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!