By now everyone has heard what Mr. Nagin said to 60 Minutes reporter, Byron Pitts. If you haven’t, I’ll repeat it. Byron Pitts confronted him about how he’s taking too long to clean up after Hurricane Katrina. To which Nagin replied, “You guys in New York can’t get a hole in the ground fixed and it’s five years later. So let’s be fair.”
I wasn’t particularly offended by his comment. I still don’t take any great offense to what he said. I thought it was a copout answer, but I didn’t take offense. As far as I’m concerned our political leaders should not waste time dodging questions by comparing tragedies. But he is right; we do still have a hole in the ground.
I used to think of the World Trade Center as a King on the chessboard called Manhattan. I knew that if I positioned myself just so using the Empire State Building as my Queen, I’d know exactly which way I had to move. After the towers fell, I found myself lost in more ways than just one. Sure, I was lost emotionally, busy simmering my thoughts in booze, but I was lost physically, too. There were numerous times I would pop out of the ACE line or the 4/5/6 and feel totally disoriented about which way to go. Lost.
As ugly as those buildings may have been, they graciously stood above all else in Manhattan, two beacons letting me know exactly where I had come from and where I needed to go. When they were gone, I had to figure it out on my own. (Granted, this technique fell apart if I found myself above 36th street, but who is ever really above 36th street? I kid. I am above there right now.)
The entire downtown area was in shambles. The piles of debris, the ash, the endless reams of paperwork, the trash, the metal scraps, the rock, the dirt, the sand, the merchandise, the human remains, all of it stood there looming. And while I don’t have a firm grasp on my thought process or memory bank from back then, there were a few poignant thoughts that managed to slip through. For example, I specifically remember thinking, “There is NO way they will ever get this cleaned up. No way at all.” It was devastating seeing that massive pile. Devastating. Businesses closed. People were forced out of their apartments, some never got to go back. I thought that area was done for. I really thought that. Done for.
And then sometime very soon after that day, (I want to say the very next day, September 12, but that time is admittedly a bit foggy for me) they began to bring the flatbeds out and the dump trucks, the emergency vehicles, and the tents. They shut down the West Side Highway so the trucks had easy access, taking debris to and from, back and forth, to and from. For me, seeing the forest for the trees was a downright impossible feat. I probably would have given up. But the volunteers and the city workers, they just kept on going. They just kept on cleaning.
Volunteers brought them food, supplies, hugs, and genuine smiles. The Red Cross made sure everyone was properly cared for both medically and emotionally. And then one day, not too long after I decided all was hopeless, the area was an actual area again. There was no longer a mountain of remains. It was turning into downtown Manhattan again. And that’s when I took away another thought, “I can see new ground.”
I have not seen New Orleans firsthand. My judgment rode in on a pile of photographs. I have seen images taken within the past few months that amaze me and I have thought several times, “How are things still that messed up down there? Why isn’t that city cleaned up yet?”
Now, I realize that New Orleans and the size of its devastation far exceed the area of Ground Zero. And I also realize that the powers that be can’t seem to get their ego out of the way long enough to let construction begin at our hole in the ground. Most of us are ready for anew. Most of us are sick of hearing everyone bicker about what should be there. We’re just looking for a something, a new chapter, and preferably one that begins peacefully.
Our hole in the ground used to be a mountain, a mountain so tall and daunting I spent most of my time trying not to think about it, let alone actually face it. Thankfully, for every New Yorker, the pieces were removed one by one at a most gracious and careful speed. Mourning no longer had to face a mountain of death, instead it faced fresh, rich earth. Sure, my South Star was gone but so was that horrible heap of a reminder.
So, Mr. Nagin, I know we still have a hole in the ground. Everyone here knows that. But our hole in the ground is at the very least a hole, not a rotting house, or an empty, shattered storefront. Our hole isn’t a wooden cross, nailed together with pieces from a dead man’s house. And I realize, Mr. Nagin, that you apologized for what you said and that you “meant no disrespect”. I’m not upset with you at all because what you said is indeed true. And while you may owe the people of New Orleans an apology for not having an answer to the question you were asked, I don’t think you owe us one. Don’t be ashamed for what you said. I’m not ashamed of our hole in the ground, either.
Clean up New Orleans, Mr. Nagin. Make our Federal Government help you. You don’t have to rebuild it. You can take five, six, ten years to do that if you need to. We’ll be fair.