Saturday, August 29, 2009

Four Years On

Sandbar, Gulf Coast near Waveland MS

I have nothing new, or good, to report. Happy 4-year anniversary.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

McKain Street Erased

McKain Street, after Katrina

My mom reports that McKain Street in New Orleans has been bulldozed. I feel like a psychic umbilical chord has been cut. Our history being erased.

This is why I make photographs. To preserve what life must destroy. It’s a melancholy art. Embalming loved memories.

She writes:
"beautiful day - bridget and her husband came and got me and lorraine and we drove the back way down hwy 90 down chef menteur hwy and we went to visit mckain street and were totally shocked to find that it has been torn down and is no longer in existense...just a vacant lot...the only thing left of mommas house was the top part of the front porch bulldozed over to the front side of the lot and her two concrete flower pots...which we took as our mothers day for me and one for lorraine. after the shock of mckain street gone, it did make me joyful to know that no crackhead would live in her house again...another door of the past closed and it makes your pictures of it even more precious to us!"

Friday, September 05, 2008

Miss New Orleans (8 songs in the key of nola)

Miss New Orleans (8 songs in the key of nola)

Led Zeppelin - When The Levee Breaks
Kid Koala - Basin Street Blues
Professor Longhair - Go To The Mardi Gras
Johnny Cash - Big River
Janis Joplin - Me and Bobby McGee
Bob Dylan - House of the Rising Sun
Scarlett Johansson - I Wish I Was In New Orleans
Louis Armstrong - Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Twitter Tumblr Updates

I'm replacing the Twitter feed with my Tumblr, everything tagged "Gustav" here.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Three Years On

Happy Katrina Day, if you're reading this. I don't know why you would be, I've neglected it for so long, but it's still here, like a tree just waiting to be watered, and so here I am again today.

So much has happened since Katrina changed everything three years ago. And still so much is the same. I feel like a fraudulent reporter even touching on what's happened. It's ridiculous to come back here once every few months for updates, when the recovery is daily, and I'm so distant.

Every few weeks I resolve to recommit myself to this, and then disappoint myself by not. Sorry to the universe.

Facts: my mom is back on her property in a beautiful little home she's overjoyed to live in, built by successive waves of wonderful volunteers since the storm. She's just received some rebuilding money from the state of Mississippi which she's using to shore up the rough spots left over, and to elevate the house to new FEMA standards (which change frequently since the storm).

She recently received a creepy pre-recorded phone warning from Governor Haley Barbour telling her to evacuate in the path of Gustav, as if she wasn't planning on it already.

That's her on the left in the above picture. Next to her is her childhood friend Russell. Next to him is her sister, my aunt Lorraine, who's self conscious about her down-turned smile since the stroke, but who I think is just as beautiful and beaming as she's always been. The three of them grew up together first on Piety Street, then on McKain Street, in New Orleans.

Their dads worked together in the junkyard, chopping up cars for scrap using big hand axes. Russell had nineteen brothers and sisters, in a family poorer even than mine. Now he lives in a FEMA trailer on an abandoned lot with two dogs, a bunch of Katrina junk, a statue of the Virgin Mary he hand painted, and an old school bus backed up to a canal cruised by alligators, which he fishes out of for meals.

His sister was murdered in New Orleans last week. The New York Times wrote a piece about the crime in New Orleans, the crime that took Russell's sister.

It mentioned Piety Street. I don't know how any of this fits together on this day. But I know that it does.

I'll be back soon.

Monday, March 03, 2008

One House At A Time Update

"The recovery from Hurricane Katrina is far from the front pages these days. There were still 30,000 families (over 110,000 American individuals) still living in FEMA trailers earlier this month (feb 2008), when the "news" of deadly levels of formaldehyde in the trailers was finally reported.

I began filming this story one month after Katrina came ashore, and I recently returned to the devastated and impoverished town of Pearlington Mississippi. Even though its several miles from the actual coast, the storm surge and the wind brought this place to the brink of its very existence. The waves that came through this town and destroyed everything in their path first had to pass through a few Chemical Plants and Oil refineries out in the Gulf of Mexico. This was not merely sea water that carried these homes away, it was a deadly stew of unknown and unreported toxins.

This story follows the recovery efforts of one group that has been based in Pearlington as soon as the roads were clear enough to get in. One House At A Time is building homes for people of Pearlington who want to stay in the place where they call home. This video tells a little of their story, but anyone who has been there will tell you, there is no video that can be shot that can express the sort of devastation that has occurred on our own soil, to our own people. So go see it for yourself, and bring a hammer." -Kevin Leeser, March 2008
Link: One House At A Time project site
Link: This video on Current TV
Link: High-resolution Quicktime video

Previously on Operation Eden:
Hope, One House At A Time
Merry Christmas From Pearlington
Rebuilding Hope and Habitat

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two Years On And Counting

Ma Mère (Old Ma. Grandma. MawMaw) Holding Baby Siege In Prediluvian New Orleans East

Two years today. No new words of wisdom. I'm much shallower than I was then, but swimming in the deep end. I've rededicated myself to making as much money as I can while still trying to retain some residual soul. I want to make as much money as I can because in modern America each dollar you have makes you worth more as a human, and I want my whole family to have worth as humans. I want to try to retain some residual soul while I pursue dollars, because I don't want to resemble most modern Americans. I don't know if this is possible, but I'm trying, and some days it hurts to hold both goals at once, so I have to occasionally drop one.

Eyemazing, the international journal of contemporary photography, has an interview with me in the current issue about my Katrina body of work. The piece on me shows up somewhat after the piece on David Lachapelle and the piece on Andres Serrano. By it for them and get me as lagniappe. It was written by another Clayton, Clayton Maxwell, who's the only female Clayton I've ever met. It goes like this:
"Clayton James Cubitt can't be pinned down. A charming amalgam of art porn photographer and political activist, he's in Brooklyn documenting his sex life one day, then in New Orleans photographing mayor Ray Nagin and Bounce Musicians the next. His photo-blog on, The Daily Siege, is one of the best sources of intelligent, open sexuality on the web, while his other blog, Operation Eden, is devoted to the aid of Hurricane Katrina victims. We caught up with Cubitt at an East Village bar in New York, where he filled us in on his series of Katrina portraits, the role of photography amidst tragedy, and America's canary in the coalmine.

Clayton Maxwell: On your website,, the only description of this series of Katrina photos is: "Portraits of the survivors and volunteers of Hurricane Katrina, taken in the days immediately after the storm hit." I know you had to fly down to New Orleans from Brooklyn to find your mom, who was living there at the time, and help out. When, amidst all of that, were these portraits taken?

Clayton James Cubitt: Most of the portraits presented here were taken in the week immediately following the disaster. There was no electricity, running water, phone lines, and the national guard was only just beginning to clear roads and distribute ice and MREs to survivors.

CM: Could you tell me about your ties with New Orleans - when did you live there? Who in your family was there when Katrina hit?

CJC: My family's from New Orleans going back a few generations, and I spent most of my formative years there and on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. All of my family lore comes out of New Orleans, and I credit it with forming who I am as an artist, besides making me who I am as a man.

My mother and little brother were missing for a week after the storm, and lost nearly everything, including the home I had just bought for them earlier that year. My aunt and uncle were left homeless, as were several cousins, some of who were forced to relocate in Texas.

CM: Why did you want to do these portraits? Was there a specific message you wanted to convey?

CJC: The people I most photographed were the poor and dispossessed. Those who had very little before the storm, and lost even that when the storm hit. This is the socio-economic class I grew up in - poor whites mingling with poor blacks, all being shut out of the American Dream. I intended to show their inherent pride, their dignity, and the hard work of their lives etched on their faces.

CM: Where were they taken? All of them except for three seem to be taken in a studio-like setting. Why did you choose that rather than shooting the subjects in the context of their surroundings at the time?

CJC: The studio portraits were taken in a former school gymnasium that had been cleared out and cleaned, and was serving as a distribution point for aid in the small Gulf Coast town of Pearlington, Mississippi, which was ground zero for Hurricane Katrina. The whole town was under 30 feet of storm surge, and had to fend for itself with no outside help for almost ten

I wanted to shoot many portraits in a studio context in order to separate these images from the flood of photojournalistic images that came out of New Orleans. I think people have become so jaded as visual consumers that when they see a photograph that's obviously reportage, they immediately shove it into a safe little compartment called "other." This happens in Haiti, or Africa, or Pakistan, not America, and all the images look the same, with the victims of the tragedy filling the same role, that of making Americans feel relieved that they live in America. Well, this is America.

I wanted to short-circuit that automatic filing. I wanted to present these people with the same care and respect I would use when on assignment shooting a portrait of a celebrity or a politician. I think it allows for a lingering appreciation of what they've been through, in small doses, rather than in an overwhelming image of total disaster, which is very hard to really absorb in the two seconds most viewers allot a photograph.

But mostly, I wanted to treat them with the respect they deserve, but never get.

CM: How or why does photography matter in times like the aftermath days of Katrina? Do you think that recording elements of the catastrophe on film can make a difference?

CJC: No amount of writing could ever convey the scale of the disaster. Even single photographs were insufficient to the task; it was so massive. The storm impacted an area the size of Great Britain. I found I had to combine my writing and images in order to give people even a small glimpse into the scale of this tragedy, and I feel like I've failed miserably to even do that.

You really have to visit to know how huge it is.

CM: Looking at this series, I try to guess who are the volunteers and who are the victims, obviously making somewhat unreliable assumptions - that the most weathered and dazed faces must be the victims, for example. Did you have an intention in leaving that distinction ambiguous?

CJC: Yes, and my intent was to blur the line between "them" and "us". The past few years have been very polarized ones in America, with partisan camps readily separating themselves from each other, always quick to demonize and attack the other side. The culture hasn't been this divided since the Civil War. Even in the days immediately after the storm hit, partisans were using it for fodder to gain an upper hand in the culture wars, while innocent victims still struggled for life.

I found this disgusting. Repugnant. I wanted to show all these people simply as Americans. Americans who needed help from other Americans, and from their government.

CM: Did these subjects tell you their stories? How did you know them?

CJC: I talked with everybody I photographed, and they all had stories of tragedy and loss and survival, and resignation. At the end of each day I was exhausted from just seeing and listening. Many of their stories I published on my blog, Operation Eden (, which for a time became a central clearing house for volunteers and people seeking
to send relief, and citizens who were curious about what the mainstream media wasn't presenting.

CM: Could you tell me about the guy in the Avon hat? What did he experience?

CJC: His name is Brother Pierre, and he was a tragic case even before the storm hit. He's been homeless for many years in the small town of Slidell, Louisiana, one of the local towns I grew up in, just a few minutes from New Orleans. Like many homeless in America, he picks up cans and trash from the sides of roads to sell for recycling. I found him on the destroyed grounds of a local high school, picking up cans from the wreckage, as if it were just another day. I suppose to him it was.

And that was one of the saddest realizations for me about this whole experience. That in a country as powerful and wealthy as America, there are people so abandoned, so poor, so hopeless, that the wreckage of the largest natural disaster in our history doesn't do much to worsen their prospects. There is nothing beneath the bottom. It's really just insult to injury.

CM: Is your family still there? How are they recovering?

CJC: Most are still there, struggling along as best they can, and I'm helping them as best I can. Some have given up on New Orleans and started in other parts of the country. My mother and little brother benefited much from the publicity I drummed up with my blog Operation Eden, and I'm happy to report that a wonderful volunteer group called One House At A Time ( came into my mom's little community of Pearlington and rebuilt her home, as well as the homes of many of her neighbors.

The big struggle now, after all this time, is to find volunteers who are willing to travel down and donate labor to help rebuild. Even two years later, this is still largely a volunteer effort, as the national and local governments have either abandoned their duties or been totally ineffective, or both.

CM: What do you remember most about those days when you were down there shooting?

CJC: The heat, the humidity, the utter devastation. It was all I could do to focus on making the images. I could remain sane if I could take it in through my viewfinder, one photo at a time. But I also remember the human compassion, the care, and regular people helping each other. Ordinary citizens from across the country coming down on their own to help in whatever way they could, while their politicians and "leaders" could only argue, and stage photo-ops.

CM: Do you know what happened with any of the people in your photos? If the victims pulled through OK?

CJC: Most still struggle. Most are still in temporary housing, or are trying to rebuild lives far from home and family. Some have gotten worse, turned to drugs, despair. This is far from over, and the people there still need so much help, as much as I'd love to be able to tell you that all has been fixed.

CM: How do you feel about New Orleans now?

CJC: I think New Orleans is the canary in the coalmine for a huge range of issues facing modern America, and the world at large. The Katrina disaster frames so many debates: global warming and climate change, wealth disparity, the proper role of government versus private corporations, the failure of media to keep its citizenry well informed.

When people look at New Orleans, as it struggles to live, or as it withers and dies, I want them to think of their own city in its place. I want them to know that this could be them. These faces could be theirs. It might be a natural disaster, it might be war, it might be terrorism, and it doesn't matter how safe they think they are, they're not. I want them to put themselves in the place of these Americans.

And I want them to remember this feeling the next time they're in the voting booth. Because who you have running your government makes the difference between your hometown living or dying. Don't forget that. Your vote matters."

Monday, June 11, 2007

New Orleans Is An American City

New Orleans is an American city. Her porches fly American flags, just like porches in Peoria. Each morning her children say the Pledge of Allegiance, just like children in Boise. She was once attacked simply for being an American city, just like New York was.

So why has she been abandoned by her country? Why has she been abandoned by her President? Why do we spend more money each month in a foreign war of opportunity than we do in restoring one of our greatest cities from the worst calamity in its long history?

Why, in this second hurricane season after The Flood, is she all alone? Why is she still dark at night? Why are her citizens still scattered, forgotten, neglected? Why are her levees still weak? What happened to the promises?
"Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."
In the America I was raised to believe in, promises meant something. Can we work to restore that America, along with New Orleans? Or is it too late?

And if it's too late for New Orleans, what does that mean for the future of your home town? Will yours be the next to fall off the American map, despite the fervor with which you fly your flags, and say your pledges?

Monday, January 15, 2007

A Time to Break Silence

James Peters, Pearlington hero, still living in a FEMA trailer.

"A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such." -Martin Luther King, Jr. 1967

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Katrina Mental Health PSA #2

Ad agency Grey Worldwide worked with the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Ad Council to create a series of PSAs highlighting the need for Katrina surivors to reach out for help. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are rampant throughout the survivor population in the Gulf Coast.

They sent me down to photograph survivors for the ads. I spent a week in New Orleans and Mississippi. This is the second ad to come out.

CNN Commentary: Katrina victims 'stuck on stuck'
"It is morally intolerable that a year after Hurricane Katrina, many thousands of children and families are still suffering and going without critical supports like health care, mental health care and housing and schooling in the richest nation on earth.

Experts testified at a July congressional hearing in New Orleans that mental health needs are a critical concern for survivors. There are only 10 mental health pediatric and youth beds available in New Orleans, although the number of children with unresolved mental health problems has increased. There were 3200 physicians in Orleans and surrounding parishes before the storm; only 1400 are practicing now -- requiring many families to see unfamiliar doctors and to drive many miles for health care. Homelessness is on the rise, and thousands of people continue to live in shelters, trailer parks, and with relatives and strangers with no relief in sight -- just "stuck on stuck," as a homeless state employee said."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Hope, One House At A Time

Pearlington Mississippi was never much to look at, as far as towns go. Even before Katrina it had barely 1,600 citizens. It doesn't have a main street, or a town square. It doesn't have a mayor or a city council. Since Katrina, it doesn't have a post office, a library, or an elementary school. It's a collection of winding country roads, of mossy trees and swamps, dotted with a patchwork constellation of homes, most quite humble even before the storm sank them under twenty feet of muddy water.

It's primordial America. It's America before mega-malls and exurbs and freeways stitched it up and plasticized it. But this isn't the autumnal village America featured in political ads or Rockwell paintings, either. This is the dirty deep American South, scruffy and proud. Red mud and fried shrimp. Hard work and love of God. Blacks and whites on different sides of town, mingling in the middle. It sits on old Highway 90 midway between the decadent nights of New Orleans and the white beaches of Biloxi. It's a tiny microcosm of Louisiana and Mississippi lost in the bayous on the border between them. It's the old American dream, covered in drifting Spanish moss.

And Eugene Keys has lived there all his 77 years. He lived there back when it was a logging town called, appropriately enough, Logtown. That's how he made his living, hauling logs, one at a time, over his broad shoulders. Until diabetes took his legs and sat him in a wheelchair. The morning Katrina roared up the Pearl River he was having a cup of coffee with his older brother William, and they watched that wall of water wash away all they ever had. They barely survived, clinging to the rafters. Eugene's electric wheelchair shorted out. His prosthetic legs drifted off. But Eugene and William survived, together.

They lay stranded in the house for two days without food or water before family members could reach them. Pearlington itself lay stranded for ten days before the first rescue workers showed up. Like I said, Pearlington has no government, and having no government means having no clout. When aid dollars flow and resources get allocated, having no government means having no voice to call for it. And Pearlington has been clinging to the rafters since the storm hit, with only the aid of big-hearted volunteers from around the country keeping it afloat.

And for months after the storm hit the volunteers flowed, and help came in, and hope started to creep in. Maybe it doesn't matter that all the news covers New Orleans, people started to think. Maybe we won't be forgotten again, small as we are, quiet as we are. And bunkhouses were built on the grounds of the old elementary school to house the volunteers. Tents served meals, trailers housed showers, and for a time it was that old American dream again. An old-fashioned barn raising, writ large.

But it started fading after the first anniversary of Katrina. News coverage that had been dimming for months suddenly flared up and then blinked out. A year is a nice neat package. Let's wrap that mess up and come back next year to see how those poor people are doing. And soon after the volunteers started dwindling. Now they're almost all gone. The bunkhouses remain. Meals are available. Hot showers too. Just add people.

One of those groups volunteering to rebuild Pearlington is called One House At A Time, and I've been donating my photographs to help them since day one. They've been building beautiful little Gulf Coast shacks for poor people left homeless by the Storm. Poor people who lived in tents for months while FEMA had trailers sitting in vast open fields near Hattiesburg. Poor people like Eugene Keys. They'd hoped to help him, and hundreds of his neighbors, but time is running out, and hope is fading again. There are dozens of these little houses under construction in Pearlington. Dozens of lives almost restored. Dozens of futures almost reclaimed. Eugene Keys is just one of them.

One House At A Time Cottage

So here's what I'm saying, what I'm asking. The point of this little story, and I hope I'm not too late saying it. If you never got around to doing anything during the Katrina tragedy, if you were too paralyzed by shock, or disgust, or sadness, and now you feel like you missed it, you missed your chance to help, I want to tell you that you haven't. You can still do something. You can donate something to One House At A Time. You can donate time, or money, or materials. You can spread the word to people who still care. You can help rekindle the hope. You can still save lives.

As I write this winter is almost upon us in the Gulf. Did you know that the FEMA trailers people waited so long to get are being taken away in February? Will the citizens of Pearlington be back to living in tents then? Not if One House At A Time can help it, and you can help them. Like I said, Pearlington was never much to look at. It's no New Orleans. It's no Biloxi. But it's a part of America that's fading fast and deserves to survive. Because if you go far enough back, all our families come from some place like Pearlington.

Donate/Paypal - One House At A Time

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Light Is Calling

This is cinematic poetry. Light Is Calling, 2003, by Bill Morrison. It has nothing to do with Katrina, but it sings what is in my heart when I lift my camera up to the sepia disaster in the Gulf.
Interview with Bill Morrison.
Music by Michael Gordon.
Original source footage from The Bells, James Young, 1926.
See also: Decasia, by Bill Morrison.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Grim Meathook Future Of New Orleans

Charity Hospital, built when people used to dream about the future.

GMF Explained

Times-Picayune: When needed most, psych services gone

"In a scene that is becoming disturbingly common, New Orleans police were summoned during the July 4th weekend to Mid-City to deal with a paranoid schizophrenic man who had turned violent.

The man had lost his home in eastern New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina and had stopped taking his medications, he told friends, because the free clinic where he used to get the drugs also was obliterated by the storm.

Filthy and confused, he spit and cursed at officers as a half-dozen wrestled him to the ground and strapped leather restraints on him. They found three pairs of scissors in his clothes and two ice picks, one hidden in his cap.

Before Katrina, he would have been taken to Charity Hospital, where a special psychiatric team could have evaluated him and maybe kept him overnight. But in post-Katrina New Orleans, there are no such teams and no beds available for overnight stays.

He was taken instead to one of the private hospitals outside the city that have grudgingly accepted psychiatric patients since the storm. Fifteen minutes later, the man was released. Out of their jurisdiction, New Orleans police said they could only watch as he began to make his way back to the city."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Tear Drop

The first in a series of Public Service Announcements I shot for Katrina survivors

My heart hurts for my hometown, for the Gulf. I can't sleep at night, my chest is tight. These amazing people, the huge hugs they give, the smiles they flash, the parties they throw. If you've ever experienced their spirit you never forget it. That's what makes this so hard for me.
"Summing up what has happened since the hurricanes destroyed large parts of four Gulf Coast states last August, doctors from the departments of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, Duke University Medical Center and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center paint a fairly grim picture of the instability that has followed:

• One survey found that 68 percent of female caregivers had a mental health disability because of symptoms of depression, anxiety or other psychiatric disorders.

• Another survey found that 19 percent of police officers and 22 percent of firefighters reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while 26 percent of police and 27 percent of firefighters reported major depressive symptoms.

• A crisis-call center in Mississippi handling inquiries mostly from people dealing with depression and anxiety reported a 61 percent increase in volume between March 1 and May 31, 2006, compared with the period just after the hurricanes, Oct 31 and Dec. 31, 2005.

• The deputy coroner of New Orleans recorded almost a threefold increase in suicide rates, from nine per 100,000 to 26 per 100,000 in the four months after Katrina hit. And the murder rate in New Orleans, which fell in 2005, has risen by 37.1 percent above pre-hurricane levels for the first half of 2006.

• In Louisiana, mental health counselors supported by federal government agencies made 158,260 referrals. This doesn't include people who sought support independently.

• Recent estimates suggest that only 140 of 617 primary-care physicians have returned to practice in New Orleans. Only 100 doctors along the Gulf Coast area are participating in the Medicaid program, compared to 400 before Katrina hit.

• And estimates also suggest that only 22 of 196 psychiatrists continue to practice in New Orleans, while the number of psychiatric hospital beds has been sharply reduced: as of June 14, the authors said, there were only two psychiatric beds within a 25-mile radius of New Orleans.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

One Year Holding On

Today is silence for me. Breathe in, breathe out. Respect for all that we've endured, thankfulness for all the help we received. Jaw set tight. It's still too enormous for me to get my head around, so I won't try. Words are often useless for me, and today, more so.

So instead, a simple photograph of my mom's Eden, one year on. She's sitting on the front porch of what will be her new home soon. It's risen on the foundation of the home Katrina destroyed, only steps away from her FEMA trailer, and every day she looks out the trailer window a thousand times at it, and her gold smile lights up, and she whispers "Thank you, Jesus."

It's been built by the sweat and love of volunteers from all over the country. From all walks of life they've come into the Gulf to help their brothers and sisters. Normal, average Americans, disgusted by their government's inaction, they've picked up hammers and done it themselves.

One day there's a moldering heap of rubble, the next day hippie volunteers from Burning Man bulldoze it and take it away. One day it's a flat slab of concrete, the next day a pre-fab home kit is delivered by One House At A Time and New Hope Construction. One day there's a jumble of materials, the next day a church group from Oregon shows up and builds the frame and shell. A little later a group from Pennsylvania shows up and paints it my mom's favorite shade of green, and puts a tin roof on so she can hear the rain fall at night. And not to be outdone, a group from Alabama comes over and sheet rocks the interior, then comes back and builds her a deck for good measure.

Like I said, too enormous for me to get my head around. So today I want to just sit and rest, and enjoy the look of pride and place in my mom's eyes.

We may have far to go, but we've come a long way.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Katrina Every Day

Imagine that more than half of all the homes in your city were destroyed. Moldering, decaying. Imagine that all the friends and neighbors that lived in those homes were scattered across thousands of miles. Imagine all the history of your life, your family's life, the culture that you breathed in, muddied and torn.

You'd be depressed right? Sad? Stressed? Maybe even suicidal? I would be. I'm thousands of miles away, and I am.

What would my life have been like if I'd never left New Orleans? What if instead of becoming a photographer in New York, I became one down there? Would I be like John McCusker now? Here is a man who couldn't take any more.

There are many more like him. The suicide rate in the K-hole is three times higher than it was before Katrina. Depression is the norm.

I'll be there over the next week making portraits of survivors for use in public service announcements highlighting the need to reach out for help when it all gets to be too much.

It's just a tiny drop of help in a vast ocean of need.

Friday, August 11, 2006


Eden, Nine Months On

Where are we now?

Too much to write all at once, so just the basics. My mom and little brother wintered in the love and care of the Bennett family, of Elizabeth and Kenny and Mr. Jack, and daughters Toni Marie and Kailie, and all the huge-hearted people in Swansboro, North Carolina. About four months ago my mom had to return to Pearlington in order to keep her job, which had been held for her through the Herculean efforts of her boss and friend Mr. Simpson.

That's not the only reason she had to return, though. As the rest of the country inevitably turned its eyes from the Gulf and its suffering, she felt more and more isolated each day. A lone little bottle of Katrina mud floating in a sea of tranquility. Misery truly does love company, and she felt the need to go back and blend into the misery and grinding survival of the Gulf, with people who truly knew what she was feeling, thankful for the salvation that was the Bennett family, and strengthened by the time she had had to recuperate and clear her mind.

Strengthened for the fight, she could join with her neighbors and family in rebuilding her homeland. Refusing to give in, refusing to surrender. So for the past four months she and my little brother have been living in a FEMA trailer on her property. It's not nearly as nice as the place the Bennett's donated, but it's good enough for more than 100,000 other survivors. Successive streams of volunteers have trickled through Pearlington, helping her and her neighbors in amazing ways, which I'll go into later.

And where have I been? Why I have neglected this story, even as so much happens, and so much need remains? I ask myself these things every day, and have only a jumble of half answers and excuses.

There hasn't been a single day since the storm hit that it hasn't been on my mind. Not a day goes by that I don't worry about my family, and my hometown, and its despairing future, and what I can do to insulate them from it.

I needed to focus on my career, to keep it on track, to make sure I have enough money to be counted in modern America. I knew I'd have a few months to do this while my family was safe in North Carolina, and hurricane season had yet to start. You saw those images one year ago just as I did. You saw poor people drowning in my poor city. You saw working class people having everything taken away in a single day, all along the Gulf. Each dollar I sweat for is one more chance at survival for my family. Each dollar I sweat for makes my family count a little more. How much is enough in this new America? I don't know. How much was enough in Gilded Age America? Because that's where we're headed, and I don't want us left behind again. So I've been hustling.

But it was more than that. I was overloaded. I felt like I couldn't do enough, there wasn't enough time in the day to show all of the pictures, and tell all of the stories. I'm a perfectionist, and if I can't do something justice I don't want to do it at all. I don't want to let it down, I don't want to sully its power. I feel like I couldn't do it all at once, and since I switched the comments into a moderated format to prevent increasing abuse from partisans, I felt like I didn't want to do it at all.

But I didn't quit. I continue to donate my photographs to aid organizations working in the Gulf. I continue to raise donations for relief. I applied for (and unfortunately did not get) a Soros Foundation grant to continue the documentation in the Gulf.

And I'm still not quitting. I'll be back down next week to photograph more, to help in the rebuilding, to donate my work to relief, and just to visit with my family. My heart is there, it's always been.

And always will be.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Missing, Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras beads rest on a flooded crypt. It had floated out of its cemetery. Pearlington, Ms.

I've been missing, but I've been here. I've not abandoned this, or you, or lost hope, I've just been working hard in other ways. Ways that I'll talk about later this week. I'm just one person, and can only do so much at once, so I had to shut down parts of myself in order to invest in the future survival of my family, and my hometown. Most of you will understand. Some of you will never understand. I'm fine with that, but I'm sorry I've been gone.

I'm stuck in cold NYC right now. My mom and little brother are still in North Carolina. I just wish we were all in New Orleans today, wearing blue tarp costumes, screaming throw me something mister, scrambling for doubloons and beads, hoping for that Zulu coconut we'll never get.

But the fact that we're not there won't stop me from feeling it. I ordered a king cake, it should arrive today, just in time for my birthday on Thursday. I'm going to throw a big king cake party for all my Yankee friends, and we're going to eat and drink and be merry, knowing that tomorrow we could die.

And that feeling is Mardi Gras. And it's New Orleans, no matter where you happen to be. So, to all my fellow missing and exiled, laissez les bons temps rouler!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas From Pearlington

Miss Suzie and Mr Josh

Something amazing is happening in my mom's little town of Pearlington, Mississippi, something inspiring and hopeful, something full of love and renewal. A grass roots movement is growing from the mud and despair of Katrina, and it's making my heart grow by three sizes just to know it exists. I want to nurture it, protect it, share it with you. Its spirit was embodied in one amazing day this week, a day that represents to me all that is right with the world, all that is good and caring in the human spirit.

Like so many stories I've shared with you here, it's one of survival, of perseverance, love, inspiration, and the will to carry on. But basically, it's a love story. A wedding day, Katrina-style...
"Everyone knows I'm always late for everything," confesses Suzie Burton. "All my friends and family laugh that I'll be late for my own funeral. But if the good Lord is willing, I'll be on time for my wedding."

Willing or not, Suzie was late for her nuptials to Josh Ward on December 21. In the aftermath of Katrina, an hour or so delay barely fazed the more than 60 friends and family who gathered in Pearlington for the wedding. The delay was maybe divine intervention. As the bride dressed for her big day, dozens of volunteers from Walton County put finishing touches on the couple's new house.

"The Panhandle didn't experience devastation of Mississippi Gulf Coast during Katrina," says Buster Woodruff, a leading force behind the volunteer effort. "We were lucky and we wanted to help others who were less fortunate."

Within days after Katrina, Buster had packed his truck with supplies and headed west to New Orleans. Officials stopped him at the Louisiana border, where he accidentally happened upon Pearlington and found a community in dire need of help.

Often the best way to solve an insurmountable problem is to start with an attainable goal. With that philosophy, a grassroots coalition of volunteers from Walton County, Florida, started the "One House at a Time" project. Working with their local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, the group adopted the town of Pearlington and recently completed the first of many temporary houses. The coalition's goal is to raise money and build 200 houses in Hancock County.

A Wedding and A New Home for a Deserving Couple

Like many South Mississippi residents, Suzie and Josh had no idea what was ahead when the heard a hurricane called Katrina was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. Both are in their 70s and they did not evacuate, thinking they were out of harm's way. Suzie was born and reared in South Mississippi, and her wood-framed house had witnessed many storms. She had raised a family on that land. It was, and still is, home.

As the couple settled in for the night it was raining and windy, but they were not seriously alarmed. By 6:30 in the morning, however, a few inches of water was visible on the floor. Within 30 minutes, the water was rising fast.

There was no where to go. There was no one to turn to for help. Together they wrapped their arms around a porch column as the storm's 12-foot tidal surge lifted the house off its foundation.

"Mr. Josh had told me many times that he loved me, but I was never sure how much I really loved him until that night," recalls Suzie. "When the water got over our heads and we hung onto the porch post for dear life, I prayed 'Please God, if you must take one of us, take me. Don't let it be my Mr. Josh'‚ I didn't want him to drown in that deep dark water."

The house floated more than 12 feet before it lodged in place. Everything was lost, including their beloved pot belly pig, Sweet Pea. As the house rested in a most precarious position with no steps to get to down to solid ground, Suzie and Josh waited for help in the ramshackle house on a wet sofa with no emergency supplies. It was nearly three days before family members found them.

Each had suffered injuries. Suzie was taken to Louisiana. A military transport carried Josh to a shelter in Northern Mississippi, where he slept in an aluminum lawn chair for two weeks. Amid the confusion, they had no way to communicate with each other. There was no news if the other one was even alive. They had lost their home, their belongings, Sweet Pea, and now they had lost each other.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, Suzie and Josh made it back to Pearlington where they reconnected and decided to get married. Soon after their reunion,they met Buster at the local relief center. "I offered to carry a load of laundry to her truck, and then Miss Suzie offered to tell me their story," recalled Buster. "I knew we had to do something for them."

A new house was soon under construction on her property. Next, Buster focused his attention on planning the wedding and finding the perfect dress for Suzie. After visits to four bridal shops in Mobile, Buster found a traditional gown of satin, silk, lace, pearls and a 10-foot train.

With Buster on one arm and her cousin Joel Wallace on the other, Miss Suzie glowed as she walked through the yard greeting guest and singing praises. Ronnie McBrayer, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Walton County and an ordained minister, performed the ceremony as shouts of Halleluiahs, amen and praise the Lord filled the air.

The blushing bride

After the wedding cake had been cut and toasts were raised to the happy couple, Suzie thought all her dreams had come true. Then Buster presented them with a baby pot belly pig named Angel. Suzie let out a little cry and broke into song, "I am blessed with everything I could ever need. God has even blessed me with a new Sweat Pea."

Volunteers and guests said their goodbyes, and Suzie and Josh retired inside their new home for their honeymoon. They are starting a marriage in house that rests on the foundation of the original structure that floated away during the storm. The post they clung to is now the center column of their new front porch. Weathered and worn, the column promises to be a solid support for their new life together and a symbol of faith, hope and rebirth for the New Year." -Lynn Nesmith
This is a story the major media hasn't picked up on yet, but it's one you need to know about. If you've been feeling helpless in the face of all the destruction, as I must confess I have, this shows you one way you can help save lives, one way you can help rebuild lives. This movement is happening right now, in your own backyard, and it's people like you that are behind it. They need your help.

If you'd like to join this movement, one house at a time, if you'd like to offer your support in any way, please contact Habitat For Humanity of Walton County at 850-835-0067, or visit

The volunteers. Your New Year's Resolution should be to join them.

Note: These pictures weren't shot by me, they were forwarded to me by the volunteers that helped to make this day happen.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Looting Homeland Security

Sunset Over St. Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans

This article is long. And it's not politically correct. By not politically correct, I mean it's biased against the current administration (as is the truth), and so it will piss off any of you true believers still drinking the Bush Kool-Aid. If this is you, you do not need to tell me that the article pisses you off, or that it's biased, because I know this already, and because, frankly, I no longer care what you think about anything.

Rolling Stone - Looting Homeland Security
"Natural disasters have a way of exposing the cracks in the foundation of our civilization -- the scary things that we all suspect to be just under the surface, but that, in ordinary times, we would prefer not to think about. The sudden visibility of poverty in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the city is the most vivid example of this effect. So, too, is the fact -- now plain for all to see -- that the Department of Homeland Security, the arm of the federal government responsible for ensuring our safety in times of national emergency, has become little more than an arm of big business, a radical experiment in President Bush's brand of market-based government.

The most glaring example of the for-profit marketization of DHS came on September 26th, barely a month after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, when some 300 corporate lobbyists and lawyers assembled for the Katrina Reconstruction Summit to learn how they could cash in on the federal effort to rebuild New Orleans. Such how-to sessions are nothing new in Washington, of course, and private firms certainly have a major role to play in relocating the 1.5 million people uprooted by the worst natural disaster in American history. What was extraordinary about this particular summit, however, was that it was held not in some conference room at a Beltway hotel, but in an office building of the U.S. Senate. It was a seminar on profiteering, held on the grounds of the very institution to be plundered."
Previously, related:
Eight Years, Two Americas
Questions On God And Government
You Are On Your Own
A Wavering Hope

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dog Dead

Dog Dead Under House, Ninth Ward, New Orleans

CNN - American Red Cross president resigns
"The president of the American Red Cross, Marsha J. Evans, who oversaw the charity's vast and sometimes criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, is resigning effective at the end of this month, the organization said Tuesday."
CNN - Katrina victims: 'Living in barns'
"More than three months after thousands of people lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina, local and federal officials are trading blame over the slow delivery of trailer housing"

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Lagniappe Linkage

Flooded school portrait of me at my little brother's age

NY Times - Loans to Homeowners Along Gulf Coast Lag
"Hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast families, hoping to rebuild their homes after the hurricanes using low-interest government loans, are facing high rejection rates and widespread delays at the federal agency that administers the disaster loan program.

The Small Business Administration, which runs the federal government's main disaster recovery program for both businesses and homeowners, has processed only a third of the 276,000 home loan applications it has received.

And it has rejected 82 percent of those it has reviewed, a higher percentage than in most previous disasters, saying that many would-be borrowers did not have incomes high enough, or credit ratings good enough, to qualify. The rejections came even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency has referred more than two million people, many of them with low incomes, to the S.B.A. to get the loans."
Chicago Sun-Times - Cyril Neville says no to N'awlins
"He was always the social conscience, the message man. He's worked with kids and set up educational groups. He's already approached Austin High School. Austin is a different kind of town than New Orleans, which has been a dead-end street for a lot of people for a long time. You can be the best graduate in a New Orleans public high school and there's nothing for you."
CNN - New Orleans company to offer Katrina disaster tour
"Gray Line New Orleans normally organizes trips through the city's historic districts as well as its swamps and spooky cemeteries, but its business has been severely curtailed by the hurricane. The company said the Katrina tour was born of frustration over the government's slow response to rebuilding."