Wednesday, August 30, 2006

More Katrina memories

Emails that I sent to friends and family one day after the storm, when we made our now famous 7-hour-long escape to Baton Rouge from the flooding Times-Picayune building in the backs of newspaper delivery semi-trucks. That's me, above, in the middle with the blue shirt. Click here to watch video of our escape.

(Tuesday, early morning)
The water outside has risen about three feet overnight, and continues to go up. Our building is an island. Another couple of feet and the water will start flooding our bottom floor.
This is "the worst case" scenario.
Things have turned very ominous here now. Senior management here is starting to talk about evacuating us. Local officials are pleading with people over t.v. and radio to get out of the city now. Aaron Broussard, president of Jeff. Parish, just said on the radio that he's told his wife not to come back for at least a month. This is the reality. We're all homeless now because we are cityless.
Fortunately, I think we're in a better situation than many others. We still have enough food and drinking water for a few days. We have at least three boats here. And the building is located next to the elevated highway. We can get, by boat, to the highway but getting picked up by vehicles isn't an option because the central part of the city is totally cut off from highway exits. It seems the only way for us to get out right now is by helicopter. That's certainly an option because a helicopter can land on the elevated highway.
Our ability to report is becoming more limited. With only a handful of boats, not many of us can get out to work. I suspect over the next couple of days, we'll start reporting on our website more and more about what's happening in our immediate viewing area and on our own personal experiences here at the building. But we still have limited power from our generator.
We're still able to communicate through some cell phones and computers over the Internet. We have supplies. We can't drink the water out of the faucet but we can use it for bathroom reasons.
The looting is pretty bad according to the reporters and photographers who went out into the city yesterday. Things will only get uglier as people start running out of resources and become more desperate. I'm guessing that at some point, we might get evacuated out of the city to the north shore or to the river parishes to the west.
Its becoming hard to imagine the city proper recovering from this. With highway damage, companies and businesses are going to have to relocate out of the city. People who can't come back to work - because their businesses and jobs in the city won't exist anymore - at some point will have to consider taking jobs somewhere else and establishing some semblance of a life somewhere else. How many of those people will come back? I'm afraid that the New Orleans we all knew is gone forever.
I know this sounds almost hysterical, but the devastation here is almost unimaginable. I'm charging my cell phone again but I don't know how well it is working today. I couldn't make any calls in or out yesterday. But many others here are able to use their cell phones. I'll call out as much as I can. Same with email. Pray for us.

(Tuesday, early morning)
We do have another way out right now. We can get on the highway in front of the building and cross the bridge over the Miss. River, then follow the highway west along the West Bank to St. Charles Parish, cross back over the river and reconnect with I-10 and head west. Our trucks still can get us out of here, but we don't know if they can bet onto the highway from here. The water appears to be rising about 1.5 inches per hour. people are starting to make their way to the elevated highway (Pontchartrain Expressway) and presumably walk across the bridge. The word we have is that the West Bank (on the other side of the river) is dry. About the only noise outside is from helicopters making constant passes over the city.

(Tuesday, late morning)
We're evacuating to the West Bank immediately, then possibly to Baton Rouge. Can't take much. Just my computer bag. not even clothes. trucks can still get to interstate but window of opportunity to get us out is closing. also beginning to smell fuel in building, probably from gas, diesel and oil in the flood water. So safety here will increasingly be at risk. Will update whenever possible. Not sure when.

(Tuesday evening)
After a long and somewhat harrowing trip out of hell, we arrived in Baton Rouge late this afternoon. I've got a few changes of clothes, my computer, cell phone, a box of ink pens, a note pad, my shower bag and, of course, my LSU football tickets :)
About 200 of us from the paper vacated the building around 9:30 a.m. as the flood water was entering the building and up to about 3 feet outside the building. We road in a convoy of seven semi-paper delivery trucks. Actually, we road on the floor in the backs of the trucks with the backs open for ventilation.
Things were quickly getting dangerous. We could smell diesel and gas fuels throughout the building (probably from the water)and we received word that prisoners were rioting in the prison just across the interstate from the building.
We crossed the main bridge over the Mississippi River to a dry West Bank. Then without any notice, my truck, the last in line, pulled over to the side of the elevated highway.
Our driver came to the back and called for his wife and son to get out, explaining that their house was only a mile or so away. They proceeded to unload about six pieces of fully stuff luggage and a large pet carrier with three dogs.
All the while, we were shouting for him to get back in the truck so we wouldn't lose the convoy. Remember, we didn't know where we were going and had no way to communicate with the other trucks.
Once his family and belongings were out, he turned to us and announced that we would need a new driver because he was staying with his family! We were stunned. After failing to convince him not to abandon us, the head of our I.T. department and one of my colleagues in the Money section took over the truck controls.
About two hours later, we caught up with the convoy when they stopped for a bathroom break. I say that loosely. Nothing is open in southeastern Louisiana, so our bathroom breaks were outdoors.
We went to Houma first, but their local paper could only accommodate a small contingent of our editorial staff. So we left for Baton Rouge. After getting lost and having to backtrack about half an hour, we finally arrived in Baton Rouge - 6.5 hours after we started! That's right, I spent 6.5 hours in the back of a semi in 95 degree weather.
My fellow business writer Greg Thomas and I are staying with my sister, Michele, and her husband, Eric.
When we arrived at the Advocate newspaper's downtown office, we were met by television news crews. I'm told that our evacuation from downtown New Orleans also made the ticker on CNN.
The paper has set up shop at a Baton Rouge technology center. After a strategy session for tomorrow's work, a church group arrived with hotplate diners for us - our first meal all day!
Greg and I have to be at work for 8 a.m. Editors were spending the night buying computers and other equipment, and renting SUV's to make trips back to the city.
I'm hoping to get into the city as soon as possible with the first power utility repair crews.
Looks like we'll relocate to our West Bank and North Shore bureaus as soon as power is restored there and the buildings are functional again, but that could be several weeks.
Things are as terrible as they look on TV and in the newspapers. The water continues to rise. It appear my neighborhood will have 10 to 15 feet of water by Wednesday. Thankfully, our house is raised about 12 feet off the ground. Hopefully we'll get by with minimal damage.
I finally have cell phone service again.
For my cousins in Austin, I'm planning to call into my friend Kevin at the local radio station to give him a live report on things here.
At this point, I'm taking things one hour at a time. Driving through the city and seeing the destruction was devastating. I've felt on the brink of collapse numerous times today. I think I'm due for a big huge cry sometime soon. It's all terribly sad.
Thanks for all of your offers of help and wishes of love and support. It sounds so like such a cliche, but they do give me comfort.
I've finally had time to think about all of my friends who stayed in the city. I haven't heard from any of them and don't know their fate. I pray for their safety and comfort.
Keep all of us in your prayers, especially the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who tonight are sleeping in homes, attics and on roofs in the city, stranded, alone and frightened.
Much love,

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A year ago

Emails that I sent to friends and family on Aug. 29, 2006 from inside The Times-Picayune building in downtown New Orleans as Katrina tore through the city:

(Monday, 9:30 a.m. as worst of storm began)
Just got a wi-fi connection here at the office. don't know where its from, but i'm happy to have it. busy working but will update everyone. the atmosphere here is pretty intense. mixture of fear, adrenaline. we're still safe here. trees down all around us. Flooding approaching the back of the building - water about 3 feet deep in some parts of the parking lot. lots of cars underwater. the weather is unbelievable! Constant, terrible wind. can't tell the differnce anymore between sustained wind and gusts. we're getting terrible reports already - 80 windows blasted out at the Hyatt hotel near the Superdome. as you've probably already heard, holes forming in the roof of the Superdome with is packed with about 30,000. They've been evacuated from the dome floor to the upper elevated levels. a report that the miss. river is topping the levees downtown and beginning to flood the French Quarter. Also massive flooding in the lower 9th ward, on the east side of the industrial canal. water so high there that some people have gone onto their roofs. looks like the phone lines are starting to fail. its looking like massive damage around the city already. and massive flooding too. cell phone systems starting to fail. but it looks like we still have landlines. that's all for now.

(Monday, late morning)
the weather is still pretty bad but the worst clearly has passed us. my guess is that wind is down to 70- 80 mph, with higher gusts. rainfall much lighter. my cell phone is down. but can still make some calls from the land lines. we're hearing reports of terrible damage and flooding. can only imagine that things will be much worse once people get out and assess damage. we're all still safe here. hot and sticky - without airconditioning - but safe. I can't believe its only 11 a.m. It feels like it should be the end of the day. We're putting together an issue of the paper today but can't print it until tomorrow at the earliest. But it will be posted on our web page tonight.
Anyone who wants to call me can try me at 504.826.XXXX - it's not my regular line, so don't bother leaving a message. If I don't pick up, keep trying.

(Monday evening)
As grim as things are here in New Orleans, I can't help but be thankful that I made it through this storm unscathed physically.
I could spend the next few hours writing about what I've seen and done today, but I'm too tired, I'm hungry and I desperately need a shower (the colder the better!)
Many of you are probably curious about how we're managing here at The Times-Picayune main office. We'be been without electricity since 4 a.m.,but a generator is powering a small collection of computers being used by alternating shifts of editors, writers and photographers (thank goodness the picture people do everything digital these days).
About 30 of us reporters fanned out as far as we could this afternoon to assess the damage and start gathering the first elements of the remarkable stories we will be telling over the coming months about Katrina and her aftermath.
I reported on the electricity and telephone situations - bad and likely to get worse before getting better.
The "storm" issue of the T.P. will be "published" on our web page at later tonight, and printed tomorrow in Baton Rouge. I encourage all of you to pull up the edition.
It's remarkable that we produced a newspaper just hours after enduring the most powerful storm to ever hit the Gulf Coast. I think in the years to come we all will look back at this work and the stories we will produce in the coming weeks and months with pride and satisfaction.
I could say much about damage to the city but the pictures on our web site and others do more justice.
Myself and a few other reporters ventured outside for the first time around 4 p.m. and climbed onto the elevated expressway that runs in front of the office for a clear view of the Superdome and high-rise district.
It was a painful scene to view. Most of the buildings look as though they had been bombed. I've never seen anything like it. It was terribly sad - not that the buildings were damaged, but that my city, my home was torn to shreds. It took everything I had not to cry.
One item of continuing concern is the rising water approaching the center of the city. It appears that the flood waters of Metairie and eastern New Orleans are slowly flowing toward us. Things still could get much worse for us.
Here are my immediate plans. As soon as my editors finish editing my story, I'll call Mom and Dad, take a shower, then savor a few bottles of Abita Amber and some smoked salmon that a fellow reporter is sharing with us.
The moment will be hot, sticky, dark, and even sad, but I will eat my fill of it as though it was a fine feast. I'll probably never experience anything like this again. I want the memories to be deep and lasting.
I feel like I've been away on a very long and lonely journey. I miss all of you terribly. I miss my house. I miss Nero and Topaz. I miss Constantine. And I already miss this place I call home.
The truth is that our journey has barely begun. Keep all of us in your thoughts and prayers.
I love all of you,

Monday, August 28, 2006

Why New Orleans matters

For those still asking why they should care or help pay for the recon-
struction of New Orleans and wondering why a city exists in such a vulnerable location in the first place, The Times-Picayune succinctly provided the answers today in an editorial previewing the one year anniversary of the hurricane:

"The location of greater New Orleans is at once ingenious and perilous. Having a settlement at the confluence of the greatest river in North America and the Gulf of Mexico has reaped tremendous political and economic benefits for the United States.

The hardy, resourceful souls who settled here almost 300 years ago carved a world-class city out of marshland. Those early settlers withstood plague and war and built a seaport filled with graceful homes and sweeping boulevards. They mixed French, Spanish, African and Caribbean influences to concoct a delectable cuisine. Later generations gave America the gift of jazz and turned street parades into high art."

But wait, there's more.

"The state is a prime supplier of oil and gas and seafood to the nation. Nearly 34 percent of the nation's natural gas supply and more than 29 percent of the crude oil supply move through coastal Louisiana. Eighty percent of production in the Gulf of Mexico occurs off our coast.

As for seafood, 40 percent of the shrimp, oysters, crabs and fish consumed by Americans are from here."

Of course, as New Orleans goes so goes the state of Louisiana. Now do you get it?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

How to help T.P. photographer

John McCusker is a fantastic photographer, a talented journalist, a father and a kind friend.

You can help John and his family by making a donation in his name to the Friends of The Times-Picayune, a non-profit group formed immediately after Hurricane Katrina by former T.P. employees to raise money for T.P. staffers who suffered losses in the storm.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Drugs threaten New Orleans recovery

A devastating article in Saturday's New York Times chronicled the vicious return of high-level drug trafficing in New Orleans.

"The drug trade in New Orleans is flourishing again, after its dealers, who evacuated to the regional drug hub of Houston, forged closer ties to major suppliers from the Mexican and Colombian cartels. They have since brought back drugs to New Orleans in far larger shipments than before . . . essentially creating violent distribution gangs now spread over a much bigger area . . .

"As the drug-dealing returns, its effects are proving deadly for New Orleans, where the police say that fights over turf for distributing the drugs are the main reason for a spike in killings that threatens the cityÂ’s recovery. Even though its population is less than half of what it was before the storm, New Orleans recorded 22 homicides in July, the same number that it averaged each month in the three years before the hurricane."

-- "Drug problem escalates after Katrina," NYT, Aug. 5, 2006

There was much hope and optimism in the months after the storm that these sorts of problems were part of the city's past. It was almost as though the city, through cathartic agony, had finally earned redemption for the drug scourge that had long kept New Orleans teetering on the edge of disfunction.

It's painfully clear that those expectations were Pollyannaish at best.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Hundreds march against hate in S.D.

A big crowd turned out for Friday's march through Hillcrest, San Diego's main gay neighborhood, to protest last week's baseball bat and knife assault of six men as they left the city's gay Pride Festival. One victim, whose skull was bashed in, remains in serious condition.

Openly gay city Councilwoman Toni Atkins addressed marchers in front of the Obelisk bookstore on University Avenue.

This sidewalk (click on any picture to make it larger) in front of the bookstore was the scene of a gay bashing in 1991 that claimed the life of John Wear.

Police Chief William Lansdowne was among several officials, including San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who addressed the crowd during a rally prior to the march.

Amazing how TV cameras always manage to find the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence no matter how large the crowd.

Who says life in California is more expensive?

Got my first electricity bill since moving into my apartment. But before I tell you how much it is, let me remind you of some important facts:

- July was a scorcher here in southern California. Many cities, including San Diego, hit historic high temperatures - some several times.

- My entire apartment runs off electricity.

- I don't have an air conditioner, but I do have several fans that run nonstop when someone is in the apartment.

- In New Orleans, a typical July electricity bill for an apartment or house this size would be in the $280 range (probably higher now given the fact that electricity rates have gone up to pay for damage from Katrina).

So what do I owe in San Diego? An unbelievable $43.84!