Saturday, March 04, 2006

"It's Our Lives"

"These politicians look at us like it's property. It's not. It's our lives" says Terry Baker whose house is located just across from the 17th Street Canal levee. He spoke to me while he waited with other Lakeview residents for a Congressional delegation to arrive yesterday. "I'll pull the plywood off my door to let them in. I want Congress to come in and see my wedding picture setting on the floor ruined. That was my life. It shouldn't be like this in America."

Terry, a senior buyer for a manufacturing company, approached me as I took notes interviewing another resident. Curious and a bit cautious he asked who who I was with and I explained I wrote for an internet website. Terry strikes me as someone who wouldn't have given a darn to speak to a reporter at any time in the past but it was readily evident he wanted the story of Lakeview to be told now even if it was only to a blogger.

He explained that his home had been appraised at $450,000 pre-Katrina. He got $300,000 from insurance which leaves a $150,000 gap. I asked "what does that mean for you" expecting a lesson in finance and economics from this businessman. Instead he replied as a philosopher, "It means life isn't always fair." Katrina changes people.

There's political change as Terry told me this..... "Oh and by the way I use to vote Republican til a few days ago." He says "Id always been a President Bush fan but he needs to get his butt down here." Angry and disillusioned with all levels of government he said...."The government can kiss my Cajun butt." Residents tell me Lakeview is a Republican stronghold but that may be changing.

Then there is the economic change. Terry says that this area accounts for 40% of New Orlean's tax base but it is going to be lost at this rate if the levees are not fixed. He says doctor and lawyers are leaving. Others are waiting to see what happens. "Who'll give us insurance here? Those levees didn't top. Everyone's waiting for the elevation maps. Nothing will happen before hurricane season. If they fix the levees it will come back." He relates he bought property in Metairie and has no choice but to sit on his property here for now. The NOLA reconstruction plan calls for green spaces in many areas. Terry says "People are naive if they think there will be green space for any amount of time. In 6 months or a year, the developers will be waiting and then they'll buy it all up."

Some things don't change though. With frustration he points down the street to a house in the road, "It's 6 months after Katrina and why is a house sitting in the road?" Then he points to his house..."I got a car next to my house and I don't know whose it is and I'm not paying to have it removed." Terry has left his house as it was when the levee broke. He just stares at it a while and his mood changes as he talks of his children and all the lost posessions that make a house a "home" and that accounts for one's life. I sense he'd like to show them to me but doesn't want to ask too much. I broach it by asking if I could take a picture of his house mindful also that Terry isn't a fan of the many sightseers who drive down his road each day with camera shutters clicking away. He gladly offers to take me in for a tour.

We walk carefully through the debris in his yard to the back door covered with a sheet of plywood. He grabs a hammer and prys it off. Once inside he shows me his home, his life, not his property.

He flips the pages of the ruined photo album to his daughter's picture....

On the counter he points out his sons' baseball mitts....

Family photos still on the wall.....

He goes to the master bedroom ......

This is where he digs out his wedding picture ....the one he wanted to show to Congress.
Today he'll show it to me only though.
He holds it up ......

Of course Terry wants America to see and know what has happened here.

We go outside and as he pounds the plywood back over his door he tells me how the first time back here the "emotions were overwhelming." It was also a frightening place the first time back, as he just escaped being attacked by "3 bloody and mangy dogs." I think he was more disturbed by the possibilty that he was going to have to kill them with the only protection he had with him, a machette from the garage. It didn't come to that.

It may have felt safer later when the National Guard arrived in his area but it was also surreal. Struggling for words he described it. "First time I saw that big military truck with armed soldiers in front.....I...I...I thought here? This is America! And here'd I'd been just the week before grilling out with my kids."

Terry 's property is in ruins. Feeling overlooked and forgotten like most in Lakeview, it is obvious this proud man is working to keep hold of his life as a father, husband, even as an American though everything around him challenges that. And in this shell of a property is the memory of home and how life once was.

"Something" Happening Here.....But just for Congress

I went to Lakeview today. I drove around for 2 hours checking out this upper middle class area of NOLA. I spent time taking photos but also looking for the Congressional delegation which was to tour the area today. I found the place they were to tour which was right by the 17th Street Canal levee at which a major break occurred during Katrina.

I was there almost 2 hours before the Congress folks were scheduled to arrive and I found a cleaning crew getting an area ready for their tour.

There were also a few residents there who were planning to protest for Category 5 levees. They told me they'd not seen a crew there ever before. (I didn't see any such clean up crews as I toured Lakeview) Resident Jimmy Burns told me he asked them why they were cleaning and was told by the crew foreman that "we want to show we're getting something done." I was told Congress was scheduled to arrive at 4:00 and the crew finished their work a little bit after 3:00 and left. I did talk to one member of the crew before they left who said they were "under the Army Corp of Engineers by Phillips and Gordon" (ie contractors)

The residents were angry to say the least. They felt Congress was getting a cleaned up sanitized view that does not represent what they live with each day. I will say this. I got out and walked around quite a bit in Lakeview. You have to watch your step as there is glass, nails, metal and cables. In fact at one point I tripped over a large sheared off power line. While driving I thankfully saw and avoided a 2x4 with nails protruding out. So there is a safety issue. However the residents say they deal with that everyday. Nothing is cleaned up for them. As one said "Let them get in the dirt like we have to."

To illustrate here is a photo that's typical of what I saw in Lakeview (and there's much worse)......

Here's the Lakeview for Congress to walk about....

The crew scooped up all the debris, grated the dirt in the yards and even scraped all the drives and sidewalks clean. Believe me I didn't see any section of Lakeview this clean. The video below shows the crew at work and the end result.

As it got close to 4:00 more residents showed up as well as several local news crews and a few local politicians.....

So the residents were angry as it was, over the levees and the special cleanup, but to make matters worse.....Congress never showed. I was told by a WWLTV cameraman they had just gotten to the Lower 9th ward at about 4:30. So the TV crews hung out a while then left. The residents stayed longer but one by one left as they realized the Congress folks would never get to Lakeview before dark.

In the end a few people got their property cleaned....half a dozen down, Thousands and thousands to go. Perhaps the "plan" for New Orleans ought to be to have Congress "plan" a tour of every home in NOLA. Maybe then job would get done.

UPDATE: Today's Times Picayune reports that the Congress folks did make it to Lakeview late yesterday in the end and drove down the street at which I had been. They never got off the bus......
"Of course, they all come by but they don't stop," she said. "I wish they would have stopped. I would have told them that we were not supposed to flood."

Some of the lawmakers peered out bus windows at a man holding a sign in the air along the street criticizing the Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed the levees. "Get out (of the bus), why don't you," the man shouted as the bus rolled past.
Video of cleaning up for Congress....

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Destruction's Bottom Line

This post has been stirring in my head for weeks. Being here validates what I was beginning to come to realize. I read Athenae's post today with this quote from Brian Williams on Katrina...
"If this does not spark a national discussion on class, race, the environment, oil, Iraq, infrastructure and urban planning, I think we've failed," Williams said last September, speaking by cell phone from the city.

Now that covers lot of issues but I bet many Americans can find enough wiggle room in there to think it really has nothing to do with them personally. And that is what's wrong. Though I'd welcome a discussion of race and poverty, guess what? It's the wrong discussion if you're talking Katrina. There ought to be a discussion though and it does include You.... IF.....
You are white....
You are black....
You are poor....
You are working class....
You are middle class....
You are upper middle class....
You are educated....
You are illiterate....
You are Catholic or Protestant or Muslim....

Because those are the people who have taken the bottom line hit of Katrina's destruction here. It's Everyone here.
And if it can happen to them and it is still very much happening........
It. Can. Happen To. You.

Destruction in the poor black 9th Ward is horrible. But go to white working class St. Bernard's Parish. It's devastated. Go to the white upper middle class area of Lakeview. Those folks are wiped out too. They have more means to come back??? Think about how you would pay the mortgage on your $450,000 home that is nothing more than a pile of debris and also pay rent on an apartment that you now must rent...if you can find one and with no job. (BTW $350 apartments are now going for $1500 where I'm staying here). That's just your own personal hell.... there's more outside your door.

The infrastructure is devastated. And it hits Everyone. It's great to see stop lights...they are few and far between in many areas. Wonder when someone will pick up that pile of garbage outside your home much of which was the inside of your home? No one can tell you. Want a phone? Sorry for many it will be months like 6. Trying to get electricity turned on? Perhaps soon and then perhaps not. You may get mail service.... sometimes. You need to get groceries? Be prepared to drive far and wait in long lines. You have children? It's best to find an out of state relative for them to live with for this school year at least. And whatever you do don't get hurt or sick. A small injury could be a Major problem. Ambulance drivers tell of sitting outside the few "hospitals" caring for people in their rigs cause it's better than what's available inside.

But you say I don't live below sea level in the path of Hurricanes?
2 things......

Terrorist attack (maybe Osama has a notion about Des Moines)
Avian Flu (maybe it Will jump from birds to humans one of these flu seasons)

Every mayor, governor and citizen in America ought to be scared. Because the federal government was not prepared and still is not.
That ought to be our discussion.
And it very much involves you and requires your participation.
Katrina is a Cautionary Tale for all of us which we ought to be forcing the Bush administration to act upon in a myriad of ways. I know that won't happen though. So hope, pray, sprinkle fairy dust in the meantime. And as for our personal wiggle room.....

Well wiggle room the Lower 9th.
Just don't forget the same in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans East, Gentily, Lakeview.....
and on and on and on.........


I'd like you to meet Jose Fernandes a photographer from Portugal who has lived in the New Orleans for years. Jose did not evacuate during Katrina. In the days after Kartina struck Jose moved around the city taking photographs. He spoke of photographing Miss Cecelia a 92 year old black woman whom he met. He recently went back to see how she made out.

Jose not only describes the physical devestation but poignantly tells of the loss of community. And he also speaks eloquently of America and what that means in the context of helping New Orleans. I was struck how this Portuguese man understands the significance more so than many Americans.
The devestation is important because people need to support and realize that know we are the United States of America......We are the United States of America and that means something.
That means that we need to be here for each another. And this was Louisiana's turn to be helped which is beyond our ability to help ourselves......
Watch the rest below.....
[Jose has a website at
He hopes to have his Katrina photos available soon. I hope you check them out.]

Meet Jose.......


I'm back from the Lower 9th.
I'm just going to write.
I have video but not the energy or focus to get it posted now. Later.
Staring through the camera lens spared me for the first miles as I focused on the mechanics of taping.
It just goes on and on and on and on............

And then it hits. I felt my chin tremble and my eyes water up. There are no words to it. Just emotion. Did I want to talk? Words just fail miserably in the sight of this place. I thought "I can't film this anymore." I wanted to tell Lisa "I just can't do it. Stop. I need a break." But I fought through it and kept taping. We passed more and more........
blocks of houses torn apart,
cars upside down,
wheelchair in debris,
the paintings on each house marking the search results,
0's.... good to see the zeros,
a house off it's foundation blocking the road,
dead dog painted on this house, dead cat written on the next,
someones suits hanging in a closet.
On and on and on.............
That feeling got stronger and wouldn't pass. I felt the tears coming down my cheeks now. I wanted to just throw the camera down and to hell with showing this to you guys. I wanted to look away. You can't. It's everywhere. I wanted to close my eyes. I couldn't. I can't give you analysis or perspective or even thoughts. It's just raw fucking emotion and I can't even tell you what emotion....sadness, despair, shame, anger? They're just words. This is beyond words.

I've been back an hour and my chin still trembles and the tears still come. Everyone says you need to decompress after seeing this. I didn't think it would do this to ME. I'm strong. I'm tough. Jesus how fucking wrong was I. How do you decompress? I don't know what to do the next few hours but I know it won't be work. I feel like I want to just crawl off somewhere for the rest of the day.

Now I sense an anger beginning. I don't even want to go there. It swells up....fucking George W. Bush. Who else? Everyone else? Even you? It subsides.

I'm going to go decompress....however the hell you do that. I don't want to say anything I'll regret. Forgive me if this makes no sense. Forgive me for spilling half my guts and believe me it is only half.

UPDATE: I have decompressed. I took to the couch for a nap so as to just turn everything off. Then we went out for a nice lunch. I do feel ok now.

One thing to keep in mind. It isn't just the 9th Ward. It is everywhere. You can drive for miles and miles and see destruction. I think that is important to understand.

Random Notes

I have been so busy I haven't read or heard any news. However yesterday people were talking of tapes of a video conference that Bush "participated" in. I wouldn't say people were shocked here but they were disgusted...And Angry. I wanted to check it out and so read the New York Times story. From that one learns hey no big deal, nothing new here and the awful Democrats are going to capitalize on this nothingness. I'm looking for News and read that awful accounting! They should be ashamed of themselves. I finally got the story elsewhere.

I spent well over an hour yesterday getting the rental car. That place was a mess. We rented an economy car but they gave us all they had.... a the cost of an economy car. The thing is huge. I took off and of course proceeded to get lost.It didn't help that I didn't know how to adjust the seat and steering wheel so was barely able to reach the pedals etc as I drove.

I did an interview with Jeff Coates of the Urban Conservancy last night. I'll have more on that later and this is one you must hear.

Today I am meeting with 3 people and it is the day I drive out to the 9th Ward. So watch for Alot tonight and tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Presser and a Meeting

I went to a press conference at City Hall at which District E Councilwoman Cynthia Willard Lewis announced a major "breakthrough" in the effort to provide electricity, water and FEMA trailers to the Lower 9th Ward.The obstacles to re-populating the ward have been water, electricity, places to live and debris.

The Bring Back New Orleans Commission plan calls for neighborhoods to prove they're viable, by having at least half of the residents return to an area in order to be rebuilt. Not much has happened toward that end in the 9th ward. This press conference appeared to be a beginning to address that. It will be a long precarious road ahead though. Here is video of part of the press conference but below the screen is more as I met someone.....

I had also hoped to make a contact in the 9th ward by attending this presser. It was attended by those speaking and the press and that was it. But there was one woman sitting in the gallery of the City Council chambers and so afterwards I decided to go over and talk to her.

I asked if she lived in the 9th ward and she said no. I waited to see if she would elaborate a bit and then she said, "That's my daughter." This was Mary Willard the mother of Councilwoman Cynthia Willard Lewis. She told me that the Councilwoman was the oldest of her 12 children. With pride she said, "She's fighting for her people." Mary told me how Cynthia had stayed here the whole time during Katrina initially staying at City Hall. Mrs. Willard had evacuated to Dallas where 2 of her children live.

Mary Willard had a striking, elegant face and though soft spoken one could sense her strength, confidence and pride in her family and herself. She teaches 9th-12th grade having started teaching in 1957. She talked of an after school program she use to do so the young people would stay out of trouble. There were once 102 public schools in NOLA pre-Katrina, she related, but now there are only 3 public and 21 charter schools. She is concerned that the charter schools will be a "dis-service" to black children. "I told Governor Blanco, " she said. As an aside she went on to speak of having given Blanco a rosary before her election...."but I knew she'd win.I'd like to see her win again. She's a beautiful woman." Then back to the schools..."there are not alot of blacks here now because of the school the summer they'll be back."

I asked about her other children...6 men and 6 women. All have attended college. She neither brags nor is pretentious but because I pressed she named and told me of each. I won't write of each but there is a son who is a lawyer in NOLA , a pharmicist in Atlanta, a daughter who teaches in NOLA, and her "baby boy...he's a judge in New Orleans." She spoke with pride of her oldest son..."you saw how they placed children on mattresses in the flood waters to get them out during Katrina? That's what he did." He did so for days and then evacuated to the Carolinas. She pointed out her husband who was at the presser and told me he had been in education....the first black principal at St. Augustine's. He's now retired from the DA's Office.

We had a nice talk and when almost everyone had left I realized I would not be getting a 9th ward contact here today. But I had met an incredible woman. She asked..."did you get what you needed?" I said oh yes and thought to myself and then some. She looked at her daughter and then back to me and said..."now you know where she gets her grit." Yes I do, Yes I do.

"How'd You Make Out?"

Mardi Gras is over now. Just some thoughts though. People needed this Mardi Gras. One person who has been back since shortly after Katrina struck said that if were sitting in say Houston and heard Mardi Gras had been canceled, he wouldn't bother to come home cause he'd know that's it..the city is done.

Yesterday it was common for these folks to see friends for the first time since before Katrina. They'd ask one another..."How'd you make out?" Then they would share bits of their stories.....where they evacuated to, when they came back, the status of their homes. Mardi Gras re-united people with people and the people with their city.

One final Mardi Gras video. Walking home from the Quarter we stpped at a local hangout and so did a band who rocked the place......

Oh I do have some pics of Mardi Gras costumes I'll put up later....alot involving MRE's, blue tarps, FEMA digs and of course Brownie and Bush. But I'm off to a meeting about the 9th Ward....

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Fried Chicken in the Quarter

Once we got to the French Quarter we went to Gilbert's place. His family runs a small store that sells food, beer, and sandwiches. They were able to stay open after Katrina struck. Gilbert made fried chicken (the best I ever had) in the courtyard behind the store. Pete Fountain and his band stopped in (Mr. Fountain is in the purple shirt)

Mardi Gras

We marched with the Society of St. Ann.
This is not a krewe but it is a lively bunch. We marched to the French Quarter.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Lundi Gras Party

It's a lawyer, recently retired teachers, IT folks, handymen, a musician, an environmentalist, a physicist, a student and more, all gathered for gumbo and a shrimp boil. It's New Orleans jazz and zydeco in the background as friends laugh and talk of Mardi Gras past and present. This is a Lundi (Fat Monday) Gras party in the courtyard of 2 shotgun houses behind the tall newly replaced gates of what is known as "The Compound."

Musician Coco Robichaux tells me "there's more musicians than there are gigs now. I made more money when I was a kid." But he's still playing.

Doug, a high school teacher before Katrina in Plaquemines Parish has seen 45 Mardi Gras. Now he lives in Texas but is back for his 46th. He tells me that North Plaquemines has schools up and running and has kept teachers on but that "South Plaquemines is no more." He decided to take early retirement so other teachers would be able to keep their jobs.

There is laughter and small talk but the stories creep in as does the weariness. Someone will relate a small part of their Katrina story and the usual questions are asked. "What day did you get out?" Answers are not given in dates but days of the week....That week. When they say Sunday or Thursday everyone knows exactly what date they are talking about. Tom and Coco were here for much of that week. They tell of how the animals all began howling one night. The cats, the dogs, all the animals "screamed." Coco tells of how he was stung by a bee on his eye and didn't have the heart to swat and kill it...."There was so much death. I just couldn't kill it...there was going to be too much death already."

Louis Armstrong and Ella sing in the background as everyone digs into a platter of shrimp. I'm given an ear of corn on the cob. Out of the corner of knowing eyes they watch as I take a bite. The hot spice bites back and I start blowing on my lips to cool off. We laugh as one says..."that isn't Wisconsin corn on the cob now heh." No indeed.

Tom tells only a part of his harrowing story. Their house filled with water in minutes. He swam to get their kayaks. But tossed by waves and 100 mph wind he struggled to unleash them and keep a hold of the ropes attached to them. "I knew I needed to grab something or I'd die. I could see a truck in the water below me. It was clear ocean water but I couldn't even grab an antenna from that truck. I just swam."

Gumbo is ready. They all laugh when one says "can you see next summer, the first hurricane .... there will be no one left in this town."

Linda tells me about the wonderful old Catholic Church across the street. There is the story of how a piece of the steeple had landed in front of the Compound and Linda made Lisa take it back over to the Church as surely they'd need it to restore the steeple. It wasn't necessary though as now there are to be no repairs. The Diocese won't be re-opening the church. They can't afford to. They say they lost 3 or 4 churchs in this neighborhood that way now. And they wait for more of the steeple to fall.

Ray Charles' "Baby What'd I Say" comes on and everyone joins in on the Aah's and Ooh's.

They are weary. Many depressed. There is worry for one amongst them that hasn't been eating and is losing weight. Well over half have lost their homes. There is so much uncertainty here. But they KNOW Mardi Gras. Tonight and tomorrow they do what they have done for years. This is their party. It is living their New Orleans. They have that for now. Come Wednesday it will be more of the hard uncertainty once again.

Someone's Home

I went with lb0313's friend Wendy to her home to pick up a few things. They live very close to a breach in the London Avenue Canal. To look from the outside of these homes it may not look that bad but wait til you get inside. It's utter ruin. The walls and ceilings are worthless. Everything must be gutted out. Possessions left in the home were destroyed. Clothing just falls apart when you touch it. Dirt and dried mud are everywhere. You can see the water lines on walls and windows. You can not live in these homes. There are a number of FEMA trailers in front of homes but not so for most. I ask where are the rest of these people? They say they just don't know. There is much not known here.

Wendy and her husband have purchased a new home. They are not able to live in it yet though.... electricity issues. They paid off their mortgage with their insurance settlement. But many haven't received such settlements. Also they bought the home some 15 years ago. People who purchased homes more recently at much higher prices would never be able to pay off their mortgages from the insurance settlements I am told.

Wendy and her husband don't know exactly what they'll do with the home. For starters it would need to be raised yet they aren't sure exactly how high as the flood maps are not completed. For now they'll sit on it. But one can tell just returning here for a few minutes is hard on Wendy.

Meanwhile Wendy's 13 year old son who has been in Memphis with relatives so he can attend school just arrived for Mardi Gras. Remember there were no schools open at the beginning of the school year so many people have sent their kids off to other parts so they will not fall behind.

People here are in limbo. They are waiting...for insurance settlements, for flood maps, for the city plan, for jobs to return. There is so much uncertainty.

Here is a video tour of Wendy's home......


I took off at 6:12 this morning and have made it in. On the drive in from the airport I was able to see some of the destruction though we went through Kenner which is in better shape than most. They had wind damage rather than flodding and you see the FEMA Blue Roofs everywhere.

When the plane was coming in to land everyone was completely silent and all were looking out the windows. It was so very quiet.

Here is just a rough video of landing and the drive into New Orleans. It's not very good but I'm trying to get everything set up so this is more of a test.

I'm going to Gentily in a bit to the home of one of lb0313's friend which is not inhabitable. So I hope to have that up later.