Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Disaster Tours, Shopping Carts and Glasses filled with Water. . . . .

Hi all,
It was five months ago today that people saw on their TV's the water pouring into our city. The storm itself had moved its way north, and the levees broke. (Granted, the media was showing only the worst aspects of human behavior but that was, as we discovered, not only their bias but the fact that almost all the media trucks happened to BE on Canal Street at the time.) At that time, we thought we were part of the United States. For a long time David and I have discussed our situation in those terms, feeling very much as though we are not citizens in the same country as the rest of America. It's the kind of thing we talk about quietly at the kitchen table, usually a little bewildered. Then the anger comes and we start thinking about secession and laugh because the same conversation was had in these environs 150 yrs ago. A friend of mine sent me an article today about some of the refrigerator art that cropped up. In the article the authors say the same thing. Funny how sometimes you think you're the only one thinking a thought and then find that a lot of others feel the same way. The authors of the article ANDREI CODRESCU and NILS JUUL-HANSEN, said " For a week or so after the storm, when the city wallowed in its filth and misery without help from the United States of America, which it had mistakenly believed it was part of, people helped one another drag the taped-up fridges outside."

Our monarchy has dismissed the Baker Bill and then asked for a "plan." Well, George, actually that WAS a plan and a pretty good one at that. Not perfect but a start. Not quite as convoluted as your Medicare Drug plan, but hey, some of us aren't into that kind of byzantine stuff. Besides, we're still dealing with FEMA, and that's quite byzantine enough for our taste. And what WERE you thinking putting FEMA under Homeland Security?:::::::::::I used to come up with questions for God to be asked upon my death if I was faced with the all knowing one. I had lots of questions for God. Now my mind more often goes to questions for George:::::::::::

A friend of ours came for a visit last week. It was great to see him, and it was absolutely fascinating to take him to the 9th Ward. We aren't jaded, that's not the right word, but we are used to seeing debris piles and houses that are flattened. It takes a really SPECTACULAR car in a tree for us to notice. What we saw on our friend's face was a rush of emotions. They played across his face like a montage, flash edits with no seams. I'd watch him get out of our car, look at the barge or something else, stand there a second and shake his head like he thought if he shook it hard enough the scene would change when he opened his eyes. He also understood that no pictures can ever show the scope of the catastrophe. Miles and miles of destruction that even David Lean couldn't ever quite capture. Well, maybe David Lean could.

We told you that Grey Line Tours was doing Disaster Tours and we'll admit that we had some misgivings. We saw that they were sold out the first day, and apparently they continue to do a good business. One day while we were down in the 9th we saw a tour bus. We were concerned that the tour might be in bad taste. What we subsequently learned was very heartening. At the end of the tour, the guides hand out petitions and letters for the tourist to send to their representative. We are delighted. Our view is that the more people see the devastation, the better off we'll be in the long run. Watching our friend's face convinced us of that. We will continue to send emails and pictures, we figure everyone has a delete button on their keyboard. We continue to get email from people we've never heard of who have somehow been forwarded our emails. As long as there are some of us refusing to let the public forget, although it will be a long haul, I think the city will survive albeit in a different form. So we've taken back our objections to Grey Line, and I might take the tour just to see what is being said. Evidently one man, digging through the wreckage of his house, saw the tour bus and came over to it. The tour guide wasn't sure what was going to happen. It could have been a very negative encounter. He was surprised when the man looked into the tour bus and told the tourists, "Don't forget what you saw here. Please go tell everyone you know."

Talk about surprises! There are plenty of shopping carts at the big stores now. Sounds like a silly statement huh? Not here. Not now. So many thousands of people used shopping carts to put their stuff in while evacuating on foot to I-10 or wherever they could find high ground, that the stores, once they got the boards off the windows, staff at the registers and stuff on the shelves, had no carts. You can still see them on the sides of the freeway or on a neutral ground somewhere. There must have been a whopping big truck on our roads recently, filled with nothing but shopping carts because on Saturday I didn't have a problem finding one. Sometimes it's the big things like the Baker Bill that get you, sometimes it's the little things like finding a shopping cart to put the catfish and the milk in.

Our beloved Rock has closed. The club in which we spent many hours and many dollars and many wonderful nights dancing. It is dark there now. Another casualty.

Disaster tours, shopping carts, and. . . . oh yeah, glasses filled with water!

Saturday was David's birthday. We had run into Walter Williams, the creator of Mr. Bill and an acquaintance of ours (the Quarter is a small place and one finds that running into someone repeatedly over the course of a week is standard), and he had said that he had been talked into doing a sort of performance at Harry Anderson's club, Oswald's Speakeasy. The show was for Saturday night and he was a bit nervous he said. We said we'd be there. We went and were lucky to get tickets. There were only five tickets left when we arrived. We found a seat, ordered a couple drinks and looked up to the stage. Under the lights was a man with a long white beard, glasses, and an elfish demeanor disguising a wicked wit. In front of him, gleaming in the light, were glasses. So many I can't begin to estimate the number. Each with water in them to a certain height. You think you know what's coming, right? Well yes. He DID indeed play the glasses of water, but the man was incredible. Playing everything from Bach to Amazing Grace, and lacing each song with repartee, he was entrancing. He then called for requests and of course, the crowd being an interesting group of bohemians, someone laughingly hollers out "Freebird." The whole place starts laughing, as that has become the cliche of my generation. He then says he can play a little heavy metal on some fragile glass and launches into Stairway to Heaven. A beautiful rendition actually that had everyone speechless. He then related a story about how Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had been in some town he was working in years ago. He had called for requests, someone requested Stairway. He played it, only to find that Jimmy Page had requested it. He said, "The bastard requested his OWN song!" This man was a joy.

When Walter Williams got up on stage, he was clearly nervous. He had no reason to be. His presentation, liberally sprinkled with Mr. Bill clips, including one with Sluggo as the insurance agent coming to do the adjuster thing on Mr. Bill's demolished home, was brilliant, funny, poignant and brave. He did a piece on how Louisiana as a land mass had been made by the shifting of the river over centuries. In it he interviewed climatologists, Corps of Engrs' guys, levee specialists, environmentalists. He gave some history, lots of facts and made it so interesting that although he had said before he played it, "Maybe this is too long. If you get bored just let me know and I'll turn it off," no one said it, no one shifted in their chairs. He told some stories about his time on Saturday Night Live laughingly saying, "Yeah, I worked with Belushi, Gilda, Aykroyd, Bill Murray, but there was no talent there!" All in all it was a wonderful time and typical of New Orleans in that the citizens will somehow find some humor and art in just about anything. We think he should take the show on the road!

We were supposed to finish up our storage today, but life intervened in the form of glitches in scheduling, so that will again be put off til Wednesday. We just want to get that over with, get the stuff dried out and be done with that part of our process. Everyone here is in the middle of some process, but this being the kind of place it is in this little warp of time, they muddle through.

We will send more pictures soon,
Love and Light,
Bec and David

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Carnival Season in NOLA 2006--Some Sketches in Confusion

Hi all,
Carnival, or as you know it, Mardi Gras season started on January 6, also known as Twelfth Night. Mardi Gras will go on, but it will be a much abbreviated version with altered routes. Many Krewes (the groups that parade with their floats) have had their own routes for years. This year they have agreed to a set route, after much argument, in order to make the policing of the event easier. For those of you who think Mardi Gras is just a day, a little explanation. In a normal year, there are events for weeks, culminating in 10 days of parades. The city comes to a virtual stop. The "Girls Gone Wild" stuff you see definitely can happen on Bourbon Street, but the parades themselves are very much family affairs, and the krewes are civic organizations of varying types. This year some of the krewes that would normally roll 70 floats will only roll 30. After much haggling, Mardi Gras celebrations will go on and there are decorations on houses all over the place in green, gold and purple, the official colors of Mardi Gras. That's good to see, but it still doesn't feel normal at all. Some are saying that this will be the most important Mardi Gras ever held here. I tend to agree. But there are shadows on the beads this year.

People here are still in a daze. Sometimes little sketches are the best way to illustrate that.

In the 9th Ward, when we went over to drop off the supplies, it was just plain eerie. And the pictures can't possibly convey the scope of the damage (miles) or the smell, that moldy, watery, pervasive smell. No water marks on those houses or the houses in Arabi and Chalmette in St. Bernard. We had gone all the way to Chalmette that day and circled back. No water marks because the water was way over top of those roofs. Some of the houses look okay from outside, but as you drive through you'll see weird images. One that sticks with me from Chalmette is an old Lincoln Continental that had been parked in a garage. The garage door was a little more than half way up, torn up by the wind and water. The Lincoln had been wedged into that garage on an angle by the water. No telling how it was gonna be removed. Looked like you'd have to take the whole garage down to move the car.

On the news, members of Congress have been coming down. Two batches of them this week alone. Finally! They're all appalled at what they're seeing. They don't understand why more hasn't been done. Power not restored, FEMA trailers not in place. We think they should bring the entire Congress down here on a mandatory field trip. Take a look for yourselves. See what's happening here and cut some of the red tape.

A woman, on her cell phone, walking around her property. It's devastated and so is she. The insurance companies are dragging their feet, hers among them. A cop waiting for a haircut in the hairdresser's shop I go to saying that his brother-in-law's house in St. Bernard was worth 200,000. The insurance gave him 63,000, not enough to rebuild. How are people supposed to come back, work, rebuild, when they spend all their time haggling on the telephone and commuting to wherever they're staying at the moment?

A phone call to a house restoring expert on the news: What should I do about mold treatment? Well, he says, you have to make sure all the lumber is no more than 20% wet, 15% would be better, then do the mold treatment on the beams (this is after the house is gutted down TO the beams). If your house is in the areas where water stood for weeks in it, then it might take til April for the beams to dry enough to do the mold treatment. And you should do the treatment UNDER the house as well, your insurance should cover it. No, said the caller, my insurer will not cover it. Where is this person to live until the house is rebuilt? Supposedly a FEMA trailer on her property but they are few and far between. We've seen some lately, but not many.

Levees. Levees. Levees. Our legislators took a trip to the Netherlands. Mary Landrieu was in an exhibit showing the devastation of their flood in 1953. That flood caused them to create the brilliant structure they now have to protect them from the North Sea. As she looked at the pictures from 1953, she points to one and says, "That's what OUR levees look like NOW." I was stunned that they didn't edit that out of the footage. A telling remark.

The levee issue is the lynch pin. Without good protection, there won't be investment in this area, there won't be people coming home. People here can't understand why there isn't a national commitment to this important port city. Every day you'll hear someone in a grocery store or on the street say, "Why can we rebuild bridges in Iraq and not take care of the people in our own country?" The look on their face is one of total bewilderment. Walter Cronkite said what's on most people's minds here: This was a perfect exit strategy. Sorry, guys, we've gotten Saddam out, but now we have to take care of our own people. The new term is VietRaq. Tshirts around saying, "Screw Fallujah. Save New Orleans."

A couple days before our trip to the 9th Ward, our president came for a visit. He was here about three hours on his way to a fundraising event in Florida. He only saw the Garden District, which looks pretty good. Says we've made lots of progress. He was kept away from the girls from Sacred Heart School who, with school permission, staged a demonstration at Jackson Square wearing life jackets. Next time get the chopper to land on the barge over there and let him make his way down. Drop him off about 4PM when the mosquitoes really start biting and the sun will go down soon. We'll give him a flashlight. Tell him we'll meet him in the French Quarter for a drink once he makes his way there.

People are in limbo here. Insurance won't pay, FEMA isn't much help, the levee issues are looming with 5 months til the next hurricane season. The health care system here is dire. The only hospitals open at the moment are hospitals that are for profit, private hospitals. By law they can't turn people away. They've seen a 400% increase in uninsured patients. They figure in four months time, if something isn't done, they will run out of money. And they're operating with extreme short staffing since only 1 out of 4 doctors returned to the area. The patients haven't returned so many doctors have set up shop elsewhere or they'd be bankrupt here. As a result, word is going out that if you have a condition that requires a lot of visits to the doctor, stay where you are.

City hall is giving mixed signals. No, I don't mean the chocolate city remark, which I frankly think is getting way too much press. What most people out of this area do NOT know is that Ray Nagin was elected mostly by the white people here. Nine out of ten of his voters were white. He's been accused of being white on the inside and black on the outside. So although the press is acting like he's against white people, the new Huey Newton, he's SOOOOO not. But he needs someone to check out what he's saying before he says it. He's going to piss off some people no matter what, and that's something he doesn't want to do. That is part of the reason for all the mixed signals.

All zipcodes are open for people to come and stay now. New Orleans East opened two weeks ago. Once again, with the insurance industry running amuck, people aren't sure what to do, but they start gutting. Meanwhile the rebuilding commission issues a plan that recommends a four month moratorium on building permits in certain zipcodes while they do a study to see if rebuilding there is a good idea. The building permit desk at City Hall, just recently reopened with most agencies running abbreviated schedules, was inundated with people trying to get their permit before the moratorium went into effect because any permit issued PRIOR to the moratorium would stand. WHAT???? Today on the news, "Building permits can be gotten free at these locations or online or by fax." Although the moratorium wasn't accepted as a final proposal, those who are gutting houses and preparing to rebuild their homes are confused. Add in the idea that they could go ahead and rebuild, and then, in a year (time spans vary depending on what study you're reading), if your neighborhood isn't considered "viable", you might have to leave anyway. WHAT?????

Articles abound about the real estate market here. What they're NOT saying is that unless you can afford to buy the property outright, there's almost no way to get a mortgage because no insurance/no mortgage and the insurers don't want to insure here. So many people are praying for the Baker bill to buy them out, although that doesn't seem to be going anywhere and it's a convoluted mess, with some people thinking it will pay them 60% of the market value of their house when from what I've read it will only pay them 60% of their equity, with the city kicking in another 40%, but only if the person buys another house in New Orleans. WHAT????

Breathless isn't it. That's how it feels writing it. That's what people sound like talking about it. Completely confused. Our local leaders could definitely be doing a better job, but we need a federal commitment. We need levees first and foremost. We need to feel as though the rest of this country cares. The whole Gulf Coast needs to feel that. A friend was in Gulfport and took a video as he drove down the street. You knew there were houses there once because you could see driveways, but that's all you could see. Flat land, then driveway leading no where.

Those of us who stay here are here because it is home, whether native or adopted. And we're staying here because we'd feel like miserable wimps to not stay and do something, even in the hard times. Economically things get tough, but the tourism industry is starting to get better. Now if we could just get some of those hotel rooms emptied out so tourists could come in. . . . ..but that goes back to housing, trailers. . . . ..

Well how about that! Too surreal. Right after I typed "trailers" the doorbell rang. Guess who it was? A FEMA inspector. He has nothing to do with the FEMA money, (no, we still don't have it for those of you who ask weekly!). He was just here to make sure the LAST inspector did his job correctly. He stood at the front door, asked me if the last inspector was courteous. I actually started laughing. I then told him I was afraid to say anything about anything to him because every time we did something went wrong with the FEMA application. He said he had nothing to do with "that program"--that each state sits down with FEMA and if the state says "we're not paying for damaged personal computers" FEMA then says, "okay then we won't pay for fences." No kidding. That's really what he said. I said, well while all of you are negotiating, there are people who are completely stuck with no jobs, no homes, living in some hotel room or another state. He said, yes, he knew that was so then launched into a story about his uncle who also hadn't gotten a FEMA payout even though his house was pretty much gone, and told me his grandfather used to own a bar a few blocks from here. All in all very productive! (Please add a healthy does of sarcasm to that last statement.) As he left, I told him to be careful. A lot of people want to string up anyone from FEMA. He said, not to worry. He works for a company that is a subcontractor for FEMA out of Washington, some company called PaRR. He said, "They're just bureaucrats like the rest of them. Have a nice day and I hope you get everything squared away."

And so it goes.
Love and Light,
Bec and David

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Good Morning, America, How are ya?

Don't you know me I'm your native son? I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans. . . . .

New Year's Eve in New Orleans, those lyrics sung by Arlo Guthrie to an overcrowded Decatur Street block at the bottom of Jackson Square had people singing and crying in the fog. Good ol' Arlo was only 20 yards from the spot in which the President stood to give his post-Katrina speech. Arlo was better.

It was a really foggy New Year's Eve here, both literally and figuratively. People just seemed a little bit jumbled, and not from drinking.

David came home from work and we decided to go out. We were trying to meet some friends, but they had a head start and we never caught up. We had dinner at one of our favorite cheap restaurants on Decatur, Fiorellas. We were so glad to see it reopen. It had only been open three days and they have a lot of the same staff, including the cooks from the old day shift. We were glad because we've noticed that some of the restaurants definitely have different cooks. Food is still good, but not the same. But then what is around here.

We walked from there down to Oswald's Speakeasy just to see what was going on there. Many of the bars on lower Decatur were planning on giving out free champagne at midnight when the Baby dropped the Gumbo pot, (I'll explain that later!) and Oswald's was on the list. Neither of us likes champagne, but we like the ambience of Oswald's. The bar was nearly empty so we talked, then a couple other patrons came over and there was a discussion about politics that was fun and relatively sedate given the topic. One of the guys had moved here after Katrina, can't remember from where, but said he was staying. It was good to hear someone say they were coming here rather than going somewhere else.

We left there and walked toward Jackson Square. It was a warm night and the fog was really drippy thick. We looked up at the Jax Building to see if they had the Baby up there. Rather than a ball like in NYC, New Orleans has this giant baby that stands on the corner of the old Jax Beer Brewery building that has been converted into shops and condos. It's a beautiful building and the Baby, all lit up, just makes ya smile. At midnight as the countdown begins, he drops the gumbo pot and then the air is full of shrieks and beads. People stand on balconies along Decatur and throw the beads to the folks in the street. We were there last year and there was no way to even walk through the crowd, it was more like being inside a wave without a surfboard. This year it was much, much less crowded. We would rather have been complaining about it being too crowded than not crowded enough, but even though the numbers were fewer it was encouraging as many of them were actual, real live tourists.

We could hear the music as we walked toward the foot of Jackson Square and knew that Arlo Guthrie was going to play that night as well as many other bands of different types. We got there just as Arlo's set began. People were having a great time, then he sang St. James Infirmary Blues and people went wild. After he finished he said that that song and the following one were for this wonderful city and he launched into Good Morning America. The New Orleanians in the crowd were hollering and everyone was singing along. (At the foot of Jackson Square is Decatur Street and right across the street is a large open amphitheatre of sorts, pre-Katrina it was usually filled with tourists watching various street performers. New Year's Eve it was full of people watching the music, so there were faces singing along all the way up to the Moonwalk level at the top of the amphitheatre steps.) Some people were crying, many were thrusting their fists in the air for every chorus. The sound of everyone singing got louder and louder as the song went on. It was really wonderful.

We left when the next band came on. They were very good. I can't remember their names, but we had decided to keep going. So we headed toward Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street looked more normal than it has in months. It didn't look like New Year's Eve Bourbon Street, more like a slow Wednesday night before the storm, but there were actually people from one side to the other pretty steady. And there were even people on balconies throwing beads. Hand Grenade containers and beads in the gutters looked normal. A few alcohol casualties sitting dazed on the curbs. Again, very encouraging. The businesses on Bourbon need for the street to look like that more often. They are struggling to stay afloat. Shops and clubs are all having trouble staying in business. There definitely is music, but we haven't heard any zydeco that wasn't a recording played over a shop's speaker system in months. Jazz still comes out of Fritzels, Al Carson is still playing at the Funky Pirate so a good blues riff will knock you in the head on that block, other clubs have music of course, and the New Orleans Levee Board (yup, that's really their name), arguably the best R&B band in the city is still playing at the Rock. We had decided that we wouldn't be out late but that we'd stop in the Rock, say hi to the owner and the band who are friends of ours, and then go home. As of this minute, I don't know if the Rock is going to be open this weekend. They might have to shut their doors.

This is happening to businesses left and right. I've heard estimates of 1.5 to 4.5 million tourist dollars per day have been lost since the storm. For a city that relies on tourist dollars for a hefty part of their economic base, this is catastrophic. The first cruise ship since the storm came into Port this week, with more to come. That will help a lot. We hope they keep them coming. New Orleans was the second largest cruise port in the US and was planning on expanding their capabilities before the storm.

Today is Twelfth Night. This is the traditional opening of Carnival season. We hope that the tourist industry blankets the airways with "Come to New Orleans" ads, and that the 20,000 new hotel rooms scheduled to open this month, will be ready.

There is still so much to do here, but flipping the calendar over helped the overall mood a bit. I don't know if we can sustain the optimism as a City. We try to maintain it on a day by day basis. It's the only way or we'd be overwhelmed. The "plans" for rebuilding are a mish mash with nothing definitive coming out of City Hall. The health care system is a mess. Only 1 of 4 doctors returned so far and only 2 of 9 hospitals are open. The Charity Hospital system, one of the largest medical facilities for indigent care, is gone, possibly never to be reopened. We have no Level One trauma facility at this time. I giggle every time I see an ad for the various testing facilities touting their latest MRI or CAT scan equipment and saying "We're open!" I'm not sure who's sending anyone there. The insurance companies are still holding up payments or just out and out denying payment. Signs have sprung up all over the city posted by attorneys who are specializing in insurance problems. The federal help is still not what it should be. There are still no real answers about accountability of the Army Corps of Engrs and the levees they built. Nor are there any real answers regarding a new levee system. Fifty percent of the parishes of Louisiana have nixed providing sites for FEMA trailers, should they actually arrive. I saw a couple of them. I know they exist. I understand that people are afraid that the FEMA sites will become permanent fixtures as they have in some parts of Florida, but I'm still ashamed of them for not putting themselves in the displaced citizens' shoes.

The list goes on and on. So much to do, a logistical and economic nightmare for everyone.

We are hoping that those who have hung in there, like the business owners on Bourbon Street, will be able to hang on a little longer. We are hoping that those people who are determined to come home, will in fact be able to.

We are hoping that the New Year is wonderful for all of you.

Love and Light,
Bec and David