Several months ago I had the opportunity of a lifetime to not just watch the news but to be a part of it, marching with Jesse Jackson and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans.
My friend Nina Rawls, the widow of jazz singer Lou Rawls, asked if I would accompany her to New Orleans to meet with various government officials, clergy members and relief organizations on behalf of the Lou Rawls Foundation and assess the progress of reconstruction following Hurricane Katrina.
I had been to the Big Easy once before and could not resist the magical call of the South. The music and spirit, the architecture, the food, and so much more makes it a city like no other, and post-Katrina, the courage and dedication of the people are what's keeping it together.
I saw so many things and heard so many different stories on this trip that I still can't understand. I continually ask myself, and we must continue to ask our government officials: Why has only 67.6 percent of the population returned, and why has only 36.5 percent of St. Bernard Parish returned? Why have only five of nine acute care hospitals re-opened in Orleans Parish? Why is this romantic and historic city still overrun with crime?
I toured the whole city. I walked with Jackson, Rawls, Nagin, Clarice Kirkland from the mayor's office, Bishop Marshal, and Councilman Oliver Thomas to where the first levy broke in the Lower 9th Ward (which by the way, isn't that low.)
I saw the remains of devastation the likes of which I have never seen. I could feel pain and compassion in my heart for the souls of those who had spent, then lost, their lives there. I passed a sad parade of signs that read, "Thou shall not kill": What insanity and negativity has become a normal part of every day for many people in New Orleans.
Hollywood Steps Up
Don't think for one moment this is a problem for "the poor blacks."
Disaster, water, destruction are equal opportunity attackers that don't hurt, kill and destroy based on race or any pre-judgments other than where you are. So where is all the relief money that Hollywood heavyweights and major corporations donated? Where is the money millions of Americans donated to their brothers and sisters? And where's the government aid, where's FEMA's contribution?
I just didn't see the results of it anywhere. And worse, where is the solution? It's been two years since Katrina struck later and there are only weeds growing where houses should be surrounding families living and enjoying their lives. Imagine losing all of your prized possessions -- photos, clothes, electronics, furniture, cars -- and worst of all, loved ones. It is truly incomprehensible, at this time in this country, how generations of families have been separated and torn from their roots and are still unable to return.
When apocalyptic disaster strikes, there is no place like Hollywood to reach out to for understanding and support. It was and still is heartwarming that so many celebrities and power players of the entertainment business stepped up with an abundance of talent, money and creative thinking to help bring aid and resources to the downtrodden region.
But where is the help from President Bush and his good ol' boy brigade? If patience is a virtue, many of these communities would be canonized for sainthood. The excessive red tape and time it has taken for rebuilding to occur is pathetic and should be embarrassing for our government. We are spending millions to destroy Iraq in the name of democracy and yet the government has failed to rejuvenate, regrow and rebuild our own economically and geographically devastated homeland.
But have no fear Louisiana, Hollywood is here. Movie production is turning Louisiana into the tinsel town of the South. Denzel Washington's thriller "Déjà Vu" was one of the first films to shoot after Katrina and many more movies are following, taking advantage of the incentives being offered to shoot in Louisiana.
Jessica Simpson and Vivica Fox just finished shooting "Major Movie Star" in Shreveport. Last spring, Monique and Joy Bryant shot "The Better Man" in Shreveport as well. When showbiz comes to these small towns it creates a multitude of jobs and boosts the local economy enormously. Hotels and restaurants and many more businesses feel the love when a feature film or television production sets up shop. Over the past two years, the entertainment industry has given the gift and keeps on giving.
Only a few days after Hurricane Katrina, Sean Penn and New Orleans native Harry Connick Jr. descended into the dark murky waters that enveloped the city. They slept on floors as camera crews followed their rescue efforts. Their light illuminated a sad city that will not stay darkened despite the lack of actual assistance from our political lackeys.
It's a sad reflection on our politics and politicians when producers and talent give more to the community than their elected officials. But don't get me wrong -- who do you think benefits from the box office support of the public? So, as impressed and grateful as I am, let's face it, the entertainment industry realizes you have to support the fans that support you.
Where Has the Money Gone?
On many trips to Washington, D.C., I've heard the city referred to as the ugly Hollywood or the less glamorous Hollywood (for a reason.) Surely this government can't be so egotistical and selfish as to not acknowledge the power of the people. Or is our system so clogged by D.C. politicos that we the public have lost our ability to effect change? Are our hard earned dollars of donations destined to do no good?
Where is all the money Hollywood raised? Ellen Degeneres and Warner Bros. entertainment created a hurricane relief fund where the W.B. matched $500,000 of donations. Jay Leno asked his "Tonight Show" guests to autograph his Harley and then auctioned it on E-Bay. Actors like Nicholas Cage, Sandra Bullock, Jim Carrey and Rosie O'Donnell and many more dug deep and gave a million dollars each to the rebuilding efforts. Morgan Freeman created an online auction where actors like John Laroquette donated their artwork.
The entire music industry from country and rap to hip-hop and rock and roll -- and of course, jazz -- really put its money where its mouth is. Rapper Kanye West's mouth spewed some very incendiary comments about President Bush at a New Orleans benefit, saying, "George Bush does not care about black people." While the other 18 celebrity guests such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Lindsay Lohan, Tim McGraw, Mike Meyers and Oscar winner Hillary Swank all united to raise more money and closed the show with a heartfelt rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In," other musical greats like Dave Matthews hosted a benefit concert in Denver, Colo.
Alan Jackson, Keith Urban and Alison Krauss all performed at a Grand Ol Opry benefit and Velvet Revolver played a benefit concert in Orlando, Fla. Other musicians like Celine Dion and the partners of her Las Vegas show also gave a million dollars. The billionaire bling boyz like P. Diddy and Jay-Z also gave a cool million apiece, while music networks like MTV, VH-1 and CMT aired specials with music legends. The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Usher, Alicia Keyes, Sheryl Crow, Kanye West and Green Day all got together to put a little love in our hearts and make this world a better place by raising millions of development dollars. On and on the list goes.
So do the math. Survey the situation, and ask yourself: Where has all this money gone? As we drove past the continuous unrelenting, un-repaired, devastation I couldn't help but wonder what has happened to the countless hard earned millions of dollars people have given in the name of charity and relief, because for far too many displaced people, there still is no relief.
They say that where trouble goes, angels follow. Well at least Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, New Orleans' new additions, have not only taken up residence but have also helped rebuild a better city. Pitt is bringing in the green mentality to put a clean spin on the city's future, geographically and environmentally. He teamed up with the Global Green organization to create a design competition and build eco-friendly and economically friendly housing.
The help has been allocated. Now it has to arrive. Somebody has got to "show me the money" and get a bigger and better dose of results. Looking around this once beautifully haunting city, I was just haunted by the echo of mothers, children, brothers and sisters marching from their past while praying for their future, chanting "Two years too long to wait."