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


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