Tuesday, December 27, 2005

What Runs on St. Charles

Lately, in an effort to get some sort of normalcy back into my life, I’ve been running again, using the old route, up St. Charles towards Audubon Park across from Tulane and Loyola and then back. The first thing I learned was that along with everything else, Katrina has taken whatever modicum of physical fitness I had been able to achieve. I guess no exercise during 5 weeks of evacuating will do that. However, when not gasping for air, stumbling in pain, and wanting to die, I have been watching the changes on one of New Orleans’ main thoroughfares over the past three months.

(Has it really been that long? I still feel like life is frozen at the beginning of the school year and here it is the end of the non-existent semester. Einstein was more right than he knew.)

When I first went running back in October sometime, the stench was pretty pervasive, even Uptown. The French Quarter stank of the raw sewage we were dumping in the Mississippi, and the flooded places reeked of mold and death, but even Uptown smelled of rot, mostly from the duck-taped refrigerators lining the streets, including St. Charles. Even though I ran on the neutral ground (median to you non-New Orleanian uncouth masses) and the refrigerators squatted and leaned on the curbs, I would still get whacked with the smell as I passed. It was always present, but when I approached a group of dead Sub-Zeroes it would suddenly become overwhelming and I would have to hold my breath until I got by.

Most of the mansions, huge old Southern homes of columns and tall windows, that line St. Charles had plywood over all their windows, and I had to jump over tons of dead branches, downed power lines, and broken poles. The huge oaks didn’t provide the shade they usually did, stripped and broken as they were. The police had taped off several spots, so I had to run off the neutral ground and into the street. No problem, though, because there were very few cars around. Mostly I saw Humvees, camouflaged green at first, then more and more tan ones as people and equipment came back from Iraq. I waved at all of them, and they all waved back.

By Thanksgiving, the smell was mostly gone, as were most of the refrigerators. The majority of the plywood was gone, too, telling the story of who had returned and who had not. I still had to avoid tree limbs and power lines, though I pretty much ran through the taped-off spots, going over or around the fallen and forgotten tape. A lot more cars zipped up and down St. Charles, many with out-of-state plates and not much regard for speed limits or understanding of how to negotiate a 4-way stop intersection (still common here in the city of little electricity and few working stoplights). We had all mostly stopped waving at the National Guard. A FEMA/Red Cross station had opened up in the Jewish Community Center, and I wiggled through the cars and trucks that constantly crowded onto the neutral ground there. The streetcar tracks, unused since Aug. 28, had disappeared under dirt, grass, and overgrowth.

These days my biggest obstacles are the deep divots and mounds of mud left by the heavy trucks driving and parking on the neutral ground, providing runners with a path that couldn’t be better designed to twist an ankle. They’re mostly repair trucks, though plenty a Hummer or SUV driver has decided that staying on roads is a law that doesn’t apply to him in Post-K N.O. The only limbs I have to jump over or run around are the ones cut down by repair crews and I haven’t smelled rot in quite a while. Of course, St. Charles didn’t flood and marks the border of what I think of as the operating corridor of New Orleans these days – the swath of town between St. Charles and the river that is the only part of town really up and running.

The streetcar tracks remain overgrown, so much in some sports that if I didn’t know where they were, I wouldn’t be able find them. Streetcars have started running limited service on the Canal and Riverside lines already, but transit officials say they won’t be rolling past the mansions and under the oaks of Uptown for at least a year. Until then, I’ll keep running along, watching the plywood come down and the trash get hauled off as the city comes back to life, inch by slow, painful inch.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Catch 8/29

Met with the homeowner's insurance adjustor today - a very nice man, whose constant references to my "wife" were too amusing and sweet to correct, and because explanations are, well, tiring and tiresome. As we wandered around the dirty, ravaged, gutted shell of the house, he snapping pictures of a busted window pane, me trying to think of any other damage caused by wind, he asked me where we were staying and I explained I was in an apartment in the Lower Garden while she was in Alexandria, where her patients had been sent.

"Ah," he said. "A weekend marriage. I've had to do that before. It's hard."

Indeed. As Dr. A said to me later, "Maybe we should just get married. It would make things easier."

Which is as good a reason as any, I suppose, except that it really wouldn't because nothing makes anything easier around here.

Anyway, the sympathetic insurance adjustor did his best by us - they'll pay for our roof damage and window, of course, as well as for replacing and painting the ceiling in my kitchen/dining room, and he even went in for the walls there, too, because you can't really replace a ceiling without messing up the walls, not that I have walls anymore. Unfortunately, no loss of use money.

Loss of use money is meant to cover stuff like travel costs, as well as the rent you're paying while your house in uninhabitable. I've spent the last three months trying to get this from someone, anyone, to no avail. Homeowners won't cover it because what rendered the place uninhabitable was not an "insured event" - in other words, the flood, not the hurricane. FEMA won't cover it because we have flood insurance, and flood insurance won't cover it because loss of use is covered by homeowners.

Follow that? Ah, bureaucracy. Kafka would have loved it.

Catch 8/29 - everyone's run into it in one way or another. Homeowners insurance won't cover it because the flood caused it, flood insurance won't cover it because it was caused by the hurricane, and FEMA won't cover it because you have insurance - it's perfect. Feel free to scrounge up the money somehow to take somebody to court.

I have a thought - since the flood was caused by faulty levees, not the hurricane, levees built by the federal government, I think the head of the federal government should just fork it over to me. Screw all that grant/loan/taxes yadda-yadda-yadda - let's simplify this. I'll shut up if Bush and/or Cheney just peels off the lousy two or three thousand it will take to cover my rent while my house is rebuilt. For me, that's a staggering amount of money, but they're both multi-millionaires; they probably have that much lost in the cushions of their couches.

Mind Vs. Muscle

So I’m sanding this floor when my cell rings (no, not my floor – we’re nowhere near that stage with our house yet). No, Gav was paying me to sand someone else’s floor. See, I met this couple in a bar and they loaned me a saws-all to use for gutting my house. They needed a contractor, so I gave them Gavin’s number, then I lost my job and since there’s not much call for teachers in New Orleans these days but plenty for construction workers, that’s how I ended up sanding their floor.

Let me toss in some advice here – if you ever find yourself sanding a floor, use an edger with wheels. The one I used on my place didn’t have wheels, and an edger weighs a good 15 or 20 pounds. Imagine crawling around your walls holding that up for hours while it has a big spinning disk of sandpaper on it that wants to catch and drag off across the floor so you have to hold it up enough that it doesn’t gouge and burn the floor, but not so much that it doesn’t scrape the crap off. And all this time it’s kicking sawdust in your eyes and up your nose. What I’m saying is – get the one with wheels.

Anyway, I’m doing this when the phone rings, not that I hear it because those sanders are loud, too, but I feel it. I don’t answer because starting and stopping the edger is something of a chore, but the next chance I get, I listen to the message and it’s the English chair from Loyola offering me four classes if I want them.

I think for a minute, considering the sander in my hands, the dust in my eyes, the satisfaction of a job well done, and wondered if I really wanted to give it all up for teaching.

OK, no, I didn’t. Not even for a millisecond. The hell with that – I will do my work in my ridiculously well-trained and horribly expensive head, and not just because I’m still paying for the education I crammed into it, but because physical labor is hard. You know that half-hour you spend at the gym every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and sometimes Sunday? Now do it everyday, all day. Yep, it’s the life of the mind for me.

I went by campus yesterday for the first time in a couple of months, and it’s much the same – mostly undamaged, but empty. Giant military vehicles still squat all over our parking lots, and the elementary school kids still run around for recess at the Catholic school on campus, though there are more of them now. Right across the street from their playground is the entrance to the human resources building with the sign on the door reading “All weapons must be cleared in the clearing chamber before entering,” whatever that means, though this time I didn’t have to show my I.D. to a helmeted, heavily-armed and camo-wearing guard to get in. The camo, by the way, is surprisingly effective in New Orleans these days – it fades right into the mud and debris.

Oh, and the other difference was I went there because I had a job, not to make arrangements because I had just lost it. So that “college English teacher” answer under “profession” in my profile is accurate once again, and when people ask me what I do, I no longer say, “Pre or post-K?” That’s about all I can ask for these days.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Nicknames & Slogans

Okay, so everyone knows we call New Orleans the Big Easy, right? ‘Cept, sometimes when we call it the Big Sleazy? Okay, here are some variations I’ve heard lately that I’d like to share:

The Big Stinky

The Big Queasy

And of course the Big Uneasy, ‘cause ain’t nothing easy in this town these days.

And my personal favorite: The Big Squeegee

We’re also called the Crescent City, except the paper called us the Anti-depressant City. Heh-heh. By the way, the cover of Gambit (our alternative weekly, publishing again) this week screamed “Wigging Out!” which is what New Orleanians are doing these days. I enjoyed the anti-depressant thing because when I was describing my alternation between not sleeping and being unable to stay awake, as well as nightmares about hurricanes and waking up in a panic convinced I have to evacuate RIGHT NOW, not to mention the mood swings, depression, and sudden eruptions of fury, Arwen and Holly (both psychiatrists) told me I have classic, textbook Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (it’s not just for war veterans anymore!). So Arwen scored me a shopping bag of Zoloft from a drug rep – sometimes it’s handy to buy a house with a doctor, even if we’re not actually living in it at the moment. It’s sitting in my cabinet right now, because I haven’t had one of Those Nightmares in about a month and I’ve been sleeping pretty well, so clearly the alcohol is working.

When I first came back to New Orleans, I took Darv to pick up his car in this abandoned parking garage. We drive into the garage, past the half-up and twisted gates and into this completely dark and empty garage. We drive up a few stories and, because we’re in a garage, the radio goes all white noise, “ssssssssssss.” We drive past all these clearly abandoned cars, and there are no other people to be seen anywhere. Plus, since the electricity is out, no lights shine. Let me tell you, nothing says post-apocalyptic United States like a dead parking garage. So, there I am, in the dead parking garage, the radio going “ssssssss,” and as Darv gets out to try to start his car, I’m thinking, “If Darv’s car doesn’t start, the zombies are coming.” I was absolutely expecting zombies to come out from behind cars and around corners, all stumbling and decaying and hungry for brains, but fortunately Darv’s car did start, so no zombies.

All of which is to say, I’ve come up with a new tourist slogan for my beleaguered city, something that focuses on the positive, something that will really bring the people and their money back to the city. You ready? Okay, how about:

New Orleans – Still No Zombies!

What do you think? It’s snappy, and works with the whole voodoo thing we got going on. Clearly my talents were being wasted in academia and I really belong in advertising.

Here’s some others I came up with:

New Orleans – Now It All Smells Like Bourbon Street!

Or how about:

New Orleans – Like the Third World, But You Can Drink the Water!

I think I’m on to something here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Death of an American City

A damn fine NY Times editorial can be found here.

And a pretty good one by Senator Landrieu that runs down the money we're talking about here.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Three Months Later

Meant to put this up a while ago, but I've been having access problems ...

November 29 marked three months since Katrina hit, August 29. Three months ago, those of us lucky enough not to be here saw pictures of some of the worst devastation to hit this country. Bodies floating in the streets, an old woman in a wheelchair, dead, and covered in a blanket. Three months on, it seems only appropriate to take stock of how far we’ve come.

They estimate that 100,000 New Orleanians, or one-fifth of our pre-Katrina population, have returned. Nobody knows how many more, if any, will come back later. I'm sure you’ve heard stories (I know I've told some) of restaurants and bars and stores reopening, but what isn’t mentioned is that they are all in the 20% of the city that didn’t go under water, and still only maybe half of those are going. We want you to hear how we’re coming back, but truth be told, we’re still on life support. The businesses that do open up find out awfully quickly that with only one-fifth of their customer base and none of them with disposable income, there simply aren’t enough people to buy the “New Orleans, Still Proud to Call it Home” t-shirts, now matter how much we all want to. Most businesses still limp along, but many have reopened after Katrina only to have to close down again a couple of weeks later because they can’t make any money.

Without any tax base for three months, the city is bankrupt. We want to have Mardi Gras as usual next year, because as stupid as it may be, we take pride in throwing you all the world’s biggest free party. But we can’t do it without money to pay cops overtime and garbage collectors to pick up the literally tons of trash left over, and nobody is coming forward to help. We’ll get something scaled down going, which is really too bad, because it is going to be the 150th Mardi Gras celebration, and it should have been a blow-out.

Along with the city, the energy company is also bankrupt. Entergy says it will have the whole city re-lit by New Year’s, but nobody believes them. Even if they could be prepared to turn the lights on in the 80% of the city that flooded, everywhere it flooded has to be re-wired and inspected before getting power back. And even if you can find an electrician able to schedule you in during the next year, it will cost you more than twice as much as it did three months ago.

Of course, with nearly half our housing stock destroyed or currently uninhabitable, prices have soared so people can’t afford to return. Perhaps they could if they could get their hands on the trailers or rental assistance that FEMA has promised, but for most of us, these things remain rumors or urban legends. Whenever we meet someone who has come by one of these mythical things, we surround them and pepper them with questions, trying to figure out what voodoo they worked to be so blessed. We reach out to touch them, hoping whatever magic they possess will somehow rub off on us.

Those of us with houses to rebuild wait on insurance companies that know that every day they delay paying us means more money for them. FEMA comes by and promises us loans to see us through, but then they disappear as well. I have yet to be inspected by my homeowners insurance, which is weird because surely they have less damage to worry about than the flood people. And even if the money does come through, do I have to lift my house or not? Will there be new flood levels or not? Nobody knows. Will I get to rebuild at all, or is my neighborhood going to be demolished? Nobody knows. Or if we do rebuild, will we be the only ones, a lone outpost surrounded by blight, stuck with a house in a neighborhood forgotten and left to rot?

Three months on, I still open the Times-Picayune everyday to find the “Katrina Lives Lost” column, a short biography of someone who died in the storm that runs on the front page of the “Living” section everyday. I’d call that ironic, but true irony requires a certain amount of self-awareness that the editors seem to be lacking. At any rate, there’s a new one everyday. Sometimes there’s a picture, sometimes not. Sometimes I can read them, sometimes not. At this rate, if they plan on doing everyone, they should be done in about three years.

Three months ago, the President said the country would do “whatever it takes” to rebuild the Gulf Coast. $200,000,000,000 was the price tag thrown around at the time, a number conveniently close to the amount we have spent on rebuilding Iraq. As of now, the Gulf Coast has received a $75,000,000 loan.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, though. After all, the administration and Republicans in Congress are reeling from scandal to scandal and hardly have time to deal with us. If one isn’t admitting to taking $2.5 million in bribes, another is worried about being indicted for it. I’m sure it keeps them all busy trying to spin their way out an indictment for campaign fraud and money laundering or an indictment for lying to a grand jury, not to mention dealing with failed Supreme Court nominees, bringing forth specious Iraq war votes, and calling war veterans cowards. And I know the Vice President has his hands full making the case for torture.

Sorry if anyone is upset or offended because I pointed out that all these people are Republicans. It’s just that, well, they are.

All of this is happening while everyday in New Orleans we learn more that tells us Katrina’s devastation was less an act of nature, less God’s punishment on us wicked sinners, less only what we deserved for living below sea-level (doesn’t that sound an awful lot like the “she’s a slut who wore a tight skirt” rape defense?), and much more a man-made disaster. Leaving aside the criminally negligent governmental response, we have also been treated to more tidbits from the news lately. There’s a canal that cuts through New Orleans called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or MR-GO, that everyone has said would worsen storm surge damage unless it was closed, and yet the Army Corps of Engineers continued to dredge it deeper. Sure enough, most of the levees that failed and flooded the city were on the inner ends of the MR-GO. The storm surge got channeled up the canal and boom! Also, the Army Corps of Engineers has been telling us that the flood walls had pilings driven 17 feet into the ground, which they claimed was enough but many other engineers disagreed. Now that those pilings are not so much in the ground anymore, turns out they only went 10 feet. Plus, letters have been found from the construction company hired to build the floodwalls to the Corps of Engineers saying the plans were inadequate, and yet the Corps insisted on their designs anyway. Then, back in the 90s when the Corps wanted to revamp parts of the levee system, the levee boards said no. As if that isn’t enough, it turns out the levee boards regularly cut short levee inspections so that they could go eat lunch.

What is it with government officials and eating? First Michael Brown, now the levee boards. Is it really that fucking hard to pack a damn sandwich?

In short, New Orleans wasn’t flooded by Nature, or God, or even simple bad luck. New Orleans was flooded by incompetence and corruption.

About a week ago, our legislators started talking about calling on New Orleanians to march on Washington to demand that Congress wakes up and pays attention and the President fulfills his promise. Why should we even have to consider that? No other major city has ever had to beg for help like this after a disaster.

Three months after there were bodies floating in our streets, how does it feel to be in New Orleans? Like we’ve been forgotten, and left to rot.