Monday, February 27, 2006

Happy Lundi Gras!

For those in New Orleans, Happy Lundi Gras! Looking forward to a great Mardi Gras!

For those not in New Orleans or nearby, my deepest sympathy. For the first time in six months, we in New Orleans can feel sorry for you.

Someone recently asked me if Lucky Dogs was back in business yet. I seldom go into the Quarter, so I could not answer that question. Until now. Once again, NPR did a great story about life in New Orleans after Katrina and what those silly, overpriced weiners mean to a city that prides itself for fabulous food. If you have speakers, I encourage you to check it out at:

Relishing the Return of Lucky Dogs

Tomorrow's the big day! Look for me dancing on Canal Street in a grass skirt. I'll be marching with a group of crazy revelers called Mondo Kayo. Then, I'll be out of town for a few days thanks to that pesky job of mine that keeps getting in the way of my life...

Until then, "Throw me something, Mister!"

Thursday, February 23, 2006

How about that FEMA!

One good thing I've discovered about FEMA: it's a great icebreaker.

Mention FEMA in any social situation and the resulting conversation can go on for hours!

People in New Orleans have always been friendly and talkative. Standing in line at the po-boy shop, riding the streetcar or bus, watching your children at the playground, people here are almost always ready and willing to talk.

But if you really want to get into a hot and heavy gab fest, all you need to say is something like, "How about that FEMA!"

EVERYBODY has a story to tell: with passion, with fire and with great enthusiasm.

And unfortunately for FEMA, everybody's story is about ineptness, incongruity, and insanity.

My own FEMA story includes those themes, too.

A little over a month ago, I blogged about the fun I was having filling out paperwork and groping through the dark forest of FEMA.

Luckily for us, my Darling Wife joined me in the fight. I warned her that no man could slay the dreaded FEMA beast. And she replied in Eowyn-fashion, "I am no man!"

She took the battle straight to the source. I gave her all the files and paperwork I have been accumulating, explained to her the secrets I had learned along the way, and wished her much luck.

FEMA representatives have been keeping hours at the Jewish Community Center on St. Charles Avenue here, and my Darling Wife had heard that speaking to FEMA in person was much more effective than speaking to them on the phone.

Once again, she was right.

The FEMA rep looked up our application on the computer, furrowed his brow and said, "Everything seems to be in order. I have no idea why we haven't sent you any rental assistance yet."

Just to be certain, the FEMA rep called over a colleague, and my Darling Wife told me it was almost comical to watch their puzzled looks from where she sat on the other side of the computer screen.

"We'll tag your file for review," they finally said. "It looks complete, but nobody has taken it to the next step."

One day later, my cell phone buzzed.

"This is an automated message from the Federal Emergency Management Agency," a friendly female voice said. "You will be receiving an electronic fund transfer in the next few days."

Wow! She did it! My Darling Wife had slain the beast! She made the glacier move!

Almost. How much money? The recording did not say. For how many months? The recording did not say.

What the recording did tell me is that FEMA is also sending me important forms that I must quickly fill out and return or risk loosing the benefits I had only seconds before been granted.

More paperwork. How about that FEMA!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

News to me

I’m trying to be optimistic, but it’s not easy. Every time I start to see the silver lining, the clouds roll back over for one more pass…

Good News: It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Parades, King Cake, decorations and tourists.

Bad News: Many in America are saying, “Tsk, tsk,” and will use this vital and emotionally regenerating event to write us off as either stupid and frivolous, or recovered and happy.

Good News: The President actually put his money (scratch that—our money) where his mouth is and came out in favor of several billion dollars in Community Development Block Grants. Even after all the deducts and discounts, I think, if I read the rules correctly, we are eligible for some money.

Bad News: The application process for the CDBG will be handled by FEMA. Well, perhaps the money will arrive in time to help pay my daughter’s college tuition.

Good News: The City of New Orleans is now taking applications for demolition of houses to be done under a contract with the Corps of Engineers. This could save us some money and trouble if the city will do it for us.

Bad News: No one at city hall has even the slightest idea of when the dozer will visit my house. Actually, they haven’t demolished any houses yet. They’re just collecting data to be used in negotiating a contract. I guess we’re going to have to do it ourselves after all.

Good News: Three of my neighbors now have FEMA travel trailers set up in front of their damaged homes. This is a sure sign that people are coming back.

Bad News: There still is no electricity on my street, so no one is actually living in the trailers yet.

Good News: The Legislature actually passed a bill that requires people who serve on levee boards to be professional engineers and scientists. And these board members will be nominated by a non-partisan committee of national professional societies and political watchdog groups. This is a first in Louisiana history.

Bad News: Congress asked for a single levee board but the Legislature split the new levee board into two boards. Then to fix their counting failure, the Legislature made the two professional, non-political boards subservient to a thing called the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. CPRA is a completely political panel appointed by the levee board presidents who are appointed by the governor. They’re already preparing for the next flood—of federal money.

Good News: The Corps of Engineers is rebuilding levees and floodwalls at a record pace. And why not? For the first time in decades the Corps is fully funded and has the green light to do what needs to be done to accomplish the mission.

Bad News: The Corps is merely repairing the damaged hurricane protection system to its originally authorized level of protection. When the levees in St. Bernard Parish are restored, a storm surge similar to Katrina’s will roll right over those levees and flood the parish just like before. How many people need to die before Congress and the President pledge to build superior hurricane protection?

Good News: It’s late, I’m tired, and my Darling Wife and daughter are already asleep and waiting for me in our warm bed.

Bad News: Nothing wrong with that!

Good night.

Monday, February 20, 2006

By the numbers

Homes destroyed by Katrina and Rita: about 200,000

Federal money already dedicated to Community Development Block Grants (CDBG): $6.2 billion

Additional pledge in CDBG money last week: $4.2 billion

Total CDBG funding, pending Congressional approval: $10.8 billion

Some simple math: $10.8 billion divided by 200,000 homes

Answer: $54,000 per household

Governor Blanco's proposed cap per homeowner: $150,000

Reduction in assistance to those who lived inside a floodplain but did not buy insurance: 30%

Reduction in assistance to those who choose to leave Louisiana: 40%

Occupancy requirement after repair, restoration or relocation of home: 5 years

Friday, February 17, 2006

Nine years

Until you see if for yourself, you just can't understand. The sight, the sound, the smell--none of it can be captured in photographs. The feeling you get being surrounded by it all cannot be broadcast on television. It can't be put into words, either. No way. The scale of it is just too immense, and the emotions are too deep.

I'm talking, of course, about Mardi Gras.

You just can't explain Mardi Gras to someone from out-of-town, or anyone who hasn't done it in person.

A few weeks ago, media editorialists and sarcastic bloggers were in exaggerated shock that New Orleans would actually plan to go ahead with Mardi Gras this year. Isn't this a waste of precious resources? Isn't this a senseless distraction? How can you have a party when the city and its citizens are in total disarray? they apoplectically cried in unison.

The answer I came up with is simple: we can't let New Orleans die. We won't let New Orleans die. And Mardi Gras is a big part of this city. It's part of the economy, the society, the IDENTITY.

We've already lost so much, we need Mardi Gras now more than ever.

I'm blogging about this now because whether you know it or not, Mardi Gras has already started.

On Twelfth Night, the Phunny Phorty Phellows took their traditional street car ride to launch the season. They wore costumes, drank champagne, ate King Cake, and danced to the music of a New Orleans brass band. Afterward, they held a coronation party at world famous Rock'n'Bowl.

And last month, my Darling Wife and I attended the annual ball masque of the Krewe of Caesar.

No, I'm not a member, but my father is. This year, one of the princesses in the court of Caesar Empress XXVII was none other than my Darling Daughter.

Flashback to 1996: Awaiting the arrival of our first child, my Darling Wife and I did not want to know if we would have a boy or a girl. Although some family members were very put off by this, we wanted to be surprised like in the "old" days. We all found out it was a girl on the day she was born.

That same day, my mother called the Captain of Caesar to put my newborn daughter's name on the list for princess.

The whole family has been talking about this, planning it for more than nine years.

We've already lost so much, do you think we would let misfortune and bad weather take Mardi Gras away, too?

Not on your life! The show must go on. Life must go on. Mardi Gras must go on.

Have a piece of king cake and toast the joie de vivre that makes this town special. And have a safe and happy Mardi Gras!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

La la, how the life goes on

Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Truer words were never spoken.

I've been traveling a lot lately, getting out of New Orleans and seeing how other people live post-K.

A few weeks ago, I went to Tampa for the weekend. I ate curry chicken at a Jamaican restaurant and drank Red Stripe. The place was almost empty. The pizza place next door was packed with college kids. They ran out of beer, so the collegians came over to The Jerk Hut (that's really what it was called) to keep the party going. They liked the beer selection, but they didn't care for the music.

Let me tell you what they have in Tampa: civic pride. They had a street party that weekend, and nobody littered. I saw more than one beer-drinking party-goer go out of his/her way to drop a cup, a can, a plate, into a trash bin. It was almost unbelievable.

On the way from the airport, the cab driver apologized for the condition of the streets. "This street is long overdue for resurfacing," he said. I sat still and waited for the bumps and the jarring jolts that I thought would validate his statement. I felt nothing more than the light clump of the expansion joints as we sped down the highway. Sorry for the condition of these streets? I wanted to tell him I'd buy every street he had in this condition and ship them back to my town.

When I flew back to New Orleans, the city was a wide sea of blue roofs. And I would swear that I could see the trash and potholes in the street from 5,000 feet.

Life goes on, bra.

Earlier this week, I was in Shreveport. The people up there are sympathetic to New Orleanians. They offered me help. "Call your state representative," I said. "Tell them to back the single levee board." They looked sad and said, "Do you really think that will help?"

On the local talk radio station, the subject was rebuilding New Orleans. Callers used words like cesspool, corruption, fiefdom, and they likened the single levee board proposal to rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. They talked a great deal about what would not work, but I didn't hear anything about what would work.

When I got back, I talked to my Darling Wife again about how we would rebuild our house. Ten feet off the ground. Steel-reinforced concrete walls and enough hurricane straps to tie down a jumbo jet. And most importantly, a fireplace. Never had one of those before. Now's our chance. Now is the time to dream and build the home we always wanted.

With a couple of kids running in the yard.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Back to business

It appears my blog hit a speed bump on the information super highway. I haven’t been able to post for a few days, and my post about fog on the Mississippi River disappeared. My apologies to my good friends and family who continue to check in on me even though I haven’t posted anything new lately. Let’s hope things are better now.

We invited our neighbor over for dinner tonight.

Well, actually, he didn’t come over for dinner. He came UP for dinner.

He lives in the first floor apartment, and we live above him.

After I came back to New Orleans, most of my beautiful city was flooded, including my own house, so there was not much to choose from when I started looking for a place to live. I stumbled across this place in the “sliver by the river” that was not only on unflooded, holy high ground, but it was also on the second floor.

It was love at first sight. A pragmatic, utilitarian kind of love, but love nonetheless.

When my Darling Wife, Darling Daughter and I moved in here, we found not only a nice place to live, but nice neighbors, too. The fellow who lives in the first floor apartment is one of those amiable people.

He was living here long before anyone had ever heard of Katrina or spoken that name with such bitterness. He evacuated for a few weeks and came back to a street that looked pretty much the same in a city that was totally changed.

He’s single, and I’m not sure whether my Darling Wife invited him up because she wanted to be neighborly, or if she just felt sympathy for him because he lives alone, or if she wanted to size him up as a potential husband for any of several single women she knows and is always “shopping” for.

No, actually I am sure. It was definitely the last one.

So my Darling Wife served up grits and grilliades this evening, a tonic for the chilly weather that fell upon New Orleans the past two days. Our neighbor takes a healthy portion and says he can’t even recall when he last enjoyed a home-cooked meal. We talk about my daughter’s day at school, the recent roofing work, and finally about him.

Our neighbor works in the music business here. He actually has a degree in music, it turns out, so he’s not just another hack with a loud electric guitar and a bad haircut snarling teenage angst. For the last few years he’s been operating his own recording studio.

I asked him how the music business is going post-K.

Not good, he says. As a matter of fact, it’s not going at all.

He explained that prior to the hurricanes, he was recording and mixing every day of the week. His studio was producing several cds a month. No big names, no blockbuster sellers, but a steady stream of decent work and a fair living.

Since he came back to town, however, his studio is largely unused. He recently finished a new cd for Christian Serpas, he says, but that’s it. The calendar is open from here to next hurricane season.

What will he do now?

He’s going on the road. There are several music showcase/conventions coming up, including one in Austin and one out in L.A. He’ll pack a bag of promo items and see if anyone wants to come record in the city that everyone says is so alive with music, but is literally struggling to keep its head above water now.

We talk a while and he excuses himself well before my daughter’s bedtime. A polite fellow, he’s a man who prefers to be behind the sound board to being in the spotlight. He exits stage left.

My Darling Wife gets right to the point once he leaves: he seems nice, but he doesn’t have a steady source of revenue. She will keep him in mind but won’t recommend him to anyone just yet.

I knew it!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Another point of view

For an outstanding critique of the President's State of the Union address from the perspective of us in New Orleans and along the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, you've got to read da po' blog.

It's an excellent blog, so check out some of da po'boy's other posts while you're there.

State of Warmongering Address

Just a short walk from the mighty Mississippi River, I watched the leader of the strongest nation on Earth deliver another State of the Union address last night.

I watched with my Darling Daughter curled up next to me on the sofa. Somehow I had conned her into thinking this was "must see TV." I had accomplished this in part by explaining the Constitutional and traditional significance of the speech.

But she was really more intrigued by my telling her about how the Supreme Court Justices don't clap and how the two major parties would be on opposite sides of the room, clapping only when their party liked what the president was saying.

She wanted see, I think, if democracy would really permit such open dissention and criticism of even the President of the United States.

My Darling Wife was nearby working on the computer, not really watching or listening, but still part of the scene. She would occasionally grumble a comment or a rebuttal to what the president was saying. The president's approval rating with her is negative 254, if you know what I mean.

My girl naturally was more interested in the crowd than in the speaker. She commented on how much they did or did not clap, how they were dressed, and who was smiling and who was frowning.

The speech did not hold her attention. After about thirty minutes of it, she drifted off to her room to read. I'm sure much of it was unintelligible to her, and I confess having the same reaction.

Leadership is all about vision and inspiration. It's all about having these things, and then being able to communicate and share them with others.

The vision articulated by President Bush last night was mostly about waging war. The inspiration he tried to impart was mostly about our military in combat.

There's an old saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem you encounter will look like a nail. The president looked and sounded like Thor last night, pumping his hammer menacingly over head.

Unfortunately, the problems we are dealing with in New Orleans and other hurricane-devastated areas are nothing like nails. And I know now that he has lost interest in our plight and drifted off to other pursuits, much as my 9-year-old did.

Still, I held on, waiting for the president to talk about the Gulf Coast. I was eager to hear if he would make any new proposals, or at least promise to keep his past promises. But there was nothing. Just a quick, "We feel sorry and we've already sent money so let's move on."

The leader of the strongest nation on the Earth talked for almost an hour about the State of the Union, but spoke barely of the hundreds-of-thousands of citizens displaced and homeless, and of course did not mention that more than 1,300 Americans were killed by Hurricane Katrina. He instead scolded New Orleans for having a poor education system prior to the storm.

Just a short walk from the mighty Mississippi River, in my apartment in the "sliver by the river," I realized that despite what he had emphatically said barely four months ago, the President was indeed going to leave what remains of New Orleans to the "whims of nature."