Archive for June, 2008

A nobody’s reflections on New Orleans, pt. 4

My flight from New Orleans got into the airport at almost 11pm Sunday night and I have returned home. I have not had much time to digest all that has happened, especially over the final day of our time in the Big Easy. After closing our orientation session, a group of us went back to the 9th ward; Dr. Sheila had met a resident when we were there before, Ms. Gertrude LeBlanc, and had asked her what we could do for her. Ms. Gertrude wanted some flowers planted along the sidewalk of her newly built home and there was a group of new students ready to do it. My allergies had returned on Wednesday with a vengeance so I did not dig but rather spent the time taking photos and talking to Ms. Gertrude, her son Calvin and a neighbor called Terrol, who goes by “Terry”.

Ms. Gertrude left the Sunday before the storm for Baton Rouge. Her home is very near the levee that devastated the ward (about two streets over). All that remains of the original home, in which she had been born and where she lived all of her more 80+ years before the storm, was a porch (which had been torn down before our arrival) and her brick front steps. The steps now hold her mailbox and flowers. Her house was built in three weeks by volunteers. After the flowers were planted and over a box of take-out chicken, Ms. Gertrude told us about her journey. FEMA gave her a trailer. She was one of two or three who received them. A neighbor a few lots down (all the lots in between Ms. Gertrude’s property and this neighbor have no homes on them and are overgrown with grass–it is difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins) has two trailers and shares space with a disabled relative. He lost two other relatives in the storm. Ms. Gertrude’s daughter Jennifer lives with her; she stays because her mom refuses to leave.

Ms. Gertrude feels that the city (or whatever powers that be) did not want the residents to return to that side of the 9th ward. She points across the main thoroughfare, visible from her porch, and says they didn’t mind people trying to rebuild over there. She says there is a project underway to build solar houses that are more “green friendly” on her side. It seems that if the people were to remain elsewhere, the city could put whatever they wanted in the area. Ms. Gertrude is proud of her neighbors, a large number of whom have made plans or indicate that they are coming back and will rebuild.

Rebuilding and improving the lower 9th ward sounds like a monumental effort in an area where not much in the way of local, state, or national support (financial or otherwise) is reaching the persons it should be reaching.

There are two large houses on the street behind Ms. Gertrude’s; when the levee broke, a barge came through. It settled at such a position as to protect the two homes while the water surged around it.

Ms. Gertrude’s son Calvin is a sheriff. His first trip back to the ward was with the National Guard after the water receded. His mother’s house was a peach color and he found a single piece of it up in the tree across the street. He also recognized some of their belongings, including a curio cabinet. Someone’s refrigerator had landed on top of a house on the next block. Up the street, a statue of the Virgin Mary was not harmed or moved; Calvin said that the house that used to stand on the particular lot with the statue had been demolished and pushed into the street by the storm, but that the statue had remained where it had always been.

There is a military police patrol in the ward, designed to discourage looting. As people rebuild, the homes are not lived in and are targets for vandals. Calvin tells of an incident that occurred while his mother was living in the FEMA trailer; a young woman claiming that someone was after her came knocking on Ms. Gertrude’s trailer door at 2am. Ms. Gertrude and her daughter told the young woman that they were calling 911, to which the girl replied, “Don’t do that.” They called 911 and told the girl that they had. She walked away from the trailer but got picked up by the MPs along with two other people in a truck around the corner. Calvin thinks the group thought his mom had money and were trying to rob her.

The bridge that is visible in this part of the ward is operational except for the gates. Initially this was blamed on the storm but it was later determined that the gates were broken long before the storm.

Large and small tour buses have been coming through the neighborhood for the last two years. The 9th ward is now an official tourist opportunity; local websites and advertisements (including the coupon I received from the driver of the airport shuttle, which entitled me to $5 off a tour of the ward) offering city tours include the ward as a destination. None of the proceeds come to the ward.

Common Ground, a grass-roots organization, has a location on the block behind Ms. Gertrude’s house. In the first while after the storm, college students came to help in the ward through community service/service learning initiatives but that has since stopped. There is a sign in front of Common Ground’s location welcomes the locals back and another proclaims the injustice of the tourist industry.

Teddy and his mother lived in the next block up from Ms. Gertrude. he is back in New Orleans but their house is gone, except for a slab. He fights to keep the grass cut to a manageable height but it is hard. He and his mother are currently with his sister in her apartment because although his mother applied for a FEMA trailer, one never came. He spent three days in the Super Dome because people were not allowed to walk to other parts of the city where it was dry. An area of the stadium had been designated for the disabled, but in Teddy’s opinion there were some individuals should have never been brought there. He saw people die due to illness who did not have proper medication or care. The Dome was surrounded by water; to reach the buses that eventually came, they had to go through an attached department store and out to an area where the water was only ankle- to knee-deep. The buses stopped at two or three of the shelters that had been set up outside of the storm-damaged area, only to find them all full. They ended up in Texas, where his one sister has chosen to remain.

Mail service in this part of the ward is fairly regular now. The recycling company has not returned. The elementary school near Ms. Gertrude’s had been torn down before the storm and the junior high has not reopened. The few children who have returned to the ward are bused to other schools.

The Deja Vu bar and restaurant on Rue Dauphine is frequented by French Quarter locals. It was the first establishment to open for business in the Quarter after the storm. It is open now twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week. From what I understood from visiting there (the pulled pork is the best–I had the sandwich one day and the po’boy as a takeout which came back to California with me and was dinner Sunday and breakfast Monday) is that some of the staff are recently returning to the city. One of the patrons I talked to was preparing to contact FEMA for help since she hadn’t gotten any support from them. She was a resident in the Quarter; her home was located on Conti Street right up the block from the Deja Vu and has been known both as the Norma Wallace brothel and the Ernest Bellocq House. She describes her building’s owner in colorful terms; she and her fellow tenants had been willing to repair their apartments if the owner agreed to fix the roof and foundation–the two main parts of the structure that were impacted by the storm (she mentions that it was not so much the flooding per se that caused the damage but the storm itself, with the rain and winds) because they all wanted to live there, enjoyed living there, wanted to help save this piece of New Orleans history, and were committed to staying in the city. The owner refused and has let this historic building sit, growing mold for the past three years. She had seen it listed for over $900K but a listing I found today has it at about $800K. She describes seeing water for a year and a half and has struggled since the storm. She saw people swept away by water, saw cars and bodies floating in the water after the storm.

Most amazing is the compassion that Ms. Gertrude, her children, her neighbor Terry, and folks in the Deja Vu have for people fighting the water in the northern flooded states since the levee breaches there. All of them share a common sympathy and wish they could do something. They are praying for their fellow citizens who are having to suffer.

The pain, however, is still very real. One person I talked with about it says he had to turn off the reports after a while because it all looked too familiar.


Wednesday, June 25th, 2008 Miscellaneous Updates No Comments

A nobody’s reflections on New Orleans, pt. 3

With a large sigh all I can say at this point is ‘wow’. There was a chance that we were not going to be able to take our tour through the city today because a rig overturned at the base of the 10 freeway twin-span bridge. It was carrying hydrochloric acid and spilled about 4700 gallons of the stuff. Thank God it didn’t go into any water and that it didn’t rain. The news says the driver was reaching for a bottle of water (taking his eyes off the road) and struck a cement median or something. This east to west running freeway is one of the main thoroughfares for parts of the city and was closed for over 15 hours. Fortunately our bus driver is a local and we were able to use surface streets. Our first stop was in the 9th Ward and yes, it is as desolate as you can imagine, and as alive as you cannot. We went past Fats Domino’s home and on in to the Ward, where we found a street that led right up to the water. The wall seemed to have been rebuilt, but to get out and walk where water moving at 200+mph had removed houses from foundations was humbling. There were empty lots where the debris that used to be homes had been removed. There was a marked home, empty, with a Jaguar parked in the drive.

As we left the particular neighborhood, I saw a lady whose house we’d taken pictures of. I spoke to her, telling her why we were there (a group from a California university who were meeting in New Orleans and came out to see how things were in the ward), and told her I hoped she didn’t mind that we were there. I asked how she was as she removed her cooler full of provisions for the day, to which she replied “I’m survivin’, baby.” I told her that there were people across the country praying, to which she replied “I know that’s right. If it weren’t for God, there would be no survival.” I left her and her dog to their day, considering what it must be like to live and survive in a neighborhood where many do not have power. I don’t know if her house had power.

We visited a number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in New Orleans, including Southern University at New Orleans, Dillard and Xavier. We drove through Lakeview, which was devastated by the storm as well. This area is bordered by the 17th Street levee and the Lake Pontchartrain levee, both of which failed during the storm. Large homesites stand, some without houses and foundations or slabs only, some with houses in varying states of decay, and some in varying states of repair. Cindy, our colleague from Delgado Community College, had a home here. It was severely damaged and she was finally able to have it demolished and taken away. We stopped by its location, now an empty lot with a cross-shaped in-ground pool on it. The wall to the levee sits immediately behind her property. Many homes near Cindy’s have signs protesting the Army Corp’s efforts to use the eminent domain clause to take their property for the sake of reinforcing the levee wall.

We drove St. Charles Avenue, considered I would say to be the heart of the Garden District, with its plantation-style mansions and the historic Jesuit Tulane University, which reminded me of Princeton’s campus…

It is remarkable the differences between the marginalized neighborhoods (i.e., 9th Ward) and the majority neighborhoods (Lakeview), yet the level of devastation was equally apparent.

The water was no respecter of persons.

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008 Miscellaneous Updates 1 Comment

A nobody’s reflections on New Orleans, pt. 2

It is Friday and it is late. I am tired because I have been on the computer too long. It is Friday and it is early. The noise outside the hotel window says that the party is only just beginning and almost as loudly as it tells me that I am getting old.

We spent a good portion of our day learning about Delgado Community College and how it, its staff, faculty, administrators, and students, were affected by Katrina. We heard from Campus Police Chief Doucette, who shared with us a story no one outside that room has heard regarding first responders’ experiences in the storm. We heard from a wonderful woman, Monique Michelle, who shared her grandmom and her indigenous story of the bayou and surrounding parishes. The weight of the stories makes me tired. They still make me cry with as much passion even though I am not from any of the parishes in or around New Orleans, even though I have no personal storm story, even though it has been three years.

An interesting thing though. I forgot to bring the transfer cable to the digital and so as not to miss photo opportunities, I bought this teeny tiny digital. I set it with hi-res and low compression so it would hold 60 photos. Today was my trial and while the images are not as clear as I would like, it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen, nor is it horrid for a $10 Walgreen’s special. I have since reset it with hi-res, high compression so it will hold only 20 photos on our next outing.

Although today was full, I think tomorrow will hold even more.

Saturday, June 21st, 2008 Miscellaneous Updates No Comments

A nobody’s reflections on New Orleans, pt. 1

So by nobody I mean me–a person who has never been here before and has no ties to the city or state.

I arrived on Tuesday to find a lovely airport and efficient ground transportation to my hotel. As we drove on the 10 freeway, I thought of its western end in California and realized that none of us are ever truly far away from home. As we came into the downtown area, we could see the Super Dome and by the looks on the faces and the body postures of my fellow travelers, we were all thinking about Katrina. There were signs for demolition companies–new signs. There were the above-ground cemeteries, some of which were obviously damaged. There were people doing construction on buildings and I believe we were all wondering if the repairs were Katrina-related.

I was interested in this place known as the French Quarter and found it to be very much in temperament to the boardwalk summers I grew up with–a warm evening filled with music in the streets, vendors everywhere, and drunk tourists. I hope to find more out there today than that. I was however excited to discover Bubba Gump’s, nostalgic for the ambiance insinuated by Forrest Gump. So that will be one stop on my tourist tour…

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008 Miscellaneous Updates No Comments