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.