiled crabs spread out on newspaper on the floor, drank beer, and watched the destruction of an American city unfold on CNN. Sleep was fitful. My son had promised he was evacuating to Atlanta, but I had not heard from him.

Excuse me for rambling, but in the days and weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thinking is a dull throb. The blurring effects of the storm's sucker punch have me wobbly. The rational mind, numb from the frantic pace of dislocation, avoids thinking of what was left behind: a home that got nine feet of water, books, business records, laptop computer, a samurai sword, music, and tapes. Levees can be repaired but not that photograph of my dad fly-fishing in a trout stream in California.

"Goodbye" to e-mail. "Hello" to life of the wandering gypsy. I live at the Best Western in Shreveport now. I eat biscuits, smoked sausage, and white gravy at the breakfast buffet before going to work. One morning, at the entrance to the Louisiana State University Medical Center there was a cardboard box at the door with a sign: "For Victims of Hurricane Katrina." I hate the word "victim," but went up and peeked in the box. At the bottom were a pack of diapers and a tube of toothpaste. I looked in both directions to see if anyone was watching and snatched up the Colgate. I am the first in the McMillen-Gallagher clan of Scots and Irishmen to have applied for food stamps.

In the midst of crisis, I have learned there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who tell you that they have an extra room off the garage where you can stay for the weekend, and then there are people who throw you the keys to their house. There are people who bring you boxes of clothes that don't fit, and then there are people who ask for your waist size. There are people waiting for me to call them, and then there are people like New York trainer Danny Peitz, who kept punching my number into his cell phone until he reached me.

I'm drinking much more than usual: Old Forester, straight up, no ice. I have observed my state of mind and it's not all pretty. The dry wit, the smile, the appreciation for jokes and just plain silliness have dissolved. Pounded by the stress of uncertainty, I have turned into Joe Friday. "Yes," "No," "OK" are standard expressions from my new robotic personality.

My son and I found each other. That was a celebration with relief. But there is a long list of big and little things that I miss and am concerned about losing. I had some horses on my Virtual Stable. I imagine them all winning and paying $36.40. I wonder if I had flood insurance. I wonder if the Fair Grounds is still there. I miss my Q-tip moment after taking a shower. I'm still puzzled about why I threw my golf clubs in the trunk of the car instead of some socks and a comb. Here I am with one pair of sandals, some jogging shorts, three shirts, two pair of underwear and a 7-iron. If you want to go deep, what I am really afraid of is losing contact and not seeing my friends again.

If anyone from Enterprise reads this, I still have your rental car. It's a 2005 Ford Taurus, assigned to my Visa card and scheduled for return on Aug. 29. Bringing it back to New Orleans would have been a mistake for both of us. I think the Super Derby (gr. II) is coming up soon at Louisiana Downs. Maybe I'll hit the trifecta and we can settle up when I get back.

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On the road

Submitted: Dec 09, 2005

Letters from the River, 1

by Gary McMillen

Last night we had our LSU Human Resources Christmas party in the lounge of the hotel.

Pure coincidence but the owner (and his wife) of the Best Western Richmond Suites chose last night to drop by and inspect the property. They opened the door to the lounge and stood in amazement.

Tamara walked up, introduced herself and gave them a plate of fried chicken, a bowl of gumbo and bought them a drink.

Pam and Valencia had fixed delicious Swedish meatballs, jambalaya and two types of chicken in addition to finger sandwiches for 100.

The cash bar set a single night record for sales.

Nancy, the manager of Best Western, walked around, mingling with the crowd, shaking her head, calling the night an "epic."

It was freezing cold but about 20 Human Resources and Payroll staff from Shreveport Medical Center came. Along with any and all hotel guests that showed up, it was hard to find a place to sit. We turned off the wide-screen plasma television and played CD's of The Iguanas, Ernie K-Doe and Professor Longhair.

A group of engineers from Iowa and Minnesota (in town to repair pumps from the hurricane) could not believe what they were seeing. "Man, did we come to the right hotel," one of them said, scooping up his second plate of dirty rice and sausage.

Most of the evening Frankie Lee sat by the fireplace, drinking straight shots of Jose Cuerva, talking to Christy the bar-maid about her modeling career and just telling all manner of lies into the night.

Gary McMillen, my oldest friend (we met at Lincoln School, Modesto, in the 5th grade), is currently working for a state agency personnel office in Shreveport and Baton Rouge, sorting out problems for thousands of employees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He lost a house in the 9th Ward and an apartment in another section of New Orleans. He has been writing about horse races in the South for 30 years.

He told me today, about this party: "You can take Gary out of New Orleans, but you can't take New Orleans out of Gary."

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Where is it written?

Submitted: Nov 27, 2005

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's lawyers filed a legal brief last week that argues that the drastically crashing population of Delta Smelt cannot be used as an argument for curtailing water shipments from the Delta to LA. The Delta Smelt, they say, is not under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act because it only lives in one state. (1)

Perhaps California's Endangered Species Act will protect the smelt. However, Metropolitan's brief brings up a far more important issue.

But, first, already slipping beyond the living memory of Californians is the Colorado River Agreement in the first Bush term. Bush appointed a Colorado attorney general, Gale Norton, secretary of the Department of Interior. Norton brought with her Colorado's top water attorney, Bennett Raley. Raley's assistant, Californian Jason Peltier, was executive director of the Association for California Water Agencies. The result of the negotiations on the Colorado was that the upstream states would keep more and Southern California would get less. Since then, Metropolitan has been buying water contracts wherever it could in Northern California and the last three years of pumping out of the Delta have been the heaviest in history and have contributed greatly to the "sudden" collapse of the federally endangered Delta Smelt populations.

This water war was inevitable, but Metropolitan's argument raises an interesting question. This species of smelt is limited to the Delta. The Delta is its home. It has no other. Its home is being destroyed by Southern California water agencies 400 miles away, which are providing water for a growing population of people, many of them who have moved from far away to Southern California.

Let us speak the unspeakable. The smelt cannot move. The people can move and, in many cases, have moved to Southern California, a desert region without enough local water supplies to support a tiny percentage of its present human poplation.

Why can't the people move away from Southern California to avoid extinguishing this species of fish and once again damaging the salmon populations, which cannot spawn in LA storm drains any more than Delta smelt can migrate to Beverly Hills swimming pools.

People can move. They have demonstrated their ability to do it, time and time again. Wildlife species have a harder time relocating.

"Where is it written?" ask the brilliant Metropolitan water attorneys. "Where is it written" that a species specific only to one state can be covered by the federal ESA?

To such a sophisticated and expensive rhetorical question, one might reply with another: Where is it written that Southern California has the right to seize Delta water, gravely endangering one or more species of fish, because it has insanely fomented growth in its arid region so far beyond the carrying capacity of its resources that the word "carrying capacity" uttered aloud in Metropolitan lawyers' tennis clubs might be cause for suspension or revocation of membership?

Other questions arise. Humanity, of course, asserts the right to dominate lesser species. It doesn't have to be written down. But it gets trickier when the south exerts its domination over the north in our state water wars, because the south has a larger population and therefore more political representation. Then there is a good question for academics with the resources for such studies: a team of University of California professors ought to try to come up with an approximate figure of how many millions of dollars are spent annually by developers, water agencies, local, state and federal government agencies (including UC) on propaganda, lobbying and lawyers to defeat environmental laws and regulations. A publicly financed institution like UC ought to be the ideal site for such a study in view of the amount of money public agencies like UC spend to fight environmental law and regulation.

Bill Hatch

(1) http://www.sacbee.com/content/opinion/story/13895995p-14734826c.html

Editorial: LA's new water theory; Lawsuit: Feds can't protect Delta smelt
Sacramento Bee – 11/23/05

For years the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has tried to assure a skittish north that it isn't looking to harm the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Sure, it wanted water for its 17 million customers, but in a safe, reliable way.

The Delta these days is in an environmental free fall, its fish species crashing to record low numbers. And as this is happening, Metropolitan and other water districts are advancing a legal theory in court that the federal Endangered Species Act does not apply. For Southern California to attack a key environmental law during the Delta's worst environmental crisis is hardball that harkens back to water tactics of yesteryear.

Why wouldn't federal law pertain to the Delta smelt, a listed species meriting protection?

The smelt, according to a legal brief filed by Metropolitan and all of the State Water Project contractors, "have no apparent role in interstate commerce." And the smelt don't swim between two states. Its habitat, the brief continues, "is located entirely within the state of California." Therefore in this lawsuit, Metropolitan and fellow water pumpers "intend to raise the issue of whether the Endangered Species Act can properly be applied to regulate and protect purely intrastate species."

The theory may ring some bells. It came up during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.

He had once opined in a case that a "hapless toad" isn't protected by the federal Commerce Clause because the toad, "for reasons of its own, lives its entire life in California." Roberts is now chief justice of the Supreme Court. Whether this hapless toad, or the Delta's hapless smelt, are truly protected under the federal Endangered Species Act remains to be seen.

To protect the smelt and migrating salmon, state and federal agencies for years have curtailed pumping from the Delta during certain times. The same agencies are looking to pump more water at other times, resulting in a net increase in pumping. The Natural Resources Defense Council is suing the federal government over the new pumping strategy (NRDC v. Norton, Case No. C 05-00690 CW). Southern California makes its "hapless smelt" argument, among others, in this case.

Fortunately, California has a state Endangered Species Act. It protects the Delta smelt. But any law is subject to change, either through a decision by courts or legislators.

For Southern California to try to whittle away at Delta protections is an extraordinary action. But Metropolitan staff says its board was never consulted beforehand about advancing the new "hapless smelt" legal strategy. Wow. Who's in charge down there?

To find balanced, lasting solutions in the Delta, the state desperately needs Metropolitan to reduce its dependency on this estuary and to play a centrist role between the hard-line positions of agriculture and the environmental community.

The behavior of Metropolitan in this lawsuit, by seeking to undermine federal protections of the Delta, is radical, reprehensible and revealing. #

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Border canal seepage

Submitted: Nov 18, 2005

The US/Mexican border is a place generally despised by the interiors of both nations. The general idea is that the border is to be exploited for whatever you can get out of it.

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