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Uneasy laughs in NOLA

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A t-shirt sold in New Orleans. Photo by Sarah Cameron

A t-shirt sold in New Orleans. Photo by Sarah Cameron
Uneasy laughs in NOLA

New Orleans souvenir T-shirts have taken on a humorous twist. The sayings are amusing and shocking, but do they unwittingly excuse the Federal Emergency Management Agency?

NEW ORLEANS — When I first walked through the miles of French Quarter stores hawking Mardi Gras masks and “I got bourbon-faced on shit street” shirts, I was a little taken aback by one design which read “I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was gone.”

There were two gut reactions: first off, I didn’t want to have “American Pie” stuck in my head, never mind the fact that Don McLean isn’t particularly representative of those New Orleans sounds. Secondly, is it improper to laugh at tourist humor about a huge fatal disaster?

These questions got swept aside as bemusement set in. Proudly on display in many stores was a collection ofFEMA-based tacky tourist humor: shirts and bags adorned with slogans such as “FEMA Evacuation Plan: Run Bitch, Run!” and “FEMA: Find Every Mexican Available.”

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an organization that as a foreigner I hadn’t heard of until Hurricane Katrina hit, was now a joke. Literally.

Of course, FEMA does a fine job of making a joke of itself without the help of stencil-happy screen-printers. It wasnever so much that FEMA considered themselves a joke, more that the White House, and in turn the agency, couldn’t quite manage to take emergency management seriously.

FEMA’s carry-on-esque catastrophes under Bush have been well documented. In 2003 President Bush nominated Michael Brown, the former head of the International Arabian Horse Association, as the new Director of FEMA to oversee its diminishing budget and transition from an agency of “preparedness and recovery” to one of “response and recovery.” In September of 2005, Brown quit, though Bush famously thought he’d done a “heckuva job” in Hurricane response.

Then came the downright farcical. FEMA had cleaned up its act a little when fi res broke out across Southern California in October of 2007, but they thwarted their own good work when, in the middle of a front-page news story, they faked a press conference. I mean, really.

On February 20 of this year, FEMA published an 18-page “preparedness” document for the eventuality that a spy satellite might fall to Earth—perhaps they were attempting to divert attention from the Homeland Security report published February 21 that found that FEMA misdirected $13 million of hurricane relief funds in 2004 and 2005. For the record, it’s generally accepted that if a satellite is to come crashing to Earth, it will burn up in the atmosphere long before it lands on your local Dunkin’ Donuts.

But back to the shirts. It is in many respects thoroughly understandable that FEMA has become tourist humor. In New Orleans FEMA is legendary for its failings, and “FEMA Evacuation Plan: Run Bitch, Run” is a lot easier to swallow than “FEMA and Army Corps ineptitude, complacence and neglect killed 2000 of my neighbors.” Nonchalant humor sits far better with the mind-set of the Big Easy, and laughing at one’s disaster is another way to reassure tourists that it’s safe to come back,that we still know how to have a good time down here. Come, get bourbon-faced on shit street.

But there’s something ominous under this attitude. The humor serves the residents and the tourists, sure, but perhaps it also risks serving FEMA and the present administration? We can laugh at FEMA, but someone’s got to take them seriously, right? There are five months left until hurricane season. Who is more prepared, FEMA or the screen-printer?

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