Six Month Warning

Flood Line

People of New Orleans!

In six months we’ll mark the ten year anniversary of the flooding of our city. Already the media machinery is gearing up for all kinds of coverage, and ordinary citizens elsewhere in the country and around the world will be provoked to remember us for a brief moment. They may wonder how we’re doing.

So get ready for that. It seems to me there are two ways to play this. You may wish to:

1) Avoid it as much as possible. Tune it out. Weather the media storm. There was a lot of trauma around that time, and you may prefer not to have those memories stirred. There’s been a ton of books and movies about the subject, and as a rule I’ve avoided them all — except for those I’ve produced myself.

2) Be prepared to talk about it. Have your soundbite ready. I imagine a lot of people will be asking for an assessment of where things stand here in New Orleans. Have we made a full and complete recovery? Be ready to answer that question. Be ready to volunteer your own perspective. I’m certainly not going to tell you what to say, but I hope your answer reflects some of the complications and nuances of reality.

These may seem like mutually exclusive strategies but they’re not, really. You can tune out the media blitz while still answering questions from friends, relatives, visitors, casual acquaintances, and even the odd reporter. In the age of social media, such interactions are easier than ever.

Any other ideas? Forewarned is forearmed.

Two Views

I look to houses and buildings for signs of our progress — or lack of it. People are more important than buildings, of course, but people move around. Many people never returned to the city. Besides which, people can hide their pain. The buildings are easier to read.

Five years after Katrina, we still have houses like this all over.

Five Years After

Note the front door is just standing wide open. This was taken in the 3000 block of Banks Street.

But here’s another photo that tells a different story.

Re: Building

Three years ago I took a photo of the building on this lot being demolished.

Now it seem a new building will stand where the old one fell. This is heartening. In fact there are five more buildings going up within a short walk from this one.

So which photograph represents the state of New Orleans today? I think they both do. This remains a city of contrasts. It can be a challenge to keep both these images in mind. We seem to have a natural tendency to reduce and simplify. We want to view things as black or white, positive or negative, with little nuance and few shades of gray. It’s difficult to integrate stark contradictions into a coherent whole.

But that’s exactly what we have to do if we want an accurate picture of where we live.


I commented a year ago (to the very day!) that some sidewalks around our home were impassable, some friends recommended a stroller upgrade. They didn’t understand that our stroller wasn’t the problem. The major obstacle just around the corner was Gwen’s FEMA trailer, as pictured here:


I don’t think any stroller in the world could jump over that thing.

Well, Gwen’s renovation is finally done. She’s out of the trailer and back in her house. And some time last week the FEMA trailer was removed at last. And now that stretch of sidewalk is passable. I know because I walk it every day with a baby strapped to my chest. Navigating that block was actually a bit tricky, and it just got a lot easier, which also means safer. So I’m happy for Gwen, for myself, and for another sign of progress on the long hard slog of this recovery. It may not seem like much, but it means a lot.

Now if I could just get my other neighbors not to park on the sidewalk…

All-Star Recovery

I notice I haven’t been writing about issues in the recovery of New Orleans nearly as much lately. That’s because my primary mission here is to write about what’s going on in my life, and my life has been more preoccupied by personal issues lately.

Nevertheless, I try to keep tabs on what’s going down in the world around me. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the recovery is complete, or that it’s going great guns, or that it’s stalled either. We continue to creep forward, but at a slow pace.

This past week’s NBA All-Star festivities dramatize the point. By all accounts it was a huge success, as were the two college bowl games the city hosted in January. (And yet they say we’re not ready to host a presidential debate?) These are clear indications that certain sectors of the city are back, full force. But the really revealing moment was the massive volunteer day organized by the NBA. It was the biggest single volunteer event since the flood. What does it say about the state of the recovery, that we’re having the biggest volunteer effort two and a half years after the disaster?

As Cliff says, “I like the days of service but that also means that there are still hundreds of things that need to be done.” We have a long way to go.

I’m aware of this every day. All I have to do is look around me. Our renovation may be done (though in an old house the work is never really done) but on one side we have a house that’s half-built, and on the other side we have a house that hasn’t even been gutted since the flood.

Meanwhile around the city, FEMA is urging the 30,000 still in FEMA trailers to get out because the formaldehyde causes cancer. People are still waiting for Road Home checks. The streets still run with blood. And in Baton Rouge the new governor is trying to push “ethics reform” while his own administration fends off mounting allegations of impropriety.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve made plenty of progress. But we still have a long, long way to go. A couple years ago I said it might take the rest of my life, and that’s looking like a good estimate.


Doesn’t it seem ridiculous that our collective mood should rise and fall based on what this guy says in his speech?

Tonight, the armies of compassion continue the march to a new day in the Gulf Coast. America honors the strength and resilience of the people of this region. We reaffirm our pledge to help them build stronger and better than before.

And tonight I’m pleased to announce that, in April, we will host this year’s North American Summit of Canada, Mexico, and the United States in the great city of New Orleans.

I don’t trust anything this president says. I don’t trust any president for that matter, but most especially this president. His famous speech at Jackson Square, in the aftermath of Katrina, was so full of broken promises. How could any of us trust him again?

And yet it is good to be remembered, unlike last year.

Yes indeed. It seems somewhat ridiculous.

Update: As usual, Oyster has a more insightful analysis.

Two Years

So where are we in the recovery of New Orleans, two years after the great disaster?

It’s been slow going, that’s for sure. I expected that. It’s killing people in less fortunate circumstances, but personally I can survive the slow pace of recovery — as long as I can see some progress being made. But sometimes it feels like we aren’t even moving in the right direction.

This second year after the flood has been, in some ways, more difficult than the first year.

Something like 200,000 people are still displaced. It seems increasingly likely that a good percentage of these will never return home. What is there to return to, anyway? Housing remains a huge issue. Rents are sky-high, and the homeless squat in abandoned buildings which then catch fire. Many people are still living in government-issued trailers, which are full of chemicals that make you sick, a fact the government tried to suppress. Blight abounds, yet perfectly good homes are put on the demolition list. The Road Home program has been a massive boondoggle. The public schools are still in crisis. Health services are scarce. The criminal justice system is dysfunctional and abusive. The local economy is weak. Poverty is widespread. Insurance companies continue to screw people over. Government has proven itself thoroughly incompetent, not to mention corrupt, time and time again. Flood protection is still inadequate.

And, worst of all, there’s the violence. This was made painfully clear to me in January, when my friend Helen Hill was murdered in her home. I felt at the time that Helen was killed by the city itself. Apparently I’m not the only one. It’s only gotten worse since then.

From crime to government to infrastructure, everything seems to be broken, and it all needs fixing at once.

Broken Lamp

There’s a streetlight on Jefferson Davis Parkway which was knocked over by the high winds of Hurricane Katrina. Back in the dark winter following the storm, I was drawn to the light of this lamp which was the only illumination for blocks. In the months since, it’s been disconnected from the electrical system and rolled to the side. At some point its neck was broken, and its valuable bulb was stolen long before that. City workers mow the grass around it, but it’s still there.

As I’ve observed many times before, this lamp is not very important in the big scheme. There are many other problems that are much more pressing.

On the other hand, if we can’t address those big problems, shouldn’t we at least address the little ones?

In the process of writing about all these negatives, I was given pause to reflect on the positives as well.

There are some signs of progress. My neighbor Charles finally got his Road Home check, and he’s working on his house. With luck he’ll be living there this fall.

Around the corner, Gwen is almost out of her trailer and back in her house. Almost.

A new report estimates that over one million volunteers have come here to help us since Katrina, including my parents (twice).

And although we’ve lost a lot of population, we’ve also gained some new people, brave souls who’ve come here expressly to rebuild a once great American city.

There’s a higher level of civic engagement than before the flood. Ordinary people are getting more active in their community, working to build a better life together.

In all, the positives seem much fewer than the negatives. Yet just the process of writing about them has made me feel better. In fact, I feel much better than I have any right to feel. It seems almost irrational. Despite all the challenges, I cling to the hope that we can make things better here, and that New Orleans will be a great city once again.


I’m not sure why, but there seems to be a real uptick in activity in our area lately. People are renovating flooded properties or demolishing and building anew.


For a while there it seemed that progress had ground to a halt. But now it seems to be lurching forward again. Slowly, slowly to be sure. And there are still plenty of properties just sitting untouched, as I noted yesterday. But the sound of hammers swinging is definitely increased, and it’s music to my ears.

Some Houses in the 3000 Block of Bienville

For Sale

If you want to live just around the corner from yours truly, consider this freshly renovated shotgun double in the 3000 block of Bienville. Live on one side, rent out the other! I have no idea what it’s like inside, but the paint job is pretty nice.

It’s listed for $175,000. Call Luke Jones at 504-905-9101.

3017-19 Bienville

Or you could buy this house across the street. It’s not been renovated nor has it been gutted. In fact the house is still full of flooded furniture. Both front doors are wide open and high weeds are growing in front. But structurally it appears to be in decent shape, at least to a passing glance.

The sign says it is for sale. I contacted the real estate agent and he said the owner (Terry Wilson of 1430 De Battista Pl, New Orleans LA 70131) has been notified of the problems repeatedly but hasn’t done anything. However, the real estate agent also said the property is under contract and should be sold soon.

3021 Bienville

Another house on Bienville owned by the good Terry Wilson. You can’t quite tell from this photo, but the front door is ajar. Like the house further down the block, this one has not been secured or cleaned or gutted. It is almost two years since the flood. When are property owners going to be held to account?

Aw, what the hell, here’s another, 3016 Bienville:

3016 Bienville

This one’s got an adjudication notice on it. In fact, I talked to some people about this house back in April. I wonder if they purchased it or decided not to bother. Obviously no one has taken even the rudimentary step of securing the entrance.


Some days I feel pretty gloomy about the way things are going in my little area of Mid-City.

But on other days I feel much more optimistic. Today is one of those better days.

For one thing, Charles is coming back. ACORN gutted his house today, and he’s doing right by Road Home. He’s going to be able to rebuild his 110 year old house which is just down the street from ours.


Charles is one of the few homeowners in the immediate area. When he’s back in the ‘hood with Gwen and Xy and me, I predict the stability factor will increase 50%.

Charles was a sight for sore eyes. But I’m also feeling good because across the street some guys are sitting at a folding table playing dominoes. There’s even a white dude at the table.

It’s almost starting to feel like Mid-City again.

On our side of the street, two teenage boys are lounging atop a car. They’re acting all thuggish and hard, as teenage boys are wont to do, but they’re playing Connect Four. That cracks me up.

New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward

I got a call a couple weeks ago from Tavis Smiley’s people. They wanted me to promote a television show on my blog. I’ve heard about this as the latest marketing trend, and I’m not sure what to think of it. On the one hand, I like to preserve this space as a place to write whatever’s on my mind, and I don’t want to serve as a tool for someone else’s marketing strategy. On the other hand, this television series is something I’d like to promote. So, at least this once, I’m playing along.

Here’s the e-mail follow-up they sent me. This sounds like good television, and I’d encourage my friends around the country to check it out tonight, and each night this week.

My name is Brian Steffen. I am currently working for KCET in Los Angeles and the television show “Tavis Smiley” that airs nationally every week night on Public Television. Currently in production is a five part series in which Tavis Smiley is joining forces with director Jonathan Demme to present series of short films on post-Katrina New Orleans called “Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward.” The five films examine the efforts of a group of New Orleanians who braved unimaginable adversity after the floods and in an attempt to reclaim their lives-primarily in the Lower 9th Ward. The residents presented in the documentary include teachers, ministers, a retired chef, volunteer workers, the owner of the legendary “Mother-In-Law Lounge,” librarians and other workers from all walks of life. “Right to Return” will air nightly for a week, beginning Monday, May 28th on the “Tavis Smiley” late-night program on over 200 PBS affiliates nationwide.

“This American story of lives lost, souls shattered and uncommon courage must be told, even though the waters have subsided,” stated Tavis Smiley. “I’m pleased and honored to have the opportunity alongside an iconic director like Jonathan Demme to tell that story.”

“This is an extremely personal project for me,” stated Jonathan Demme. “We started filming four months after the floods. I felt drawn, as an American film maker, to contribute somehow to the audio-visual record of what these people were going through in their heroic efforts to jump start their lives in the face of this epic, tragic event. I wanted to be a part of getting these stories out, and I am so thrilled and proud to be doing so with Tavis Smiley.” Jonathan Demme added, “It’s really wonderful that Tavis Smiley is providing a window into the lives of these amazing people — the spirituality, courage, imagination, tenacity, and humor that fuels their commitment to restore their homes is truly inspiring and moving to me.”

Each night, Jonathan Demme will join Tavis Smiley on location to introduce the people featured in each episode. The main individuals profiled will have the opportunity to talk about their current situation at the end of each program.

Everyone here at KCET and “Tavis Smiley” would appreciate your help in letting people know that the program is going to be aired. We would like to have a post on your blog about the program. We believe with your help more people will be able to see and hear these amazing individuals.

Read the full copy of the press release.


I passed by PJ & Andrea’s old house in Broadmoor to see if it had been demolished yet. I was surprised to see roofers at work.


It’s sad that PJ & Andrea aren’t here, but I’ve had a year and half or so to get used to that fact. They recently bought a house in Indianapolis where they seem quite happy. So for the most part, I just feel good that their old house doesn’t have to be demolished after all.

I was also gladdened to see sign of progress in the surrounding neighborhood, however slow it may be. Some houses are being gutted only now. There seems to be a bit more activity there than in our little pocket of Mid-City.

Framing the Issues on Our Terms

Last night we had our Mid-City Recovery Action Meeting, as we do on the first Monday of every month. We’d been planning since last week to address the designs that Victory Real Estate Investments, LLC, appears to have on twenty acres of Mid-City.

What we hadn’t anticipated was Saturday’s front page story in the Times-Picayune. That story really alarmed a lot of people. I saw it as a missed opportunity, but in retrospect, it was free publicity.

There were about 300 people at Grace Episcopal last night, more than we’ve ever had. It was standing room only, and the press was there too.

We knew a lot of people were not just concerned. They were upset. We expected the meeting might devolve into a forum for angry venting.

I have to praise Jennifer Weishaupt, Vice-President and chair of Economic Development for MCNO. She did a great job of providing all the background information. She framed the issue properly. She reviewed all the relevant planning efforts which neighbors and government have engaged in and supported.

One specific citation was particularly to the point:

Development of the warehouse area adjacent to the linear park with mixed use opportunities including multi-family housing, retail facilities, art studios and exhibit space… plazas, seats, landscaping and lighting.

The “linear park” is the Lafitte Corridor which runs right smack dab in the middle of the area where Victory want to build. More about that in a bit.

Jennifer asked for a show of hands — who’s in agreement with the principles that are specified in our neighborhood plan? It was virtually unanimous. Then she outlined the developer’s “Plan B,” the sprawling big box complex described in Saturday’s paper. Another show of hands? And all the hands stayed down.

In other words, Jennifer managed to get people informed and to understand that we’re largely in agreement with one another, and this did a lot to foster civil dialog rather than ranting.

She also pointed out that Victory had also presented a “Plan A,” a so-called “lifestyle development” which did not get mention in the paper Saturday. It’s my feeling that Plan B was presented to scare neighbors into embracing Plan A. But it seems we’re smarter than that.

I get the feeling that Victory hasn’t done its homework. Though the development was presented in Saturday’s paper as a fait accompli, in point of fact they own little of the land in question at this point. Furthermore, they seem to be completely ignorant of the planning for this area that’s already in place. That’s unfortunate, because these plans have the support of both the local community and the local government. These plans can’t be ignored if you want to be a player.

City Council member Shelley Midura was there to reassure neighbors that she works for the community, not the developers. “I don’t do deals,” she repeated several times.

I also spoke. I prefaced Jennifer’s presentation with some remarks about the Lafitte Corridor. Thought I’d post my notes here.
Continue reading “Framing the Issues on Our Terms”

Bleak and Bleaker

Two articles grabbed my attention this morning:

Reading these makes me sad and angry. The mainstream media is bleak enough, but these perspectives from the radical press are beyond bleak. I wish I could say that they are exaggerating, that they go too far, that what they are saying about New Orleans is not true. But I’m afraid they’re telling it like it is.

None of this is news to those of us living here. I only pass these links along in hopes that some more people outside New Orleans will read these articles and get a picture of the enormity of our struggle.

I’m desperate for a glimmer of hope:

Students from sixteen colleges, including Xavier, Tulane, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, San José State, Stanford, and University of Michigan have put out a call to all college campuses to participate in a “National Post-Katrina College Summit” for April 9-14.

The Post-Katrina College Summit will be a nationwide, weeklong effort to raise awareness about the Gulf Coast through documentary showings, speakers, spoken word, teach-ins, rallies, petition drives, and other events. The Summit is an attempt to catapult New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast back into the national consciousness and to promote federal legislation for a New Deal-style program for the Gulf Coast.


Xy and I went to see the Knights of Chaos last night. Schroeder’s posted a couple of pictures. It was a good satirical parade that made fun of all our so-called leaders.

Last year, I wasn’t really feeling the Carnival spirit until I saw Chaos and Muses.

This year, not so much.

For one thing, it was really cold. I was dressed warmly enough to be comfortable but Xy wasn’t. I gave her my coat. She also wasn’t feeling well. So we went home before Muses rolled, which was a shame, because Xy hasn’t ever seen Muses and I think she’d enjoy it. She’s not a big fan of any of the parades, and frankly neither am I, but after seeing Muses last year I’ve got to admit they are something special. They are the best of the major parades, with beautiful floats and more interesting throws than anyone else. I was bummed not to see them, but even more bummed for Xy’s sake.

For another thing, I’m in much more of a funk than I was a year ago. I know that the recovery of New Orleans will take a long time. A marathon, not a sprint, as the saying goes. But you can never finish a marathon by going in the wrong direction, and that’s what it seems like lately.

I’m still hoping against hope to have a little fun on Mardi Gras. If only I had a good idea for a costume.

PS: Thanks to Adrastos & Dr. A for the hospitality along the parade route.

How to Help?

I got a message a few days ago from a prof at a Big State University. (No, not my alma mater.) I’m sharing it here in edited form:

I have been following your blog since Katrina… I use your blog and videos to talk to students in a preservice technology education course about the power of technology and its role in reporting first person history, giving voice to everyday citizens, enacting social change, and especially giving voice to children (I have them watch Kalypso’s New Orleans)… As as I am preparing to teach my class on blogs and other web media the week of Valentine’s Day, I visited your blog to read your latest entries. At the end of this post you say “I invite you to join this effort in whatever way you can”…

…I wonder how people who are not in the Gulf Coast could assist New Orleans in their efforts to rebuild and become a reasonably safe place to live and visit? I read similar comments in some of the coverage of your recent friend’s death (My sympathies to all)… I find myself asking – how can those who are concerned throughout the country help in your efforts. What bills and legislation might help to positively improve the situation? And perhaps this is a better question to your wife, as I am involved in training future teachers here, how might we be able to drive home the point that there are real children living in this environment and we all could assist in rebuilding the city and supporting those that have stayed and are teaching the children of the city. (beyond the notebook and school supply drives that seem to crop up in Fall)

I know a lot of people are asking you questions bigger there than you probably ever thought you might grapple with you when you decided to leave Bloomington for the gulf coast. If you had resources or suggestions on how your community could be supported – I have a captive audience of about 70 students a semester who will at least pretend to listen. It was amazing to me last semester, how especially our session on Internet video really got students thinking about a child’s perspective of the city. I do believe it had an impact.

Any thoughts you might have or websites that you think might add to the discussion and encourage participation would be greatly appreciated… I worry sometimes that by presenting my students information without an opportunity to participate or respond – might devalue the perspectives and reduce them to a distant tabloid story or blip on the daily news.

Messages like this are very heartening. But to answer the question, there are many ways that people can help New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Here’s a few off the top of my head.

  • First, it’s important to be informed. Many of our local news outlets are aimed to a local audience and are not ideal for people elsewhere. In that regard I’d recommend and Voices of New Orleans. Both are published in a blog format which makes it easy to subscribe and get updates.
  • There’s an membership organization called Friends of New Orleans. Join up!
  • Regarding federal legislation: Urge your congressional representatives to revise the Stafford Act, or even to waive it, to speed up the recovery. The details of this are beyond me, but Christopher Cooper’s article seems to give a good overview of the issues. Of course, federal legislation is a moving target. Today’s cause is tomorrow’s old news. Stay informed using the sources above.
  • Global warming is a big issue that affects everyone on the planet, but low-lying coastal cities like New Orleans may feel the pain the first, in the form of increased hurricane activity and rising seas. The scientific consensus is that greenhouse gases are the primary cause of this recent warming trend. There are a myriad of ways for people to get active on this issue. I hardly know where to suggest starting, but Green House Network looks promising.
  • Not afraid to get your hands dirty? Plenty of people are coming to New Orleans to help gut houses and do other recovery work. One way to connect is through church groups. That’s how my parents got hooked up with Camp Restore. Secular counterculture types may be more interested in volunteering with the Common Ground Collective. Coming here to help is not for everyone, but it’s a great way to connect to the local culture and also know that you really are helping individual people.
  • There are a myriad nonprofits working for a better future for New Orleans. Even from hundreds of miles away, people may find ways to connect with and support the efforts of these groups. I’ll recommend a few that I can personally vouch for: Think New Orleans, The Urban Conservancy, Friends of Lafitte Corridor, Mid-City Neighborhood Organization.

I’m sure there are many, many other ways that people can help. Feel free to post your ideas in the comments.