Sunday, October 29, 2006

October 26, 2005

This is the final post of a series by our extraordinary co-blogger Riggsveda, about her experiences as a volunteer in Louisiana in October, 2005.

For a complete listing of the series, go here: "Louisiana Diary, by riggsveda." Navigation links to that listing are provided at the end of each individual post, along with links to the prior and next posts in the series . -- tn

I didn’t even bother to write an entry this a.m. I woke up over and over again last night, thinking of all the things I would need to do or want to do before I leave, and of course hardly remembered any of it. Except that I woke up un-refreshed and a little burnt out. I did remember to call BTI to confirm my flight home, and wrote notes to both J. and D., the shelter manager till Saturday, that I had put in for a car and a day off Friday, needed to process out Saturday, and would be flying out of Baton Rouge on Sunday. As I was informed, this means I’ll have to move camp to B.R. and stay there Saturday night, which is a pain in the ass. Everybody else has been able to process out in Covington and fly out via the NOLA airport next door, but that would have been way too easy for me. I took another $200 out of my card, and left $133 in the bank. When we reconcile at Financial during outprocessing, I think I can justify it all. Some people, especially the kids who have been camping out in the French Quarter every night, have gone through their money like drunken sailors. Well, the drunken part fits.
J. just came in briefly and I told her I want to go into NOLA for my last run tomorrow. “Send me someplace good”, I told her. This way I’ll avoid being stuck on some pointless 2nd run on a Bravo ERV and risk possibly returning at an ungodly hour.
Earlier there was a birthday celebration for R., who came down with me. He was in tears. It was very sweet.
I’ve been trying to remember some of the things I’ve been seeing over the past few days. In Mid-City, angry graffiti on the side of a house:
“Screw you, Nagin. We made our own plan.”
“Katrina got PMS.”
The broken bodies of rotted and collapsed buildings have become billboards for the anger and pain of the people of NOLA and the towns surrounding it. Sprawled over 4 corners (of an intersection) and down half the city blocks beyond, piles of ruined stuffed animals 6 or 7 feet high, the ruins of a warehouse that held a man's entire livelihood. Delicate little houses with wrought ironwork and still-vibrant paint jobs, broken, rotting, and abandoned for miles. The fluorescent red or orange "X" painted on house after house, a sign left by those who entered searching for bodies or the still-living in need of rescue. At the top is the date of inspection--most are dated around 9/15 or later, some as late as early October. On the left, the initials of the inspecting group.
At the bottom, the number of dead found; usually that was a "0", meaning none. To see a number other than the struck through zero there always gave me a chill. The letters in the right side of the cross still remain a mystery. Sometimes they seemed to indicate a direction, as in "NE". Other times they made no sense at all. And often I'd see "TFW" written (inside a circle). I still don't know what it is. The SPCA would sometimes weigh in, as well. Their messages were easy to decipher: "K-9 moved to corner"; "1 dog alive"; "2 cats under house"; and sometimes "no dogs" or "1 dead cat".
Between these signs and messages, and the words written by the ones who had to leave in anger and bitterness, even the parts of NOLA that are still and lifeless vibrate with a thousand voices, reaching out to communicate with anyone who comes after. "Help! Help! Help!" reads the house on the street in the lower Ninth Ward. Places where not a living thing moves can make the tears come, when you read the stories that have been left there. Holes in roofs torn by the desperate, trapped inside their houses while trying to escape rising waters, still gape to remind us of their terror.
To imagine living here, constantly facing the massive deconstruction on every corner, in every yard, with your entire environment looking like one big landfill;
to live growing numb to the ugliness; to expect mud, cracked earth, endless dust, to always be hacking and coughing, living with low-level respiratory ailments; to wait without hope for salvation from the insurance company, the city, the federal government, to live with price gouging. To live in tents.
At home it has rained endlessly, and been cold. Here, the sun has shone everyday, and the earth is parched. Hurricane Wilma's hellacious winds sent water into the Ninth Ward again Tuesday, and what small progress made there was halted.
I wish I could say I'll miss NOLA, or Louisiana, but I won't. It's too flat for my soul, and I miss the seasons. Fall doesn't exist here, at least in a way that makes sense to a Yankee. The few Halloween decorations I've noticed look as out of place as a Christmas tree in the middle of a bandstand on a summer night. But most of all, I won't miss the constant low-level misery, the endless fighting back against despair that is the lot of every person here. I've come to love the strength, humor, and compassion of the local people. But I don't have enough of any of those qualities to bear their miseries.
Today my ERV got to come back early (3:30) because the kitchen ran out of food, so I had a very pleasant and relaxing day. J., next to me, went up with me to a local store and took money out of our Red Cross cards, then I came back, took a hot shower, enjoyed cake and ice cream and 2 more chicken sandwiches for dinner, and sat down to write in this journal.
Time for bed.

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October 25, 2005

3 more working days, including today. The cold snap continues---low 40s this a.m, 60s later. After tomorrow it should slowly warm up into the weekend. At least the wind has died down considerably.
I’m still on a high from yesterday. Full of energy, and looking forward to the rest of the week. Some of the new folks are being sent to Kitchen #5 in Westwego to work (leaving @ 7:30) but have to stay here for lack of a shelter (we’re Kitchen #3.) The rest of us, some case management folks and the rest ERV people, continue to plug away at our usual work.

8:28 p.m.—A good day on the ERV with a new driver, S., and Su., M. (an Americorps kid), and T., and old guy from N. Carolina. We did a real good job, down in Mid-City NOLA---got rid of all the food with a little trip to the Municipal Auditorium. Couldn’t reach K. all day because of phone trouble, but he just now called. I’m tired. Not much to say. Saw some zombies (hazmat guys in white suits and gas masks who pull the dead bodies out) who came to eat from the truck, and the most bizarre sight since I’ve been here: a house that had collapsed to the ground so that the only thing visible above the ground was the roof and attic. So much destruction.

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October 24, 2005

4 working days left. Yesterday I was too beat to finish my entry.
There was the same trouble with getting through on my phone. When it was working for awhile, I got a call from K.’s brother J. as I was handing food out the window of N’s truck. It was a horrible connection and I couldn’t stop to talk, so I got off with a promise to call back. Of course, it wasn’t working when I got back and settled. K. called after I went to bed and I told him to let J. know. Evidently M.’s called a few times, too, but I found no messages on the phone.
Yesterday L. took us on a mobile feed of the Loyola area in Kenner, then we were in Bucktown in Metairie with N. People told us of the problems they were having trying to rebuild, with insurance refusing to pay, saying it’s flood damage, and the authorities are requiring $100+ permits to rebuild, which means first an inspector is needed. Of course, there’s a line for the inspections, which means it can take 10-15 days or more before they even get an appointment, plus the fact that many of these folks haven’t had income since the storm. People are angry, and disillusioned, and traumatized.
One thing I came to terms with yesterday as I heard T. and the apostle P. sniping at N: personality conflicts and head-butting are more common than I thought, and it’s not just me. L. asked me how it was when she got in later, and when I told he, she wasn’t surprised. It’s like having 3 or 4 people in the same kitchen, each with their own ideas about how to do things, and each wanting to control those things. Some folks, like T. and the apostle P., eye folks coming on who they think are new, like M. and I, and take a patronizing attitude, or an “Oh God, here we go again” attitude. Others, like me, see new people with a friendly eye and patiently help them learn. When “P.” found out I had been here longer than he, his eyes got wide. He’d never seen me before. Well, I said, it’s a big shelter.
So this a.m, after a restless night from much loud banging and blowing, I awoke to discover that the wind outside, which had been steady but pleasant and a balmy all yesterday, had turned nasty. Last night it came up so hard it blew over a porta-potty and sheared off a car’s side view mirror. M. just said it’s 48 degrees outside, and when I stepped out earlier, the trees were flagged and there was much violence. Yes, it’s practically freezing outside.

8:15 p.m.---Turned out to be a great day. I rode with L. again this a.m.,, and a couple of women I didn’t know, one new, one with a little experience, and we only had the 1st run. Instead of looking for a 2nd ERV like yesterday, I hitched a ride back to the shelter with someone who was finished (since L. was going out scouting), and decided to try to get a car to go to Wal-Mart and try to get a new pair of sunglasses to replace the ones that broke this a.m. on the truck. When I asked for one, the only one available was about to be used to ferry a guy to Harvey for outprocessing, and R. told me I could have it if I rode the guy down there. I jumped at it, and on the way back stopped at a Target in Harvey, then later got off Rt. 10 at Tchoupitoulas St., which goes right into the French Quarter. I drove in, marked the parking and landmarks like the French Market and Café du Monde, then got out and took I-10 back into Kenner. The combination of getting out of the shelter, doing some shopping for myself, and finally seeing the French Quarter (not much, admittedly, but I was worried about being gone too long) was like getting an IV tonic. I was transformed into a happy, happy woman by the tiniest things. I made a to-do list of my plans for while there on Friday. Thinking about getting out of here is like imagining a great cloud breaking inside my head, and the sun coming through.
Lots of new people have arrived in the last few hours, and some who have been here a long time are getting ready to leave. The place is loud with many animated conversations.
I have new p.j.s from Target, Halloween socks, a Halloween hand towel, and just took a shower using new body wash, a new poof, new conditioner and new face cleanser. I feel and smell delicious.
Oh, Sunday, come soon!

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Friday, October 20, 2006

House Dems unveil post-Katrina wish list

Chris Kromm ("Facing South," Institute for Southern Studies):
Democrats on the House Katrina Task Force yesterday released a report summarizing their recommendations for improving the sluggish-at-best recovery effort along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Titled 'Response, Relief, and Recovery: Katrina and Beyond,' the report offers legislative proposals that task force members intend to champion once Congress returns to work after the Nov. 7 election, when Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to regain control of the House and set the agenda for Gulf recovery.

'This report is a detailed plan of action for how we in Congress can better help Louisiana and the entire Gulf Coast recover from Katrina and Rita,' said U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), who spearheaded the effort along with Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.). 'Better levees, reforming FEMA, and fast-tracking coastal restoration and comprehensive hurricane protection projects are all included. This report is also a blueprint for how we can better respond to disasters in the future, wherever they may strike.'

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

October 23, 2005

Sunday. 5 working days left. I’m so anticipating getting home. The little world here is making me claustrophobic. I just finished telling J. about my plans for my day off, Friday. Going to the French Quarter, doing a walking tour, hitting the Café du Monde for beignets & café au lait, trying a real NOLA Hurricane, maybe seeing a cemetery, and on the way home, getting a drive-through daiquiri. I realized I was getting better when I noticed myself laughing and getting animated. It’s the first time I found myself excited about anything for a long time---since before I was sick.
I may take a couple sick days when I get home, using the strep throat diagnosis from the clinic and just telling them I hadn’t had a chance to recover. Which is probably closer to the truth than I want to admit, anyway.
Today I admit I dread who I’ll be assigned with. I still don’t know why everything was so hard yesterday. When a driver is off, it makes everything difficult.

9:18 p.m.---So tired. Went out on 2 ERVs today. AM was great! Back with L. and 2 new folks: older woman, B., and young Americorps number, M. It went like a dream.
We got back to the yard about 2:00, and L. didn’t need to go out again. She put us on another ERV driven by N., who I didn’t know, with 2 crew members: T., and some guy who introduced himself as “P. the Apostle”. Okay... There was some problem between them and the driver, (many snarky comments that seemed out of line), but we did all right. I felt bad for N., who seemed a little out of her depth, stuck with a couple crew people not at all inclined to make her life easier. We didn’t get back until 7:20. I didn’t really eat all day till after I got my shower.
So tired. Finish this tomorrow.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

October 22, 2005

NOLA 123My first day back on the ERVs. I lost my wonderful laminated map of NOLA, and despite a search of the trucks, can’t turn it up. Went to mention it to J. and she said, “Good luck”. And it’s a good thing, because she said, “Oh, I forgot to put you on the list” for an assignment. Christ. She sleeps right next to me, you’d think she could remember me.
Last night I had a lot of trouble getting through to call K.---the call kept dropping. When I finally got through he didn’t mention any problems on his end. Now I tried again and it’s started all over again. The problem appears to be with my company’s (Cingular’s) receiving end. They are the worst. J., who sleeps next to me, also has Cingular, and I had the same problem trying to call from his phone. Possibly there is work being done on the towers at home, but it’s a lonely feeling.
One of the things M. asked me when I was venting to her was if I had developed any friendships with anyone down here. Sadly, no. I try to get on with everyone, but I just can’t seem to become animated enough to want to hang with anyone. It’s been a problem all my life—not being able to form superficial relationships, easy alliances. I need to get to know someone well before I want to commit. Not a good way to relate in a situation like this. But small talk bores me and I feel awkward and artificial when I make it, even though I know it’s the first step toward establishing a relationship. Plus, it’s hard getting attached to someone as I started to do with J. and R., then seeing them go.
Oh, well. It’s cold and breezy today, just the opposite of yesterday’s hot and humid. I’ve spent as much time down here chilly as I have sweaty. Unexpected.

17th St LeveeLATER (9:20 p.m.): Got in at 7:40 p.m. Had a real problem with my driver, M., who was so over-controlling and obsessive-compulsive, while trying to act as if he wasn’t. Scatter-brained while trying to run everything. A driver is an organizer, someone who oversees the operation, keeps it moving, and pitches in to help when and where needed. The crew should be left to handle the way the back is run. He jumped in, trying to do everything, and not trusting us to do any of it right. We were supposed to have 3 in the back, but lost 1 along the way, so it was me and C., a young Americorps volunteer, and M. It was a difficult day between us. I hope I don’t ride with him again. When we came back to clean the ERV he became really weird, and compulsively clean-freakish about it. When I tried to explain that we (the crew) had already cleaned the shelf on which the cambros sat, as he was about to clean them again, he actually ran his hand over the shelf repeatedly, looking for proof. The whole thing, which usually takes just 10 or 15 minutes, probably stretched out to a half hour. As a result, and with the new unproved protocol (clean the ERV and go back to the yard in the dark to load up on water and snacks) we got back much later than necessary---we unloaded our food at 5:00 p.m.) No matter what I said or did, it rubbed him the wrong way, and he kept saying he didn’t want to step on my toes. C. and I got along wonderfully. She learned fast and knew just what to do though it was only her first day. My conversation with her later made me sure the problem hadn’t been with me. And the more I tried to get him to tell me what he wanted me to do (so he could get his way) the worse things got.
I think this work naturally brings me into contact with men who don’t like to feel women are telling them what to do. I run into this more and more. K. pointed out that I’m not used to working with men who are bossy and maybe that’s why it’s hard for me to get used to this kind of entitlement that they carry around when they are with women.
17th St LeveeOn another note, the area we went into today, Lakeview, was truly a moonscape. Cars lying rear end up against trees, or across fences. People coming back to their houses to see them for the first time. It was a pretty well-to-do neighborhood, and it must have been pretty once. A man cleaning out his house and crying came up to the window of our ERV and spoke to me while sobbing about the ruination of the house. It was heartbreaking. I held his hand, put my hand on his shoulder, and cried with him. We were all in tears. I still can see him.
The doctor I saw was right. This area is in tremendous need. I told W. about it, and he was encouraging.
I feel bad about M. My second run-in with someone since I’ve been here.
I need to stop taking this so seriously.
I need a drink.

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