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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Linda Novak, Katrina Survivor

Linda Novak, Ninth Ward of New Orleans, 2005

This is Linda, she's my friend. I made this photograph of her standing in the doorway of her flooded Ninth Ward home, on the first day we met, about a month after the levees broke. It was also the first day she had been able to get into her neighborhood to see what had happened to her life. I had been introduced to her by a mutual friend who was forced into exile by Katrina. I was stranded in the French Quarter, and Linda was staying a few blocks away, her only surviving belonging an old blue junker Ford that died at every stop sign, and the clothes on her back.

She, my girl and I snuck past the checkpoints in Linda's rumbling old car, and cruised through the dusty war zone streets of the Ninth Ward, to her house. You can see the water line on the curtains in the front door next to where she's standing. Her neighbor's car had floated to rest against her front security gate, and we had to break the transmission to push it out of the way for entrance. I helped her kick her door in, as much of her living room had floated up against it on the inside. She was shocked and elated to find out that her goldfish had survived the whole ordeal in his bowl in the corner, and was there to greet her when she came in.

I call her friend now because we bonded in the destruction. She let me in to her turmoil, her loss, her quiet dignity and strength. I saw her face what was left of her life with calm and determination, and we helped her move out what little she could salvage. And after a few hours we loaded up her junker, and I sat in the front seat cradling my camera, my girl in the backseat cradling the tough little goldfish, and we slowly rattled through the Ninth Ward, silent in the face of all the destruction, stopping when her car died, making photographs of the lonely landscape. We found our way to McKain Street that day, and it seemed so appropriate, that junker, a shiny rental car would have been from a different world. And Linda was there when I broke down, making this photograph of my grandma's shack, while my girl wrapped her arm around me and the whole world was silent.

And Linda was silent, too. She understood. Words were useless.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Katrina Survivor, and Carpetbagging

Louise Jackson, 51, Pearlington, Mississippi

Washington Post: In Miss., Time Now Stands Still (link thanks to Kenny!)
Recovery Is Stagnant In Post-Katrina Towns
"Katrina left behind a great swell of land speculation. Signs reading "Cash for Homes" and "We Pay Top $ for Waterfront Property" are ubiquitous, as are developers hanging around city planning offices. It's urban renewal by hurricane, clearing land for a new Mississippi of upscale condominium towers and parks and many casinos. The many working-class residents who live within view of the coast could be outward bound."
I've already received three letters from these fucking carpetbaggers, asking if I'd consider selling my mom's land. They got my name and address from assessor's records. I'd maybe trade the land for their souls, if they still had some.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Rebuilding Hope and Habitat

I've donated my photographs to Habitat For Humanity to use in money-raising efforts to aid Hancock County, Mississippi, where my mom's little town of Pearlington is. There was no established Habitat chapter in Hancock before Katrina, so the efforts are actually being led by the chapter in Walton County, Florida. They hope to build 100 homes for displaced people in Pearlington, and are trying to get them up as fast as possible as we get deeper into winter.

This is good, important work, vital work. It's being done right now, in America, by Americans. You can help them, you can help us. Fuck the news stories about how much money Wal-Mart made on Black Friday. This is the news story, and it's not on CNN anymore. Please share this with friends, families, blogs, Myspace, anything. Let people know there's something they can still do. They need money, they need volunteers, they need attention, media coverage, all of the above. Please don't let this fade away...

Habitat for Humanity of Walton County needs your help to build homes in Hancock County for families affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Hancock County is the most western county in Mississippi along the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Katrina brought widespread devastation to the county with 40 confirmed deaths and millions of dollars of property damage. Nearly 70% of the county’s homes were left uninhabitable. The coastal communities were among the hardest hit areas. Pearlington, a small community of 2,200 people, was particularly devastated, as nearly every home was either completely destroyed or severely damaged. There is no Habitat for Humanity affiliate along this area of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Hundreds of residents are living in tents in the aftermath of Katrina. Many have only what they were able to salvage, and in many cases they have nothing at all. Basic necessities are still hard to come by, most of all shelter.

Habitat for Humanity of Walton County Florida in partnership with The Hurricane Relief Coalition, New Hope Construction, Walton County community volunteer organizations, local churches and individuals are working together to raise money to quickly build temporary housing for the families of Pearlington, Waveland and other rural coastal communities of Hancock County.

We are seeking donations of $2 million to be used for immediate construction of more than a hundred homes in Hancock County. The needs are enormous, and while this effort barely begins to scratch the surface, it will at least be a start, making a real difference to individual families that have lost so much. Your contribution could help a family have a home by this winter.

Habitat for Humanity of Walton County will administer the program, managing funds, coordinating volunteers, qualifying tenants/buyers. Habitat for Humanity has a proven system in place to provide housing to the most affected people with a minimum of red tape. They ensure contributed funds will not be used in the place of any existing government relief effort, and that these funds will be used immediately for our efforts in Hancock County.

New Hope Construction has partnered with Habitat to design and construct efficient, comfortable and affordable transitional housing. New Hope Construction is a non-profit, 501c3 corporation that designs and manufactures complete, high quality, pre-framed house packages that are ready for on-site assembly.

Since 1996, New Hope has partnered with churches, Habitat for Humanity affiliates, and other non-profit organizations to provide housing for low-income families. Its commitment to partner with Habitat for Humanity of Walton County and the Walton County Hurricane Relief Coalition confirms their strong vision and mission, and makes possible our efforts to provide housing relief in Hancock County.

During the Mississippi Renewal Forum held in Biloxi six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, leading architects and town planners addressed the problems and possibilities of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Innovative schemes for temporary, modular and prefabricated housings by architects were proposed and discussed. During the six-day forum, architects involved with the towns of Seaside, WaterColor, and Alys Beach created designs for a variety of housing options. Several of these designs are currently in production by New Hope Construction for this project.

Two homes with different floor plans and elevations have been selected as part of this rebuilding program – the Coastal Cottage and the Beach Bungalow. Comprised of approximately 300 – 400 square feet, these efficient houses are fully furnished to accommodate a family. The interiors include a living and kitchen area, bedroom, bathroom, and designated sleeping space for children. The houses are portable and are adaptable to almost any location. Although designed to be temporary shelter for up to 18 months, these structures can be expanded and converted to permanent housing. With engaging details and inviting front porches, these cottages promise to be a major improvement over other temporary housing units. These designs are livable and likable – a lot more like a real home.

We are seeking sponsors to fund one of more of these homes. Sponsors can choose between two possible designs, the Coastal Cottage or the Beach Bungalow. A plaque will be placed in each home commemorating the individuals who made this dream a reality.

New Hope Construction will assemble the materials, pre-framed walls and trusses, and ship the units directly to Hancock County. Volunteers from Walton County will assemble the structures and add finishing touches to the homes on site. Working with established Habitat for Humanity policies, housing will be made available to qualifying families for a period of 6 months with two automatic renewals if necessary. Assistance will not exceed 18 months from the date of initial tenant agreement unless extraordinary circumstances through no fault of the applicant dictate a 6 month extension. All renewals are subject to review and approval. Homes will be provided under a tenant/lease agreement at no or reduced cost to qualifying applicants. Financial ability of the household will be considered as part of the needs assessment. As a family reaches sustainability, receives insurance settlements and moves to a permanent home, the unit will be passed on to another family. These cottages can be reused as long as necessary, even for future disasters. They may be sold to qualified applicants or residents who choose to make the home permanent. Using Habitat for Humanity’s Family Selection criteria, qualifying families may choose to convert and expand the temporary unit to permanent housing and pay a no-profit, no-interest mortgage for a term of 20 years.
“A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
For information about Habitat for Humanity of Walton County, as well as updates and photographs of Hancock County and the first houses, visit, New Hope Construction at, or Mississippi Renewal Forum at

To volunteer to work on a home in Hancock County, please contact Shannon Erwin at or call (850) 835-0067.

Media interested in information, please contact Kim Turner at or Lynn Nesmith at or call (850) 231-3770.

If you would like to discuss a contribution, please contact Ronnie McBrayer at or call (850) 825-0067.

Habitat for Humanity believes this is very cost-effective program for providing housing so desperately needed in Hancock County. We are seeking donations to further fund this program, with a goal of raising $2 million that will be used for immediate construction of houses.

Your contribution could help a Hancock County family displaced by Hurricane Katrina have a home by winter.

All donations are tax deductible. The federal government has made an allowance for additional 2005 tax deduction incentives for donations made to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts before December 31, 2005. Please consult your tax professional for details.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Thanksgiving Day Prayer For The Exiles

Pardon me for a moment, my mind's split in several directions, and not feeling well. It's not new, this split, it started on the day Katrina washed ashore blowing past present and future into a heap of shit. That's when my mind split in two, one half maintaining my useless body here in New York, the other half trying to pull it to the Gulf to find and help my family. It then split into thirds, when my mom and little brother evacuated, and I was left with New York, the Gulf, and the new North Carolina.
Thanks for the wild turkey and the Passenger Pigeons, destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts, thanks for a Continent to despoil and poison...
And I should be in the Gulf right now, with my mom and little brother, using the Thanksgiving break to dig through the months-dried mud, sifitng for scraps to salvage and be thankful for. My mom's really hoping she'll be able to save her old vinyl collection, now that it's not so swampy in her trailer, and maybe the mold's not quite so aggressive. And she thinks she could get a FEMA travel trailer now, and the government will bulldoze her Eden and haul it away, for free even. But then she feels sad, she knows she's better off staying settled for now in North Carolina with the wonderful people who've helped so much there. And even more she knows that my little brother is better off up there, and feels doubly guilty again. Guilty for one that she's not surviving, barnacle steadfast, Cajun stubborn, alongside the others in the muck and speculation and slow grinding dread in the Gulf. And then again she feels guilty for feeling that guilt, the guilt of the exile, that she should be thankful for the oasis she's found herself in, and she is thankful, so thankful, but also guilty for it.
Thanks for the American Dream to vulgarize and falsify until the bare lies shine through...
And I'm thankful for all that I've been able to accomplish with a few photographs and some words, but guilty that I'm so far away, on hold. So far away in New York, bidding for an advertising job so my photographs can lure teens into buying more jeans, so I can make a big paycheck, so I can pay off the debt I have on my mom's destroyed Eden, so we can get back to zero again. But my gut nags at me and tells me to get the fuck back down to where I started from, to make pictures, not money, because somehow that might help more. Or will it just help me to stop feeling guilty?
Thanks for all the memories... all right, let's see your arms... you always were a headache and you always were a bore. Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

-Excerpts from William S. Burroughs, Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1986. Watch Gus Van Sant's short film here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Dead Air

Dropped News Mic, Pirate's Alley, New Orleans

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Little Boy In FEMA Line

I was making portraits of people who had been waiting in a FEMA line for hours in the blazing sun in Waveland, Ms, when I felt this little tug on my shirt.

"Hey mister, will you take my picture?"

Monday, November 21, 2005

A Call To Arms

New Orleans: Proud To Swim Home

A Times-Picayune Editorial:
"The federal government wrapped levees around greater New Orleans so that the rest of the country could share in our bounty.

Americans wanted the oil and gas that flow freely off our shores. They longed for the oysters and shrimp and flaky Gulf fish that live in abundance in our waters. They wanted to ship corn and soybeans and beets down the Mississippi and through our ports. They wanted coffee and steel to flow north through the mouth of the river and into the heartland.

They wanted more than that, though. They wanted to share in our spirit. They wanted to sample the joyous beauty of our jazz and our food. And we were happy to oblige them...

So the federal government built levees and convinced us that we were safe.

We weren't.

The levees, we were told, could stand up to a Category 3 hurricane.

They couldn't.

By the time Katrina surged into New Orleans, it had weakened to Category 3. Yet our levee system wasn't as strong as the Army Corps of Engineers said it was. Barely anchored in mushy soil, the floodwalls gave way.

Our homes and businesses were swamped. Hundreds of our neighbors died.

Now, this metro area is drying off and digging out. Life is going forward. Our heart is beating.

But we need the federal government -- we need our Congress -- to fulfill the promises made to us in the past. We need to be safe. We need to be able to go about our business feeding and fueling the rest of the nation. We need better protection next hurricane season than we had this year. Going forward, we need protection from the fiercest storms, the Category 5 storms that are out there waiting to strike.

Some voices in Washington are arguing against us. We were foolish, they say. We settled in a place that is lower than the sea. We should have expected to drown.

As if choosing to live in one of the nation's great cities amounted to a death wish. As if living in San Francisco or Miami or Boston is any more logical.

Great cities are made by their place and their people, their beauty and their risk. Water flows around and through most of them. And one of the greatest bodies of water in the land flows through this one: the Mississippi.

The federal government decided long ago to try to tame the river and the swampy land spreading out from it. The country needed this waterlogged land of ours to prosper, so that the nation could prosper even more.

Some people in Washington don't seem to remember that. They act as if we are a burden. They act as if we wore our skirts too short and invited trouble.

We can't put up with that. We have to stand up for ourselves. Whether you are back at home or still in exile waiting to return, let Congress know that this metro area must be made safe from future storms. Call and write the leaders who are deciding our fate. Get your family and friends in other states to do the same. Start with members of the Environment and Public Works and Appropriations committees in the Senate, and Transportation and Appropriations in the House. Flood them with mail the way we were flooded by Katrina.

Remind them that this is a singular American city and that this nation still needs what we can give it."

Contact key congresscritters here.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Evil Genius Interview

Truck washed into the bayou behind the roadside park, off Old Highway 90, Slidell, La

I was interviewed a few days ago by Dave Slusher at Evil Genius Chronicles, about Operation Eden, how it began, how I've worked, and how hurricane Katrina has changed me. I haven't listened to it myself, for fear that I will cringe myself into a perfect ball, but if you'd be interested in listening to the whole thing, you can find it here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

McKain Street

This is where it all starts. My grandmother's shotgun shack on McKain Street in New Orleans. The reason I had come back into the city, snuck past checkpoints and debris and flooded streets and orange X's marking dead or alive. The touchstone. The knot that ties my family history together. The dark age and the golden age. My roots. This little unmarked dead-end shell gravel street.

It's in a no-man's land in New Orleans, which is a testament to its desperation. Not quite the Ninth Ward. Not quite Gentilly, it's a forgotten industrial nook between two canals, served by no one, cared for by no one. And it's been that way for at least fifty years, since they decided to build I-10 right over it. My mom and my Aunt Susan were little girls then, playing at the back of the house, when the I-10 "high-rise" was going up, blocking the sun at the end of McKain Street forever. They heard the scream and thud, when a worker fell off the bridge to his death in a bloody puddle, just a few feet from where I stood to make this picture, right in front of Old Ma's house. My mom watched him breathe his last.

It's about twelve feet wide, and thirty feet long, Old Ma's shack. It's now just a frail shell of what I remember, and what I remember is from a time when it was just a shell of what my mom remembered. Nine people lived in four rooms in this tiny shack, their laughter and cries and lives and deaths never being heard by the thousands of cars literally driving over them every day. One by one my family trickled out of the shack, moved out, or died, or went to prison, until only Old Ma was left, an ancient little Cajun woman, who had never taught her children her language, except for the occasional "Embrasse mon tcheue!"

Mae Langston, maiden name Dugas. The shack smelled of old linoleum and window fans stirring the humid air. McKain Street outside smelled of spilled motor oil from the junkyard across the street my family had owned in better times. We would dig in the white shell gravel out front and occasionally find ancient sparkplugs for our troubles. It smelled of chicory and baking white bread from nearby food factories. There was always the hum and clanking of cars overhead, the far off deep horns of tugboats on the canals, and the crackly radio playing old Motown and gospel.

Every wall had an old enamel or wood painting of Jesus or Mary, and palms over each door. When we would visit Old Ma would give us pecan candy she had made, and gifts of old doubloons or beads from the Mardi Gras passed before we were born. She smelled of fresh laundry and soap, had a Cajun accent made thicker by her lack of teeth, and one of the friendliest faces I've ever seen. I still miss her hugs. In her early nineties she grew too frail to live alone anymore, and my mom and her sisters moved her out of the city, to live with them across the lake in Slidell. Which is where she died, leaving McKain Street abandoned and deteriorating, taken back by nature and crackhead squatters. The last time my mom paid a visit, a few years ago, one of them walked up to her and gritted through his teeth, "Lady, I could kill you down here and nobody would ever know." And he was right.

I hadn't been back since I was a teenager. Half my life ago. But I felt the pull so strongly, the drive, the call, I risked life to get there, just to see it again. Why? I'm asking myself this. I don't know what's going to come of my hometown, my family's hometown, New Orleans. But I know that the ghettoes are going to be bulldozed. And I don't want to ever forget where I come from. It's how I know where I'm going. This little shack is what made my mom and her sisters who they are, and they're who made me who I am. I take pictures to remember, and to feel, and I needed to always remember Mckain Steet, and to feel it, no matter where I go.

I needed to capture what's left of its soul, because it went into making my soul what it is.

So I walked down this little unmarked dead end, everything smaller than I remember, even the high-rise overpass, now calmly silent in this abandoned, sunken city. And all the stories whispered back in my ear with each step I took closer to Old Ma's shack. The loves, and the beatings, and the laughter, and the drunkenness, and the passion, it all flooded back to me, in the crunch of the shells under my feet. And then the little shack emerged from the weeds and vines, twisted by Katrina, door swollen shut by black floodwater, and with sudden tears blurring my vision I made this photograph. McKain Street.

Update: I was told by mom after I posted this, that it happened to be my grandfather, Old Paw's, birthday. I had no idea that I was writing about his home, his life and family and wife, Old Ma, on the day of his birth. My mom wrote:
James Samuel Langston, Sr. was born on this day in the year 1909 - Happy birthday Old Paw - We miss you and love you and carry your blood thru all of our veins.

Supernatural powers that you would be inspired and so moved to document McKain Street on exactly his day of birth! God is so good! I needed that sooo much - that is a positive confirmation from our Lord that He is using you in a powerful way to impact other lives and your own as well. Regardless of what you and the scientists may think.

I know daddy and mamma and aunt Maude and all our blood are on the other side laughing and having fun seeing McKain Street on the internet! I bet there is a whole lot of Cajun being spoken there right now.

I Love You,

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mack Truck, Lower Ninth Ward

A Mack truck rests on its side in someone's yard in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, on its back lays someone's sofa. Twenty days after this photograph was taken a reporter toured the area by bus, and wrote this:

"I'll admit it. I wasn't prepared for what I saw. And I can only begin to understand what it was like for the people who lived there.

On Thursday, I rode along with residents from the devastated Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans as they toured the area by bus.

For some, it was the first chance to see their homes, their neighbors and their belongings. But they weren't allowed to get off the bus. This angered some; others knew there was simply nothing to salvage.

Officials said this restriction was because the houses aren't structurally sound, and because bodies are still being recovered. We did see at least one K-9 cadaver team during the tour.

Home after home was destroyed by the flooding after the breach in the levee beside the Industrial Canal. Block after block is nearly unrecognizable as a place where people once went about their daily lives.

Even the residents on the bus described it as looking like a movie set." Read More...

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Report Card

Misfit on the beach in North Carolina

My mom proudly announced in an email that my little brother has gotten his first report card from his new school In North Carolina, and its all A's and B's, plus he's reading at the high-school level. We had been so worried about all the time he had been out of school, and all the turmoil, stress, and survival. But he's landed in a good place, with new people that care about his progress, and it shows.

If he had remained in the Gulf, would he be attending school in one of these trailer classrooms FEMA cronies have set up? How much of a penalty would he face then? If his fate had stayed consistent with our family history, my mom and him would be living in a tent on Eden, perhaps just now getting a FEMA trailer. I wonder what his grades would be like then? I wonder what hope his future would hold then?

No-Bid Contract to Replace Schools After Katrina Is Faulted
To the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the modular classrooms lined up next to the soon-to-be demolished former school show, as the billboard out front boasts, "Katrina Recovery in Progress."

But to critics, the 450 portable classrooms being installed across Mississippi are prime examples in their case against FEMA and its federal partner, the Army Corps of Engineers, for wasteful spending and favoritism in the $62 billion hurricane relief effort.

Provided by a politically connected Alaskan-owned business under a $40 million no-bid contract, the classrooms cost FEMA nearly $90,000 each, including transportation, according to contracting documents. That is double the wholesale price and nearly 60 percent higher than the price offered by two small Mississippi businesses dropped from the deal.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Po-Boy Shop

New Orleans Style Po-Boys, Wrecked

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Call From FEMA

FEMA Claim Number On Wrecked Home, Pearlington, MS.

"This is an automated message from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, please stay on the line to listen to this important announcement. This call is to confirm that FEMA has reviewed your application, and determined that your damaged property resides within one of the hardest hit areas. As a result, an inspection of your property will not be necessary. You should expect to receive a letter in the mail which will provide your application status within the next few weeks. If your phone number or mailing address changes please be sure to immediately update your information online at or by calling us at 800-621-FEMA. Thank you for listening, this has been an automated courtesy response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Goodbye."

The rumor is that FEMA is so overwhelmed with the number of claims that they have given up on inspections altogether, and are now resorting to satellite photos to determine aid distribution. The eyes in the sky. Manna from heaven.

On the plus side for FEMA, they don't have to actually meet any of the homeless survivors that now view them as fondly as moonshiners view revenuers.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Death Needs Time

Photographed as it rested in the dry mud next to Fats Domino's abandoned house, the one he was rescued from, in the devastated Ninth Ward of New Orleans: a clock.

And I stood there, the toxic dirt blowing in my face, all alone in this vast dead zone, staring through my camera at this clock, and I thought of this:

"Wait, wait. Time, a landing field. Death needs time like a junkie needs junk."

"And what does Death need time for?"

"The answer is so simple. Death needs time for what it kills to grow in..."
-William S. Burroughs

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Day Before Katrina

We had gotten to Seaside Heights the night before, to chill out and fuck off. My mom called me that morning, at dawn, to tell me she was evacuating. When her voice broke I knew it was bad. But what could we do that day? I took pictures of my friends relaxing, having fun, but my mind was already in the Gulf. These pictures are strange to me. Like somebody else took them. Sleepwalking. Like the memory of the fun didn't have enough time to set before Katrina blew it away.

Or maybe it's the guilt? That I was lounging at the beach, a million miles away, while my family and past was being decimated. I played while my roots were torn up. But, what could I have done? We were lucky that I had moved away. I was the remote backup for my family. I only hope I'm strong enough to help them restore.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Katrina Survivor

John Marshall, 56, Pearlington, Mississippi. Husband of Orealia, he rode out the storm where he worked, at NASA's Stennis Space Center, which Pearlington is nestled next to. Many people fear that NASA may now buy out Pearlington to increase it's buffer zone around Stennis.

I think more people hope for it than fear it.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Day of the Dead In Brooklyn

Beautiful children, marching around my neighborhood in Brooklyn, under a pale sky, beating drums, faces painted in black and white like skulls with baby fat, and a banner taking me home again. They followed carrying umbrellas, like the second line in a New Orleans jazz funeral, and I felt sadness, pride, and hope in this show of respect from another world.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Questions On God and Government

Grace Church With Broken Steeple, Slidell La

Evangelicals. People of Faith. Believers. They're everywhere down South, in Katrina's wake, the Christians. Baptists. Methodists. Presbyterians. Lutherans. Catholics. And more. Helping to clear yards, clean houses. Helping to feed people, shower them, clothe them, often with a beatific smile on their face while doing it. For every dark cloud there's a halo to be earned.

They come down in great convoys, and spill out of extended white Econovans, wearing matching bright t-shirts with hopeful slogans, and crisp tan Dockers, and new work boots. These new arrivals meet up with their local brothers and sisters, muddied and sweaty, already on the ground with a battle plan and a staging ground, and they all set forth like worker ants to fix the world one little bit at a time. It's very impressive, this show of giving, and solidarity, and it makes me feel a little safer that my people are in good hands....

I keep my eyes out for the governmental activity. The secular corollary. I see National Guard troops clearing roads with massive green machinery. I also see them efficiently handing out MREs, ice, water. These are very good things to see. But what I'm really looking, hoping for, is evidence of more personal effort. I want to see my government asking "How can I help you?" and "What do you need?" the way I saw the religious groups doing it.

But no. I mainly see the runaround. I see long lines and little help. I see their frustration with our frustration. I see a huge pile of our forced tax tithes being squandered. Not coldly, or calculatingly. Worse. Unthinkingly. Like a rich kid with a big allowance and no worries, clocking an easy part-time job just to look industrious.

Now, I'm an atheist. Free thinker. By our nature we tend to be individualists. We don't get together every week in a specially-built house and recite quotes from Darwin in unison. We don't sing songs together. We don't go in for matching uniforms. When we help people we don't ask them if they'd considered joining us in not believing in a higher power. In short, by our very nature, we don't have a strong collective voice, or muscle. We don't have the force and organization of the religious.

The closest we have to this is our government, and perhaps this is why it so pissed me off to see how ineffective it has become in recent years. Now, I don't want the religious to be less effective, less organized, I just want my government to be more effective, more organized. I want to know that when the shit hits the fan anywhere in the country, there are people working for us and with us, people who know what to do, who can coordinate relief. People who care, and have the tools to get the job done. But, no, we get incompetence and squabbling while the storm rages. Power struggles and finger pointing.

I see how effective the religious have been, and I see how useless the government's been. And this leaves me with a strange frustration, a feeling I'm torn in two, and nagging questions about the way this all mixes up, God and government. When I look at the bigger picture, I see that in the past few years it's been the religious that have largely taken control of the government, and I have to ask myself, is there some thread that helps connect these dots? Ascendant religion and diminished government. A turf battle. Do the religious feel that an effective secular government is a threat to them?

How can I reconcile my love for these people, my thanks at their massive personal efforts to help the survivors, with my nagging feeling that they are at least partially responsible for how badly hobbled government has become, and how that only served to exacerbate the disaster in the first place?

How can I resolve the idea that they are both helping greatly, and harming greatly? Is it possible for them to have a case of collective societal Munchausen's Syndrome?

No, I don't think it's that devious. I'm not saying they all intend to dismantle government, to neuter it, although a great number do, and not all of them religious. And I'm not saying any of them mean real harm in so doing. Far from it. I believe they are good, decent, loving people. But what I have to ask is, is it possible that, just as the atheists seem naturally incapable of collective private relief and action, is it possible that the religious have such a distaste for government, philosophically, that they can't help but render it ineffective when they control it? And that this ineffectiveness makes us all less safe in a thousand ways?

These are some of the questions I've been working on in the wake of Katrina. They're a tangled knot. A seemingly hopeless lot. But the answer feels important.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Small Big Moments

The first time I taught my little brother how to tie a tie was in the parking lot of a church shelter, reflected in the window of a parked car, with a tie he'd found in the piles of donated clothing littered about the lot.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Last Chance For Prints

Some of the new images for sale.

In a week I'll be closing the second edition of prints I issued to raise money for my family. If you enjoy my work, here's a rare chance to invest in it inexpensively, and help me help my people at the same time.

If you'd like to buy a print, or donate via Paypal, click here. Thanks!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Dead Smelly Fridges

French Quarter Fridge

The only plague to strike the Quarter in Katrina's wake, besides lack of power and telephone, was the horde of stinking fridges. Every street was littered with dozens of them. Alone, askew, or lined up like fat little people waiting for the bus. It might seem wasteful to throw out these fridges just because some food rotted in them, but if you've ever had this happen to you you know it's impossible to salvage them. No amount of bleach can clean that stink away.

I wonder if the same is true of government?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Survival Happy Hour

MRE #18, Cajun Rice, Beans, and Sausage

My little brother's school in Kiln, Mississippi (often pronounced "The Kill") had 3000 kids in it, for three grades. The school he's in now in North Carolina has a little over 500, for the same three grades.

In The Kill the school bus was so crowded that kids often had to sit on the floor. In North Carolina my brother has the choice of a bus, or three helpful grown-ups to drive him...

In The Kill he couldn't bring his books home, since he had to share them with other students, as many as three per book. In North Carolina he has his own books, they even gave him a book bag to carry them around in, and a tutor to help him catch up on all the work he missed after Katrina.

In The Kill he never had a locker, because the school charged $50 a month for the use of one. In North Carolina he has his own locker, and they even gave him a new combination lock for it.

Mississippi public schools are ranked 47th in the nation. North Carolina's, 25th.

My little brother doesn't want anybody in their new town to know he's a Katrina survivor. He wants to be normal, like any teen. In school yesterday the teacher decided to have a show and tell with my brother's class, and show them what it was like to eat MREs, like the Katrina people have been, many still are. My brother sank in his chair. I don't know if the teacher was doing this for his benefit, to try to make him feel "understood." At least he wasn't singled out to actually prepare the MREs from long experience.

He said the kids had great fun playing with the food. It was very entertaining for them, and many expressed a desire to eat them all the time. I thought, let's not have a half-ass lesson, right? To get the full effect of your MRE it should be eaten in the dark. Please turn the heat up to 97 degrees, and the humidity up to swampy. Make sure there are at least ten hungry mosquitoes per student, and ensure that the students slept on an army cot in a tent for the past two weeks, unsure of if their friends are alive or dead. Potty breaks should be in the woods out back. And before they eat, let them take a field trip to where they lived and find everything they ever owned scattered for miles, wet, and eaten with mold.

Katrina 101.

My brother's in good hands in North Carolina. He'll get a better education. He'll make good friends, who don't have any traumatic stress disorders. But, I can't get a couple things out of my mind. One, at least the kids in The Kill know where he's coming from. Two, the kids in The Kill deserve to have what he's got right now. And they deserved to have it before Katrina.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Ackers: Katrina Survivors

Angel Acker, 40, Pearlington. Flooded out of her home.

We must have met half a dozen Ackers in Pearlington in the days after the storm hit. I would photograph people and then get their names, and it seemed like every fifth name was Acker. A few weeks later I stumbled upon an article online, and realized that the Ackers even had a version of me in their family, Leo Acker...

Like me, he had moved to the North to pursue opportunity. Like me, he had gone down to help his people, and bring them out of the disaster. Unlike me, he brought a friggin' truckload of supplies with him, and then got seventeen of his fellow Ackers out. I, on the other hand, brought a measly trunk load of supplies, and took some snapshots around town. I'm basically a pale (literally) imitation of Leo Acker.
"Unloading the supplies took an hour and a half with help from thirty volunteers. Convincing his family to come with him to Massachusetts and making arrangements to fly them all there, took much longer, but now, seventeen members of the Acker family have flown into the area, their airfare paid by Leo Acker, his wife, and his uncle's business. The truck he used was donated by Penske, after the company heard how he intended to use it. His family is currently staying at Anchorage Housing in Middletown, Rhode Island.

Mr. Acker moved to the area from the family's home in Pearlington, Mississippi to pursue at degree in engineering at U-Mass Dartmouth. He currently resides in Swansea, and is employed at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Middletown, Rhode Island. Hearing of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina convinced him that he had to head back to his former home and help his family escape the devastated area." Continue...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Surreal Life: East of Eden

Life has become too big, too complex for me to relate. I'm insufficient to the task. My words and photos useless. I sit here, staring blankly at the glow of a computer screen, unable to organize the flood at the gates. I feel the massive hum and throb of humanity, the hive, coming at me through the wires and wireless. If I touch it directly it could kill me, it's that huge, a power line down across my desk. I'm talking about you, here. All the help that's been sent, the words, the relief, the supplies, the thoughts, and yes, the prayers. You've kept a family alive, you know.

Hurricane Katrina blew my family into the ether, and it's the ether that's saved their hope. We've come to a strange and wonderful fork in the road, and it's all because of the internet. I have to tell you this amazing story, a single one in this huge hum, about a small family in North Carolina that was touched by the plight of a little Cajun woman light years away, and yet right next door. It's a story of hope in dark times, of absolute strangers caring like family, of renewal and love and the power of art in the internet age. My mom says it's the strangest thing that's ever happened to her, and that's really saying something.

And no matter how hard I try, I will be unable to convey to you all that I experienced, all that transpired. This can only be a sketch, as this whole site is only a sketch, because I'm insufficient to the task.

I had just evacuated my family to Las Vegas, and was returning to New Orleans, to see if I could reach McKain Street, and my family roots, when I received the email from a guy named Kenny, in Carteret County North Carolina. It's tone was a strangely comforting mix of military succinctness and polite Southern comfort, and was simply titled "An Offer Of Assistance."

In it, he told me how his "sweetie", Elizabeth, had stumbled upon Operation Eden, and how she related to my mom's life, and to her plight, and had been moved to tears by this post. He told me about how they had been aching to reach out and help someone that had been displaced by Katrina since the storm first hit, and had, like many others, been rebuffed by bureaucrats. He told me Elizabeth's daughter, Toni Marie, had just purchased a rental property, and wanted to offer it to my mom and little brother for a year, rent free, until we could rebuild my mom's Eden.

What? I'm sorry. Life up to this point has done nothing but make me a jaded and cynical bastard, and FEMA hasn't done anything to dispel that, so my first instinct was to call bullshit. This guy's yanking my chain. Maybe they want to lure my family in to harvest their organs. White slavery, perhaps? When I read my mom the email, her only reaction, weary from negotiating FEMA lines and the strip malls of Vegas, was "Whaaaat?"

Starve a man for long enough, and food might kill him. A shock to the system. Survival suspicion. Ever try to feed a stray dog?

So while I was in New Orleans I exchanged emails with Kenny, and then Elizabeth, and as I got more comfortable with them we made plans for me to visit them in North Carolina and check it all out. I was weary from things that had happened to me in New Orleans, and things I had seen, including McKain Street finally, which I'll talk about later. I had the weight of my family on my shoulders, and the knowledge that Las Vegas was going to eat them alive in short time, despite meeting some wonderful people there. So I was a glass-eyed zombie, apprehensive, at the end of my rope, when I made the ten hour drive to see Carteret County for myself, hoping that it was what they said it was, but fearing it wouldn't be.

It was. And more. It was as if Katrina had ripped open a hole in time and space, and shifted the Gulf coast to the east coast. Like the Gulf, before it was destroyed. Delicate marshes, huge forests, small country roads, churches everywhere, white cotton in the vast fields, the beaches. Beautiful, but with the far off threat that coastal living carries with it. I started to understand. These people knew, really knew what my people had gone through. Where they came from. It could have been them, after all. And that's when the offer made sense to me.

Kenny and Elizabeth couldn't have been sweeter, or more down to earth and genuine. I was given a whirlwind tour of their small community, Kenny called it the nickel tour, and I soon realized it wasn't just their family that was reaching out to mine, it was the whole little town. It was the mayor, who's office was a golf cart under an oak tree at his nursery business. It was the local water company executive, it was the real estate agent, the insurance agent, and long-time family friends. They'd all pitched in for the effort. The local banker had even set up an account under the name "Katrina Survivor."

I told my mom to roll. No more motel-living in Vegas. No more quasi-homelessness. She rolled.

In the meantime, Kenny had taken to calling the beautiful little trailer they had for my mom East of Eden, and that's an indication of how sensitive they were to my mom's perceptions and needs. This was not charity, this was giving and relief in it's purest form. Selfless, empathic. They had furnished the place sparingly but tastefully, knowing my mom would want to pad her own nest. The attention to detail was astounding. Pots, pans, dishes, bedding, silverware, glasses, appliances, bathroom items, household items, all left in its packaging, so my mom could put it where she wanted it. A local business had donated a computer. There was a ginormous TV, cable, high-speed internet.

They even bought some damn Pepto-Bismol for the medicine cabinet.

Desperate, my mom cleared over 700 miles a day, and each night I'd give her updates on what I was seeing of the place, and the people, and the community. The next day, spurred by hope, she'd drive a little harder. The last day she cleared over 900 miles, and arrived exhausted, in the dead of night. Before she got there the rest of us, Kenny, Elizabeth, and my girl Katie, had spent the night putting the finishing touches on the place. Assembling a TV stand, framing some photos that had been salvaged from her Eden but that she hadn't seen yet, lighting candles. Elizabeth made beautiful arrangements of tulips throughout the house. It was like Christmas Eve, we were so excited for them to arrive.

My mom and little brother were shells when they finally got in. Beyond exhausted. Zombies. They had been going non-stop since the day before Katrina hit. Being a survivor is more than a full-time job. When your future is only as far as tomorrow it's tough to sleep, even when you're a lucky one with a bed. They stumbled through the house, barely able to absorb it all. Only able to point out this or that, like they were tourists at the museum of their future. I could tell they were having a tough time processing it all, waiting for the rug to be pulled out, the other shoe to drop, the catch.

We hovered in the kitchen, speechless, resting, and my mom just slumped towards me, hugging me. That's when I could tell she was slowly crying. Tears of joy for this refuge from the storm. I just held her up, stood there with her, cried with her. She let it all out. It wasn't home, but she felt like she belonged.

Elizabeth and Kenny sat by us as we hugged, quiet and respectful, as always. This is the picture that shows the moment when two American families came together. It shows the hum of the internet made tangible. The ether made solid. Touchable.

And there it is, for now. The internet saved my family. My camera saved my family. I'm a high school dropout, but my writing saved my family. If this had happened ten years ago, my photos, my writing, wouldn't have saved anybody, because nobody would have seen it. It wasn't on CNN. It wasn't on the broadcast networks. It wasn't even on PBS. It was on a plain, small, free website, and that's the only reason Elizabeth saw it, and brought her family into the effort.

Katrina has shown me some things. She's shown me that the American government is unable to protect anything we hold dear. She's shown me that the American people are an amazing, giving, tough, resourceful, huge people, and that they're not being represented fairly by the current class of small-hearted politicians and lazy bureaucrats. She's shown me that people around the world care about us after all, despite our government. She's shown me that it's not about FEMA, it's not about the Red Cross, that it's about amazing families like Elizabeth and Kenny's family in North Carolina. Like I've said before, it's just about people like you and me, on our own, together.

And at the end of the day, I'm just very happy to see my little brother smile again, laugh again, play again. But I know I can't call this a happy ending. We still have so much to do, so much to rebuild, so much to recover, so many pieces to pick up, so many questions to answer. This is a sunny day, but the end of the road is still clouded. No, it's not a happy ending, but thanks to this small, loving family in North Carolina, and all of you out there in the ether, it's damn well a happy end of the beginning.

And that's more than any of us hoped for a month ago.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Thou Shall Love, New Orleans

Thou Shall Love, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

9th Ward Sealed

Playground, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans

"On Wednesday, the men tried and failed to gain access to Mr. Calhoun's neighborhood. Mr. Calhoun, an inspector of nonfederal airports and a Baptist minister, was stunned. He had repeatedly toured the area since the storm, both when it was unguarded and after troops began blockading the northern half of the Lower Ninth Ward. At a time when the rest of New Orleans was reopened, he never expected to find that the National Guard had sealed his beloved neighborhood so tightly that even Mr. Willie, as he calls himself, could not sweet-talk his way in.

"They're treating us like we're already dead," Mr. Calhoun said after he was turned away at three checkpoints and took his leave of a local police officer - "All right, then, brother" - who informed him that he needed an escort from a City Council member. There were no council members present."

Longing for Home in a Sealed New Orleans Ward - NY Times

Sunday, October 23, 2005

How I Work

I'm often asked about what kind of equipment I use in my work, whether it's the fashion and celebrity portraiture, or now, this body of documentary work I've been thrust into with Operation Eden. My answer is always the same: I use the least amount of gear possible to achieve the look I want. I'm agnostic when it comes to camera brands, and I'm equally comfortable with either film or digital capture.

But, for those that are curious, I'll list what I used to shoot most of what you've seen here... My camera of choice was the Canon 1Ds. I use it because it's rugged, well-sealed against the elements, and, most importantly, has a huge full-frame sensor. This is important to me for the best image quality, and because I often use very shallow depth-of-focus, which is much harder to achieve with the smaller sensors used in most digital cameras.

I most often couple it with a 24-70mm f2.8L lens, usually shot on the wide end, seldom past 50mm. Most of the portraits you've seen here where shot with this lens at about 50mm, usually wide open at f2.8. The only other two lenses I used in these shots were fixed focal-length, a 50mm f1.4, and a 35mm f1.4, used when I wanted something lighter and smaller, or when I needed even shallower depth of focus.

The only flash I used was the Canon 550EX, portable strobe. In these pictures I have it attached directly to the camera, but I most often use it with an off-camera cord. I need an assistant when I use it with the off-camera cord (most often my girlfriend, sometimes my little brother.) For the candids shot in the field, competing with the sun, I have my assistant hold the flash upside down, as close to the lens as possible, pointing straight forward, the flash head zoomed in so that light falls off somewhat at the edges, creating a hotter area in the middle. In this case the flash is set to sync at high speeds, which enables me to shoot wide open in blazing bright sun and sill sync a flash at 1/8000 of a second shutter speed (normally, you can't sync a flash higher than 1/250th or so), so I can get that bright "lit" look, and make the background dark enough and blurry enough to not distract from the subjects eyes, which are the most important thing for me.

For the "studio" portraits I use the same flash, this time attached to a small portable softbox, to diffuse the light. A second flash is placed behind the subject and fired into the backdrop by wireless when the first goes off. At least, that's how it's supposed to work. In practice, the second flash didn't fire half the time, and fired too brightly the other half. Nikon has a much better wireless flash system. But they don't make a full-sensor camera body to go with it.

These pictures of me and my little brother were taken, unbeknownst to me, by a national guardsmen I had met a few minutes earlier, who also happens to be an excellent photojournalist. Or more accurately, maybe he's best described as an excellent photojournalist who just happens to be a national guardsman. His name is Edouard HR Gluck, and we had met when he came up to me to talk about gear (it's the equivalent amongst photographers of dogs sniffing butts). He had assumed I was a photojourno down covering the destruction, but I told him, no, I normally shoot fashion, these are just unfortunate family snapshots.

He emailed me these shots later, of me and my little brother walking by the destroyed volunteer firehouse, which at the time housed the relief efforts in Pearlington, which were soon moved to Charles Murphy Elementary. The road we're walking on was a paved two-lane highway before Katrina turned everything in the area into dirt roads.

See also: Process and Intent