Saturday, December 31, 2005

One down, eleven to go (Pug 12 Step)

"I don't believe it," Rex said on his first morning of his extended visit to New Orleans.

We had just watched the little black pug vacuum down his 1/3 cup of dry dog food for breakfast.

Nero doesn't eat like other dogs.

He attacks every meal as though he hasn't had one in weeks and doesn't expect to get another anytime soon. He buries his entire face in the bottom of his bowl. It's a fully physical effort that apparently requires heavy breathing, guttural grunting and full use of his compact muscles.

I had warned Rex about Nero before the trip. I had told him about the constant begging when anything is being prepared in the kitchen. About the incessant floor licking, an eternal search for the tiniest morsel of nutrition that might have dropped from a plate. And about the rummaging through garbage of any kind.

But like Thomas in the Upper Room, Rex had trouble believing.

He concocted an experiment that, on the surface, seemed simple and harmless. We would keep giving Nero food until he stopped eating, at which point his "addiction" would be proven to have a limit. In the process, the experience might actually cure Nero of some of his obsession.

I told him it wouldn't work. Nero would just eat until the point of sickness, or organ failure.

Which brings us to Friday night. Rex decided it was time for the experiment. He filled a medium sized mixing bowl with dog food and put it beside Nero's feeding tray. The pug went wild.

We watched. Nero ate. We watched some more. Nero kept eating. Sometimes he would pull his head out of the bowl to chew. At one point he moved about a foot and a half away from the bowl, sat down and stared at the food in apparent confusion.

An amazing 15 minutes after the experiment began, Nero had finally had his fill, consuming 10 times his normal meal quantity. His chest and upper stomach were bloated. His eyes were slightly glassy. His movements were deliberate.

"It worked!" Rex exclaimed in triumph.

I still wasn't sure we had accomplished anything other than adding a couple of inches to Nero's waistline.

We all went to bed wondering what would happen next.

Nero's sleep was restless. I woke several times to find him pacing the floor for a minute or two then returning to his bed. His breathing also seemed accelerated but, otherwise, he showed no signs of stress.

We woke in the morning to discover that Rex's experiment wasn't over. There was one more thing to do, he explained. We had to give Nero his normal bowl of food to see if the spell really had been broken.

I protested. Only hours earlier, Nero had eaten enough for the next week. Couldn't this end? Apparently not.

Rex scooped a regular serving of food into the pug's bowl and Nero raced for the meal. Then something amazing happened. Instead of shoving his face into the pellets, Nero pulled his head back and stepped away from the bowl.

He seemed as surprised as we were. The standoff lasted about half a minute. Then Nero slowly approached the bowl again and took a bite. He chewed slowly for a moment, then took another bite. Two minutes later the bowl was empty.

Was his momentary pause a sign of some mental reprogramming? Has his obsession abated, even a small amount?

I'm not sure at this point. But Nero does seem more sedate today. And he hasn't licked the floor once.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Art, Used Cars and Trailer Trash

There's a set of railroad tracks flanked by empty lots about two blocks from where I live. One of the lots is Nero's favorite poo spot. Before Kartina, the tree line along that lot was a well used illegal dumping ground for locals.

It wasn't unusual during a morning walk with the little black pug to discover a newly discarded item or two flung into the brush, maybe even a bulging black trash bag.

After Katrina, the area became one of many "official" unofficial trash heaps. I even dumped a pile of garden debris and flooded stuff from the garage onto one of the piles. We really had no choice. For more than a month, there was no streetside trash pickup. Hauling waste to the tracks was the only way to keep the stuff from stinking up the fronts of our houses.

The big piles have disappeared, but every few days new items show up again. I discovered the above pile while driving to work this week. I imagine it could be the creation of one of the eccentric artists who populate the Bywater neighborhood where I live. It spoke to me.

No art here. This is the scene below the Broad Street overpass next to my office. This space used to be overflow parking for newspaper employees. It's become a graveyard for flooded wrecks (note the water lines on the windows). Sometimes, some of the cars disappear. But within a few days, the lot is full again. Who knows when it will end.

I drove a few blocks through the Fontainebleau neighborhood near the center of the city the other day and counted more than 20 FEMA trailers, such as this one, in front of houses.

Not so long ago, I would have hurled at the sight of a trailer in a historic neighborhood. But the spread of mobile homes is heartening. They're a sign of change after months of stagnation, a signal that people finally are coming back to flooded sections of the city. Welcome to New Orleans - the nation's biggest trailer park!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Deep Fried Christmas

My family Christmas meal began last week with a hellish trip by Rex and me into the deepest bowels of New Orleans suburbia to purchase a Cajun Flip-N-Fry for $14. We bought the south Louisiana cooking novelty from a woman in her Kenner garage. "You're lucky. This is my last one," she said.

Brother-in-law and Mom use the latest Cajun technology to coat catfish fingers for our not-so-traditional holiday meal.

My sister had called earlier in the week with instructions to buy the device, saying my brother-in-law needed it to coat catfish for our Christmas family lunch at their house.

I got back into the car and handed the Flip-N-Fry to Rex. He stared at it briefly. "This is a piece of Tupperware," he exclaimed in disbelief as he opened the lid of the translucent container and pulled out a perforated plastic divider. "This is Cajun technology?" he asked.

Yes, Rex, it is. Just like the Cajun Injector, an oversized syringe used to fill large pieces of meat with spicy juices. And the Cajun ChickCAN, a metal rack that positions a can of beer (or any other favorite canned beverage) in the "butt" of a chicken for "the most flavorful, moist" grilling experience ever, or so the manufacturer claims. Then there's Boudreaux's Butt Paste, no explanation needed.

Amazingly, the Flip-N-Fry seems to live up to its billing. My brother-in-law said he would have used five times more cornmeal for the Christmas catfish had he coated the pieces the old-fashioned way.

Catfish frying on the driveway, and the final result with fixings.

Joining the catfish on the table were baked potatoes, French fries, Asian cole slaw, corn and crawfish casserole, rolls and cheesecake for dessert.

Of course, south Louisianians are known for nontraditional holiday meals. Think of deep-fried turkeys and turduckens. My family hasn't had a typical Anglo Christmas meal in years. Usually, my brother-in-law makes a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo, sided by potato salad and corn on the cob.

But this year's lunch likely stretched the limits of acceptable holiday cuisine ... even for these parts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

México en el Calle Borbón

How about a tamale or a fish taco to go with your Pat O'Brien's Hurricane or Big Ass beer?

Welcome to Fajitas y Margaritas, one of the newest tenants to move onto Bourbon Street after Hurricane K. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the sidewalk kitchen is just a couple of doors down from Big Daddy's, the strip club best known for the pair of mannequin legs swinging from the front window.

I discovered this joint Wednesday night during a two-hour stroll up and down Bourbon Street.

You can't find a Lucky Dog cart selling hot dogs on Bourbon Street to save your life, but an $8 burrito is just around the corner.

Ethnic food, outside of pseudo-Cajun cuisine stereotyped to the hilt for the most indiscriminating tourist palate, has been traditionally hard to find along New Orleans' main tourist strip. That makes Fajitas y Margaritas all the more remarkable.

At the very least, the shop boldly declares the arrival of the city's newest immigrant population.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gay life in N.O.

How many gay men does it take to keep a Bourbon Street bar open? Well, as Rex and I found out late Sunday night, not nearly as many as you might think. The crowds were fairly small everywhere we went - Cafe Lafitte's in Exile, The Pub, Good Friends and Rawhide. But that's not so unusual for December, traditionally the slowest month for convention business.

Rex did interviews with bartenders for a story that he's working on about the resurrection of gay and lesbian life in the Big Easy. If there was a universal theme in the interviews, it was this: government workers and contractors now filling the bulk of the city's hotel rooms don't spend nearly as much money on watered-down, overpriced beverages as do tourists.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Lowa Nint Wawd

The neighborhood worst-hit by Hurricane K lived up to its billing, and then some.

After more than eight weeks back at home in New Orleans, we ventured for the first time into the Lower 9th Ward Saturday afternoon. We crossed the Industrial Canal just a few blocks from my house in the Bywater neighborhood then turned north.

Before long, we were in the middle of a vast wasteland stretching more than 100 city blocks in all directions. Everywhere we looked were empty foundations where houses once stood, cars tossed around like toys, towering piles of rubble and a ubiquitous blanket of gray dried mud.

More than three months after the storm, the only signs of life there were the other catastrophe tourists cruising the area and a handful of people sifting through the wreckage of their homes.

We got an up-close look at the mammoth barge that rested on the neighborhood side of the levee after floating through the barrier during the early hours of Katrina.

I expected things to be bad, but the reality was beyond imagination. I won't be making a return trip anytime soon.

Top pic: The force of the flood water from the Industrial Canal (off camera about four blocks to the right) pushed everything in its path the other way, creating a vertigo effect along some streets.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Where's Anderson Cooper when you need him?

I spent Sunday morning second-lining down Esplanade Avenue to St. Anna's Episcopal Church with fellow parishioners and visiting priests and parishioners from about half a dozen other Episcopal churches outside of Louisiana. Leading the procession were the Storyville Stompers who reunited several weeks ago and began playing gigs again. A jazz mass followed at the church.

The visitors kept repeating throughout the weekend that the vast scope of damage in the flooded areas of the city was beyond anything they perceived through television and newspaper reports back home.

That's the same response that Rex gave a few days ago when I took him riding through the Lakeview neighborhood near the 17th Street Canal breach. He was stunned.
I've grown surprisingly accustomed to the reaction.

It's sort of like telling visitors they can carry cups of their favorite alcoholic beverage in the street without fear of police intervention. To them, it's an unbelievable privilege not enjoyed at home. To us New Orlenians, it's normal.

That's kind of how it feels now to live a few blocks from the Dead Zone. What shocks the visitor is just life in New Orleans to the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Welcome to Baghdad, USA

Four overnight power outages in two weeks. One morning without water. A day and a half without cable television and high-speed Internet service. Periodic whiffs of natural gas around the neighborhood.

We used to joke that life in New Orleans was like living in the Third World, a reference to our corrupt and greed-driven political system.
It's not a joke anymore.

It's bad enough to have to drive 15 minutes in the middle of an urban area to find an open grocery store. It's bad enough to get mail delivered once or twice a week, if you're lucky. It's bad enough to eat dinner by 8 p.m. because most restaurants close by 9 p.m. It's bad enough to encounter shoulder-high piles of debris practically everywhere you go. It's bad enough not knowing when, or if, the garbage truck will pass.
But the utility problems take the frustration of living in a disaster zone to an entirely different level. Each time some service goes out, it feels like a sharp kick in the gut. Remember we're nearly three months past Hurricane Katrina's disasterous romp through the city.

Granted, the services haven't stayed off for very long. The power always comes back on within a few hours after sunrise, when it's safe for utility workers to venture into the still black dead zones of the city to flip breakers that sporadically trip along the limited number of feeder lines connecting repopulated neighborhoods to functioning substations. The water was back on within a few hours of going dry. And with any luck, I'll have the International History Channel glowing from from my living room screen tonight.

Still, if I had wanted to live in Baghdad I would have enlisted in the Army.

Pic: Me and Nero standing between a pair of abandoned, storm-damaged warehouses a block and a half from the house.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Drive-thru Health Care

It's been nearly three months since I received inoculations for tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis A and B in the days following Hurricane Katrina's landfall.

I got the shots because they were recommended for anyone traveling into the city while flood waters and debris posed safety threats.

I knew it was time for the second B shot, but I wasn't sure where to go to get it.

Turns out I didn't have to go far.

Driving along the edge of the French Quarter today I stumbled across a vacant lot at the corner of North Rampart and Esplanade streets that was filled with half a dozen tents. A large sign across the front of the property identified the site as a primary care clinic set up by the U.S. Public Health Service.

Five minutes later, I was sitting under one of the tents having my temperature and blood pressure checked. Then I was off to a second tent where a volunteer nurse from Iowa injected the second of the three B vaccine treatments into my right shoulder.

It was the her second volunteer trip to New Orleans since mid-September.

At other tents, people were getting flu shots, having their cholesterol checked and consulting with doctors about drugs and prescriptions.

The clinic was only at the French Quarter site for one day and was scheduled to relocate to the Convention Center on Monday.

I have until early March before I'll need the final shots for hepatitis A and B.
Given the short supply of doctors and operating hospitals in the city, makeshift clinics such as the one I visited have become essential.

Amazingly, I was in and out of the clinic with my shot in 10 minutes.

If only normal health care services operated with that kind of efficiency. I'll take a 10 minute wait under a tent over 50 minutes in a doctor's office any day.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Self-imposed Chaos

It's a funny thing, life after the worst catastrophe in modern national history.

It makes you think . . . about everything. About your job, your friends, your relationships, your past, your future, your home, your finances, your past times, your theology, your politics, your passions, your fears. Have I left out anything?

Katrina stripped away the veneer of my life; the comfortable habits and motions that had lost their meaning and depth.

Removed, I was left with the naked truth. Unhappy at work. Unhappy at home. More than ready to take some big steps forwards.

So I disrupted what Katrina had left unscathed. The details are too long for here, but I'll boil it down. I turned down a job offer in Arizona and, instead, accepted an offer to move jobs at The Times-Picayune (the daily newspaper in New Orleans) to join our front line for covering the hurricane recovery story. On the homefront, I'll be moving on - literally - in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, a brilliant new light from southern California is shining in my life. Just in time for winter, a nice fire to warm the heart.

A few people in the immediate weeks after the storm warned me against making any life-altering changes in the wake of such trauma.

But my gut soon told me differently, and my gut has never failed me.

So life in New Orleans is hard but good; it's frustrating but fulfilling; it's exhausting but energizing.

It's a city of contradictions. Funny, sounds like the old New Orleans. Maybe things aren't so different here afterall.

Posts on old blog

For the last two and a half months I've been chronicling my life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I'll be posting here going forward, but my old posts will remain on the old site at

UPDATE: I've recreated all of my previous Katrina posts on this blog and back dated them so that they appear in proper chronological order.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The losses continue

Driving home from work early tonight through the dead zone I noticed a big fire burning a few blocks off Elysian Field Boulevard and Claiborne Avenue.

I turned my car into the neighborhood of old shotgun double houses populated before Katrina by poor African Americans. The burning building was a church of a design fairly typical for the neighborhood. It was a fairly small red brick and wood building, single story, and capped in the front by a short, stout steeple.

By the time I arrived flames were shooting 10 feet to 15 feet from most of the building's roof. There were about six fire trucks positioned on the streets along the church's front and exposed side. Soldiers roamed the surrounding intersections but they had little to do since so few people were in the area. Only one soldier checked my press i.d. as I walked up to the scene.

I met Walt Philbin, a senior crime reporter for The Times-Picayune, who told me that the church was beyond saving by the time firefighters arrived. The firefighters were working to keep the flames from jumping to nearby homes. Walt couldn't say how the blaze started.

As we watched from a nearby corner the steeple exploded in flames, slowly tilted back then collapsed into the burning sanctuary.

It was terribly sad watching the church burn. A woman and child seemed to be the only people from the neighborhood watching the fire. The woman said she didn't attend the church, which was home to a Baptist congregation.

In many poor neighborhoods, small churches like this one are the centers of safety, stability and hope.

I wondered if anyone who went to the church knew yet that the building had survived the hurricane only to burn to the ground two months later.

Only a month and a half ago I had walked into my church on Esplanade Avenue to discover that it had been virtually untouched by the catastrophe that swirled outside its doors. I felt like I had reconnected with a dear old friend.

I can't imagine how members of the burning church will feel when they discover its fate.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Video of Times-Picayune evacuation from New Orleans

As New Orleans flooded, burned and descended into a hellish chaos in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday, Oct. 30, staff members of The Times-Picayune who rode out the storm in the newspaper's downtown headquarters evacuated our flooding building.

We rode in the backs of about 10 newspaper delivery trucks through more than three feet of water to get out of the city, and then spent the next seven hours riding through congested and chaotic south Louisiana towns in 95-degree heat before arriving at our temporary home in Baton Rouge.

The New York Times chronicled the exodus in this article.

Here is the short video (accompanied by the song "New Orleans is Sinking," by Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip) that was filmed from the back of my truck as we departed the T.P. building through the flood waters.

The video opens with a view out of the office's front window as Katrina approached its climax outside. Listen for the haunting whistle that filled the building's front atrium throughout the worst of the storm.

About midway through the video, the camera pans inside the delivery truck to show its passengers. I'm sitting in the middle of the group with badly-thinning black hair and the short-sleeve blue shirt.You can download the original video here.

City still feels empty

People finally seem to be returning to my neighborhood in the Bywater section of New Orleans without moving vans.

Another four people on my block moved back into their homes this week, raising the total to about 10. That's still a housing unit occupancy rate of less than 50 percent for the block. No businesses have opened yet in our neighborhood. That's partly because many of them were looted or seriously damaged after Katrina.

Population seems to be the key to reviving parts of the city. The neighborhoods with the most residential activity seem to be the ones that suffered the least damage, contain a larger percentage of home owners rather than renters and have seen the speediest resurrection of businesses.

On my side of the city, about the only businesses that have opened are bars, gift shops and junk antique stores in the French Quarter, a small but growing number of restaurants and a handful of coffee shops. For the most part, nearly all of those businesses close their doors around 6 p.m. Nearly all of the restaurants close by 9 p.m. There's only one gas station open on my side of the city (and only five in the whole city), and only a couple of small corner grocery stores.
That makes even the simplest task, such as filling up the gas tank or picking up groceries for dinner, a real challenge.

We continue to avoid shopping in the suburbs because the store hours there are also limited and the shops are packed with people from open to close.

And just as I've feared for weeks, there are growing signs that the cost of living in the city is rising quickly.

Gasoline prices in metro New Orleans are the highest in the state, and wages, particularly near the bottom of the job market, continue to rise.

With little to do in the city and grocery store largely inaccessible, most of my money is spent on eating out. While a handful of re-opened restaurants have reinstated the prices that were in place before the storm, many others have raised prices - some substantially.

Constantine and I ate dinner the other night at a Decatur St. neighborhood spot that used to be a cheap eat place. We shared a large pizza (which is just big enough for two), a large regular salad and a couple of beers. Before Katrina this meal would have cost us about $30 before tip. On this recent night, the bill before tip was $43. The pizza alone was $18.

I'm afraid that our days of relatively cheap living in New Orleans, as compared to other cities of similar stature, are over.

That's troubling. Our traditionally low cost of living allowed working poor people to survive and made the city attractive to artists, musicians and young people. You take away those populations and you make New Orleans much more like a bland, middle-class suburb.

We've settled into our new routines for the most part, but that doesn't make them any easier or less depressing.

The most discouraging thing is not knowing how many more weeks, months or even years that life in New Orleans will be like this.

Meanwhile, every few days bring news of another friend or acquaintance who has decided to move away or stay where they evacuated. Those decisions anger some people who have returned to the city, but I can't really blame them. Why shouldn't people who had successful, happy, thriving lives try to re-establish that somewhere else if the prospect of having that life again in New Orleans in the foreseeable future appears to be nil?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Everyone should read this

Times-Picayune reporter Brian Thevenot was one of a handful of our staff members who stayed in New Orleans after the rest of the staff evacuated. He and the other staffers who remained risked their lives so that The Times-Picayune could continue publishing live reports from its home city.

His raw and riveting account of that time appeared recently in the American Journalism Review.
The article chronicles a heroic moment in The Times-Picayune's long history and a proud period for our often-besmirched profession.

My experiences recorded in this blog seem trivial in comparison.

Read Brian's first-person article here.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Back to work at my New Orleans office

I'm writing this post from my desk at The Times-Picayune headquarters building in downtown New Orleans.

About half of the staff repopulated the building today.

The other half is still in Baton Rouge at our temporary digs, or still evacuated.

I'm the only person from the Money section here, so it's kind of lonely in our part of the office. I can't wait for my co-workers to return tomorrow.

The atmosphere is pretty festive. Everyone hugging each other a lot. Lot's of food.

Looks like we have all of the comforts of work. Obviously, my Internet connection is on. The phones, including voicemail, are working normally. Even our in house email system is back up again.

And the second floor cafeteria has reopened. That's important, considering the scarcity of food in the city these days.

Our section of the newsroom flooded because we're right next to windows, so the carpet has been removed, exposing a bare sticky floor. And all of the desks and filing cabinets have been shuffled around. But it's still home, and it feels unbelievably fantastic to be back!!!!!

Word is that we're actually printing tomorrow's edition here tonight.

Just picked up my official storm t-shirt. On the front is The Times-Picayune masthead followed by this:

Enough said.

Time changes in New Orleans

A friend of mine now visiting Buenos Aries has commented about the late-night hours kept by local Argentines.

Dinner at 10 p.m., social gatherings at 11 p.m., late-night carousing until just before dawn. And sleeping hours stretching into the mid-day.

He doesn't realize it, but he's describing the New Orleans that I knew before Hurricane Katrina.
The Crescent City was one of the nation's few truly 24-hour cities.

My personal life clock typically ran this way during the week: Wake up around mid-morning; arrive at the office around 10 a.m.; home by 7 p.m.; dinner around 9:30 p.m.; in bed around midnight.

Mind you, I was considered an early bird compared to most of my neighbors.

That lifestyle was largely a result of the economy and the job market. With so many people working in the city's service and tourism industries, many kept late-shift work hours which gave them a life clock that ran about five or six hours later than the typical 9 to 5'er.

So far, the new New Orleans seems to be keeping time with the rest of the world.

Curfews, early business closing and limited work forces all have conspired to send those of us who have moved back home crawling between our sheets much earlier than normal.

Out-of-town workers, many of whom undoubtedly hail from the world of suburbia, also head for the doors at respectable hours.

It's strange to walk into a nearly empty restaurant or bar in the French Quarter at 10 p.m. and realize that you missed the evening rush by an hour.

Another contributing factor is exhaustion. After spending all day working longer-than-normal work hours or doing the hard physical labor required to repair storm damage around our homes, businesses and neighborhoods, we just don't have the energy to do much else.

Maybe this suburban-life schedule will be good for all of us, at least for the time being.

Maybe it was our late-night hours that kept us from dealing with and fixing so many of the problems that faced New Orleans before the storm.

Maybe through this new work ethic, we'll find the time to correct the city's ills in ways we only dreamed of before.

Whatever the case, I hope the change isn't permanent.

My experience always has been that the least interesting places on this planet always are the ones that roll up the carpets and turn out the lights by 10 p.m.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Not so lucky afterall

Today was tough.

Constantine and I spent the morning clearing the debris and trash from the front of our house while a friend of ours took a chain saw to the back garden and cleared away a pair of fallen trees.

By 11 a.m., we were starving. A Salvation Army truck arrived just in time. You would have thought it was a truck carrying ice cream. The truck stopped in the middle of our block and within a couple of minutes there was a crowd of about 10 people around it from a few surrounding blocks. We each were given a hot lunch of beef stew, bread, rice crispies treat, Crunch chocolate bar and a bottle of water.

The tough stuff came after lunch when Constantine and I opened the bottom garage/storage area under the house and started cleaning.

Our house originally was built on the ground, but around the turn of the century it was raised about 12 feet, leaving a complete copy of the upstairs space underneath. We've always used the space for storage, but have planned to build the back half out as a spare guest apartment.

Until today, we thought only a little water had entered the bottom floor. But as we sifted though boxes, we quickly figured out that the water level must have reached more than a foot and a half.

We lost a lot of stuff, including boxes of personal records, books, albums, mementos from childhood and college, furniture, appliances still in their boxes that we had bought for the apartment, most of our camping equipment and a really nice home gym that we never got the chance to set up.

Nearly everything that got wet had mold on it. And the standing water that we found was slimy and putrid.

The hardest moment for me came when I found two particular boxes. One contained a few reminders of my days in high school marching band, including the hat I wore as a drum major - now damp and growing mold.

The other box contained all of my clips from my first two jobs. Since both of those jobs predated computerized newspaper libraries, the clips were my only record of my work during the first part of my career. Everything in the box was soaked and growing mold. I thought about trying to pull clips out and dry them, but I couldn't bear doing that. So I just quickly tossed the box into the growing mountain of trash in front of the house.

I feel silly feeling so badly about old stuff stored in boxes when I'm so lucky to have come out of this with my life largely intact. Still, it's frustrating to be feeling new losses six weekBlogger: ScoopZone - Create Posts after the storm hit. It sort of makes me think that I'll be going through this process over and over again for months to come.

A weekend in New Orleans

There's one thing I can say about life in New Orleans without any reservation: it's exhausting.
I'm stunned at how much there is to do even though my house largely escaped serious damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Still, the chores seem endless.

Our first task Saturday morning was getting our smelly refrigerator out of the house. That was no small job. Because of its size, we had to remove the doors and expose us and the house to the rotting stench still inside. We managed to get it onto the front porch, where it will sit until later today when we figure out how to get it down the narrow front stairs to the street.

Then we spent a few hours unpacking much of the clothes and personal items that we took on our evacuation. Though we made a big dent, several bags and plastic containers remain filled.

We spent some time cleaning and bleaching the kitchen and bathroom. Then took a break around mid-afternoon to drive across the Mississippi River to the West Bank.

We ate lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, a Vietnamese place called Nine Roses.

Amazingly, Nine Roses was serving its full menu. It was like eating at Galatoire's. Anna, the woman who owns the restaurant with her husband, told us she had assembled a partial restaurant crew from her old staff and from people who work at other Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants in the area that either have been destroyed or still haven't reopened.

She said that the close-knit nature of the Asian-American communities helped her overcome the severe labor shortage problems that have paralyzed so many other businesses in the area.
We went to Lowes to look at refrigerators and freezers. None are available on the floor. Orders must be placed and they arrive in two weeks. Delivery service is available but there is a one-and-a-half-month wait.

We looked at models on the computer there and decided to take measurements in the kitchen before placing an order.

Returning to the city from the West Bank was a relief. The suburbs are pretty miserable, much like Baton Rouge. They're crowded with traffic. The stores are filled with people. Everything closes by 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.

We spent the rest of the day helping a couple of neighbors turn on their natural gas, powering up our hot water heater and transferring about five bags of putrid, rotten refrigerator garbage piled near the front of our house into heavy-duty, contractor strength black garbage bags.

I saw things in that garbage that I've never seen before. It took everything I had not to throw up. I wore plastic gloves for the job, but by the time I finished I reeked from head to toe.

Today, we plan to start clearing the trees that fell in the back garden and cleaning out the downstairs. Now that we've had time to check things more closely, it's clear that we got about half a foot of water in the back half of the downstairs floor, which we use for storage. We think the water came from rain flooding in the backs of the houses.

I'm felt more exhausted than I have since before the storm. Certainly, it's partly because I'm doing more physical work. But I think it's also because I'm feeling more relaxed now that I'm home. The adrenaline has finally subsided and my body is finally starting to rest.

I can't imagine how hard the work must be for people who suffered major damage to their homes.

We're up to six neighbors who have moved back to our block. All of them, including two renters, say they're staying. That's great news!

Soldiers drive down our block on a regular basis day and night. I've never felt safer in the city.
I saw a parrot fly over the house late yesterday afternoon. I'm so happy they are still here. A load of green parrots escaped from the airport about 15 years ago, and they have slowly populated the city since.

A flock began appearing a couple of years in our neighborhood, and it had grown to about 30 birds by this summer. I've been hoping they would come back.

Friday, October 07, 2005

$6,000 bonus for flipping burgers

Some strange things are happening in the New Orleans economy.

If you want to see how strange, check out my article in today's online version of The Times-Picayune here.

It's about fast-food restaurants that are having a hard time finding staff to reopen local stores. To compete, they are shooting up wages and offering things like signing bonuses for workers willing to stick around for the next 12 months. That's right signing bonuses, for burger flippers!

Higher consumer prices can't be far behind.

Look for the article titled, "Fast-food restaurants hungry for workers."

First night home

I spent my first night in the house last night (Thursday). I can't describe how fantastic it was to sit on the couch, eat cookies and watch the History International channel, then crawl into my own bed.

I'm hoping since the cable is on that means I also have high-speed Internet service, but I won't know until I hook up the cable modem.

I returned to Baton Rouge this morning to work a few hours out of our temporary newsroom here and pack up all of my stuff at my sisters house. I'll be moving everything back to my house later today.

Looks like I'll be able to continue working out of our New Orleans "bureau" in the top of the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street until we're allowed back into our main office downtown.

Constantine is planning on returning home today. Though we're facing a long and busy weekend cleaning up around the house, I'm really looking forward to he and I and Nero being back in the house.

Life is still a bit of a challenge in the city. Only a couple of gas stations are open, so I have to keep a very close eye on my gas gauge. I almost ran out of gas yesterday and had to travel halfway across the city to get to the nearest station. Luckily, I made it without stalling.

Food is another problem. No grocery stores are open in the city, so we have to drive to the suburbs to shop. But once there, we face huge crowds and long checkout lines. We might not need much for a while since our refrigerator is still a hazardous waste site. Nothing is simple these days.

More restaurants open every day downtown, especially in the French Quarter, but most still are serving the same basic menu - cheese burgers, soft drinks, bottled water and potato chips.

Last night, I had french fries and lettuce on my cheese burger for the first time at Clover Grill on Bourbon Street. It was such a treat!

Surreal moment of the day:
"Can you tell me what to do about the dead deer hanging from my neighbor's balcony?" - Overheard phone conversation from a Times-Picayune reporter who lives in St. Bernard Parish. She actually produced a snapshot of the scene.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Protecting the hood

On my now-daily run to my house in the Bywater to check if the lights are back on (and the place is inhabitable again) I encountered one of my neighbors, Phong.

Phong is a slightly-stout, middle-aged Asian man who lives two houses down and across the street with his wife, Valerie, his mother-in-law and three pugs (there were four before the storm but the oldest of the pack succumbed during their evacuation). They occupy a small shotgun, double cottage painted lavender with pink and purple trim.

Phong returned alone seven days after Katrina to go back to work as a hotel parking lot manager in the French Quarter.

He quite possibly was the first neighbor to visit our block after the storm.

While standing in front of his house on that morning back in the city, Phong watched a young man smash a chunk of concrete through a car windshield half a block away, then flash a hand gun, as if to make the point that nothing was going to stop him from doing whatever he wanted to do.

Fearful for his safety, Phong left immediately.

Back at the hotel, he cut a deal with several FBI officer to patrol our block on a regular basis during their night rounds in exchange for choice parking spaces in the garage.

The night patrols continued for the next several weeks, and when Phong had free time during the day he went back to our block with an armed off-duty FBI officer and posted a watch on various neighborhood stoops.

Within blocks of my house, homes and businesses were looted, buildings were burned to the ground and general chaos reigned for days.

But on my block, no human hand inflicted any discernible damage.

I think Phong single-handedly saved our block.

He told me he did it because he and Valerie consider the whole block as their home. They don't want to return to a street of empty and abaondoned houses, or a block filled with strangers.
When I shook his hand and thanked him for protecting my house and the neighborhood, he shyly glanced at his feet, shrugged his shoulders and said he did nothing special.

He's wrong, and far too humble.

I wish everyone had a neighbor like Phong.

Since Wednesday was the first official day for people in my zip code to return home, there was a marked increase in human activity in the Bywater.

I bumped into four or five acquaintances who were returning to their homes for the first time.
Three of them were greeted with holes in their roofs, chunks of plaster on their furniture and floors, and mold growing on walls. Just more reminders of how lucky Constantine and I are.

Everyone seems to be determined to return, at least in the short term, but they don't know yet if they will stay for good. We're all worried that the city could change into something we don't recognize or like over the next few years.

Signs of life returning:
Several times I encountered young women in Pippy Longstockingsish garb riding bikes with big handle bars and large baskets.

Those of you familiar with the Bywater know that it's filled with slightly eccentric, bohemian, 20 and 30 something starving artists who don't own cars and get around on hand-me-down bikes.

Surreal moment of the day:
A guy from the neighborhood (see description above) stood next to his bike at the intersection of Dauphine and Press streets handing out single sheets of paper to people driving into the Bywater from the lower Marigny. On the sheet was a list of corner groceries, restaurants, hardware stores and other businesses open along on our side of Canal Street.

Things I don't like about NEW New Orleans:
The bugs are back.

Weeks after they abandoned the city with the rest of us, insects seem to be pouring into New Orleans in exponentially greater numbers than their human counterparts. It seems impossible to sit still for more than a moment without a fly landing on an exposed section of skin.

And the Bywater and other neighborhoods are under assault from an outbreak of fleas apparently brought on by the large numbers of the pets left behind by fleeing residents.
If you come to visit, bring plenty of bug spray!

Monday, October 03, 2005

Back home . . . almost

If I didn't know better, I'd say nothing has changed in New Orleans.

I'm sitting in Coop's, my favorite neighborhood bar/restaurant/dive on Decatur St. in the French Quarter feeling more like myself than I have in five weeks.

Coop's isn't yet serving my favorite dish - rabbit, shrimp, crawfish and sausage jambalaya. But I just finished a pretty decent cheddar cheese burger with tomato (no lettuce deliveries yet) served on a blue and white Dixie paper plate with plastic silverware, and an ice cold Barqs root beer.

There's air conditioning, music, a WiFi connection (whoopee!) and plenty of loud conversation and second-hand smoke.

Out on the sidewalk, a thin but steady flow of people pass. In many ways, they look just as they did before the storm. Some people carry cameras. Others are totting beer in a see-through plastic cup. There even was a young couple pushing carriage with toddler inside.

The crowd inside Coop's has steadily grown all afternoon, from about 10 when I walked in around 3 p.m. to about 25 now (5:30 p.m.) It's quite a scene. Every time a regular walks in, there's a new round of hugs and kisses that go around the bar.

I can't believe I'm about to write this, but this part of the French Quarter actually FEELS like the French Quarter.

I spent the morning and afternoon at the NASA plant in eastern New Orleans. My original plan was to file my story at The Times-Picayune New Orleans bureau (that's right, who ever thought we would be reduced to a bureau in our own city) located on the 40-somethingish floor of the Sheraton Hotel, but my photographer said the room is a zoo in the afternoon.

I had heard that Coop's was open. I was hungry, thirsty and figured there was a chance I could get an Internet link here. Needless to say, I hit the jackpot.

Went home this morning again. All is well, but still no electricity. Though power is now on only four blocks away.

But the best news of the day came from our publisher who announced at our temporary digs in Baton Rouge that we will close that office this weekend and re-occupy our main building in New Orleans Monday.

That's great news for people like me who probably will be able to re-occupy our homes simultaneously, but not so good for people who are homeless and now will have to find new places to stay in the city.

Well, gotta run to make the 6 p.m. curfew. I'm staying the night in the city for the first time since the week of the storm.

Hopefully, I'll be sleeping in my own bed by Saturday!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Returning to Planet Chaos

I'm back in Baton Rouge after five days in the very normal city of Chicago attending the annual convention for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

It was great to be away for such a long time.

There were several moments when I felt like a fly on the wall.

One was while I was getting a much needed haircut in the hotel salon. Sitting in the barber's chair next to me was a 30-something white-collar guy getting his hair cut by a middle-aged immigrant woman. They slowly entered into a conversation about the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, talking about the shocking images on television, and the great degree of suffering. They each had tales of visits to New Orleans with typical tourist details - coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde; window shopping along Royal Street in the French Quarter; a buggy ride.

Then the guy made this comment: "I just don't think they should rebuild the city. People really shouldn't live there. It's below sea level and everything. We should rebuild it somewhere else away from the swamps."

I turned to him and told him that the city he was talking about not rebuilding was my home and a place that I love.

He struggled for more words. He was embarrassed, as well he should have been.

The decision of whether or not to rebuild New Orleans doesn't lie with guys in a salon in a big Midwestern city. It lies with me and my friends and neighbors who live in the city and breathe life into it.

Everywhere I went in the Chicago, I was met with sincere and often deep expressions of concern and sorrow when people learned my home town.

The expressions of support and admiration for the work that we have been doing at The Times-Picayune were unending.

The moment that I think I'll remember most happened at the start of the convention, during a gathering of chapter presidents and national board members. We went around the room introducing ourselves and telling where we work, what chapter we represent, and our goals for the week.

When the microphone got to me, I choked up as I told everyone that I was a business writer for The Times-Picayune and president of the Louisiana chapter. I might as well have been saying, "We haven't been destroyed. We're still here despite the last three terrible weeks."

Everyone applauded.

Then I laid out my goals. Last year, I talked about picking up new event ideas, learning how to grow membership and networking with colleagues.

Last week, the list was much more basic.

"I want to feel as normal as possible, because I haven't really felt normal since before Katrina. And I want to tell as many people as possible about the heroic work being done in Louisiana by gay and lesbian journalists."

I can safely say tonight, mission accomplished.

Despite the miles of separation between Chicago and New Orleans, I was never far from planet chaos.

On Friday, I skipped most of the workshops in the late morning and afternoon to monitor television and Internet reports about Rita, and to track the whereabouts of my parents and other relatives who were in the storms path.

I also felt guilt about not being in Baton Rouge covering the new storm.

By Saturday, the anxiety had lessened, and the stress had been replaced by excitement. My partner, Constantine, was swinging through Chicago on his way back South from Connecticut. We would get to see each other only for the second time since the weekend before Katrina.

When my cell phone rang at 10 p.m., I presumed it was Constantine calling for directions to where I was staying.

Instead, he was calling to tell me that his car had broken down in Toledo, Ohio, about three hours from Chicago, and that he was stuck there until he could get the car in a shop Monday morning.

We talked about one of us renting a car and traveling to the other city, but we couldn't come up with a plan that worked.

So Sunday afternoon, I flew out of Chicago while Constantine sat in a motel room across the state line.

Just more proof that, right now, everything that can go wrong probably will go wrong.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

View from the Capital City

Here's the scene: I'm sitting inside a CC's Coffee Shop in a strip shopping center in Baton Rouge eating an oh-so-almost-flowerless dark chocolate cake.

I know what some of you who really know me are saying - "What are YOU doing in a CC's? You hate CC's."

Yes, that's certainly true, but in this the capital of mediocre chain everything, CC's is the best you can do and still get free Wi-Fi Internet access.

Earlier tonight I ate a huge bacon and cheddar cheese burger at George's, a fantastic hole-in-the-wall bar restaurant that might remind me of some of my favorite neighborhood places in New Orleans if not for the uptight suburban clientele and very collegiate staff.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the meal, watched some SEC football and am now topping off my gorging with a cocoa overdose.

Wow! If I didn't' know better, I'd say my life is almost back to normal.

I noticed for the first time tonight that the stress and anxiety of Ms. K, as I saw another New Orleans writer put it, seems to have become background noise in my life. But a friend and fellow evacuee warned me tonight that such thinking is probably rooted in illusion. My despair over the storm and the aftermath is probably still there. It's just that I've started ignoring it at some level.

Whatever the case, it's a welcomed relief.

My now-regular trips into the city for work and personal reconnaissance certainly have helped. Every time I go inside I see more people in the city, more activity, more cleaning, more reason to be hopeful.

I've visited a half dozen houses of friends and delivered live reports to them from my cell phone. All of them were in neighborhoods that weren't flooded, so the news I've been delivering has been welcomed with cries of relief and joy.

My friend Suz, who's down here writing freelance stories about the storm, did what I've been dreading. She went to a house in Lakeview and reported to mutual friends of ours that, as they feared, their house and everything in it are ruined.

It seems my life has become one of extremes. I shift in the blink of an eye from despair to hopefulness, from calmness to raging anger, from a still mind to a head full of clutter. It seems the world of storm victims also exists in a world of opposite poles. On one end are people like me who still have their house, car, office, job, neighborhood haunts - basically their own little corner of New Orleans still in tact.

Then there are people like Suz and my friends, who have lost thier house, car, office, job, neighborhood haunts - basically most of things that make up the life they knew.

I'm sure there are people in the middle, but I'm fixated on the pole opposite mine.

I spent the morning in New Orleans checking my house in more detail and driving around interviewing shopkeepers, restaurant owners and business people trying to clean up and reopen.
I drove all the way to the CBD on I-10. The underpass near the Jefferson Parish line is completely dry. The general public still can't get into the city. But the only police check point that I encountered was when I crossed the line into Orleans Parish.

On each trip I seem to notice more bits of destruction that miss my eye previously.

This time it was the shredded steeple top on the old brick church alongside the Pontchartrain Expressway near the St. Charles Street exit. And the woman's black high-heel shoe, smeared with gray sludge and lying without its match in the parking lot of The Times-Picayune.
I went into my garden for the first time.

It's a wreck, as I expected. Half of the neighbor's pecan tree crashed into the yard, crushing the chain-link fence between the properties and smashing a fairly new terracotta fish bowl. From the other neighbor's yard, the top half of a pine tree blew onto the other fence and half of the back deck.

At most, it's a couple of weekends of yard work. Constantine has visions of a stoic and sparse rock garden. We both want life to simpler now.

I forgot to mention the biggest reason for my recently found serenity: I rescued my car! Finally got it out of the parking garage near the Superdome on Thursday. Not even a scratch on it.

The out-of-town people working on the recovery effort are fantastic. All of my encounters have been positive, and even moving at times. Without even thinking of it, I find myself automatically saying thanks for being here when I talk to one of them. Their responses have been humble, gracious and appreciative.

I talked briefly with a woman with Homeland Security who was dropping off cat food along Esplanade Avenue early this morning. She has several drop off points that serve as soup kitchens for both cats and dogs in the neighborhood. She and her partner make the drops during their regular morning patrols.

A week ago, she discovered a dog trapped in a French Quarter home. Since then, she has been dropping food and water for the dog through the house's front door mail slot.

She told me that her supply of pet food has been big enough to share with others caring for the many stray animals that continue to suffer in the city. She acquired the food after obtaining permission from a local pet store owner to break into the shop and take supplies that were nearing expiration.

Surreal moment of the day: Driving to the end of my block and encountering a barricade of wood and barbed wire and a large hand painted sign reading, "Danger ... Chemical spill ... Keep Out!"

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

My New Orleans

I drove into New Orleans Tuesday and saw my house for the first time.

Amazingly, it looks just as we left it on the inside. No flooding, no roof leaks, no break-ins. The smell was pretty bad, but I tolerated it and managed to empty the refrigerator into trash bags.
Outside, the neighborhood was in better shape than I expected. Some damage to awnings and trees, but no real destruction.

As I turned the corner half a block from the house I froze at the sight of the word "HELP" written with yellow paint in thick upper case letters that spanned the width of the street and ran as long as the fronts of two houses. The plea appeared in front of our neighbor Brenda, who owns a black pug like mine.

I stood their imagining the awful things that might have happened just steps from my home to prompt people to scrawl the sign of desperation.

A block away, an abandoned city bus sat wedged between a sidewalk and second floor balcony. About 15 feet of skid marks offered a glimpse into the buses final moments.

I saw few signs of looting of houses, but on St. Claude Street nearly every storefront was destroyed, including the one on a Hibernia bank a couple of blocks from my house. The big auto repair shop next to the bank was burned to the ground.

I checked on the houses of a few friends in the neighborhood then drove to Constantine's warehouse a few blocks from our house. It weathered the storm well and there were no signs of looting. The neighboring warehouse has been taken over by the National Guard, so Constantine's warehouse should be in safe hands.

Earlier in the trip I went to The Times-Picayune's main office to retrieve my keys and other personal items that I left behind in our hasty evacuation the day after Katrina hit.

I gathered as many overnight bags as I could carry from the third-floor Money section office.
On the inside, the building looks just as we left it. The outside is a different story. Everything was coated in a gray smelly muck. The landscape was amazingly colorless. Trash and debris was randomly strewn in the road and parking lot. There was a small boat stranded in the road. Cars in the parking lot look as though they had been sitting there for decades.

Though nearly six feet of water flooded the area, none entered the press room or other crucial parts of the building.

The city, and even buildings, are filled with a rancid stench - a mixture of rotting garbage, smoke and another smell that reminded me of the odor left by a nest of mice that I poisoned in a wall of a house that I lived in years ago.

Everything is filthy, even the air.

I ended my trip with a stop at St. Anna's, the Episcopal Church that we attend on Esplanade Ave. I'm on the church council so I have a key to the building. I called Fr. Bill Terry on my cell phone as I unlocked the church's front door.

I gasped as I entered. It was pristine, completely untouched. Not a think out of place. As though mass had been held just a few hours earlier.

Then I noticed the smell. The air seemed fresh and was filled with the aroma of incense. It brought me to tears.

As I left the church I talked briefly with a guy who was shoveling powdery sediment from the street in front of the house next door. He was shirtless, dusty and gaunt. He looked detached from the world around him, seeming not to notice that I was standing just a few feet from him.
I asked him if he had been in the city since before the storm, and he said yes. I asked if he was okay, and he said yes. I said he must have gone through some pretty tough moments, and he just nodded his head slowly and said, "You have no idea."

Just then, a city bus rolled by as though it were any normal afternoon in the city. But passing on the other side of the boulevard was a big dose of reality - a military truck filled with armed soldiers.

I left the city feeling hopeful.

My piece of New Orleans is pretty much in tact, though in bad need of a good scrubbing. Maybe the city I love so much isn't gone forever.

The emotional roller coaster continues.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Is this still Wonderland?

I'm not feeling so much like Alice anymore.

I know what day it is. I'm not losing everything I touch. I actually have plans beyond the next few hours. And I have an appetite for chocolate again. (Those of you who know me well won't believe I went without the stuff for more than a few hours.)

Many good things have happened to me over the last couple of days.

Constantine and I have a more permanent place to stay in Abita Springs about an hour and a half from B.R. and on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I'm hoping that once we settle in there I can spend most of my time reporting stories from inside the city.

I'm working more normal hours now - about 8 a day rather than 15 or more.

I'll see Constantine and my pug Nero later today when they arrive in Baton Rouge. (Constantine will take his event decorating business on the road over the next couple of months to work the jobs that would have been coming to New Orleans.)

And, perhaps best of all, my cousin Debbie in Phoenix bought me an airline ticket to Arizona this weekend to attend the LSU - Ariz. St. football game that had to be moved from Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. I REALLY need to spend about five hours screaming my head off for LSU.

On another front, I've decided to go ahead and attend the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association convention in Chicago in two weeks. And I'll be on a panel discussing the storm and my experience covering it at the end of the convention Saturday afternoon.

It will be an honor, and probably therapeutic, to share some of my stories with several hundred fellow journalists. Our relatively new Louisiana chapter, which is largely based in New Orleans, could be at risk as a result of the storm and the displacement of members. I think its important for the future of the chapter that at least some of us attend the convention.

That's the latest. Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Story from New Orleans Hotel

I wrote this article after spending the night in a Canal Street hotel while the city was still engulfed in chaos less than a week after Katrina hit. A shorter version of this unedited draft was published in The Times-Picayune.

Business writer

From a second story balcony overlooking a wrecked Canal Street, Patrick Quinn and the last of his senior hotel managers laid out their plan for reopening the Astor Crown Plaza Hotel.
First, they will bring in a bigger generator to get lights and air-conditioning working in the 512-room, four-star property at 739 Canal.

Then they will bring a crew into the city to clean the hotel. And line up vendors to deliver supplies.

Lastly, and perhaps most critical, will be getting fresh water flowing through the hotel's plumbing. But there is no way of knowing when the city will restore the service.
"One of the toughest things for us will be that there will be some things beyond our control," Quinn said.

If everything works as planned, the Astor could be housing soldiers and federal emergency workers within weeks, he said.

"It's going to be hell, but we'll just take it one step at a time," said Bruce Perone, the hotel's food and beverage director.

It was a surreal session played out at 11 p.m., Saturday, amid the ruin and death that now fills New Orleans.

It seemed almost preposterous to have the discussion when mere survival for some people still trapped in the city remained uncertain a week after Hurricane Katrina struck.

But Quinn's optimism offered evidence that at least some of the city's leading business people are determined to return and lead an economic resurrection.

Every half hour or so, a truck passed along the neutral ground of Canal below the balcony carrying four heavily armed soldiers. Just before midnight, automatic gun fire erupted a block and a half up the street from the hotel when a security truck focused its spotlight on a building.

Overhead, helicopters buzzed over the French Quarter, shining bright spotlights on the deserted streets below. The only other sound came from humming generators that fed electricity to the handful of downtown hotels still occupied.

Even the insects seemed to have abandoned the city.

The night sky was filled with a canopy of stars normally made invisible by the city's bright lights.
But amid the grim reality gripping New Orleans, Quinn and his managers could see the seeds of a rebirth.

If anyone can pull it off, he probably can.

Quinn is one of the most successful hoteliers in the city, opening a string of high-end properties over the last 16 years that fed off a booming tourism and convention business.

But the tourists and conventioneers won't be returning to the City that Care Forgot anytime soon.

"One of the biggest issues six months and a year from now will be will the customers come back," Quinn said.

"Conventions are going to be terrified of booking here during hurricane season," Astor General Manager Peter Ambrose said.

So Quinn is turning his entrepreneurial sights on what likely will be the city's biggest industry for the coming years: reconstruction.

Despite the massive challenges, he held out hope his businesses and his hometown.

"I've never even thought about the alternative of rebuilding," he said. "I've seen places like Pensacola (Fla.) and Destin (Fla.) devastated by hurricanes and a few years later they were back.

"A lot of people go through adversity, and they put it away and move forward," he said. "New Orleans is a great town, and it needs to survive."

Quinn's eyes might be focused on the future, but the remnants of his staff that have remained at the Astor won't soon forget their harrowing last seven days.

Ambrose and Perone saw the weather forecast pointing the menacing storm at New Orleans, and they believed it.

The managers started preparing for the worst possible outcome on the Friday before landfall. They filled dozens of garbage cans with 2,000 gallons of water. They made 8,000 pounds of ice and stuffed it into kitchen freezers. The increased their stockpiles of food. And they collected medical supplies.

They didn't want any guests to come to the three-year-old hotel but they knew they would come anyway so the managers prepared.

By Sunday night, nearly 2,000 were hunkered down at the Astor. Many simply showed up at the front door, desperate for safe lodging during the storm.

"We encouraged them not to come, but they kept coming," Quinn said.

Once the storm moved through, managers started moving guests out of the city, but transportation was limited and the evacuation took days.

Through it all, the Astor's executive chef, Gaetan Croissier, and sous chef, Kurt Wolf, prepared three meals a day for everyone. They made the most of what they had, making beef stew tenderloin steak, coffee each morning and peanut butter and bagels for breakfast.

"We have eaten well. Those guys are amazing," Perone said.

The kitchen's freezers still held frozen meat on Sunday, nearly a week after the disaster, thanks to the stockpile of ice collected before the storm.

The guests included 20 people in wheelchairs, an elderly man with a feeding tube, a woman who gave birth by Cesarean section the night before the storm hit, and a 400 pound man with a bad heart who was confined to his room and had to be fed and cleaned.

As conditions in the hotel worsened last week, the staff recruited guests to help cook and clean. A minister in the group organized daily 10 a.m. prayer services that represented all faiths present among the guests.

Many of the guests left the hotel in the first days after the storm, but as the situation in the city became more desperate the remaining guests refused to seek transportation from the Superdome or the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Ambrose said.

Quinn ordered a fleet of buses to pick up the guests on Wednesday, but the vehicles were seized by federal authorities when they arrived in the city. A second fleet arrived Sunday afternoon, under armed guard, and finally removed the remaining guests. About 20 hotel staffers remain in the building.

"We saved a lot of people's lives, I swear to God," Perone said.

He and Amborse said they won't leave the Astor unless authorities force them out.

"This is our livelihood. This is what we do," Perone said. "We came here to protect our futures."

Day 9 - First night back in New Orleans

I took a much needed day off work yesterday (Monday) and stayed with my twin sister and her family. Slept for about 8 hours the last two nights. Starting to feel human again.

Spent most of the day buying clothes and other supplies and starting to organize all of the personal things I've got to deal with - filing insurance claims, checking in with my bank, etc.
It was the best day I've had in over a week. Only cried three or four times (compared to 15 or 20 times in previous days).

For the first time, felt connected to the world around me. But by 5 p.m. depression started to set in again and was feeling detachment again.

Here's the details of my night in the city Saturday:

I was leaving the J-School around 6:30 p.m. and got a call from one of the biggest hotel developers in the city, saying he was on his way from B.R. to N.O. to deliver a generator to one of his still-occupied hotels and wanted me to come with him.

I didn't even think about it (which probably was a mistake or at the very least crazy).
I raced to N.O. and finally met him and the truck carrying the generator on the west bank on Hwy. 90 near Boutte.

We had planned on parking my rental car (which didn't have the extra insurance) and riding in with the truck, but there was no room for us in the cab. So we took my car into the city - literally a war zone.

There was sporadic electricity on all along the west bank until Algiers. It was around 9 p.m.
Seeing the city from the bridge was quite strange. The sky was full of clouds, and the pitch black skyline of the city was clearly visible against the twinkling night sky.

We went through three police check points before reaching the bridge.

We exited onto Camp St. and drove down to one of Patrick's hotels, on the backside of the building that burned last week next to Mother's Restaurant. The hotel seemed fine.

Then we checked in at Patrick's hotel at the corner of St. Charles and Poydras. It was pretty busy. Still open, barely, and hosting a number of foreign reporters.

You could feel the tension and fear in the city. The only people I saw were very heavily armed and menacing looking soldiers on patrol in trucks.

We arrived at the Astor Crowne Hotel on Canal at Bourbon St. around 9:30 p.m.

Wanted to park my car in the Canal St. neutral ground - along the street car lines - but the street lanes were still flooded and I would have had to wade through the water to get back to the hotel. So I parked in a parking garage behind the hotel on Iberville St., very nervously, on the second level.

Entered the hotel to find the handful of remaining managers sitting on the second floor balcony overlooking Canal. Spent the next two and a half hours doing the most amazing interview of my career - hearing how they struggled to keep 2,000 guests safe and healthy, and then getting them out in bunched over the last four days. These men are among the amazing heroes who have emerged from this catastrophe. Their lives have been in danger every day and night.

Found our rooms next to the fifth floor pool deck. The hotel reeked of smoke - from fires still glowing in the distance all around us - sewerage mainly from the hotel's public toilets and mildew. Everything was damp. The room was stifling hot.

I quickly retreated to the pool deck and began thinking of all the ways I could either die or become trapped before leaving Sunday morning - the hotel could catch on fire and I'd have no way out, I could be shot by one of the heavily armed, my car could get stolen, my car could have multiple flat tires in the morning from all of the glass and debris that I drove over, I could get attacked by one of the remaining people in the hotel, the hotel could be looted (the back of hotel wasn't secure), I could get carjacked driving out of the city by myself.

I spent the next two and a half hours enduring the worst panic attack of my life while pacing circles around the nearly empty pool (hotel occupants were using the hotel water to flush toilets in the room. yes, I had to do it too).

I couldn't take the stress anymore so I woke Patrick up and pleaded with him to convince me that I would get out okay in the morning.

He did.

With my nerves calmer, I returned to the pool with my glow stick (only light source) and note pad and began writing my story. (it finally ran in today's edition about half its original size, so I've posted it above.)

Finally felt like sleep around 4:30 a.m. and went back to room. Woke up around 5:50 a.m. and went to pool. Watched the sun rise over the roof line of the French Quarter next to St. Louis Cathedral steeple.

It was a beautiful sight - the first time I've watched the sunrise in the city - and so contrary to everything around me.

Went back into my room to pack up my things and was able to see around the room for first time. On the other bed was a hotel bible.

During my panic attack I had prayed, hard. Most of you who know me know that I'm a spiritual person, but nothing close to a bible-thumper. Growing up Catholic, I couldn't find any particular scripture passage if my life depended on it.

I instinctively picked up the bible and opened it to a random page. My eyes instantly fell on Isaiah 60. Remember, just moments earlier I had watched the sun rise.
" Arise, shine; for the light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and darkness cover the people: but the Lord shall arise upon you, and his glory shall be seen upon you."
I fell apart.

I knew I would be safe, that I would leave the city unharmed.

I drove back to B.R. and spend the rest of the day writing my story. Was pretty shaken for the rest of the day. But the day off seemed to have regenerated me.

Not sure what I'll be writing today.

Rescheduled my flight last night for my planned trip to Chicago for the NLGJA convention in a few weeks. Still don't know whether I'll make it, but I think it would be a good respite from all of this here.

Thanks to all of your for your compassion, help and love. It really means the world to me.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Day 7 - On the inside

It's Sunday morning and I'm just getting to the J-School after driving into New Orleans last night and spending the night at the Astor Crown Plaza Hotel on Canal Street with the hotel's owner.

Probably the scariest night of my life though I was safe the whole time. The atmosphere was frightening though. My plan had been to stay through the morning, but by sunrise I just had to get out.

I'll blog more about my experience later today.

Gotta write the article from the trip. It will be in Monday's Internet edition.

Glad I did it, but won't do it again anytime soon.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Day 6 - Finally some good news

This is the first good day I've had in a week.

An editor just came running into the journalism school with a text message from Walt Philban, one of our crime reporters who was sent to Biloxi to look for Leslie Williams, a missing city desk reporter.

Leslie went to his hometown of Biloxi to cover the storm on Saturday and was last heard from Sunday.

After not hearing from him for days, we all feared he was dead.

Walt went to look for him on Thursday.

The text message from Walt said basically, HAVE LW.

Everyone here burst into cheers and cries.

Don't know any more details yet but there must be an amazing story behind Leslie's time in Miss. and Walt's search for him.

More good news - I got a rental car! They're almost impossible to find in Baton Rouge, but a colleague found two.

Having a car makes me feel much more normal. I feel like I can really work again.

I covered the governor's press conference today and was in the background of some TV camera shots doing an interview with a public utility commission member. Within five minutes I got four text messages from friends dispersed around the state, saying they saw me on TV and were glad to know I'm okay and still working.

Besides the good news about Leslie, the highlight of the day came around 3 p.m. when a post-traumatic stress psychiatrist from Tulane visited the J-School and talked to the staff.
He has spent the last few days helping people at shelters.

He talked to us about symptoms that we should watch for and answered questions.

But he brought himself and the rest of us to tears when he told us that he cried when he saw our first post-storm printed edition yesterday. He said we are a beacon of hope for the New Orleans diaspora, a sign that the city is still alive. He he reminded us that our readership has become the world.

We're all terribly tired, stressed, emotionally spent, but his words reminded us of the ultimate purpose of the work we're doing.

He gave us an important lift as start to emerge from the bottom of this deep dark pit.
Tomorrow is my first day off in a week, though it feels like I've been working non-stop for a month.

I'm planning to go to church, have a really great meal at a restaurant with my friend John who lives here in Baton Rouge, and do a little shopping for clothes and other supplies.
Your messages and calls continue to lift me.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Day 5 - Fire

The roller coaster continues. After feeling somewhat hopeful for the first time yesterday after seeing my house in tact from the air, today started with more reasons to despair.

Now fire has been added to the list of plagues visited upon the city. Many of you have probably seen news coverage of the chemical storage warehouse that exploded in flames early in the morning. That warehouse is 2.5 blocks from my house on my street, Clouet, at the river.

Shortly after I arrived at the journalism school, two shell shocked looking men arrive at the building. They had just left the city hours ago after spending three days rescuing people from the 9th Ward.

Turns out they live two blocks from Constantine and me on Clouet. They said they rode out the storm there. They left after the warehouse explosion. They said many people are out of drinking water and food, suffering terribly, and fearful of the lawlessness that seems everywhere.

I spent most of the day with Entergy utility crews who are restoring power in St. Charles Parish, just west of the city. A group of Kentucky workers were glad to be outside the city and said they fear going in until more troops are on the ground.

The arrival of our first printed edition since Sunday made national news today. Printing the paper again was a huge lift for all of us.

I'm working again tomorrow, but I finally get a day off on Sunday. We're starting to rotate one day off among us.

Yesterday, we sent one of our crime reporters to search for Leslie Williams, a city desk writer who was sent to Gulfport to cover the storm Sunday. He left a shelter Sunday night to find safer lodging, but we haven't heard from him. We sent a crime reporter to Miss. to search for him.

Leslie is a great writer and reporter and a wonderful friend. We're all terribly concerned about him. Keep him in your prayers.

Baton Rouge is filling with people and its infrastructure is straining mightily under the pressure. More on that later.

Time to grab some food and get some sleep.

Birth of a blog

I decided to start this blog because I've had trouble keeping up with the flood of emails that I've received from friends and family.

I've had limited Internet and email access, and responding to emails have proven difficult.

For those who have emailed me and haven't received a response, your messages have touched me and I plan to respond in the coming days.

I especially appreciate the messages from people who I haven't seen or heard from in years, like Suz and Lisa, some of my best friends from LSU.

I cry almost every time I hear from a new person. I do the same thing when I see someone new from our staff here in Baton Rouge.

I don't know how long I'll be like this. I still feel like I'm full of tears that haven't come out yet.

I love all of you.

Day 5 - Safe in Baton Rouge; Flying over NOLA; Printing again

From LSU Manship School of Mass Communication:

First, let me update everyone on my status.

I've been in Baton Rouge since Tuesday night. After working out of our makeshift newsroom on Florida Blvd., the what's here of the Money section - myself, an asst. business editor two other writers - relocated to LSU Wednesday to join the rest of our editorial staff. The Florida Blvd. site is mainly housing copy editors, graphics, photography and design.

I don't think I'll ever have a day like yesterday.

It started with a full staff meeting at Florida Blvd. where our publisher, Ashton Phelps who has been with us from the start in this ordeal, read a press release announcing the paper would publish a print Thursday edition for the first time since not publishing on paper on Monday.

He couldn't even finish the first sentence without breaking down into sobs. There we were, about 75 people crammed into a small meeting room crying with our publisher, trying to comprehend the deep personal and professional significance of surviving the first days of this tragedy intact.

Even now,I can't talk or even write about this without crying. If you haven't seen it yet, I would encourage you to read our press release on restarting publishing on our web site at

Though we were thankful to publish on the Internet, that's not what we do. What we do is serve our readers by providing them with the information and view of the world that they need to manage their lives. Most of our readers right now don't have Internet access, much less electricity. We all deeply love the printed word, and we're deeply devoted to the mission of our profession. A print newspaper is the only way for us to do our job properly.

We are a newspaper, not an Internet blog. Not printing was painful for all of it. Monday through Wednesday were the first days in more than 160 years that our paper wasn't printed. Even on the day that New Orleans fell to Union forces in the Civil War, we printed a daily edition.

That we are printing again is unimaginably profound.

Next, Ashton told us that every T.P. employee will be receive their full pay and benefits for the next two months, whether they work or not.

I spent the afternoon flying over the city in a helicopter with Entergy Corp., the region's electricity utility, which I cover. The flooding remains widespread, and terrible in may places, especially the Lower 9th Ward, Lakefront, Mid City and the Carrollton area.

One of our main focuses was flying over the levee break on the Industrial Canal. As we flew along the east side of the river to get to the canal, we passed right over my house. And there it was, completely dry, roof intact and still completely boarded up. I fell apart after seeing it.

I spent the evening with my twin sister, her husband and my niece and nephew, who live here in Baton Rouge. The events of the day lifted my spirit a bit and softened my sense of hopelessness.

I took a Tylenol PM before going to bed at midnight and slept till 6 a.m., my first sleep over three hours since Sunday.

But by mid-morning Friday, my spirits were sinking again. The city is burning - a chemical warehouse in my neighborhood of the Bywater and a mid-rise building in the CBD a block from Mother's Restaurant.

The news is filled with reports of visits today by President Bush and Jesse Jackson. We don't need photo ops with the nation's leaders, we need soldiers, money and resources. Here we are five days into this catastrophe and we haven't seen any of those things.

It's shocking how our national leaders are stumbling and bumbling to come to grips with this very real disaster and civil crisis. I simply don't believe this tragedy would be handled as it has been if it were happening in Florida or California or Texas or New York.

Mayor Nagin was right this morning when he said Bush and the rest of the country's leaders will pay for their complete failure when they meet there maker.

A little more about my personal situation.

Constantine and the dogs are still safe at a friends house in Connecticut. He's already working on jobs for his company around the country to try to keep it alive for the time being.

He'll probably come here in a week before going to Texas for a job. Don't know how much we'll see each other over the next couple of months. Don't know when I'll see my pug Nero.

My brother in law told me several times this morning that everything will be okay. I finally told him, no, things aren't okay now and they won't be okay for a very long time.

If you're reading this in other states, get on your phone right now and call your U.S. senators and representatives, call the White House. SCREAM AT THEM!!!!!

My friends could be dying in the city. The city is blown apart, flooded and now burning. Every plague imaginable. This is criminal.