Monday, March 27, 2006

Old River, Lost River. . . . A Roadtrip and a Return

This post and the following are the most recent emails sent out. This one was sent 3.24.06

Sorry to have been out of touch. David and I went on a road trip. Why would we do that when we're still living hand to mouth and hoping that Jazzfest helps? Because our dear friend in Albuquerque, whom we helped with German Shepherd rescue before we moved, called and said, "I have your dog here." We had just lost Jasper and had decided we were not getting another dog for a while, but here was the same story that brought us Jasper. Puppy mill jerk, 18 German Shepherds, living in filth and starving, seized by the county, needed homes. And one of them looked like he was probably Jasper's grandson, great grandson, grand nephew, something. Or so she said. Well, us being us, we couldn't turn that down and she knows us and what kind of dog we tend toward. So we got in our car and drove to get him. He's back home with us now, learning about people and struggling to figure out that most of them won't hurt him. He's handsome and smart and somewhere between 2-3 yrs old, but he's got the experience level of a 3 month old. He's fabulous and we're glad we went for him.

It was also the first road trip we'd taken together that wasn't a family visit in years and years. And it was our first long trip since Katrina hit. I had gone back to Albuquerque in November, but flew in, worked for two days and came back. It's a different thing from a road trip. We headed out having decided to take the "short" route through Shreveport to Dallas to Amarillo to Albuquerque. No problem. We'd done it before and we knew that Texas is the endless state. We both abhor driving through Dallas but managed it with few issues as long as we paid attention to the cutoffs. We got to Albuquerque, had no time to do a lot of socializing but got to see a couple people briefly, and that was great. Spending time with Kathy and her own pack of dogs was really a treat. We were also surprised by how many people we met in stores and gas stations who upon hearing we were from New Orleans, seemed almost compelled to tell us that they were ashamed and appalled at the federal handling of Katrina. It was interesting to hear what they had to say. Most of them, however, had no idea that about 30% of New Orleans still has no power. They were stunned.

We loaded up the dog and headed home via the "long" way: Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, Baton Rouge, home. We did the TexasWorld Tour. Yes I did mean for TexasWorld to be all one word. Anyone sensitive about Texas might not want to go on reading from here!

Having seen almost all of the major cities in Texas in a six day period (two days each way), we were astonished. The roads are, by and large, wonderful. Something that cannot be said of New Orleans before or after Katrina. We noticed the Texan intent on being BIG: big auto dealerships, big flags, big steaks, big vehicles. We were fascinated by some of the tiny little towns, a lot of them agricultural or ranching towns, that had nothing but a few trailers strewn together in some semblance of a village. There's a lot of that in New Mexico too, but we didn't expect the huge contrast between these little burgs and the bigger cities. Trailer colonias and a truck stop out your window, then the blazing overdone glass of Dallas. We'd seen that before as we had gone that way on other trips across Texas. But we saw the same thing on the southern route. It seemed that the gap between the rich and poor in Texas was huge and obvious. I did say they like things big there.

The first five to ten miles of any one of the cities we went through were endless parades of franchises. Everyone is represented: Applebees, Chilis, McDonalds, Burger King, Target, Walmart, Home Depot, etc. We talked a lot about the homogenization of America. If someone dropped us in the middle of a good size city in Texas, it's virtually indistinguishable from Kansas City or any other city in America. The franchises have taken over, and only the trees and the freeway number will tell you where you are. Home Depot and a palm tree? Probably Miami or San Diego. Applebees and a cactus? Probably Albuquerque but could be Phoenix. Nothing distinguished one city from another. It's happened all over this country and it's made our country a bit boring. We really had to look hard to find a small, non-corporate owned local/regional restaurant amid all the mega-chains. Since we didn't stop a lot going or coming, it didn't really matter to our stomachs but it did matter to our psyches.

The roads are packed with newer model cars and many of the major freeways are being expanded. Lots of money in Texas it seems. The contrast between Texas and Louisiana was stark. Texas was very, very generous to our evacuees, and for that we will be eternally grateful. We also understand why some of them decided to stay put and not come back. The cities LOOK affluent. Of course we didn't see the crime problems, the gang problems. Local problems can't be seen from a freeway driveby. What did strike us was that we felt like "foreigners." Our political views certainly weren't in evidence anywhere that we could see in Texas. We know that the entire state of Texas isn't ultra-conservative, but that was what was most in evidence. We also actually had a concern that our car, with Louisiana plates and an "I love New Orleans" decal on it, Mardi Gras beads hanging from the rearview mirror, might make some people think that we were "that element from New Orleans." I am truly sick of the word element. It's become a euphemism for so many things.

As we drove out of Houston, where the weather started feeling like New Orleans, we passed a sign that said, "Old River, Lost River" and it appeared that two rivers joined up there. It was beautiful, and wow, what lovely, romantic names these rivers had. We couldn't wait to see "our" river. We got home and were very happy to be here, even as we drove in still seeing hurricane damage and ravaged cars under the overpasses. It wasn't pristine but it was home. Once here we caught up on the local issues, which we couldn't do a driveby on.

Crime is up here. Apparently some of the Houston gangs have moved in. As David says, "Don't forget, nature abhors a vacuum." Two real gems, B Stupid and his buddy, Man Man (no, guys, I am NOT making this up) were finally caught. These two lovelies were here trying to set up a new drug network. Man Man evidently was standing on a neutral ground shooting a gun in the air. I think it was on Esplanade. B Stupid was picked up by a cooperative (imagine THAT!) effort between the NOPD and the Kenner cops. In an interview when asked how he got the name, he said sort of intelligibly, "The street gave me that name." Oh, not your behavior? Well, at least they got these two, but it appears that the Houston/NOLA gang foreign exchange program won't let up for a while.

The elections are much contested and amazingly haven't gotten nasty yet. Mitch Landrieu is so far behaving like a real class act, and most people I've spoken with think he's pretty much a shoo in, if not based on his ideas, which so far have been a bit vague, by his connections at city, state and federal levels. The consensus seems to be that he can probably do a lot as Mayor just because of his connections. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that, but I think he'll probably win. I have to go to his website and see what he's really saying. Meanwhile, there is a question about whether or not the elections should be held in April at all since so many of our citizens are out of state. The racial issue is also being introduced into this argument as the demographics of NOLA have changed significantly since the storm. By some reports, we went from 80% black to 60% white. The argument is that the black citizens, who seem to have been more significantly scattered than the white citizens, would not have a real voice in this election. Given the mail service and the idea of absentee ballots, oh yeah, and the nutbar we have as county clerk, I think some of the arguments are valid. I'm not at all sure how long we should wait though. Will the situation change enough in one month, two maybe, six (?) to make people feel that the election should be held? I don't think so. It's been nearly seven months now and things are still moving at a snail's pace in terms of rebuilding and repopulating. I'm not sure postponing the election will accomplish anything. On the other hand, holding the election and having it appear unfair will only lead to more negative press locally and nationally, not to mention some hard feelings along racial lines. I've read arguments on both sides, and they both make sense. This is a tough issue.

Oh yeah, the mail. According to the Post Office, our mail service should be back to normal "by summer." We'll see. It does seem to be improving a little, but still not enough for papers that need to be sent back by a particular date to GET to you before the due date.

Housing and business, the two words we hear daily in some context or other are intertwined so intimately here, but amazingly few people are talking about the two issues as they relate to one another. Rents are out of control. Landlords, seeing the corporations as the geese laying nests of golden eggs, are gouging. Local message boards are addressing this issue, but the news media isn't. 6000 dollar "corporate apartments", "furnished one bedroom luxury corporate condo, $3900 month, all utilities paid." Well I should say so! Rents have doubled and tripled in some cases, but now we're starting to see them drop a little as the contractors go home and people who were renting while their house was being rebuilt finally get to go home as well. It's a slow process. In the meantime, it's not real people paying these rents. It's expense accounts. Prices like this are driving people out of New Orleans. This becomes a vicious cycle for businesses, especially small businesses. "I can't make enough money to keep my business open if I can't get workers and I can't get workers because they can't afford the rents and I can't pay them enough to afford the rents so they leave and I can't make money to keep my business open. . . . " On and on the circle goes. Many, many landlords are NOT gouging, our wonderful landlords included, and many are sick of the "corporate turnover" of two month leases. There are more and more people looking for "long term leases" in their ads. But the gougers really should be ashamed. This whole cycle is going to come back and bite New Orleans in the ass if something isn't done to curb it. Granted there is a supply and demand element, but what's happening is that some of these landlords have decided to make as much as they can while the corporate expense accounts hold out and locals be damned. It's a mess and something has to be done, but other than people just refusing to pay those rents, I don't know what will curb it.

The levees, MRGO, floodgates, FEMA, SBA, insurance adjusters all continue to be problematic and the daily reports on any one of those topics can alternate between excuses, resignation, and screw 'em. Can't put FEMA trailers in a flood plain, so we can't get them down here, besides we're doing the best we can, and oh yeah, another hurricane season is coming and these things could be flying all over the place if a good size tropical storm arrives, nevermind another hurricane. So the best idea is to rebuild. But if you rebuild you need the money to rebuild and the insurance isn't giving it to you and FEMA isn't giving it to you and besides we can't agree on the FEMA flood plains anyway and how high should you have to build your house off the ground? Raising them, yeah, that's the ticket. Oh your house wasn't completely washed away? It's still extant and you just finished gutting it and dealing with the mold? Well, we don't know what to tell you. You might rebuild it, if you've got your own money to do it, and then we might say you have to raise it. How high? Didn't you see yesterday's report? We haven't decided yet. We've given out a lot of money here, but we have to comply with the FEMA rules and you KNOW we're audited so we know the wheels grind slowly and it's frustrating, but it's a bureaucracy those of us on the ground are doing the best we can. Army Corps of Engineers can't be sued. Insurance companies saying "act of god," lawyers saying "act of man, negligent man at that", adjusters saying "not wind damage, house is settling." Oh really? The house "settled" into this giant mountain of debris? "Too bad, you're not getting anything."

I could go on, but I'll spare you. For now, anyway.

Many, many kids are not in school yet. They're on a waiting list. Waiting for a school that can accomodate them, waiting for a school to open. The latest is that they will be back in school by April but WILL NOT BE HELD BACK. Excuse me? So we'll have marginal fourth graders from a school system that was abysmal before the storm, becoming even more marginal fifth graders after missing 7 of 9 months of school? Are you kidding me? Keep them in school all summer. Help them catch up. Some of them are really traumatized. They're going to need help. Everyone is hoping that we will utilize this chance to make our school system better than it was before. If we do this, just ignore that these kids missed nearly an entire year of school, we will blow that chance inexorably.

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