Saturday, December 31, 2005


In Boston I got the chance to see the awesomeness that is my Dads home theater system. Since he installs this stuff for a living you might expect his personal rig to have mighty powers. And you would be right. We watched Kingdom of Heaven and it was like sitting right in a theater, except with really comfy seats. Now I learn that Ridley Scotts film originally had about an hour more footage and Fox made him cut. This footage explained all kinds of plot elements that didn;t quite gel in the released version, (such as how a blacksmith knows how to defend against a siege). An enthusiastic geek got to see this full version and you can read about how cool it could have been here. Alas, it was re-released on ONE goddamn screen and i don;t anticipate it getting any kind of wide play. Maybe we will be lucky and get an extended edition DVD in a year. One can always hope.

We also saw Syriana in the theater and I enjoyed it a lot. Great performances and it did not pull punches or dumb down the material. What it did not do is shock or surprise me. At the end I felt I had watched a well acted dramatic portrayal of how the US has run foreign policy in the Middle East over the last 30 years or so.

Lastly we saw King Kong in Philly and I will say that it did not in ANY way dissapoint. It rocked and it rocked HARD. Amazing visuals but also a good story. Scarier than I though it could be. And certainly a tear jerker. Just try to watch the 70's version after seeing this, you will vomit in your own Lederhosen. Andy Serkis (who was Gollem) is the actor behind Kong and they say that he's the actor behind Kong. I don't know, Kong is so damn real, so alive that you don't see Andy there at all. It like they found the Laurance Olivier of Gorrillas and just filmed him doing his thing. It's THAT real. Go see this in a theater, it just won't look as good on the small screen.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Originally uploaded by stevepack.
We're in Boston visiting my father and his super cool wife Millie. My father had the good sence to marry an Italian as well.

We have eaten like kings here. Dinner was at Pizzaria Regina (est 1926). Its small, serves ONLY pizza and has lines to get in. Why? It is quite frankly the best pizza I have eaten in quite a while. We stopped by a bakery and picked up some mini cannoli, pizzelles, a chocolate chip cookie the size of my head and some break. I don't know what every one else is getting for dessert tonight but I'm set.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

I may be a whore, but I don't work for 'The Man'

When I was down in Biloxi, Vlads wife had a great t-shirt that said "Product of finely tuned Celtic Rage". It was sweet. When I asked about it Vlad said that a buddy of his was making the shirts. I went to the website and found even more gooder shirts there.
If you're looking for shirts that make statements others may find uncomfortable I highly recommend you spend your hard earned money on shirts that are sure to cause you problems when you wear them out and about. The guy is a fellow SCA member and the shirts are printed here in Ohio. Now that's supporting your local small business. Go now and shop! Zoltan demands it!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

So cool it hurts

I like to think I'm like Kwi Chang Kane from King Fu. I travel the badlands of the internets. I'm not looking for trouble, but it finds me just the same. And when the shit hits the fan I'm there with SKILLS. In the end there are bodies all over the place and we all learned a valuable philosophical lesson.

I'm like that, except without the fighting.

But there are lessons to be learned grasshopper. I like cool things. You must like cool things too, else you would not be here, your eyes sliding across these words looking for 'it'. That 'thing' that is coolness in its purest form.

Well, I have it. And I am happy to pass its linky goodness on to you young Padwan (wait, am I a Kung Fu master or a Jedi? Hell I'm both! Like a Reeses peanut butter cup).

So here it is, the gift that you can give anyone. The Book of Cool. It is an AMAZING book that comes with 3 DVDs showing people doing the coolest things. Card manipulation? Sure. Juggling? Hell yeah. Gun twirling, Frisbee, hacky sack even pen twirling. All of it shot beautifully with great music. Go take a look (the sight is great as well) and then order this thing for yourself, or some other lucky bastard.

Friday, December 16, 2005


I now know how Solieri felt about Mozart. I'm not un-clever. But there are people with skills and visions so far past most of us that you cannot help but envy them. Such is the case with the people who built this amazing castle in New York.

It's for sale by the way. The asking price is about 6 million.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Lowering my stress levels

I normally don't like to send people "cutsey" things. But we live in dangerous, stressful times. If you're feeling under the gun, or are contemplating using one, I recommend you go here.

Repeat as needed.

Meady goodness

I have been eagerly awaiting the magic day when the mead I cooked up last year with Grim is bottled. This day MAY be Friday. I talked to him today and he asked me if it was clear and if it had stopped fermenting. I answered yes to both questions. Since hitting it with a second applications of the magic sparkloid powder it was now much clearer.

I went out to the shop to, well, look at the gooey mess, like a proud father looks at the placenta and says "That's nasty, but I get a baby out of the deal, and that ain't so bad." But when I moved the bottle accidently, well.. swirled it a little accidently on purpose it bubbled a little.

Fuck. What do I do? Fuck! Does that mean it's still going? Shit. That was stupid. Call Grim. He'll know what to do. I give him a buzz. Grimm is like Winston Wolf, he fixes things.

"Hmm. Well, next to peeing in the carbouy that was the worst thing you could have done." Shit. "You might have stirred up some nastines and there may be some fermentation still going on, you'll need to rack it off. It you bottle it now, each bottle will be a ticking TIME-BOMB that could EXPLODE killing everyone in the immediet area."

Jesus, I just swirled the bottle a little once of twice, I didn't know I was setting up an IED factory.

Grim calmly tried to explain how to rack the mead from one bottle to another. "It's just like when you used to siphon gas when you were younger."

"Younger? Dude I own a cargo van, I siphonedf gas from my neighbor yesterday."

He told me how to use the racking cane (siphon). He then wished me good luck. I cleaned out and steralized the second bottle, did a practice run a few times and the process was actually kinda cool. The process sort of looked like a mad scientists chemistry experiment. Sweet. I successfully racked the mead and hope to bottle it very soon. With luck, it won't kill anyone, but I make no promisses. I want to make another batch, maybe raspberry. But propane is now waaaay expensive, and that's what heats the shop, where the mead god lives. I can't afford to keep the shop evenly heated all ther time. I don't know where I'd put it to keep it warm and happy.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The worst kind of news.

Rossana and I braved the icy roads to drive into Oberlin tonight. We were planning on attending a talk with Malik Rahim. He was one of the founders of Common Ground Relief which is who we were working with in the 9th ward of New Orleans. We didn't get to talk with him down there and I regretted that. He speaks with a clear, eloquent passion that is sorely lacking in most leaders these days.

When we saw a flyer yesterday in town announcing he was giving a talk we'd figure we'd show up to hear him speak, get an update on what's happening and maybe get a chance to talk with him. But it didn't happen. And it was for the worst of reasons.

After a brief wait a young man stepped onto the small stage, he said that Malik had wanted to be here at Oberlin, because so many students from that school had come down to volunteer, but just yesterday a bus carrying 7 volunteers went out of control and flipped. A young women was killed in the accident. The kid was having a hard time taking.

"She was a good friend.. I mean, I didn't know her that long but when you work together down there you kinda... Anyway Malik is sorry he couldn't come and he hopes to be here in the spring." and then he just walked off.

One of the organizers, unsure of what to do, asked how many in the crowd had already gone down. There were about 20. I stood up and asked how many were planning on going. There were maybe 15 in the crowd of 40 people.

"If you have the chance, if you can find a way, I urge you to go." I then spoke for about 10 minutes. I didn't want this chance to slip away, I didn't want these college kids to get turned off to the idea. I told them the unvarnished truth, that in the time I was there we cleared maybe 35 houses. Lets say that all the volunteer groups combined did ten times that. There are maybe 50,000 damaged homes in the ninth. It is an overwhelming task, but at the end of the day 350 families can begin to restart their lives again. We then filed out.

I didn't want to think about those kids on the bus. They rolled into Biloxi just as we were pulling out, and got to New Orleans a few days after we did. Their monstrous green/blue school bus was a hippie cliche' run on recycled vegetable oil. There are pics in the photo gallery. I didn't get to know them. Which I suppose is good because I don't think I could handle finding out someone I volunteered with down there just a few weeks ago died in an accident.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I looked at that top heavy monster when it roared into Biloxi and thought "wow, you gotta be brave to drive in that". It was unsafe, but didn't we all used to do stupid or unsafe stuff when we were young? It wasn't supposed to be like this. They were so young and so fucking full of energy and righteousness and ideas and dreams. I'd listen to them and smile as they talked about saving mother Earth and bringing social justice to the poor and I'd smile a little. I see things a little different as I get older. They were naive, but they still had the right idea.

This was supposed to the an event in their lives. Something they would talk about with others, something that would inspire and motivate people to do something. This would be one of those times they would look back at years from now, when they have jobs and have settled into a routine. They would say "I helped out" and if the need arose, they would likely do it again. Some of them might even do more. Several Oberlin students have been down there since the beginning. They are in it for the long haul.

But now it's different. Now that small spark of joy that you feel when you've done something good for someone else is overshadowed by this. The shittiest part is that there is nothing anyone can do. There is no legal authority to appeal to. There is no protest or action that can undo it.

I feel like crap.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Please ignore my previous post...

The one about wanting the Astin Martin DB-V? Yeah, you can just pretend that didn't happen. Why? Because some clever monkeys have come up with a kit for the f*cking Batmobile!!! Sweet Jesus on a pogo stick! And it only costs about $16,000. So...close..just out....of...reach. This lucky bastard had a JOB going around the country being Batman. How cool is THAT??

Go take a look at the site and the pics. The link to the kit are bad so you can use this one.

Would there be some kind of bad karma if I robbed a couple of liquer stores for the money to buy the car of a notorious do-gooder?

Shit! There seem to be OTHER clever monkeys offering kits evern CHEAPER.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Oh man this is good

From the amazing Farfblog site:

Meet The New Plan!

Q. Is the new plan an exit plan?
A. The president doesn't believe in exit plans! Exit plans are for presidents who're lookin for an exit. Our president's got a Victory Plan cause he's always lookin for victory.
Q. The president doesn't believe in plain ol exits. When he's stuck in a building an the building's on fire he doesn't say "where's the emergency exit?" He says "where's the emergency victory!"
A. The emergency victory is located on either side of the main hallway under the flashing blue lights. Break glass for triumph over Islamism!
Q. Sometimes all the constant victory gets to be a little much for him. He just wants to pick up a pizza and he's gotta wrestle an alligator on the way there. He wants to go to the movies and he's gotta sink a pirate ship first.
A. He can't leave the house without defeating at least three robots and a ninja. It is exhausting.

Q. Does the new plan stay the course? I'm a big fan of the course.
A. Yes absolutely! If you liked what the course had to offer you're definitely gonna like the strong elements of coursiness in the new plan.
Q. I dunno... it IS a new plan. Are you sure we haven't switched to another course somewhere? Did we even wobble a little?
A. This course is the same course as the previous course but is now served on a bed of fresh leafy green victory along with a side of pasta salad and your choice of vegetable.
Q. Mmmm, sounds delicious! How come the old plan didn't have this much victory in it?
A. It did! We just didn't tell you about it. This is newly declassified top secret victory.
Q. Does that mean the new plan is really the old plan?
A. Every day is a new day for the plan! Today is the first day of the rest of the plan's life.

A. In the new plan, the Iraqi security forces will be better trained than ever before.
Q. I heard the Iraqi security forces are turnin into death squads.
A. Well can't they be well-trained AND death squads? You gotta have pretty good trainin to be a good death squad.
Q. Well I guess that's true.
A. I mean let's not shortchange the death squads here. It's hard work bein a death squad.
Q. Well, are they bona fide agents of an accountable government who operate within the boundaries of the law, or are they more like sectarian thugs who carry out extrajudicial back alley executions under the cover of darkness?
A. Why can't they be both, like one a those pictures of two faces that looks like a vase?
Q. Or a car that turns into a robot!
A. See, there you go! Death squads: democracy in disguise.

Q. We know the victory plan's gonna get us some victory.
A. Yep.
Q. Question: how MUCH victory?
A. COMPLETE victory.
Q. Wow!
A. I know!
Q. I wasn't expectin that much victory!
A. Iraq will be peaceful united stable democratic an secure an Iraqis'll have the institutions and resources they need to govern themselves justly and provide security for their country an Tiny Tim's gonna walk again an Jalal Talabani's gonna save Christmas and you will believe an ayatollah can fly!
Q. That's not bad for a country on the brink of civil war!
A. All we need to do now is win... with the power of winning!
Q. Now that's a plan

Thursday, December 08, 2005

This ain't right.

If you love animals, you may want to stay away from this site. No really. Just wrong.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

It's for a great cause....

Ok, so I need more money. A LOT more money. I mean you better sell one of your goddamn kidneys and send me a money order STAT! No checksI tell you!

No, this isn't for some wonderful cause. It's to buy the original James Bond Astin Martin DB5. You understand that this isn't some whily nilly purchase. It's a MORAL IMPERATIVE. Oh sure, I'd love to own the Lotus Esprit that turned into a sub. I'm a big fan of wedge shaped cars. The DeLorean? Way Hot. But if I must start my collection with this car, so be it.

If only I would use my powers for evil...

Saturday, December 03, 2005


Can someone tell me if this is coincidence or irony?

I travel to the gulf coast where I spent a lot of time hauling cut up trees. I myself don't get to use the cool Stihl chainsaws. My paltry Black and Decker stays in the van.

Upon returning home there was a fierce windstorm. The next day we awoke to find this:

This thing is about thirty feel long. It snapped off the top of one of our massive pines that was alrady damaged by last winters ice storm. Thank goodness our minivan wasn't parked there. In an attempt to check how stable it was for cutting I gently tuged on it. The tree groaned and began to roll over onto my wifes minivan. Oh fuck.

I stupidly ran over to the van and blocked it with my body. I literally stood on the bumper and threw my weight at the tree trunk to keep it from smashing right through her back window. He's what it looked like when it finally stopped just inches from the window:

At least I finally got to use my chainsaw.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Images and sound

I took some of the pictures from the trip and used Microsoft Photostory. If you'd like to see the trip with music and have a hi-speed connection you can view it here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


For those of you who don't want to bother with all that reading, I have finished the photo gallery of the trip.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Home again home again...

We rolled into Wellington at about 7pm Saturday. We've only been gone two week but it feels so much longer. There's a dusting of snow and the towns x-mas lights are up. I stopped by Checkers pizza for some wings. I needed some comfort food.

The next two days we unpack and restart out lives. Everything we took with us needs to be decontaminated. We were literally wallowing in toxic goo and I don't want that stuff hanging around.

Today I went and fixed a bunch of stuff that I've been meaning to, but have successfully ignored for weeks. I repaired the barn door, fixed a gutter, a light, a door lock. It was some kind of strange compulsion. I didn't get to fix a lot down in Biloxi and New Orleans. I brought way too many tools.

If you ever want to volunteer after a disaster you really don't have to bring much besides yourself. If you are part of a large organized effort they will likely have the tools you need. So I didn't get to solder or wire or construct. I guess that's why I felt compelled to do it today, so that when I was done the house would be in slightly better shape then before. It was a result I could see.

When you gut a building, you don't really get that feeling. In fact for most of the time you are making a huge mess. You toss everything from the inside onto the treelawn. You tear out the sheetrock, framing, trim, everything. When you are done the place is empty. There is no sign of the owners life and the walls are stripped to the studs. It looks like you have actually taken a step backwards.

I tried hard to avoid cleaning houses, but I wanted to get a taste of each kind of recovery work. The first place we did was a small business, the second had already had its contents removed and the third was a Community Center. I was able to avoid seeing the remnants of someone's life. But on the last day in New Orleans we cleaned the street the community center was on. This will be the center of this neighborhood for the next year and we wanted at least the street it's on to be clean. I moved off away from the group, avoiding the waterlogged dressers and boxes of ruined books. I started to clean up trash and roof materials. But its unavoidable. There is debris everywhere. So I found myself looking at the life of a kid who 4 months ago lived here. His school I.D. showed a nice looking kid names Darence. He played some sport, basketball I think. Washed out photos showed him at someones wedding. Smiling, happy. He was working at a store nearby and was looking at attending college. They came back briefly, there were signs that they ate several Red Cross meals here, probably while trying to salvage what they could before leaving again because of Rita. Where is this kid and his family? There's a ruined car in the drive. Did they evacuate to the dome for days, waiting for water or food or some kind of help?

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

There are people down there who are in this for the long haul. They will be fighting for return rights, cleaning houses, distributing aid, giving free medical treatment for the next year at least. And without any payment of any kind. I commend these people for their dedication and am amazed at their strength.

The pole chain saw is one of the greatest inventions of the past 30 years. I am SO getting one of these.

In our time along the Gulf Coast, Rossana and I applied over 2 gallons of Purell to our bodies.

If you want to steal a car, go to Louisiana. They don't seem to have temp tags. Really. Also, these people do not know how to drive. Falling trees, disease and police brutality I can handle, driving on I-10 on the other hand is taking your life in your own hands.

When we arrived at the Hands on USA center they had us fill in a waiver. This thing was so full of scary-ass warnings that it is actually funny. Go look at it yourself.

My wife should be nominated for Sainthood.


There are so many people we met on this trip. I wish I could remember all of their names. Each one was unique, each had a different story, each had a desire to help that went beyond sending a check. They were driven, compelled. Something put them on a plane, on a bus, in a car and made them travel, sometimes across the country to do the hardest and most thankless work imaginable.

Jojo from Memphis Tennessee. This kid climbed up everything and worked without stop with the chainsaw. It was dangerous work. The nearest hospital was quite far away and I'd bet he didn't have any kind of insurance.

When James from New York told me his job was a Sommelier I had to confess that I had never heard of that occupation. It apparently means that he is an expert on wines. His job is to make sure his restaurant has the right kind of wine and that the staff know how to select the right wine for customers. He left his job and drove down to Biloxi a month ago. "My job isn't exactly making the world a better place, y'know?" I told him that a good meal with the right wine always makes people feel better. "Yep, but there are people here who aren't getting enough to eat. It's kind of a scale thing. I couldn't stand in a 5 star restaurant in New York serving $500 a bottle wine when people down here didn't have water."

Doyle is the kind of guy I would very likely disagree with politically. But he knows how to use a tractor to do any kind of job imaginable. He spent weeks down in Biloxi. Every time his tractor got a flat from the thousands of nails and screws on the ground he paid for repairs from his own pocket. I would buy that man a beer in a heartbeat. He's a reminder that you can't judge a book by its cover.

Jack came from New York. When someone asked him why he was here he said it was his hatred of George Bush that brought him here. "Everything that comes of of that mans mouth is a lie. The moment he said that he would help out and that New Orleans would get help I started making plans to come here".

Starhawk did a Wiccan purification ritual over the taps at the Convergence Center. She then backed this up with a chemical water purity test kit just to make sure. When the results came back that the water was okay, she did a short dance and left the bathroom. Then I finished shaving.

When they introduced Jenka as one of the legal action team I rolled my eyes. She stood maybe 5.1 and was maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. She was wearing an ill fitting army jump suit with angry patches and a multi colored knit cap most likely made in South America by peasant villagers paid a sustainable wage. If I were a crooked landlord and she confronted me I think I might be openly hostile. Who is this teenage hippie freaker and why the hell is she barking at me? But she's tough. And she's fearless. She strikes me as the type who has faced riot police and been arrested a few times. I felt better than she was partnered with Jeremy, who was as big as me and looked like he would mix it up if push came to shove. The flame that burns in most people is like a flare in her.

No one is sure where James came from, he looked retired. He showed up with a big blue truck that made moving trash and equipment a lot easier. There was no time when I did NOT see him tinkering with something. Lights, generators, chainsaws, cars. Given enough time he will fix anything. And he'll do it with bits stuff he found on the ground nearby.

Final Thoughts:

I want to thank everyone again for helping us get to the Gulf Coast to do our small part. And our part really was small. When communities are damaged they have an ability to heal themselves. But what happens when every community is not only damaged, but destroyed? Biloxi was kicked in the teeth. New Orleans was hit by a car. You can survive getting hit by a car, but you don't just get back up.

I went to New Orleans because I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I wanted to see what could be done, what could be salvaged. I wanted to see it being fixed, being helped. I wanted to see the government response and the grassroots efforts.

The government seems almost absent in parts of New Orleans. In my time there I saw maybe 7 FEMA trailers to the dozens in Biloxi, but to be fair, where can you put a trailer when the lot is taken up by a ruined house? And how can you come back when there's no power? Federal Aid is spending billions with companies like Halliburton and yet it cannot seem to get help to individuals. The grassroots efforts have their ear to the ground, know the lay of the land and aren't in it for the money. But they are simply too few in number.

The problem really gets to you when you take it all in. You see all the different people, agencies and resources available. And then you see the destruction at all levels, and the sheer size of the affected area. You try to put the pieces together, you juggle them every which way. You try to formulate a plan. Everyone who has been there has done the same thing. From the homeowner to the Mayor to even the President. And the maddening thing is that you can't figure it out. You can't get the pieces to fit no matter how hard you try. That's the thing that makes your gut hurt.

I don't know when we'll get back to New Orleans. But we will. And you should go too. No, you don't have to go as a volunteer. You can help New Orleans by going on vacation and spending a little money there. The businesses, galleries and restaurants there are locally owned. The money stays close to home instead of going into the pockets of multinationals. And the French Quarter truly is a very cool place. And if we do go we will drive out into parts of town we would have steered way clear of before. I want to visit the free clinic in Algiers and talk with Malik. And I want to see how that Community Center is getting on. And, hell I don't drink much so maybe when I'm done sightseeing I'll swing by Common Ground and see if they need a hand. Maybe by then they will be building things. Maybe I'll bring my tools just in case.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

New Orleans - Thanksgiving Day

Last night the temperature did NOT drop into the thirties so I got some better sleep. After breakfast our crew went back to the Community Center we gutted to remove the rest of the trash. There are signs that debris removal crews have been through, but very sporatically. The best way to get trash removed is to physically take it to the end of Franklin St and dump it there.

Once we removed the last of the trash from the front of the Community Center we just seemed to keep going and cleaned up the rest of the street. It made an amazing difference. Only one other house on this street has been gutted so far. I don't know if any other houses will be saved or who will be coming back. But their front yards won't look like a landfil when they do.

We changed and cleaned up back at the Convergence Center warehouse (they are BIG on decontamination here) and headed over to the Distribution Center for the big Thanksgiving feast. And it was large. All us volunteers plus a few from other groups, some media and maybe 20 residents of the neighborhood. The street had been closed off and xmas lights hung. There were tables, chairs and a mess of food. At one point things seemed to get tense when a Sherifs department SUV pulled up with its lights on. You could see people pulling out cameras to document anything that might go down, but it turns out he was just escorting a pick up truck from a church volunteer group who was donating even more food to the feast (sweet potatoes and pecan pie I believe). Stranger still the Red Cross stopped by and delivered water. We've seen them twice here in the ninth offering hot meals of dubious nutritional value. "You guys want a hot meal?" they ask over the loudspeaker, but we're usually eating our bagged lunches. This time we offered them a hot meal and WHAT a meal it was. After a few brief words we dug in and it was very good. Deep fried turkey with all imaginable fixins. We stuffed ourselves. Kerule, who helped organize this week long work event sat next to us. She was amazed how well everything came together. The Sheraton Hotel had lent us the tables, the National Guard lent the chairs. The police had made no fuss about closing off the street. I told her my new philosophy.

"Companies, governments, armies, police forces...whatever, are made up of people. And most people are actually pretty cool or are at least, not total assholes"

"You believe that?"

"With all my heart. And it will help lower your stress level if you look at things that way too."

I have no doubt that she has seen and experienced things far worse than I can imagine. Things that can make you believe that some people and institutions are bad thru and thru. She confided that her own Grandfather had been a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had a strong following in her home town. But her father regected the Klan and had coached the first integrated football team in her state and now here she was working with a former Black Panther in the 9th ward. People learn and grow. New Orleans has suffered at the hands of nameless, faceless agencies. It has suffered at the hands of corrupt or criminal individuals. But its statistically impossible for everyone at FEMA, the Red Cross, the State Gov't or City Hall to be a racist, corrupt or an asshole. And the proof was our dinner.

We left New Orleans early and headed back to Biloxi. Vlad let us crash and get our first decent shower in a week. It was a gift from the gods. We need to get a tire fixed before heading home. We picked up a screw somewhere and I don't want to drive home with it. It's amazing we didn't get more flats considering the derbris we've been driving through.

I will post more pics and thoughts when I get home, where it is apparently 12 degrees. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

New Orleans - Day 4. People are people

We finished our flyer duties with Sean, the coordinator for the project. He's a local who moved here from Canada to attend school here and fell in love with this city. He works as a librarian at the University, or will once it reopens. Then he has to survive the layoffs due to low student attendance.

Dinner tonight was a rehash of yesterdays rehash. Now with more rice! We yearned for some politically incorrect food so we hoped over to the French Quarter to a little dive the locals frequent called the Deja Vu'.

I ordered a cow between two slices of meat and Rossana ordered catfish. She went off to the bathroom and was gone quite a while. When she did come back she had an older women in tow who she introduced as Camille. Rossana asked if we had any of the eviction flyers on me. I found one in a back pocket that I was using to take notes. I gave it to her and gave her a rundown of the recent court actions and how she can reach the action hotline. She thanked us profusely and went to sit with her husband. After she left Rossana told me she found her crying in the ladies room. They had just come home and were seeing the damage for the first time. She thinks shes okay with her landlord but her best friend is being threatened with evicction so that he can move in a crew of immegrant contractors. I hope we were of some help.

On arriving back at our tent I met four young lads from Madison Wisconson. They had heard a speach by a fellow Madison native who had volunteered here and decided on their own to come down to help. These kids look all of 19 or 20. thats balls.

We spoke at length about what we'd seen and what the prospects were for the ninth ward. We agreed it w as going to be a difficult process and we will need to see what happens when the federal shelters close Dec first. Indeed we will.


Originally uploaded by stevepack.
So our quarry didn't show. We've been put back on flyer duty. We are in the fifth ward now. Lots of damage, but also a great many homes that are in good shape. Some are real gems. But its mostly empty. Where are the people? Yesterday a judge effectively stopped evictions by declaring that land lords had to track down their renter and give them 45 days instead of five to vacate. The details are sketchy right now. Of course thats not stopping the illegal evictions.

I felt a little guilty not going on one of the heavy work crews. But the lack of good sleep, hot water and general fatugue have taken their toll on us. We will likely depart friday for home. There's supposed to be a Thanksgiving feast tomorrow for the neighborhood. We'll see if we can help clean up the street for it.

We're on stakeout.

We're on stakeout.
Originally uploaded by stevepack.
No really. We put up flyers this morning alerting people to a meeting to help stop illegal evictions. Now we're staking out this place waiting for the landlord who will try to throw the tenants stuff out and change the locks while he's at work.

Our orders are simple. I.D. The landlord or his hired goon, get his plate number, call it in to our attack lawyer who will come running with a camera and scary looking documents. Sweet. I asked but they wouldn't give us guns.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

New Orleans - Day three. Surreal on many levels.

We turned in at about 7pm last night and got a solid 11 hours sleep. It wasn't enough.

More campers at our site now. Still no wifi. Or showers. Same story at Convergence center. Its baby wipes for now. We eat and break into groups. Well we try to, but the announcements drag on and on. Our leader isn't around so I gather up the crew from yesterday. We gather the tools we will need. The trailer appears and we load up and head out to finish the Community Center. More signs of life as city sewer crews are seen. The red cross swings by and offers us hot meals but we have bag lunches.

At 11 we leave the site to attend a protest rally at a public housing project. The city is evicting tenants and is planning on razing the structures. The first floor was flooded but the rest of these units wasn't and other projects survived without damage. These are brick structures more sound than most buildings in the area but the city would very much like to raise the tax base (bring in whites). Several reporters are there amongst the fifty or so people holding banners and signs. Of course, no one could see these signs so Rossana and I went out to the central divider for the street and waved nice and friendly at people. Common Ground has two legal advocates working to prevent illegal evictions. Its going to be an uphill battle.

We finished the tear out at the community center and bleached the studs. Hopefully on friday they can start laying in sheetrock. There is a ton of trash in front of the center. Yesterday we managed to get some FEMA contractors to haul away about half of it. A first, I am told. They promissed to come back today but didn't.

We returned to base and finally ate. Tonights meal was chicken rice with curry vegetables and beans. It was at best so-so. Feeling unfulfilled and dying of curiosity we drove into the French Quarter. It is physically little changed from when last we visited. A few businesses are boarded up and others say 'open soon'. But its a different place. There are cops eveywhere. They gather in clumps and their cars clog intersections. We drove down Decatur I believe and a huge tent complex has been erected. There are large mobile kitchens and lights. We look closer and see signs saying. 'This a FEMA facility. NO public services. ID required.' inside were National Guard and more Police. Outside half a dozen Military Police Hummers sit looking serious. What exactly are they guarding? Of course almost half the police force was fired for corruption, looting, or abandoning their duties so I suppose they need the help.

We found the Cafe du Monde open and ordered the first good cup of coffee we've had this trip along with a big order of Beignets (my addiction of choice). On the way back to the van we stoped by a small hotel we stayed at last year just to see how they were doing. They were open and the nice manager chatted with us freely. She winced a little when she found out we were working in the ninth ward. When I asked her what she thought the National Guard was doing she told us that she believed they were there to keep the gangs out.
'You know just before the hurricanes hit they tried to come down here and take over. The cops had a shootout with a big group and killed ten of them.'

I would really like to find out if that shootout story is true. It makes so little sense. Why would gangs come to New Orleans right before a hurricane is set to devastate the area. Maybe they came to loot. But you dont use guns for that and this area is piss poor for good looting. You want the burbs with those WalMarts and Best Buys.

Then again, this woman firmly believes the popular myths about shootings and killings at the superdome. Its hard to change peoples minds here. But that is really what is needed. Some fresh thinking.

The foot feels much better. I grapped an ice cold shower after dinner just to get the worst filth off me. I pray they get the solar showers working but I'm not holding my breath.

New Orleans - Day Two oops

Dear blog, please excuse the missing day. My phone ate my blog.

Really. I wrote this great report anf then pfffft it went somewhere and didn't come back. Too much to report. Our first day was spend clearing out a community center. This had been a great place with a computer lab, kitchen, q small stage. But they didn't have insurance. We cleared it and began gutting it. This is the suck work and the gear reflects it. Tyvek suits, rubber shoe covers, gogles, respirators. We took out our first fridge. Some of these kids didn't know not to open the door lest the evil contained get out. We duct taped it and got it to the curb. By the end of the day I could no longer raise mu arms to hold a hammer or a prybar. Turned in at 8 pm. I've seen so much. There is life in the ninth ward. Not much, but its here, struggling to exist. Large swaths will be demolished, but much is savable.

We're awaiting diner outside the Convergence Center where the peace of the evening is shattered every ten minutes or so by the trains which move back and forth hooking up cars with a great screeching and horn blaring. More people here now, maybe 100. Rossana started to feel unwell today but stuck it out. Tomorrow we will find something else less physically taxing to do. Need a rest.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

New Orleans - A whole different ball game

We enjoyed our last breakfast in the bright, clean common room of Hands on USA and said our goodbyes. We drove the short distance from Biloxi to New Orleans and pulled of Rt 10 onto Franklin Blvd at about 10 am.

What we saw was nothing like Biloxi. I really don't know how to describe it. This was a poor community before the hurricanes, but it was alive and filled with people. As we entered the 9th ward it felt like we were driving into a ghost town. Where Biloxi had maybe 60 percent of its businesses closed the 9th looks almost deserted. Lots of damage, less violent than in Biloxi but most of the damage and debris looks untouched. Most traffic lights are out, not that there's any traffic.

The Common Ground 'Convergence Center' is meant to house the mass of expected volunteers and act as a central dispatch for work crews. The center is located in a warehouse that has had hasty repairs made to it. No power. Showers are half done. Xmas lights strung through the halls are powered by a touchy generator. Its disorganized, but we are also early.

The good news is that I get to use my tools right off. Rossana and I help on half a dozen projects to help get the center up and running. We set up the car port we brought with us and instantly doubled the cooking area. Sleeping arrangements consist of several open rooms with matresses obtained from some prison. The place HAS been cleaned and still reeks of pine scent. We decide that some privacy would be very nice and spend an hour trying to find the area set aside for tenting. In the end we found it, a former day care center that CG cleaned out and renovated in exchange for free use for three months. It's empty as few people seem to have brought camping gean. We set up and drove back for the orientation meeting. It started late and was poorly run. These are mostly college age kids here. Lots of energy and enthusiasm. They want to make the world a better place. Some have hippie names like Starhawk and Sunshine. We cover the group, it's mission, what they hope to accomplish!
and the general plan of attack. We were told that indeed the cops here can be assholes. Several CG people have been arrested on BS charges.

Tomorrow will really tell. We saw and did a lot today. After the meeting we had an healthy meal prepared by an organic farmer to thank us for our work.

No pics as there is no wireless, just my phone. I got my first scare just before turning in. Rossana went to use the porta john while I carried our backpacks to the side yard where our tent is. Suddenly I see the bright blue strobing lights of the NOPD by the front of the house. My heart skips a beat and I run for the front of the house tearing my utility knife and leatherman tool off my belt frantically so I won't be percieved as 'armed'. But by the time I get to the front I can see that the cop has actually pulled over a black motorist a bit down the road. Rossana was shaken too.

This is a whole different ball game.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Day 7 - Last work day in Biloxi

We worked with the tree crew again today. A good crew. Jojo is the lead and will climb up anything with a chainsaw. We call him monkey-boy. He's all of 5 ft tall and his energy is limitless. We were also with Carl, a retired elementary school principal from California. He was the oldest member of the crew but more than pulls his weight.

My right foot is pretty messed up. I took a pic but I don't think you want to see it. I've tried to keep it clean and dry but working 8 hours in combat boots means they sweat. Rossana applied some antibiotic cream and a gauze pad. It really needs some air. Rossana is sporting some nasty bruises and a couple of mean scrapes from tree limbs. No serious cuts or punctures so far (knock on wood) although I have developed the 'Katrina Cough'. I'm told a lot of people pick it up but it's not serious.

When we got to our second job I started to feel bites on my arms and neck. There seems to be some kind of mite down here that finds people mighty tasty. Very small, but they hurt like a bitch. I started to get paranoid and thought I felt them on my scalp. I seem to do more damage to myself hauling debris than any other job. It doesn't help that the area is littered with hidden holes which I seem to find with amazing regularity. I have so far avoided seriously messing up my ankles thanks to my trusty Army surplus boots. Best money I ever spent.

We finished our jobs a little early and dropped 2 of our crew over at a house clean out, The crew leader was unhappy because a Senator and some other political hacks came by for a photo op earlier in the day. The problem is that our crew had already mostly finished. But the senator wanted the photo op so several heaps of debris here hauled back into the house so the could haul them back out again for the cameras. Is this news? Does this count as compassion or solidarity? Are they really helping by using some poor bastards ruined house as a prop?

We finished the day and I went straight to the showers to scrub the little bloodsucking bastards off. They collapsed for a nap. We decided to miss the evening meal. Rossana doesn't want to say any public goodbyes, she just wants to slip away tomorrow. We'll say adios tomorrow after breakfast to the people we want to and then pack up the last of our gear.

We went to dinner at a Chinese buffet with Vlad and Liz which was great. Good food and great company. Vlad is a total geek and it's fun to talk geek with someone.

tomorrow we hit New Orleans. I don't know what kind of connectivity will be available. I may be making these posts from my phone which means they will be drastically shorter. I'm also not sure still about the camping situation. Emails from Common Ground have been vague.

It's great that 2-300 people are coming in to help. But does Common Ground have enough equipment to give them? How will they get to the work zone? Have they set up specific projects? Here at Hands on USA there is actually a whole admin department that supports our teams. They take requests from people as well as scout out locations where we can be of use, they write up work orders and allocate (in a very loose way) resources to get everything done. Is this system in place in New Orleans? I guess we'll find or very shortly.

I feel good about heading out. A whole new crop of volunteers flew in today as well as some hippie types who arrived in a psychedelic school bus 'powered by vegetable oil'. New blood and renewed energy. They'll do a great job I have no doubt.


I found a Flickr photoset of HOUSA in action here.

Day 6 -Distribution again

No pics today. We were too busy moving food. Our crew was smaller than last time so we had to stay on our toes. We again distributed a mess of food, water and cleaning supplies. Lean, our crew chief said that she didn't see anyone come back twice.

We had no ice today. The SA rep said we officially never get ice but he knew a guy with FEMA. We had stuff they wanted and they had ice so every few days a truck of ice was misplaced and everyone was happy. Unfortunately someone higher up in the SA noticed that we 'didn't have ice' and tried to go through channels and had thus cocked everything up. Our guy said he should have it straightened out by Monday with his buddy. There's always a way around the system.

I don't know what crew we'll go out with tomorrow. The SA screwed up their schedule and discovered they had no one to cook for this weekend. They asked Hands On USA to help. I considered it but it would require leaving base at 5am and working till 3. That's just too brutal for us right now. I came down with an unstoppable itch on my feet yesterday. I could not stop myself from scratching them and today my feet don't look so good. I'll try to keep them clean and dry and get them some air to heal up before we head out on Sunday.

Our great treat was having a home cooked meal at Vlad's tonight. Pot Roast, with potatoes, carrots, biscuits and pumpkin pie. Sheer joy. We swapped Pennsic stories into the night. Too tired to type more. Shoulders hurt from lugging food boxes all day.

Friday, November 18, 2005


We're back at base after a day back at distribution. I keep finding ways to get filthy no matter what job it is. I grab a nap on one of the couches in the main building. In the kitchen they are preparing dinner and listening to Paul Simon's 'Graceland'. It really is one of the best CD's I can think of. It's just great to listen to. Not a bad song in the lot.

We're in the paper!

We're in the paper!
Originally uploaded by stevepack.
This is the front page of the travel section of USA Today.

Day 5 - Warehouse

Last night the temperature plummeted into the thirties. I wore my winter cap to bed and we toughed it out. I think there might have been some thought in my head about solidarity with those who are still living in tents down here. I have quickly gotten over that thought. With the temperature again in the thirties tonight I am blogging from the comfort of Vlad's guest room, occasionally visited by one of his three cats.

Today we worked at the Salvation Army warehouse. The crew consisted of Diane (the 80 year old) Rossana, me and a girl I call princess. Princess worked with us on distribution but couldn't take our aggressive loading style. She wouldn't walk the 10 feet to the back of a car insisting that the car would pull up to the toiletries station anyway and she could load juice there. She didn't seem to grasp that some people didn't need toiletries or cleaning supplies and by loading all the food at once we saved valuable time. Every second we saved got more people through the line and more aid distributed. She wandered off and took an hour coffee break, and then lunch.

When we arrived at the site (a former oyster company)we were amazed by the sophistication of the operation. There must have been three mobile command stations, 6 distribution units, a dozen vans, satelite uplink. The photo can't capture it all since it was so spread out over the complex.

We were whisked into an office, photographed and issued I.D. tags and a Salvation Army sweater. We then entered the warehouse which was a hive of activity. The space was split into two areas.

This is the outgoing food room. These are the boxes of non perishable foods that we handed out the other day.

The other section was where donated goods were housed, broken up, sorted, assembled into kits and otherwise moved through the system. We were introduced to Max, or rather he introduced himself in his own unique way. Looking a bit like a burned out roadie for the Rolling Stones Max sped up on a forklift, hopped out wearing jogging pants with shorts on top and a blue hospital gown over his Salvation Army outfit. He introduced himself, shook out hands and got us right to work. We were assembling comfort kits from donated goods and we needed to fill five massive boxes before lunch.

"We feed and clothe about 4000 each day."

We got to it as best we could. The donated goods were of widely different sizes and while we had plenty of some things like Shampoo we were short of razors. We worked fast and I'm not sure why we didn't make two different kinds of kits, one for men and one for women. Some guy in a distribution line is going to get several tampons which will be of little use to him. I worked unboxing donations and sorting them into different spots on our assembly line. We worked along side several SA employees and a few other volunteers. One of them was Ron.

Ron was a marine in Vietnam, a 35 year veteran of the Fire department, a regular volunteer with the SA and had worked in Waveland, the worst hit area in Mississippi shortly after the hurricanes. He is also a yammering ass. His mouth was constantly open and noise was coming out of it. He was constantly making comments to the women and saying generally annoying or dumb things. I could tell he was annoying Rossana as well but she said nothing. We were eventually send to another section of the warehouse to help organize loose donations onto palates and move them out of the way for expected food deliveries. It was like taking the contents to 20 thrift stores and trying to sort them into something that made sense. Ron was moving finished loads with the pallet jack and was thus, slightly less annoying. We were about a third of the way through this grueling process when lunch was served (Ribs!) in a small break room. Ron was back to yacking again. He had just mentioned how Arnold Schwarzenegger would make a great president when I left the room to take some pics of the warehouse. When I came back in it was very quiet and Rossana and a group of women were heading out the door to the parking lot. I followed.

"Honey, did you lay the smack down on the Marine?" I asked.

"The asshole needed to good slapping."

At this point I wasn't sure if she meant that literally or not.

"Did you leave any marks? Is he still able to stand?"

"I didn't kick the crap out of him if that's what you're asking. He just got on my last nerve" the other women were nodding. He's been making cutsey comments at them all damn morning.

"What did you say?"

"Carol here was complaining of a headache and I told her I was getting one two. And when Mr Man guy started to open his mouth I told him that I would going to get Carol some aspirin and a roll of duct tape for him if he didn't shut up."


The rest of the day Ron was more civil. He and I were eventually sent to work for 'The Major' (remember these people think of themselves as an army) to move some desks over at Yankee Stadium. On the way over he informed us that their clinic had been shut down by FEMA and the Red Cross. They refused to give an official reason but said that if the clinic didn't shut down the SA would have to leave the area entirely. Once the clinic was gone the Red Cross apparently made an announcement that there was a great need for a clinic in the area and opened one at the Community Center.

Outside the stadium area a large semi-permanent hanger like structure has been erected. This houses a distribution area for clothes, baby needs and formerly the clinic as well an an open area and pulpit with seating for maybe 200 for church services. The back third of the building has offices and we spent a few hours moving desks that I swear were composed of lead. I was pleased to see that these were donated desks, bookshelves and file cabinets. No blatant spending on lavish office goods. The Major, who never seemed to be around during the lifting portions would keep finding other tasks for us to do. We got back to the warehouse at about three and helped finish out the last of the sorting. By this time Rossana had taken to just telling the other what to do and the results were than the unruly pile of misc goods were now sorted, plastic wrapped and cleared out to make room.

Having undergone this experience, here are a few helpful hints in case you ever want to donate items after a disaster. Buy a whole box or case of the item, not just a dozen. If the box doesn't lists its contents, write what it is on the top and sides. Don't send sample sizes. If you send toothbrushes, make sure they are in individual packages. Cut bulk pakages of soap into individual bars. This makes sorting and distribution a lot easier.

Princess stayed at it all day although she primarily moved stacks of Styrofoam bowls and serving boxes. I honestly wonder what she is doing here. She flew in from Southern California but doesn't strike me as an ardent do gooder. It's like she's here to fulfill some kind of obligation. Maybe her dad told her she'd get a car if she did this. I don't know. I could be completely wrong about her.

Driving back to base my eyelids were heavy from lack of sleep and from the fast paced work today. We drove by the destroyed and damaged homes and businesses with hardly a second glance. By now it has strangely started to look normal. I suppose that's what is needed to live in this environment. You need to look past the vast scope of the damage and focus on accomplishing one thing at a time. Solving one problem, removing one tree, cleaning one house, getting one person a jacket and a blanket. Repeat as necessary.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Food distribution pic

Food distribution pic
Originally uploaded by stevepack.

Day 4 - Food Distribution

Today was suppoed to be a light day. It was discovered that working seven days a week at this tends to wear people out. Those who have been here a long time are told to take the day off. They get extra sleep, do laundry, etc. But since we're only here a week we hooked up with another crew. Today was working the food distribution line at Yankee Stadium for the Salvation Army.

I only managed to snap a few cameraphone pics because we were so busy. This is an efficient operation. We handed out water, boxes of non-perishable food, juice or gatorade, personal products kits, cleaning kits and if needed diapers or blankets.

People arrive in cars, tell us what they need and we load them up fast. I don't know how many cars we filled but it could well be over 350 by our rough estimate. They were evenly split between Vietnamese, Blacks, Whites and some Mexicans.

We were kept hopping loading cars and hauling pallets. It felt great seeing all these goods moving out. Everyone on the team was in great spirits. Our general leader was an 80 year old woman whose name I didn't get. I asked her if anyone abuses the system.

"Yep, if you're here long enough you'll begin to recognize cars. And some of the Vietnamese don't eat the food we give them. They sell it."

"What do you do when they come through again?"

"We load 'em up again."

I asked her at the end of the day how many cars came through twice or in some way looked like they weren't really in need. She guesses 3 or 4. That's not bad. There will always be people who abuse the system. But the vast majority of people we saw are just working to get their lives back on track. The distribution line runs Mon, Wed and Friday (down from 5 days a week). Tomorrow we will be working in the warehouse sorting and packing .I'm glad we're getting a crack at each of these different jobs. We also might work as a 'street crew'. It's going to be cold over the weekend and the street crews need to get more blankets and jackets to people who need them.

Rossana and I finished up when the line closed at 2:30 and headed back to base for a nap. Although not as exhausting as house crew, we were at it constantly. No sooner had we pulled up to our tent then a nice fellow named Thom asked us for a ride to Gulfport about 20 min away. We agreed since a lot of the other volunteers were still out and dinner wouldn't be for a few hours.

He had a lot of gear, much of it construction tools. On the way he told us of how he'd come down to Biloxi from South Carolina to get work. But his truck blew an engine. He hooked up with Hands on USA and helped out while trying to network for work which is real hard without wheels. He assembled the thirty or so bikes that were donated to us which we use for short trips and give to locals if they need them. He eventually got this job in Gulfport renovating a mobile home. We arrived at the site and moved him into the home. It needs a lot of work. No power or running water. I asked him how he was set for food and he said he had a granola bar and some chips. Why he didn't fill a box of food from our stores I don't know. I think he was just trying to get to the job. He hasn't seen his wife or step son for a month. The bank will soon start sending nasty letters about his Mortgage.

We took some of the gas money and took him shopping for some basics. For a guy so close to the edge he seems remarkably upbeat. He just wants to work. If he can hold on for a week then the money should start coming in. I hope he makes it.

Day 3 - Welcome to the suck.

This morning we got off to a late start. By the time I finished posting the pics and report last night it was about 10:30. Officially 'quiet time'. But when I got over to our tent there was some kind of party going on. It broke up within a half hour but not before these kids had knocked over three crosses planted on a small hill nearby. I stepped outside and was going to give these kids whatfore when I saw them trying to fix what they had done.What can I say? It looked like drunk evangelical marines had taken Iwo Jima. They were trying to plant the crosses but the dirt was very loose and they were very drunk and kept dropping the croes on each other and falling off the hill. I was too amused to chide them and they quieted down shortly thereafter.

Later I learned that the lead asshat was so drunk that he stumbled around in the loft and relieved himself next to a poor young volunteer, which sort of freaked her out. The next day there was lots of chatter about the incident. The kid in question didn't need to be asked, he left of his own accord. Darius, who is in charge was calm but firm.

"I know this is a tough job, and I know you need to unwind at the end of the day after what we do, but we didn't come here for a party. Anyone who fucks up like that again will be asked to leave".

I agree. The heavy drinking was the cause of our late start. Today we ran with an interior crew. As hard as hauling trees was, interior cleanup is even harder. We cleaned out a small Vietnamese business. They obviously made jewelry and all of their equipment was totaled. I cannot describe to you how damaging seawater is. It's like painting instant rust on anything it touches. I turned over a box in a back room and discovered that I had stumbled upon several gallons of sulfuric acid. I carefully put it down and went outside to rinse off my gloves. Luckily the containers were not leaking.

The two safes had to be left behind.

The owners know that everything gets pitched. Anything they want should be removed before we arrive. I found this small shrine in a back room and carefully put it out by the curb with what little respect I could. When we drove by later it was gone.

Our second project was clearing a small house. When we entered the home it had already had its contents removed. It looked no worse than several places I might had rented as a younger man. But once water floods a house you have to pull out all the materials on the walls down to the studs. The paneling as easy, then another layer of paneling. But then I learned that most houses down here have walls made with tongue and groove slats. This is just like old floors but on ALL the walls and it is a bitch to pull out. I spent ten minutes beating the hell out of one piece before I was shown the proper way to use a crowbar in this situation. Even with a crew of ten we spent the rest of the day on this project. Every time I yanked a piece off the wall a small shower of filth would flutter down on me. I have never in my life been more filthy. We discovered that there had been a bad fire at some point and the previous owner just covered it up. At least when the house it re-done it will have proper walls. Everything will need to be sprayed but thats for another crew.

This is the hardest work I think I have ever done and by the end of the day I was having a hard time keeping up. This was a young crew and that crowbar kept getting heavier and heavier. Rossana did great despite the pain in her feet. She took a solid nail to the foot but the boots stopped it. Did I mention that I was absolutely filthy?

At lunch we took our food to go and went down to 'The Point'. The Images below are of a Casino Barge run aground and Route 90 (or what's left of it.)

Rain and high winds tonight so we stayed at Vlads and got some laundry done. Too tired to write more.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Day 2

This was yesterdays task.

Slept well and awoke with only minor stiffness. We went out with termites (tree cutters) again. Yesterday our driver was Richard. He was once a teacher in South Africa during aparteid. He tought people who were under house arrest/confinement. I also met Jose', who hails from California once worked in the dot com boom but burned out on it. He works with Habitat for Humanity. Doyle operated the tractor. He's a good ole boy. He proudly displays a GW Bush sticker on his pickep and thinks he knows everything. Considering we didn't destroy two houses yesterday he may be right. He's also replaced 13 tires on his tractor since getting here. Each time it's $100 to get fixed, and he pays for it himself.

Today we were with a different crew. Ted, Ozuna and Patch are with the airforce but since their jobs don't exist at the moment they have been working with Hands On a lot. They are highly motivated. Ted is the Seargent and has a John Wayne thing going. Whenever we have to move on he shouts "Regulators! Mount up!" (Someone tell me what movie that's from)

We were rounded out with Diane, Steve, Jose' and Jake. Our first job went like clockwork. We cleared out a tree that had damaged a house. Tree removal is crucial. FEMA will not move in a trailer unless the area is fairly safe. Once it's in the trailer is hooked into city water and power. I don't know how long people will be allowed to stay in these trailers. I assume you have to have had flood insurance and are planning on rebuilding to get one. I'll check into this.

We rolled up onto our second job and I had to get a picture, since it completely blocked the house behind it. This thing was a monster.

We didn't have the tractor and our chain was short making this one bitch of a job. The tree is basically a tripod. Stable as hell and very thick. We cleared what we could and tried to pull it over but were'nt having much luck using the chain with a Ford Explorer.

Eventually Jose' and I came up with a plan. We tied the chain to the bottom of one of the legs and notched it out about half way up. This gave us more leverage and was safer for cutting. The afair was kind of like braking someones leg with a baseball bat. (Not that I've ever done such a thing.) It worked and the tree rolled over. The hardest work was cutting and hauling the sections. We had to drag the largest using the chains and th Explorer. This was one time when a big-ass, gas guzzling SUV did something that they advertise it doing in the commercials.

It took us most of the day to clear this property. We got lunch at a Salvation Army food distribution point staffed by Southern Baptists. They were friendly and very efficient. No evengelizing or hard sell. I will say now that the Red Cross and Salvation Army have a noticable presence in Biloxi. We have seen three Red Cross trucks serving meals. There are several mobile medical units here including dentists.

The one dissapointing thing I learned is that illegal immigrants are not counted towards the official body count. The real count may be three times as high as officially reported

We finished at about 4 and went back to base. The volunteers were holding a birthday party for a young girl and her family from once of the houses we've worked on. Since I've already served my time with kids so we cleaned up and joined Vlad and his wife for diner out. We drove through Keesler AFB and you would hardly know a hurricane had tried to wife it off the map. This base had narrowly avoided the last round of closings and when Katrina hot the brass seriously wondered if it should just be shuttered. The base personell worked thair asses off clearing and repairing the site and it seems they are not at risk now. Many buildings are damaged but it is up to full operational status. This base is huge and its closure would seriously damage the local economy. We saw Vlads old off base house and while it was solidly built it had succumbed to the massive storm surge that put most of this area under 20-30 of water.

The house that stood on this foundation is the one across the street now behind the red pickup.

The First Termite Crew.

Off to bed now.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Pasta and shots

Pasta and shots
Originally uploaded by stevepack.
But not the alcohol kind. After a four minute shower we walked to the nearest store. We were told it was walking distance but the guy who told us was jogger. This is a man who likes pain. But Rossanas feet were killing her. She didn't have enough time to break in her boots and already has blisters from the days work. We bought her some sneakers and some other essentials and hoofed it back in time for chow. Damn good pasta. In fact it was the best tasting meal EVER.

There was a brief meeting where stories were told. We all busted ass today. After dinner we spoke with other volunteers. They come from all over. We were asked about our shots. We had tried to get them before we left but could not swing it. Luckily the nurse who has been here over a month is well stocked. We both got our Hepatitus A shots and I updated my tetnus shot.

I pray I can sleep tonight. I doubt it though. It is hard to put what we saw today out of your mind. Its good we work in teams. For a short time today I was alone in front of a devastated house. As I sat I could start to feel a sense of helplessness start to overcome me. You could feel the sadness of the people who had come back to their homes only to find that they had been swept away or worse, crushed where they stood.

I hope to post pics tomorrow. But I'm tired now. Have to get some rest. I kept up. I kept up with these kids. I hope I can keep up the pace.


Today we got to it. Our work crew was Rossana, myself, Jose' and Richard. We were part of a larger group tasked with taking down two trees and clearing debris. As we drove around the city only one thing comes to mind. This place looks like a war zone without bullet holes. Near the coat, where we were it was as if the area had been bombed or shoved off their foundations. Yet some houses mysteriously survived unscathed.

We worked hard but there was still some down time while the men folk stood and discussed how best to take down the trees. One large tree rested against another. Getting the first one down was tough, but taking the talled one was made more difficult because it was already leaning. If we cocked up it would destroy two houses. In the end we got both down safely. The other crew were mostly firefighters from Indiana. They weren't leaving until those trees came down. We had lunch back at base (PB&J) and then back out to another sight to clear more debris. There was some miscommunication and the pther part of the team was held up at another site. We met up with them to finish a job and moved on to the last job of the day. Another damn tree wedges against another. This one hung over a neighbors FEMA trailer and if we cocked up if would crush it. Doyle, a good ole boy with a trackton on the firefighter team successfully got the tree out. It was shortly hacked up and out by the curb. There are still piles of debris around the city and this is ten weeks after the event. At first things were so bad you could find streets through the debris.

Not far from the worksite was a wafflehouse we had eaten last year during a convention. It was destroyed. Next to it was a barge the size of a large apartment complex that had been washed ashore. Everywhere you look is devastation in this area. But people are cleaning up. The rebuild is in progress. The first Casino should be open in December. The air force base was damaged but in fact wasn't destroyed.

So tired. I'm getting a shower and a rest before dinner. More later.

Arrival and Reunion

We drive the last 40 miles of our trip on I-10. At first nothing seems amiss at all. I know we're not far from the coast, there should be something. But it's dark. The first indicators are subtle. Highway signs are bent and twisted. But little else seems amiss.

But as we pull off and drive into Biloxi things start to take shape. The first thing we see are the dozens of cheap signs, the kind you see at offramps advertising cheap hot tubs and insurance for the self employed. These advertise contractors. We are passed by about a dozen trucks on the way down. Then the banners. "We're open!" they cry. "Now Hiring". Further on there's a crumbling strip mall. The corner of the Quizno's subs is a pile of bricks. Then the tree trunks, all hacked off. Mosts business signs that were on poles are twisted and broken. It's strange. I have never been in a disaster area. But despite this damage there are lights, people, businesses are open. It seems somewhat normal.

We locate the church that houses Hands on USA. The front is the chapel. The rear building is the operations center/clinic/crash space/dining hall. We walk in and its dead quiet. There's a meeting going on. People are making reports, relating what they saw or what might need to be done tomorrow. A young woman sees us and tells us to get some chow. The guys from the airforce base cooked dinner tonight so it was served earlier than usual. We hastily make something like a burrito and sit down. The meeting is wrapped up.

The woman returns with some papers. She asks us where we're from and how long we're staying. They she gives us a paper outlining the groups mission and then asks us to fill in the release form. Let me tell you that this waiver was one big flashing caution sign. It said that we acknowledged that what were doing was dangerous. That we would be in dangerous places working with dangerous tools operated by volunteers. We might be far from medical help. We might be injured, maimed or killed. Were we okay with that?

"This thing says we could be subject to every danger known to man except tooth decay and smiting by the God of the Israelites"

"Smiting is in paragraph 4" she smiled.

We signed and then got a tour. The building is a plain steel box, half of which is filled with clothing, toiletries and other supplies that are distributed locally. There are tables, some couches, a kitchen. There's a shower inside with hot water but showers were limited to 4 minutes. They had McGuyvered showers outside as well. Not very warm, but you can spend more time in them.

A loft that runs around the room has room to put your air mattress or small tent. The other option was camping in the field behind the ops center. More privacy. We opted for that.

We were introduced around. I remember no ones name but that doesn't bother anyone. People are in and out all the time. Most seem young and a few old hands round out a group of maybe 50. When they hear I have a van and tools they are delighted. I'm told I'll be a 'termite', someone who works with the tree removal crew. They look at Rossana. I decide to end any debate about if she can hack it. "She doesn't run a chainsaw but she's stronger then me."

"Okay, we meet at 7am for breakfast and try to get out on the road by 8. We have a lot of work tomorrow. All hands on deck" he says.

I look at our escort. "We normally have 3 outside crews and three inside crews and several crews back at base or working with the salvation army. But we can't keep up with the new requests for help. So tomorrow everyone is going out. It will be our busiest day yet."

"Fantastic" I smile. I'm still stiff from trying to go to the gym and from 2 days of driving.

We set up the tent and I make a call to Vlad, (a friend from the SCA) who had lived in the area until Katrina destroyed his house. He was back in town and he and his wife were in new base housing. (Vlads wife is in the Airforce, stationed at Kessler AFB). In fact, he said, we were only two blocks from his house. Why not come over?

Now I enjoy camping, but we will have plenty of time to rough it later, and Vlad was offering his spare room for the night. We drove over and spent the night catching up with them. It was strange. The last time I had been to Vlads house was when he was living in a sprawling place in Detroit. It had been packed with ornate furniture, swords, sconces. Vlad must have been a wealthy nobleman in a former life and his tastes run to the theatrically Baroque. But now he had whatever he could salvage from the old place wedged into the tiny 3 bedroom apartment. Vlad had also been insured, so he was replacing his destroyed furniture, but the massive credenza, desk, dining table etc were not coping well with the constraints of the 20th century utilitarian architecture. He needs a place to live, but the market is insane right now. And he things it would be better to build. Nothing remains of the grand old homes that used to line the beach. Nothing is left of many of the the Casino's that fed the states coffers. It will be at least a year before things are back to some semblance of normal. But he and his wife seem quite content to stay and are even planning of bringing his parents down.

I'm off to bed now. 6:30 comes damn early.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Half way there

Half way there
Originally uploaded by stevepack.
Got a late start yesterday. This would be because the doors were left open on the van all night, draining the battery. This was one of those "

I thought YOU closed them" situations where we stared at each other expectantly.

Luckily the racoons did not steal our food or power tools. We made it to Bowling Green KY last night. There are caves nearby I'd love to visit. Another time. We need to get to Biloxi with some daylight to spare if possible.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

I lied...

Dear Blog, by the time you read this (snif) I'll be gone...

We couldn't wait any longer. I was antsy as hell. I couldn't do any big projects here like paint the house or whatever. Most of our customers have their orders...we were mostly packed so we decided to just go.

I'm just finishing up some last minute paperwork. I'm applying to merchant at the SCA Estrella War. Most merchant applications are about 1 page long and require a check to be sent, maybe some photos. This thing weighs in at 12 pages. They want my merchant app, 2 pre-reg apps, proof of SCA membership, phots of us in costume(???), AZ tax licence, checks, DNA sample, fingerprints blah blah blah. Of course this is only a hassle because I have waited until the absolute LAST moment to do this shit. That is truly my worst character flaw, procrastination.

But all that's behind us now. We head out tomorrow morning and should arrive in Biloxi Sunday evening. Here's a pretty good 30 day report on how Hands on USA is doing.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

2 days and counting...

Remember when I said that the two things I was worried about were injury and ill health? Yeah.

Rossana's cold seemed to persist longer than it should and I demended (pleaded) that she go to see the doctor who promptly determined that she has strep throat. Great. Luckily she's getting the same great 5 day antibiotic regimine that I got when I had strep and walking pneumonia this spring. She should be feeling much better by friday. If she isn't, I'll start pouring rum with gunpowder down her gullet. That'll fix her up AND make 'er mean.

I decided that before doing any strenuous manual labor I should maybe warm up a little. The college has a weight room and Rossana and I have somehow turned a 6 month guest member ship into a year and a half mooch fest. I haven't been in there in months and today I am feeling the results of this inactivity. After two days in there it actually hurts to type. Dear god I'm out of shape. I'm getting winded using the mouse. At least I'm getting this stiffness out of my system now and not when I get there.

Despite the overcast skies and threat of rain there seems to be some rays of hope out there. The Rethuglicans seem to have lost ground this election. I can only hope that this trend continues in 06 and then 08. I think the Dems campaign slogan should be "We couldn't possibly fuck things up worse than they did."

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

I need to stop looking at the internets

Let me be clear here. I generally like cops. I have known several fine cops. Theirs is a very tough job with more responsability that I would want to handle. I am of the opinion that most cops are honest and hardworking people. So when I read this womans first person account of a night in a New Orleans prison I duly freaked out.

Honestly, I was too scared to be angry.

What is my ONLY consolation is this? The only upside? At least we're white. I can't believe I said it. But whites aren't getting anywhere NEAR the shit blacks are, and never have. I listened to an interview with Malik Rahim who helped start the Common Ground collective. He told of armed white militia types driving around Algiers looking for the shit right after Katrina and the police doing nothing. White volunteers could get into the city, but a car with 5 black doctors was turned away. Some of the National Guard hang out near the Common Ground clinic. Why? To protect them from the NOPD.

I honestly didn't believe this shit really happened any more, or at least would dissapear for a while in the wake of the disaster. There are more important things for the police to do than arrest people on bullshit charges and subject them to gulag like conditions.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Anxiety and Anger

In preparing for the trip I have been trying to find up to date blogs from people who have volunteered in New Orleans. It's been tough.

..people who come down here to volunteer seem to sink into this 'black hole' once they arrive here -- calls are rare and the phone lines are difficult; updates sporadic and disjointed......those who are outside of this 'black hole' find themselves trying to sort through bits and pieces of informtion to get a full picture of what is going on..

I did find a livejournal called Jenka's Journal where the above quote comes from. The stories told there are pretty bad. Yes, it's a blog by an angry young socio-liberal-communist-hippie-fight-the-man type and yes he does espouse some of the conspiracy theories that are popular (i.e. the 9th ward was intentionally flooded by blowing the levees) which I don't believe in but his first hand accounts are pretty powerful stuff. Go take a read. It will make you angry again, but thats good because we should not soon forget how we as a country fucked up.

I have also grown upset with the Red Cross, an organization that I have generally supported all my life with both donations of money and blood. I'll still donate blood, but money? No. Go take a look here and then go hug some bunnies to get your blood pressure down. The Red Cross does good work, but they could have done much more.

I started packing the van today. Doing shows for many years has tought me how to pack efficiently. Even after loading in two cases or water, tools, cleaning supplies, food, tent etc there was still a good amount of space left over. Rossana asked if we were going to sleep in the van on the way down and I considered it. But I'm 37 now and don't sleep as well in cars as I used to. I also want to arrive in Biloxi somewhat rested and not stiff and tired. We'll find some cheap motel to stay in for a night. I'll use the spare space to take an extension ladder and a wheelbarrow. Hands on USA says they have most everything needed, but I want to arrive self contained and ready to go.

I'm actually anxious to get started now. But I have to get as much business stuff out of the way as possible. I need to start booking shows for the winter and spring. We got an email saying the SCA event Gulf Wars down in Missisippi is happening this winter, but what kind of en event will it be? I heard that a large portion of the camp was basically destroyed. Will any local people show up? Cost-Con is gone. I saw the hotel we were supposed to stay at washed up and wreaked on the beaches of Biloxi.

The best news so far is that the gas fund is doing really great. Thanks to the many donations we've reached the $400 mark. I forgot that paypal grabs a chunk of every transaction which sucks, but we're at least good for fuel. If you still want to donate, please do. As I said any money left over will go to Common Grounds in New Orleans.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Holy Crap!

In addition to tying up women in corsets, I also have a side job as a web developer. I work with small businesses and Artist types to develop online stores where they can sell their goods. For the past few years I have worked with a cool guy named Chris Rupp. I built him two websites and Why am I dropping these URL's? Well, he just made a very generous donation to the gas fund. And I would be remiss if I didn't pimp his sites. If you like comics, go check out these stores. You won't be dissapointed. Thanks Rupp, I'm sorry I once called you an evil, horribly misshaped gnome :P

Tick tick tick

I'm running around trying to get shit done and all manner of things are cropping up trying to slow me down. Customers are anxious about their special orders and I understand that. I'm trying to straighten everything out before I leave. I had a website to build but the client has made almost zero effort to get me the info I requested. Fuck it, he must not be in a hurry then.

Went supply shopping today. The good news, gas was $2.05 at Sams club. I'm hoping the prices further south are also dropping. That means that our money will go further. The bad news, basic stuff still costs a lot of money. We got some more cleaning supplies at Big Lots and then shopped for extra work clothes at Goodwill.

The two things that are of concern to me now are illness and injury. Not there, but here! Rossana is sick. It takes a lot to put her out of commission. And she's fighting it, but we tend to pass colds back and forth. Also, I seem to have some sort of heavy object magnet implanted on my body. I managed to pull 6 heavy metal brackets off a shelf and onto my head yesterday. I dropped a ladder on my foot and almost fell down my own front stairs.

I've been in contact with organizers for both Hands On USA and Common grounds. Both are glad we're coming as there is still a need for volunteers. I'm told that most of the National Guard checkpoints have been taken down. They are also clearing space for all of the expected volunteers. They say that they hope to be able to feed everyone but its a good idea to bring your own just in case.

I'm a little nervous because the NOPD did not have the best reputation even in the best of times. There is still a curfew and several volunteers have been hassled and/or arrested on various or imaginary charges. Thanks to a customer of mine who happen to be a lawyer in Cleveland I should be able to track down a lawyer in Louisiana just in case something unpleasant happens. (Thanks Pete and Erika!)

Thursday, November 03, 2005 - 'Can I quit now?' FEMA chief wrote as Katrina raged - Nov 3, 2005 - 'Can I quit now?' FEMA chief wrote as Katrina raged - Nov 3, 2005

Goddamit I thought I couldn't get any madder and then I read this. Go read it and then go punch something. And this ASSHAT is STILL on the payroll at FEMA for another month at least.

I have cleared out the van of the last of the Ren-faire season stuff. After 2 days of cleaning and putting stuff away our garage still looks like a war zone. Tomorrow I'll start gathing all the gear I think we'll be needing in the shop.

A request for help.

I’m sorry if you get this message several times from several sources. I’m trying to reach as many of our friends as possible to ask for your help.

Like most of you, Rossana and I watched as Katrina became the worst natural disaster in recent history. We watched the dramatic rescues. We sat in front of the TV and witnessed as things went from bad to worse. We grew frustrated and then angry at what we were seeing. We wanted to help, so we made a donation to the Red Cross. But like any large agency, it has not been able to get help down to the local level. And the Red Cross is, by its nature, an emergency response agency, not a recovery agency. I won’t even go into the problems with FEMA. They are handling large scale issues and have not been effective at getting help to many areas.

The helicopter rescues are over and the cameras have left town. Other stories have pushed the disaster off the front page of the papers and the tv. Which is sad, because the hardest part is yet to come.

Although the hurricanes are over, the destruction from Katrina and Rita is still being keenly felt by the people of the Gulf Coast.

For the past few weeks I have been following the efforts of two groups. Hands on USA and Common Grounds

Both groups are attempting to help individuals and neighborhoods recover from this disaster. Hand on USA is helping perform debris removal, helping distribute aid and performing temporary repairs on homes in Biloxi. Common Grounds is operating a Medical Clinic, and is mobilizing a large volunteer force to help clean up the 9th Ward in New Orleans.

I know a lot of us donated money and some even tried to volunteer to go help but were thwarted by red tape and logistical problems getting into damaged areas. Now that the roads are mostly open and relief groups are established volunteers can finally start helping out. On November 11th Rossana and I are heading down to help with recovery efforts. I know a lot of you would do the same if you could, but keeping ones job and paying bills is pretty damn important too. Since we are self employed we can dedicate the time to this project without worrying about if we will have a job when we get back.

We wouldn’t mind staying a few months, but the reality is we can only stay until the 27th (on this trip). The other reality is that it will take a lot of gas to move us and our gear down there. A rough estimate based on current gas prices places the cost in the $300 - $400 range round trip.

That’s why we’re sending out this email. We’re asking for help to defray this cost. If you can spare $5 or $10 I have set up a paypal account for donations. I know its kinda crass to ask for donations, but the faire season wasn’t as outstanding as we’d hoped, and we still want to go down and do our small part.

This money will only be used to get us there and back. If one cent is left over then we will donate it to Common Grounds. If you want to help these groups directly (and I hope you do), go to their websites and donate. Both of these groups are small, fast moving and use more of the donations for direct relief.

If anyone can take off work for a week or two and wants to join us, we’d be happy to have you along. Just email me ( I can supply you with a list of stuff you should bring. No special skills are needed, this is sheer grunt work. We have all the tools we should need. Hands on USA will provide shelter and basic food (MRE’s) in Biloxi; the situation in New Orleans will be rougher. Resources are limited and we will likely be in tents and have to bring in our own food.

If you want to keep track of our progress I will be posting stories and photos to my blog at as often as time, energy and phone service allows.

The gulf coast will take a long time to recover, but it will recover. Day by day, house by house, person by person.

Thanks for your help everyone.

Steve and Rossana

Photos of Hand on USA at work :

Stories about Katrina Relief failures:

If you don’t have a paypal you can send your donation to us at home:

Steve Pack and Rossana Fichera

20350 Mosher Rd.

Wellington, OH 44090