Sunday, May 28, 2006

Katrina Brain, Sudden Death and a Dark Ride

Memorial Day weekend, and tomorrow, the ninth month anniversary of Katrina. Strange day. Very Katrina Brain day.

Out with friends last weekend, one of them said: "Do you have Katrina brain? I do. I'm forgetting things all the time, forgetting words, names, where I put things down." I said that yes, that had been happening to me as well. We went on to talk about some of the other Katrina brain issues. I just tried to light my cigarette with my chapstick. Didn't phase me, that kind of thing happens a lot around here. People are gaining weight, losing weight, and not on purpose. Most of us forgive the flakiness of others because we're a little flaky ourselves. It's Katrina Brain. It's a disjointed kind of thing. They need to put xanax and prozac in the water system.

The other day I walked out of my house, fairly normal place: power's on, phone works, AC will really crank up if necessary. I got somewhere on Gov Nicholls around Dauphine and the dog stopped to sniff something intently. My brain didn't register that this something no doubt smelled intriguing to a dog. It was three refrigerators on the sidewalk with the telltale Katrina brown color on the outer walls of them. I hadn't noticed them, they were part of the landscape for so long that they didn't seem strange. But these were strange. It's nine months later and there they were. Hadn't seen one in a while but the brain didn't process this as an anomaly. Probably had just been removed from an apartment or condo building. Maybe not enough work crews. At this point, they are actually something that should stand out since all the others were hauled away, but here they were with my dog straining at the leash to sniff them. ::::::JOLT:::::::

Time can be strange here. Katrina Brain seems to warp time a little. A lot of us still struggle with what day or date it is. The friend who coined the K Brain term was asking if we find ourselves drinking a little more. Most of us said that although we're not drinking every day, we might have three instead of two when we do go out. Everyone at the table (6 of us) nodded in agreement and the pharmacy companies must love New Orleanians. So many of them are medicated these days, then of course there are the ones who aren't.

There is a forum on the state of Mental Health in New Orleans on Wednesday evening. I'm going to go. I think it's something we're going to have to deal with in short order.

A friend of mine who had a really frightening experience with Katrina just lost his business partner and best friend of 20 years to a probable heart attack this week. Life (and death) go on here, storm or no storm, but the impact of a sudden death like this on someone who made it through the storm and the aftermath is emotionally catastrophic. His friend will be greatly missed, of that there is no doubt. He was a very sweet man and a fixture in his shop in the Quarter. But his partner is in complete shock. Of course it happens, death happens, every day, everywhere, but in this environment, when one finally finds a level of normalcy and is still trying to heal the trauma of the storm, this is a blow that while not easy to deal with under any circumstances, might be debilitating for some. I think my friend will be okay, but I could see that his "we're almost back to normal from the storm" security had been ripped out from under him, weighed down by his grief. ::::::::JOLT:::::::


On to anger. In yesterday's paper, this article (you might have to scroll up from the bottom of the page they take you to to find it). Another body found on in a house on Banks Street. They found another on the Wednesday before that. :::::::::JOLT:::::::I emailed the article to myself and decided to write about it. Write about the anger I felt on so many levels. I knew I'd spew about the neglect, the disrespect, the outrageousness of a body still being in a house at this point, but Ashley's post beat me to it and did it better than I could have. Stay on their asses is right. The death count gets higher body by body and some woman in Metairie is writing letters to the editor complaining that the Aquarium's reopening was celebrated on the front page of the paper with a picture of a jellyfish, co-opting space that she thought should have been used to enshrine the American Idol winner and she's sick of hearing about Katrina and the losses and the rebuilding. (A telling statement in her letter was "More people voted for the American Idol winner than voted for President." Frightening but true, and what was more frightening was she didn't see how frightening that statement was.) I don't care if she's sick of hearing about it or not. I'm betting the families of these victims still being found are sick of worrying about what might have happened to their loved one. After all it's been nine months.

From anger to fear. I talked to a friend the other day about the evacuation plans. He had spent several days in the Convention Center. His eyes were clouded with fear just thinking about it. He was literally trembling as he lit a cigarette and said "I'm evacuating if they tell me there's gonna be a big rainstorm!" He laughed a little at his own joke, but his eyes had the look of a man who'd just been held up at gunpoint. He's not the only one. The city is filled with people who are living with an underlying fear. Fear that the Feds won't take responsibility and fix these levees that they built to begin with. Fear that the houses they're rebuilding will be gone again if the levees aren't rebuilt. Fear that no one cares and fear of talking about any of it because people are "sick of hearing about it." After all, it's been nine months.

Nine months. In Utero. New Orleans has spent nine months gestating, growing, evolving from the disastrous one night stand Katrina had when she met the warmth and pressure of the Gulf. In Harry Anderson's show, (which you should see if you get the chance), he does a piece from a movie about carnivals and carnies (wish I could remember the name of the movie--Katrina Brain strikes again.) One line stuck with me, I scribbled it on a napkin in the dark of the club.

"The moment your mama spits you out, it's a dark ride."

It's been a dark ride for nine months and New Orleans is getting antsy to be born, re-born actually. Antsy like a baby past its due date. Those of us here are seeing glimpses of light as one more business re-opens, one more family moves home, one more house is re-built, one more school opens its doors. But we'll carry the grief, the anger and the fear of the last nine months with us for a long time. Maybe forever. We are a different and probably more tenacious people than we were before Katrina's tryst.

Nine months. Tomorrow mama spits us out. I hope it's not a dark ride all the way. I hope the ride ends with a guy helping us out of the little carnival ride boat onto a platform in the sun.

Two days from now is the official start of the 2006 hurricane season. Let's hope Katrina doesn't have any wayward sisters, easily swayed by the Gulf's sweet talking about taking her on a splendid trip to New Orleans. We've gone from Katrina to a new hurricane season. We're now full term, baby.

Take a big first breath, and let out a healthy scream. We'll clean up the blood and the water. We need to kick a lot and hard as they try to calm us. Make sure they know we're here. And don't let them put us in a crib with sides built by the Corps of Engineers.

EDIT: The name of the movie is Nightmare Alley with Tyrone Power, 1947

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Homecomings, Homelessness and a Book

The house across the street from us had been boarded up since the storm. That's what we heard when we moved in here. We were told that the people "stopped by every now and then to check on the house." It's a good sized double shotgun with a big area like a playground next to it.

I hadn't heard any activity over there since we moved in and this is a very quiet street. I'd have heard it if there had been some. One day when I was laying on the couch bemoaning the state of my health, I heard the sound of children. Then the sound of doors slamming, and laughter, and music. Two families, probably one large extended family seemingly headed up by women, were going in and out of the doors. Obviously cleaning out both sides of the house, the women were industrious. The children, three or four of them, were running up and down the steps and getting hollered at every now and then for going into the street. A car pulled up and the wails of welcome filled the street. People jumping out of the SUV, leaving the doors open, running up and hugging everyone else in succession. Beers were opened, music was cranked up, the women and the visitors were dancing on the porch, and the sounds of hurricane stories filled with laughter and tears were told all round. One little girl, with a myriad of shocking pink hair ribbons in her perfectly braided hair watched the adults with bemusement, then shrugged and skipped up and down the sidewalk. The welcome back party went on for hours. It was so beautiful to see that it brought tears to my eyes. They were finally home.

A couple days later, we went to Checkpoint Charlie's. One of the most interesting establishments the city has to offer. It's complete name is Igor's Checkpoint Charlie. It's a combination pool hall, bar, grill, music club and laundromat, complete with poker machines. A brilliant combination. We happened to get there to do our laundry on a Monday night, just in time to hear Patient Zero, a very very smart young man who is a post-Katrina combination of Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Skinny, bright eyed, with very blond dread locks and a very funny between song banter, he sang, we ate, and got our laundry done. He led the bar in a huge chorus of Glory Hallelujah, but with decidedly anti-Bush lyrics which we all knew. (Probably most of us had gotten it in our email at one point or another.) We ran into some other people we knew and since Zola the dog wasn't allowed in (at first, anyway), I set up a stool outside at a table near the window so I could see and hear.

Later on, as we waited for the laundry to dry, and everyone had had a few drinks so objections to the dog had gone out the window, I came inside and sat at a table. We talked with our friends who were there, and the dog just laid on the floor next to us. Suddenly we look up and there is a well dressed black man, in his fifties, with a nice briefcase, wearing glasses with no glass in them. Very dapper, clear skinned, all in black, with a look of fear on his face as he heads for the door. He sees that he has to pass our German Shepherd and he is not happy about it. We convince him that Zola won't hurt him, and the man proceeds to sit down with us. He introduced himself as Welmon Sharlhorne, "the artist." Welmon is a very serious man, slow talking, deliberate in his words. He shows us his art, tells us that his art is in the Ogden Museum (and as it turns out, in quite a few other museums in the folk art collections---do a Google search and there will be pages and pages of his art.} His art, begun while serving 23 years in various stretches in Angola Prison, is all pen (Bic pens) and paper (mostly manila envelopes.) He told us that he could not get paper to draw, but could get manila envelopes by saying he had to write his attorney. He then started creating his drawings.

His drawings always include a clock, set to 10 after 10, which clearly has some significance to which I am not privy. They are fantastical architectural pieces replete with columns and building facades in unexpected places or they are some kind of fantasy bird type creature. They look almost Mayan. Quite remarkable actually. We talk and talk some more and find out that this man is homeless. He lives on the streets of the French Quarter, does most of his work at a table at the Cafe Envie on Decatur and often sleeps on the Moonwalk. How he remains so clean and unwrinkled is a mystery.

Since we have this huge house, we told him he could stay for a night. He wasn't convinced that the dog wouldn't eat him, but as we found out, he wasn't convinced that everyone wouldn't kill him one way or another. He will only eat something that he sees made, will only drink something that he sees made. Totally paranoiac. We put some sheets on the couch for him and had to close both doors to the living room so the dog wouldn't get in. A man of impeccable manners, he told us that he'd been born in Houma, was 53 yrs old, and had only gone to the third grade in school. Well spoken and undereducated, but well versed in getting by, he left the next morning asking only for a washcloth so he could wash up, probably in some public restroom. We told him he could use our bathroom, but he declined. He believes that his time in prison was good for him, that it in fact saved him. I truly don't think that he will ever be able to find a home, pay bills, do the things the rest of us consider normal in this life. A classic New Orleans character, living on the streets and getting by through the kindness of strangers, for sure.

He called for a couple of days, but my husband and I had made an agreement that we had to set boundaries or we could wind up with a dependent. We saw him on the street one day as we went out on our bikes to run errands. He was going to take a bus to the Ninth Ward. He hadn't seen it yet. I wonder if the sight of that area will have an effect on his artwork. Next time I have a couple extra bucks, I'll go track him down, buy him a bottled water and ask him.

Then yesterday I read a book that was remarkable. The book is called, The Five People You Meet In Hell: Surviving Katrina. Written by Robert Smallwood, it is an account of his experiences with staying through the storm and the days after. I know many of the people he talks about in this book because the Quarter is really a small place. Sooner or later you're going to meet everyone or at least know them by sight to nod to as you pass them. It's a quick read, mostly because you can't put it down once you pick it up. He manages to relate the realities and the emotions of those days without being overwrought. I felt as though he was telling me the story. I had actually bought it because I tend to buy books by local writers a lot, and because so many had told me that all the writing I've done since September should be turned into a book. I decided to read Smallwood's book in hopes that I could figure out how to do that. I know nothing about book proposals, etc. Once I started reading it, I was laughing with him, crying with him, and wanting to have a drink with him. He talked about hearing Ray Nagin's radio interview in which Nagin told the nation in no uncertain terms that New Orleans needed help. Smallwood said he went out onto his balcony and cheered. My husband and I had cheered too when we heard it. We had tears in our eyes and cheered.

Interestingly, Smallwood evacuated the day we were sneaking back into town. (His description of the airport is harrowing.) Our story starts where his story ends. Reading his book was like getting the missing puzzle piece that fell between the couch cushions. (His book is available at Amazon---here's the link--it took me three hours and four bookstores to find it here in town. It's evidently selling out. Seems I missed him at Acadia Books on Orleans by two minutes.) Although the book could have used a better proofreader (although I loved the irony of cavalry being mispelled as "Calvary"), it is compelling. This guy doesn't bash you over the head with "gee it was horrible." He talks instead about the people of New Orleans, how they managed. He completely captured the spirit of the place that we returned to.

He loves the carriages and knows Armando's cigar store. Sweet Armando helped me pick out a humidor for my husband's cigars. I'm bound to run into him one day and when I do, I want to thank him.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

And the Dog Tried to Eat the Window Shades

What a weird weekend, and my tongue is positively bleeding down my chin from biting it. So many things to bite my tongue about. I have a lot to do today, so I'm probably going to forego the links (most of the folks I reference today are linked on the left side of the blog anyway), and just tell you what this weekend has been like.

In a word: schizophrenic---lots of "hearing voices." What are the voices saying?

We'll start with the election. Landrieu, for whom I voted, lost. Anyone who's been reading what I've been writing here knows why I voted for Landrieu. I didn't hate Nagin. I just thought Nagin would not be as effective as Landrieu.

I've read all the articles and various blogs. Read the analyses of the elections,and heard locals discussing it. I will say that I was surprised by Nagin's victory. That being said, I'm really hoping that some of the near panic I heard from people upset by Nagin's re-election will abate over time. Fellow blogger, Ashley, is very upset, but also said that the new faces on the City Council might help things. I think he's right. He also has a great refrain that I think we should all tattoo on our foreheads, or at least have some banners made: "It happened on their watch." I said in a comment that since Nagin won, we really have to hold his feet to the fire now. I think Ashley's "It happened on their watch" is a good bottom line approach. We need to remember that. Fellow blogger, Mark over at the Wet Bank Guide, is talking about "Playing the Hand We're Dealt" (again, forgive the lack of links today. If I have time later I'll put them in, but am in a hurry. Check the blogroll and you'll find these people there.) Mark is correct. It's a done deal. Keep whining, keep panicking, keep fleeing and we'll never accomplish a damn thing. If Nagin is the one in office, then we have to play that hand. We simply cannot go into a negative spin and assume that we're all doomed. Instead, we now absolutely must become more activist. Another NOLA blogger, Da Po' Blog, had a great take on the Chocolate City remarks. He reminds us that it became a chocolate city when the vanilla folks all ran away, the great white flight. He also explains beautifully how much more impact Katrina had on the black population here than the white. They were disproportionately impacted and they are also disproportionately displaced. Great piece of writing and perhaps offers a bit of understanding for why the vote went the way it did.

Ashley's information on, as it's now called, the Oyster/Adrastos theory (I will be adding links to those two blogs this afternoon), was incredibly helpful. In a nutshell, their view was sort of two fold. First that Republicans would rather have Nagin than Landrieu. Second, that there was a kind of "up yours" from New Orleans to the rest of the country for not supporting us with federal dollars in an almost cut off your nose to spite your face New Orleans oppositional disorder vote for Nagin. There was also the fear of the "Landrieu dynasty," which I can't help but wonder might have been fueled by looking at what the Bush "dynasty" has done lately. I had said in a previous post that if Landrieu won it would be because of or in spite of his connections. As it turns out, people who voted against Landrieu felt much concern over the "dynastic" family idea, although the surprise vote, according to the Times-Picayune today, was the business owners who felt that Nagin was more supportive of businesses than Landrieu. (Of course, Ray's comment on sending businesses who chose to leave a postcard probably made some of them re-think their votes. Can't we PLEASE get this guy a handler?)

Then of course, we have the glorious out of towners who have no idea how New Orleans people actually feel, or what kinds of issues we're looking at, who are busily saying we're all crazy or drunk down here and that's why Nagin was voted in. They're sick of hearing about us, they're sick of a guy who cusses out the President, and of course, the always lovely Michelle Malkin drags out her "wingnut" epithets and barely disguised racism in her analysis. (I guess we can count our blessings that she didn't publish the names of everyone who voted for Nagin so they could get death threats like the protesters in California. She likes to do that stuff.) I'm sick of these people. I'm also sick of some of the New Orleans residents that post to the Times Picayune forums fanning the flames of racial and class divisions, and tossing out slurs of one sort or another. Some of them busily telling people who are writing to ask if they should come home that the city is going down in flames and they should stay put in Idaho. Fear mongering and ignorance of the realities. I'm sick of it, sick of them and sick of trying to be nice about it.

This is all happening days before the new hurricane season starts. With reports of new evac plans and supposedly fewer hurricanes this season, the post-K tension is in the air. I can see a bit of fear in everyone's eyes as the season approaches. Ashley's view that we are in this "Ourselves Alone" is shared by most of us here and is an overwhelming weight on already tense and weakened emotional shoulders. And there is anger blending with the fear. And this morning's news reports that a new report has come out stating that 80% of the city's flooding was caused by levee breaches not the storm and could have been avoided. Naah, really? How many MRE's do we have stashed in the shed, darlin?

In our little NOLA blogosphere, there is a difference of opinion. Some, like Traveling Mermaid, whom I read every day, is hoping for a more upbeat, positive slant to our posts. She totally understands that people outside of NOLA are reading our writing. She wants us to stop bashing and be less negative. I understand that. I've been carrying on about perception for a long time now. She's got a point.

Meanwhile, over at Suspect Device, whom I also read every day, the view is that we're angry. That we must keep the reality of life in New Orleans in front of people. Bash them if we have to. We simply can't go over and give the Corps of Engineers a medal and a pat on the back. The feds built these levees and we have to hold them accountable. (For the record, I've edited out at least seven "fucks" in this post. I understand the anger.) I understand his point of view. He's as right as Mermaid is.

What's concerning me most is the damn divide. Our country is already in a state of silent civil war, even within our own families. As the ever balanced super-blogger Polimom says, the middle ground is harder to find these days.

So now what, New Orleans? The election was close, less than 6000 votes in an already population depleted city made the difference. So do we now keep those divisions active and have a city in the midst of a civil war? Do we do the "blue/red" rubber bracelets in purple for Nagin, green for Landrieu and gold for "hey I wasn't here, I was displaced?" Look how well that's worked for the country! We absolutely cannot have that here.

We keep a racial divide? Not gonna help. Class divisions? Lakeview vs. Ninth Ward? Not gonna help.

And now NOLA bloggers are going to argue over who's too positive and who's too negative in their perceptions? It's not gonna help. Let's not go after each other.

With the election over, we've analyzed and commented. Now let's get on with it. Find a way to be helpful, find some way to contribute to the rebuilding of this city that's positive, regardless of your feelings about the outcome of this election. If you can't do that, then all the romantic rhapsodies you're written about your love for this city will be for naught. In fact, they will be lies. If you love it, then help it. We need to hold the feds accountable. Let's get on that. Write some letters. Put Senator Landrieu on your speed dial. Hell, put Jindal (god help us all if he runs for Governor) on your speed dial. Do SOMETHING.

If you're blogging, don't worry so much about what one person or another thinks of what you're writing. When this is all said and done, it's going to be all perspectives that will matter. We need some people writing and talking about the progress being made and we need others to bash. Some in the middle wouldn't hurt, but both sides are right as both sides are reporting from their own personal emotional vantage point, and lord knows, those are all over the map in New Orleans right now.

We're all schizophrenic, but let's put ALL the voices in our collective heads out there with a vengeance. Shine the Light, but make sure the readers also get a tour of the Dark. Thank those who helped and are continuing to, bless those who helped and are continuing to, and say fuck you to those who are ignoring or bashing us.

With any luck Mitch Landrieu will run for Governor next year.

Now I have to go fix a shade that the schizophrenic dog tried to eat. Luckily they just came down, no real damage. My vet says the dog has such severe separation anxiety that he needs pheno-barbitol. Maybe I should share it with him. I am developing a severe case of "division anxiety."

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Not My Usual But. . . . . .

. . . . I just can't let this one pass. George Bush Backs English as National Unifying Language. Okay, so does that mean he'll be taking remedial English as a Second Language classes?

::::::::sorry guys, I just couldn't resist::::::::::it's been making me giggle all night::::::::::::

Friday, May 19, 2006

Weird Considerations and Fleeting Thoughts

I said yesterday that I was under the weather. Well, that was a fact. Turned out that the "thing" ripping my guts out as we moved into our new house was a kidney stone. Something the size of a grain of sand that has slowed my progress in getting settled---infuriating. Anyone who knows me knows I don't do illness well. I get impatient with its limitations of my activities. But here in New Orleans, where only 1 of 4 (or 1 of 5 depending on which article you read) doctors have returned since the storm, an illness presents a series of problems, not the least of which is where is a doctor? With our health insurance gone, money also became a consideration. Do we go to an ER? Is there an ER open yet? As of a couple months ago we still only had the little trauma center down on Calliope. As it turns out, Tulane's ER is up and running. That's a good thing, but it hadn't dawned on us to check until we thought we might need one. Turned out I didn't need one, but my husband looked at me at one point and said, "If I have to take you to an ER, I don't have a clue where to take you." That's when we found out Tulane was indeed open. A weird consideration that's probably not happening in other major cities.

Weird considerations that turn up in conversation:
"If another storm comes, and we leave a car here, do we park it in the driveway behind the locked fence or leave it on the street?" "I dunno, why ya asking?" "Well if we leave it in the street it could be stolen, or worse." "True." "But if we put it in the driveway, and it's a big storm, it could just come right through the house or the gigantic pecan tree could fall on it." "Also true." Opt for the street. Stolen car or siphoned gas is better than car on the roof. We've seen enough cars on the roof for one lifetime. Easier to replace the car than the house.

"I might have to leave New Orleans." "Why? You're doing okay!" "Yes, but my landlord just raised my rent from $1400 to $2000 a month." (I also saw postings about this kind of thing on Times Picayune's message boards. Seems to be a rash of this sort of thing.) "Oh my god! What are you going to do?" "I don't know, but I can't pay that kind of rent. I might have to leave." What the market will bear. Okay, but the people ARE the market and what happens if the people can't bear that?

Mayoral Debate WWL-TV last night:
Two bald guys, one black, one white, with shining pates (where WERE those makeup girls with their powder?) saying almost the same thing. This has been, overall, a very civil campaign and I'm grateful for that. The candidates did seem to understand that the nation was watching this election. Two very sincere, intelligent men of service answering questions that seemed of more local interest (imagine that in a mayoral campaign!) than the assault by Chris Matthews the other night. For many of us it's still a tough call. Nagin went through this mess with us. My husband and I stood up and cheered as he cussed on the radio asking for help down here. We love the guy's sheer ballsiness and we don't doubt for a minute that he has New Orleans' best interests at heart. But as I've said before, I think he's burned too many bridges to be effective at the state and local levels. Landrieu also seems to have a genuine love for our city. Hell, he'd have to to even want this job at this time. When all is said and done, I think this is going to be a very very close race. If Nagin wins, I think he'll have a very hard time getting federal and state money that is needed down here. If Landrieu wins, I think his administration will be scrutinized within an inch of its life. Both of them have been gentlemen in this campaign. I think, as each of them loves to say, "at the end of the day", Landrieu will win because of his connections, or in spite of his connections. Whichever way you choose to view that.

Lucy Bustamante asked an interesting question, and they both answered tellingly. The question was something like: "Which politician in the last hundred years do you most respect or see as a role model?" Neither skipped a beat, Nagin answered first. Nagin's answer: Dutch Morial. Landrieu's answer: Moon Landrieu. The racial and dynastic questions thrown at them during this entire campaign were almost symbolically played out in those two answers.

Meanwhile, fellow blogger Mark of the Wet Bank Guide noticed a slacking off of bloggers in NOLA. He wonders in his latest post whether we're all too busy or too tired. He, in turn, tells us to read, if we haven't, a most amazing post from Traveling Mermaid. I did. It's beautiful. For any of us who are sick of listening to our own thoughts on life in a post-Katrina world, or for anyone who just needs to know there are others out there in the same post-K state of mind, the Mermaid's post is a kick in the butt. She reminds us that we will rise up, that indeed, we MUST rise up. Thanks to both of them for the kick.

So while we who live here sometimes feel like we're in the middle of a badly cut John Carpenter movie, we have to understand that our weird considerations and fleeting thoughts are part of post-K zeitgeist.

And hey, we have an election tomorrow and there's an ER open. Little steps. Little steps.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Steinbeck Moment

No, I am by no means comparing my writing to Steinbeck! I read the current season's evacuation plan and the Times Picayune article on Nagin's announcement of the evacuation plan. Surprisingly, it brought up a surge (no pun intended) of images and emotions that I'd buried since August.

My husband and I evacuated. Really, really late. We had decided we were not leaving. We were nervous about it, but we were okay with our decision in a twisted sort of way. After all, we lived on Algiers Point, a known high ground (although high ground wasn't really something we were thinking about at that time. The catastrophic flooding thanks to the levee breaches wasn't even considered.) We had both worked most of the day Saturday in the Quarter. I was listening to the news reports and the press conferences on the radio in the shop on Bourbon Street, Yesteryear's, that I worked in. It was a pretty high tension day, but most people I talked to that day were adopting, or more likely pretending to adopt, a laissez-faire view. Most of them had been through many hurricanes before, and although they seemed to know that this one might be the "big one" most of us just continued on. Who knew we were less than 48 hours away from a watery Armageddon? My husband, driving a carriage on Jackson Square, was asked if he wanted to head on in to the barn. He didn't know why they were asking that question. He hadn't heard any of the reports.

(By the way, for a remarkable timeline of the levee breaches, take a look at the interactive map on NOLA. It certainly explains how some people, upon waking up Monday morning early, were dry, only to be floating on mattresses within an hour--a true story that I'll recount later.)

At any rate, I started hearing reports on the radio about stations running out of gasoline all over New Orleans, so I left work, got in the car and filled up the tank, then went back to work. I was glad I did it, as reports were that by Saturday night, there was no gasoline to be found in the city.

Sunday morning rolled around. Our neighbors loaded up the car and left, we told them we were going to stay. We turned on the TV and checked online weather maps. We had still decided not to go. Then Mayor Ray Nagin got on, said mandatory evacuation, explained that the situation was dire, that the Superdome would be open as a "shelter of last resort" and finished up with something akin to "God help us all." My husband walked into our kitchen and we did the pros and cons thing, then did the big shrug thing, then did the only reasonable thing to do since it was now Sunday, August 28th about 11:30AM----we tossed a coin. Not once, but twice. He took out his lucky silver dollar given to him by our daughter, and tossed it once for stay or go, once for east or west. The coin toss said go east, and the TV reports were also blaring that "the roads going east were clear." We threw some clothes into backpacks, minimal stuff, got the dog food, the cat food, the cat carriers, and a couple bags of food, including the mandatory peanut butter and Bunny bread (Bunny bread being a horrible substance that turns to playdough in your mouth in one bite!) We loaded all this and the animals into our car and got on I-10 East headed to Alabama.

We hit traffic, not traffic really, a parking lot moving en masse at a top speed of 5 mph. So much for "the roads are clear going east." As we churned along I-10 past New Orleans East, we were surprised by the number of homes there that were not boarded up at all. Traffic isn't my husband's strong suite, and he said at one point, "We're turning around." I said no. On a normal day, it would take about 30-40 minutes to drive from our house to the Twin Span. That Sunday it took us more than three hours and we still weren't out of New Orleans. The traffic remained a moving parking lot all the way through the Louisiana/Mississippi line. We were headed to Mobile, had to stay on I-10 all the way.

We saw the outer bands of the storm off in the distance on the Twin Span. Later both of us admitted that we were sure we were going to ride out the storm on the Twin Span, fly off into the Lake and be fishbait. My biggest fear was being stuck in the car as the storm hit.

What we saw on the road, as we headed into the storm's path, was straight out of Grapes of Wrath. A pickup truck with four little girls in the back, no camper shell, just four little girls. Vehicles of all descriptions and in varying states of upkeep, some carrying one person and a lot of stuff, others carrying seven people and no stuff. Many of the people we saw clearly had no money. They had somehow managed to get gas, and that may well have been the last of their money. Many had no real destinations. A friend of ours weathered the storm in his car in a rest stop, where he and four other cars bunched their vehicles together in hopes that the winds would have a harder time with a bigger target. We knew that many of the people on the road that day would be doing exactly that, riding out the storm in their vehicles with little kids along for the ride. There is a little boy, about 5, standing on the side of the road with his mother somewhere in Mississippi, holding her hand and looking very scared. His mother just looks defeated. Their faces will haunt me forever. And their fate is unknown to me. We had no room in our car. I wish we had had a way to help them and all the others like them. These people keep me awake at night.

We wound up being contra-flowed onto a northbound road into Hattiesburg. We had told the guy at the big orange cones that we had to stay on I-10. He said, "No problem, go this way." We did. We, along with thousands of others, were headed north to Hattiesburg. We were also in need of gas. We found a gas station. The police, in this little town whose name I don't remember, were all out just trying to direct traffic as there were hundreds of cars waiting to get cash and gas at this station. People were very nice, although very stressed. Incredibly polite given the circumstances, but all somehow knew that they had no control over this situation and so we all waited, jockeying our cars into weird angles to get as many people gassed up as possible. We got some more cash before their ATM ran out, as we knew it would sooner or later, and continued on. We had been told that there was no place in Hattiesburg for shelter. We had to keep going. We had no idea where we were actually, and called our daughter who navigated us onto side roads via cell phone and a great mapping program. We finally arrived in Mobile around midnight just as they were about to close the roads across the Bay there. We kept saying we were idiots for driving straight into the storm.

The roads all along the way were littered with cars that had broken down, people sitting by the side of the road, dejected and with probably about the same number of belongings that we had with us if they were lucky, but far fewer resources and probably no daughter with a mapping program to help them out. Some had little ones, some were eating sandwiches or drinking water, waiting. We had no idea what they were waiting for as it was pretty clear that no Triple-A truck would be coming along through the traffic to save them, and that was assuming they had such a plan. Most of the people we saw broken down didn't look like they had a pot to piss in.

And most, if not all, thought they'd be home in a day or two. Maybe there would be a tree limb down or a roofing problem at their house, but that's about all they expected. Power outages would be expected, damage in the streets was expected. A day or two was ALL that was expected. People talk all the time about why people didn't leave. Well, folks, many many did. And they found themselves marooned out in the middle of no where with no home to come back to. Not all of these people were impoverished, but many we saw on the road were. This storm also hit at the tail end of the month. If someone was waiting for a welfare check, that check wouldn't have been expected until the first of September. I'm talking about the people who did evacuate, not the ones blamed for dying because they didn't.

We had a place to go, but what if we hadn't? We aren't rich, that's for sure, and while we're not living in extreme poverty either, we couldn't have held on too long out there if hotel rooms and food (oh yeah, and what about the 120 lb german shepherd and two cats?) and more gas had been necessary. We heard on the car radio that the nearest hotel room was in Dallas. That's a mighty long way to go.

The evacuation plan for this year struck me as a bit disingenuous. My favorite parts are things like "keep your TV tuned to a local station" or "check our website for instructions and evacuation maps." Okay, I guess that will work up as long as there is power, but it still seems bizarre and a bit elitist to rely on electronic media for any of this. And what about people with no computers? That isn't factored in. Discussions about mandatory evacuations for a Cat 2 and above, or evacuating people in FEMA trailers for a tropical storm, sound good in terms of a plan to some people. But there is something that is left out of all this. MONEY. Oh yeah, and MONEY.

Most people don't have a couple grand sitting in the bank just for evacuation (or possibly five or six evacuations in a season). At least not the people I know. Most of us are just trying to make ends meet in a Post-Katrina economy. "Well, then you shouldn't have come back." I can hear that one now. I'm choosing to ignore it.

It would appear that they are trying very hard to take care of the elderly and the sick, that's good. They are factoring in people and their pets (you can take them on the buses as long as they're crated---Do you have a crate?) And they seem to have people who have cars and financial resources covered. But what about the great, huge masses in the middle? Evacuation plans, whether they be here in New Orleans or any other city, assume that people have resources to get out. Financial resources.

How much cash do you have in your house? If the ATM is out of money, or the power is out, or there is a two hundred dollar limit, will you be okay with $200 bucks? For how long? Will there be any gas? What if you only have 100 bucks in the bank, or 50? For some people that is the reality. Will you be able to afford it (hey, if you have an SUV, you'll use most of that 200 max ATM withdrawal just to keep it filled up!) Forget health insurance savings accounts, 401K's, IRA's. What you need, no matter whether you live in hurricane land or earthquake city, you need an evacuation fund. Lots of cash in your house at all times. It's the little basic stuff that seems overlooked in any of these "plans."

I'm not saying we shouldn't have a plan. Of course we should. Look at the mess in Texas during Hurricane Rita. It wasn't just New Orleans evacuations that were horrendous. Any city, trying to evacuate 100K+ people is gonna have a mess on their hands no matter what kind of plan they devise. But I'm betting that any city's plan I could read is also forgetting about people who live paycheck to paycheck, and those folks do exist in every city in America. No kidding! They really do. (Damn, wish I hadn't paid that $350 buck electric bill already! Hurricane's coming!)

Wouldn't the better idea be to make absolutely sure that the levees are built properly and armored right so that if an evacuation must take place, at least it would be more likely to be a two day thing instead of a nine month, open ended displacement? New Orleans would have survived Katrina, with damage to be sure, but it would not have been the catastrophe it was had the levees not broken. They must be fixed.

And clearly our govenment, federal, state and local, was not prepared for a disaster of this magnitude with this many people displaced. But neither were the people who were on the roads that day. Rather than evacuation plans that ignore the economic realities of a lot people, maybe we should be looking into some kind of regional rescue/sheltering. Remember all those fallout shelters in the 60's? Or London's shelters during the blitzes of WW2. They live on an island. Where would they evacuate to? Maybe we need to start thinking in those terms instead of sending panicked people out to clog the roads with no destination and in some cases, no money. And who's to say that some of the states already saturated with our Katrina evacuees are going to be so open to us next time?

Where's Roosevelt when you need him? Bring back the WPA and Civil Defense. Put WPA to work on the levees, rebuilding houses. Build some shelters, have neighborhood Civil Defense guys out pointing the way to the big yellow signs.

Let's put FEMA on this. This sounds like "Emergency Management" to me. Just change it from Fallout Shelter to Hurricane Shelter. Okay, and maybe change the color to green.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Once More unto the Breach, My Friends

Well, well. It's become absolutely Shakespearean around here. From Henry V:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!

Let's just switch that to our New Orleans' dead.

Today's announcement by the Corps of Engineers that the floodgates and pumps won't be ready by June 1 as promised, surprises no one.
We've all pretty much expected this.

But you gotta love the quote from "Col. Lewis Setliff III, chief of the corps' Task Force Guardian team overseeing repairs to all sections of the hurricane protection system damaged last season by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

"Yes, it means we will have diminished pump capacity from already diminished pump capacity, and I know that scares people," Setliff said.

Gee, ya think?

Hey, Colonel? How goes it in St. Bernard?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Moving with Mardi Gras Bead Bags

I am surrounded by a sea of brown, not my favorite color on a good day. Definitely not my favorite color at the moment as the entire house is filled with brown moving boxes waiting to be emptied. It was a bit easier this time. I didn't pack quite so well, after all, the stuff only had to get six miles from where it started, and of course, half of it had never been unpacked from the last move. That was just the stuff in the house. Katrina helped out by eliminating many boxes that were in storage, so I didn't have to get the really big truck. Besides, when all is said and done, we have entirely too much stuff. And we feel it more keenly in the face of so many who have nothing.

I knew boxes were going to be in short supply, and as it turned out we used all the boxes we had even though we'd put a few aside for emergency last minute stuff. I set about filling boxes, calling the utilities, getting the new lease signed for double the rent we were paying. We moved from Algiers Point and our wonderful neighbors, to the Marigny Triangle on the east bank of the river. One of the biggest reasons that we had decided to move was that the commute and transportation logistics were taking over our lives. Algiers Point, while just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, can seem like Alcatraz if the Ferry isn't running.

Before Katrina we commuted by bicycle. The Ferry ran from 6AM to midnight, leaving either side of the river every half hour. Sometimes midnight wasn't late enough, if there was some really good music going on, as there usually was, but in that case the bikes could land in the trunk of a taxi and home we'd go. After Katrina, it was a long time before the Ferry started running again. Like the rest of New Orleans, a city that had and used a pretty good urban mass transit system, the Ferry staff had been scattered or were sobbing in front of their devastated homes. When the system started up again, the hours were shortened to 6AM to 8:45PM, which made it impossible to use it if you worked nights across the river. Everyone held out hope that it would return to at least the pre-Katrina hours, but it didn't and from all reports won't, possibly ever. The question of whose decision the new hours are remains a mystery. Our neighbor called four different entities related to the running of the Ferry and got four different answers. The answers ranged from fuel costs to staffing issues to the people on Algiers Point not wanting the "Eastbank element" to have access to the Westbank by Ferry after a certain time. The answers were no help at all. And, in the end, it didn't make any difference. Our choices were to buy another vehicle or move. We decided to move.

What we found were exhorbitant rents, landlords with bizarre requirements (sometimes worded in ways that just skirted the anti-discrimination laws), and demands for deposits that were high enough to constitute a down payment on a house in Dubuque. We found a place, great place, are paying double our rent, and will be paying off the deposit for the next six months. The price of living in New Orleans these days is high, financially and emotionally. We're scraping by, just, but have wondered how the people with FEMA vouchers that are about to run out are going to manage once that money is gone. They will be unable to work service industry jobs and pay the high rents, which will force them out of the city making it harder for the small businesses and restaurants to get workers and stay in business, which is already a tenuous proposition. The same circle/cycle I've talked about before.

The utility bills are skyrocketing (haven't actually had the nerve to look at ours yet, it's on my to do list for today) and BellSouth is something else again.

Everyone has moved at some point and called the phone company to have their service moved. After trying to sell me DirectTV, a new long distance plan and DSL service, they finally get the order in for our service to move. I say "I need it turned off here May 1 and turned on there May 3." (As it turned out, our move was delayed by three days so those dates didn't even matter!) "I'll have to put you on hold for a minute, is that okay?" "Sure." "Ma'am, it looks like there will be a bit of a delay in getting your new service up at your new address. Looks like the soonest I can get someone to set this up is ***/4." Sounded to me like she said 5/4, so I responded with, "That's no problem. I can wait one extra day!" "No, ma'am, I don't think you heard me correctly. I said 9/4." "9/4?" I repeat as it sinks in. "You mean SEPTEMBER 4?" "Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry. I've heard of some people getting it sooner though." "How much sooner?" "They get their service in two months or so." "Two months? Do you realize where my new address is? I'm not asking for service in an area of the city that has to be completely rewired, like New Orleans East!" "I don't know, ma'am, I'm not in Louisiana. September 4 is the soonest we can get to you." Amazed I hung up the phone and decided to switch to Cox.

Sounds strange but my decision was a hard one. After the storm I managed to jerry rig an internet connection to get information out because BellSouth's lines continued to work in my area. Cox took weeks and weeks to get their lines back up and running. With another hurricane season just two weeks away, I was worried that should another storm hit, I would be unable to communicate if I switched to Cox. In a normal city in the normal world, my decision would have been made based entirely on the ridiculous lag time of four months to get a telephone, but in post-Katrina New Orleans, there are other considerations.

Levees, elections, FEMA, SBA, insurance adjusters--all this is part of life in New Orleans all these months after the storm. But there are the little things like four month waits for phone service or Ferry schedules that are also a regular part of our daily concerns that are unlike life in other American cities. I recently had a friend visit after having spent several years working in the Ukraine. Some of the minor details that we all took for granted before the storm have been so turned upside down that these aspects of life are sounding more and more like his tales from Odessa.

At least the mail has gotten better. The post office actually forwarded our mail when it said it would, and the first piece of mail I got was our official SBA loan denial letter saying that we were being referred back to FEMA. I felt nothing as I read it, nothing. Not anger, not sadness, just a weird kind of resignation. We are starting to believe that the unstated bureaucratic strategy is to wear people down to the point that they give up. We have said over and over that we won't give up, it's a matter of principle, but upon opening that envelope that numb resignation made me understand the concept of giving up.

The worst part of the numbness is this strange sense that we are not part of our own country, we're not going to actually get help. Not just this household, but thousands of households here. Huge sums are bandied about in the media, but so few have actually gotten any help. We were a big story when looters were all over the CNN screens, but now we have totally become yesterday's news. The problem is that yesterday's news for people outside of this surreal bubble is today's reality for those of us inside it.

So many beautiful words have been written in articles and on blogs about why we stay here, what makes New Orleans so special, the almost irrational attachment we have to our city. There are days when it certainly occurs to us that life could be so much easier if we just moved back into the "United States" instead of staying in this uncertain, unsteady swamp that seems to have been disowned. Just move somewhere where everything works and every day isn't filled with debris piles and commercials by law firms expressing a desire to help you fight your insurance company (this usually is followed by a lovely, homey insurance company commercial telling you what a good neighbor they are, that they're there or what good hands you're in.) Just move somewhere where there isn't a man on TV telling you to report FEMA fraud (you know, that guy who actually got some help and you're jealous, so turn him in--no doubt he got the money fraudulently--it must have been fraud since he got it!) Just move to a place where the storm that wiped out a city isn't in your face every day in some way.

But then there's this irrational attachment everyone writes about. It's undeniable--illustrated perfectly in the perfection of our denial. We believe we can rebuild our lives and our city and we set about it with a look of grim determination on our faces. Sure there's another hurricane season coming, but it's two weeks away! Besides, the worst of it usually comes towards fall. We've got time to get some things done before that. We'll do it on our own since it's clear that's what we'll have to do even while we secretly harbor hope that Washington will eventually do right by us, and do it in time.

Besides, we're resourceful people. Quirky little bastards making art from debris, that's us!

Oh, and for future reference, when moving if you run out of boxes, the giant Mardi Gras bead bags are excellent for moving special pieces. Just wrap the statue in a towel and place it in the bag. Then do the same with that special bowl. Now you've packed both the towels you had no box for AND the special things you didn't want broken. As I said, we're resourceful.

Besides those bead bags are so much more colorful than brown cardboard boxes. For us, New Orleans is the bead bag, and we just can't move to a brown cardboard box, even if it's packed perfectly with reinforced tape.