Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Of Mowers and Men

I went back to my house on Sunday. I pulled that old lawnmower out of the shed. I fiddled with it for about an hour. No go.

So I drove around the neighborhood to see what’s been happening. There’s another house gone at the other end of the block, and new piles of debris on the next street—looks like a group in a van with Indiana plates working one house.

And then I drove past Pratt Park—a wide, grassy playground with a really nice playscape in the middle. I saw a couple people working, and pulled up.

Pratt Park, New Orleans

I was greeted by Casey of the Blue Shed. Casey’s former house was on Pratt. The London Avenue Canal levee was his backyard. Although the levee opened about a block away, the destruction of his house was just as potent, and he has since demolished what remained of his home.

But he kept the shed.

Drive down Pratt today, and you’ll see a smooth sand-covered lot with a pretty blue shed tucked back in the corner. He now signs emails to our neighborhood listserv as “The Blue Shed.”

Casey has become a man with a mission. With no house to fix up, and recognizing the inability of the New Orleans to keep up with its parks, Casey adopted Pratt Park.

Nobody asked him to do it. He just sent out an email one day, saying something like, “I’m going to clean up the park. Anyone who wants to join me is welcome.” He’s been working at the park pretty much every Sunday since then; sometimes with help, sometimes on his own.

On this bright hot day, Casey was getting high-powered help from another neighbor. Using a gas-powered power washer, Hale was meticulously removing the baked-on film of Hurricane Katrina’s flood. Moving in carefully planned rows, Hale wielded the water-wand like a craftsman creating art.

Hale hasn’t yet decided what to do with his house, and only recently moved his wife and two young children back from Colorado to Metairie, right next door to New Orleans. When we talked about the future of the city, he put it this way: “There will be no single chicken emerging from one egg. New Orleans is going to rebuild over time so that there will be many chickens and many eggs all around the city.”

I think I agreed with him.

Now I’ve blogged about Hale before. He’s the rocket scientist that was very popular in our neighborhood because of his willingness to share his home-brewed beer. Hale is a mechanical engineer, so unlike yours truly the civil engineer, he was able to get his flooded power tools going again.

I said to Casey, “What can I do to help?”

“Well, you can paint those climbing bars over there, or you can cut grass.”

I think we all know what I chose!

Call me crazy, but I proceeded to have a whole lot of fun working a push mower through an expanse of grass about half the size of a football field!

As I pushed it along, I thought about us three neighbors, Casey, Hale and Tim. Three guys who pretty much lost it all in the hurricane, but who all found a reason, and the spirit, to come back.

Heck, Hale doesn’t even know if he’s coming back to Vista Park, but here he is, on his day off, working in the hot sun.

And when I got home, I found more than one offer of a loaned lawnmower in my email and in comments on this blog. Offers of aid and assistance from people I’ve never met, except through the cold glow of a computer hooked to the Internet.

I ask you, who would deny such people the right to rebuild their city? Who would dare tell such civic-minded, proud, pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps Americans that theirs was a lost cause?

Children try out the playscape at Pratt Park, New Orleans

Yet another neighbor, April, heard of Casey’s efforts and took her children to Pratt Park to see for herself. I post some pictures she took here.

April reports, “My kids played on the equipment and the swings this evening and people from Edgewater Baptist were out there having a picnic!! Oh it made me want to be home so bad, I just wish I could close my eyes and walk back across the street on Pressburg and be home......but not yet.”

I failed to get my mower started on Sunday. And it was probably the best thing that could have happened.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Ode to a Lawnmower

On Father's Day, I visited my twice destroyed house. I went to cut the grass.

By "twice destroyed," I mean first destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and then by fire.

By "cut the grass," I mean I wanted to mow down the overgrown grass, weeds and other vegetation that has enjoyed unbridled liberty in my yard for going on 10 months.

My lawnmower had been trapped in our shed when we evacuated New Orleans ahead of the storm. It sat under water for two or more weeks and remained in the waterlogged shed for several months before I finally pulled it out into the daylight sometime in January.

It was not a pretty sight. My trusty stallion of motorized efficiency had been transformed into a rusty reminder of watery destruction. My first instinct was to ditch it and I left it out in the backyard, exposed to the weather and easy pickings for looters and thieves.

But some days later, I began to think that perhaps there was still some life in that machine. It’s not that old, and it always started up with one or two pulls.

About three weeks ago, I had gone to the house with a purpose: start that mower.

Not an easy task, as you can imagine.

I started out by dousing every exposed moving part with 3-in-1 oil. Wheels, kill cable, choke, pulley and flywheel were all thoroughly drowned. At first the pull chord was stiff and did not retract on its own. But repeated operation and more oil and I worked it loose so that it almost worked like before the storm.

I drained the oil and gas tank, refilled them and put in a new spark plug. I removed the air filter but I did not have a replacement for it.

I figured that was enough, so I started to pull the chord purposefully. I pulled it about 20 times, and then I pulled it about 20 times more.

No luck.

So I used the “old school” fix: I pulled out the spark plug and poured gas directly into the cylinder. I put it back together and pulled the chord again. This time, gasoline and water sputtered from the muffler. The more I pulled, the more it sputtered.

But nothing ignited. Not a single chug. I pulled the chord until I was out of enthusiasm for the job, and then I pulled it some more.

That was earlier this month. I finally relented and put it back in our shed.

My lawnmower

I went back on Father’s Day, hopeful that I could get that mower started, hopeful that I would be able to cut the grass.

Again, I pulled and pulled the chord. I took out the plug and could definitely smell the gas. But it did not budge. It did not crank or fire even one rotation. I put it back in the shed for another try on another day.

I’m not ready to give up.

I know that mower is just a rusted heap now. Why do I care if it ever runs again? And my lawn, my overgrown, weed-riddled lawn in front of my flooded, burned, and hopeless house on my decimated street just a short walk from the London Avenue Canal breach—why do I worry about how it looks?

Cutting the grass is a chore, a sweaty, mindless job I should be glad I don’t have to do right now.

But, damn it, I do care. That’s still my house, even if Katrina killed it, even if fire trashed its remains. That’s my neighborhood, too. I don’t want people passing by my house and saying, “What a dump.”

And I’m feeling like I’m still not in control of my destiny. Coming up on 10 months, and I’m still living at the whim of nature, government bureaucracy and insurance companies. I can’t even get my own lawnmower to start when I want it to!

This is life in post-K New Orleans, I suppose. We’re all in crazy motion, but who’s at the wheel? Who’s really in charge? We’re speeding forward through time, but to what destination?

And because I haven’t been able to get that lawnmower started, nature rules my yard. Heartless, indifferent nature destroyed our city, and almost 10 months later, we remain in her grip.

I will try again tomorrow.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Seeking targets of opportunity

A Gentilly neighbor emailed today with official confirmation: National Guard soldiers were spotted patrolling the area. She saw it herself.

I'm not living on my flooded street in Vista Park: for now, I'm in the vibrant Riverbend part of town. But it's good news to hear that soldiers are on patrol in the area. It's good news that they are present and visible in the most damaged areas of the city.

The first day on the job and they've already started to make an impact. According to a local television station WDSU, Police arrested three people for looting in the Lakeview area yesterday, the first full day the soldiers were on the job.

The looters were charged with stealing copper pipe used for plumbing. Unfortunately, there are scum who are stealing the pieces of our homes almost as fast as we rebuild them.

And here's the kicker: only one of the suspects is a local. Two of them are from OUT OF TOWN.

Yes, New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is in many ways a wild and lawless city, but hopefully the National Guard presence will restore some order and deter the OUT OF TOWN criminals who are taking advantage of us in this desperate time.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

What does your yard sign say?

There is no election underway in New Orleans right now, but there are plenty of yard signs: signs declaring a homeowner’s intention to rebuild, signs advertising damaged homes for sale, signs offering construction, demolition and tree removal services.

In the decimated areas left almost uninhabited since Hurricane Katrina, it seems yard signs are an important mode of communication. It is ironic that in this age of mass media, the Internet, cell phones and text messaging, simple placards remain powerful and vital.

Click to see the larger photos.

What does your yard sign say?

GCIA Sign in front of my house

Mid City neighborhood sign


In this home, a Family grew for forty years.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I'm not here, not really, not right now.

I know that sounds crazy in the virtual world of the Internet, but it's true.

As I write, I am nowhere near my home in Louisiana. I'm in South Carolina.

I suspect loyal readers usually imagine me sitting at a computer in my apartment in the Sliver by the River in the still-heavily damaged city of New Orleans. I'm sure they imagine me listening to WWOZ and drinking an Abita Restoration Ale while I wax poetic about the life and times of my family, my city, and my cats. And usually, that would be an accurate portrayal.

But for now, I'm at the Hilton Head Island Public Library, typing out a small entry in the blog of my life since Hurricane Katrina.

The weather, except for the rainy day Tropical Depression Alberto came over, has been fabulous. Days at the beach, feeling the wind of the Atlantic Ocean, imagining Africa just over the horizon...

But my thoughts remain in New Orleans. I was watching the waves this morning, small, gently breaking waves rolling in and running up the white sand beach, and I began to imagine larger, more powerful waves. I began to imagine 10-foot, 20-foot, 40-foot-tall waves of salt water, crashing and pounding and booming on the fragile shore, pulling shovelsful of sand loose with each successive attack. In military terms, successive assaults are called waves--an apt description to be sure.

I imagined my home state being attacked and our outer defenses being pulled apart by the beating ocean, indifferent Mother Nature ordering wave after wave against the ramparts we call barrier islands, and levees, and floodwalls.

The waves do not come in at regular intervals. No, that would be too simple. We could devise a defense too easily against such a threat (this is the engineer in me talking now). But the almost random interval and height of waves as they race up onto the sandy shore mean that no place is safe, no protection secure.

With a sigh, I am reminded again that it is not an easy thing to do. Living so close to nature, so intertwined with the oceans and rivers that give us life, is not at all a simple proposition. Those same forces and elements that power our lives can and will turn against us.

The philosopher Hendrix instructs us: "And so castles made of sand fall into the sea eventually."

My Precious Daughter has made friends with a girl from Kentucky. They dig and play in the surf and know nothing of the worry I have. They build their castles by dripping sand through their fingers. They know those castles will be gone tomorrow. They know that tonight, nature will send the sea up to wash all their work away.

But they build anyway, and enjoy them while they last.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Conviction and courage

ENR Magazine dropped a bomb on us this week. In an opinion piece titled, “The Reshaping of New Orleans Is a National Problem,” the editors of ENR (that’s Engineering News-Record for my friends in Bunkie) advocated throwing in the towel on our fair city.

New Orleans, they say, will never be safe. Cut the dead and dying branches, they say.

“The American people are generous in helping other Americans recover from disasters,” they say, but that charity has limits. No use throwing good money after bad, they calmly advise.

I’ve read a lot of negative, defeatist editorials, letters-to-the-editor and blogs since Hurricane Katrina stomped across Louisiana in her size-69, steel-toed boots. But this one hurts.

This one comes from a magazine for and about engineering and construction. This one comes from people who would directly benefit (handsomely, I might add) from any civil works program to upgrade and improve our hurricane protection system.

And their response to the challenge is, “It can’t be done.”

Wrong. Not only can it be done, it must be done.

The Corps of Engineers recently accepted significant blame for this disaster, admitting to the first mission failure in its 200-plus-year history.

But the Corps is not quitting. They are not sounding retreat like the editors of ENR are, writing from their comfortable offices in New York City. The Corps is rebuilding existing authorized levees, and planning improvements to be built as soon as Congress and the President release the money.

The Army knows that when you lose a battle, it doesn’t mean you lose the war.

Yet the naysayers continue to whine.

Won't it be difficult? Hell, yeah. Just ask anybody down here. But surrender to the “whims of nature,” as the President told America from Jackson Square, would be worse. That is unacceptable.

Won't it be expensive? Like nothing this country has ever done. The amount of dirt that will need to be moved to build a superior barrier around the New Orleans area alone will exceed the total amount of excavation required to build the Panama Canal.

Is it necessary, or even wise? Considering the shortcomings of the hurricane protection system that exacerbated this catastrophe, it is both necessary and just. And consider the shame and demoralizing effect abandoning New Orleans would have on the nation—remember how much it sucked when we pulled out of Vietnam and declared “peace with honor?” It took America a generation to get over the shame of that one.

But it can’t be done, can it? Don’t get stuck on stupid. Americans always have and always will accomplish whatever the hell they set out to do. Engineers in government, private industry and academia are already working out the solutions.

Conviction and courage will bring this city back. It is quite clear to me that’s what the writers at ENR lack, and what New Orleans has in abundance.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Cat Butler

Genesis 2:2 says, “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”

At our apartment, Smudge and Callie are like gods.

They rested today, taking luxurious comfort in the dwelling we provided to them. They seem to not know how to count, nor which day of the week is the seventh day. Therefore, they take no chances and rest every day.

We made offerings of food and water, and they lazily surveyed their realm, taking liberty to sprawl their slinky bodies over whatever surface struck their fancy. Smudge found comfort on a window sill for a while.

Callie squeezed into the space between the stereo and a speaker. (It was off.)

Before Hurricane Katrina chased us out of New Orleans, we had four cats and a hedgehog, but we gave up all but these two. Right now, I think that’s all we need.

They come and go at their leisure. Callie will sit at the door and meow when she wants to go out. Usually I am the one to obey her command. My Darling Wife calls me “The Cat Butler.” I can’t argue with that.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

We hope to get the keys to a FEMA travel trailer soon. The cats will come with us. I wonder if they will recognize their old house. They haven’t seen it or smelled it since the flood and the fire.

There’s really no way to explain it to them, either. For all they know, our house is still there, still sitting pretty with sofas and chairs and windows and a big bowl of food by the back door. They probably think the lawn is covered with green grass, and the trees still bounce with birds and squirrels that always seem to be just out of reach.

How can they comprehend until they see it for themselves?

I suppose they are not unlike most of America in that respect: they won’t understand unless they see it for themselves. Until they walk through the barren, bashed neighborhoods, there is no hope that they will ever understand the totality of the destruction, the scope of the disaster, the loss of life and lives.

I imagine my cats will enjoy exploring the neighborhood when we go back. So many places and spaces to find adventure in! And not too many other cats around, I expect. They will probably feel like queens once we get back there.

No, wait, they will be like gods: furry, pad-footed gods. Excuse me, I’m being called to the door…

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Geologist

Almost from the first moment Hurricane Katrina spilled over the levees and pushed down the floodwalls of New Orleans and surrounding communities, swarms of self-proclaimed experts have been diagnosing and theorizing and pontificating and gesticulating about it.

The absolute worst, in my opinion, is Ivor van Heerden from LSU. This guy has been on every TV channel and in every newspaper, widely touted as “the man who knew.”

Here’s what everyone should know about Professor van Heerden: he's never designed a hurricane protection system. He hasn’t designed a single floodwall, and he's never even designed a levee. That’s because he’s not even an engineer--he’s a geologist.

But Professor van Heerden has a lot of opinions about these things and he gives great quotes. That's what the media really like about him.

You’d think they would have gotten a clue back in November, when Geology Professor van Heerden announced that sheet piling at the 17th Street Canal was several feet too short—shorter even than what the construction documents called for. This was quite a shock to everyone, and the Corps of Engineers responded by actually pulling out several of those undamaged sheet piles just to be sure.

Well, right there on live TV the city held its breath while four piles were pulled and the truth was exposed: van Heerden the non-engineer was wrong. The good professor was conveniently out of the country at the time and could not offer a quotable response.

So now Geology Professor van Heerden has published a book about his exciting life and his sensational quotations. As a licensed Professional Engineer, I’ve never cared for his widely broadcast opinions on matters of engineering and design not only because he is not an engineer, but also because he is often wrong. But somehow, the publicity-loving geologist has remained the darling of media.

So imagine how disappointed he must be now that his own employer, LSU, has felt the need to very publicly and very pointedly distance themselves from Geology Professor van Heerden and his forays into matters of engineering. In a letter to The Times-Picayune, an official from LSU explains the uncomfortable position into which the non-engineering faculty member put the university:

During fall 2005 an issue with Professor van Heerden arose relating to his technical and professional expertise to comment on levees and construction matters because he is trained in geology and botany, and not civil engineering.

An issue? As a matter of fact, it is illegal to offer engineering services or to present oneself to the public as an engineer unless one is licensed by the Louisiana Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors Board. No doubt LSU was worried that the good name of the university might be spoiled by the Geology Professor’s wayward actions and they gave him a fair warning.

To make sure the point is understood that Professor van Heerden is NOT and engineer, the letter repeats this fact:

At the request of the Dean of Engineering and other members of the engineering faculty, we discussed this with [Professor van Heerden] and gained his assurance that he would not speak on matters for which he has no professional credentials or experience, like civil engineering.

I wonder how many books will he be able to sell now? I wonder how often The Times-Picayune will call him for quotations now?