Monday, September 26, 2005

September 6, 2005

Volunteering as Red Cross Case Worker:
Dawanda and son of Uptown New Orleans: $910
Anna Polk and husband of St. Bernard, who were rescued from their roof and who smelled of mold: $910
Dawn Carter, husband, and son of Gentilly Forest: $1280
Dawin of Kenner: $665

Elaine Sheldon, trainer: teary and strong, like a tough and tender mother.

What an exhausting day. I will recount it later.

September 7, 2005

“Memo Shows FEMA Chief Delayed Asking for Help With Katrina”

Red Cross said on The O’ Reilly Factor last night that they were not allowed inside the city because of a “local decision.”

Forced evacuations now expected to be carried out… beginning sometime today. A question, though, is how many people will come under this category.

“More pumps are arriving day by day from various places across this country and also from countries like Germany and Holland.”

“Are people going to be forced to go to other states or forced to live on a cruise-ship? People are anxious to get settled.” --Houston. “People say that they are getting the runaround, that no one is talking to them.”

“You can’t do that! They need to let us really know what is going on. We can’t be running around like chickens without heads.”

“Dome-City” has its own zip code.

Katrina will probably wind up costing the economy about 400,000 jobs. Could pick up as an unprecedented rebuilding begins, estimated at 200 billion dollars. Much of this depends on how hard Katrina hit the energy infrastructure. All of this as Wall Street watches the weather—Tropical Storm Ophelia off of Florida.

September 14, 2005

Not surprising, given my track record, that I am not writing again until now. So much has happened, of course, so much that I will forget. Me and my lack of discipline.

Most memorable, actually, has been the good time we had with Bill and AC and Sally and Chuck. Sally had us over for dinner and AC and I talked about my Bread Loaf experience and we worried together about the future of New Orleans. We smoked too many cigarettes, drank too much wine, stayed out too late dancing at the Northpoint Tavern, where a blues band called The Vipers was playing. The band was really good, but folks here don’t know how to act! Girls flipped their hair and yelled over the music to each other. Men cast their eyes about, looking, looking for ladies. Only two people danced, and they were, appropriately enough, blitzed. The star of the show was one dancing lady who might as well have had a pole. I did my pseudo backup-dancer dance, and thought about trying to sing with the band. A Michael Ray look-alike played his trumpet, and maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but he even sounded like Michael Ray. It was not home, but it felt closer to it than anything so far here in Atlanta. It was so, so, good.

What I’m most worried about now is that we are losing our musicians. Really, imagine you are a New Orleans musician, always struggling to get by. You’ve evacuated, or you were trapped, in either case, you left your instruments behind. Gigs got cancelled. Your band is scattered across the country in the spare bedrooms or friends or basements of parents. You consider the future: you could return to New Orleans, though which bars would remain open, you don’t know, and those that do—will they pay? Will you be made a fucking martyr, asked to play as if you are again a street musician? And anyway, who else will return? Your bass player has decided to make a go of New York. Your guitar player has decided to relocate because he has kids and the future of raising kids in New Orleans—already an iffy prospect—is now even more bleak.

Or: you could move on like the bas player, the guitar player. You could ride the wave of the new New Orleans Diaspora, traveling to cities where you are now a novelty, and where people are as eager to fill your tip jar as your relatives and friends have been to push money-filled envelopes your way. You would be a big fish in an even bigger pond, but for the first time, perhaps ever, people would really fucking dig your music. You could spread the love! You could share New Orleans with the people of San Diego or Portland or Little Rock or Albuquerque. You could play your part elsewhere, and one day, one day, maybe return for a reunion of sorts. What would you do?

Other musicians who will be missed: the marching bands. Arthur Hardy is swearing that Mardi Gras will roll this year, and I think he’s right, but with what bands? And where will the children be? The high school marching bands? What about St. Augustine, with their golden helmets? Is their bandroom under water? Will they return?

September 14, 2005

Working as a case worker wit the Red Cross, the most noteworthy thing is the number of people I talked to who DO NOT plan to return. Not only were the poor the ones who were left behind, but they are also the ones who seem to be leaving New Orleans. I know that to some people this must seem like a great gift. The crime—vanished! But the culture will vanish, too. And I know, I know, that another one will emerge, but I envision a bunch of the Bywater-type weirdoes on their vintage bicycles, riding in Mardi Gras parades whilst beating—unmusically—on the lids of pots and pans. It is culture, but it is not the culture that was born of poverty.

I do not mean to suggest that we should want the poor in New Orleans to return simply so we can latch onto their second-lines, their jazz funerals, their neutral-ground Barbeques. I think, in fact, that what we have on our hands here is an enormous opportunity to alleviate poverty. It’s just: say you have very little, and then Katrina takes what little you have from you. Say you were at the Superdome, or the Convention Center. Say you witnessed the dog-eat-dog shit that went down in New Orleans in the days immediately following Katrina. Say you went without water, without food. Say you saw Geraldo Rivera reporting, and STILL saw now help? Say you were separated from your pets and sent to a shelter? And say that then you started to think about it: what will you do now? What is there to go back to? You know that your house is gone. You didn’t own it. You know that white folks will be swooping in with their ambitions to rebuild. You know they will want the most for their money. You know that now the upper-class folks across the country—the same ones, perhaps, who are helping you out now—will be the first to want to go into that rebuilt city, to renovate the life out of it. You know from experience that you are NOT given a fuck about back there, that you were not given a fuck about in New Orleans. Why go back?

Now, lest you think I am Barbara Bush here (Barbara who made some comment about the situation of the people in the Houston Astrodome being somehow BETTER for them,) let me just say that I don’t think this post-Katrina outpouring of generosity makes shit any better, at all. If you’ve lost everything, you’ve lost everything, and a fucking prize is not going to change the nature of that loss.

It’s just, I think it is crucial that we hear from the people hardest hit by Katrina. They absolutely should have a say in the way their city is rebuilt. And how will we hear from them? These people who no one has listened to, why should they expect to be heard now? I want to find them, to compile their stories, to hear their hopes for a new New Orleans—whether or not it is one they plan to return to—because they need to have a say in its rebuilding.

Mayor Ray Nagin has said that he will make SURE that the people who the storm replaced will be the ones to rebuild it—but how? And he, a former Republican, a former Cox Cable executive—how can we rely upon him to look out for our city? After all, it was he who was responsible for us in the first place, and look what happened.

Am I just an idealist, or is it supremely fucked-up that Halliburton was among the first to get a contract in New Orleans?

I am worried, too, about the fact that Congress has repealed he Davis-something-or-other act that requires employees to be paid properly in jobs of construction, etc. The Repugnants are saying that this is a great idea because it rids the process of all the red tape that might keep progress from moving quickly forward, but we know how willing they are to sacrifice the people for progress.

I just am so SCARED about what happens next! This whole event has made me feel so powerless, and I feel even WORSE knowing that the people who made New Orleans so wonderful to live in might be the exact same people who is leaves in its proverbial dust.

Other excitement that occurred between last week and this:
Whilst having margaritas at Los Loros (my favorite restaurant to go for some festive respite,) we met a woman name Kristine who works for CNN. She, like everyone who learns we are form New Orleans, wanted to do something for us, so she gave us her card and suggested that the camera crew might film pictures of our house that we could see… We ended up getting a call from the producers of the Anderson Cooper show, instead. They were hyped on filing us returning to New Orleans, and we had hopes that they would help us get in (you can’t get in without a press pass or rescuer credentials, etc.,) and then just as we got excited, they moved on to another idea. Oh—we were meant to be on tonight! I must go see what he’s got, instead.

It’s hard to hear these stories of heroism. I wanted to be there to help! I want to be a hero of this storm. Instead, I am a reluctant—and very lucky—victim. I want to have rescued people, to have rescued pets. And yesterday, on the pet forum, I noticed that someone said, “Where are the people of this city? Why are we taking care of their animals? Why aren’t they coming to help?” Is this a good question? Should we be there? Or should we be waiting, as we’ve been told. I don’t know, but I don know that I feel fucking helpless.

Blanco is making a lot of promises. “We’re not simply going to rebuild the same infrastructure.” We’re not simply going to rebuild the homes and the schools, she says. Instead, she invites all New Orleanians and the nation to join in an effort to create one of the best public school systems EVER!!! (Polite applause.)

See: even when it is a wonderful things—even when it will be “ a better New Orleans”—it will never be the same. I said to Simon yesterday that I have not felt like going back in time very often, but now I want to, soooo badly.

“Dear God, please bless the citizens of Louisiana, and bring all of our sons and daughters home.”


September 15, 2005

After watching Mayor Ray Nagin on “Larry King Live” last night talking about getting the city back up and running soon—perhaps sooner than anyone expected (“We’re gonna shock some people,” he said,) Simon and I decided to go to the Red Cross Headquarters for verification of our training so we can get into the city. Uptown, the CBD, and the French Quarter will be allowed back in as early as next week, and I heard from one of the clients at the Lithonia Megacenter today that the Convention Center will be used as a grocery store and lumber yard. I saw on that there is now sewer service in the Marigny and Bywater, so we are eager to get back before there is a big traffic jam or rush. We know that I will be uncomfortable—and actually we think we’ll be staying in Baton Rouge with Brandi’s parents—but we just want to be back so badly!!!

The Lithonia Megacenter was indeed “mega.” The building is just off of Panola Industrial Boulevard, in the either defunct or temporary empty headquarters of Lithonia Lighting, 20 miles east of the city of Atlanta. We weren’t prepared, in fact, for its mega-ness, especially after the Monroe Headquarters had been cleared out. Somehow it seemed like the demand had simply tapered off, but that is far from the case.

In fact, when we were at Headquarters today, Kathy of the volunteer orientation room warned us to expect frayed nerves. They’d already called the cops today, she said. People just didn’t seem to understand—or be willing to deal with—the fact that their checks wouldn’t be available for another day.

The parking lot was full, and there we were, one Louisiana license plate among many. The parking lot looked like it had been the sit of a parade—an Icehouse bottle in one space, a diaper in another. Port-a-potties were set up next to the entrance, and groups of girls were flirting with guys, smoking cigarettes, a bit of normalcy.

The interior of Lithonia Lighting is as big as my entire high school. Exposed steel beams line the ceiling, and giant fluorescent light fixtures add to the industrial-feel. Police barricades and yellow caution tape marked off areas for computers, for discount clothing racks, for the cafeteria tables arranged set up for the various services available (school registration, housing vouchers, food stamps, health care referrals, MARTA assistance, a bank line for Red Cross vouchers,) for the many waiting areas filled with folding chairs intended to make long lines more comfortable. And, in fact, the lines were organized, too—one took a yellow ticket with a number which was then called out on a PA system, that screeched occasionally, annoying, but mere background noise at this point. The building buzzed.

We went to work. Again the system had changed. The manila 901 folders were a thing of the past, just like the debit cards had disappeared a week ago. A week ago we checked Ids much less fervently, erring on the side of sympathy when clients said they’d lost everything.. Now, ID was check thoroughly. (Last week, we found out that a single family had been awarded over $5,000—much of which was returned, but… and then there was the story of Ms. Hogg, and Atlanta resident who posed as an evacuee, and, along with her eight-year old son, even moved in with a 22-year old Georgia State graduate, who ended up calling the cops.) The system was now both more and less thorough. No longer to we record narratives. No longer do we ask if clients need medical assistance. We simply check and double-check Ids and issue checks.

But for me, it is different, and today was a wonderful day of connecting. The Red Cross Headquarters first of all discovered that we are from New Orleans, and their PR department came downstairs, eager to use our story for their image. Then, they sent us on to do casework, rather than the humdrum filing and copying that now takes place at Monroe. And in the casework, I met Sidney and Wendell-both men in their sixties who looked far older than that, and both men from New Orleans who wanted to return. Wendall of Soniat Street even teared up when I asked him his plans. “I’ll go home,” he said. “I’ll go home.” I told him how happy it made me feel to hear that he planned to return, and nearly cried, myself.

Later I saw a former student of mine—a young black real estate agent who nearly failed my class, but who I pulled through, with great additional effort on my behalf. He plans to return, too, and I can see how the upper-class in him has affected his perspective on the rebuilding of New Orleans. “It will never be the same New Orleans,” he told me. “It will be better.” He talked about the ninth ward, about how the laws of imminent domain will displace people, unfortunately, but that may not be an altogether bad thing.

I am torn on this issue. There was an editorial in the AJC today about the danger of gentrification in the rebuilding of New Orleans, and here I am—a genrificationee—worrying about what more white people like me will do to our beloved culture. Oh… I just am so WORRIED about the city’s future.

After we did casework, I walked past a young woman, her arms covered in cursive tattoos of boyfriends past, and she asked me if I could give her gas money and a ride. She and her son were sitting on an island of her luggage—a massive amount of it, her whole life packed away. So Simon and I cleared out the cab of the truck, and Andrea, her brother AJ, and her son Vondrice rode with us to downtown Atlanta. They’d been in Baton Rouge with family and had made the difficult decision to relocate—to start over. Vondrice said hardly a word. He sucked on a grape lollipop while we talked about Andrea’s and AJ’s home in Plaquemines Parish. They’d lived in a trailer given to Andrea by her father, and the trailer was now flooded, gone. AJ wanted to return—sooner to check on the damage, and later to be a fisherman again. I think AJ must be no more than 24, Andrea, 26. Vondrice is six, and what he said when I asked him, “So what do you think of all this?” indicated both the resilience and vulnerability of a child: “It’s nothing.” He kept talking about “diving right in” and a swimming pool and an aquarium. “Where’d the swimming pool,?” I asked him. “The aquarium? In New Orleans? In Baton Rouge?” Vondrice said: “In my backyard.” “Aw, that’s nothing,” I said. I won him over.

To be a child living through this! To say that it’s nothing, when of course it must feel like everything!

We dropped them off at the Days Inn on Spring Street and Andrea tried to give me a twenty. We both got teary when I told her she must be crazy, trying to give me money. “We went through this, too,” I said. We hugged. We hugged again. I gave her my number, and while they checked in, Vondrice and I tried to stare each other down. The excitement was now apparent—a swimming pool in a hotel! Two weeks, the Red Cross will pay for, and then… and then? I worry about them. Maybe they will call.

WARNING: I took notes during Bush’s speech, many of which need editing (as most of this blog does…)

Bush gives his “Presidential Address on Hurricane Katrina Recovery” from in front of the St. Louis Cathedral. September 15th, 2005. (I don’t know why I bothered with my crappy effort at typing this--

In Chalmette, when a man tried to break into a home, he was invited in to stay. (Aw, yes, even amongst the poor, there’s sweetness. If only all poor people were like that!)”A powerful American determination to clear the ruins, and build better than before.” “Our whole nation cares about you” (no, hey don’t.) This pledge:
“Throughout the area hit buy the hurricane, we will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes…” (Don’t use your language of Iraq on us!) “There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and New Orleans will rise again.”

1. To meet the immediate needs of those who left their home and all of their possessions behind. Dept of HS registering evacuees. More than 500,000 have gotten emergency help. “That’s 1-877-569-3317.” “we will pay fro your travel to get back to your loved ones” (except Andrea said she had to pay $100/each for them to get to Atlanta to a new life. I have asked for more than 60 bullion.

2. To help citizens pf Gulf Coast overcome this. Get people out of the shelters by the middle of October. I will work with Congress to ensure that the states are reimbursed. Housing is urgently needed for rescue workers and the workers who will rebuild the area. The temporary housing will be as close to the construction area as possible to they can rebuild in a “sensible, well-planned way.” “Our goal is to get the work done quickly.” “There will be many important decisions an many details to resolve.

The federal government will be fully engaged in the mission, but local government will be in control of the planning and rebuilding…

3.) When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm. “There is also some, deep, persistent poverty that has roost in racial discrimination…” “More families should own, not rent those houses.” “Americans want he Gulf Coast not just to cope, but to overcome.”

“We’ll build HIGHER and better” (Make the pie higher!)

I Propose:

The Gulf Opportunity Zone. Immediate incentive for businesses. It is entrepreneurship that helps break the cycle of poverty.”
Worker Recovery Accounts of up to $5,000 for job training, education, and child care.

Urban Homesteading Act: Provide building sites to low income people free of charge, based on a lottery. They in turn will agree to build… (Habitat.)

“Protecting a city that sits lower than the water around it is not easy…” City and state will have a large part in the work that ensues (levees.)

“The Armies of Compassion” give our reconstruction effort “its humanity.”

USA—an information clearinghouse so that families can find work within the regions.

“In this great national enterprise, important work can be doe by everybody.”

“The danger to our citizens reaches much farther than a fault line or a floodplain.”

Immediate review of emergency plans in every major city.

Massive flood, major supply and security, and an evacuation of more than 1,000,000 people.

“The systems was not well-coordinated… it requires greater federal authority… When the federal government fails… I am responsible for the problem, and its solution.”

“Better prepared for any challenge of nature or act of evil men…”

“Every time, the people from this land have come back to build anew. Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature…”

“Yet we will live to see the Second Line.”


Tim Russert’s comment: one speech alone will not solve his political problems. “It’s a tall order—he began tonight.” “New Orleans is an American city that has a real soul…” but many are afraid that we may not be able to capture that…

The first American City of the 21st century to be rebuilt… and we can take place in that.

September 17, 2005

Another loss from the storm: Anthony, who has announced that he will not return. What will New Orleans be without my Anthony? He has enrolled at Columbia College in Chicago and wants to get a masters degree in broadcasting…

A near-disaster: our relationship. How do people stay in love through storms, real and metaphorical? Simon almost left this morning. We have not been loving to each other, and this is mostly my fault. I said something last night, too, that was terrible: “You remind me of all that I am not.” It was terrible and it was true, and it is my problem to deal with, not his. I only hope I can grow the fuck up so I don’t destroy this relationship…

September 20, 2005

The work at the Red Cross has shifted from immediate relief to filing and catching up with fraud. It is uncomfortable, disconcerting work, catching a family who has received aid twice, perhaps three times, using different spellings of names, different centers, or different family members. I have also been answering calls from clients who have had problems with their Red Cross Client Assistance Cards. I take down their information and listen to them talk about how difficult it has been.

Interestingly, when I did case work, people did not seem to offer their stories as readily—they tiredly went through their information with me and waited for the check. Over the phone, though, I feel like a customer service representative who’s getting a good dose of someone’s mind. One woman living in Metairie tells me how blooming ridiculous it is that she cannot use her card, and I can hear a TV in the background. She is back in Metairie, back in her home, and I am mad that she is so eager to gripe. So I tell her that I, too, am a Katrina-victim and she shuts up quick. Another woman who I tell my own story finds it inspiring and even gets her husband to come to the phone to say hello to me. She and her husband had a home in the Lower Ninth ward. They have a sheet rock business, and in spite of the fact that she has lost her home, she considers herself lucky. “It’s so great, what you’re doing,” she says, and for a moment it really feels that way.

Next a call comes in from a young man whose baby is allergic to the particular brand of formula the Salvation Army is giving out. I tell him to wait four hours before trying his CAC card again, and he tells me that his baby can’t wait four hours to eat.

While I answer calls, I am preparing client folders for filing, and I have a moment to look at the notes of other caseworkers. In on of the other training sessions, the Red Cross must have given them specific instructions for the narrative (we were told to ask open-ended questions, and then later to forego the narrative, altogether, in the interest of time.) In the space that reads, “Provide a brief description of what happened to the family affected by the disaster.” File after file reads, in large, diagonal script, “KATRINA.” In the space that reads, “What are the family’s plans, both long and short term,” the case workers have written, “DAY-BY-DAY.”

September 24, 2005

Today hurricane Rita hit (I just wrote Katrina and had to erase that… so used to saying that now: Hurricane Katrina, over and over.) The eye passed over Lake Charles, Louisiana, and New Orleans was flooded again.

We have been here for a month. And it all STILL seems surreal and like a weird, extended vacation.

Tom and Brandi are here. Tom came for a job interview in Athens, GA, and we went to Susan and Dick Clark’s cabin in Blue Ridge, GA for two nights of rest. Before that trip, I had difficulty sleeping. I mean, I couldn’t GET to sleep, and once I was asleep, I woke up over and over again. At the cabin, we all slept and slept and slept and now all I want to DO is sleep.

I have had several hurricane dreams. Most recently I dreamt about black New Orleans boys dragging dying animals along the neutral ground. Teasing them, trying to make them play. The dogs didn’t protest. In another dream, an obese woman was airlifted and then dropped into sewage water so she could swim laps for exercise. I was going to a concert to watch some band or another, and was buying flashy nipple-lights for festivity from a store where there were armed guards trying to prevent looting. There was water everywhere and I rode in a boat.

September 25, 2005

Simon proposed to me. I said yes. We will wait for New Orleans…

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