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."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Filtered Laughs

Cans of filtered drinking water given out by the National Guard, Slidell, La

I've been trapped here in NYC now for too long. I've been torn, trying to raise money by working nonstop, to make up for the almost two months of work I lost after Katrina hit and I started this project, the save-my-family project. But I really just want to be back in the Gulf, documenting what's happening right now, in the alternate universe, in the K-Hole. Every dollar I make here flows back there. Every laugh here makes me feel slightly guilty. I'm not torturing myself. I just have trouble enjoying myself when there's so much unfinished business. I know, it's not very New Orleans of me. I need to get in touch with that part of me again, the harder things get, the harder I should laugh.

Some very good news that might help: the FEMAman my mom met with over Thanksgiving really came through on his promise to help her out, and she received some aid, after all. Not the rebuilding grant, but a disbursement for the ruined contents of her home. I'm very pleased and greatly relieved to announce that we were finally able to locate a FEMAman who could actually deliver some relief, and, thankfully, pigs did not fly out of my ass as I had predicted.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Dead Alligator

Dead baby alligator, Apple Pie Ridge Road, Slidell, La.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Katrina Fish Fry

Fish and Mud on Rooftop, Slidell, La.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Eight Years, Two Americas

Molding fashion magazine, Ninth Ward, New Orleans

You are going to have a government. Recognize that there's no way around it. No matter your political preference. No matter your religious affiliation. No matter how libertarian or anarchist you think you'd like to be, you aren't getting away from a government. It's a fact of life made necessary by a multitude of competing human interests, local, national, and international. Governments will be constituted to deal with these competing interests. Deal with that.

The question of how our American government would be constituted was roughly settled a little over 200 years ago. The only question we're left to manage today is how effective we want our government to be. How competent. How reasonable. How efficient. How responsive, and to who. Some people can't seem to understand this. When I complain about the current sorry quality of our government, even if only filtered through the lens of the Katrina disaster, and how it's affected my people, I get the occasional comment like this:
"The only thing I haven't seen here, is Hey! America doesn't owe you a damn thing! Yep, it all sucks! There's no doubt about that... We have a bunch of disasters in Minnesota and N.Dakota..snow and ice storms that take out our power for weeks at a time, floods that take out whole cities and blah blah blah and the ones who help for real are ourselves! our friends, families and neighbors. Not the government!"
Now, the particulars in these comments change from time to time, but the overall gist is always the same. Every man for himself. The best you can hope for is help from neighbors. Your government isn't responsible for helping you. What these people think government is responsible for, they never say. But I'm glad this person half-assedly referred to the Red River Flood of 1997 in particular, because it can remind us all just how low our government's been brought, in such a short time. We can compare what an effective, competent 1997 FEMA looked like before it was gutted, neutered, a foppish good-old boy installed asleep at its 2005 controls...

I happened to live in Minnesota when the Red River spilled its banks, totally flooding Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, which were protected by dikes that were built too low to hold back the unprecedented level of water. Please note that at no time during this catastrophe did it ever occur to me to think "Fuck them, they shouldn't live in a flood plain. Fuck them, only 20% of them carried flood insurance. Fuck them, it's going to cost billions of taxpayer dollars to rebuild them."

I remember how quick the federal response was, how FEMA had already been on the ground preparing for the possibility of a flood, and how the President was there on the ground, the very next day, meeting with local officials and citizens.

I'm not the only one that remembers how different the federal response was to the Red River Flood in 1997, compared with hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a piece by Ashley Shelby, author of Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City, back in mid September. It seems the original article has disappeared down the memory hole, so I'll quote it in full here, it's very enlightening.
Another flood, another FEMA

In 1997, in what many consider to be the biggest mistake in the modern history of the National Weather Service, the city of Grand Forks, N.D., was nearly wiped off the map in a catastrophic flood.

The Red River of the North breached dikes that had been built, and reinforced, to hold back a 52 foot flood (the National Weather Service had predicted a 49 food flood, but the city and Corps of Engineers had added an extra 3 feet of freeboard in case of unexpected hydrological events). Instead, the waters of the Red River came roaring down the channel at Grand Forks at a whopping 54 feet.

The river poured into the city, deluging the historic downtown, annihilating entire neighborhoods and sparking a fire in the downtown core. Historic buildings burned while drowning in fetid river water.

Due to a complex mistake in the National Weather Service's hydrological model, amplified by freakish behavior of the river itself, the city of Grand Forks was nearly destroyed. It was, at the time, classified as the eighth-worst natural disaster in U.S. history. By failing to correctly predict the flood crest, the federal government, many outraged and heartbroken Grand Forks citizens said then, had failed them -- and had ruined their lives.

But before this resentment could fester, Bill Clinton, FEMA Director James Lee Witt, and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala rolled into town. Witt's team had, in fact, had been in Grand Forks in the weeks leading up to the flood, urging homeowners to enroll in the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA officials were familiar figures in town.

Before arriving in Grand Forks, Clinton had authorized FEMA to provide 100 percent of the direct federal assistance for all of the emergency work undertaken by federal agencies in the disaster zones (the normal reimbursement rate is 75 percent).

The National Guard had been mobilized months earlier -- its ranks full and available to the people it served -- and was responsible for a huge percentage of preparedness activities before the flood. It was responsible for executing the remarkable evacuation of Grand Forks (until New Orleans, the largest evacuation of an American city since Atlanta in the Civil War) and provided immediate search and rescue support as the floodwaters deluged the city.

James Lee Witt's FEMA performed like a well-oiled machine in Grand Forks and the entire Red River Valley after the flood, though many citizens grumbled about red tape and the endless lines they had to stand in to sign up for aid. Maybe it was "big government," but FEMA did not hesitate to move in as soon as the National Weather Service warned the people of the Red River Valley that they'd see more water than they'd ever seen in their lives (much like the National Hurricane Center's extraordinary warnings that Katrina could cause "human suffering incredible by modern standards").

Witt's FEMA began canvassing Grand Forks almost immediately after the city was evacuated. Trailers were brought in for displaced residents. The famous FEMA trailer christened "Red October" arrived soon after -- one of FEMA's mobile emergency-response support units, outfitted with more than a dozen computers wired with Internet access, a satellite communications system, a radio system and 48 phone lines, including dedicated lines to the White House and the Pentagon. The U.S. Department of Energy immediately announced an action plan to restore power systems in North Dakota, and deployed personnel to help cities get their systems back online.

Grand Forks, like any other American city, deserved nothing less than this immediate response; but thinking back to the overwhelming and rapid government response to the '97 Red River floods leads one to wonder how it is possible that New Orleans, a major U.S. population center, received absolutely nothing in the first days -- forget hours -- after the worst disaster in American history?

Why were President Bush's FEMA officials paralyzed when Bill Clinton's FEMA was in Grand Forks months before the '97 flood? Why were people left to suffer and die in the New Orleans convention center -- a situation FEMA Director Michael Brown didn't even know about until days later -- when Grand Forks evacuees had cots and, very soon after, trailers to live in?

Certainly it's true that Grand Forks is a much smaller city than New Orleans; but going by that logic, New Orleans' status as a major metropolitan area would guarantee it a governmental response at least twice that given to a North Dakota city. In fact, New Orleans received barely a fraction of the attention and rescue support that Grand Forks received for a disaster that, although tremendous, now pales in comparison to that suffered by the people of New Orleans.

Beyond the basics of food and shelter, and a competent governmental response, the people of New Orleans also were in want of perhaps the most important capital in the currency of recovery: hope.

"You bring us hope," Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens tearfully told President Clinton at a press conference soon after the dikes were overtopped.

"It may be hard to believe," Clinton replied then, "But you can rebuild stronger and better than ever."

Compare these words to Bush's comments upon landing in New Orleans, where a disaster of unimaginable proportions had just occurred, where bodies lay rotting outside the convention center because aid had not reached them in time: He joked about his visits to New Orleans during his alcoholic days when he had "sometimes too much" fun in the French Quarter. Dennis Hastert chose to comment publicly on his belief that much of New Orleans would be "bulldozed." Rep. Richard Baker, of Baton Rouge, was reported by the Wall Street Journal to have said to lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."

The contrast between the indifferent response from the Bush administration in the hours and days after Katrina and the rapid and seemingly heartfelt response of the Clinton administration in Grand Forks could not be clearer.

Why did Grand Forks deserve a better response to a catastrophic natural event than New Orleans? Some may argue that Grand Forks' largely white population may have something to do with it, and perhaps it does. But I think the more likely answer is that the administration in charge of the federal government in 1997, for all its faults, was not only better equipped to deal with a natural disaster; it was also a team that felt, at core, a fundamental empathy for American citizens who had lost everything through no fault of their own. The dearth of such empathy in the current administration -- one in which the president refuses to attend military funerals resulting from a war he started -- is chilling and, ultimately, telling.
I've said it before, I'm not a Democrat, I'm not a Republican. I'm an American, and I've got enough common sense to know when my government's been hijacked by incompetents, and when that state of incompetence makes me, and my family, less safe. And what my common sense has been telling me was confirmed in spades when Katrina roared ashore, drowning my hometown, while the incompetents vacationed, or shopped, or debated whether or not to roll up their shirt sleeves at photo ops.

My common sense tells me that I'd be far better off in the America that helped Grand Forks in 1997, not the America that says "We don't owe you a damn thing" to New Orleans in 2005. What a difference eight years makes. Which America do you want to live in?

Further reading:
Wikipedia: Red River Flood, 1997
CNN: Clinton Tours Flood-Ravaged North Dakota
FEMA Website: Five Years After The Flood: Grand Forks Rebuilds As A Safer, Better Place To Live
Wikipedia: James Lee Witt
Slate: Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept.
Amazon: Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City

Monday, December 05, 2005

New Orleans Cop

Cpl. BE Blache, Charity Hospital Police, New Orleans

I must admit to being a little nervous when I took this picture, having an intense genetic fear of both Charity Hospital and the police. Alone with a few officers, our voices echoing off the dead caverns of the ghost hospital, I thought, what a fucking surreal life this is. I'm not supposed to be giving this New Orleans cop orders, putting him where I want him for my photograph. I'm supposed to be drunk, down and out, on parole, in my underwear, fighting and cursing and biting, beaten by responding officers, bleeding, restrained to a gurney in that hospital, waiting for some rough stitches before I get sent back to Angola.

But instead, Officer Blache is as nice as can be, courteous despite the hell he's been living through, and I've got a big expensive camera and a sweet Yankee wife and a plane ticket back to a dry apartment in New York.

Sometimes I feel déjà vu for the life I escaped from. Do you ever feel that?

Friday, December 02, 2005

We Are Living In A World Of Shit

Fuck keeping hope alive. Who are we kidding? Our lives are that fragile lampshade, and our fate is that black mold, and that's it. I want to sleep, not take pictures or talk to FEMA or put on a happy strong face.

Beating me down yesterday: since I bought my mom her little trailer it's in my name, but I don't live in it, so on paper FEMA considers me some rich absentee landlord and my mom a mere tenant, so we're both ineligible for the rebuilding grants, which were as much as $21,000. The FEMA inspector chastised my mom for being honest on the application. It seems that honesty is a big handicap in modern America.

More: We knew this was a risk when my mom evacuated, being left out of the loop, but when my mom went back for Thanksgiving she discovered that we missed, by only one day, the Army Corps of Engineers program that provided rubble removal for free. We'll now have to take some of the money I'm saving for rebuilding to pay a contractor for the massive debris removal. The drone who informed my mom of this almost seemed to enjoy himself, as if he was punishing her for having evacuated.

More: It seems the small school that's been Pearlington's only lifeline is going to be bulldozed, leaving them with nothing. Merry fucking Christmas, Pearlington.

More: That big ad job I stayed in NYC to bid on, the reason I couldn't be with my family on Thanksgiving, was awarded to some guy in Paris. That job would have gone a long way towards rebuilding my family. Fuck easy come easy go.

Enough. Sleep. Ignore. Delay. Distract. I'm done being the lampshade, I want to be the black mold.