Monday, October 30, 2006

Rebirthing Elvis and the Pirates10.30.2005

Rebirthing Elvis and the Pirates
10/30 2:50 PM

Hi all,
Last night was the Saturday night before Halloween, which in New Orleans, is a huge holiday. It was also the re-opening of the Cabildo, closed since the storm. The Cabildo is a gorgeous building right next to St. Louis Cathedral. Now a museum, it is where the Louisiana Purchase was signed.

It was a little chilly last night. On Jackson Square, right in front of the Cabildo, a stage was set up. The Rebirth Brass Band was coming back to town to play for us. They are a premiere New Orleans brass band that started on Jackson Square playing for tourists and now tours the country regularly. They are local favorites, and known for being late or sometimes taking a "break" that lasts for two hours! David had gotten another tour so I was going to have to wait another hour before we could have dinner, so I got a rum and coke and headed for the Square. Once there I took up my favorite observational point, sitting at the base of the lamp post on the corner of Pirate's Alley and Chartres. I've spent hours sitting there over the past year just watching people. Last night was a great night for it.

Waiting for Rebirth to show up were about 250 stalwarts, many locals, some curious tourists. Some of the women were dressed to the nines in dresses, glorious fall shawls and heels. Most people were dressed more casually and some were dressed for Halloween. One couple had gotten a blue roof, a big blue tarp being put on roofs all over the city, and had fashioned it into suspendered pants for him and a strapless gown for her. They did a beautiful job. The stage was well lit, and on the stage little tiny kids were dancing around the big bareness of it, barely avoiding knocking over mic stands that were awaiting a screaming trumpet. Bicycles rode by, one of the local artists was back with his bike trailer filled with his work. He stopped to wait for the band a while then decided to head out instead and barely missed a collision with a krewe of folks dressed in highly imaginative anti-FEMA costumes. There were about five of them, some in coveralls with the big X's that are spray painted on all the houses explaining in code what was found inside, when and by whom. Most of us can now read the "X legends" on the sides of houses without benefit of a code book. A giant human MRE passed by, simple but smart--an overly large brown paper bag onto which had been glued all the various pieces and parts of an MRE, including the heater pack.

The area in front of my lamp post was noisy with laughter and squeals of delight as friends caught sight of each other. No one was bothered when the spokesperson from the Cabildo opened the mic and explained that the band had been caught in traffic coming from Baton Rouge. Everyone here knows that the traffic between here and there these days is horrendous. She apologized and one of the guys near me collected money from all of his middle aged friends along with their drink orders and trudged down the Alley to bring back a few more glasses. The trash container next to my lamp post was already full and had the usual array of empty go-cups sitting on top. Looked pretty normal for New Orleans. Felt more normal than it had since Katrina came along. I even saw some people on a balcony just the other side of St. Peter on Chartres stringing lights on their iron work and dangling it like Mardi Gras beads almost to the street.

I turned around slightly and behind me, leaned up against the Cathedral was Elvis and two pirates. The news crews seized on them, interviewed them and Elvis camped it up. The two pirates leaned against the wall trying to look as tall as possible as the news camera rolled. The Cathedral Elvis was short, but his costume had outdone theirs so they did their best Lafitte on Pirate's Alley and it all came off as casually indifferent exhibitionism, and it was wonderful.

The spokesperson returned to the mic and said that some of the band members had arrived. Four of them got on stage in the glaring light and before a note was sounded, the trumpet player says, "Don't even ask. NO I didn't get my FEMA check, my house is gone AND my wife left me, so when someone says they lost everything, I got them beat! But I sure am glad to be home in New Orleans!" The crowd screamed and there was a strange echo through the crowd of "I didn't get mine yet either did you?" Then the tuba player turns, starts moving up and down, plays those deep notes---do do do DO DO do---and then the blast came. People jumping up and down, dancing everywhere, laughter and joy and shouts. This continued for three songs while the old black danced with a broom in an intricate set of steps, hamming it up for the cameras in front of the stage. A man known to the band was called up onstage to sing. The music started up again, rolling over us with the power of the Mississippi River moving a log, and no one could stand still but there were tears in our eyes as the man sang, "Lord Lord Lord Lord you sure been good to me, and I know it was the hand of the Lord." By now some of the other band members had made it in from Baton Rouge and the sound grew and the crowd grew and the love of the city grew.

Between songs a little banter between the band and the crowd had everyone laughing. I'm not the only one who is upset with Tom Benson! And there was such resolve to rebuild this wonderful place, even knowing how difficult a task that will be. Naturally, all this would have to be followed with "The Saints Come Marching In" and it was, and just as naturally a second line started snaking past the stage and through the crowd. People cakewalking, some waving white sweatshirts or cocktail napkins as they hadn't brought their hankies. One man, in his 60's, naked from the waist up, joined the second line and leapt through the crowd grinning while Elvis incongruously danced near the corner of the stage. No hip-shaking from Elvis. What he really needed was a parasol to pump up and down.

From behind me I hear, "Hey lady, is this lamp post taken?" David, finally off work and in his top hat was staring down at me and we both just giggled. He leaned his bead laden bike against the over filled trash container and we stood thrilled hearing a brass band on the Square. This little patch of Jackson Square was the whole of New Orleans for that moment. The band played a few more songs then had to head to Tipitina's to re-open that club. The lights on the stage went out and everyone gathered their belongings and their drinks, rearranged their costumes, and turned to go to their next stop of the evening. The gratitude for what they'd heard was palpable.

The ladies in heels, Elvis and the pirates, the Blue Roof couple and the rest of us walked past the Cathedral and through a phalanx of National Guard MP's and a fleet of Humvees parked on the Pedestrian Mall. But while the music played, they were behind us, unseen, and life seemed normal for a little while.

Love and Light,
Bec and David

PS I took a few pics. Will send them along in a little while.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Food, Football, Musical Chairs and Blackwater 10.27.2005

Subject: Food, Football, Musical Chairs and Blackwater Date: 10/27 7:50 PM

Hi all,
It's been a few days since I've had a chance to write.

We went out to storage. They will let us in to look, and you ought to see the waiver we have to sign. Basically if the roof falls down on our head it's not their fault. No problem. We'll sign it. We've been trying for two days to get hold of the guy who can open the door. There's still no power there, so we have to go through the non-electronic doors. We did get a chance to see into the building through the windows and it's pretty grim. We just want to go in and see what's left. Get it over with. Maybe next week we'll get hold of the guy.

Mail service has been bizarre. Our Netflix sat in the mailbox to go out for three days. We went to the Post Office where we were told that if there's nothing to go IN the mailbox, the guy isn't going to come up to get outgoing. Everything is being processed through Baton Rouge and it's kinda like we get mail once a week if we're lucky. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare of trying to sort mail when so many have put in change of address forms. It's gotta be a horror show. That being said, though, it's still frustrating not to get mail when you're waiting for things like forms from FEMA or something.

Speaking of whom, we played musical chairs for two hours last week at a Jewish Community Center on St. Charles. The Garden District fared pretty well but the streetcars aren't running yet. Very little mass transit is. Besides, the neutral ground (which for those of you unfamiliar with the term is the median in any other city) has become a de facto parking lot all over town, including on the tracks of the St. Charles streetcar line. We found a spot on the neutral ground, parked and went into the JCC. We went because we'd heard there were people there from FEMA who could actually DO something. Medicaid, Social Security, various other groups were represented out there. It was a nice change seeing everything in one place. Upon entering, we were greeted by a guy with khaki green cargo pants, a tan cargo shirt with a logo that said BLACKWATER, and a belt with a holstered 9mm. He also had three more clips of ammunition. Blackwater is one of those odd companies that provides "security" (check out their website but these aren't security guards from central casting. These guys are armed and very very serious. We were curious why this disaster relief center needed the four or five guys Blackwater had checking us as we came in and checking us as we came out. "What are you here for?" We tell the guy who then points us to a check in table where we tell the woman there the same thing we just told the first guy. She then tells us to go talk to the woman in the red shirt. Okay, off we go. She points us to the chairs that are set aside for people who need to deal with FEMA. The chairs had been labelled for whatever agency was being waited for. We were told to sit down and that the two lines of chairs ahead of us were FEMA also. Every few minutes, someone would get to the front of the "line", get up from the chair and go to the table where a FEMA worker was sitting with a laptop. Then all the rest of us would move over one seat, or two seats if it was a couple. The whole time Blackwater guys are keeping an eye on things. Very strange. We did get giggles from thinking that if FEMA was doing a better job, maybe they wouldn't need armed guards!

We finally get to the guy with the laptop. We had been told the day before that we'd been turned down, didn't qualify. This guy looks at all our papers, looks at the screen and says, "Here's the problem. This box was checked wrong. We'll get it fixed and that should take care of it. It will probably be two weeks at least til the change gets through the system." Well, THIS is progress! We're not holding our breath, but we are trying to believe that this might actually fix the gigantic mess that is FEMA in our lives. We'll see.

So what does food and football have to do with all this?


New Orleans is known for, among other things, great food and horrible football. Two people who are huge "New Orleans names" have been conspicuously missing from the recovery of this city. Both have made millions by virtue of their connection to this city and from the residents themselves.

Emeril Lagasse, yup, you know, the BAM guy. Owns restaurants of the highest caliber, writes books, does TV shows, toothpaste commercials. Has made a fortune from this city's cache and tourists. Lagasse hasn't been seen in New Orleans since the storm blew us away. Paul Prudhomme was out in the street cooking beans for people who were here and working. Not Lagasse. He had some books to sign. He had some interviews to do. He had to be at a Sam's Club in Indiana or some such place to sign his new cookbook. His employees have heard little or nothing from the corporate entity, unless it was a message telling them they were laid off. To his credit, he did put together some sort of fund for his employees, which they have to apply to get help from, but beyond that he has done nothing to help really in two months. Incredible to me. With the kind of exposure this guy has he could have helped boost morale if nothing else. His flagship restaurant here was damaged, but he should have been here, broom in hand with all his bravado, hollering "We'll get this place up and running for the renewal of New Orleans!" But he didn't. I've always wanted to go to his restaurant. Don't know if I will ever do that. It'll be a long time before I can forget his absence.

The New Orleans Saints, bless their hearts. The owner of the team, Tom Benson, has made money on the irrationally loyal fans of this city for years. Being a Saints fan is often akin to being a White Sox fan------oh wait, until this week that is! Everywhere you look are Saints tshirts, hats, you name it. Season ticket holders continue to buy their tickets every year, and they hope and they hope and they hope that maybe THIS will be the year. Prior to Katrina, Benson had been holding up the city for a new stadium. He'd been playing the "maybe I'll take the team elsewhere" game that I saw in San Francisco years ago with the 49ers and their owner extorting a new stadium from the city. On TV sets all over New Orleans the game is followed faithfully--ignoring the piles of debris outside in the street--and the fans wear their jerseys and their hats and shake their heads at one more turnover, then order another beer---but they'll be there again next week hoping. Tom Benson has not been seen here either. He has been busy in San Antonio and the bars are full of rumors that he's trying to move his team there permanently, or that San Antonio doesn't want them. For what this city has provided for this man over the years, and for all the fans who stuck by that team no matter what, he owes this city and its residents something. He and his wife, with her queenly wave, ought to be here taking part in discussions about rebuilding. Shame on him. At the very least, if he moves the team, he ought to have to relinquish the name "Saints."

The stadium issue is a whole 'nother thing. David and I have been talking about the Superdome a lot lately. We really feel that the thing has become a gigantic symbol of shame, of failures at all levels, of horror and sorrow and fear. It needs to go. It needs to be packed full of C4, have Mayor Nagin call a City holiday, set up booths with food, drinks. Make it an event. "The Superdome Blast Party!" Naturally the party would take place far enough from the blast to protect everyone, but close enough to be seen and heard. It would be so cathartic. It's a sad looking place now, if you've seen pictures. Blow it up! Make Emeril cater the party and Benson pay for the damn new stadium. Yeah, that would work.

And now we see Florida dealing with yet another storm. Our landlord/neighbor/friends' families live there. We heard they were okay. God bless them all, they'll be dealing with FEMA themselves soon.

More in a day or two,
Love and Light,
Bec and David

PS OH YEAH, forgot to tell you. The Red Cross actually sent us a check! We couldn't believe our eyes. Took it to the bank immediately. We thought maybe it had a self-destruct mechanism on it or something. Invisible ink perhaps. Only visible for 12 hours. Amazing. More than 40 days trying to get through on the phone, and one little form gets it done in two weeks. We're still stunned!

NOTE 10.27.2006
This just does NOT feel like a year ago. Sometimes it feels like two weeks ago, other times it feels like ten years ago. It's also interesting that life in New Orleans two months after the storm was a bit insular in a strange way. Everyone was so busy trying to figure out the paperwork, or their job, or their home situation, that some information just didn't get to people until much later.

Blackwater, it turns out, had been sitting on porches in the Garden District, hired to protect property over there, and then, somehow wound up in the Community Center. It's still unclear to us who hired these guys. We still see them around now and then, and they're still scary.

Emeril, to his credit, did re-open his restaurant and it seems to be doing pretty well. He did go on national TV and talked about what was happening here back then, and from what I hear also put together some foundations, so I guess I can go to his restaurant some day when I have a couple hundred to spend on dinner. I still feel that he should have been here at the time. It would have helped morale in an enormous way.

Tom Benson is still a jerk, in my opinion, and the issue of will the team stay or go is evidently not yet decided, although I heard that the NFL wants them to stay here. Not being a great follower of the ins and outs of football league rules, etc., I don't know what will happen with all that.

I DO know that there was a "Superdome Blast Party" that was probably more productive than our idea of blowing the place up. The day the Saints returned to play in the Dome was the biggest morale boost I've ever seen. And their continued success is making everyone a fan. We are not football fans per se, but we are indeed Saints fans. They have redeemed and transcended the horrid energy of the Superdome, turning it into an ecumenical cathedral of hope for the entire city.

We took our grandson and daughter to the Children's Museum a week ago Sunday. There was a home game. Everyone in the place was monitoring the game on their cell phones and when the Saints won, the news rippled through the museum passed word of mouth. I went outside and was waiting for the family to come out. A man was sweeping up the entry way. He asked if I knew if we had won. I said, yes and told him the score. He grinned, leaned on his broom and said, "Then it's a good day."

The Red Cross check did not self-destruct.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Tree Limbs all OVER the Tomato Plants

Subject: Tree Limbs all OVER the Tomato Plants Date: 10/19 5:32 PM

Hi all,
David and I were absolutely drunk with frustration. Giddy in fact, after having spent five hours in a WalMart in Boutte, LA to get a new tire. We'd gone there because we heard the line wasn't as long as it was in Marrerro, where a woman had purportedly waited eight hours. Anyone who knows me knows that five minutes in a WalMart can make me pissy. Five hours was beyond the pale. We bought a few things we needed and a few things others needed, but hey, that was all done in the relatively short period of 45 minutes. Then we bought reading material, Vanity Fair for me, a Patricia Cornwell for him and that was only because I couldn't remember how far behind I was in the Harry Potter series! A little Hogwarts would have made the time go faster. I plowed through the pages and pages of Vanity Fair ads wondering if everyone but me really WAS a 15 year old waif with unlimited income, then ranted about the image politics and psychiatric/plastic surgery bills that would become some kid's baggage if they looked at these too long. Checked out the new Turquoise something or other perfume that the magazine was pretty much soaked in thanks to the ad for the perfume, decided it was not bad but probably not for me and finally found the table of contents. Good articles as always but my god, you have to WORK at finding them. I thought it ironic that I was dressed haphazardly sitting on a pallet of landscaping bricks outside a WalMart in Boutte, LA where trees are still leaning precariously on power lines looking at baby women dressed in 7500 bucks worth of clothes if you don't count the handbag!

But when all was said and done, we had one new tire and had patched the rear tire in which David found five nails. No big surprise really given what we'd been driving through. One more chore out of the way and we'd laughed as much as possible throughout at our really bad WalMart jokes.

The road to Boutte (about 20 miles from here) is littered for miles with Katrina debris. Some of it was damage from the storm itself that hasn't been attended to yet. A daunting task given the scope of this storm and the additional miles to the West decimated by Rita. But some of the mess is from debris being hauled to the Jefferson Parish Landfill. Trucks for miles filled with debris. Small pickups straining from towing gigantic walled trailers filled with the former contents of their destroyed homes---couches peeking up over the top of the plywood walls, huge scraps of carpet, a toybox, clothing, books, everything you can think of. Much of it blows out on the way to the landfill, as a result side of the road is a strange combination of broken trees and baby car seats spread for miles. There are the bigger commercial trucks filled to the brim as well, but they seem to have their loads secured a little better and for them, it's not personal. For them it's a paycheck. The smaller trucks were mostly driven by the contents' former owners with numb faces after their second or third trip down there. We saw one truck full of nothing but refrigerators. Clearly a freelancer, he had filled his open trailer with about 15 refrigerators. David wondered where all the freon was going. It's supposed to be evacuated according to some EPA regulations, but we're hearing that that probably isn't happening.

Our little street looks almost normal, well that's not quite true---normal by post-Katrina standards. Contractors, power trucks, various city vehicles up and down regularly and still mountains of debris but the debris is at least concentrated into the mountains rather than scattered all over the place. People are talking on their stoops at night if the mosquitoes aren't too bad, complaining about the "little flitty things" that have joined the fly population thanks to the garbage everywhere. Rumors and gossip fly through the air with the insects, along with complaints about intermittent broadband, a neighbor who hasn't seen fit to get someone over to remove that tree from a power line, and the standard FEMA stories. There are now so many newly minted versions of what the acronym FEMA stands for that I might start collecting them.

We talked with a real Southern belle of the Scarlett O'Hara type but of an older vintage. When asked how her house made out, her response was given in a beautiful molasses tinged accent. "The house was fine, but there are tree limbs all OVER the tomato plants!" We were stunned. People had lost everything and this woman was overwrought about tree limbs. So subjective and insular, we thought.

We're finding that there is a strange unspoken issue in the wake of this storm: Grief and guilt as concurrent emotions adding to all the other tensions. "How's your house?" "Gone." "How's your house?" "We were very lucky, only the back wall is gone." "How's your house?" "Hey, we can't really complain. A little water damage and the roof will need to be done, but overall, we did great."

Given that so many lost so much, those who only lost a little feel guilty feeling the grief of the losses they did incur. "We're all still alive and that's what matters." Yup. Totally true, but that print of Nantucket that they bought 30 years ago when they vacationed there that was drowned in water dripping down their walls is now residing on top of the carpet from the front room in the street. A memory gone. A shared experience. A little treasure that made them smile every time they walked by it.

David and I have much of that in storage. We don't even know the extent of the damage yet. Twenty years of artwork, collected and created. Almost half of our treasured book collection, including the rare copies of Zola that we searched for and bought piecemeal over years, antique Peter Rabbit books I'd been saving to give my grandson. Boxes and boxes of books. All the family photos from my 50+ years and before my birth--all in storage. Three steamer trunks full of personal treasures. All the Christmas decorations, including a little cookie bell that Meg made for me in kindergarten and then the can full of ornaments that she picked out every year of her childhood. A lot of Meg's stuff is in there too. Her childhood treasures, her yearbooks. None of this compares to loss of life or loss of a family home. Doesn't come close. But still there is grief, enormous grief over the loss of those memories.

We're not the only ones--our mantra these days. We're not the only ones who've lost personal treasures and grieve, and we're not the only ones feeling guilt over grieving about such small stuff in the scope of things. It's nevertheless a weird combination of emotions.

Read today about a woman whose son had been in a motorcycle accident ten years ago. She had taken care of him ever since. He was wheelchair bound and brain damaged. His family had been evacuated, first to the Superdome, then the Astrodome. At some point he had been with his father, but his father had a medical issue. When the curtains around his father's bed were opened, his wheelchair bound son was gone. The son knows his name and date of birth, but that's about all he can communicate. The family is frantically searching to find their lost son.

These are the stories that cause the guilt over grieving about books. I wish I could tell the people I hear feeling the guilt that mourning the loss of their memories is okay, normal in fact. Grief isn't reserved for catastrophic loss only. Some lost family members, some lost books, some had tree limbs in their tomato plants. Everyone sustained loss of some kind and if we don't address that loss emotionally and quit turning it into guilt we're gonna be in trouble down the road.

I think I'll sit here and be grateful for our relatively minor losses while concurrently mourning that little cookie bell ornament with Meg's name on it. And I'm not gonna feel one bit of guilt about it.

I'll let you know how that works out!
Love and Light,
Bec and David

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Walking to New Orleans 10.15.2005

Subject: Walking to New Orleans Date: 10/15 1:28 AM

". . . . . Gonna need two pair of shoes. . . .when I get through walking me blues
when I get back to New Orleans."

Fats Domino lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. His family thought he had perished in the rising water, but one of his daughters or nieces happened to see footage of a rescue on the news. It was Fats Domino. When David and I heard that he was okay we jumped up and down we were so happy. He's a musical legend and a New Orleans fixture. Today the local news accompanied him back to his home in the Lower Ninth where he's lived pretty much all of his life. Fifty years of mementos and his white piano covered in sludge. He's going to rebuild. He's going to stay. He's not the only one in that area who's made that decision. Meanwhile the developers are chomping at the bit to get the land in that area. We are hoping that the residents have more of a say than they seem to have right now.

Driving through New Orleans is another thing altogether. With power restored only in limited areas, traffic lights are sometimes working, sometimes not. When we first arrived it was traffic anarchy. Not a lot of traffic other than military vehicles, lots of debris, no power at all, power lines draping across mountains of brick and a roof that landed in the middle of the street. This was all over town. One way signs meant nothing. You got where you needed to go however you could get there. Now with power returning and traffic lights on in some areas, we're having a hard time adjusting! Still in some areas the lights are on but no one's home. What I mean is a traffic light may be on, but that doesn't mean it's actually working. We just treat every intersection like a four way stop unless we actually see the light change. David came across one that was lit red AND green! Civilization is returning slowly and we're having to learn to adapt back to it.

Heard at the grocery store: "I just got a job. I will be the first female waitperson ever hired at Galatoire's." That's really something. Don't know the woman but hurray for her, hurray for Galatoire's, and hurray for New Orleans that the grand old historic restaurant will be back.

Still need a new tire. Will have to drive a ways to get it fixed. None of the local WalMarts are open yet. The one in Gretna MIGHT open November 1. Heard that one in Marrerro is open but it's a long wait to get a tire done so we'll probably have to drive to Boutte where the scuttlebutt is that the lines are shorter.

In the window of a store on Bourbon called Alternatives: Up on the left, a tiny shelf with three Ken dolls dressed in drag. Above them a sign reading: "Let the Queens in, the rest will follow." Beneath the drag Kens are three skeleton sculptures, one female with two males. One male carrying a mop, the other a broom. Maybe paper mache, certainly gorgeously creative. Behind them a sign: "Miss Refugee was crowned Miss Evacuee. She was sponsored by "In This Together, Inc.", her platform is "We'll be clean by Halloween!" Her backup boys are Mop Boy and Whisk Boy." Fabulous! Loved it. Will try to get a pic of it for you.

Two days ago we heard about a Red Cross Financial Aid station open in Kenner by the airport. ::::::::sigh::::::::Okay, we say, we'll try it. People were sleeping out in their cars all night in order to get dealt with there. We braved it the afternoon before yesterday. Incredibly they handed us a form that asked our names and addresses and asked for ID. That's it. No other questions. This, btw, is all being done like a drive thru. Lines and lines of cars in lanes with Red Cross Volunteers gathering the papers, checking them, sending you on your way saying "Check should be in the mail." WHAT? No kidding? Why couldn't they have done this weeks ago. So many have given up, including us until we were urged to try this. But what about the people who can't GET to Kenner? It's a long way. You really do need a car. If you don't have one, I don't see how you'd get there. We'll see if the check's really in the mail.

Meanwhile back at FEMA: We got the flag off our application for having duplicate apps. Okay, cool. We were to check both the applications, make the changes that needed to be made and fax them to FEMA 1-800-827-8112. I know the number by heart. We started faxing them Oct 6. We gave up Oct 11 after being unable to get through the busy signal on their fax machine day or night. We went to the Post Office--a post office is a very cool thing at this point!--and sent it Express Mail with return receipt. I made copies before we sent it. Post Office says Express Mail doesn't mean overnight anymore. Maybe two days. Okay we say. Hell it's better than trying to fax it. Yesterday a FEMA inspector comes. Now remember, we've been at this since Sept 10. "Everybody in the disaster impacted area will get $2000," so said the press conference. We did everything we were supposed to do. The inspector says, "No problem. My being here will probably move it along faster." Today David found out that we don't qualify. Our case was closed upon receipt of the inspector's report. "Not enough damage." Well, you shoulda seen what this neighborhood looked like when we got here. No power, trees everywhere, shingles everywhere. Looked like a hurricane hit it. Wait, a hurricane DID hit it. Granted it was nothing compared to the Lower Ninth Ward and some of the other areas, but there was an enormous amount of damage here. Perhaps the inspector should have gotten here in a shorter time than 40 days. A lot has been cleaned up. Guess we should have just left everything rather than cleaning up around here. David is outraged after 7 weeks of jumping through their hoops. Gotta admit that I'm pretty angry too. We can appeal and we're trying to decide whether to do it or not. Our feeling is that we should but our energy level with regard to jumping through anymore hoops is pretty low. Thing is that we are so NOT the only ones that this is happening to. There are thousands whose cases were just stamped "CLOSED." Some people got their help right away, others are in the same boat as we are, and it's NOT just New Orleans. We'll let you know if we decide to appeal and what happens with that. Our neighbors, an elderly couple who stayed through the storm, don't qualify at all because FEMA somehow can't find Mr. Mitchell's social security number and keeps telling him that he's not him! He gave up weeks ago.

Curfew was extended to 8PM then to 12AM. No one was really paying that much attention to it. One young woman in the neighborhood works a 6-2AM shift in the Quarter. No problem getting home. In the last three days since the cops beat that old man up in the Quarter, the police have been running through the Quarter at 11:30PM warning about the curfew even though many of the places around have 24 hr permits and the street is just starting to pick up again in terms of business. We actually saw tourists yesterday. It was a wonderful thing. Tonight the bars and businesses on Bourbon are going to do an organized civil disobedience and ignore the curfew talk. They're just gonna plain stay open. They're trying to get their businesses up and running again and are refusing to let the police shut them down. We'll see what happens there.

I have also learned about Vampire Internet and found a new definition of "unlimited." Our broadband comes up for a few hours here and there, mostly during the night. I called Cox and got several different answers, none of them definitive, although Cox was great and credited everyone for the month of September. But getting online is difficult these days as my modem driver apparently didn't LIKE dial up any more than I did and now I'm having issues with that. Which brings me to the new definition of "unlimited." I have long distance service with AT&T. Have had for years and just left it that way. Plus they had an unlimited plan which was a great help. Three days ago I tried to make a call with an area code. Got a busy signal. Couldn't get there from here. Figured it was a glitch. It continued. So I called AT&T this morning. Was informed that I had "exceeded my unlimited plan", probably by using the dial up through New Mexico since the NOLA lines weren't working. I was confused. I asked, "But I have the UNLIMITED plan." "Yes, but you exceeded it." "Well, if it's unlimited then it's unlimited. How can I have exceeded unlimited?" "Ma'am, I'm sorry but we blocked many numbers in Louisiana for exceeding their unlimited plans." "But unlimited means WITHOUT LIMITS right?" "Well, no, there are limits." "Okay, WHAT is the limit?" "Ma'am, I'll have it unblocked in the next two hours." So no answer, no new definition of unlimited, but she was a woman of her word and it got unblocked. I'm getting very good at sitting on hold. And David is convinced that we've gone WAY beyond Catch 22 and are now getting to Catch 77.

I won't start on FEMA and housing and the 11 million a day hotel bills! I'll save that one!

"I'm leaving here today
I'm going back home to stay.
I'm walking to New Orleans."

That's what some of the folks in shelters waiting for FEMA temp housing are probably singing.
Love and Light,
Bec and David

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Looters, the Cops and the Media 10.12.2005

Subject: The Looters, the Cops and the Media Date: 10/12 7:56 AM

Hi all,
The other day I was sitting on the porch with the neighbors. Up comes a New Orleans policeman who lives in the neighborhood but works in the 7th Ward. Tough neighborhood. No doubt about it. He tells us some absolutely harrowing stories about the rescue operations he was on, and god bless him for doing it. He then says that he's dreading the return of "the denizens of the Lower Ninth Ward for their look and loot, I mean look and leave." He repeated that little witticism about three times. I had already decided that if he said it again I'd have to excuse myself. It was clear that he had a very generalized and negative view of all the citizens of the Ninth Ward, and the black citizens in particular.

Don't know how many horribly racist comments I've heard in the last six weeks. One was a man sitting on my couch, I didn't hear it, David told me later. Probably lucky as I would have come unglued. His comment? "Well at least we cleared all the n***** out of the Ninth Ward."

A black person from New Orleans isn't necessarily a looter or a criminal. Conversely not all looters were black people from New Orleans.

The policeman on our porch had made his generalized negative statement but was incensed that the media had aired tapes of cops looting during the first horrid week after the storm. He felt that they should have handed it over to the Internal Affairs people in the New Orleans Police Department. Why? Because having seen the tape, some people out there might, just might, form generalized negative views of our police force?

Two weeks after the storm, I called a friend of mine who's a cabbie. He was in Atlanta where he'd been waiting three days with 2000 other people for FEMA to show up. He was already mad. But then he said that the first thing he was buying when he got home was a camera phone. WHAT? A generator maybe. A camera phone? Yup, he said, with video. Why, I asked. "Because I saw the Westwego cops looting a grocery store, saw the Gretna cops looting an electronics store and taking out big screen TVs, I saw New Orleans cops looting a computer store and stacking laptops in the backs of their squad cars, and if I'd had a phone like yours I could have taken video and busted them. They're going to blame it on someone else." I asked him if he actually SAW this or had just heard it from someone. He said he'd been sitting in his cab when he saw all three incidents and he was very upset when he told me. This man is, by and large, a very conservative guy. He's not given to anti-police force sentiments.

Not all looters are cops. Not all cops are looters.

A guy we know has a brother who has a boat. He and his boat were all over the city helping rescue people stuck in houses with water up to the roof. At one point, when the rescues were coming to an end, he was asked by a BBC crew to take them around the city on the boat. He did so. He returned and there was another press crew. They asked him to "take us where the bodies are." He said no. He was appalled.

Not all media/press people are sensationalist seeking. And not all sensational footage was sought out.

Unfortunately for two weeks after the storm, almost all footage included pictures of young black people looting and lugging TV's out through the chest high water in a city with no power. Absolutely that happened. A friend of mine saw looters in the Quarter looting Mardi Gras beads from a store. Real morons. There is no doubt at all that some people went completely nuts and vandalized and looted just because they could. I've also heard reports of two guys wading through the flood waters, one with an ATM bungied to his back, the other with a poker machine tied to his. Horrendous.

But the fact is that it was a very small minority of people who were looting. New Orleans prior to the storm was 80% black. Not all of those people were busy looting. Most were busy trying to get to a safe place. The black population of New Orleans is being painted with a very wide brush these days, and it's not a flattering picture.

By now all of you have seen the awful footage of New Orleans cops beating up an elderly man in the Quarter the other night. The cops were white, the elderly man was black. After that they pinned a news producer up against a car and cussed at him. Wonderful. The charges against the elderly man can't be substantiated. The cops have plead not guilty but were charged. These cops were out of control, but once again, as in the case of the black population, the police department of New Orleans is being painted with a very wide brush. Not all of them are racist brutes and looters blaming the crime on the local black population. The majority of them have been on duty for 6 weeks with little or no time off and are living on cruise ships since their houses are gone. Oh yeah, and the Police Chief just resigned and about 100 of them are just missing.

Some of the media types here have been just awful. Many of them looking for the Pulitzer Prize. They miss the extraordinary miracles in the ordinary progress of people making their way back to a semblance of normalcy. They want sensationalism, tragedy, bodies, looting. Some have been very compassionate in their reporting. Others, unfortunately have been busy helping to paint my city with a very wide brush. As a result the rest of the world is seeing New Orleans as a very violent place, with violent thieving citizens and violent thieving police. Our long held reputation for corruption is seemingly corroborated by all this negative coverage.

Some of the reports have been outright nonsense and I have never seen a retraction or a correction anywhere. As Machiavelli said, perception is everything. Right now everyone from news directors to cops to citizens black and white need to understand that. Those who have lost their civility need to be charged with whatever crime they committed and punished. News directors could help by not playing the violent footage in a continuous loop and maybe airing some of the remarkable stories I hear every day about people refusing to let this city die by rebuilding their homes and their businesses. We cannot afford to sweep any of the negative stuff under the rug. In some cases, it's a good thing camera crews were there or some of this outlandish behavior would still be happening but hidden. Our dirty laundry is hanging out there for the world to see and we have to let the world see us wash it clean. We don't need censorship. We need balanced coverage and personal responsibility for our actions by those of us here trying to rebuild. Everyone here is stressed out to one degree or another. Not an excuse for anything, just an explanation.

What the police did in the Quarter the other night was outrageous. What the looters did was outrageous. I wish the news directors didn't just LOOK for the outrageous. What you're seeing is a very generalized and negative view of New Orleans after the storm. The tension can be felt in the air and it's going to become incendiary if we don't start using smaller paint brushes.

Please know that what you're seeing on the news isn't always all there is.
Love and Light,
Bec and David
NOTE 10.12.2006
This was written six weeks after the storm.

Today the perceptions made by that footage remain entrenched in many people's minds around the country. That is unfortunate.

It's also unfortunate that our legal system is broken---too many records lost, too few police, too many criminals with guns, and now, I fear, too many scared citizens with guns as the crime rate moves up one week, down the next.

Crime here is a problem that has to be addressed, I just wish that that wasn't all that made it out to the world in terms of reporting.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Elevator Ride 10.8.2005

NOTE: 10.08.2006 Multiple photos----keep reading!

Subject: The Elevator Ride Date: 10/8 2:54 PM

Hi all,
I must write a correction. As per MJ: "Tommie is a girl, her name is spelled Tommie, and she's not nasty, just temperamental." There ya go, MJ. I said I'd correct it!

It's been ups and downs for the last couple days. My friend T came in to clean out his apartment in Uptown. Hadn't seen it since he evacuated. Everything was fine, and even better, he found his cat. He had thought she'd been lost but she turned out to be fine. She went back to Pennsylvania with him and his brother this morning.

Heard at the Walgreens: "Hey MAN, how ya doin!" "HEY, good to see ya. A storm came through and shook us up a little bit, but we're gonna be okay now!"

Still trying to fax FEMA. Their fax line has been busy for three days. Got through to the Red Cross. HURRAY you say! I had hit redial on my cell phone for about 1/2 hr then heard something I hadn't heard before in all the calling for the last 37 days. It says, "You've gotten through to the Red Cross Disaster Relief line. Your expected wait time is 45 minutes." Okay, no problem. I hook the cell phone up to its charger and sit there to wait it out. Put it on speaker phone. Fifty two minutes later, guy answers. I'm thrilled to hear a human voice instead of a busy signal. I explain that I've been trying to call for more than 30 days, this is the first time I've gotten through. We then start the process. He asks me if I was impacted by Katrina or Rita. I say both. He asks me where I am. I say New Orleans. He says, "Well they just changed the rules on us. You are no longer eligible because you are home." HUH??? I confess I got mad. I said that because I could not get through on THEIR line for all this time, and now I am home, I no longer qualify? He says that yes, that is unfortunately true. I said get me a supervisor. I then talk to his supervisor, she tells me the same thing. I am furious. Actually yelling at her, probably not the best tactic, but it was insanity. She says, "You're home now so you don't qualify." She then says, "Let me see what I can do." I was then put on terminal hold. Literally. I kept the cell phone on speaker, we went to get something to eat, still connected to the Red Cross. Two hours went by. I had spoken with these people a total of 3 minutes in that two hour period. Yesterday someone told us that we should go to Kenner where they've set up a Red Cross Disaster Financial Assistance center. We were told we should go out there about midnight and that by 9AM we'd have the ATM card. Our neighbors who evacuated to Atlanta also wouldn't qualify because they are home and our neighbors on the other side of them wouldn't qualify because they stayed through the storm, never left. WHAT??? That's not what the answer really is from all reports but we're not sure we're willing to sleep in our car for 8 hrs for $650 bucks. On the other hand, the principle of the thing is infuriating. Because THEIR line was busy we don't qualify. Awesome in its audacity! What we've learned is that we had done this when we were out of state, it would have been a done deal. The supervisor actually told me to "go to the local Red Cross office." Is she kidding? I told her there IS no local Red Cross office, just field stations which don't HAVE the paperwork necessary. This call was placed at the end of a very long, very strange day.

The day started with us taking all the medical supplies from Barnhill Bolt to the Clinic. They were so delighted. Photography isn't allowed inside the clinic for privacy reasons, but I have attached pictures of the outside. They have now hooked up with FEMA and are able to get the pharmaceuticals in. This is a huge deal and it took a month for it to happen. They are really doing great work there. There is another Common Ground station about two blocks from our house. They are housing people, providing food, clothing, other things. End of September one of them was arrested and beat up. (Article is on their website as well. Same link that I sent you in the last email.) He was then jailed. Truly the big guns don't like them. They've been argued with by FEMA, Red Cross, pretty much anyone who has a large organization. These people go straight TO the people and most of them are young volunteers. They were particularly happy about the toys in one of the boxes. Said they'd had a lot of kids coming in who would love them. They also said they are in need of multivitamins but don't ever ever need more hydrogen peroxide! They have gallons of it now, which is remarkable since they started out with nothing but bottled water to clean out a wound. They are hoping to make this clinic permanent. I hope they manage it.

We went from the Clinic to the grocery store and did a little scouting trip to see if a WalMart or something was open. We definitely need a new tire. (Not a huge surprise given what we'd been driving over for a couple weeks.) Grocery store open, Walgreens, no WalMart yet. Lowe's and Home Depot are open and a lot of the gas stations are starting to run at full steam. We buy what we need, drop off the milk at home and head to the Quarter to drop off some things at the shop. After that we went to check on our storage unit. It's on Tulane, right down the street from the huge Police Headquarters. No power over there yet and the water level was easily 6 feet. (We took pictures that day. I'll put together another album tonight for you.) If I'd been standing where my storage is, the water would have been over my head. UHaul had done a smart thing and parked a truck inside the electronic doors and three outside to prevent looting. David went and looked inside through the doors. He came back kind of ashen. When I asked him what it looked like inside, he said, "Like six feet of water had been in there." We don't know if anything survived but our unit was almost in the dead center of the building. Some things might have been spared. Hope so. Most of the family pictures, among other really important items, were in there. Three steamer trunks full of stuff, and innumerable boxes. We still have to pay them even though we can't get access and since we want some control over what happens with the stuff, we'll pay them.

We then went down St. Claude toward the Lower Ninth Ward. In the neutral ground was an impromptu art memorial to the Lower Ninth. First I shot pictures, then I just cried. Toxic art they called it. It was improvised and heartbreaking. We tried to get to the Lower Ninth, but still can't get in there. We want you to see pictures of it without the water to the roofs. We've heard from people who have been in there that there are no insects, no birds, nothing alive.

TOXIC ART PHOTOS. St. Claude Aveneu October 2005----KEEP READING!

Heard everywhere you go: "How's your house?" "Gone." "You coming back?" "No, we're staying in Dallas, you?" "No, we're staying in Houston. Got the kids in school already." "Hey you coming back?" "Yes! We'll be back"----------from here it varies from next week to six months to January to end of the school year. Three of our missing friends, Rod, Ryan and Chuck found us yesterday. All three of their houses are just plain gone. New Orleans East.

Yesterday the Royal Carriage buggies were back on Jackson Square. It was a beautiful sight. The people who live across the street from the stables applauded as the buggies rolled out. I rode the bike down and took pictures of the first buggies back on the Square. Then the drivers started tooling around the Quarter just to let people know they were back. I got to ride with David through the Quarter and we tossed beads to stunned out of towners. They loved it. The locals were cheering as we went by. The drivers worked all day yesterday and most got at least one run. Some of them were taking people to their hotels for $20, something not usually allowed. We hung out down there just grinning and happy. Usually the area of the hack stand is jammed with people and artists and traffic on Decatur. Cafe du Monde is buzzing. Not yesterday. But seeing those buggies and the joy on the faces of the drivers and the locals was fabulous. I rode through the Quarter all day yesterday just kind of checking on what was open and what wasn't yet. I'd come around a corner and here would come a buggy. Seemed almost normal! One guy hollered out his car window, "Hey man, I never thought I'd ever be HAPPY to be stuck behind a carriage!" For now they're only going to roll three days a week to see what happens and see if it's worth it. A lot of the contractors are bringing their wives down on weekends and little by little as things open again it might be worth working them all week, but it will be a while. One of the local carriage companies (there are four, but Royal is the largest) is never coming back at all. There were six drivers out there yesterday. The first ones back. And there was one out last night on Bourbon Street. A weird image: Bourbon Street at night, Humvee driving past a carriage.

NOTE: 10.08.2005 Blogger is giving me fits with the photos. I'll get the rest uploaded tomorrow.

Oh yeah, the big red dog that the Army helped us rescue has a name. His name is Jake. We went down to the house where we found him and his owners, an elderly couple, were there. They were thrilled that we knew their dog. Their son called and I gave them the number of the woman who knows whether Jake is in Utah or Cincinnati. When I told the people that their dog was fine, the lady just grabbed my hand and wouldn't let go. She'd been so worried and was so happy.

On the news yesterday: "Many owners of pet snakes just let them go as the Hurricane arrived. Here is a picture of a 12 foot python, formerly someone's pet. This python had just ingested a 6 foot alligator. Officials are concerned that these pet snakes could become problematic." The picture was amazing. That snake had to have been uncomfortable after eating that gator! As for problematic? Yup. I'm thinking so!

There's much more for you. But enough for now. I'm praying for the people dealing with the earthquake in Pakistan. I heard a woman say to her friend, "Forty years I lived in that house, and my whole life changed in one day." That's how it is here. That's how it is in Pakistan this morning. I'll never be able to look at a disaster the same way again. It's not an event. It's a process and the process is like an elevator ride, up and down. Joy and hugs of gratitude punctuated by tears when you least expect them. I loved kaleidoscopes when I was little. Still do. Unfortunately, right now everyone's emotions move like those little colored glass pieces, quickly, jolting, into a new pattern. No one is immune.

I'll get the pictures out to you later today.

Love and Light,
Bec and David

NOTE 10.08.2006
The buggies are still rolling, but few of the drivers can actually make a living at it as they could in the old days. The tourist industry has slacked by 85%. Yesteryear's is still in business. I keep my fingers crossed every day for them.

Tommie, if I recall right, didn't make it but my memory might be faulty on that. I think the trauma was too much. I'll double check my facts.

The Lower 9th is now accessible and I'm working on a piece about going there now. It's eerie. I still can't look at the photos without sobbing like I did as I stood on the neutral ground taking them that day. Those images will stay in my mind on my deathbed, of that I have no doubt.

Oh yeah, and T, who showed up to clean out his apartment came home. He is now a cook at a prestigious hotel/restaurant and seemingly happy but I don't have as much time to see him as I'd wish.

Blogger is giving me fits tonight as I race to the ten minute deadline to get this published in real time. It's not uploading photos as it should so check back tomorrow and we'll have all the photos of what I'm talking about. Amazing that I could find them, but I did!

So weird, looking at the photos and re-living it all.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Update from NOLA 10.6.2005

Subject: Update from NOLA Date: 10/6 9:22 AM

Hi all,
First order of business the updates: Many of the missing found. All of the shop people now accounted for. TH is in Mississippi too. TL, who owns the shop and her mother, MJ came home so the cats are home at least. And Tommy, MJ's cat, one of the cutest but meanest cats on the planet, was found. He had been residing in his very own room in foster care. We can't figure out why MJ was so glad to see him when he's already bitten her a couple times. T's house will need some work but they got the shop cleaned up very fast. Seeing the lights on in there was a good thing after all the days I'd been in there in the dark. It was nice to see color in there again. She's already opened the shop limited hours, is giving discounts to relief workers and while not doing a land office business yet, can be proud of being one of the very first shops, if not THE first shop on Bourbon Street to re-open. We've seen bars and restaurants coming to life, but I hadn't see any shops open til Yesteryears opened its doors.

Our wonderful landlord/neighbor/friends returned home. Set right to work fixing and figuring out what to do. We celebrated with MRE's and rum and cokes the night they came back. It was marvelous. We had other food, but sat there giggling and eating MRE's, digging the lemon/poppy seed pound cake out of the brown plastic hermetically sealed bag. One of the best dinner parties I ever attended. I was so happy to see their faces and just get to hug them.

David missed it as he had left for Florida that morning. He's back now but it was a rough trip in many ways.

Before he left, he spent another four hours dealing with FEMA. We love their standard answer, "Call us back tomorrow." He said, "Do you realize that that's a four hour commitment?" They just say that they know, but. . . . . .so here we are, six days later, still no FEMA money, and now we are supposed to fax them something, they say, so we will. They're claiming it will be 3-5 days after that when they'll know something, but no one at FEMA can actually answer a question. We'll see. We need for them to come through and fast, but fast isn't in their vocabulary. We're not the only ones having this problem. There are thousands of others out there with no jobs, some with no houses or missing family members and mounting frustration with the agencies that are supposed to help.

Oh yeah, and if you call this number 1.800.975.7585 and get through, please call tell them to hang on then call us for a conference call. That is the Red Cross number. We've called non-stop at all hours for over a month and can't get through. If you get the tape, it will tell you that it's for Katrina Disaster Financial Assistance ONLY, and that they are overwhelmed, and they know it's frustrating. Then you go into an interminable busy signal. At least it's better than the busy signal one gets hitting speed dial! One word for the Red Cross: INTERNET. They can manage to put links on every single website to solicit money, but they do not have any set up for taking applications for financial assistance online. They felt they could "reach the maximum number of people with an 800 number." I've set my alarm for ridiculous times in the middle of the night, no dice. A representative on the news said if "you get through, get your neighbors together and pass the phone around so they can all file while you have a representative on the phone." Cool! I'll get the megaphone out. No doubt there are several folks around who would be thrilled to get through to that number. We figure if we ever have to live through another disaster like this one, we'll just get names and addresses of the people that need the money and tell everyone who wants to give it to the Red Cross to send it directly to those people.

Four boxes of over the counter medical supplies came to my house via UPS the other day. (Oh yeah, and we have mail service now! Amazing! Still wondering what happened to the mail from September, but hey, there's someone putting bills in our mailbox! That's progress!) They were sent by the employees of Barnhill Bolt in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Benadryl, alcohol, all kinds of things, and thrown into one of the boxes were some toy trucks for the kids. C and M H, dear friends of ours, organized it. M works there and the employees all went to Walgreens and other stores, bought things and put them in the boxes. The owner of Barnhill Bolt paid for the UPS. Amazing generousity. The boxes will be delivered to the Common Ground clinic tomorrow. I'll take some pics of the clinic for you so you can see the amazing little place.

So much more to fill you in on, but have been asked about places that one can donate to, so have compiled a list.

Noah's Wish Home Page
LA/SPCA - Hearts Unleashed

Common Ground
South Baton Rouge Church of Christ

Love and Light,
Bec and David
NOTE 10.6.2006

As mentioned last week, I think, we are still getting letters asking for documentation from FEMA. Sent it off last week. Have heard nothing back, which may be a blessing in disguise as there are rumors about of folks being sent letters telling them they have to re-pay FEMA for the emergency money they were sent last year. Still haven't seen one of the letters, but have heard it from enough credible (and honest, non-fraudulent people) that I believe it's probably true. Although that money was never given with a caveat that it was a loan, it might turn out that it was for some. We'll see.