Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Getting Caught Up

Posting will be intermittent over the next couple of weeks as we make the move across the River. Since I've been living with boxes from storage on my front porch, in my living room, in my bedroom for months now, a few more boxes aren't going to make that much difference.

I have been reading all my usual blogs and the news as always, and ranting at the screen about some of it, but still have so much packing to do that I haven't sat down long enough to write. Unfortunately some of it will have to wait. But for now, a few things that I've been thinking about.

I'm reading a lot about how we in New Orleans have to look forward instead of back. I agree. But the reality is that there is so much leftover garbage, real and figurative from the storm, that just looking forward is impossible.

Across the street, a pile of debris from a house that was cleaned out that just keeps getting bigger. It hasn't been picked up and I don't think it will be because I believe our area's cutoff for debris removal was April 9. And so it sits.

Man on the Ferry. Tshirt has a huge photo of the Superdome with people all around it. The tshirt says, "Escape from New Orleans, Superdome, September 2005." A takeoff on John Carpenter's "Escape from New York" movie, the lettering is the same as the movie posters. The face above the tshirt, grim and determined.

"We must unite! Race can't be an issue here!" heard everywhere and from every mouth. Driving from Algiers Point to Holiday drive belies this sentiment. Algiers Point, more affluent than the areas just blocks from it, was full of signs for Forman or Landrieu. Cross Opelousas and head toward Newton, and in that predominantly black neighborhood were hundreds of signs saying, "Our Mayor-Vote for Nagin." Nagin didn't carry the black vote definitively, but in some neighborhoods race will be the deciding issue.

Morning news. Better Business Bureau representative with a sheaf of reports on the con artists masquerading as contractors and roofers. (There is a bunch that moved in across the street. Say they're from Texas but have no plates on their raggedy truck. In the last week, a magnetic sign appeared on the side of their truck, "^&**# Roofing Company, LOCALLY OWNED!" This happens every day.) BBB rep tells wrenching stories about people getting ripped off by the contractors who are walking millions of hard to get insurance dollars out of the state and leaving already bereft homeowners with no home to move into. One elderly lady lost her entire $130K settlement to a contractor and her home is still unlivable. "Check references! Check licenses! Check receipts!" She had. The contractor had made phony receipts and a license. The woman was stuck in Baton Rouge. She couldn't see that nothing had been done to her house. She can call a lawyer, but finding this criminal won't be easy. Disposable cell phone number on a business card, fake name on a contractor's license--all hard to track down. Oh yeah, and there are adjusters out there charging a fee to look at houses. Large fees. People all these months after the water took everything they had, are losing everything a second time.

Evening news. Landrieu and Forman walking with Forman's arm around Mitch's shoulder. As expected, according to the maps of the vote, Forman easily took the Garden District and the Lakeshore/Lakeview areas. Both more affluent than some other areas of the city. Forman is now throwing his support behind Landrieu after he issued bruising ads during the run up to the primary. A good point was made by a reporter who said, "It's going to be tough for Forman to un-say what he did about Landrieu in order to support him, and it will be equally difficult to un-say what he did about Nagin and the pressing need for change in order to support him." I agree. I think the electorate is smart enough to see through this and I don't think that Forman's support of Landrieu will make it done deal for his supporters, although I still think Landrieu will win the election, but see next paragraph.

Election night. Nagin's self-deprecating speech was upbeat and it also illustrated why so many New Orleanians voted for him. Most out of towners never read the entire Chocolate City speech, which is too bad. It was an unfortunate turn of phrase for Nagin, but it was totally seized on out of context. Nagin laughed about all the money that was being made on him, from tshirts to a little electronic gadget he pulled out of his pocket that replays his radio speech calling for help down here when a button is pushed. He said, "I paid $8.95 for this!" and he laughed. I don't think Nagin can be counted out. I think this will be a very close race.

Houses burned in Gentilly. Fire Department couldn't respond in a timely way because special bonds and various other hoops have to be jumped through before they can re-open the fire house in that neighborhood. The Fire Department is mad, the people are mad, and in this time and place, the hoops are mad defined the other way. I talked with three people this week whose homes are in Gentilly. They are almost done, almost ready to be moved back into. The people were ecstatic. But no services are readily available for them, and because of bureaucratic nonsense that probably made sense in a pre-Katrina, normal day New Orleans, but really need to be waived right now.

My own personal snippet. BellSouth. "I need to shut off service at this number and have it moved to the new address. I want to keep the same package I have now." "Okay, no problem. You sure you don't want Direct TV?" "Yes, I'm sure." "Why?" "I have cable, I'm fine with it. Can we just get this service switched over? I want it turned off over here on May 3, turned on over there on May 1." "Yes, ma'am. I'll put you on hold for a moment and put the order in. I see you have your long distance with another carrier. Would you like to switch to one of our packages?" "No, I just want to switch my service from one address to another." "Okay, hang on." Minutes tick by, bad music plays between ads for their services. "Okay, ma'am, you won't be able to keep your current phone number." "No problem. I figured that." "Do you have internet service? Can we sign you up for DSL?" "No, I have cable for that. I tried your DSL, your tech support couldn't get it together so I got cable instead. Can we get this switched?" "Yes, let me put you on hold and I'll get you your new number and install date." More hold, more bad music. "Okay, ma'am?" "Yes." "We have------she rattles off four different phone numbers-----you can take your pick." "Great, I'll take the last one." "Okay, great! Your new number will be *********." "Thanks." "I have to put you on hold one more time to get the work order." "Fine." More bad music. It's now been 45 minutes. Sheepishly, "Ma'am? There's going to be a bit of a delay getting service to your new house. We won't be able to install it until :::mumble:::: the 4th." I was sure she said 5/4. "No problem. That won't be a big inconvenience." "Ma'am, I'm sorry. I think you misunderstood. I said NINE four." Pause, processing, then I get it. "You mean SEPTEMBER 4???? Are you kidding? We're only moving 6 miles from here and into a neighborhood that is already wired." "I'm sorry, that's the first date we can get you although I've been hearing about some people getting it sooner." "How much sooner." "Oh they get it in a month or two." I cancelled the order and switched to cable.

Every time you look forward, you find some little thing that makes you look back!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Life in Byzantium, Courtesy of FEMA and SBA

It's just so bizarre, Byzantine actually. The dictionary offers us this:

A term describing any system that has so many labyrinthine internal interconnections that it would be impossible to simplify by separation into loosely coupled or linked components.

The city of Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople and then Istanbul, and the Byzantine Empire were vitiated by a bureaucratic overelaboration bordering on lunacy: quadruple banked agencies, dozens or even scores of superfluous levels and officials with high flown titles unrelated to their actual function, if any.

Access to the Emperor and his council was controlled by powerful and inscrutable eunuchs and by rival sports factions. [Edward Gibbon, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"].

Here's a quick sketch of our travels through the safety net of America, of New Orleans after the storm.

We got back to NOLA. No power but phone lines were working. We shared a borrowed generator with our neighbor and rigged up an over the air TV connection. We saw that the President had also borrowed generators, many of them, and had lit St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square to great dramatic effect. He made some promises. Friends started calling asking if we'd filed for FEMA yet. No we hadn't. One friend said she'd get online and file for us, got our information and did so. We waited. There were no jobs to be had at that time, money was tight. We'd heard tales of $2000 magically appearing in people's bank accounts. It didn't appear in ours.

Another friend said maybe we didn't answer the questions right. She had gotten the magically appearing sum, and another $2300 or so. The second sum appeared without her having to file more paperwork or rub a magic lamp. She offered to re-file for us. We thanked her profusely and she re-filed.

Then we started the dance. The dance of numbers, the dance of holding, all done with the patient discipline of a boy wooing his first love. "Sorry, you need to call this other number, and please make sure you give them your claim number, your social security number and your disaster number. Oh, you have two claim numbers because of a duplicate claim, and you have two disaster numbers as we've now added Rita to Katrina in terms of aid." My husband dialed the other number, sat on the couch, smoked a couple cigarettes, had a sandwich, read the paper. Three hours of sitting-on-hold later, he was told everything was up in the air because of the duplicate claim numbers and that that had to be fixed first. "Okay," says he, in a polite voice, constantly saying, "Yes, sir," "No, ma'am," furiously scribbling numbers on pieces of paper, "Thank you, ma'am." He'd look at me and say, "It's pending, whatever that means."

This process was repeated for months, with phone calls turning into his weekly visit to the Disaster Center to talk to the FEMA people. With each week that passed, his patience, our patience, grew thinner. There was always a glimmer of hope to be found in statements like, "Fill this out and we'll fax it to headquarters and we should know something in a couple weeks. No, I don't have the authority to make decisions but I can't see anything on your application that would make you ineligible." I went with him on a few occasions, and the workers were sincere, they seemed to want to help, but were unable to accomplish anything without passing it on into the great void of the FEMA bureaucracy. More letters were written, at the behest of the eager-to-help-but-hogtied worker, and faxed off. More ambiguous assurances were given that it would all be taken care of in a "couple of weeks." No one was actually accountable and no one seemed able to actually make a determination.

The next thing we heard was that an inspector was going to come to the house. He came. Nice kid. Did a lot of tapping on his portable computer, asked a lot of questions, smiled a lot. We made sure to answer the questions exactly the same way we had on the form. We didn't want to make the water any muddier. When the smiling child volunteer was asked what we could expect, his answer was, "This should fix it! No problem. You should hear something in a couple weeks." More weeks went by, more visits to FEMA, more papers asked for and given and faxed to the void. We were told we would get a letter in the next week or so. We did. It said, "We have received your documents." That's it. No kidding. That was all it said.

At this point we had finally been given access to our storage unit, which had been under water on Tulane Avenue. Our home had weathered the storm very well, given what happened elsewhere in the city. We were very lucky, but the storage unit was another thing entirely. With no power in there, we slopped through the stuff. Forget all the photos, life memories and books in there. That was the tough part. After collecting books for 22 years, there was significant money being thrown into those dumpsters. But also in all that mess was the washer, the dryer, all of my husband's tools and tool box. Very expensive stuff those tools. Ask us what our Snap On bill was per month as he started buying them years ago for work. The photo above was what our storage unit looked like when we first saw it by flashlight. The boxes were full of photos and books. The washer and dryer, and a huge red tool box were buried under the boxes in the back left section. It took us five visits before we unearthed what was left of them. The photo below shows you what was left.

We asked FEMA about the storage contents. We were told they couldn't help us with that as none of the losses were at our primary residence. We needed to go to the SBA for that. Meanwhile, FEMA would keep working on our first paperwork. One week, my husband goes off to do his weekly penance and is told it should be handled by NEXT week. By now it's November. Upon arriving the following week, expecting that this up to now unrequited relationship will be consummated, he's told that "that spigot was turned off last week. You won't be getting it. You can appeal." Having been spurned after so much time and delay and bogus explanations, it became a matter of principle, and we kept at it. Sending whatever they asked for.

Another inspector showed up. I told him I was afraid to say anything to him because every new piece of paper, every new phone call, seemed to screw up the works. He looked at the portable computer he carried and said, "I think I know why this didn't go through. It's the only reason I can think of. Your mailing address is the same as your dwelling." Not knowing what he was talking about, I sat on the couch slackjawed. Finally I got it. If I'd used the address of a friend in another state as my mailing address, there would have been no problem, even though I wasn't AT that other address. Living at the address your mail is delivered to (when it's delivered) was the death knell, or so I was told. Still we kept at it.

We were told to file for an SBA loan for personal property loss. FEMA doesn't handle that, SBA does. It should be a piece of cake. So eight weeks ago, without abdicating anything regarding FEMA, we got all the paperwork together for the SBA including an itemized list of our losses. We didn't inflate anything, we didn't add anything that wasn't in there. They wanted to inspect the damage. UHaul had already cleared it out of the building. What was salvagable was on my front porch. I sent them 20 photographs with captions. It had to suffice. I listed the books, the tools, some furniture, the washer, the dryer. Just the basics knowing that anything else would not be covered. "We can't include the books, they're not essential items." Okay, we'll buy that. "You'll be assigned a loan officer and you should hear something in a couple weeks." Without holding our breath, we were cautiously optimistic.

My husband continued to be in touch with FEMA and now he added the SBA number to his weekly chores. "You'll hear something in 2-3 weeks." It was now March. This Monday he called the SBA again. "It's been assigned. You should be hearing from your officer." Last night, lo and behold, he did hear from our officer.

"I'm recommending that this loan be turned down." He hears this news on his cell phone while walking the dog at 9PM. "Why?" "You don't make enough money and the losses were not in your primary residence." "But FEMA said that was why we should talk to YOU. That they couldn't help with losses that weren't in the primary residence but that you could. And no, we're not making enough money. We live in New Orleans! No one but contractors are making enough money!" "I'm sorry, sir. This will get kicked back to FEMA. They are allowed to give grants."

When he walked in the door, he explained all this to me after mixing a drink. He looked shellshocked. "Where do we go from here?" he said. "I believe they're just trying to wear people down so they give up." I agreed with him. Our story is, unfortunately, not atypical. This kind of nonsense is what will contribute to the population attrition in this city and the delays in rebuilding of lives.

My husband, in his doggedness, will no doubt return to the FEMA lady on Monday.

At that point I think he should ask her if she's being controlled by a powerful, inscrutable eunuch or is she a member of a rival sports faction, because clearly we're dealing with Byzantium, and people with high flown titles unrelated to their actual functions, if any.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Undecidedly Uneasy

I haven't posted for days. There is a reason. Confusion and discouragement. So many levels of it that just putting them in the proper file folder in my brain has been tough. My generalized ennui has finally been sorted into four categories: Mayoral Election, FEMA Maps, Disgust and Worry. What a lovely party it's been!

Mayoral Election
I've watched the Mayoral Debates and the panels that included all the lesser candidates. Yet here I am, five days before the election and still undecided. That hasn't happened to me in nearly 35 years of voting. In fact, I've always been one of those people who laughed at the "20% undecided" listings in pre-election polls. "How can anyone be this close to an election and NOT know who they want to vote for." Didn't understand it. Now I do.

Some of the lesser candidates, terrible term but it was better than the don't-stand-a-chance-in-hell candidates, have some good ideas. Some have really terrific ideas, but they only have one idea, not a fully fleshed out plan. Some have plans to make plans. Some would turn New Orleans into one gigantic trailer park. A few of these people really should be consulted by the next Mayor of New Orleans and be put to work on their ideas, but letting these folks run the City would be a bad idea. Integrate some of the best of their ideas, the really bold, fresh ideas, and let the rest go. So who do we have that does have a chance?

It appears to be narrowed down to three, and in conversations I've had with people of every socioeconomic and racial category, the quandary is the same with regard to these guys. Nagin, Landrieu and Forman. These are the frontrunners, with a smaller segment firmly behind Couhig.

Here's what I'm hearing, and it pretty much mirrors my own issues with this election. We're left with one guy, Nagin, who knows the ropes, knows what is and is not happening with regard to rebuilding, but he's not perceived well in the rest of the country and probably burned too many bridges during the storm's aftermath. That puts him in a category of "they won't help us if he's the Mayor, even if we'd like him to be re-elected." And many would like to see him re-elected. We also have Landrieu, from a political dynasty, seems to play well in polls with both black and white voters being asked, has the inside track on how the State works, and his sister is the Senator, so he certainly has the federal connections to use as a resource. That puts him in the category of "we're not sure we like him or the idea of voting for a guy based on his connections rather than his platform, but he probably can help." Then there's Forman, who did an amazing job with Audobon Park, but is definitely seen as a rich white guy beholden to elitist interests. Although he has some really good ideas, a lot of people can't get past the sense that he would be a "rich man's Mayor," and according to his opponents and his record, he supported the ex-Mayor Morial for a third term even though Morial's administration was, from all reports, pretty corrupt.

So where does that leave us? My guess is Landrieu will win, and probably based on his connections, because it's clear that connections help. People seem to be banking on his ability to make the rest of the country (through his connections on the Federal level) remember that Louisiana is part of it, as Mississippi has done so well. What a way to choose a Mayor, especially right now when the choice is so very important. If pressed I couldn't really endorse any of them wholeheartedly. We need a Vulcan Mind Meld or something. Put the three of them together and we might have the right guy.

Whoever is elected will be an integral component of the rebuilding or languishing of this City. We all know how important our choice is.

How lovely. FEMA finally put out their flood maps, and rather than clearing up confusion, they only added to it. Some people will evidently have to raise their homes 1-3 feet, but only if. . . .. . . . . . . .here's where it's a mess. Supposedly if your house is a slab construction and you've already gutted it and rebuilt it, you won't have to raise it, but your neighbor, who hasn't gotten as far as you might have to raise theirs, but they might not. You might, depending on who's interpreting all this, have to rip out your sheetrock and start over raising your house, even if it's already been completely rebuilt. Clear as mud, huh? Insurance gonna pay to raise your house? (Estimates I've heard are about $50,000 to raise a home three feet. Not being a contractor, I don't know if that's accurate or not, but it's probably close.) Nah, insurance probably didn't pay you much to begin with. How are you gonna pay for it? FEMA doesn't care. Sell the damn house to someone who can afford to pay for it, and let's hope they can pay for the purchase of the house outright because the mortgage won't close without insurance and the insurance companies are not writing policies. Around and around it goes with no real answers or any real help for the displaced who want to come home. And once they come home, they might lose whatever money they did manage to squeeze out of the insurance company's tight ass to an out of state contractor who rips them off. (The reports of this have skyrocketed over the last four months.)

The conflicting reports on the rebuild are astounding. And the conflicting messages even more so. Small businesses are dying on the vine--no homes so no workers, no workers no business, no workers no tax base, limited hours because no workers, no workers because no homes--we'll have to close the business is what many will decide. You've heard it all before. Now the very people we are telling to come back, repopulate, rebuild, are the people caught in the FEMA map/insurance company/contractor ripoff web, and the black widow of no clear answers is eating them alive. Many will give up their homes out of sheer frustration, others because they can't afford to comply with ever changing interpretations of where they can or cannot rebuild and under what circumstances. These are the people we need to come home. These are the workers! Buyout plans, equity, pre-Katrina vs. post-Katrina appraisals. All this is the tip of the iceburg for someone trying to make a decision. If they're living and working in Baton Rouge and trying to wade through the paperwork or the wrong answer from the right person/right answer from the wrong person labyrinth, why wouldn't they just give up? Many of them will, and they will abdicate their homes, set up shop elsewhere, and call it a day.

Since FEMA issued the maps, they should have to help facilitate compliance, and that takes money and no more stonewalling with mountains of paperwork, lack of accountability and conflicting explanations of what they really meant.

Third category for me was disgust. I'm disgusted by the racism I'm seeing and hearing here. Utter divisiveness from all sides. Some of the worst is the Times Picayune Forum message boards. The West Bank is far and away the winner of the most offensive and flagrant racist postings, a dubious honor, but the other areas of the City are not immune. What disgusts me is the racism itself, but I'm also disgusted that people from all over the country are reading this and forming opinions of us as a population.

Here in our house we've talked a lot about how we absolutely have to look like a unified population to the rest of the country if we want support from them in our rebuilding efforts. Not lockstep agreement, but at least an outward appearance of wanting to work through all this together, making compromises along the way. Instead the rhetoric on these message boards gets worse and worse, occasionally punctuated by a really swell out of towner "praying that another hurricane hits and wipes you and your pathetic city off the map for good this time."

Unfortunately, it's not only on message boards that racism is seen. You can see it in the streets, hear it in a bar, feel unspoken prejudice in a group that's gathered to use the Ferry. It's not that it wasn't here before the storm, it's just that now it seems to have taken on a more incendiary, slightly menacing tone. Speaking of tones, there are also distinctly classist overtones to all this. Property owners whose homes were relatively unscathed vs. renters, property owners who have worked to rebuild their homes vs. those who were waiting out the definitive FEMA maps, well to do, or middle class working black people vs. poor black people. Interestingly, the same lines seem to be drawn in the white population.

And we can't forget the immigrant Mexican roofers. They are also the object of scorn. A black man told me three days ago that he was talking to a Mexican work crew about getting some work. They turned him down. He said it was the third time it had happened to him. "Mexicans won't hire blacks," was his comment. Great, another group to add to the hate-each-other mix.

Then again, if you believe what you hear in the streets, no blacks or Mexicans really want to work. White people, in small groups, wishing the black people would just stay in Houston or wherever they went and the Mexicans should get bussed home, then one of the guys in the group hollers in a hail-fellow-well-met voice to a black guy from the block, "I got some stuff I need hauled outta my yard. Wanna make a few bucks?" "Sure!" comes the reply. The transaction is made but the tension remains.

If you believe what you hear on the streets about congenital lack of ambition, then picture this: 9AM on a Friday. Gas station near Lee's Circle. Car pulls in for gas. The white male owner of the car is descended upon by dozens and dozens of men, mostly black or Hispanic. "You got any work, man?" they ask. A scene out of Grapes of Wrath. This happened last Friday. The mutual usury will continue, with disdain and contempt from both sides, until it finally explodes.

The only heading for what I'm seeing is Disgust.

What? Me worry? (Too much Mad Magazine when I was younger!)

I am worried that the discouragement will continue, and that our population will continue to dwindle. It will be pure attrition brought on by frustration and lack of attention to the problems here.

I am worried about the divisiveness tearing us apart from within.

I am worried that the small businesses won't survive and we'll be left with nothing but corporate flagship stores.

I am worried that the displaced thousands will not be in a financial position to rebuild and will forever mourn their home, finding no way back.

I am worried that too many aren't worried enough.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Back to Refrigerator and Pet Stories

But this time there's a twist.

Those of us who were here right after the storm remember the panic of evacuated residents over their pets who had been left behind. Frightened and concerned, people posted on message boards and blogs, called radio stations and tv stations trying to alert someone to the presence of their dog or cat still in the house. Trying to get them some help.

We also remember the rows of stacks of piles of mountains of refrigerators that covered every sidewalk in the Quarter and became impromptu artists' canvasses while they waited to be picked up. The refrigerators became a standing joke among residents and it wasn't just the Quarter that was graced with their presence. Every block of the City that was accessible was also filled with duct taped refrigerators, in front of homes, bars, restaurants, stores. The Mardi Gras krewes really used the symbol of the refrigerator to advantage in their floats this year. Those fridges will be included in all images of post-Katrina New Orleans remembered by those of us here.

In the wake of all this, I was repeatedly asked in huffy tones by people who were not here, "Why on earth didn't they take their animals? They don't deserve to have them if they left them behind! I hope they ARE scared for their cat/dog." Others were indignant about the refrigerators. "My god, why didn't they clean them out before they left? Hundreds of refrigerators we're seeing on the news. What were these people thinking?"

What they were thinking was that they'd be home in a day, maybe two---three being the worst case scenario.

All of those with pets left behind that we encountered, had left them with tons of food and water. One dog we found when we were helping the rescue organizations had been left with over 50 lbs of dog food and at least 25 gallons of water. (This dog, I might add, thought he'd hit the best buffet in town! He was fat as a tick when we got him out of his yard with the help of the 101st Airborne.) The owners of these animals never envisioned a month long absence.

Same with the refrigerators. In the fear of the moment, when it was pretty clear that Katrina was going to hit New Orleans, people loaded their car, hoped they could find gas (most of the gasoline in the City was gone by Saturday night--the storm hit on Monday), and headed in whatever direction they were told to go. Some had actual destinations, others, like a friend of ours who rode this monster out in his car at a rest stop with five other stranded people, did not. But they didn't expect to be gone for a month either. It certainly wouldn't have dawned on most of them to clean out their refrigerators before they left.

Although everyone knew a big storm was coming, most people thought it would blow some buildings down, certainly there would be massive roof damage, and yes, trees would be pulled out of the ground. All knew that anything not tied down could become a projectile. There would be a lot of rain and probably a little flooding. This was all basic living-in-hurricane-land knowledge. No one that I knew ever asked even hypothetically, "Do you think the levees will hold?" It wasn't something most of us were thinking about at all. The very idea that 80% of this City would be under water in some fashion wasn't considered.

The truth is that New Orleans would absolutely have sustained some damage from Katrina no matter what, but it was the murderous levee failures that caused the horrible devastation seen on TV sets around the world in those first days. Many of our residents still can't come home as they have no home to come to.

What everyone seems to forget is that once you evacuated, there were checkpoints to get through and timetables issued for when you could come back to your neighborhood. "You live where? Nope, can't go in." Fresh faced National Guardsmen manned the checkpoints, had weapons (although there is now some question as to whether or not these weapons actually had ammunition in them), and great big barricades barring entry to certain areas. We were lucky. We snuck back in. In some places it was well over 6 weeks before the water levels dropped. The power was knocked out citywide (it's still out in many areas of New Orleans) and the heat in late August in Louisiana is always extreme. August/September 2005 was not anomalous in that regard.

Evacuees stuck in Atlanta or Utah, be they renters or homeowners, were absolutely not thinking about the fact that they'd just stocked their refrigerators with ground beef for meatloaf. They were not thinking about the milk and the mayo. They started posting frantically about their family members, friends, neighbors. They checked shelter lists for the names of their cousins. Then as the realization hit them that they wouldn't be home in their three day worst case scenario, they started posting about their pets. "Two cats in house at ****. Can someone please go give them water? Is there anyone there that can help?" There were some ready to help, and they did, but in the end, many of these people found themselves unable to get back home for six weeks, two months or even longer. Many of their pets were lucky and wound up at makeshift shelters in Gonzales and Slidell where they were held as unadoptable until January 2006, giving the evacuees time to claim them.

About a week after the storm refrigerators became a topic of discussion. Most people by then, if they hadn't lost their home entirely or lost a relative to the water or evacuation chaos, had had time to think about the power being out and the heat being high. The refrigerators were being discussed with both dread and dark humor. As people started coming back into the City, the smell of those refrigerators seemed to permeate everything, no matter how well duct taped they were. Paper face masks with Vicks Vaporub smeared inside became a standard accessory. It was weeks before the refrigerators disappeared.

Yesterday someone told me that landlords are now thinking about including a clause in their rental leases requiring tenants to clean out their refrigerators before they evacuate because "the landlord shouldn't have to pay for a new refrigerator." Incredible. That in the wake of a disaster like this something as petty as a refrigerator would become a topic of discussion amazes me, but there you are. I have no idea if such a clause is legal, probably is if the paper is signed. What if the tenant doesn't clean it out? Probably a fee of some kind will be levied.

So with hurricane season about 90 days out, remember, if you're trying to evacuate in a hurry, forget things like your birth certificate or insurance papers. Clean out that fridge! In fact, clean it out if you decide to go on vacation for a weekend or a two week period. If the power goes out and the fridge is hopeless, you will be fined, even if a hurricane didn't cause the power outage.

And if you don't have a car and have to evacuate, please, get a housesitter for your cat. You know they won't let you take them on the evacuation bus. Housesitter already evacuated? Well, the rule should be no car-no pet. After all, you should have know better than to have gotten a pet when you live in a hurricane zone, especially since you knew the levees would break.

Oh you didn't know?


At a sidewalk cafe in Algiers, middle aged upper middle class professional white man:
"Can you believe they actually want to put those FEMA trailers behind our houses? That's ridiculous, we have to fight it. Crime is already up on the Westbank, hell, Marrero is turning into the new Iberville," the ice cubes from his drink join the laughter of his friends. "My wife is still in Memphis. She says she doesn't want to move back here at all. She said to me,'Why would I want to move back THERE. The humidity makes my hair curl up!'" More laughter all around.

On a sidewalk at Marais and St. Anthony, middle aged white guy with a rental property:
"Yeah, I used to own that house, and that one, and that one on that side of the street. And the blue one, and this one and that one over there on this side of the street. I sold all but two of them last year. Got offers I couldn't refuse. Wish I hadn't sold them now," shakes his head. "Look over there," points across the street to the far left end of the block, "black, black, Mexican, Asian, white, black, black, Asian, an old black woman who's a professor," he continues to point at each house all the way down the block. Then turns around to face the side of the block he's standing on, "Mexican, black, white, white, black, and the other side of this double is rented to three Mexican guys here doing work. I really checked them out, probably wrong of me but I'm a little leery. No Arabs here yet, but they'll show up soon."

A post found on Craigslist under rental properties, and sent to me in email:
$1800 / 2br - French Quarter Luxury Apartment

Reply to: hous ******
Date: 2006-04-06, 10:40PM CDT

Two bedroom, two story townhouse style, wrap around balcony, granite counter tops, all new appliances (stainless steel), high ceilings, hardwood floors, shared courtyard, possible off street parking (for an additional monthly fee). Large two bedroom in the heart of the Quarter, experience life in the most vibrant city in America. Maximum lease: 2 days. NO PETS, unless it is a fish that you caught and mounted five years ago, and then only with an $800.00 non-refundable pet deposit. People owning dogs, cats, birds, need not apply. $20.00 Application fee, for a credit check that will be guaranteed to bring down your credit score. THIS IS A NON-SMOKING UNIT. NO smokers will be considered, even though it's legal, and you cannnot be a former smoker unless you have certification that you quit at least 5 years ago. NO PRE-KATRINA New Orleans residents need apply. To qualify, you must have a Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida or Oklahoma drivers license, preferably be a disaster relief worker or roofer, and there must be at least 5 of you to take possession of this unit. If you changed jobs in the last five years, don't bother. First, last, and 1800.00 deposit plus pet deposit (see above) required at signing of two day lease. (NO SUBLETTING FOR FQ FEST OR JAZZ FEST!) Corporate rental preferred, expense account desirable. NO FLOODING! Must be willing to leave town for Mardi Gras so we can increase our bottom line.

If still interested, please contact, Katrina Exploitation and Gouging, Inc., at the email address above.

Ursulines at Dauphine google map yahoo map

this is in or around Ursulines and Dauphine

no -- it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


I have been thinking about this for two days now. Bloggers writing about why here in New Orleans. Some really beautiful writing. Reading Traveling Mermaid's response to the theme We Are Not Ok I Feel Like a Fraud, wherein she related that she felt herself to be a fraud for not having yet visited the most devastated areas of the City, really made me think that she was the one among us who was most honest and personal. While the rest of us talked about things that are, without a doubt, important--things like levees and schools and mayoral elections--we just grazed our emotional response, like a nick sustained while shaving. It's there, it hurts a lot, we can't ignore it but we just put a piece of tissue paper on it to staunch the bleeding and remove the tissue before we walk out of the house so we're not embarrassed by it.

We talk issues, not emotions, because we're afraid, of so many things, but afraid for sure that if we really start opening up about our emotional state it will be like a levee breaking in our soul.

There is no doubt that we all want to be here. We all want to contribute to the rebirth of the City. We all want to keep the information flowing. We know we're living in an historic time and that our contributions or lack thereof, will be forever a part of the future memory landscape of New Orleans, even if those future citizens never know our names. Most of us don't expect to go down in history books, and I seriously doubt that that would even be a glimmer of a goal for most of us.

In just about every interview, the Beatles were asked, "Did you know you were making musical history?" Their answers, after many asides and quips, usually were something along the lines of, "No, man, we were just making music."

When the movie Saving Private Ryan was released, there was a glut of interviews of veterans of D-Day asking the same question: "Did you know you were involved in an historic campaign." Mostly their answers were, "We knew it was something big, but no, sir, we were just trying to stay alive as we crossed that beach."

New Orleanians have made a lot of history. There are books about the chronology of Yellow Jack and its eradication, books about the Battle of New Orleans or the City's response to the Civil War. Books about murders and ghosts, harlots and entrepreneurs, musical geniuses and the birth of a culture. For a history geek like me, these books are a treasure. But often I'm left wondering "how did these people really FEEL about . . . . . . " fill in the blank.

I'm going to tell you how I feel, like it or not, and very often I'd be in the latter category.

My moods swing faster than an old tire tied to a tree on the topic of New Orleans. I sob over the latest body found. I feel like an alien in my own country, and even in my own family, sometimes. During those times I flounder helplessly between disbelief (They can't be serious!), anger (We cannot let this happen! It's outrageous!), dismissal (Screw 'em. They're not here, they don't get it.), and complete confusion (Have I been living some sort of delusional life? I thought citizenship actually mattered in America. I must be naive. Is no one reading the paper? What the hell is going on here?). An article written in the vein of "why should we rebuild" can drop me to my knees, wanting to scream HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW THERE ARE PEOPLE INVOLVED HERE! Sometimes it's all so disheartening that I just go emotionally fetal, cover my ears and sing La La La deliriously til I can pull myself back together.

I go about my daily operations, walking the dog, taking a shower, paying the bills, all the little things that everyone all over America does. Then I try to figure out how to catch up on everything. No not the news, the real stuff.

How many photos can I fit in the freezer and still have room for the Richard's frozen gumbo, stocked for those nights when neither of us can decide what to eat? Hmmm, this tupperware is full of little statues my daughter used to collect. They're dry now. The newspaper they were packed in is now like mummy wrappings that need to be soaked off in the bathtub, then peeled bit by bit with archaeological precision so as not to damage the piece. Anxiety and resentment hover over these tasks. Will they be okay? Why do I have to DO this? I have other things I'd much rather be doing. Maybe I should just chuck all this crap and be done with it. Is any of this really worth. . . . .oh, look----tears welling up before I can stop them----she saw this in Chinatown when we lived in San Francisco. . . .she was two and her eyes sparkled when she saw it. . . . . .I have to save it. . . . .This is stupid, she probably won't care anyway and it's just a thing, a little THING. . . .Guilt, guilt. . . .other people lost their lives, their houses, their families, everything. I put the little item into the sink to soak and hate the water that did this to us and hate the people who did nothing for all these years knowing that this kind of levee failure and flooding would be inevitable some day. Then I reach in the box and take out another piece and start the cycle again. Anxiety, resentment, nostalgia, guilt, hatred.

The panic portion of the post-Katrina menu is a real feast for the emotional gourmet. Will we ever get caught up after losing a month's worth of paychecks? Am I really getting early onset Alzheimer's? (It's the only explanation for not knowing what day it is most of the time. I am comforted by the fact that so many others I know are having the same problem. "It's like September never existed," they say. They're right. We got thrown off track and we can't get back on track without constant vigilance and the occasional surreptitious glance at the face of the cell phone--oh yeah, it is the 4th not the 5th---and I really need to pay that bill.) Will we have money to evacuate if we decide we need to? Do we want to? Will there be a job to come back to? Will we live in a limbo of non-security for------get that paper bag please, I'm about to hyperventilate-----years?

Ah, but I saved the very best for last. That lethal emotional combination cocktail---grief and fear. The grief is self-explanatory. The City I knew is gone along with so many people, all the things that the gang talked about previously.

The fear is a fear that Traveling Mermaid bravely mentioned, the fear of being seen as obsessed whiners. That's why we don't talk about how we feel. They'll call us whiners. Hey, they've already called us opportunistic, thieving, and corrupt. Some have even called us stupid for living here before and, certainly, after the storm. Why on earth would we give them fodder and let them add whiners to the list of New Orleanians' faults?

So we hike up our pants, belly up to the bar, order a double, and surrounded by others whose pants are hiked up to the point of being wedgies, we rant some more about levees and the Corps of Engineers. We crack jokes about the Mayor or the Governor. We rail against the President, FEMA, the idiocy of the Stafford Act. We focus on issues, clearly important ones, and we write about them. With a screen between the writer and the reader being a very convenient blind.

And the interviewer says,"Did you know you were living in an historic time?" Giggle, giggle, sniffle, snort. "Well, um, yeah, we did know, but we were just trying to get by every day. We wanted to make music and live through the next hurricane."

Saturday, April 01, 2006

We Are Not Ok

I got an email from fellow NOLA blogger Markus, the writer of the Wet Bank Guide, yesterday. He was thinking that we needed to do a campaign, letting people know that although the Quarter is basically fine (if you don't count the number of businesses and clubs that are open on a limited basis or going out of business), that the rest of New Orleans is still dealing with serious issues. The timing of his email was interesting, because this week I'd heard from people who were still hungry for information about what's going on here, and others who were just plain sick of it. Those of us here get sick of it too, but here we are.

I sat on the porch of a friend last week who, because of work related issues, was moving to Houston this week. We talked a lot about how living here with others who "get it" is important to us. Friends here don't look at you funny if you are suddenly sobbing because the strains of "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans" are coming out of the radio speakers. People here don't think questions like How much water did you get? Y'all getting any mail? When is the deadline for debris pickup? are strange at all.

It had been brought to my attention that I had written via email to a large mailing list more than 54,000 words since early September. Our phone lines, gratefully, were working, and our neighbor had set up a generator in the backyard that powered both our houses in limited spurts. I set up a dialup connection through a New Mexico AOL access number, since none of the Louisiana access numbers were working. And I wrote. Markus' idea about a campaign made me look back at some of what I'd written in those days just after the storm. Some of it was wrenching for me to read as it felt like it was just yesterday. In fact, it WAS just yesterday. This is not an event that took place five years ago, but seven MONTHS ago. A lot of it is still raw, and a lot of the problems are still here and indeed, bigger just by virtue of languishing in the limbo of bickering and inaction.

Written 9.14.2005
Schools here MIGHT open in January but no one knows. The Post Office MIGHT be up and running this week. No one actually knows. Welfare checks are lost, payroll checks can't get to the people via direct deposit because some of the banks still aren't quite up to par. The situation is so fluid that from one day to the next, hell, from morning to afternoon, things change radically. The speed with which some things are being done is incredible, then there are other things that just are not being done at all.
Some schools have opened, and the new date for most of the kids to be back in school is this month. But still in some areas no one knows which schools will be opening when. There are kids in my neighborhood who have missed the entire school year so far and have no idea when they're going back. The Post Office still isn't working quite right, although it's better. A friend got a catalog the other day and it was reason to celebrate! The banks are up and running, so there are fewer glitches with ATM cards, etc. But there absolutely are still things "that just are not being done at all."

Written 9.15.2005
As the power comes on ice is no longer an issue. Stores are opening up, but farther down the Westbank from us so people with no cars will still be in need. What we're finding is that this storm not only took the roofs off houses (in fact a block from our virtually untouched house a house was removed from its foundation and dropped into the intersection. It is now kindling), but it has taken the roof off of some of the pre-Katrina problems that went unnoticed or were purposely ignored. We're finding that some of the problems we're encountering are just pure poverty and these people will still be poor when this is done. That's bothering us a lot. The kind of community outreach that's been done during the aftermath of this storm, needs to continue for some of them who are ill, old, poor and without transportation. A store open 6 miles from here won't do them a damn bit of good if they can't get their food stamps, their money out of the bank if they have any, or transportation to get there. We keep hearing public service announcements, or pieces on the news, saying "Call your doctor and ask. . . . . ." WHAT DOCTOR? These people by and large don't have one, and many of the docs have moved to Texas where Tulane set up shop. I'm not mad at Tulane. They're doing what they have to, and god bless Charity Hospital which has opened their doors again albeit in a limited way. But the people on this side can't GET there. It's on the Eastbank. West Jefferson Medical Center has been wonderful, but again, no public transportation so how do they get there. Many of the people we're seeing were working in service industry jobs, mostly maids at the hotels, things like that, and getting some public assistance. We haven't seen social workers or anything like that running around here.

Not much different now. Charity Hospital is being argued over. Some doctors from there think that for the right price, it can be renovated and put back into service. Others think the whole building needs to be abandoned, but interestingly they have no ideas about what to replace it with. I tend to agree with the renovation idea, but it'll be years before anything is decided. Tulane is back and providing medical services. Public transportation is slowly getting back up and running, but many people are still just plain stuck. A lot of the doctors didn't come back, and many who did come back left again when they found that their patient base had shrunk so significantly that it wasn't economically viable for them to stay in private practice here. There is still an absence of social workers and with rents skyrocketing and crime returning, the same problems we had before are glaring amid the rubble.

Written 9.18.2006
We were both okay til we got to the front of the Cathedral, then all I could do was cry. I cried for the next four blocks as we made our way around the Square. Stacks of cots where the artists usually are. One artist who paints cats every day near the hack stand where the buggies sit, had dripped paint for years on the block at the bottom of the fence around the Square. The paint was still there, she wasn't and we hoped that she was okay. Shops in the Pontalba building filled with masks all fine, just waiting for the doors to open, and in front of them bags and bags of trash and a lost filthy surgical mask. Giant media trucks and mobile medical units in front of Cafe du Monde. No human statues, no jugglers, no balloon guys, not even "One Note Johnny", a guy who played on the Square for change and annoyed everyone with his one note. We were worried about all of them and wishing we could hear his one note.

The media trucks are gone, some of the artists and street entertainers are back. But the area is still very quiet and so many of the New Orleans musicians are gone maybe never to move home. Now we walk by the Cathedral and find that it's not open as many hours as before. Some of the card readers have returned, but we still expect to turn around and find six camoflaged humvees parked along the side of Jackson Square. The images from that time are seared into our memories and sometimes we fall silent as we find the Square nearly abandoned some evenings. It's jolting to hear only your own footsteps on the Square at 7:30PM on a Tuesday night. We're starting to hear a few more footsteps these days and it doesn't feel quite so much like we're living on the moon.

Written 11.22.2005
Signs on houses, "two dead cats", "dog found DOA in kitchen". Sign on a tree, "Found, beautiful little kitten found alive. Please call this number." And that's just the animals. Piles of boats in marinas. Piles of boats is a strange thing to say, but that's what it looks like. Yes, that's what it looks like still, three months after the storm.
We've made some wonderful new friends since the storm, people we wouldn't have known had Katrina not come through here. People who are also living this surreal existence and understand if we've got tears in our eyes 15 minutes from now, because they will have them too 15 minutes after that. Every single one of those people is precious, as anything that survived this storm is made more precious by virtue of its survival.

The X-Code signs are still on many many houses, a constant reminder of devastation, rescue and bodies. You think you're used to seeing them, but then realize that your eye immediately drifts hopefully to one quadrant of the X, and you breathe a sigh of relief when you see a zero there. These are daily reminders. Many of the boats are still piled high and people here are still in an unpredictable emotional state. We are starting to see fewer tears and more anger, often misdirected. People here are already counting down the days til the next hurricane season and the Big Easy has become the Big Un-Easy as people whisper about levees with flashes of fear in their eyes. As Markus said, We are NOT ok.

Also from 11.22.2005
Sixty percent of the city still has no power, which is a minor inconvenience if your house isn't even standing anymore. The population of New Orleans at night is now about 60,000, down from nearly 500,000 prior to the storm. A friend who lives about three blocks from us said he is one of two or three people on his block at night. We're not quite sure how to answer people who ask us if New Orleans is okay now. It would take lots of time to explain and saying "It's doing okay"---which we do say a lot of the time just to not go into it---does a huge disservice to the city that we love. But we simply don't know what else to say sometimes.

The percentage of the city still living without power is now down to about 35% I heard the other day. That's still a lot of people and the weather is getting warm. Now, though, there won't be anyone delivering ice to them. The population is now about 2/5 of our pre-Katrina numbers, but still, that means more than half of us haven't come home or had to leave again once here. We still sometimes don't know how to answer the question of are we okay. How much time do ya have? How much do you really want to know? I've got food in my fridge, my power is on, the garbage gets picked up mostly. We noticed leaning power poles and street signs the other day and D mused that we were so used to it that we didn't realize they weren't supposed to be that way. We've seen the look in our visitors' eyes as they see our city. Many can't even articulate their emotions for days or weeks. We live with it and people outside of here wonder why we're so strident.

Written 12.2.2006 about Thanksgiving dinner, three months after Katrina
And we talked about our determination to stay and help rebuild this wonderful city. Then our friend said, "I really hate poetry, but am wondering if you all would mind if I read this?" We said no, of course we wouldn't mind. He had searched for days for this passage from "Ulysses" by Tennyson:

"Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

We all teared up over that one, and still do when we think about it. It all just seemed surreal. Thanksgiving dinner in a great New Orleans restaurant, all of us at that table traumatized in some way but grateful to be with others who "got it." We knew then and know for sure now, that there were still bodies in the wood and mud blenders that had once been homes. And although we try not to think about it alot now, we know there will be yet more found. It hovers on the edge of our consciousness and pops out as a flash of pain as the news reporter says, "Another body found. . . "

Also written 12.2.2006
But for now, remember that for you: The mail comes to your house every single day. The stores are open, some 24 hours and you don't even have to think about it. Custody issues in your city are no doubt difficult as they all are, but the various parties aren't scattered all over the country and the records at your courthouse are not flooded and being frozen so they can be re-copied. Gas prices are up, but most of your gas stations are open. Businesses that were there last week, are probably still there. Your neighbors, those loudmouths, are still annoying you, but they're still there. Your city's population hasn't gone from 500K to 60K in three months. Your doctor is probably still right where you left him or her. More importantly, you know where your family is whether you want to know or not. Your mayor doesn't have to do a tour rivalling U2 in order to talk with his citizens. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The mental health issues are skyrocketing. The grief counselling clinic is saying that people come in because they lost a loved one in the storm, then the counsellor finds out that this person also lost his house, his belongings, his job, his friends, his traditions, and his family is scattered into four states.

That pretty much stands as written. The only real changes are the population, the gas stations (most are open now), and the length of time from the storm.

As Markus said, We are not okay.

I figured I better read Markus' post We Are Not Ok to make sure we weren't both saying the same thing. It's a stunning piece of writing. He said it better than I could.

Also check out the beautifully written post on Traveling Mermaid's site. We Are Not Ok I Feel Like a Fraud She has shown herself to be anything but a fraud with this piece as she recounts with brutal honesty what her life is like here and calls it "grinding."