Thursday, December 28, 2006

One fast rule

There’s one fast rule we have told our Precious Daughter about living in a neighborhood of empty houses: stay out of them.

Our corner of post-Katrina New Orleans is dominated by empty houses. The western boundary of Vista Park is the London Avenue Canal, one of the canals that could not hold Katrina back. Many of the houses remain, almost 16 months later, decimated and dormant, left to waste away like carcasses in the wilderness.

We told our girl to stay out of these empty houses for two reasons. First, and most obviously, is for safety. I know that there are still looters about. I know that there may be vagrants or unscrupulous contractors helping themselves to what is not theirs. I haven’t heard of anyone around here being attacked or hurt in such a manner, but I don’t want my Precious Daughter to be the first.

And then we told her to stay out of the empty houses because they still belong to someone. They may be ruined almost beyond recognition, their decomposing contents ripped out and disposed like fish guts, but they are still the houses of our neighbors.

Most of these houses are unsecured with windows knocked out and doors removed or left wide open. But this does not constitute an invitation or even permission to anyone to just come on in.

I know some folks on Pratt Drive went so far as to post signs on their decimated homes warning the tourists to STAY OUT. Tour buses still rumble by those houses (and even sometimes past my own FEMA Travel Trailer). These folks don’t mean to be a nuisance and perhaps their curiosity simply gets the best of them. Still, I completely understand the need and right of my neighbors to enforce simple decency and respect for other people’s property.

And yet, I confess that once a house is demolished, once it is smashed into a pile of refuse to be hauled off, my curiosity gets the better of me. I rationalize that once the walls are down and the roof pulverized, it really doesn’t constitute a “home” anymore.

More than once, I have come home from work to find a mound of brick and boards where there once was a neighbor’s house.

A cancelled check in New Orleans debris

More than once I have given in to the morbid interest of seeing what else is trapped and tangled in the construction debris.

What is it I find? It is books and magazines, photographs and letters, phono albums and computer diskettes, dishes and silverware, pots and small appliances—all the gumbo of what used to be part of the nourishment of living in America today. It is a horrible image to see all this wasted and ruined and just waiting for the final trip to the graveyard, but I can’t look away.

The experience is different from seeing my own home demolished. When I looked into my own pile of debris, I recognized most of it—a painting that used to hang in the living room, a doll that used to reside on my Precious Daughter’s bed, a hook that used to be on the back of the bathroom door.

Flies in the debris of New Orleans

A recent mound of former house I inspected included hundreds of cancelled checks dating back to the 1970’s. An archeologist might find it an interesting exercise to piece together that string of cancelled checks to learn something about the family that used to live here. But I am no archeologist. I can only infer that these things were once important, perhaps significant possessions.

Another had a collection of battered classical records, some still in their paper sleeves and cardboard jackets, as if at any moment their owner would lovingly slip them out and carefully place them on the turntable. But the collector of this music is long gone. These records, like the houses in which they once resided, are now permanently silent.

When I look at the remains of others’ homes, I sense the importance of the items, but instead of sentimental attachment, there is burning curiosity. Where did that vase come from, and where was it displayed? Who is that in these photographs, when and where were they taken, and where are these people now? What present accompanied this gift card?

Gift card in the debris

These questions remain unanswered, lost in the ebb of time and the flow of relentless, invasive, destructive floodwater. These houses and this debris are rapidly on their way to being permanently discarded and all but forgotten in the panorama of time.

Nature has one hard, fast rule of her own: Nothing remains the same.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Out of place

Dennis Persica used to live near here. His house was on Pratt Drive, directly across the street from where the London Avenue Canal floodwall was pushed over by Hurricane Katrina's storm surge. He writes in today's edition of The Times-Picayune about how much life has changed in the past year and some months, but yet how little the neighborhood has changed (i.e. been repaired) in that time.

I live here, and I recognized some months ago that I have become acclimated to the destruction in this part of New Orleans. Immediately after the storm when I lived in the relatively unscathed sliver by the river, every trip to my house and my old neighborhood strongly affected me. But since moving back to the old address, taking residence in this government-furnished, bright white box amid the mud-stained houses, I see these gutted, vacant homes every day. Out of necessity, I know I have developed emotional calluses to shield me from the sadness.

I don't think I've ever met Dennis. But we share such similar experiences and cling to such fragile hope that I think of him as a good neighbor--even though he now lives all the way on the other side of the river. In this post-K world of heartbreaks and undaunted hope, we are kindred spirits.

Dennis, thanks for all you do.

Monday, December 18, 2006


I often defer to the sage advice, "All things in moderation." It's advice that at least some in the bureaucracy of government disaster assistance are trying to follow.

Key words: Some. Trying.

A colleague of mine has been working side-by-side for the past few months with local and federal government officials in St. Bernard Parish. Affectionately known as "Da Parish" around here, St. Bernard is a string of communities lined up alongside the Mississippi River downstream from New Orleans.

To give you a picture of what Hurricane Katrina did to St. Bernard, all you need to know is this: Da Parish is south of the Ninth Ward, miles closer to the open water of Lake Borgne and Katrina's massive storm surge. A lot of the water that flooded the Ninth Ward went through St. Bernard to get there.

I have seen a video, taken by a hard-headed fellow who decided to stay and document Katrina's arrival, which includes rather frightening footage of cars being carried down suburban streets by a brisk and muddy current.

Few homes were spared the flood. Many two-story homes got a foot or more water on the upper floor.

But folks who live in Da Parish are not allergic to hard work or to adversity. St. Bernard is where Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte joined to repel the British in 1815. That fighting spirit infects everyone down there to this day. And to their credit, the local politicians have put their hearts into helping rescue and revive their communities.

Enter the bureaucracy.

As reported in the online National Journal, efforts to simply demolish and remove flood-decimated homes have been bogged down in rules, regulations and paperwork. For instance, no house can be demolished until a FEMA historian or archeologist inspects the property and gives the green light--even recently built homes. As Jonathan Rauch writes, "...even debris -- including, for example, 1,600 tree stumps -- had to be reviewed for archaeological value before FEMA would pay for removal."

How can a community rebuild if they can't even get the debris removed? How can a community take advantage of federal aid for debris removal and rebuilding, aid which is timed to expire soon, if the paperwork takes up the majority of the time allotted?

Do the words "emergency" and "extraordinary" mean nothing at all to these regulators?

The current situation would be akin to a medic on the battlefield who arrives at the side of a wounded soldier, only to refuse treatment because of unsanitary conditions. It's an emergency, guys! The Army teaches its soldiers to adapt, improvise and overcome. We could use some of that kind of thinking right now.

A similar mindset appears to be bogging down direct federal aid to storm victims. Yes, we're all concerned about waste, fraud and abuse. Yes, we should take steps to minimize theft of aid money. But we must balance those safeguards against the urgency of the situation and the desperate need.

As we all know, it's difficult to arrest, try, and convict someone of a crime. The more serious the crime, the more onerous the process. Frankly, the rules are stacked in favor of the alleged criminal, and we know that a lot of criminals get off with no punishment.

But we accept this because the thought of sending an innocent person to jail, or worse, to death row, is distressful an order of magnitude even more horrible. Succinctly, we tolerate and accept lesser injustice to preserve a greater level of justice for all.

This same reasoning must be brought to bear for hurricane victims. There is no time to process wads of paperwork and run background checks on every applicant.

There also can be no reasonable expectation that victims can navigate the confusing and time-consuming rules, deadlines, forms, submittals, phone calls and office hours--all this while at the same time maintaining a demanding life of work, school, family, housework, and on and on. The lucky ones have spare enough time to grieve.

Look, I'm a college graduate and I think I'm pretty good at reading and following directions, but I still haven't completed my SBA Loan paperwork, and I'll be damned if I can figure how much assistance, if any we'll be getting from the Louisiana Road Home program.

Why can't we just look at the map, consult the tax rolls, and mail a check to everyone? Would that be more equitable, or would that be too generic? Probably the latter, but we need to judge not only fairness but timeliness. It would be much, much faster, and in the current emergency I say it would be better than the current Louisiana Road Home program.

I know this a lot to chew on, and I know this post is a bit of a curve ball in contrast to most of what I post. But I've had these things on my mind, and I think you should have these things on your mind, too.

Bottom line: we're rebuilding this city RIGHT NOW. I'm lucky enough that I think I can pull it off with just some minor assistance. I did my stint in the Army and I learned to adapt, improvise and overcome. Like my friends in Da Parish, I suppose I'm too stubborn/proud/determined to ever give up.

But a lot of folks are not so fortunate. A lot of my neighbors can do nothing until the bureaucracy decides how much, if any, aid they'll be getting.

In the meantime, every day of waiting makes it more difficult for everybody.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


My Darling Wife and I often call ourselves “Pioneers.”

It’s almost true. No, we didn’t arrive on the Mayflower or strike out across North America in a prairie schooner. But we are among the first people to resettle this part of the city--a part of town where the closest restaurant is a pizza wagon parked in the driveway of a still-shuttered gas station, and where there are still more people living in FEMA travel trailers than in their houses.

This “pioneer” spirit teamed up with a run of cold weather recently to inspire me to cook a pot of “Sons of the Pioneers” chili.

It was a frigid, windy night last week when I decided to play frontiersman. I had to improvise some of it. I don’t own a hat or saddle, and I substituted a propane stove for an open campfire, and two domestic cats for horses.

But that’s not what it’s all about. Our here, it’s the grub that counts! So I started with Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit, a can of diced tomatoes and two pounds of lean ground beef.

Carroll Shelby's Chili Mix

I can’t exactly say I made a big pot of chili because we don’t really have any “big pots” in the trailer, but I pulled out the biggest I could find and I started browning the meat over the open flame.

Cooking chili in a FEMA travel trailer

I added the spices and flour paste as directed on the package. Because of our hypersensitive smoke alarms, I had the hood fan blowing the whole time. Still, somehow the trailer managed to fill up with that beefy, spicy chili aroma.

To really get into the mood, I put on a “Sons of the Pioneers” cd while I cooked and ate.

Sons of the Pioneers CD

I'm an old cowhand from the Rio Grande
And I sing the songs in the cowboy band
I know all the songs that the cowboys know
About the big corral where the doggies go
'Cuz I learned 'em all on the radio
Yipee-yi-O-kie-yay! Yipee-yi-O-kie-yay!

Okay, so it’s not real cowboy music. The Sons of the Pioneers, whose most famous member was Roy Rogers, are actually Hollywood cowboys. But that’s okay, because I’m not a real pioneer either. Besides, that’s not what counts here. In New Orleans, it’s always about the food.

And lemme tell ya--it was good vittles!

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bright little FEMA travel trailer

More than 15 months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the coast and New Orleans, we remain in dark times.

Rows of houses that once glowed in the early evening with the warm light of family and community now sit dark and cold in the blighted neighborhoods of the city. Their windows, like empty eye sockets, stare blindly at the streets that are for the most part devoid of life and passersby.

Street lights and traffic signals are a not a given. Some whole streets grow dark when the sun sets and stay dark. Some intersections simply blink with tentative reds and yellows all day long; nobody gets the green light here.

The street lights of my neighborhood, Vista Park, are for the most part operating. But the houses remain unlit. The chill that moved across New Orleans this week personifies the lifeless state of homes here. Repaired homes are few, and FEMA travel trailers are widely spaced along the suburbanesque streets.

But squatting conspicuously (almost defiantly) amid the destruction, is our boxy little FEMA travel trailer, lit up like Times Square.

New Orleans Christmas in a FEMA travel trailer

It’s one of those odd turn of events: because the flood water stopped just inches from the ceiling of our former home, we lost most everything except what was in the attic. We might not have the furniture and the records and the books and the clothes and the linens and the mementos and the pots and pans and every-damn-thing-else of sentimental and practical value, but doggone it—we’ve got Christmas decorations!

This weekend, I climbed a ladder and strung five strings of “icicle” lights all the way around our cubist abode. My Darling Wife thinks it makes the place look beautiful. It was an odd feeling, putting up those same lights that used to ring my house on a trailer, a borrowed trailer that sits just twenty feet from where my home used to be.

All around us sit the empty, rotting carcasses of the flood-ravaged homes or the wide vacant lots where the houses have been removed. The full moon paints their decomposing shells in a melancholy patina.

But here there is light and life. As we approach the deepest, darkest day of winter, we join in the worldwide celebration of the season of lights.

Like so much I do in New Orleans post-Katrina, it’s a sad but celebratory moment. A chance to recall once again how much is lost, and how much remains. A chance to remember that it’s not at all about the buildings--the mere wood and bricks and glass and carpet--that made this a nice neighborhood. It was the warmth and light of the people that made these houses special, that made this city shine.

No, there are not a lot of lights here. But there are certainly more than last year, and less than next year. For now, this bright little FEMA travel trailer will have to suffice.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

60 yards, dump and spread

When we had our house demolished and removed some months ago, its remains filled several trucks. A caravan of battered dump trucks were in turn filled, driven to some unknown grave site, emptied and returned.

They worked until there was nothing left--nothing but a smooth, slightly depressed parcel of land, about 60 by 120 feet.

Several of the neighboring houses have been similarly removed, summarily crushed and carted off until nothing remains but the shallow footprint of the excavated foundation.

First, the people were evacuated, and then the houses were extracted.

New Orleans post-Katrina is a canvass of minimalism. Whole streets like mine are still sparsely populated. Nearby businesses remain empty, flood-stained, untouched by man for more than 14 months. And every time a severely damaged building gets demolished, we celebrate the scene as a sign of progress.

Vista Park, my neighborhood, is now speckled with vacant property. The former continuous rows of brick-veneer slab-on-grade homes nestled under shady trees are now interrupted by flat, empty land.

And so to fill the shallow footprint, we had dirt placed on our lot this week. Trucks rumbled up near our FEMA travel trailer and dumped loads of clean brown sand onto our property. Perhaps they were some of the same trucks that had carted off the remains of our once beautiful home, a house reduced to the status of landfill by capricious nature.

How much to fill the void? “60 yards, dump and spread,” the work order said.

We’re not the only ones. Across from us and down the street, empty parcels have been filled with dirt. Not nearly enough to spare future buildings from another flood such as we saw with Hurricane Katrina—that is simply not practical. It is enough only to return the land to grade, to replace some of what was lost. Future houses will be elevated above the ground as required by code. Ours will be as high as that and then some.

Demolition was an important step, akin to a doctor cutting out diseased and damaged tissue. But bringing in fill is the first proactive step in rebuilding this city. This dirt is the new land we will build on, the new foundation of the city.

I came home from work the other day and marveled at the site of large piles of sand on my lot. “This is it,” I thought. “This is how we start to fill the void left by Katrina.”

We are rebuilding!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

WARNING: Everything is dangerous

I’m not the first person to notice that everything nowadays comes with copious and often stupidly obvious warning labels. Like electric hair dryers that are marked, “Do not use while bathing,” and lawn mowers that warn, “Do not place hands under mower while blade is moving.”

The labeling boom is the result of two powerful forces on the consumer market: government regulations and consumer litigation. Big Brother and Big Lawyer never seem to be satisfied.

FEMA Travel Trailer - Not for recreational use!

And so it should not be a surprise that our FEMA travel trailer is virtually decorated with warning stickers. This white box we call home is the perfect convergence of manufacturers’ CYA strategy and government’s “We’ll protect you” maternalism.

EXIT, just in case you didn't know.

It starts at the door.

Above the door, the only exterior door, is the quaint “EXIT” sticker. I suppose it’s possible that in an emergency, an occupant might not know how to escape from the trailer and would benefit from this reminder that this door does indeed lead to the outside. I suppose in an emergency, one might become disoriented in the linear layout of the trailer—bedroom, kitchen, bath—and might forget which of the three doors allows escape.

To add to the possibilities, every window is also a removable escape hatch, and so every window also is clearly marked “EXIT.” We are surrounded with possible escape routes—there are fully five “EXIT” signs in the just three rooms of this trailer.

Smoke alarm in our FEMA travel trailer

The trailer also has two smoke alarms and a carbon monoxide alarm. And every one of them has—you guessed it—a warning label.

Carbon monoxide detector in the FEMA travel trailer

These detectors advise testing weekly. That’s surely overkill. Battery-operated smoke detectors that I’ve owned and operated in the past always went more than a year before needing new batteries. Fire departments started to encourage changing batteries every time we change the clocks, upping maintenance to twice a year. But weekly? Are we being extra-super-obsessively cautious, or is FEMA buying the cheapest, most unreliable smoke alarms in the world?

It turns out that this testing regimen is is not a problem for us, because we set off the smoke alarm every time we make toast. Oh, yes, they work alright… all too well!

There’s also a small box with a little green light next to the oven that I understand is a propane detector. It’s the only appliance here that does NOT have a warning label. Poor little thing, I hope it does not have an inferiority complex as a result.

Warning labels by the stove

The stove is the most popular place for warning labels. Which makes sense since that’s where we use an open flame to cook. There’s a privacy curtain near here, one you would think is intended to give the illusion of a second bedroom for those using the bunk beds. But according to the label pictured below, that curtain is also a fire safety feature. I would intuitively keep the curtain open and pulled as far away from the stove as possible while cooking, but apparently, that’s not correct. The curtain must be designed to shield the bunk beds and bathroom from fiery destruction. Who knew?

The travel trailer advises, CLOSE CURTAIN OR DIE!

In studying these labels, I wonder if there is a seniority in the warnings they project. For instance, I notice some warn, “failure to comply may result in serious injury,” while others promise, “death or serious injury.” If there’s any rhyme or reason to it, the one by the stove wins with its “could result in explosion resulting in death or serious injury.” All that’s missing is a silhouette of a person in flames.

Yet another FEMA travel trailer warning label

And that’s most of them, but not all. Our friends in industry and government, acting in a combination of self-preservation and benevolent paternalism, have made sure we know about all the possible dangers that surround us in this cracker box abode. They’re clearly labeled every hazard with instructions and warnings of dire consequences to help us survive life in a travel trailer.

Which is sure to make us feel totally safe.

Or not.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Election Day

Tuesday is Election Day. I know this not only because the airwaves are filled with fear-mongering political ads, not only because the neutral ground is filling with brightly colored campaign signs, not only because the first Tuesday in November is traditionally an election day…

I know this because my Precious Daughter has marked it on our wall calendar.

Election Day in New Orleans

As I’m sure many schools are doing this month, and as I’m sure many of us did when we were in grade school, my Precious Daughter’s school, the International School of Louisiana, is having its own election on Tuesday.

Representative democracy is a team sport: without full participation, everyone loses. So I’m glad to see that ISL is engaging the kids in this election exercise. I know my girl is feeling very empowered by the ability to vote, to have a voice, to be the power behind government.

She is the luckiest voter I know. She’s does not have to worry about why “Dollar” Bill Jefferson had a freezer full of cash, or whether Stacey Tallitsch is a “stay the course” fool or a “cut and run” coward. She does not have to wonder if promises made will be kept, or if money and favors will take the place of platforms and principles once the voting is done.

She’s earnestly looking for someone who will represent her 5th grade class with care and dignity.

And it’s not an easy choice.

Everyone on the ballot is her friend, and everyone has personally approached her to ask for her vote.

My Precious Daughter has shared some of her deliberations with me. To maintain her privacy and honor her confidence, I will not be naming names--not even under subpoena.

I will only say that I am proud of the serious way she is approaching this election, even though ultimately I think we all know—even she knows—that it is just a game.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those who vote for real had that sort of maturity?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Water, water

On a typical day, 388 billion gallons of water flow down the Mississippi River past New Orleans . It flows at an average rate of 600,000 cubic feet per second, but even those living here hardly know it.

Lake Pontchartrain holds roughly another 2 trillion gallons of water, just outside your back door if you live in Lake Vista .

If we didn’t know this before Hurricane Katrina, we most assuredly know it now: We live with water.

In the FEMA cracker-box I call home, there’s a hot water tank under the kitchen sink. I am told this tank holds 4 gallons of water. That’s 4, F-O-U-R gallons. When I take my morning shower, I set the water to a comfortable setting, and then I adjust it every few minutes. A little less cold water, a little more hot water, a little less cold water, a little less cold water…until the cold water is turned off and I’m hurrying to finish before those last few drops of lukewarm water fall away to be replaced by cold water.

A short walk from my lot is the infamous London Avenue Canal . This canal was constructed to convey rain runoff pumped from our streets to Lake Pontchartrain . On August 29, 2005, the canal embankments split in at least two places. Water from Lake Pontchartrain flowed up the canal and into our streets. When I was able to return to my house weeks later, I found a dead crab in my driveway.

There’s a storm drain in the street right in front of my property. I keep it clean. For years I’ve swept and raked any leaves, trash or twigs that got caught in its grill. I still do this today. When it rains in New Orleans, these storm drains are sort of our “first responders.” I want them to work properly and unimpaired. Will it help keep my neighborhood from flooding? I tell myself it does.

When floodwaters covered a great deal of New Orleans , there was a general warning not to drink water from the faucet. The entire drinking water system was suspect, even in the unflooded parts of town. I went back to work the day after Hurricane Rita came ashore, when much of the city was still a pond. We were drinking canned water at my office--silver aluminum cans of purified water. Every time I opened one, that cracking sound evoked a Pavlov’s response in my mouth as my taste buds got ready for the bitter-cool taste of beer. And every time, all they got was purified water.

It’s an amazing feat that the Sewerage & Water Board was able to get the system up and running again so quickly after the storm. By mid October, water was safe to drink everywhere except New Orleans East and in the Lower Ninth Ward. Still, the city reported that there were so many breaks in the water system that fully half the water pumped from the purification plant each day was wasted.

A few weeks ago, I fed the cats in our FEMA travel trailer as I do each morning. I put out a full bowl of fresh water for them. After my two cats ate and drank, I let them outside. A while later, I saw one of them, Smudge, lapping contentedly at a puddle of brown water in the street. I was shocked, angry and then worried in quick succession. But then I reminded myself, “She’s a cat. Cats drink dirty water all the time.” Perhaps at least in this way, cats have a superior survival skill to us humans.

The human body itself is mostly just water. Wikipedia says about 72% of body mass in males and 68% in females is water. We live with water, we live surrounded by water, we ARE water.

Sometimes too little, sometimes too much. It makes life pleasant and it makes life difficult. It makes life possible.

Water, water.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006


We lost so many things in the flood.

Big things, like a house, all our furniture, appliances, pots and pans and dishes. So many things, we never really thought about how much stuff we had accumulated over the years.

Things that made life simpler. A washer and dryer, for instance, right there in the house. One of the unfortunate side-effects of living in a compact FEMA travel trailer is the lack of a laundry. The once household chore of washing clothes is now a major duty that requires twice the time and effort.

We lost things that we used to take for granted. Like a real shower with a real glass door. I recall taking long showers under a gentle fountain of hot water. Not any more. The hot water tank we rely upon now holds about two quarts. I can’t stand straight up in the shower, and even if I could, the water would only rain on my shoulders. I have to bend down to wash my hair, and I have share tight quarters with a billowing plastic shower curtain, too.

And then there are other things we lost in the flood. A neighborhood, for instance. I’ve blogged about how glad I am to see the severely damaged houses in my area taken down and hauled away. But this is an almost empty joy. It goes without saying that I’d prefer my neighbors back in their neat, middle class ranch houses than to be surrounded by vacant lots.

You can erase the writing from the page, but the imprint of what was written remains. I still see it.

I have pictures in my office of my Precious Daughter, my Darling Wife, and my cats. One of them shows my cat Cupcake lounging on my bed. Once upon a time, Cupcakes’s favorite spot was to sit against the pillows on my side of our king-sized bed. I look at this photo sometimes, and I see a lot of things we lost in the flood--the bed, the quilt, my nightstand, my books, and--due to her relocation to Texas--my cat.

But that’s not all.

I used to sit on the end of that bed and play my guitars. I used to play games like “no Papas on the bed,” which involved wrestling with my Precious Daughter for control of the mattress. I used to do a lot of reading on that bed, back when I had leisure time to do things like read.

None of those things were included in our insurance settlement. And none of those things can be restored by government programs or charitable donation. I certainly hope to one day replace them in a fashion once we settle into our new house. But the reality is that those things are gone forever, lost in time, and lost in the flood.

We lost so many things in the flood.

Some of those things weren’t “things” at all. I miss those the most.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Happy Birthday, Blog

One year ago today I posted my first blog entry. It's still there in the original location on MySpace.

I posted 31 times over there, and then switched to this server at in December 2005. Since that time, I've posted another 150 stories about life in Post-K New Orleans.

I spent a few minutes last night rereading some of those posts. What I notice is how things have changed in my life--I went from an apartment to a trailer, from a vibrant part of the city with great restaurants to a virtual no-man's land--and how much things have not changed in my life--my job that demands long hours, my Darling Wife and Precious Daughter who rely upon me and I upon them. Life goes on, bra.

I started blogging for two very selfish reasons. First, for the therapeutic value, the comfort one gets from periodically emptying the emotional lint trap. And second, for the simple need I felt to tell the story of New Orleans from the point of view of people here and now, living and working at ground zero of this urban disaster zone. The commercial media just wasn't getting it right, in my opinion, and so I thought I could give a personal perspective to readers of the world wide web.

And I say both reasons are selfish because I hoped in the first case to make my life better directly and in the second case, to do so indirectly.

How successful have I been? Well, I haven't gone stark-raving postal to date, so that's evidence that I'm achieving my first goal. I don't think there's any way to know if I'm reaching my second goal.

But after looking at those past posts, after scanning some 180 blog entries, I am left with one wish: I wish I could write more. So much is untold. So much is untouched. It's as if I've only peeled the first two or three layers from the onion.

I don't regret or chastise myself for this; I do what I can and I keep moving forward. But we are all so consumed in our busy lives--work, personal finances, household chores, family, friends, dealing with insurance and government agencies and utilities and on and on--blogging just doesn't get top billing.

Still, I'm glad to be able to blog when I can, glad that I still have about 60 loyal readers per day, glad that every now and then someone sends me a kind word, glad to return the favor by posting as often as I can.

One year! Happy Birthday, Blog.

More to come!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Here today, gone tomorrow

I’ve long been a fan of Stephen King.

Oh sure, he can scare the bejesus out of the most stout-hearted reader, and he has the knack to make even the most ordinary events unseemly or downright creepy. But at the base of it all is the undeniable fact that he is one heck of a writer.

For me, one of his most memorable scenes involved the simple interaction between a mother and her son. I think this appears in The Stand. (He’s written so many darn books I often have a hard time recalling in which book a particular passage occurs!)

What happens is that a young boy runs into the kitchen one nice summer day to show his mother the bird he’s just shot with his pellet rifle. He is bursting with pride at his manly display.

But then his mother says, “Okay, now make it come back to life.”

The boy’s pride is wiped away in an instant. He learns a hard lesson that day, that destroying things is easy, so incredibly easy that anyone can do it. And thus destroying things is not special and is not to be admired.

Creating is hard.

My Precious Daughter and I had a discussion about this the other day. The big white brick house that has stood dominantly on the corner of our street for as long as we have lived here got knocked down this week. It was methodically pounded and smashed and broken into “bite-sized” chunks suitable for lifting by a backhoe and removal by truck.

A New Orleans house prior to demolition, October 2006.

It’s a safe bet it took a year or more to plan, design and build that house. It took less than two days to destroy it.

A New Orleans house 48 hours later, October 2006.

This is the nature of our existence. I’m currently reading Flags of our Fathers, the story of six Marines who climbed that blood-stained mountain on Iwo Jima to plant the flag. They are just a sampling of the thousands who lived and loved, hoped and dreamed, worked and struggled for years, only to die suddenly and violently on a tiny Pacific island.

It took so much effort to get there; it took less than a second for a bullet to strike and kill.

This is the nature of life. It took decades of effort to build these houses, this neighborhood, this city we call New Orleans. But one hurricane, one flood, one awful day in August was all that was required to wipe out most of that productive work.

And for what remains, these structural shells of houses, these tombs of family memories, it takes no more than two days to finish what the flood began.

Are we surprised that a mere 14 months later the city is not rebuilt yet?

Work on our new house proceeds. We received a preliminary set of drawings a few weeks ago, made comments and changes, and we are now waiting on revisions. It’s going to be a while before we get out of this FEMA travel trailer.

We’re creating a new city here. These things take time.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A pint of Chocolate City

We were at Dorignac’s yesterday to pick up a few items, and we came across this little gem.

New Orleans Ice Cream Company product.

Billed as “All Natural Super Premium Ice Cream,” we could not resist buying a pint of New Orleans Ice Cream. The label says it is made right here in New Orleans, and that would have been enough for me. But then, check out the flavors:

Ponchatoula Strawberry, Coffee & Chicory, Creole Cream Cheese, Praline Crunch and Vanilla Bean.

But the best of all was “Chocolate City.” We had to get that one!

The label describes it this way: “A politician’s faux-pas inspired this deliciously satirical chocolate ice cream with white chocolate chips.”

Who can resist that?

Since Hurricane Katrina trashed the place last year, I've heard all kinds of insults and taunts from outsiders about how crazy/silly/stupid we are in New Orleans. And I resent them all.

But this one is local, and it's in good humor (so to speak), so I'm all in favor of this flavor of commentary.

We watched a DVD in the FEMA travel trailer last night and enjoyed our gourmet ice cream. Chocolate City is delicious! My Darling Wife enjoyed the rich and creamy chocolate, but I was partial to the white chocolate chips.

I wonder what Hizzoner had for desert last night?

Monday, October 09, 2006

"Coming back... serve New Orleans."

That's what the banner over Camellia Grill says. The exterior is getting stripped in preparation for a new paint job.

Camellia Grill, New Orleans, getting a facelift, October 2006.

But so far, nothing going on inside.

Camellia Grill, New Orleans, interior appears untouched, October 2006.

That's okay. We probably don't want the inside to change anyway!

Word is it will reopen before the end of the year. I know a lot of locals, and visitors, are looking forward to it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Public safety must always take precedence

The American Society of Civil Engineers has published an important paper outlining 10 measures to improve hurricane protection and safeguard lives and property in the future.

Hurricane Katrina: One Year Later. What Must We Do Next? is a brief but powerful statement of what went wrong and what we must do to make sure it never happens again.

The big point they make is that hurricane protection is not to be confused with economic development. Building the most cost-effective levees leads to catastrophic failure as we recently experienced. ASCE’s Call-to-Action Number 1 calls attention to this weakness:

“As the hurricane protection system for New Orleans was being designed and debated amongst the USACE and state and local stakeholders, compromises were made based on cost, land use, environmental issues, and other conflicting priorities. Protection of the public’s safety was not always the outcome of these compromises.”

Hurricane protection is a matter of public safety. You can’t use a business model to justify a superior system of levees and gates. You have to build it with a mindset to safeguard lives. Anything less is a disservice to citizens that Civil Engineers are legally and ethically bound to protect.

The paper concludes:

“ASCE, working in partnership with the USACE and other engineering organizations should reinforce the need to place the safety, health, and welfare of the public first, and should communicate that public safety must always take precedence.”

I’m glad to see that ASCE understands this. Let’s see if the rest of America gets it, too.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Broken hammer

I broke my hammer today. I was trying to pull a nail.

This hammer was given to me by my father almost 20 years ago. It is one of the few tools I was able to salvage after Hurricane Katrina. I could probably get a new handle, but it would not be the same.

My broken hammer

My Dad is a great handyman. Carpentry, plumbing, electrical work--he's done it all. He started at a young age working with his father as they fixed up their Foucher Street home in New Orleans. More than half a lifetime ago, he taught me a lot of what I know about fixing up a house.

And he's still going strong. Mom and Dad's house in Slidell got about 4 feet of water. My Dad, now 71 years old, tried to hire contractors to fix it up, but apart from getting roofers and a crew to do the drywall, I think my Dad did it all. He couldn't just sit and wait for someone to show up. He took matters into his own, capable hands.

Mom was there, too. I'm not going to discount her hard work, but clearly my Dad was the foreman and the backbone of that job site.

They moved back into their refurbished home in June while we're still trying to get house plans drawn. Just goes to show you: never underestimate your parents.

My favorite part of this hammer was the red rubber on the handle. My Dad did that himself--I think he puts that on all his tools to personalize them.

A few months ago I bought a new tool box and started buying new tools. I already have another hammer so I won't miss a beat. But I will miss that hammer.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A reputation at steak

I am no fan of David Vitter, but I have to give Louisiana’s junior senator credit for putting his principles where his mouth is at least this once.

Sen. Vitter attended a gathering of the Louisiana Restaurant Association last week at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Washington. Nothing remarkable about that, except that, according to The Times-Picayune, Sen. Vitter refused to eat the free food.

As every New Orleanian knows, Ruth’s Chris was founded and franchised all around the world by our own Ruth Fertel. When beloved Ms. Ruth passed a few years ago, the company was taken over by a Board of Directors who were not from New Orleans.

The word on the street is that the company had been chaffing to move its corporate headquarters long before the venerable Ms. Ruth died, but this much is undisputed fact: in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and with Ms. Ruth out of the picture, the corporation quickly moved its world headquarters to Florida.

Common expressions like, “Kicking a man when he’s down,” and, “Pouring salt on a wound,” hardly capture the disappointment we in New Orleans had in watching them pack up and leave.

Be that as it may, New Orleans has managed to survive this corporate insult. We’ve still got more fine restaurants than most people could ever enjoy in a lifetime of eating out.

But the point of this is Sen. Vitter’s principled stand against what has become of Ruth’s Chris Steak House. I try to imagine him there, surrounded by plates of sizzling strip steaks, filet mignon, and buttered vegetables--and resisting.


Like I said, on almost any other day the senator gives me indigestion. But on this occasion, Sen. Vitter cut right to the bone and revealed the sweet pink center of life in post-K New Orleans: We stand together, and when we do, nobody can hurt us.

Fellow blogger Mr. Clio called for a boycott late last year in an attempt to persuade the CEOs of Ruth’s Chris to change their minds. I join him and our senator in his boycott of the corporation that holds Ms. Ruth’s name and recipes, but knows nothing about loyalty.

Besides, I’ve always preferred Crescent City Steaks anyway.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Lots of people are writing aboutthe big game,” what it meant, why it was important and so on.

This morning I read Chris Rose’s account of the game to my Precious Daughter as we ate breakfast at the game-board sized table in our FEMA travel trailer. We both laughed and complimented the Bard of Big Easy for his insight and talent.

But for me, the true value of the game in the form of hope and entertainment was best illustrated in an email from a former/future neighbor. Julie and Steve work for a federal agency in New Orleans that has set up trailers in the parking lot of their facilty to house employees while rebuilding proceeds. They demolished their house down the street from us and are currently navigating the permit process to start construction on a new home. Here’s what Julie had to say about “the big game”:

“I have never been much of a football fan. Guess because I went to MS State and the Bulldogs did not ever have a really great team. I was in the band and marched at all the games, but never got interested in the actual scrimmage. I must tell everyone that my husband and I watched the Saints' Game last night with headphones on (because the kids were in bed) in our FEMA trailer. We had a BLAST performing our 'silent cheers' as taught to us by our 4 yr old. The reception on the tv was bad (COX cannot come to Federal property yet) but we still enjoyed every second of that game. You gotta have Faith!”

Faith, I would add, in city government, in state government, even in the federal government, has not been easy to maintain over the last 13 months. But faith in the human spirit, in the generosity of strangers, in ourselves even, has never wavered in the people of New Orleans.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Pictures of New Orleans

This Monday and Tuesday, I’m participating in an engineering forum on rebuilding New Orleans. Engineers and scientists from across America have come to the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter. Football fans will know that today is also the day the Saints return to the Superdome. I don’t know who picked this date for this forum, but I guess they didn’t have access to a Monday Night Football schedule.

Anyway, we’ve been treated to some excellent presentations. Wayne Clough, the president of Georgia Institute of Technology spoke about the need for engineers to rise to the challenges. He talked about meeting a taxicab driver here who gave him the common wisdom of someone with minimal education and no training. The cab driver told Dr. Clough that his house in the Lower Ninth ward had survived Hurricane Katrina because, “It was built a long time ago when they didn’t build stupid.” By this, he meant his house was elevated high off the ground.

The keynote speaker at lunch today was our Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu. Always a dynamic speaker, our second-in-command did not talk about how much money we need to fix things up. He did not complain about how terrible the federal, state and local planning and response to this disaster was. He did not predict how high the levees need to be to protect our citizens from ever having to live through such a catastrophe ever again.

What he talked about is a vision of the future. “I don’t want to rebuild New Orleans the way it was,” he said. “We should not be aiming low,” he said.

I listened and I once again realized what a missed opportunity it was that we did not elect Mitch Landrieu Mayor. In the aftermath of Katrina, we would have really benefited from someone with vision, with insight, with the ability to articulate the dream of a significantly improved city. Instead, we elected to keep what we had, and we are going to pay the price for that inertia for many years to come.

And I’m sad to say, a lot of New Orleans is going to continue to be built stupid.

Several presentations included lots of disaster photos. To remind us of how bad it was, to prepare us for the discussion of the disaster, we were treated to images of flooded neighborhoods, mud-stained houses, mold-covered furniture, toppled cars and houses, floodwalls laid flat, scour holes and sand dunes…

Yeah, I really need to be reminded of that.

I was surprised how much it hurt to see these photographs again. I mean, it’s been more than a year. I’ve had a long time to ponder what happened here. I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the ramifications of this flood on my home, my possessions, my family, my entire life.

But today I felt some of the same pain I felt in October when I saw the remains of my home in Vista Park for the first time. I felt the sadness for the lives lost and the lives ruined.

I guess I’m not finished grieving yet.

I know most of the engineers and scientists who saw those same slideshows did not have the same reaction as I did. How could they? To an engineer from Georgia Tech, this is a really cool exercise in risk modeling and disaster mitigation. To a geologist from Texas, this is like a laboratory to observe an interesting experiment and postulate theories to explain observations.

But to me, it’s home. Every time I see photos of the London Avenue Canal North Breach, I see the house of my friend Gus. I see the hole that delivered the water that flowed into my house a few streets over. I see my city drowning, the rooftops and trees treading water and struggling to not go under.

But I know nobody else in the room views these pictures the way I do. I can’t fault them. I can’t expect them to have superhuman empathy. I can only hold a polite smile, and answer for the trillionth time when asked, “How are you doing?”

“I’m okay.”

Saturday, September 23, 2006

On the right path

On Saturday my Precious Daughter ran two miles in a cross country race. Well, perhaps more precisely, she ran and walked those two miles.

That’s a long way for a 10-year-old. But my girl is nothing if not a trooper. This is the first year she’s participated in cross country. It’s also the first year her school, the International School of Louisiana, has had a cross country team.

In the part of New Orleans left relatively unscathed by Hurricane Katrina, what I like to call the sliver by the river, you’ll find Audubon Park. Sure, the park is short a few trees since last year, but the grass is green and the canopy of this urban forest is strong and healthy. That’s where teams from schools throughout the area met this morning to engage in friendly competitive sports.

We arrived before 8 a.m. and found ISL’s coach and team under a wide oak near the new golf clubhouse. The brisk morning air was quickly being replaced by the hot, thick, humid air that is quintessentially New Orleans. Elsewhere, it’s fall. Here, late summer will linger another 3 to 6 weeks.

My Precious Daughter and her fellow runners, sporting black and white mesh jerseys with the ISL logo, stretched and giggled in preparation for the race. Coach Eagan gave the two teams, one boys and the other girls, last minute important tips and reminders.

A few minutes later a horn blast sent about a hundred girls scrambling off the starting line. Although there is an official jogging and bike path looping around Audubon Park, it’s not long enough for this race. So the runners followed an outer ring through grass and hard-packed dirt that is favored by horseback riders and a few hardcore runners.

A minute after the start, they were completely out of sight. The groves of trees and the wide looping path prevented us parents from seeing much of the actual race. We gathered near the finish line to wait for their return.

The first girl came into sight barely 14 minutes later. She was wearing an ISL jersey and jogging confidently with her elbows pulled in tight to her sides. No, not my girl, but an ISL girl who deserved the applause and cheers which accompanied her to the finish line.

One by one, the runners reappeared and sprinted to the finish. Some, soaked with sweat and panting through open mouths, seemed to press themselves forward and across the finish line with more will than muscle. Others see the flags and crowd and almost jet to the finish with smiles of relief and accomplishment.

Crossing the finish line

Two miles! It doesn’t sound like a lot, but still, I was very impressed with the girls and boys I saw running. I don’t recall how old I was before I ran two miles for the first time. Heck, I can’t even recall the most recent time I’ve run two miles. And these kids are doing it with shorter legs in the morning heat.

And as I said at the outset, a lot of them don’t really run two miles; they walk at least part of the way. But they finish. They ALL finish. They all push through the fear, the pain, the syrupy air of New Orleans, and their feet find the finish line.

This is the real sport of running: not competing against others, but competing with yourself. I’ve told my Precious Daughter that this is how I see cross country. The greater goal may be to win, to do better than others, but the more immediate goal is to be better than yourself.

This is the lesson all the children running at Audubon Park learned today: That good things come with effort. That inner strength can overcome adversity.

There is no better lesson for children living, growing and surviving in post-K New Orleans.

Saturday morning, we joined friends and family in the park to watch the children run and strive and succeed. And in the end, I think we all learned something.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


I know it’s been a while. A few things have gotten in the way of my blogging habit. They include acronyms like SBA, USACE, ASCE, FEMA and LCECS. Credit also goes to family, friends and the New Orleans Saints.

Speaking of which, my blogging friend Oyster has posted an important treatise on the myth and reality of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. As New Orleans and all of football-loving America get ready to return to the one building here that everybody recognizes, Oyster clearly and forcefully sets the record straight about what did—and what did not—happen under that massive roof.

"Why the Superdome is a Sacredome, not a Thunderdome"

Here’s a teaser: It was not gunfire the poor souls huddled there heard: it was music.

Oyster reminds me once again why this city, this quirky little city on the largest river in North America, is so special. How can it be that the reputation of the Superdome during Katrina is so far from the truth?

No doubt many sportscasters will be solemnly talking about how much we’d like to forget what transpired at the Superdome last year. I say, forget the lies, yes! But learn and remember the real story.

Read it and pass it on.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Signs of life

I drove around my battered neighborhood late this afternoon to get a sense of current conditions. I took some pictures, too--not that photographs could ever fully capture the spirit of New Orleans and its people. Not even the finest National Geographic photographers could do that.

In the post-Katrina world, where the enormity of the destruction of property and damage to community is so overwhelming, I get the feeling photographs convey even less. Still, I will pretend these pictures communicate some of what is going on here.

Rebuilding Vista Park, New Orleans

I begin with our sign. Vista Park: about 400 single family homes, 100% developed in 2005, 100% flooded late last year. The crepe myrtles and other landscaping are dead and gone. Only a metal sign remains.

Another flooded house in New Orleans is demolished

Near the sign another house is smashed and taken away. There are a lot of demolitions going on these days. I do not know if the owners are planning to rebuild or not. I am simply grateful that they are doing something and not just letting their empty husk of a house languish.

It's the end of the day and the workers have already left. Notice the protective posture of the larger machine. Criminals and looters still lurk these streets, and that Bobcat is worth a lot of money in this town. My neighbor Malcolm saw this and said, "I didn't know they eat their young."

The roof of a New Orleans house is removed to build a second floor

Another neighbor is in the process of repairing a house near the park. It appears they removed the roof to build a second floor. I've heard talk of people planning to raise their slab homes by disconnecting the existing framing from the slab and lifting it up to become the second floor. Most people are planning to put a garage or workshop on the lower level. This way they can reuse the existing slab and framing while building higher and safer.

A second floor goes onto a house in New Orleans

But this is the first I've seen where the new construction seems to be aimed at just making the house larger, not higher. Several 2x12s are laid out for the floor system, but there is no sign of additional foundation work or framing on the first level to carry the new loads. I hope they know what they are doing!

Water springs forth in New Orleans

Finally, what looks like a natural spring is really a busted water main. The story is that local electric and gas utility Entergy was digging here and hit a water main. They were nice enough to leave some barricades and tape.

Post Katrina water problem

Neighbors reported it as soon as it happened--ONE WEEK AGO TODAY. We can only assume that the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board is too busy to fix this. Meanwhile, what must be thousands of gallons of potable water is wasted each day. To add insult to injury, the water runs down the street and into the drains where it must then be pumped out to the lake. So we're paying for this water twice.

That's it in nutshell: damaged, demolished, under repair, waiting for repair. Signs of life returning here are all around. Depending on how you look at it, it might seem like a lot of activity or it might not be nearly enough.

You tell me.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Driving home the other day I spotted a sunflower.

A sunflower blooms in New Orleans

A sunflower with its golden halo standing high above the weeds and uncultured stalks of green. These used to be picture-perfect manicured lawns and gardens. These lawns were carefully planned and maintained almost as another member of the family. Only pre-approved flowers appeared here, and only in designated places, all subject to the review of the local gardener.

But the gardeners are gone. The subjective rules are gone. The imposed order has been replaced by random chaos.

This is called “Nature.”

And Nature came to New Orleans big time last year.

The well-defined order of waterways and urban development became smeared in the random chaos of Nature. The unplanned wildness took hold, spreading in increasing entropy in the more severely damaged parts of the city.

Some of us felt like we were under attack. We felt Nature was battling us for the land, and the siege mentality took hold in decimated neighborhoods from the 17th Street Canal to Michoud, and from Lake Pontchartrain to the Lower Ninth Ward.

But this is no war, and Nature is not our opponent. We live with Nature, and we live in Nature. Just as a bird collects bits of twigs and string to weave a nest, we also shape the gifts of the Earth into homes and schools and businesses for our use.

Just as that sunflower rises above the anarchy of a weed-choked land, so we too build our city to rise out of the mess of shattered buildings and littered streets. Out of the arbitrary arrangements of Nature, we build and restore and push the entropy back a little more each day.

Rising sunflower in New Orleans

Who knows, in a thousand years the random chaos might totally overrun this land, and all traces of this great city may be washed away under streaming water or ocean waves. Humans might be part of Nature, but we are excruciatingly temporal. Nature is timeless.

But for now there is a city on this bend of the Mississippi River, a city of trade and travel, of music and mirth, of food and family. For now, we live, love and prosper in this place, this water-shaped land that has been a home to someone at least since 1718.

We know Hurricane Katrina was not the first storm to pass this way. Many people before us survived the wind and water and rose again. That’s a thought that gives me strength, that bolsters my resolve to stay and build again.

Although we’re a bit beaten up now, we look forward to the day we will all stand tall and smiling in the sun.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fiore cartoon

Editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore has posted his latest animation.

It's called "Whoopsi Gras II".

So, I guess this is what folks in the upper 49 think of us and our situation.

Sadly, it's pretty close to the truth.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Today marks one year after Hurricane Katrina. Here is how I spent the day.

I awoke in our FEMA travel trailer at 5:00 am, took a shower, and got dressed for work. It was just my Darling Wife and I today since our Precious Daughter is staying with Grandma and Grandpa for a couple days. I listened to NPR and heard some of the national coverage of this infamous day in history. But mostly, the news was about other routine difficulties. I posted a quick note to my blog.

I drove to work and had a cup of coffee. I sent a few emails, reviewed some proposals, met with coworkers and talked on the phone. A computer technician came by to fiddle with my computer to resolve a problem I’ve been having.

At 11:30 I went down to the cafeteria and got a plate of breaded pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans. I brought my food back to my desk, checked my personal email and read The Times-Picayune online. I was curious to see what the president was doing today during his visit to New Orleans. It turns out he went to Betsy’s Pancakes on Canal Street and visited Warren Easton public high school.

After lunch, I sent a few more emails and met with colleagues about some project maps we need to produce. Then I went to a long afternoon meeting to discuss the proposals I had been reviewing. We met until 6:00 pm, at which time I returned to my desk and called my Darling Wife.

I did a few more end-of-the-day chores and I signed out at 6:40 pm. On the way back to my travel trailer I heard part of an interview with Ivor Van Heerden on the radio. I changed the station to WWOZ.

I stopped at Mediterranean Cafe on Carrollton Avenue. I ordered two take-out meals. They told me 10 minutes. I walked across Carrollton Avenue to the Parkview Tavern and ordered a Jack and 7. I paid $3.50 and tipped 50 cents. I walked back to Mediterranean Cafe to enjoy the Moroccan music and my drink.

When my order was ready, the lady brought it out and asked for $18.50. I produced a credit card. “Cash or check only,” she said. I barely had ten bucks in cash and no checks. “You can bring it tomorrow,” she said. I thanked her and left.

Back at the trailer, I filled the cats’ bowls with food and fresh water. I retrieved the mail from the mailbox at the curb. I straightened the place up a bit while waiting for my Darling Wife. I put the radio on and listened to Jivin' Gene on WWOZ. He played “Going to the Chapel” by The Dixie Cups and some Ernie K-Doe.

My wife arrived and we feasted on gyro, kibbi and stuffed grape leaves. We talked about our days at work. We talked about future plans. As of this writing, she is typing and printing from our personal computer in preparation for work tomorrow. I’m typing this on my notebook computer from work.

In a little while, she will have a cup of hot chocolate and I will have a glass of Ovaltine and we will retire. I will say, “Good night, my honey,” and she will say, “Good night, sweetie.”

I don’t know what the rest of the world is doing today, this day that will live in infamy for New Orleanians and all Americans alike, but here is what I did: worked, ate, loved and slept.

It’s all I can do.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

We Are Not OK

In solidarity with my fellow New Orleans bloggers, I join in transmitting this message on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina:

We Are Not OK

Monday, August 28, 2006

Birth of a city

Everybody's talking about the "new" New Orleans.

Well, here she is.

While the media make ratings points reliving the pain, suffering and death of Hurricane Katrina one year ago (with a gleam in their eye as Don Henley noted), we in New Orleans will pause for a few moments of memorial, and then go right back to work.

Because pity and sorrow won't remove the debris, won't improve the levees, won't build new schools, more of us will be clutching hammers than handkerchiefs tomorrow. We'll remember the past, but build for the future.

Welcome to New Orleans, Baby S.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Ray calls it "food porn"

Ray is blogging about food, and it's delicious writing that everyone can enjoy. This is, however, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, so every entree of joy comes with a side of sadness...

Visit Ray in New Orleans.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Another demolition

Another house has come down in our neighborhood. This one, right across the street from our own vacant property and FEMA travel trailer, was crushed in record time.

I went to work on Friday morning, it was there.

I came home Friday evening, it was not.

Another house demolition in New Orleans

The really odd thing about it is that earlier this week, someone had decided to gut the house. We still don’t know who or why, only that a van full of eager young people rolled up early one morning and started to empty the house of all its non-structural elements.

There are a lot of folks coming to New Orleans to help us recover from Hurricane Katrina. Lots of Texas license plates on the roads nowadays, and lots of Mexicans seeking work as day labor hanging around the parking lots of local home-improvement stores.

And lots of volunteers, too. Religious groups sending young and old help, and college students using their breaks to help us here rather than boosting the beer economy of seaside towns. And why not? Hey, it’s just as hot here as on the beaches in Florida.

We certainly appreciate all they are doing. But in this case, somebody got their wires crossed. My neighbors decided they would not return to New Orleans months ago as soon as their two children settled into their new high school. They told me a long time ago that they planned to demolish and sell the land.

So another neighbor of ours, who just happened to go by the house the other morning, was surprised to seen the young people swarming like ants through the doomed house, building a pile of debris at the curb. He called our former neighbor now settled several states away to ask, “Are you still planning to demolish?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

Our alert neighbor went over to tell the young-uns to decamp, because there’s no point in gutting a house that you’re going to smash with a wrecking ball anyway.

When I arrived back at the trailer that evening, there was a pile at least 6 feet high in front of the house. Oh, and just in case I’d forgotten what a refrigerator full of rotting food looks and smells like, the appliances placed on the sidewalk were a potent and pungent reminder.

All of which is just another day in the flood-ravaged parts of post-K New Orleans: dirt, debris, stink and demolition.

Oh, and of course, neighbors that look out for each other--even those that live across town, or across America. Our houses are trashed, our belongings ruined, our pretty neighborhood littered with trash and weeds, but our sense of community stands tall, high above any flood waters could ever reach.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Rain and rainbows

The weather here in New Orleans has settled into its customary summertime routine: muggy hot in the morning, showers around noon, blistering hot and humid in the afternoon, warm and sticky all night.

A visitor from Texas commented to me the other day, "My, but it sure is humid today."

That's the way we like it here. Makes the air easier to chew and swallow.

After the rain on Saturday, my Precious Daughter and I went for a bike ride around the neighborhood. It was an odd thing to do, taking a jolly jaunt through the flood damaged part of town where we live in our FEMA travel trailer.

The streets are still half filled with sand and dirt that washed in with the flooding waters. Bits of glass litter the roadway in sad reflection of the shattered lives of our fellow New Orleanians. House after house stands empty and haunted behind rising walls of weeds and unkempt lawns. Here and there a deserted, mud stained car still waits for the tow truck to take it to the crusher.

We pedaled merrily up and down several streets, my girl telling me she likes to be able to ride in the street now that there's no traffic to worry about. We both delight at the occasional vacant lot we encounter, the most hopeful sign of progress in our neighborhood in my opinion.

As we approached the north breach of the London Avenue Canal, I looked up to the grey washed sky to see a wonderful sight--a rainbow, arcing halfway across the watery sky. I joke with my Precious Daughter that it looks like it's right over Meemaw's house in Slidell. "If we go there now," I say, "We'll find the pot of gold in her yard." She's been my daughter for 10 years so she is all too familiar with my silly stories.

Later, my Vista Park neighbor April posted this photo to our message group. She writes, "I saw something beautiful today and was lucky enough to have my camera in the car :)" This may have been the same rainbow I saw.

April's photo of a rainbow over the Greek Church and Bayou St. John in New Orleans

Early Sunday morning, I was the first to rise in our shoebox home. As I started to prepare breakfast, a brief shower swept over the neighborhood. The patter of raindrops on the tin-can exterior of the FEMA trailer is one of the minor pleasures we enjoy here.

My daughter, still half asleep, rolled over and asked, "Papa, are you making popcorn?"

No, sweetheart, it's just the rain.

It's just nature reminding us once again that water is integral to life here in south Louisiana. If you live here, you live on or near the water. You depend on water for life and profit and pleasure, and you fear it when it turns on you, comes in higher than expected, or falls faster than planned.

Those of us living in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina are ever aware of water's ubiquitous influence. We feel it, hear it and see it every minute of the day: in the humid air, in the gentle patter of rain, and in the beauty of a rainbow.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Throwing away the keys

Fellow Vista Park resident, Dennis Persica, had a terrific Point of View column in The Times-Picayune last week. It only just came to my attention, and I'd like to make sure everyone has the chance to read it.

"Relinquishing the keys to a ruined home" tells the story of how he locked his door on the way out of town last August, and has remained locked out since. Well, almost, because the same flood that rusted and rendered the locks inoperable also took out his front windows and his entire back door.

But hope is available in unlimited supply in New Orleans. Since Hurricane Katrina, the people of this ravaged city cling to their hope like perennially disappointed Saints fans. "Next year," they say. "Just wait til next year."

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


Hundreds remain missing; we are still finding their remains.

This one wasn't in the Lower Ninth Ward, nor on the toe of an overtopped levee. This person perished in a residential neighborhood in New Orleans East, not far from Downman Road and Chef Menteur Highway. A highly populated and developed area where only just now, virtually a year later, are the houses being searched.

Skeletal Remains Found in New Orleans

The Associated Press
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; 4:21 PM
NEW ORLEANS -- Eleven months after Hurricane Katrina, firefighters found skeletal remains in a dilapidated home filled with debris and jumbled furniture...

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


The house finally came down this week.

As I’ve often said, our house has been dead a long time—it just now finally fell down.

Happier times in the Vista Park neighborhood of New Orleans

This beautiful house in Vista Park drowned in August of last year when floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina filled New Orleans. As if we weren’t already convinced to demolish what remained, a fire did even more damage to the structure a few months later.

We’ve been looking forward to the demolition for several months. When the big day finally came, I had to be at work so my Darling Wife and Precious Daughter had to be witnesses for the family.

The morning started off with a loud rumble as the huge backhoe rolled up our driveway and lined up to start smashing the house from the front left corner. My Darling Wife, who manages to see adventure in everything we do nowadays, asked if she could take a few swipes at the condemned structure herself.

Working the big machine

Amazingly, the equipment operator, an amiable fellow with a southern twang, agreed. My Darling Wife, who had never operated any equipment more sophisticated than a passenger vehicle with manual transmission, climbed the tracks of the huge machine and settled into the operator’s seat in the glass-enclosed cab. The operator stood nearby and tutored the novice mother in the fine art of controlling the 30,000-pound-capacity arm.

Demolition begins in the Vista Park neighborhood of New Orleans

CRASH! As if she had been doing this for years, my Darling Wife brought the massive claw of the backhoe down on the roof of our house, crashing through the roof and ceiling of the dining room. She took two or three swipes before she handed over the controls—to our Precious Daughter!

Getting a little help

Who knew a 10-year-old could operate a track backhoe?

But just as efficiently as her mom had a moment before, and with the help of the operator standing nearby, our Precious Daughter raised and dropped the hammer-like arm of the backhoe down on the house as easily as she may have swatted a bug.

Just another day in the life for us in New Orleans, I suppose.

Once the fun had been had, the professional operator took over and made short order of the heavily damaged house. Working deliberately and methodically, the backhoe was soon crawling on top of a pile of wood and brick as he made his way toward the back of the house.

Demolition of our house in New Orleans, July 2006

A train of trucks began to arrive to cart off the debris. For two days, they worked at the smashing and hauling, and when that was done, they started tearing out the slab.

Large chunks of concrete were wrested from the foundation as rebar stretches with the futility of cheese clinging to the pie. The operator carefully piled up the large blocks of manmade rock, then proceeded to break them into more manageable hunks. He did this not with the force of the backhoe, but with good-ole gravity. Grasping one of the blocks in the jaw of the machine, he raised it high into the air—perhaps 20 feet—and dropped it on top of the other pieces. It slammed and spattered flakes of concrete with a deep “Thud!”

Demolition of what Hurricane Katrina destroyed in New Orleans, July 2006

When I arrived home that first evening, I was smitten with sadness at the sight of a heap of rubble where my house had stood that morning. Sure, this is what we wanted, what we had been planning and looking forward to for some time. But it was odd and a bit unsettling to look into a pile of debris and recognize things that were once cherished possessions. Books that had belonged to my Precious Daughter, pots and some dishes, throw pillows, even an old vinyl single by “The Rock-a-Byes,” a local band that is all but forgotten.

Our cat Smudge investigates the remains of our house near the London Avenue Canal in New Orleans

I remind myself of the adage, “You have to break a few eggs if you want to make an omelet.” I remind myself that this is the sound and sight of progress in New Orleans today. I remind myself that this house, as wonderful as it was, was just a shelter from the elements.

New Orleans begins rebuilding by demolisioning what remained following Hurricane Katrina, July 2006

Later, I feel better sitting in the trailer, listening to my Precious Daughter singing to her favorite songs on the radio. As fond as I was of those things we lost, what is most important to us remains.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Cats come home

It doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t sound the same. It really doesn’t smell the same.

Yet there seemed to be enough about the old house and the old neighborhood for my cats to recognize it in very short order.

My two cats, Smudge the spry Siamese and Callie the long-haired and bulky calico, have traveled much more than most domestic cats have or would even want to. Because of Hurricane Katrina and the record-setting storm surge that she delivered to coastal Louisiana, the cats haven’t seen their old house for more than 10 months.

A few days before we officially moved into our blizzard-white FEMA travel trailer, I thought it would be a good idea to bring them over to start getting them acclimated to their new home. Cats never like to be put into a carrier for a road trip, so their initial reaction to the plan was unfavorable.

Once we arrived, I set the carriers in the trailer and went to work to set up a litter box, food and water. When I opened the carriers, both cats came out almost at once. Smudge, the friendlier of the two, began to explore immediately, meowing all the way. I imagine she was saying, “Hey, what’s that? Hey, what’s this thing here? Hey, Callie, come see! Do you think this is my bed?”

Callie kept low and moved more cautiously than her sister. An uninformed observer might have thought she was on a hunt. Sudden movement or sounds clearly startled her.

We slept that night in what I would loosely call the Master Bedroom; Smudge at my feet and Callie almost on top of my head.

The following morning, I let the cats have a brief look outside—no more than 10 minutes. Here, their roles reversed. Callie wanted to go exploring into the burned shell of our house, while Smudge did not want to leave the steps in front of the trailer door.

I followed Callie as she stepped boldly but carefully into the house. “Do you recognize this?” I asked her. “Does anything here look familiar?” She paid no attention to me, and was quite annoyed when I scooped her up and put her back into the trailer. Smudge was sitting by a window, looking intently at (studying?) the house that used to be her home.

Again that night, we three were on the bed.

On the second morning, I let them wander a little further and stay out a few hours. Around noontime, I found them lying under my flood-damaged car that was still parked in the driveway next to the house. Before New Orleans was flooded it was not uncommon for my cats to spend the afternoons in the shade under my car.

And there they were again. The car, flooded over the roof, has not moved since that awful storm. While the half-inch thick mud and sludge that had covered the walks and drive were shoveled off months ago, the mud remained under the immovable vehicle. I’m sure the mud held more moisture and made it cooler under there than ever before.

And that’s when I knew they understood. I’m sure they remembered the blond bricks and pavement, and they may remember the trees and garden. Two cats, a small but not insignificant part of a New Orleans family, their lives all blown off course by a hurricane, had returned to a place of happiness and comfort, a place they quickly adjusted back into.

The house is a mess, of course, and no one can live there now. But the feeling of being home, the comfort and safety that home entails seemed evident in the way my two little cats quickly readapted to living here. The condition of the building cannot supplant the memories we have of this place. Even the cats feel it.

Welcome home, Smudge and Callie.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Post-K Post Office

Perhaps my affinity for public employees is simply because I are one.

Or perhaps I’m just a little more observant, more cognizant that the basic services we rely upon are not delivered by a nameless bureaucracy or an inhuman machine called “government.” These services are provided by people, often good people who do their best to do their best.

Moving back to the old neighborhood is a lot of work, and not simply the manual labor required to tote all our stuff across town. One critical task was to get the mail rerouted to the correct address.

Since October, we’ve had a forwarding request directing mail sent to us at the house to be brought to our apartment in Riverbend. Now we have to reverse that flow.

I first visited the USPS online, where I was able to submit a mail forwarding request from the apartment to the house. But I also needed to cancel the forwarding request from the house to the apartment. Otherwise, my mail could be stuck in an endless “do loop.” I imagined my mail bouncing back and forth between the two until the volume of stick-on yellow address labels caused my mail to clog the automated sorting machines, resulting in a monumental pile-up that backed up the postal system like a hurricane evacuation traffic jam.

Unfortunately, the USPS web page does not allow one to cancel a forwarding order--that requires visiting the Post Office in person. I stopped in at the Post Office on Louisiana Avenue, and they recommended I go to my local Post Office to make sure the carrier received and understood the request.

“And where is that?” I asked, since my “local” post office had flooded in Hurricane Katrina and had not reopened.

They sent me to the carrier station on Florida Avenue, a facility that does not have a storefront because it was never intended to serve walk-in customers. Nevertheless, this is where many people now go to pick up mail if they are still unable to receive mail at a regular address.

(Before I go on, I hope we all take a moment to think about that: more than 10 months after the hurricane and normal mail delivery has not resumed to all areas.)

Anyway, signs around the building directed visitors to locate the door with their zip code for service, and I quickly found mine. I waited a few moments for help, and when the door opened I was greeted by a familiar face.

“Hello, Tim! How’s the family getting along?”

It was my old carrier from before the storm. Mr. Anthony, a tall, friendly man, used to walk the route on my street during what sometimes seems like another lifetime, yet was less than a year ago. Occasionally I would be out in the yard when he came by, and he would stop to talk about family, current events, money and the government.

I am still amazed that he remembered me. Here’s a man who must see a thousand names and addresses a day in the course of his work. How he could remember me, someone who has not been around for many months, someone he only knew by casual acquaintance?

I recalled that he owned several rental properties in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. “How’d you make out in the hurricane?”

“I lost five houses,” he said. “I’m living in Algiers Point right now. I was just lucky that I bought a house over there to renovate right before the storm.”

“Wow, so you have no spare time!” I said.

He laughed politely, and his close-cut beard looked like it may have turned more grey since the last time I saw him.

I told him we were coming back, and he was quick to tell me about others on the street who were coming back, too. He seemed to know everyone and their plans. I marveled again at his ability with names and addresses.

Near the end of our conversation, he said, “You just have to keep going. No matter what happens, the Lord gives you the strength to keep going.” The African timbre of his voice sounded both sad and defiant in the same moment.

It’s hard to imagine what some people have been through. I’m dealing with just one flooded house and all the insurance, government paperwork and contractors that I can handle on top of family and work. What must it be like to have all that for five houses?

And yet Mr. Anthony remains cheerful and hopeful. He takes pride in his work and clearly thinks of us as customers that deserve friendly, efficient service. Although the postal uniform is not widely considered one of honor (think Cliff on “Cheers” or Newman on “Seinfeld”), this man transcends that stereotype.

I remain hopeful that there are many more like Mr. Anthony in this city: people who will push a little harder when they meet resistance, people who will put forth the effort to do the job right, people who will smile even when every circumstance discourages it.