Sunday, November 12, 2006

Katrina Mental Health PSA #2

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Hope, One House At A Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One House At A Time Cottage

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

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

Donate/Paypal - One House At A Time

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Light Is Calling

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

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Grim Meathook Future Of New Orleans

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

GMF Explained

Times-Picayune: When needed most, psych services gone

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Tear Drop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

One Year Holding On

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Katrina Every Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 11, 2006


Eden, Nine Months On

Where are we now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And always will be.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Missing, Mardi Gras

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

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

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

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

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