Monday, September 28, 2009

Trunks, Trumps, Tornadoes and FEMA


Hi all,
Well, you'll be happy to know that whatever was left in storage is now on our porch and in our living room until it can be cleaned, another attempt to salvage it, and either re-packed or given the final heave ho. All in all it took five days to go through it all, not done all at once, but two days this week. The difference this week was that the power has been restored to that area of Tulane Ave so we got to do it in the light and not feel like characters out of a Zola novel. That, however, was a mixed blessing.

With the lights on in this huge place, we could see the totality of the filth and waste and loss. In the dark, some of that was blissfully not in our awareness. (I did take some pics and will get them out to you in the next day or so.) It was actually kinda worse in the light. So many people just opened their storage unit about two feet, took one look and left. We couldn't do that, but we absolutely understand those who did. We spent yesterday and the day before in there, and just navigating the hallways to get stuff out was difficult as so many pieces of lives were littering the hallways. I can't really find anything to compare it to. What was a gorgeous antique cabinet ten feet from a unit full of brand new, never-to-be-opened laminate flooring, down the hallway from a unit clearly filled with someone's business inventory. It looked like she did party planning and weddings, lots of colorful ribbon spools, never opened, the only color in the place. Everything else is kind of a gray brown. I was sitting on the cart at one point and looked over at the unit next to me. From the lock to the door was this spider webby black goo that was now dry. Strangest thing. We couldn't see all that with our flashlights.

As for our unit, we just kept going through it. Some of the boxes, as you've seen from the other emails and pics, were just slid around and were still so wet you couldn't pick them up, so the method became "rip the side out and see what was in it." That's the method we employed, trying to hold up the soggy sides, pick through, drop something possibly salvageable into a tupperware, pitch the rest into the pile in the corner. We didn't have to take the stuff out to the dumpsters. The guy from UHaul said just leave whatever you're not taking, some guys will be in to clear all this out next week. God help those guys. So that's what we did.

We started with the trunks. First trunks, dolls top to bottom. Saved a couple we think, and are going to make a valiant attempt to save Meg's first Cabbage Patch dolls. Of all of them we chose two that looked like they might be washable enough to make it and their hair wasn't falling off. One little clown doll that she went everywhere with was unsalvagable. That one hurt. Those three trunks on top of each other were hard to move. They had rusted together in a way, so we fought to get the first one down, then the second, then the third which was also pretty much rusted to the floor. Second trunk, Indian pots, Indian rugs, most of the Native American artifacts I've ever had including feathers. Some of the pots made it, some had returned to the clay they began as. We found the cremains of three dogs. The fan I'd made from an owl wing was gone. The pipe I'd made and used in so many classes was in there. I had been sure it was in the house, it wasn't. A talking stick that was one of the first things David and I bought together, all bone and leather and feathers, gone. We put anything ceremonial in a separate box even if it wasn't salvagable. Third trunk, ah yes. All the baby clothes, mine, my fathers, my daughters. I brought some things home and and hoping that it won't disintegrate in the washer on gentle. Meg's patches, ribbons and her jacket from drill team, I will be able to save most of them. Her graduation gown, probably save-able. It's the little things, ya know?

Then boxes. Rip. Oh no more photos. There is a smell to the wasted emulsion. Stew a picture in a mason jar for about five months then open it and you'll get close to the smell. Once again, hurray for Polaroids. We found some pics of Meg at Christmas, all polaroids. We dug through just about every pile of pics we found hoping to find a Polaroid. It was like the prize in a box of crackerjacks to find one. The rest of the pics turn into this slippery stack of nothing. The ones we saved we're thrilled about. We never did find any of the yearbooks, Dave's, mine or Meg's. Can't figure out where they went. We never saw them, or maybe didn't recognize them. They could have been in the initial book sludge boxes.

Found a lot of Meg's little treasures and found ourselves laughing over some. In one box, incredibly wet the box was, there sat a perfectly dry stuffed elephant from when we took her to the circus long ago. He was pristine. We can't figure it out.

We took some pics of the inside of our storage, and the rest of the facility and walked away. Now the real work begins as the stuff gets put out all over the place to dry. Then we'll see what we really have. If it was hard, wrapped in newspaper and didn't feel or sound broken, we put it in a box. Gotta get the newspaper off to see what it is. Ironically, it will probably require our soaking it once more in water, to get the paper off and clean it up. Priorities are the fabric and paper stuff. The rest can wait. We're told that they will have some units on the second floor soon. Thank goodness as there isn't a storage unit to be found for 50 miles and we're on the waiting list in two other places. We looked upstairs and it was fine. We know that some of this will have to go back into storage, so we'll dry it out, clean it, re-pack it and put it on the SECOND floor this time, in a much much smaller unit. We could look at this as a cost saving measure.

The night before last poor Lakeview had a tornado. A rather strong one. All those who had already started working on their houses, were now terrified about putting in another claim to their insurance. Some of what they'd already done was destroyed in the tornado. One woman's roof had just been completely re-done from Katrina, then got a tree through it from the tornado. Another man's wall made it through Katrina only to be blown down by the tornado. They have good reason to be worried. A guy at storage told us that he had bought a house in St. Bernard. Two story. Was told when he bought it that he wasn't in a flood plain, didn't need flood insurance. (I hear this story over and over, it's starting to really make me mad.) Now the same agent who said he didn't need flood insurance, is saying "We'll pay from the water line up. We'll give you 1000 bucks for your roof. That's it." The guy told the insurance agent to shove it. It will probably wind up in the thousands of lawsuits against insurance co's that are coming down the pike. Unfortunately for some people, the bank will have foreclosed on their property before the lawsuit and the insurance issues will be handled, so either way their house is gone.

The night before that we watched as his Bush-ness (a FABULOUS term that I'm stealing from a friend's email! Thanks, Louis, it really says it all!) showed us that his wish for global "freedom and democracy" trumps his wish for his own citizens to be taken care of in any way. We love the "math and science high school" idea, even as he cuts student loans, which will make it close to impossible for many of these highly educated high schoolers to build on that. Oh yeah, and no child left behind still hasn't been funded, so I'm not entirely sure how these math/science whizzes are going to BECOME such whizzes. Stories of teachers having to skew data just to keep funding rather than actually teaching the kids anything is the legacy of that snappy slogan. I played cards the other night with a 12 year old, 4th grade student, who can tell me his middle name but can't spell it. So with any luck, the children of Iraq will have good schools and not too much anger at their occupiers to come over here, help out our students, become doctors to staff our hospitals, and maybe some will be engineers who will know how to build a good levee system. Whaddya think? As he went on about the down trodden and oppressed, we kept thinking maybe he was talking about the Gulf Coast! Nope. He kept talking about people feeling "secure", but turned out it wasn't his own citizens he was concerned about. I keep thinking that the Gulf Coast states need to unite, make some kind of threat, be considered a "rogue nation" and maybe we'll get something done.

No Child Left Behind, no funding. A great promise, poorly planned, but a great promise. He's good at promises. Here's the latest on FEMA, broadly and personally.

There are currently about 5000 FEMA trailers in St. Bernard parish. Just sitting there. On the news this morning, one woman called in and said that she had called FEMA for the 100th time (the average time spent by a citizen of this region on FEMA/insurance/permit issues is 20 hrs a week.) She had been trying to get a trailer since October. They said, "Your trailer has been ready since Dec 3." She said, "No one called me!" "Oh, sorry." One of the officials in St. Bernard is now saying that he and his city council members and others are ready to go commandeer the trailers since FEMA can't manage to get them to the people who need them. FEMA guy on the news this morning says, "We will get them to the people by LEGAL means." Well, the elected guys in St. Bernard are over it. They might just go in there with trucks and take them, kinda like the Boston Tea Party, only they won't drop the trailers over the side of a ship, they'll put them in people's yards. And as for promises local companies would have first dibs on contracts for work has also gone by the wayside. News report last night, "A company out of Colorado has been awarded 1 million dollars to tow away the 100,000 abandoned cars in New Orleans." Okay, wait, 1000 bucks per car? And there was NO ONE here in Louisiana that could have done that? The local contractors are furious.

Now our personal FEMA journey. David has faithfully gone to the Disaster Relief Center every single week for nearly two months now. He's doing it as a matter of principle at this point. Each week he's been told, "We can't figure out why you didn't get the first 2000 that was promised and we can't figure out why you didn't get the second check either. There's nothing we can see on your paperwork." So each week, they'd fax their supervisor, one week he was told they were reviewing our case that day, the next week he was told it should be any minute now. THIS week he was told, "Oh, the first 2000, they turned program off six weeks ago. If you haven't gotten it yet, you won't be getting it. We're not even taking appeals on that anymore. You might get the second check, we don't know." "But we FILED Sept 10" says David. "Oh that doesn't matter. They stopped that program." Um, when did they tell these FEMA workers this stuff? If it was six weeks ago, why were they telling him TWO weeks ago that everything was fine? One FEMA worker actually said, with frustration, that she couldn't understand why there were so many people who did NOT get that "Bush on Jackson Square" promise. She sees them all day and probably would be fired if they knew that she said, "More people did NOT get it than DID."

But hey, in Iowa somewhere, people think everyone down here got rich and that we're getting handouts every single day. And Machiavelli always said, "Perception is everything."

Did ya know Karl Rove reads Machiavelli's "The Prince" once a year?
Love and Light,
Bec and David

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Last Mass Email

Hi guys,
My mailing list has grown out of control, and I get emails every day from someone asking me to "forward" it to them, or add them to the list. I have also had one person ask to be removed from the list, which I did. I get no end of mailer daemons when one of you changes your email address, then I get mail saying you didn't get my last email! Some of it has been just funny and I laugh a lot.

I will continue writing, and have been posting regularly already on the blog, In fact, you guys have already missed several posts. I think you'll like the medium. You can still email the post to someone, as you've been forwarding my emails, just by clicking on the little envelope at the bottom of the post. You can compliment me or blast me, or add some pertinent info just by clicking the comments link.

I haven't figured out all the ins and outs, that's for sure. I was trying to figure out how everyone got links into their writing without it saying "http blah blah blah." It just said, "this article" and blammo, click on it and you're at the article. I'm not sure if I'm right but a light bulb went off over my head about 3AM, so I think I might have figured it out. That would be great. No more attachments to emails!

Pictures can also be posted on the site, so that should make it easier for those of you who for whatever reason, spam filter, etc. haven't been able to see some of the photos that were either embedded or attached.

I also haven't figured out how to jazz up the page yet, but give me a little bit and I will. For now, all the posts from the last few days are there. I truly hope that you guys will continue to read what I'm putting out there, and this will let you do it at your leisure, or not at all if you don't want to. I've also found that the "blog" community is a wonderful, humorous, thoughtful, encouraging and helpful bunch. It's really amazing and the flow of information is remarkable. I think you'll find it that way too. There are some links on the right side of my blog page to other blogs. Those will grow as I go.

Either way, thank you all so much for reading the emails these seven months. And please let me know if you're still reading. Your email comments have always been wonderful and I'd still like to have your feedback. New Orleans still has a long way to go, and David and I are still struggling determinedly along. We're not going anywhere. It's been you guys that kept us going so many nights, and your forwarding of the emails has kept the New Orleans/Katrina experience in the forefront of folks' heads who might have forgotten what happened here. It is more appreciated than you know.

See you all at I hope!
Love and Light,
Bec and David

Monday, March 26, 2007

Broken People and a Lost Little One

Hi all,
In the last three days, I've heard these stories. There are reports of progress being made here with houses being gutted, people trying to return, the strong spirit of the people here. There are also reports of Corps of Engineers reports contradicting themselves, laws that keep the Corps from being sued, insurance companies refusing to pay. Mostly these stories are about stuff. Homes, money, jobs. But there are ancillary stories connected to all of the above, and I've heard them this week.

We took Zola up to the levee so he could see people and bicycles. We watched as they shot a scene from the Denzel Washington movie, "Deja Vu", on the Ferry (which Disney rented for a month causing no end of problems with commuting from the Westbank). A woman came up to us with some binoculars. Everyone, it seems, is waiting for a glimpse of Denzel, but so far no one has actually seen him. We started talking with her. She lives on Powder Street here on Algiers Point, a street that we delivered lots of food and water to in early September. There was an entire family that hadn't evacuated and they had nothing. One of the women we met up there was an elderly woman, about 83 as I recall. She was one of the women who needed her medication refilled and was part of the surreal tea party under the Army tent at Blaine Kern's as she waited with the others for a ride to West Jefferson. Her hair was black, her makeup severe, her laugh raucous and wonderful. I can't find my notebook (been searching all morning, her name is in there), but I think her name was Joy Boudreaux, a very common surname here in New Orleans. She told me that she had been born on Powder Street and had lived on Powder Street her entire life. She was a fascinating woman. She died this week. Evidently she had other ailments, as her list of prescriptions could attest to, but her heart gave out.

The woman we were talking with was probably in her late 50's, also lived on Powder Street. She said she had a circle of girlfriends that consisted of 12 women. They'd known each other for years. Five of them have died since the storm, of heart attacks from stress. Four others had moved out of New Orleans because of their jobs. She just shook her head, still not believing her personal human loss.

You've read about our friend Louis from up the street. He's the one with the amazing evacuation story that took him to Utah after being refused entry to the Westbank by the Gretna police which was really just the second to last chapter of his harrowing story. Louis is in his 50's and always rode his bike to work in Metairie, which is a long way by bicycle. Before the storm, he lost a grandson, 21 yrs old named Christopher, to kidney failure. While in the Convention Center for four days, he lost his nephew, shot by police while getting water for some older ladies. His nephew died in his arms. Yesterday he buried his 20 year old son. Coroner said heart failure due to stress. No drugs in his system. TWENTY YEARS OLD?!?! He now is trying to raise money to return to Utah to get his car. He has to leave day after tomorrow and he has no money because his landlord, a man named Mr. Cooper who owns many properties in this area and has rented them out Section 8 for years, has raised their rent from $900 to $1500. Louis, Marie and their grandson Christian, are planning to move to Baton Rouge or maybe Houston. Shoved out of their hometown by greed after suffering so much loss. You can see it in Louis's eyes. He's not the same man that we knew before the storm. Something is broken inside of him.

The doctors told him that they were seeing very large numbers of heart attacks due to stress in the New Orleans area. While everyone is busy talking about money, insurance, FEMA, they are overlooking the people that these delays and lack of money are affecting. Can they come home? Will they be safe if they do? Will they be able to rebuild? Many people are still searching for missing relatives. A local tv news station reported that in addition to the two bodies they found in the Ninth Ward this week, they also found a child's body at an intersection off of Forstall. My god, this is an area that we've driven by over and over when we went to the area. We no doubt drove right by where this little one was found. Who's looking for that little one and what agency will find the people who are looking? The impersonal rules and regulations simply aren't taking into account the toll, physical and psychological, that this is taking on human beings who are just trying to get by after an historic catastrophe.

It's not just the money and the delays. It's the loss of family, through death or because they're still missing. It's the loss of their neighborhood, their social safety net. It's the loss of friends. We will be losing two of our dearest friends to Houston this coming week. Company setting up shop in Houston, not in New Orleans. This happens every day here. "We are moving. We have no choice." And most really don't have a choice. The reasons vary but the void is still the same.

Yes, indeed. The people of New Orleans have a wonderful, tough spirit. That's what's going to see us through all this, I think. A sense that one doesn't just abandon their home because it's too hard. But somehow in the midst of these commentaries on the billions of dollars, the levee failures, the loss of the structure that was home, there has to be some way to really address the post-Katrina loss of life that all this has contributed to.

Hearing about seven fatal stress related heart attacks, in people ranging from 83 to 20, over the course of three days is overwhelming. These seven came from every ethnic and socio-economic group. The stress is an equal opportunity killer, it seems. When you see all the reports about structures and dollars, please remember the humans involved. They seem to be getting lost in the shuffle now that they're off the roofs and off your TV screens.

And pray that the ones who died when the levees broke are reunited with the families who are looking for them.
Love and Light,

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Old River, Lost River. . . . A Roadtrip and a Return

Hi all,
Sorry to have been out of touch. David and I went on a road trip. Why would we do that when we're still living hand to mouth and hoping that Jazzfest helps? Because our dear friend in Albuquerque, whom we helped with German Shepherd rescue before we moved, called and said, "I have your dog here." We had just lost Jasper and had decided we were not getting another dog for a while, but here was the same story that brought us Jasper. Puppy mill jerk, 18 German Shepherds, living in filth and starving, seized by the county, needed homes. And one of them looked like he was probably Jasper's grandson, great grandson, grand nephew, something. Or so she said. Well, us being us, we couldn't turn that down and she knows us and what kind of dog we tend toward. So we got in our car and drove to get him. He's back home with us now, learning about people and struggling to figure out that most of them won't hurt him. He's handsome and smart and somewhere between 2-3 yrs old, but he's got the experience level of a 3 month old. He's fabulous and we're glad we went for him.

It was also the first road trip we'd taken together that wasn't a family visit in years and years. And it was our first long trip since Katrina hit. I had gone back to Albuquerque in November, but flew in, worked for two days and came back. It's a different thing from a road trip. We headed out having decided to take the "short" route through Shreveport to Dallas to Amarillo to Albuquerque. No problem. We'd done it before and we knew that Texas is the endless state. We both abhor driving through Dallas but managed it with few issues as long as we paid attention to the cutoffs. We got to Albuquerque, had no time to do a lot of socializing but got to see a couple people briefly, and that was great. Spending time with Kathy and her own pack of dogs was really a treat. We were also surprised by how many people we met in stores and gas stations who upon hearing we were from New Orleans, seemed almost compelled to tell us that they were ashamed and appalled at the federal handling of Katrina. It was interesting to hear what they had to say. Most of them, however, had no idea that about 30% of New Orleans still has no power. They were stunned.

We loaded up the dog and headed home via the "long" way: Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, Baton Rouge, home. We did the TexasWorld Tour. Yes I did mean for TexasWorld to be all one word. Anyone sensitive about Texas might not want to go on reading from here!

Having seen almost all of the major cities in Texas in a six day period (two days each way), we were astonished. The roads are, by and large, wonderful. Something that cannot be said of New Orleans before or after Katrina. We noticed the Texan intent on being BIG: big auto dealerships, big flags, big steaks, big vehicles. We were fascinated by some of the tiny little towns, a lot of them agricultural or ranching towns, that had nothing but a few trailers strewn together in some semblance of a village. There's a lot of that in New Mexico too, but we didn't expect the huge contrast between these little burgs and the bigger cities. Trailer colonias and a truck stop out your window, then the blazing overdone glass of Dallas. We'd seen that before as we had gone that way on other trips across Texas. But we saw the same thing on the southern route. It seemed that the gap between the rich and poor in Texas was huge and obvious. I did say they like things big there.

The first five to ten miles of any one of the cities we went through were endless parades of franchises. Everyone is represented: Applebees, Chilis, McDonalds, Burger King, Target, Walmart, Home Depot, etc. We talked a lot about the homogenization of America. If someone dropped us in the middle of a good size city in Texas, it's virtually indistinguishable from Kansas City or any other city in America. The franchises have taken over, and only the trees and the freeway number will tell you where you are. Home Depot and a palm tree? Probably Miami or San Diego. Applebees and a cactus? Probably Albuquerque but could be Phoenix. Nothing distinguished one city from another. It's happened all over this country and it's made our country a bit boring. We really had to look hard to find a small, non-corporate owned local/regional restaurant amid all the mega-chains. Since we didn't stop a lot going or coming, it didn't really matter to our stomachs but it did matter to our psyches.

The roads are packed with newer model cars and many of the major freeways are being expanded. Lots of money in Texas it seems. The contrast between Texas and Louisiana was stark. Texas was very, very generous to our evacuees, and for that we will be eternally grateful. We also understand why some of them decided to stay put and not come back. The cities LOOK affluent. Of course we didn't see the crime problems, the gang problems. Local problems can't be seen from a freeway driveby. What did strike us was that we felt like "foreigners." Our political views certainly weren't in evidence anywhere that we could see in Texas. We know that the entire state of Texas isn't ultra-conservative, but that was what was most in evidence. We also actually had a concern that our car, with Louisiana plates and an "I love New Orleans" decal on it, Mardi Gras beads hanging from the rearview mirror, might make some people think that we were "that element from New Orleans." I am truly sick of the word element. It's become a euphemism for so many things.

As we drove out of Houston, where the weather started feeling like New Orleans, we passed a sign that said, "Old River, Lost River" and it appeared that two rivers joined up there. It was beautiful, and wow, what lovely, romantic names these rivers had. We couldn't wait to see "our" river. We got home and were very happy to be here, even as we drove in still seeing hurricane damage and ravaged cars under the overpasses. It wasn't pristine but it was home. Once here we caught up on the local issues, which we couldn't do a driveby on.

Crime is up here. Apparently some of the Houston gangs have moved in. As David says, "Don't forget, nature abhors a vacuum." Two real gems, B Stupid and his buddy, Man Man (no, guys, I am NOT making this up) were finally caught. These two lovelies were here trying to set up a new drug network. Man Man evidently was standing on a neutral ground shooting a gun in the air. I think it was on Esplanade. B Stupid was picked up by a cooperative (imagine THAT!) effort between the NOPD and the Kenner cops. In an interview when asked how he got the name, he said sort of intelligibly, "The street gave me that name." Oh, not your behavior? Well, at least they got these two, but it appears that the Houston/NOLA gang foreign exchange program won't let up for a while.

The elections are much contested and amazingly haven't gotten nasty yet. Mitch Landrieu is so far behaving like a real class act, and most people I've spoken with think he's pretty much a shoo in, if not based on his ideas, which so far have been a bit vague, by his connections at city, state and federal levels. The consensus seems to be that he can probably do a lot as Mayor just because of his connections. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that, but I think he'll probably win. I have to go to his website and see what he's really saying. Meanwhile, there is a question about whether or not the elections should be held in April at all since so many of our citizens are out of state. The racial issue is also being introduced into this argument as the demographics of NOLA have changed significantly since the storm. By some reports, we went from 80% black to 60% white. The argument is that the black citizens, who seem to have been more significantly scattered than the white citizens, would not have a real voice in this election. Given the mail service and the idea of absentee ballots, oh yeah, and the nutbar we have as county clerk, I think some of the arguments are valid. I'm not at all sure how long we should wait though. Will the situation change enough in one month, two maybe, six (?) to make people feel that the election should be held? I don't think so. It's been nearly seven months now and things are still moving at a snail's pace in terms of rebuilding and repopulating. I'm not sure postponing the election will accomplish anything. On the other hand, holding the election and having it appear unfair will only lead to more negative press locally and nationally, not to mention some hard feelings along racial lines. I've read arguments on both sides, and they both make sense. This is a tough issue.

Oh yeah, the mail. According to the Post Office, our mail service should be back to normal "by summer." We'll see. It does seem to be improving a little, but still not enough for papers that need to be sent back by a particular date to GET to you before the due date.

Housing and business, the two words we hear daily in some context or other are intertwined so intimately here, but amazingly few people are talking about the two issues as they relate to one another. Rents are out of control. Landlords, seeing the corporations as the geese laying nests of golden eggs, are gouging. Local message boards are addressing this issue, but the news media isn't. 6000 dollar "corporate apartments", "furnished one bedroom luxury corporate condo, $3900 month, all utilities paid." Well I should say so! Rents have doubled and tripled in some cases, but now we're starting to see them drop a little as the contractors go home and people who were renting while their house was being rebuilt finally get to go home as well. It's a slow process. In the meantime, it's not real people paying these rents. It's expense accounts. Prices like this are driving people out of New Orleans. This becomes a vicious cycle for businesses, especially small businesses. "I can't make enough money to keep my business open if I can't get workers and I can't get workers because they can't afford the rents and I can't pay them enough to afford the rents so they leave and I can't make money to keep my business open. . . . " On and on the circle goes. Many, many landlords are NOT gouging, our wonderful landlords included, and many are sick of the "corporate turnover" of two month leases. There are more and more people looking for "long term leases" in their ads. But the gougers really should be ashamed. This whole cycle is going to come back and bite New Orleans in the ass if something isn't done to curb it. Granted there is a supply and demand element, but what's happening is that some of these landlords have decided to make as much as they can while the corporate expense accounts hold out and locals be damned. It's a mess and something has to be done, but other than people just refusing to pay those rents, I don't know what will curb it.

The levees, MRGO, floodgates, FEMA, SBA, insurance adjusters all continue to be problematic and the daily reports on any one of those topics can alternate between excuses, resignation, and screw 'em. Can't put FEMA trailers in a flood plain, so we can't get them down here, besides we're doing the best we can, and oh yeah, another hurricane season is coming and these things could be flying all over the place if a good size tropical storm arrives, nevermind another hurricane. So the best idea is to rebuild. But if you rebuild you need the money to rebuild and the insurance isn't giving it to you and FEMA isn't giving it to you and besides we can't agree on the FEMA flood plains anyway and how high should you have to build your house off the ground? Raising them, yeah, that's the ticket. Oh your house wasn't completely washed away? It's still extant and you just finished gutting it and dealing with the mold? Well, we don't know what to tell you. You might rebuild it, if you've got your own money to do it, and then we might say you have to raise it. How high? Didn't you see yesterday's report? We haven't decided yet. We've given out a lot of money here, but we have to comply with the FEMA rules and you KNOW we're audited so we know the wheels grind slowly and it's frustrating, but it's a bureaucracy those of us on the ground are doing the best we can. Army Corps of Engineers can't be sued. Insurance companies saying "act of god," lawyers saying "act of man, negligent man at that", adjusters saying "not wind damage, house is settling." Oh really? The house "settled" into this giant mountain of debris? "Too bad, you're not getting anything."

I could go on, but I'll spare you. For now, anyway.

Many, many kids are not in school yet. They're on a waiting list. Waiting for a school that can accomodate them, waiting for a school to open. The latest is that they will be back in school by April but WILL NOT BE HELD BACK. Excuse me? So we'll have marginal fourth graders from a school system that was abysmal before the storm, becoming even more marginal fifth graders after missing 7 of 9 months of school? Are you kidding me? Keep them in school all summer. Help them catch up. Some of them are really traumatized. They're going to need help. Everyone is hoping that we will utilize this chance to make our school system better than it was before. If we do this, just ignore that these kids missed nearly an entire year of school, we will blow that chance inexorably.

Well, there is certainly more to say. And to those of you who have written me privately, I will answer your emails as soon as possible.
Love and Light,
Bec and David

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Incident of National Significance---No NOT Cheney's Bad Shooting

Hi all,
First I have to correct something from my last email. The contract for the abandoned cars that a Colorado firm was awarded was 100,000,000 bucks, not 1 million as I said. 1000 dollars per car projected was correct though.

Tomorrow the full House report on Katrina comes out. The report was leaked to the Washington Post a few days ago and some of the conclusions the House arrived at are stunning, but not so surprising to those of us who live here. One of the most damning things, among so many, in this report is Chertoff's delay at designating this disaster an "incident of national significance." This is the "highest designation under the National Emergency Response Plan." Chertoff put this designation off for 24 hours. Doesn't sound like much, but when water is pouring into your house it's a big deal. (The Washington Post report is attached to this email for anyone interested in reading it.)

What we've noticed is that a lot of Americans still don't feel this is an incident of national significance, and for those who watch any coverage of the upcoming Mardi Gras parades, I think they'll be pretty upset by how we perceive the situation. Krewe du Vieux, a notoriously irreverant bunch, paraded Saturday night. The floats lampooned our governor (I've told you about the refrigerators in the Quarter that had statements about who was IN them) in any way possible including "What's in your fridge" and inside the freezer were the Governor's, well, her upper chest area is the most PG way to put it. The mayor, the president, FEMA, everyone got nailed by these guys. One bunch was handing out giant fake ten dollar bills and saying it was "your FEMA money." We did find that saying "Throw me something FEMA" got us a lot of throws. One float begged, "Take us back Chirac." While Krewe de Vieux is definitely a bit of a renegade Krewe, and the super Krewes will no doubt be much more family oriented and tamer, the anger amid the humor was palpable. Many of the floats were made entirely from Katrina debris and one even included a levee breach (their theme was "C'est Levee") and it was squired down the street by the Comatose Corps of Engineers. Does that sound strange? There's much stranger stuff than that going on.

The FEMA trailer saga continues. Some people who were moved into them were subsequently moved out of them. Some were moved out because they weren't evacuees but people who had come here to work so they didn't qualify. Some were moved out because they were homeless. We need to define that for everyone. They had no homes prior TO Katrina, so they didn't qualify for a FEMA trailer AFTER Katrina. Homeless now means two things in New Orleans. First definition is someone who was living on the streets before the storm hit. The second is someone who is living on the streets because their home was destroyed and/or FEMA tossed another 2300 people out of hotels yesterday (that's in addition to the 900 families evicted from hotels last Friday.) I'm also of the opinion that we need to quit using the term "evacuees." Many of the evacuees have become de facto refugees, hundreds of thousands of them all over the Gulf Coast. They have no place to go. The refugees evicted from hotels will now be sent to state run shelters in Shreveport. As a friend said, "That's a hell of a commute." If you're fighting insurance adjusters, FEMA, maybe the SBA, living in a hotel and managed to get a job or keep your old one, how on earth are you going to do that from Shreveport? And the loss of those employees puts businesses in an even bigger bind. It's a gigantic circular mess.

One bar that was always filled to overflowing before the storm costs 60,000 dollars a month for rent. Sounds extreme, but pre-Katrina they brought in 13K a DAY. No problem. Now they're taking in an average of 700/day. Yes, I got that math right. Seven hundred dollars per day. New Orleans is losing an estimated 1.5 million a day in tourist dollars. Businesses are really struggling. You couple that with the loss of population, the extreme lack of housing, the loss of schools, and it's a recipe for disaster long term.

Get arrested? Need a lawyer and can't afford one? No problem. We'll just let you out, no matter what your crime. The public defender coffers are dried up, gone with Katrina's wind and the population who paid the taxes to keep it afloat (no pun intended with the afloat remark!)

Conversations in the local hair salon:
"Get any water?" Sounds normal here. If asked in San Francisco the bewildered person being questioned would look in their grocery bag and say "A couple of bottles." Here the answers vary from "None" to "Five feet in my second floor." There is an interactive map that shows the water levels anywhere on the map you click. Great little map.

"Hey, you getting any mail??" "We get it at the shop but not at home." "We get it every Thursday." "How come UPS can get through?"

"Why don't we secede?" From there the conversation turns to a brilliant term coined by a friend of mine, "economic secession." Blanco's on the right track with the idea of withholding oil leases. Other ideas being bandied about: Close down the port and hold all cargo hostage. Tally up every federal dollar of taxes paid by Louisianians and refuse to send them to the IRS, keep them here instead. Boycotts of all types are being discussed to change the way the oil revenues come into Louisiana. Although this state pulls 70% of the oil found in the Gulf Coast out, our revenues are smaller and cover far less offshore mileage than any other state, particularly Florida and Texas. Some ideas heard in grocery stores and on the street are silly, others make sense. Big headline in the Times/Picayune saying Blanco is ready to play hardball. Let's hope so.

Found a house in the Ninth Ward the other day. Stars and stripes hung on the front and blowing in the wind, intermittently hiding the "big X" spray paint coding. The flag was tattered, full of rust and mold. Clearly had been there since before the storm. Meanwhile in Arabi, I saw several Confederate flags flying in place of the stars and bars. People are feeling very betrayed here. And of course, as more and more information comes out with these various reports, I'm afraid that that feeling will just grow deeper.

It's late. Much more to say, but will let you be for a while.

And will someone please tell Uncle Dick that his spin on the hunting accident is just too transparent to stand? I wonder how many people here in Louisiana would be willing to pony up the $7 he needed for that stamp on his hunting license? Maybe FEMA will give it to him.

Love and Light,
Bec and David

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