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.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Gettin' Carried Away

Is it because we've been having such a rough time of it that we are so ready to just celebrate for any silly reason? Or is it that New Orleans is a town that always has and always will celebrate the little things?

This is a true story, I swear it!

I can't put a date on it, but we've been doing this for several years, the wife and me. We've been nice to the garbage men.

It sounds like such a simple thing, and yet, the looks we sometimes get...

Anyway, more than a decade ago when we were still living in our first house, my wife and I got into the habit of giving cold drinks to the garbage men. I mean, it's just a simple act of kindness. An acknowledgment that these men who bust their asses lifting cans and bags of trash and run behind the trucks for who knows how many hours a day in the heat and humidity of New Orleans, that what they do is really really hard work. And I'm pretty sure none of them are getting rich doing this.

Let's just say it's a no-brainer.

We got into the habit that every time we see them coming down the street, we'd run and bring them cokes, water, whatever we had that was cold and packaged to go. I think they liked it. In fact I know they liked it, because one time a few years ago, we weren't outside when they passed, so they came and knocked on the door.

Later, my wife started to just put bottles of water out on the front porch two days a week.

Trash pick-up has not been so good of late. Sure, FEMA's got these contractors all over the city picking up refrigerators, scooping up construction debris, hauling off fallen limbs and trees. But ordinary household trash has gone untouched.

And I know my friends from out of town or of state are saying, “What? They’re still picking up storm debris more than two months later?” YES. Best estimates are that it will be TWO YEARS before we can haul it all away. So perhaps you’ll now understand the current interest is trash pick-up.

Finally, just yesterday, regular trash pick-up service was restarted city-wide. And my wife was home when the big, noisy trash truck came a-rumbling down the block. You would have thought she was a child hearing the ice cream truck the way she responded. Quick as she could, she grabbed a handful of water bottles for perhaps the hardest working, and perhaps for today at least, the most appreciated men in the city.

By the time she made it outside, the trash truck had already gone a few houses down the street. A couple cars were following, having no way to safely pass the truck and the garbage men darting back and forth. My wife ran up to the men, gave them the water and thanked them for their efforts. They thanked her back, of course.

And then, the unexpected happened. Those folks in their cars, witnesses to the gifts my wife gave the workers, rolled down their windows. You might have thought they were upset to be stuck behind a garbage truck. You might expect they would be angry with my wife for further delaying their slow progress. But no, not today.

They rolled down their windows and they cheered.

"Hooray!" they shouted, "Let's hear it for the garbage men! We really appreciate them!"

Is it because we've been having such a rough time of it that we are so ready to just celebrate for any silly reason? Or is it that New Orleans is a town that always has and always will celebrate the little things?

Monday, November 07, 2005

Food for Thought

"Everybody is miserable because you can't go anywhere without getting caught in traffic. We went to dinner the other night and it took an hour and a half to get our food." That's the lament of a co-worker of mine.

He's talking about life in Metairie, the bedroom community next to New Orleans. They suffered some flooding and wind damage from the hurricanes, but nothing on a scale to compare with my neighborhood, or the neighborhoods to the East.

As a result, most of the population of Metairie is back, along with a big chunk of New Orleanians in need of places to live, work, eat and shop. The results: gridlock, long lines, loss of civility, indigestion. Oh, the humanity!

This is a curious turn of events, indeed.

You would expect that those of us "struggling to survive" in the decimated city would be much worse off than our counterparts on the other side of the 17th Street Canal.

But listen to this: I can go out to eat at any of several restaurants, and waiting is not a problem. Neither is traffic. Or parking.

A few nights ago, I took the family and a friend out to eat at Mona's Cafe on Carrollton Avenue. We walked right in and had food on the table faster than you can say "Shish ka-Bob's Your Uncle." Excellent service and eats. Lebanese tea, falafel, hummus, authentic background music.

And just yesterday, we met my parents for lunch at the Freret Street Cafe, a cute little place that is essentially an early 20th century gas station painted yellow. The weather was beautiful, so we sat outside under the canopy painted with palm fronds. They serve a variety of sandwiches and grilled plates, the best of which was the shrimp po-boy that my wife ordered. It was bursting with fried shrimp to rival any I've ever seen in New Orleans.

I guess what I'm saying is, life is good in New Orleans. Uptown is doing just fine, thank you. Even in its current condition, it's a great place to be.

For my Metairie friends, I am reminded of Emma Lazarus' verse, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Who knows, maybe that yellow paint at the Freret Street Cafe is supposed to be gold.

Mona’s Cafe, 1120 South Carrollton Ave., 861-8174.
Freret Street Cafe, corner of Freret and Lowerline.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Staring in the Rear-View Mirror

The military has this saying, that you have to be careful you're not just preparing for the last war. What that means is simply to look forward, not back, when planning for the future.

For the good citizens in uniform, that means don't assume the enemies of the future will use the same weapons and tactics of the past. Technology, politics, economics, even cultures change with time.

Put another way: You'll never get safely to your destination if all you do is stare in the rear-view mirror.

I hope we keep this in mind as we rebuild New Orleans and South Louisiana. Yes, Katrina was a bitch, and Rita was her wicked sister, but they're not the only threats to our homes and neighborhoods.

For the past few weeks, I've been hearing a lot of talk about building higher levees and raising houses. And that's nothing but smart coming out of what we've just been through.

But is that all?

No doubt that if my house had been about 8 feet higher I'd be a much happier man. No doubt that if my neighbors were likewise elevated we'd be waving to each other across the lawns instead of emailing each other from two, three, four states apart.

But if that's all we do, if we just build higher and quit there, I'm afraid we'll be prepared for Hurricane Katrina only. And I think we all know that Katrina will never come again.

Hurricanes bring more than storm surges; they also bring high winds. Katrina knocked out a lot of windows from high rise buildings and tore shingles from rooftops across the city, and she wasn't even all that strong.

If we're going to rebuild smart, it's got to be not just higher, but stronger. We've got to design our homes and businesses to withstand destructive hurricane-force winds.

Right up front, we can look at roofing and see if there's a way to improve the performance of roofs. A quick look down any street in town at all the blue roofs should give us a clue as to how poorly our roofing systems perform even under minor hurricane force winds.

And what about shutters? They've become a joke in all the newer neighborhoods. Most of them are just color-coordinated vinyl bolted to the brick. Again, recent hurricanes like Cindy and Katrina really didn't blow too hard on our town, but one day a 160 mph monster will come through, and we'd better be ready. We should have actual, functioning shutters on every new home, and we should encourage same on all existing homes when they renovate.

These are just a couple suggestions to consider as we rebuild our city. Everyone's talking about rebuilding smarter and better. I just hope we're smart enough to not just protect ourselves from the last hurricane.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A proud accomplishment

I have done it. Not too many people can say that. And I'm thinking it deserves a place on my resume, somewhere between my Bachelor's Degree and completion of Army Basic Training.

Most people, faced with the same problem, punted. They turned away and refused to face it. But not me, I set my mind to the task and I did it.

I cleaned a refrigerator.

I will pause momentarily to bask in your admiration.

Thank you. Thank you.

Post Katrina, a plague of epic proportions infested our refrigerators. Food left for days and weeks took on new life and new civilizations, moldily growing where no food in our homes has ever grown before.

The more common cure: duct tape and dump it. Get it outta here and mark it as hazardous waste! Although many wags labelled their boxes as containing Saints Owner Tom Benson or former FEMA leader Mike Brown, the true contents are far more disgusting.

People have asked me, how and why?

The how was not so bad as you would imagine. My secret, if you will, was simply to fill two trash cans with the contents of the ice box while thinking as little as possible about what it was I was removing. I did not stop to ponder, for instance, that this brownish bag of goo was at one time tomatoes, or veal, or rice. Just toss it and forget it.

And the bugs, well, best not to think too long about them, either. Sure, there were a lot of those guys in both the fridge and freezer compartments, and no doubt they had a knock-down-drag-out party in our absence. But how did they get in there? My advice: don't ask, don't tell.

After that it was not so bad. A lot of 409 and bleach and baking soda.

And why? Well, when I first came back to town I was staying at a friend's house who was not planning to return for many more weeks. I guess I wanted to do him a favor, and I guess, too, that I wanted to be able to have a place for the beer.

Yes, that is my story. If I still had an Army uniform, I'd sew a REFRIGERATOR badge on my shoulder, like the RANGER and AIRBORNE tabs some soldiers wear.

I have done it.

And now, I will enjoy a cold beer and apply ointment to this unusual rash I have developed.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

It's my job

For the last three years, my morning commute has taken me up Carrollton Avenue to the river. Those of you with a hobby of collecting hangovers will know that's where the bar and grill called Cooter Brown's is located.

For the last three years, almost every morning, I have seen a lone worker, cleaning up the mess that the all-night partiers invariably left behind.

And last week, after an absense of about two months brought no doubt by the intrusion of Katrina in our lives, he was back.

Wearing a black apron and white shrimping boots, the tall thin man uses a hose, a broom and a shovel to wash and sweep and scrape Cooter's back into shape. Regardless of the weather or holidays, he's been there every morning that I've been by there.

Can I tell you how excited I was to see him there? It sounds crazy, but it was like seeing the first flowers after a long hard winter. It was like seeing a ship emerge safely from the fog. I wanted him to know how happy it made me just to see him sweeping and hosing. I wanted to share this feeling with him.

So I pulled over and hopped out to meet this man.

Perhaps frightened, and certainly surprised, he shyly told me his name was Robert. I told him how glad I was to see him, a person I'd never met, a man I only knew as a touchstone of normalcy in these crazy times.

He smiled, showing a gold tooth. He said he'd been cleaning up Cooter Brown's for 16 years. I told him he was doing a great job, and thanked him for coming back to our wrecked town.

"It's my job," he said.

I wanted to ask him a dozen more questions, but he didn't seem comfortable talking to me. Perhaps Robert is naturally shy, a person who would prefer not being noticed and talked to. That might be why he took the late-night cleaning job in the first place, and why he did it so well.

Or, perhaps he just thought I was insane, stopping to shake the hand of a janitor in the early morning light.

So I didn't keep him. I wished him well, got back in my car and continued on my way.

And Robert went back to cleaning, just like he's always done.

Welcome back, Robert. Thanks again.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


People keep asking me, "Are you planning to rebuild on your property?"

The answer is, "No way! I'm not going to rebuild ON the property, I'm going to rebuild about 10 feet ABOVE my property."