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.