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.