Saturday, December 31, 2005

A good cigar

I have a tradition to welcome the New Year. I smoke a cigar at midnight.

In a way, it's just like handing out cigars when you have a baby. We sometimes depict the year ending as an old man and the new one as a baby in a diaper. This is not so different.

Cigars have long been associated with wealth and influence. Smoking a cigar is a way of showing the world that you're prosperous. What more effective means is there to declare you have money to burn than to fire up an expensive cigar?

And each year, Santa helps me keep this tradition by bringing me cigars on Christmas Eve. He puts some in my stocking every year without fail, this year included.

There will be bonfires and fireworks, and they're nice in their ostentatious ways, but I prefer the quiet glow and flavorful smoke of a good cigar.

To say 2005 was not a good year would be a massive understatement. We took it on the chin in New Orleans, with Hurricanes Cindy, Katrina and Rita. The whole Gulf Coast was on the ropes at one time or another this year, and the referee is still counting over some places, uncertain if we can or will get up again.

This January 1st, I am certainly many thousands of dollars poorer than I was last January 1. At this time last year, I had a beautiful house, nice furniture, books and art and boxes of mementos and photographs of family and friends that are all lost to the flood brought by Hurricane Katrina.

But I will still light up a cigar at midnight. I will in my own quiet way remember what I have and not grieve for what I have lost. I have a nice place to live, food in great supply, clean clothes and hot water. I have a good job with challenging work, full health insurance and money in a retirement account. I have a TV and a DVD player, and music and a computer to amuse me.

And I have a lovely wife and a wonderful daughter, and family and friends who are happy to see me and eager to help when I need it.

It's New Year's Eve, the last day of 2005, and as I cross that threshold into 2006, I will not do so richer than last year. But prosperous? You betcha! Wealthy? Absolutely! Happy? Yes indeed.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Son finds body in rubble

That's a headline from today's edition of The Times-Picayune. The story made me angry and sad at the same instant.
A Lower 9th Ward man who saw his mother die on the roof of their home as Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters rose in their neighborhood, returned Thursday and found their house collapsed and her skeletal remains in the rubble, police said.

The body was tentatively identified by police as Joyce Green, after her son found her remains in the debris outside their home about 3:30 p.m. in the 1600 block of Tennessee Street, said officer Juan Barnes, a police spokesman.

Her son, whose name wasn't released by police, told police he and another relative had taken refuge on the roof of the home with his mother after the Industrial Canal levee broke, police said.

He told police his mother died before he and the other relative were rescued and evacuated from New Orleans.

After returning to New Orleans, the son told police that he went to the home Thursday and found his mother's remains. The grieving son said he recognized her body from the clothes she was wearing at the time she died.

Imagine the horror and the guilt this man must feel. Yes, his mother had already passed on when he left her, but to know that her body lay in the trash and debris, unceremoniously disposed of in the heap of garbage--that has to weigh heavily on his mind.

And how did this happen? How could a human body remain unfound, undetected in the middle of a major city for four months? How could this happen in America? What are we going to do to protect this city from ever having this happen again?

Sadly, this story is being repeated over and over as people come back to New Orleans. The body count is not complete.

The suffering brought by Hurricane Katrina continues.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Boogie Night

World Famous Rock'n'Bowl. That's where I was last night.

The first thing people usually ask about Rock'n'Bowl is, "Is it really a bowling alley?"

Yes, it is.

The next thing they ask is, "Do they really have live music?"

Yes, they do.

It usually takes a minute or so before the next question, but it finally comes. "Can you bowl while the band is playing?"

Why not?

Located on the second floor of a strip shopping center on the corner of Carrollton and Tulane Avenues, Rock'n'Bowl is everything a New Orleans music club must be to thrive in this town: funky, funny, affordable, ecclectic and a little run down looking.

And what about the music? Last night was The Boogie Men, a horn-powered mega smash dance band that's been making a name for itself for I guess about a dozen years. You like it funky? They can do that. You like rock? They can do that too. The emphasis is always on the dancing, though, so no matter what era or style of music they're playing, the floor is filled with moving feet.

Since this was not a school night and the band started early, I took my daughter with me. Her primary observation: "It's LOUD!" Well, yeah, they do that too. We danced to a few tunes, and I'm sure she was very impressed with my moves that have not changed since the 80's.

As always, Owner John Blancher was there, meeting and greeting and genuinely enjoying things. He's the man who took the World-War-II era bowling alley and turned it into an internationally known icon by mixing pins and pop music.

John especially loves Elvis, and is known for hosting a birthday party for him each year and dressing up as the King himself. If you stay late enough, you might even catch John and the bar keepers hula-hooping to the music.

Rock'n'Bowl survived Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that filled Mid City unscathed since it's on the second floor. Still, getting the place back up and running in this decimated city was a feat for which you have to give John due credit.

My girl wanted to bowl, which is a unique experience there. When the band is playing, the house lights are dimmed. The pins glow in soft white light at the end of shadowy alleys. And you can't hear a pin drop because, as my girl noticed, "It's LOUD!"

We only bowled a few frames and didn't do a good job of keeping score, but somehow my daughter decided that she had 37 and I only had 22. We left near the end of the first set because it was after 10 and she's not usually up so late.

Ultimately, I think her favorite part of the outing was the Ms.PacMan machine. Nine years old and begging for quarters like a strung-out junkie, I guess that's what I once sounded like, too.

I took some photos with my cell phone and posted them here, but these lo-res images don't do it justice. The joint was jumping last night, you'll just have to take my word for it.

And, I'm sure my daughter would add, "It's LOUD!"

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Rocket Science

I visited with some old neighbors last night. Well, I should say, "prior neighbors of several years," because they are both many years from AARP eligibility.

They used to live right down the street from me here in New Orleans. My daughter used to ride her bike down to their house to play with their oldest daughter. And it was not uncommon for us to get a Saturday morning phone call from their girls asking if our calendar was open.

When Hurricane Katrina came to town, they packed up their two girls and assorted cats and headed to high ground. When it was all said and done, they landed in Denver, Colorado where the husband's company has an office that needed help. The wife works for the federal government and also found work with the same agency there. And the girls, well, you know how easily most kids can adapt to new surroundings.

So they came back to town for a few days, to rescue some belongings from their flooded house, to visit family and friends, and to chart their return course.

The husband is a mechanical engineer and I'm a civil engineer, so when I saw him he almost immediately asked me to sit down so we could talk about the levees. "The news we get from CNN in Denver is crap," he said. "Tell me what's really going on here."

He knew I'd have the scoop on what the real situation is here, and he asked very specific, insightful questions. I filled him in on the current effort to fix the levees, the initial findings on why the city flooded, and the plan to build more significant hurricane protection if the feds will fund it.

"So, basically, we'd be crazy to rebuild until the levees get fixed," he said. "I mean, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out."

Did I mention he's a rocket scientist? Well, he is. He works for a company that does a lot of work for NASA. He's been hands-on with the Shuttle program, so he knows a thing or two about quality control and risk assessment. He quickly agreed with me that the risk of living with 100-year flood protection just doesn't cut it. And he understands that rebuilding right away and the same way, before the failed levees have even been properly fixed, much less improved, is not a good plan.

Let me be clear about this: I want to rebuild. I think we should rebuild. My only reservation is that we have to rebuild better and smarter. I think New Orleans needs and deserves significant hurricane protection--much more than what we have now. And I think we need to rebuild our homes and businesses higher, so that if and when the streets fill with water, the impact will be lessened.

I'm waiting on the federal government to take care of elevating the levees, and I'll take care of elevating my home.

So where does this leave us, we two neighbors who now live a thousand miles apart? They head back to Denver on Monday, and I will continue to live in my apartment in the "sliver by the river."

And two families continue to hope for good news.

121 Days of Darkness

Photographer Mark Rayner has posted dozens of photographs of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina on his Wild Dog Digital website. The most recent photos illustrate how one part of town, Gentilly, remains almost totally dark even 121 days after Katrina hit us. Be sure to click on each photo to read the narration. It's hard to imagine that thousands of homes are still deserted at this date.

Mark also writes, "While there has been amazing progress in cleaning up the city of debris left by the storm, there is still an incredible amount of work to be done."

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Christmas Present

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent with family, gifts and talk, perhaps no different than the many such annual gatherings as before. But it was not the same. How could it be?

For one thing, Christmas after-lunch talk was all about Katrina. My various relations from St. Bernard Parish each had a strange and exciting story to tell about what happened to them when Hurricane Katrina came, or what happened to their neighbors, or worst of all, what rumors they had heard about what happened when no one was looking. It was just a little overwhelming.

And then my brother, who had not come to visit this Christmas, called me with holiday greetings. I had thought he was spending time with his wife's family, or hosting people at his own home this year and that's what prevented him from visiting us. But no. He told me the reason he did not come to New Orleans this year was because he did not want to impose.

Impose? Since when is it an imposition to visit with family during the holidays? I scolded him of course, and told him that family is always welcome under any circumstances. At least that's my rule. Over the course of a long conversation, he explained his reasoning to me and I give him credit for at least trying to be considerate.

But as I've written here more than once, things like houses, clothes, cars and other things really aren't what makes life good. Life is about interacting with others, especially loved ones.

In the end, I probably came down too hard on him. After all, he's living in a whole different state and can't possibly fathom what is really going on here. Yes, there's devastation. Yes, there's decay and debris throughout the city. A lot of people away from New Orleans don't understand that; my brother perhaps understands it too well.

But there is life and hope, too. Although the city is mostly dark, there are Christmas lights. Although the gardens are brown and drowned, there are new leaves sprouting from the earth. Although our homes are shattered and uninhabitable, families gather to share a meal, talk and celebrate.

It is what we did in the past, what we do in the present, and what we will do in the future.

Sweet Light

My friend and fellow New Orleanian Bart posted an entertaining account of how he spent Christmas Eve this year. Naturally, the whole evening revolves around food. The power just got turned back on this week at his house in Mid City, so he makes some interesting observations of his own regarding the Sweet Light. Hey, Bart, more power to ya!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Season of Lights

It's Christmas Eve, the day before the day chosen to remember the birth of a baby.

It's popular to think of Christmas as being the "reason for the season," but as anyone who knows their history and theology knows, the winter celebration is about more than Jesus.

It is the season of lights.

The deepest, darkest day of winter, the Winter Solstice, has always been an important day for humans. That's when the new year used to begin. That's when the days would begin to grow longer, and the promised return of spring became real. It's unfortunate that over the centuries the calendar has been adjusted, corrected and manipulated so that the new year no longer falls on Winter Solstice.

And it has also been the custom to celebrate the arrival of kings and man-gods on Winter Solstice. Jesus is just the latest to receive this honor, although again, various circumstances have skewed things so that Christmas misses Winter Solstice on the modern calendar by four days.

And we cannot overlook Hanukkah, another religious tradition that recognizes the despair of darkness, and the hope of light.

It is no accident that all of these things come at this time of year. This is the season of lights, a time when all of us can celebrate the changing of the season, the elongation of days, and the return of light. With the new year come new opportunity and hope.

New Orleanians are experiencing this in a very special way this year. Having had our city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, we are more than ready for a new beginning. We're ready to close out 2005, a year that will reside in the history of catastrophe next to 1965 and 1927.

We're looking for any sign of help, any indication that this winter will end soon, and that our city will again bloom.

The darkness is inescapable. Whole areas of the city, neighborhoods and boulevards that used to be lit up with life are now dark. Even the street lamps are off. Even the porch lights are extinguished.

To celebrate this season of lights, some of us have put up the traditional holiday decorations. In the part of the city where I now reside, the "sliver by the river," there are homes and businesses with bright and colorful Christmas lights. And why not? We need the light. We crave the light.

I continue to cling to the belief that the light is coming. I have hope this season of lights will be the threshold to better things, the birth of a new year that will bring a new New Orleans.

Happy Holidays to all.

A voice from New Orleans

I hope everyone heard the interview on NPR's Weekend Edition this morning with hurricane Katrina evacuee Randy Adams. If not, you can click here to listen to the story on NPR's web page.

Mr. Adams explains why he has returned to New Orleans, and recounts some of the difficulties he is experiencing. It runs about 4 minutes, but the most important part is at the end of the interview when he says, "I would like to share one other insight..."

Mr. Adams is what we would call "good people." Best wishes to you, sir. Welcome home.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Body count goes up again

As fellow blogger Polimom says, "they should NOT still be finding bodies" in the Lower 9th Ward.

Rest in peace.

Homeward bound

Well, this is a banner day in my life. Anyone who's visited this blog before knows how my life was blown off course by a nasty hurricane in late August. We're all still recovering, and some of the small steps back to that place called "normal" have been documented on this blog.

But now comes a big one. Back in September, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. He issued a second such order a few weeks later when a second hurricane threatened our waterlogged city. And he declared the first universal curfew for the city of New Orleans in my 44-year lifetime.

Today's big announcement is this: residents of all areas west of the Industrial Canal are now free to return to their homes. Permanently, if we choose.

As The Times-Picayune reported:

That means people can officially reoccupy their homes in Gentilly, Lakeview, the Upper 9th Ward and other areas in four ZIP codes: 70122 and 70124, as well as parts of 70117 and 70126. The rest of the city west of the Industrial Canal was already open for returnees to stay.

Yep, 70122, that's my neighborhood! That means I now have official permission to not just visit my devastated home during daylight hours, I can now sleep there if I want to.

Not that I would want to.

Why would I want to sleep there, in a house that was filled almost to the ceiling with putrid flood water for about two weeks? Why would I want to sleep there, in a house that is still littered with soggy and shattered furniture, popped and puckered floors, and a kitchen made foul by an overturned refrigerator and a collapsed pantry of rotting food? Why would I want to sleep there, in a house with no gas, no electricity, no sewerage, and water pressure so low that we are warned it could be difficult to fight a fire if one occurs? Why would I want to sleep there, in a house that lies in the shadow of the shattered London Avenue Outfall Canal, whose two rocky patches are still leaking into the adjacent streets?

Officially, my neighbors and I have permission to go home. But no one in his right mind will.

Unless and until we fix those levees, restore basic utilities, and get some assurance that at least a few neighbors will join us there, no one in his right mind will return.

Heck, FEMA won't even put a travel trailer on my street until we get electricity and sewer service back online.

So although today, December 23, 2005, is the official day I am permitted to go home, I think it will be many months before I am able to go home.

Tags: New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Moved on Too Fast

Here's an interesting editorial lamenting the short attention span of the federal government and the media.

Editor & Publisher: The Press Has Moved on Too Fast
By Mark Fitzgerald, December 19, 2005

The recurring themes in all such pieces are that no one really understands how bad it is until they come here and see it in person, and that much, much more needs to be done to help.

The writer was surprised by the lack of traffic signals through most of the city. If he had been a regular reader of this blog, he would have known that before coming to town.

You'll dig the way it's fried

An apology to my friends and family who have been faithfully checking here for news and updates but have found nothing new to read for the past few days. My excuse is simple: I have this pesky job that takes me out of town every now and then, and I can't post when I'm on the road.

But the good news is, traveling beyond boundaries of the battered Crescent City has given me new perspective on this catastrophe. The first of which I write about now:


I think we all know what I'm talking about. Sometime in the 1970's, a New Orleans entrepreneur invented a wicked blend of spices to make fried chicken something to get excited about. Oh, there were Kentucky Fried Chicken and Plantation Chicken outlets in every city in the south long before then.

But no one had ever tasted anything like the cayenne-fueled fire of Popeye's recipe. When the first couple of Popeye's restaurants opened here in New Orleans, there were lines of people waiting to get that golden goodness before you could say, "Gimme two pieces, dark, spicy with fries." And the epidemic quickly spread to the rest of America.

From the beginning, the advertising and decor of Popeye's were made as loud and wild as the flavorful poultry they served. "Love that chicken from Popeye's," the ads sang. You know the tune. "Made the New Orleans way."

And in all the mess left by Hurricane Katrina, I had not noticed until recently that all the Popeye's in New Orleans are closed.

I know I've written more than once about food and restaurants here, but there's a reason I have not written about fast food. Because in New Orleans, there ain't no more fast food. Not even the spicy New Orleans original.

I noticed this because when you leave New Orleans and travel several hundred miles away as I did earlier this week, there are fast food restaurants on every corner. Even Popeye's, which strikes me as just a bit ironic, since it is apparently easy to get New Orleans flavored fried chicken everywhere except New Orleans right now.

How can I be making a big deal about a fast food restaurant? Because Popeye's will forever in my mind be that constant touchstone. No matter where I go, I know I can find home in that garish, greasy goodness.

About 25 years ago, for instance, I went through Army Basic Training at Fort McClelland, Alabama. Our barracks faced a large parade ground. Across the parade ground was one of the gates to the post. Outside the gate was a highway. Across the highway were several small businesses, including a Popeye's.

Several times a day, while lined up in military formation, I could see that orange and black fast food restaurant across the several hundred feet of land. And I would be reminded of the food, the fun, and the family back home. When the Drill Sergeants got me down, I'd imagine going AWOL over that fence and spending an hour at Popeye's before the MPs found me and dragged me back. (For the record, I never did get to eat there--I got shipped off to my next post the same day I completed Basic Training.)

I don't know how popular Popeye's is in other towns, but in New Orleans you could walk to one no matter where you lived or worked in the city. I just looked in the phone book and counted 20 in New Orleans proper, and 20 more in surrounding parishes. I've heard that some of the Popeye's in neighboring parishes are open, but most, including all in New Orleans, have not reopened.

There was some excitement a couple months ago when Cafe du Monde across from Jackson Square reopened. I'm thinking the Mayor is sure to be there to cut the ribbon when they reopen the first Popeye's here.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Hurricane-force WMD

I watched the President on TV last night. He talked about why it was necessary to send 140,000 troops overseas to fight. He talked about how the death of more than 3,000 people on 9-11 warranted his pro-active deployment of the US military. He talked about the importance of building stable nations that will be our allies in the middle east.

All this to justify spending (at last count) $251 billion overseas.

What he did not talk about was his plan to rebuild South Louisiana--if he has one.

Prior to the arrival of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we knew the Louisiana coast was washing away. We tried for years to get someone in Washington to notice. We even joked that the best way to get federal assistance would be to rename our state "Louis-istan" and our cities "New Baghdad" and "Baton Ramadi."

Being perfectly brutal, if the loss of 3,000 lives is worth spending $251 billion overseas, how much is it worth to mitigate and protect Americans living and working in Coastal Louisiana after more than 1,000 were killed by just one hurricane?

Yet there is disagreement on Capitol Hill. Some think the currently proposed $3.1 billion is too much. That's how much was proposed by President Bush last week to patch up our hurricane protection system. Not to upgrade it, mind you, just fix it so that it might provide the same level of protection as previously authorized in 1965.

But even with the president's backing, there is no assurance the bill will pass. Perhaps it's because President Bush's support is lukewarm at best, or, perhaps it's because Americans don't care.

The undercurrent is that Louisiana politics is crooked and we made this bed ourselves. The truth is that hurricane protection is a federal responsibility, with funding, design and construction all controlled by the federal government and the Corps of Engineers. Sure, we have more than our share of rotten apples. Former Governor Edwin Edwards is just one of several past public officials sitting in jail today for fleecing the good people of the Pelican State.

But where's the connection between "Fast Eddie" and the Corps? Where are the payoffs and kickbacks that resulted in low levees and walls that could not hold back a Category 4 storm surge? You might as well point to the failure of the Saints as the reason New Orleans flooded--there's probably just as much correlation.

No, the failure was at the federal level. Congress, the President and the Corps of Engineers signed off on hurricane protection that provides just 100-year protection. That is, there is a 1 percent chance that the levees will be overwhelmed in any given year. Let's face it, those are not good odds.

Now that we've seen what a terrible tragedy our gamble has caused, it's time to fix it, and fix it right. The Corps has estimated that significant hurricane protection can be built for about $32 billion. That's ten times what the President has offered, but still a fraction of what he is eagerly sending overseas.

And it's a drop in the bucket to the damage and destruction caused by just one weapon of mass destruction, commonly known as Hurricane Katrina.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The 12 Days of New Orleans Christmas

I don't know who wrote this, but I know it wasn't me. A little Christmas cheer from those rebuilding in New Orleans:

(Sing along, it's fun!)

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
The power turned back on by Entergy.

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Five MREs!
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Six FEMA payments
Five MREs!
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Seven sacks of sheetrock
Six FEMA payments
Five MREs!
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Eight electricians wiring
Seven sacks of sheetrock
Six FEMA payments
Five MREs!
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Nine sweepers sweeping
Eight electricians wiring
Seven sacks of sheetrock
Six FEMA payments
Five MREs!
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Ten dump trucks hauling
Nine sweepers sweeping
Eight electricians wiring
Seven sacks of sheetrock
Six FEMA payments
Five MREs!
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Eleven roofers roofing
Ten dump trucks hauling
Nine sweepers sweeping
Eight electricians wiring
Seven sacks of sheetrock
Six FEMA payments
Five MREs!
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergy.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Twelve plumbers plumbing
Eleven roofers roofing
Ten dump trucks hauling
Nine sweepers sweeping
Eight electricians wiring
Seven sacks of sheetrock
Six FEMA payments
Five MREs!
Four jugs of bleach
Three flood adjusters
Two rubber gloves
And the power turned back on by Entergyyyyy!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Simplicity amid chaos

Today I found this picture in the online Christian Science Monitor, and I have to admit I found it moving.

The cragginess of dried sediment is what we would call "alligator cracking," because it reminds one of the random creases on alligator skin. The photo from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, perhaps 5 miles from my house, looks remarkably just like the dried mud that I found covering my driveway and patio. It's something we who flooded all share.

And yet, standing in the middle of a city destroyed by nature, more than once I have caught myself admiring the strength, resilience and beauty of nature. Dragonflies, for instance, those colorful, delicate and amazing flyers, are abundant in my yard now. How did they survive the wind and flood? And another time, looking at my dead lawn and my wife's drowned garden, I noticed a single green plant (I don't know, it looked like a tomato plant to me), pushing up through the dull grey and brown that is death and dirt.

The good news is that we humans are also part of nature. We, too, are resilient and will rise.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Rally for New Orleans

"If the Netherlands can protect its country from the ocean then surely America can protect New Orleans from a lake."

These sound like the words of an elder statesman, someone with a roomful of speechwriters to help hone the message into crisp sound bites. But these are the words of Judith Kaufman, a mother of three who fled the devastation of Hurricane Katrina to the safety of Pennsylvania.

Far from home and frustrated by the slow or non-existent response from Washington, Kaufman found a voice that is now being heard.

"The quintessential purpose of government is to protect its citizens," said Kaufman. "We are asking the federal government to protect our city with a levee system, a model for the world, so that the people of New Orleans know that when they come back and rebuild and reinvest it is not in vain."

Kaufman and neighbor Shawna Doremus, also evacuated to the Keystone State, decided to take their message, their plea, straight to Washington. Too far from New Orleans to physically help rebuild their beloved city, the two decided to organize a rally in front of the White House on Wednesday, December 14. From Pennsylvania to Pennsylvania Avenue, you might say.

"We are Americans, we are taxpayers, and Judy and I both personally represent small businesses," said Doremus. "We are asking Congress to just help us help ourselves recover."

Let's hope Congress and the President are listening.

For more information visit the Rally for New Orleans web site.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Red beans and gifts

We had red beans for supper tonight and talked about Christmas. It was fabulous! Since Katrina, the simplest things bring us the most joy.

Red beans are the quintessential Monday meal in New Orleans. I've heard this is because Monday is the traditional wash day, the day when the women folk used to do the laundry. It was easy to cook a pot of beans on the stove while you were out back hand washing and hang drying the clothes.

And you know people in New Orleans plan their lives around food, and they turn every problem into a party. So they made Mondays and the simple pot of red beans into something to get excited about.

What made these beans especially good was the sausage from Terranova's Grocery. We lived for a while on Esplanade Avenue just a few doors down from this corner grocery. The Terranova family all help run the store on the street level and live in the rooms upstairs. I don't know if the store flooded, but they just reopened last week to the delight of the whole neighborhood. My wife was one of their first customers that day.

During supper, we started talking about Christmas, and presents, and the jolly old elf himself. My daughter, a fourth grader, recently mailed her annual letter to Santa and steadfastly refused to let us see it.

Her plan, she explained, is to provide a different gift list to each gift giver, thus improving the chances that she'll get everything she wants and avoiding the duplication of presents that sometimes occurs.

My first reaction to this was shock. You don't hand out gift lists like a foreman handing out assignments. You're not supposed to assume that people are going to give presents out of involuntary obligation. It struck me as rather rude, and I was thinking about how I would tell her this.

But then she confided and told us what she was asking for. From Santa, a bike. From her Nanny, a soccer ball. And from us, new sheets for her bed.

Let me be clear about this: we are not poor. We could certainly afford to buy my daughter two bikes, a television, an X-box and a gaggle of games to go with it. But since Katrina we're trying to keep it simple. We moved into a two-bedroom apartment and bought the furniture from the prior tenants. We only have two sets of sheets for our two beds.

But our girl does not complain. She does not pine for the gadgets and hip toys that television loudly tells her she needs. She does not want us to give her things that are large, loud and expensive.

She just wants a new set of sheets. Comfortable sheets to rest on and read, sheets of her own.

Since Katrina, the simplest things bring us the most joy.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

It's the levees, stupid.

Hopefully a lot of people all across America read The New York Times' Sunday editorial called "Death of an American City." (You can read it on their web page with free registration, or you can read it courtesy of Truthout.)

It's good that someone outside of Louisiana understands the situation so completely. The people of South Louisiana can and will rebuild. We just need the promise of adequate levees to protect us from the next hurricane. Empty rhetoric will not stop a storm surge, and it will not give homeowners and businesses the confidence to rebuild here.

Sure, some people will live in New Orleans no matter what happens. But this great city, this metropolis that in the early decades of our country was among the largest in the nation, and is the port of choice for Latin American trade and the heart of the Energy Coast, will be no more. New Orleans will be just a small town where tourists visit the pretty, old, empty buildings.

As The New York Times says, we need some straight talk from the President. Either he supports rebuilding New Orleans better, or he tells us up front that it's not going to happen.

We at least deserve that much, don't we?

A post script:

I also notice The New York Times compared the cost of providing real hurricane protection to the total 2006 federal budget and to the cost of our military expedition in Iraq. Perhaps the editors have been reading my blog. I used those same comparisons and also quoted the President's speech from Jackson Square in my post last month titled The Whims of Nature.


It finally happened to me. I knew it was just a matter of time, and sure enough my turn came on Friday.

As I was leaving the office and walking up to my car, I saw the flat tire. What can I say? I knew it was coming, and yet I felt deflated.

Since the early days of recovery from Hurricane Katrina, people driving around New Orleans have done so at their own peril. When I came back to town in late September, there were still wires dangling from poles, trees and buildings. There were trees leaning uncomfortably and a lack of traffic signal lights and signs.

And there was a lot of debris on the streets, debris that often found its way into the treads of tires. A friend who works for the electrical utility company said he was getting two to three flats a week driving around New Orleans.

You knew it reached epidemic proportions when the signs began to appear. Along with the hundreds of signs advertising mold removal, house gutting and reopened restaurants, there are the "Flats Fixed" signs lined up along the major roadways.

But this is December, you say. Isn't the debris all picked up by now? Well, mostly. But now we're into reconstruction mode. All over town roofers are working dawn to dusk to install new shingles where blue tarps now reign.

I have no doubt that the majority of nails and sharp trash tossed into the streets by Katrina has been cleaned up. Now we're contending with nails dropped by roofers, construction crews, and even the trucks hauling the construction debris away.

When I pulled my shapeless tire from the car, sure enough I found a squat, wide-headed nail stuck between the treads. It was shiny new, so I'm pretty sure I can blame the roofers who have been working in our neighborhood and throughout the city.

But I'm not angry. Like I say, it was inevitable. How can you repair and rebuild almost an entire city without dropping a few nails?

Let's face it, like my tire, the city of New Orleans is largely deflated. Getting angry about it won't make it better. Just as that nail needs to be pulled to make the repair, we've got to pull together to make this place whole again. Of course, my tire will be ready to roll Monday. Fixing greater New Orleans is going to take much, much longer.

But I know it can be done, and I know one day New Orleans will be rolling again.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


We went to Metairie today to get our Christmas tree. It's not like we had a choice.

In years past, there were several places along Carrollton Avenue one could get a tree. This year, those same places are empty and deserted. Some have signs directing people to visit their businesses elsewhere, like Metairie.

In an act of pure faith, I took the family to the newly reopened Lowe's store on Elysian Fields. The place was busy, as busy as you might expect any retailer to be on a Saturday barely two weeks before the big holiday. We saw lots of trucks carting sheetrock, lumber, and roofing shingles.

The only thing we did not see was Christmas trees.

My wife asked a man in a red vest with the company logo pasted on it, "Where are the Christmas trees?"

"We don't have any," he said. "They got 'em at the Metry store."

How strange. Do they think we who live in the damaged city are just going to skip Christmas this year? Do they think we won't use our FEMA and insurance money to get decorations? Do they think all we care about is two-by-fours and linoleum flooring?

If nothing else good came from Katrina, it's at least that we've been reminded that it's the people around us who really matter. We were reminded of this quite forcefully I might add. Family, friends and neighbors matter. Bricks and wallpaper and carpet and walk-in-closets are all just superficial trappings.

So anyone who thinks this disaster is going to usurp or preempt any occasion to celebrate the good people in our lives just has not been paying attention.

We got our Christmas tree today, brought it home and decorated it. I even strung some lights around the door and porch railing out front. We're going to celebrate Christmas, and then we're going to celebrate the New Year, and soon we'll be celebrating Mardi Gras.

Under the circumstances, it is the most natural, most sensible thing we can do.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Unfortunate cookie

We said goodbye to John today. John said he will miss us, New Orleans, and to our surprise, he said he will especially miss Five Happiness Restaurant.

John was a co-worker who recently took a job in Tennessee to be with his family. That's where they went when Hurricane Katrina hit. And that's where they're going to stay.

We gathered outside our cubicles this morning to give him a farewell present and a card. He assured us how much he loved New Orleans, and said if not for the terrible turn of events brought by Katrina, he would still be here.

John was on the verge of tears as he told us how much he loved this town. After all, he said, it was while attending Tulane University that he met his wife. And although he grew up in Florida and she in Tennessee, it was here where they made their home. It was here they brought four children into the world.

And it never occurred to me that Chinese food could be so integral to the New Orleans experience, but John gave a touching farewell to Five Happiness Restaurant.

The popular Chinese eatery is well known for great service, excellent food, and its bright blue roof. On Carrollton Avenue just south of Washington Avenue, there's no counting how many fortune cookies have been served in over 20 years of business.

None of this mattered to Katrina. When her storm surge burst over and through the city's hurricane protection system, about 3 feet of floodwaters doused the Happiness, leaving telltale water stains on the walls and tarnishing the brightly polished front doors. It has not yet reopened.

John explained how he had asked his future wife to marry him over a meal at Five Happiness. And how she had told him their first child was on the way at the restaurant. And how it was during a meal there that he and his wife had decided to move back to New Orleans following his service in the Navy.

I always knew that everything in New Orleans revolves around food, but I never expected that food to be Chinese.

John and his family are some of the best people you could ever hope to meet. Kind and caring, eager to live and love. New Orleans will miss them. I hope one day circumstances will bring them back, and I hope the Five Happiness will greet them when they do.

A link: Five Happiness Restaurant

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Couple found

The latest official body count from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals is 1,090.

More are being found each week, as The Times-Picayune regularly reports:

Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Couple, 97 and 89, are found dead in their Gentilly home
Police think they died after storm

Television portrayed the victims of Katrina to be the historically poor and disenfranchised. But my armchair observation is that the storm hurt and killed mostly the elderly in our community.

These are people who are the least hardy to take on the challenges hurricanes bring. The stress of evacuation, the financial burdens and the deprivation of medical support can be fatal. And just as bad can be the after-effects, such as the physical exertion of trying to salvage belongings and repair homes, the stress of financial insecurity and the suffering from emotional losses.

You can almost understand why so many older Americans did not heed the call to evacuate.

And although the emergency response was phenomenal, the scale of this disaster was just too much. Thousands were rescued in the days after the hurricane passed, by truck, boat, bus, jet-ski and helicopter. Teams of National Guardsmen went through the city, going door-to-door, searching for anyone left behind, helping everyone they could, collecting the bodies of those they could not save. They spay-painted each building to mark their progress through the tens of thousands of destroyed homes and businesses.

As valiantly as they tried, they did not find everyone.

It is now down to the citizens to find the last of Katrina's victims. Family members, friends and contractors, returning to these sodden homes, enter to find the lost and the forgotten where they died. It's been more than three months since Hurricane Katrina rampaged through our city, but the pain of her attack remains.

I write about this not to gross anyone out, but to again try to illustrate the magnitude of this catastrophe.

One thousand ninety dead so far. Of the ones identified, 3 out of 4 came from New Orleans. Less than half of the bodies have been released to families.

More to come.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Red light, green light

I keep running stop signs. I try not to, really. I mean, besides being totally illegal and expensive if I get caught, it's downright dangerous.

But I'm not used to them, and they're hard to notice.

After Katrina's destructive flood waters were pumped from the city, virtually all of the city's traffic lights went dark. For some, it was a lack of electricity. Others were blown down in the hurricane-force winds, or had their electronic controls fried in the flood. The result was fairly universal: no signals.

The rulebook on this one is pretty clear. When a traffic signal malfunctions and gives no signal, the intersection becomes an all-way stop.

Easier said than done!

Many of my fellow motorists assume that the larger or busier street simply gets right of way by default. The courtesy of the all-way stop took a few days to catch on, and it's a good thing since traffic has been steadily increasing since I came back to town.

But then someone--I don't know if it was FEMA, the National Guard, the city, the state, I wish I knew so I could thank them--someone installed a whole bunch of temporary stop signs at all the formerly signalized intersections. Almost overnight, stop signs were set up on tripods all over New Orleans. Order restored, right?


I'm just not used to stop signs along Carrollton Avenue. I'm just not used to having to stop at a stop sign on St. Charles Avenue. These are busy, wide boulevards. If there's no traffic in front of me and there's no bright red light shining at me, I tend to just roll on through. I've been trying to get a grip on this, but it's difficult. Old habits die hard.

And I guess I'm distracted, too. Usually while driving through destroyed areas of New Orleans, I'm looking at the wreckage of my beautiful city on either side of the road. I'm noticing how high the water marks are on the houses, noticing whether there's a rescue hole torn in the roof, scanning the spray-painted houses to see if they indicate someone was found dead there, noticing which homes and business are being fixed up, and which are still silent and abandoned more than three months after the disaster.

I've been driving around New Orleans since the end of September, but you just don't get used to it. It's just not "natural" to have stop signs on a divided, four-lane roadway. And although I know we're still years from "normal," I keep expecting the electricity to come on, and for the signal lights to function. Just another one of those things we take for granted in the modern city.

So that's my excuse why I don't always see those squat little stop signs. It might not be a good one, but that's all it is. Let's hope I can get a grip on this, before I end up joining the debris piled up on the sides of the road.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Temporarily Ain't Dere No More

Some people from New Orleans talk funny. They're called Yats.

When you meet one on the street, they say, "Where y'at?" And then they say, "Whatcha know good?" If you're considered a good friend, they might even say, "How's ya mom an' dem?"

Believe it or not, many people are proud to be Yats.

Even I, on occassion, have been known to slip into Yat talk. My out-of-town friends think it's funny when I replace the "th" sound with "d," as in, "dis," "dat," "dese" and "dose." Sometimes, I don't know what's up wit dem.

Local musician and amateur sociologist Benny Grunch has made a career of celebrating the culture of Yats. A few years ago, he wrote and recorded "The 12 Yats of Christmas," based on the Christmas standard. The locals ate it up.

It helps that Benny himself is, well, a Yat. He knows the places and talks the lingo with the best. With no effort, Benny slurs and blurs the words, so that "picture window" becomes "pictcha winda," and "did you" comes out "did'ja." Yats sound a lot like New Yorkers, but with a friendly streak.

With the band Benny Grunch and The Bunch, he's recorded several more heart-warming songs celebrating the happy weirdness that flows down every street of New Orleans. Just the titles make me smile: "Ain't Dere No More," "Over By Your Mama'n Nem," and "If I Won Da Lottry For Christmas."

All of which leads me to this shameless promo for their recently released CD now on sale through their website and several local stores. They've updated "Ain't Dere No More" to include recent Katrina victims, namely Lakeview and St. Bernard. Well, as Benny says, "Temporarily Ain't Dere No More."

Click the link, check it out, buy a cd from a local musician and have a happy holiday to boot.

Yeah you rite!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

No guarantees

People are rebuilding in my neighborhood. They're pulling out the soggy carpet and puckered wood flooring, they're tearing out the limp, wet sheetrock. They're piling what used to be their furniture, cabinets, beds and sofas on the curb in front of their houses.

And it makes me sad.

People are gutting their houses here and there in my neighborhood, tearing it all out to the studs. They're leaving open all the doors and windows so that the two-by-fours and concrete slabs will dry out. All this in preparation to rebuild.

They are getting ready to rebuild just the same as they were before Katrina.

Is it just me? Or does this amount to a huge leap of faith? If you have a house that got 5, 6, maybe even 8 feet of water, doesn't that tell you something about how you should rebuild?

I can tell you what I will do. My house drowned in 7 feet of water, so unless somebody can guarantee that there will be no more storm surges that top our levees and floodwalls, or unless someone can guarantee that Congress and the President will send us the money to build better protection, and, unless someone can guarantee that those higher levees will be built quickly and correctly, I know what I have to do. I have to build higher.

The last catastrophic flood in New Orleans was 1965, so who knows, we might not get another major flood for another 40 years.

Or it could happen next year.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Night and day

A few days ago I wrote about the darkness that covers the flooded parts of New Orleans each night. Vast areas of tens of thousands of homes, whole neighborhoods one after another that do not have electricity, do not have residents, do not have any signature of modern life.

Photos can never capture the devastation, but here's one that tries. It's from The Times-Picayune from a couple weeks ago:

"The lights of Metairie seem even brighter when just across the 17th Street Canal, New Orleans is a sea of darkness, at night in New Orleans on Friday, Nov. 18, 2005."

What are the odds?

You live in a house that sits below sea level. The only thing that keeps the ocean and the callous whims of nature from rolling into your living room is a levee. A man-made ridge of earthen materials constructed to keep your life and your property safe and secure.

Now we all know that nothing is perfect, and I think we would all agree that nothing lasts forever. But if you’re going to live and work in the shadow of that levee, you probably want to know that every reasonable step has been taken to minimize the risk. You want the probability of levee failure to be low, very low.

What are the odds?

* If your house is in a densely populated area of the Netherlands, the odds of failure are 10,000 to one.

* If your house is in New Orleans, the odds of failure are 100 to one. (To be technically precise, there is a 1% annual chance of levee failure.) This same design standard applies to most federal flood control projects.

Think about it this way: As the average lifespan approaches 100, the odds are that almost every person in New Orleans will experience a catastrophic event in their lifetime. For a Dutch citizen, only once in 100 lifetimes.

Compare this to commercial air travel. According to, the odds of being on an airline flight which results in at least one fatality is about 1 in 186,000 if you’re flying on an airline that is among those with the worst safety records. That’s 1 in 186,000. If you live to be 100, you’d have to fly 1,860 times a year before the odds of being on a fatal flight match your chances of seeing a flood disaster in New Orleans.

But better yet, if you fly on one of the leading airlines in safety, your odds improve to 1 in 4,200,000! It’s odds like these that make commercial air travel viable.

So now the question: does the current 100-year standard for flood protection in New Orleans make any sense? Would you invest in a city that will, in all likelihood, flood at least once in your lifetime?

For Pete's sake!

I am so rich. I was reminded of this once again at supper this evening.

Over the past few months, I received a lot of sympathy from people in Texas, Arkansas, Virginia, South Carolina--everywhere I've gone. People find out I'm from New Orleans, and the sad eyes and the, "Oh, you poor thing," follow.

But I am not poor. Since evacuating ahead of Hurricane Katrina, I have not missed a meal. I have slept in a comfortable bed every night. Thanks to my job, my insurance, my family, and yes, FEMA, I remain safely distant from bankruptcy and the poorhouse.

Tonight, for instance, we ate lasagna. Let me tell you how rich that made me feel.

You might think you would need to be eating caviar and sipping a 1910 vintage champagne to feel rich. You might think you would need to be using fine silverware at Commander's Palace with multiple waitstaff hovering nearby to feel rich.

Instead, we sat at our second-hand dining table in our two-bedroom apartment. We ate using very nice stainless that was a recent gift from my Mom and Dad.

Although we've done a partial tally of our personal property loss for our insurance claim, there's no telling how much we lost in the flood brought by Katrina. Our house, all our furniture, almost all our clothes, all our books, albums, photos, hundreds of cds and dvds--all lost.

But as I say, I am nevertheless rich, and I realized this again when my wife served the lasagna she had baked. Yes, you probably guessed what a great cook she is. My wife can enter a cold kitchen and serve you a gormet meal in just 45 minutes. But this is not why I feel so rich.

What did it was the lasgana server.

Yes, that's what I said. In case you've never heard of it, a lasgna server is a wide, flat serving untensil especially handy for, surprise, serving lasagna. This is one of the serving pieces that came with the new stainless set.

I said to my wife and daughter, "We have a untensil just for lasagna? We're rich!" And I meant it.

After all we've been through, after all we've lost, we still have so much. We have a nice place to live, clean clothes, food on the table, access to doctors, two good automobiles--too much to list. For Pete's sake, we've even go a lasagna server!

I know I get grumpy on occaision. I worry about the money lost and the sentimental treasures destroyed by the flood. I know I'll never have as much stuff or money as Bill Gates or the Saudi Royal family. But I know that ultimately, I'm so lucky, and so fortunate. I am rich.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Whims of Nature

This commentary by The Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss has been getting a lot of attention. Originally run in The Washington Post, it's been reprinted in other papers around the country.

Do Not Forsake Us

Mr. Amoss makes several good points, the most important of which is the need for significant storm protection for Louisiana.

I have heard some say that we who live below sea level should take "personal responsibility" for our decision to live here. And that government cannot be expected to rescue us from the consequences of our "bad choices."

First, I will pause for a moment while you imagine the many expletives I initially wanted to use in response to those comments.


Now let me put this as plainly as I can. The federal government has provided flood protection for almost 100 years. This is a responsibility legally and dutifully accepted by Congress and the President going back to the 1917 Flood Control Act. So let's just drop this nonsense that the good citizens of New Orleans are trying to dodge "personal responsibility" here--hurricane protection is the Fed's job.

In addition to the disruption, inconvenience and grief this hurricane has caused me and my family, I have personally suffered many thousands of dollars of loss in real property. And I'm not asking the federal government to fix that. My house is totally uninhabitable, and it is doubtful that I can or should rebuild it even if I can afford to. I'm not asking the federal governmnt to fix that, either.

I ask the federal government, via Congress and the President, to provide just one essential service to their citizens in Louisiana: real flood protection.

I fail to understand why this is such a problem. A recent report from the Corps of Engineers, completed in consultation with officials from the Netherlands’ Ministry of Public Works and Water Management, placed a price tag of $33 billion to do this.

Consider this: President Bush's 2006 budget totalled $2.6 trillion (that's trillion, with a T). Safeguarding Louisiana from the next hurricane costs about ONE PERCENT of that, even less when spread out as it would be over several years.

Remember the saying, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" It's as if Louisiana is saying, "Brother, can you spare a penny?"

So what exactly are we spending those trillions of dollars on? Since invading Iraq in the name of national security, Congress and the President have authorized spending $251billion over there. And in recent years, Congress and the President have spent $30 billion per year on highway projects. Are the stability of Iraq and improved highways more important than the safety of Americans who live and work in South Louisiana?

Don't make us beg. And don't act like we're asking for the stars and the moon. Congress and the President should provide the flood protection they're supposed to and for which they are responsible. Then, and only then, can we locals rebuild New Orleans. As President Bush told the nation, "Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature -- and we will not start now."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Simple solution

My daughter must have heard us talking about what to do with our flooded home.

After stewing for about two weeks in seven feet of foul flood water, the house is cooked. My wife and I have been talking about what to do next. Structurally, I'm thinking the wood frame and brick veneer are probably okay. The slab is just as solid as ever.

The roof is good, that much we know. As my wife grouses, that damn roof didn't loose a single shingle. If it had, and if rain and wind could be blamed for some of the damage, we'd be able to make a claim on the second part of our insurance, the homeowners policy, and we'd be able to get more money. Alas, that did not happen, and all we have is the flood claim to bouy us through this financial tragedy.

But would it be wise to invest so much money to restore our house? With so much damage, perhaps it makes more sense to tear it down and start all over. And wouldn't it be better to build a house much higher than it is now? But what if we're the only ones to rebuild on our street? What will we gain if we're the lone family in a deserted neighborhood?

We've been talking about this for three months, I suppose, bouncing these and many more questions about. So finally, the other day, my daughter had some input.

"We should make a video and send it to the Extreme Home Makeover TV show," she said enthusiastically, "And they will come fix up our home!"

Not so bad a suggestion, I think, coming from a 9-year-old.

Of course, we know that there is no simple solution. We know that no one, not Ty Pennington, not George Bush, not even Santa Claus has the power to just wave a magic wand to make it all better.

The task at hand is long, hard and expensive. There are hard choices to be made, a lot of effort to be expended, and money, a lot of money, to be invested by individuals, businesses, and government at all levels.

It's going to be difficult, almost as difficult as it was to explain to my daughter why we would not be sending a tape to ABC television.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


We ate at a sushi restaurant last night. Going out to eat in New Orleans is still a pleasurable, yet surreal experience. You can almost forget that 80 percent of the city is drowned and dead. Almost.

We went to the Ninja on Oak Street. There was a full menu of specialty dishes and all the rolls you could imagine. There were moist towels to clean before eating, warm saki in little cups, chopsticks and wasabi.

And then there's the plasic spoons and styrofoam plates and bowls.

We asked the waiter, what's up with the throw-away plates?

"Can't find a dishwasher," he said.

Here was a restaurant filled with patrons, upstairs and down. Plenty of people coming in and out, plenty of people working at the sushi bar, lots of activity in the kitchen. But no one to wash dishes.

No college students, no low-skilled laborers, no teens looking to make a few dollars to get that first car. And we are reminded again that we are the lucky few, the ones who for some reason or another still have a place to live, still can find a place to rent, still have a job to be able to pay for it all.

No matter how good the food, no matter how nice the friends and the conversation, the reality of our city's plight fills the room.

Beyond the walls, the happy sounds and smells of fine Japanese cuisine, we know the city of New Orleans lies stretched out like a rotting corpse. Large tracts of the city remain dark and lifeless, slowly decaying. No amount of wasabi can cloak it.

We enjoy our meal anyway. We talk about life before and after Katrina. We talk about the possibility of leaving New Orleans, to places that aren't so damaged, to jobs that might offer more opportunities. We console each other about the poor leadership we're getting from the city, the state, congress and the president. We toast better times, past and future, and depart into the dark, wet night.

As Chris Difford sang, "The past is just a portrait, The future’s ours to frame."

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Holding on

A couple of my coworkers went up in a helicopter the other day, and one of them got sick.

No, not airsick. Not queasy and lightheaded as some folks get on a rollercoaster ride. But emotionally and physically ill at the sheer magnitude and totality of the devastation.

They flew over the mud-stained houses of Lakeview, the drowned, desolate neighborhoods of New Orleans East, the flood ravaged remains of the Ninth Ward, and the dirty remnants of St. Bernard Parish. He saw it all, and it was too much.

Now this fellow I'm writing about, he was already pretty beat up by the events of the last three months. His house took several feet of water from Katrina, and then his house was burglarized, "looted" as we commonly say. His trust in government's ability to protect the city from nature completely washed away. And then his faith in his fellow citizens was stolen by thieves who took advantage of the disaster.

His family evacuated to another state, and he is now making plans to join them. Permanently. We've talked about this a few times, and as he puts it, the bubble is burst and the dreamer awakened. We have all heard about the widespread destruction, the tens of thousands of now uninhabitable homes. But seeing it in person, spread out in front of him from the vantage point of a helicopter...

"It made me ill," he said afterwards, and he looked drained and damaged for the rest of the day.

The other colleague of mine who went on this same helicopter ride came back with a different view. She, too, suffered significant losses in this catastrophe. Her house in St. Bernard was almost completely covered by the foul flood waters, where it soaked for two weeks. The homes of many close friends and relatives were also lost in the merciless flood. Weeks later, she literally had to shovel mud from her mother's house just to find a few salvageable items.

But she is ready to go back, and is eager to rebuild. Her fondest wish right now is for FEMA to install a travel trailer in her brown and lifeless front yard. She saw the same terrible scenes through the windscreen of the helicopter, but her reaction was totally different.

In the words of the poet, her head is bloody, but unbowed. Sad, yes, but determined. Sober, but resolved to triumph.

This is the story of New Orleans right now. We're all on a wild ride, thanks to Katrina. So many good people who have just reached their limits and are eager to get off. And so many who will not give in, holding on until we finally land safely.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Author Aaron Levenstein famously noted, "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital."

The City of New Orleans puts out a daily emergency management report that is loaded with statistics. Some of the numbers they reported this past Friday are in bold below. I think this gives an excellent snapshot on what's going on right now in the city.

On the subject of trash:

* 834 trucks hauling debris
* 76,463 cubic yards of woody waste and construction and demolition debris removed in the past 24 hours.
* 3,230,861 cubic yards of woody waste and C&D removed to date.
* 472 tons of refuse hauled in the past 24 hours; 21,538 tons of refuse hauled to date.
* 6,293 white goods collected in the past 24 hours; 147,512 units collected to date.
* Over 339,000 household hazardous waste containers collected to date.

This is just for New Orleans, mind you. This does not include Jefferson Parish, which had widespread minor flooding of homes and businesses, and St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, where there was significant destruction of whole communities.

What does 3.23 million cubic yards of waste and debris look like? Well, put it this way: a regulation American football field measures 160 feet from sideline to sideline, and 360 feet from back of the end zone to back of the end zone, for a total footprint of 57,600 square feet. That much waste and debris piled up on a football field would stand 1,514 feet tall, taller than the Empire State Building.

And that's just one part of the trash generated by the storm. That category called "white goods" is a new one on me. I think it refers to kitchen appliances, especially refrigerators which are notoriously nasty after power went out and the food incubated for several weeks while most of us were evacuated. Almost 150,000 units--it's going to be a good year for Maytag and Kenmore stockholders!

More to come as the cleanup continues.

Emergency Medical Service:

* 26 units working 24 hours per day.
* 36 calls received within the past 24 hours.

How many people are living in New Orleans? Very few. So few that someone calls 911 for an ambulance an average of once every 40 minutes. That won't even support one hospital emergency room. Before Katrina, we had, what?, 6 or 8 fully staffed hospitals?

Restaurants and Food Services:

* 664 businesses approved to reopen by the Department of Health and Hospitals. This represents about 18 percent of pre-Katrina level businesses.

Roughly 4 out of 5 restaurants are still closed in a city that loves food only slightly less than it loves music and alcohol. There just aren't enough workers or patrons to open all but a few restaurants.

Building Inspections:

* 119 electrical inspections reported within a 24-hour period.
* 28 mechanical/gas inspections reported within a 24-hour period.
* Approximately 115,000 damage assessments inspections performed to date.

And yet, people are rebuilding. This statistic doesn't say whether these are homes or businesses, or where they are located. We do know that you only need an electrical inspection if the water was high enough to get into your outlets, typically 12 to 18 inches above the floor. So more than 100 people per day who had more than a foot of flooding are moving forward. This is not new construction at higher elevations; that hasn't started yet. This is renovation of flooded buildings at the same elevation as before.

Crazy or brave? You decide.

Monday, November 21, 2005


You can tell a lot about somebody from their garbage.

No, I have not been digging through anyone's trash cans. I'm just making an armchair observation.

We are, after all, a consumer society. That means we consume a lot. And that means we throw away a lot of things, too.

Come on, admit it, you've noticed the boxes outside a neighbor's house a few days after Christmas. You might even have pointed it out to the person with you at the time. "Oh, look. I guess the Schwartz family got a new TV. And an X-Box."

I've been doing that too, just casually noticing the trash. And what I see here in Uptown New Orleans tells a sad story.

When I first returned to my battered city in late September, the curb and the neutral ground were filled with refrigerators. As fast as they could be hauled away, new arrivals would place their pungent appliances on the curb, too. It took about a month, but I think the trash collection folks are finally winning that battle.

Next came the construction debris. It varied a lot by neighborhood. Areas thoroughly soaked had very little construction debris. Homeowners in those areas are, like me, planning to tear down what little remains.

Areas that had moderate flooding produced mountains of construction debris. Doors, sheetrock, electrical wiring, cabinets, furniture and flooring all contributed to long ridges of refuse that lined many streets.

And areas that did not flood, such as Riverbend where I currently reside, generated the least amount of construction debris. Here, the trash is almost exclusively roofing and sheetrock from wind-damaged roofs and rain-soaked walls.

Now we seem to have entered into the next phase of trash, and this is, in my opinion, the worst of all.

What I have been seeing now is furniture, mattresses, desks and clothes being put out for trash. These things are not damaged by flood or soaked with rain. These are the belongings of renters who have not returned.

With high demand (and subsequently high rent) for rental property in New Orleans, landlords are putting people out at a record pace. Even people who are not here are getting put out.

No doubt some of these folks don't want to come back. They might actually be doing better where they landed so that there's no reason to come back to New Orleans. Not even to pick up a few hundred dollars worth of used furniture. It might cost more to rent a truck, for instance, than the total worth of everything they could carry in it.

But I am just as sure that many can't come back. They lack the money, the job, the transportation to come home. Some are too far removed to make the trip to rescue their meager worldly possessions. Or too ill, or too busy. They have probably stopped paying rent, or if they lack a lease, they can't pay the increased rent now being demanded in the Post-Katrina economy.

The landlords, whatever the case may be, deal with it with cool efficiency. They get permission either from their former tenants, or they get it in the form of an eviction notice at City Hall. They clean out their properties and they put up the FOR RENT sign.

The only clue that someone lived there before Katrina lies at the curb. The pathetic pile of discount furnishings sits as sad testimony for a few days, and then it is efficiently carried off to the dump with the rest of the weekly trash.

Those renters, those former citizens of New Orleans, where are they now? Will they ever return? Will they want to, once they find out how they have been treated?

We are, after all, a consumer society.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Colorful bead necklace

My daughter went to a birthday party the other night at a bead store. This is the kind of thing girls are doing nowadays—they have a party at a place where everyone gets to make and take something.

She came home with a necklace. It has a dime-sized silver flower in the middle, and glass beads all the way around. The beads are a mixture of blues, whites and off-whites that appear to be placed at random.

Now, some children might want to make a pattern, lining up the beads in a regular, orderly arrangement. But not my girl.

So I even said to her, “Hey, I like how you mixed up the beads in your necklace.”

And her response floored me.

She said, “Yes, I wanted it that way. I like the colors to be all mixed. It reminds me of New Orleans."

I was speechless, and proud. I don’t know how, but even at her age, she understands.

She understands that New Orleans is different because the people are different. She understands that the people who live next door, and down the street, are different from us, and different from each other. And she knows that this is a good thing.

She sees the beauty in this colorful painting called the Crescent City, and understands why it is superior to a flat, monochromatic canvass. And while she was stringing those colorful and different beads together, she recognized how each bead’s uniqueness contributed to the strength and beauty of the whole.

She’s a New Orleanian, no doubt of that. I hope New Orleans in the future will meet or exceed her expectations.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A happy meow

One of our two cats went missing last week.

We have two cats right now. There were times we’ve had more, but two cats is probably all we can handle in this apartment right now anyway. We’ve been keeping them inside of course, so they can get acclimated to their new home. But last week, my wife thought they were ready to go outside.

We opened the front door, and they crept forward to look. Cautiously, hesitantly, they walked as if on tip-toes to peek out into the world. They made their way onto the porch, and then went down the 15 steps to the sidewalk. It took them about 20 minutes to do this, so you get the idea how carefully they were moving.

After a little while, I whistled a little tune I always whistle to call them, and they came running back.

Later, they went out again, but only one came back. My wife and I disagree as to how this happened—she says I told her the cats were both back in, while I say I only asked her if the cats were back before we locked up for the night. The result was the same in either event: Smudge was missing.

Yes, we called her Smudge. She’s a white and cream Siamese cat with beautiful blue eyes and a black tail. She also has a black mark across her face and nose that resembles a smear of dirt or paint. That's why we named her Smudge.

The next morning, a Sunday, we realized she was missing.

I went outside and began to whistle for her. I walked up and down the street looking. I began to circle the block, whistling and peering under cars and houses for any sign.

And I discovered that a lot of folks are out on Sunday morning in this neighborhood. A woman at the corner was sitting on her porch swing reading the paper. I didn’t have to tell her I what I doing. She immediately asked, “Did you lose a cat or a dog?”

As I was walking down the next street over, a man came out his front door to ask me. He heard me whistling, probably heard the sadness, too. "What does your cat look like? If I see her, where can I call you?”

A jovial middle-aged man was out for a bike ride. Even he stopped to ask me, “Hey mister, what’s your dog look like?” He looked almost exactly like James Earl Jones, wearing a t-shirt, suspenders and a friendly smile. He began to ride up and down the adjacent streets copying my whistle.

Two hours passed, and I gave up.

While I was out searching, my wife and daughter found a picture of Smudge on the computer and made a poster. That afternoon, my wife printed out several copies and began to walk around the neighborhood, handing out the poster and asking if anyone had seen Smudge.

Yes, one man told her, down the street there. My wife asked several more people, and another man pointed at a house. She whistled one more time, and Smudge appeared from under the house and greeted her with a happy meow.

In the end, not only did we find our cat, we also discovered that people care. We met several neighbors who showed genuine concern for us and our lost pet. They proved to us yet again that this city is full of good, caring people.

Safe in that knowledge, we all slept peacefully that night, especially Smudge.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Scooped up and tossed away

I have a snow shovel, and I know how to use it.

Not too many life-long residents of New Orleans can say that.

It was about a year ago that I recieved this unusual tool. Unusual for here, where snow comes slightly more often than two-term Democratic presidents. And when it does snow, it's never more than an inch.

I was sweeping and raking leaves at my home near Lake Pontchartrain. The slow build-up to what we call winter seems to confuse a lot of trees in New Orleans. Some, like the Japanese Magnolia, bloom two or three times as fall weather comes and goes from October til January. Other trees, like the Live Oak, drop a few leaves in November, a few more in December and January, but are not convinced to let loose on the bulk of them until March.

I was out in the street, working to keep my gutter clear and the all-important catch basin in front of my house unclogged and fully operational. It was a year-round job.

Across the street, my dear neighbor originally from North Carolina, shouts out, "Hey, Tim, what you need is a snow shovel." I laughed. Yeah, wouldn't that be a sight.

A couple weeks later, she kocks on my door and presents me with a genuine snow shovel. I marvel at it, like a bushman might look at a television. A bright red handle tops the tubular aluminum shaft that leads to the wide, red plastic scoop at the bottom. It was bigger than any conventional shovel, but lighter, too.

"Where did you get this?" I asked in amazement.

"Online." she said.

It was just one of many unusual, interesting, fun, wonderful, thoughtful, precious gifts that my neighbor gave me while we lived across the street from one another. And I put it to good use, scooping up leaves and other debris that found its way into the gutter in front of my house. It turned out to be quite useful even though it never snowed.

I used my snow shovel again just last week. My house, and my neighbor's house, and all the houses on our pretty street are empty now, thanks to Katrina. The street is covered with an inch or more of clay, silt and sand. My patio and my driveway were also covered with a layer of mud. After the floodwaters receded, the sun baked the sediment dry, leaving a cracked collection of mud chips for me to clean up.

I pulled my snow shovel out of what remains of my tool shed and put it to work. I pushed and scooped and tossed the flaking dried mud to the sides of the driveway and off the back of the patio so that I could have a clear path to conduct salvage operations at my home.

As I scooped and tossed away this unwanted residue, I thought about how Katrina had scooped up my neighbors and tossed them away, too. My wonderful neighbor from North Carolina went back there to stay with family. As of this writing, they do not plan to return. The flood and the destruction left them little choice.

I lost a lot in that flood, but I still have a snow shovel. It's a rarity in New Orleans. I hope good neighbors will not be as rare when I rebuild.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Updates on prior stories:

* New Orleans Police today reported finding the body of a woman who apparently died from multiple stab wounds. The Times-Picayune reports this is the first homocide in the city that was not a part of a police action since just before Hurricane Katrina raped our good city. I had earlier posted that I was, well, disappointed when I heard New Orleans was murder-free for so long. Today's news does not make me feel any better.

* My friend with the refrigerator reports that he can smell a bad odor coming from it. He also reports finding a few bugs in it recently and that his wife will find this totally unacceptable if they're still there when she returns in January. His insurance agent says it's covered, so my friend plans to put it out soon. Oh well. I guess I will have to return the REFRIGERATOR badge I thought I had earned.

* We're getting almost daily mail delivery at the apartment, but I still go to the Post Office once a week to get mail sent to our house that hasn't yet been forwarded. Today I picked up two pieces postmarked October, so I take that as progress.

* My daughter wanted pizza Sunday night, so I went to The Italian Pie on Magazine street. Excellent food and service, however, no sign of my beloved amateur bartender. Eh bien.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A night out with Jack

"Amateur" can be used to say something is good, or something is bad.

Amateur contractors, for instance, are bad. but amateur politicians can be very good. Amateur musicians can be painful, while amateur night at the improv is totally hit or miss.

In a city desperate for workers, desperate for so many trades and professions, amateurs abound. So you've got to be on your guard in New Orleans nowadays. Or not.

When I first got back to town, just four weeks after Katrina and right on the heels of Rita, I came to understand this first hand.

I was working long, late hours. The family was still evacuated, so I was doing the bachelor thing, you know, eating canned food and drinking beer at every meal. So when they reopened The Italian Pie on Magazine and Joseph, man what a beautiful sight that was!

One night, I was sitting at the bar waiting for my pizza, and the cute young bartender asked me what I wanted to drink. "Jack and seven," I said, and was amazed at the reply. "Jack Daniels?"

Okay, flashing lights and sirens could not have been more obvious. It was as if a duck dropped from the ceiling with a placard that said, "AMATEUR."

I chuckled to myself and said yes. I watched as she began to search the rows of bottles for the world-famous "Old No. 7." She found it, and then began to search for the mixer. After looking high and low, she consulted with the shift manager, a tall fellow with a 70's mop of brown hair parted right down the middle. I saw Chandler shake his head to indicate the negative to her.

"We don't have any 7-up," she reported. "Would you like it with Coke or lemonaide?" I shuddered. Lemonaide? What Baptist town did you escape from, I wondered. "Just give it to me on the rocks," I said.

She smiled sweetly, and then returned to the bottle of Jack. With a few cubes in the glass, she started to pour. And pour. And pour.

She delivered the full glass and charged me $4. Suddenly, she was in my estimation the best bartender in the city of New Orleans. I tipped her generously.

Chandler wandered by a couple minutes later, glanced at my drink, and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Is that all Jack?" he asked.

"Not only that, she charged me for a regular drink," I said.

He shook his head, "She's new," he said. "This is her first day."

"Well, she's FABULOUS," I said, and we both laughed.

I suppose if I had ordered a Long Island Ice Tea or a Bloody Mary, she'd have made a bloody mess of it and I would not be writing so kindly of her. Any bartender that tips the Jack longer than the 7 is a good mixologist in my book. But one that pours double or more is worthy of worship in my world.

I returned to The Italian Pie several times over the next month, but sadly my amateur bartender was not to be found.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Rest in Peace

I attended the Louisiana Recovery & Rebuilding Conference here in New Orleans on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. An amazing collection of highly committed, community-minded people were there. I was invited to represent the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The goal of the conference was twofold: brainstorm and collaborate on a new vision for the new New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana, and, take that message to the streets via the diverse network of conference attendees.

It was an invigorating experience to say the least. So many good hearts all beating in unison in a big room--I couldn't help but be inspired.

There was one unusual moment, one very ironic moment that stands out as I replay the days in my mind.

Saturday morning before the proceedings got under way, I was milling around in the lobby. We did this every day, we got our coffee and just chatted with whoever was standing around with coffee waiting for things to start.

I got into a conversation with a local activist friend and two other locals who work for a preservation organization here. Just friendly chatting and banter. Then one person made this really incredible statement: Since Hurricane Katrina, there have been no murders in the city of New Orleans.


It took about 10 seconds for that to sink in. I just stared straight ahead, absorbing what that means. No murders. Ten weeks. New Orleans.

My friends in the city no doubt understand the power of that statement. New Orleans has habitually been one of the top murder cities in the US. Over the years, per capita, New Orleans has the dubious honor of being the murder captial of America.

But now that is totally over. Now we can boast that we have had zero murders, which puts us on par with Mayberry and Pleasantville. Wow.

At the end of that contemplative moment, I felt the blush of one strong emotion pass through me.


And as soon as I realized what my reaction was, my reaction changed to embarassment. How could I be disappointed that no one had their life taken prematurely?

I don't know. I can only say that it has something to do with calling attention once again to the scale of this disaster.

Aparently, there are just so few of us in New Oleans. So few that nobody got into anyone else's face for more than two months.

We were losing about 300 souls per year of late. Now that problem is gone. Wiped out, along with the stroried neighborhoods and citizens.

Or perhaps my disappointment comes from the knowledge, the statistical factoid, that more than 1,000 Louisiana residents are dead in Katrina's wake, may they rest in peace.

Not a good trade.

More on the LRRC at:

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Dishes, CDs and Coffee Mugs

The first time you see your flooded house, you surrender.

You simply give up. You say things like, "It's all ruined," and, "There's nothing to save." It's just too much to comprehend. You think if you just close your eyes, all will be back to normal when you look again. It doesn't work.

The second time you see your flooded house, you think, perhaps there are a few things I can get. Things of special, sentimental value. Things that are either waterproof, or even if not, would be worth having even if damaged. Things that are emotionally worth the effort of moving furniture, digging through sludge and debris, climbing over and around rotting food and stinking, mildew covered clothes and bedding. Jewelry, awards and pins, little baubles that have value beyond the material.

The third time you see your flooded house, you start to believe that there's a lot of things in there that are actually in pretty good shape, considering. Dishes and classware, for instance, can be salvaged with a little scrubbing and a bleach bath. Stainless silverware is likewise good to go, provided the metal is not pitted. Coffee mugs, that odd assortment that could almost tell your family's history of vacations, schools and professional meetings, might not be worth more than 50 cents, but you just can't leave them behind.

The fourth time you see your flooded house, you pull out your CDs and DVDs. Sure, the boxes are trash, but the discs might still work. Some of them are brown and tarnished, or pitted and peeling. You know those won't play. But a lot of them are still shiny and silver. You give them a good cleaning, and are surprised to find that although they will play and they surely look clean, they still stink. That's okay for the James Brown CDs, but Patsy Cline should not be funky. You look around for other things, but there is very little that the soaking waters have not permanently ruined.

The fifth time you see your flooded house, you surrender. You close you eyes and keep them shut.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Keep the lights on

There's no more telling measure of how devestating Katrina was to New Orleans than the darkness. There are whole areas still without electricity. And these areas are not going to get electricity any time soon.

We've all heard that 80 percent of the city was flooded. We've heard that tens of thousands of our neighbors who evacuated remain scattered. But seeing is believing. Or in this case, not seeing.

After dark, the skyline of New Orleans has its bright spots, like the central business district, the Superdome, Canal Street near the river.

But there are large voids, too. Like Carrollton from Canal Street all the way to Lake Pontchartrain. And New Orleans East.

Huge, gaping, black holes, devoid of light and life.

The light of New Orleans lives, however. It burns brightly in the hearts of all its displaced citizens. It beams from their faces whenever they think of or talk about home. It guides us back to the Crescent City, like a lighthouse guides ships to safe harbor.

This is a light that cannot be extinguished. It is a light that cannot be hidden by a bushel-basket. It is a light that can cut through darkness, even the immense and sad darkness that rests on New Orleans for the time being.

Wynton Marsalis knows the power of this light. Of the tragedy that struck New Orleans he recently wrote, "In New Orleans, we have real big roaches, and we have a saying: 'When you turn the lights on, the roaches scatter.' We must keep the lights on."

We must, and we will.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Partial Post

I went to the Post Office today. To get my mail.

So many things we used to take for granted. Regular mail delivery is one of them. In the destroyed neighborhoods, there is no mail service, nor is there need for it.

But even in areas not badly damaged by the storms and the flooding, the sight of a bag-carrying blue uniform is rarer than sympathy cards for Tom Benson. We’ve been at our new apartment for two weeks, and we’ve been visited a total two times. Neither rain, nor snow, nor dark of night can stop the mail, but labor shortages—game over!

The Post Office is as stressed as every other employer in New Orleans right now. They’re struggling to repair and reopen damaged facilities, trying to catch up on the backlog of work, and all the while trying to maintain the semblance of ordinary business operations. And they’re doing all of this with a reduced labor force.

Sure, we put in forwarding requests with the Post Office, but that’s just increased their workload exponentially as each piece of mail must be handled multiple times to get from mail sorter A to letter carrier B.

That’s why I went to the Post Office to get my mail.

I’m not complaining, really I’m not. They’re doing their best to make it painless. They’ve come up with a fairly good process.

As you enter the building, you are directed to a table to fill out a little slip of paper. Name, street address, zip code. You give it to the lady at the counter, show a picture I.D. and she tells you to go wait in the lobby by the Post Office Boxes. Every few minutes, someone comes out with a handful of mail, shouts out the address or name, and you collect your mail, if there is any.

It was a curious thing, standing there in the post office. About two dozen of us, trying to be patient, waiting for the right number to be called as though this were Friday night Bingo.

“2553 Eads!” the lady called. A happy customer came forward to collect a thick wad of envelopes wrapped in a rubber band.

“6210 St. Anthony!” An unkempt young man smiled and waved, “That’s me.” He wears a fine layer of white dust that is evidence that he’s been working on the house.

“5829 Pratt!” I stiffen. Others stare with sadness. A middle-aged woman who looks like she’s been assigned to a hard labor camp comes forward to get two thin envelopes. Her expression does not change as she takes her mail and pushes on the glass door to leave. Most of watching understand her pain. Pratt is the first street on the west side of the London Avenue Canal. From her address, we know the levee broke a few doors down the street from her home. We know that dunes of sand, silt and clay cover her street and likely fill her home. She’s our neighbor and also a total stranger. We feel sympathy, empathy, and sadness for ourselves all in the same moment.

After about 10 minutes, I am handed a single letter and a post card.