Sunday, June 3, 2007

The End

I've arrived back in Decorah after my month in New Orleans.

Thursday and Friday were spent working with Kevin from New York and Dana from San Francisco. It seemed appropriate to end my trip working with 2 people from opposite sides of the country, all working together for another part of the country. I gave them my Iowa tourism promotion pitch- the people, the lifestyle, the beauty- and my Northeast Iowa promoition pitch too, telling stories about growing up in a small town. I've honed the pitched by constant pitching when I'm not in Iowa, and 4 years of experience has made me, from what I'm told, a good salesman. I succeeded this time- I got a promise from Dana that she would visit. We were trimming, spackling, sanding, and painting a front porch. The trim had been started before we got to the house, but it had been done in a way that it was functionally correct but asthetically unattractive. We discussed whether we should copy it for the sake of uniformity with the rest of our trim, or re-do it, and ultimately consulted a Habitat employee. She told us, "You can do either way, as long as it is uniform. If it was my house, I'd want it to look nice."

So we, somewhat begrudgingly, set out to un-do and then re-do the trim that had already been done. It was very frustrating to take a few steps back before taking any steps forward, particularly on that hot and windless day. But we knew we needed to redo the trim. Sure, it would have worked fine. But had it been our home, we would have wanted it to look nice. And making sure that homeowners don't just get a home, but get good service too, is what creates moments like this.

I don't plan on posting to this blog any longer, but please feel free to email me if you want to hear more about my trip. I had an incredible time- meeting homeowners and working with them on their homes, listening to great live music, eating tasty cajun and creole foods, and taking in the New Orleans culture. See for yourself why New Orleans needs to be rebuilt: take a trip down there , listen to some local music, and pitch in.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Bus Ride with the Mayor

Today I was able to jump onto one of the two buses heading out on a tour of 17 designated Recovery Zones in New Orleans. Mayor Nagin, "Recovery Czar" Ed Blakely, and others were on the first bus- I was one the second with a few friends and other interested folks. It was a quick tour around New Orleans with a police motorcycle escor guiding us through red lights.

I was seated in the back near the motor, so I wasn't able to catch a lot of what our guide was saying. The way our guide (who's name I didn't catch) described the Recovery Zones was that they are "like dropping a stone in a pond," with the intended effect of making recovery/rebuilding/renewing a ripple effect in areas around the 17 zones. This generally makes sense and has been seen over and over again in cities- an anchor attraction leads to a center of urban renewal, which slowly expands block by block. I lived in Columbia Heights in DC a few years after a metro station was opened there. As I walked to the subway in the mornings, the homes and shops got nicer with each block. The neighbors near the brickstone we were renting said their property taxes had been skyrocketing as pressure built on their block for renovations and redevelopment- which could be good or bad depending on what one hopes to do with one's property. In any case, this is the type of situation New Orleans hopes its 17 Recovery Zones, spread throughout the city, will initiate.

Jeanette's home, where I worked for 3 weeks in February, is three blocks from the border of one of the recovery zones, "I-10 and Carrollton." It is encouraging to see this area targeted. It is full of entire square blocks that are paved and empty- not even used for parking. It was once a "vibrant" neighborhood, as our guide put it, until I-10 was built through it. Now they are hoping to rebuild a shopping center in its center, an idea which evidently received very positive receptions at a development conference in Las Vegas some city employees recently attended.

Our guide spoke of "making the city more friendly to developers" and about "redefining land use patterns," but neglected to add much detail about how these things might be done or what exactly they mean.

Zach noted that many of the federal monies and incentives meant to entice redevelopment are contigent upon the hiring of "local labor." Local is evidently limited to an area smaller than a zip code, which is encouraging- it means the people who live in the redevelopment areas stand a good chance of benefitting from it in more than one way. I don't know enough about the details to make a real judgment, however.

The guide also mentioned "decentralizing tourism" to give more tourist a "local flavor," which is great. Most tourists see the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, but not much else. In February and during all of Carnival I spent only a night or two in that area, instead seeing the parades in the family-friendly Uptown neighborhood. new Orleans' reputation as a "sin city" isn't deserved outside of Bourbon Street, and hopefully these efforts might help more tourists find that out for themselves.

A local on the bus I spoke with stated towards the end, "there are still so many question marks in this whole thing." He couldn't be more right. The idea from afar sounds smart and workable, but the details in all this will determine how successful it really is- and for now I don't have any details. In addition, there are the major questions hovering over the heads of most New Orleanians: what will the next hurricane show about our recovery efforts? When will it hit? Can the federal and state governments work out the problem they have with cooperation? What about climate change and rising sea levels? Ultimately, there are so many unknowns that will affect this recovery process that it will involve much more than hard work. Cooperation, compromise, and a whole lot of luck will be important too.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Right to Return

A big-name filmmaker has made a documentary about ordinary New Orleanians and their struggles here. Looks interesting.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Pics and Memorial Day Weekend

Some pictures from last week:

Here I am with Pete, on the left, a Habitat staffer from Lincoln, NE who did contracting work in the Twin Cities for a long time; Helen, in the center, a cellist who's porch we are posing on, Seth, a Habitat employee who did some growing up in Denison, IA, before heading to Arizona and then to New Orleans, and in the second row with me, Brian, a Harley-riding, sailor-mouthed Habitat employee.

Here is Nat's house, which I worked on this week raising the roof trusses you see here. Nat is a catastrophe nsurance claims adjuster during the hurricane season and plays trombone with the Crescent City Players during most of the year.

Here are most of the houses I've been working on the last few weeks...

And here is the other half of the block, showing what they'll look like when they are (close to) done.

Here is Alvar Street, the heart of Musicians' Village. Every home is a Habitat home.

This weekend I was fortunate enough to have opportunities to see some sights outside of New Orleans. A bunch of Habitat employees drove to the beach in Biloxi, MS, on Friday night, where we swam, played football and frisbee, slept under the stars, and returned Saturday morning. Sunday I went with a few friends to Slidell, MS, for a cook-out... and a chance to wakeboard for the first time in about 3 or 4 years. Both trips were a lot of fun and it was nice to see some southern sights outside of New Orleans.

Today my friend Zach's roommate invited me to a crawfish boil, and I was able to bring my friend Catherine and her brother and sister, who had never been to a boil before. We ate lots of crawfish (check out the picture), tried to catch little lizards in the sun, and had a watermelon seed spitting contest. I followed it up with an appropriate visit to the D-Day Memorial Museum with Zach. I had been in February but was unable to finish it, as it is an extensive collection. I'm going to need to return again still!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

An Extended Family Affair

On Thursday I heard a few young men speaking a foriegn language at the Musicians' Village. They were all blond and blue-eyed, and I suspected Scandinavians. On Friday, I saw them again and asked where they were from. The answer, of course, was Norway.

Norweigians start college or vocational training two years before Americans end high school. These Norsk were at the end of their carpenters' training (2 years), and were in New Orleans for a month with a couple of their teachers to help rebuild. They were hands-down the fastest and most capable volunteers I had seen to date. And of course, I trotted out my Norwegians phrases and knowledge, and spoke about visiting twice and where we had gone, etc, etc. They are having a good time in New Orleans and I'm looking forward to working with them next week as well. We are working on decking a roof- that is, putting the OSB (plywood) on the trusses to make the building actually sheltered. My favorite thing to do, actually.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

What Habitat Volunteers Create

Today I had the greatest experience of my time in New Orleans, and it wasn't about a home, but instead about moment. I was working with a family on erecting roof trusses when we were called down to attending a home dedication- when the keys are officially passed to a new homeowner. We hopped in the back of a truck and rode to the home with the sun wavering between peeking out or hiding behind clouds.

We arrive on Clouet Street at the new home of Patrina Johnson Peters. She's a 44 year-old divorcee and disabled mother of two. Patrina grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, not far from her new home, where she lived her entire life until Katrina hit. She earned her GED in 1979, graduated from Cameron College in 1982 with a certificate for general clerical work, and then graduated from Hair Tech in 1986, where she then taught for a number of years in addition to working as a janitor for Xavier University. Her son Damond, who wants to be a basketball player (he is already close to my height), was there, as was her daughter and her beautiful 1 month-old granddaughter in addition to her parents and other friends.

The sun hid again as the ceremony started with a welcome from Jim Pate, Executive Director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity. Brief remarks were then given by two employees of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant, which sponsored the home. One employee, a tough-looking guy, recited a short poem he had written for the occasion and shared a heart-felt hug with Patrina. Habitat employees then presented Patrina with gifts of bread, wine, and a toolbox, after which she was handed the key to her new home. As Patrina took the key, the sun came out again behind the crowd and glinted off her new housekey, raised as high as her arm would take it. "Words just can't explain..." she stammered as tears streamed down her cheeks, "how I feel."

The crowd applauded and was invited inside to view the home and welcome Patrina and her family. There, her pastor lead a prayer. Patrina and her mother followed it with a hymn, and Patrina went on to thank more individuals- her family, a couple of close friends, and Caitlin- the Habitat employee who had led her home's construction. There was more hugging, and crying, and thanking- it was a joyful mood.

Months full of weeks, and weeks of days, and days full of hours went into Patrina's home by herself, her family, and hundreds of volunteers. People came and went endlessly, putting in their share of nails, adding their bit of paint, or covering Patrina's roof with shingles, whether or not they ever met her or even knew her name. Perhaps only a few were able to witness the final event, but every one can claim their share in creating a event that helped shape Patrina's life, New Orleans' recovery, and our nation's sense of community.

Those trusses weren't quite as heavy in the afternoon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Katrina Index: Home of the Hard Data

I like figures. They aren't biased (although their interpretation can be), they can expose interesting relationships between phenomena, and can immediately relate a lots of information about a situation. In a post-catapstrophe recovery situation, they are the best indicators of progress on almost any issue. The folks at the Brookings Institution know this, and have been collecting data relating to the recovery and releasing it as the Katrina Index on a monthly basis since January 2006. You can sign up to get one email a month when a new index is released.

Here's a link to the page with May's Katrina Index and all past Katrina Indices.

Here's some interesting facts from the May 2007 Index:

As of February 2007, The Orleans Parish population had reached 26,165, still far below the 66,372 living there in October of 2004.

"The average sales price for single family homes in the New Orleans region continues to climb above pre-Katrina values in the outer parishes while generally remaining stable in the core. Specifically, home values in Jefferson Parish, Plaquemines Parish, and St. Tammany Parish are now at or above the values in August 2005. The exceptions are on the east bank of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish where average home values remain lower than those prior to Katrina."

Residential building permits issued by the City of New Orleans increased by 1,426 this month, the highest one-month volume since last October 2006.

Newly available delivery statistics from the U.S. Postal Service suggest that the population of New Orleans and the metro area continues to grow. Active residential deliveries in Orleans Parish grew to 61.9 percent of pre-Katrina levels in March 2007 from approximately 49.5 percent since last August. Meanwhile, postal deliveries to residential addresses for the 5-parish region have increased from 76.5 percent to 81.1 percent over that same 7-month period.

One additional public school opened in Orleans Parish this past month, but 70 schools remain closed.

The New Orleans area continues to struggle with only 64 percent of its health care facilities now open. And no additional state-licensed hospitals have reopened since October 2006.

Monday, May 21, 2007

1,000 Homes Built

Today's big news in New Orleans was that Jimmy Carter was in town to help build that 1,000th Habitat for Humanity house n the region. Unfortunately for Habitat, most press coverage centered around Carter's comments about President Bush's foreign policy. On the Today Show a segment with Carter was 9/10ths about his comments and only mentioned Habitat at the end, although a short segment was later aired exclusively on the 1,000th house being built.

So, rather than just delivering the good news, the media reports focus on the conflict and political commentary of a person involved in delivering the good news. Sure, Carter could have refused to address his comments about Bush's foreign policy, and maybe he should have, but the Today Show certainly wanted to press the issue.

Anyway, congrats to Habitat, its employees, homeowners, donors, and volunteers!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The "Suck Index?" (Or Not?)

As I waited for a couple of friends to join me for lunch Saturday, I picked up a copy of the Gambit Weekly resting near me- its a weekly paper mostly promoting music, arts, and events, with some commentary mixed in. One of the cover features was "Politics: Clancy DuBos on The Suck Index Part II." I read further probably for the same reason you are reading now- an interest in politics and a curiosity as to what the "suck index" might be.

As it turns out, a University of New Orleans professor and pollster had decided to drop "excellent" from the options for respondents asked to rate city issues and services, and add "very poor." As DuBos suggests in his Part I, "You know things are bad when a "quality of life" survey has to add comparatives beyond "poor" to let respondents describe just how badly their world sucks." He then goes on to list the combined responses of "very poor" and "poor" for each question as what he calls the "Suck Index." Here is the Suck Index as published in Part II, indicating changes from Part I, which was published on December 5, 2006.

• Overall level of government services -- 53 percent (no change).

• Police protection -- 37 percent (down from 41 percent in October, but within the overall 6 percent margin of error).

• Availability of housing -- 62 percent (down from 71 percent in October, a significant improvement).

• Availability of medical care -- 59 percent (up from 51 percent in October, and a dangerous trend).

• Conditions of roads and streets -- 70 percent (down from 75 percent in October, but still really sucky).

• Control of traffic -- 38 percent (not as bad as most other services, but this one scored only 30 percent in October, so the trend is disturbing. Besides, anything over 30 percent is bad. Ratings of 40 percent or more officially "suck.")

• Availability of public transportation -- 38 percent (ditto above; up from 33 percent in October).

• Drainage and flood control -- 56 percent (up 8 points from October's score of 46 percent. This is really bad news for the Corps of Engineers and the Sewerage and Water Board, especially considering the survey was finished well before the May 4 deluge.)

• Control of litter and trash -- 35 percent (down a whopping 30 points from October's 65 percent score. Maybe Sidney Torres IV should run for mayor.)

• Control of abandoned housing -- 75 percent (the most "sucky" score of all, and up 3 points from October's 72 percent.)

• Opportunities for employment -- 27 percent (statistically insignificant change from October's 26 percent. If you can find a place to live -- and if you can afford the rent or the homeowners insurance -- you should have no problem getting a job here.)

• Likelihood of new jobs and industry -- 37 percent (up 3 points from October's score of 34 percent, indicating a continued gloomy economic outlook on the part of voters).

Obviously these are saddening numbers- anyone driving around New Orleans can tell you abandoned housing is a problem, and the great success in solving the litter and trash issue through a new garbage removal service. But it might be simply a reflection of survey design. Any pollster will tell you that you can get surveys to give you whatever answers you want, so long as you ask the questions correctly. By dropping "excellent" and adding "very poor," ratings are essentially given a more negative slant than they otherwise would have. Another indication that the pollster might be looking for this negative slant is the fact that her middle-of-the-ground rating is "only fair" (suggesting things ought to be better than "fair"), as opposed to the standard "fair."

So what is going on? Is the pollster looking for data to validate her own perception that things in New Orleans suck? Or did she have so many "poor" responses on previous surveys and so few "excellent" responses that she saw a need to restructure her questions in order to more accurately gauge the public's sentiments?

Hopefully, we'll find out soon. I emailed her and asked.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

More On Lessons Learned

Louisiana and New Orleans are most certainly serious about making changes to their disaster response and recovery plans after Katrina. They deserve accolades for many efforts. For example, the Unified New Orleans Plan was extensively revised after the initial version was universally panned. The new version was recently released, with strong support for the changes:

"Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, which had issued a scathing review of the original plan, said the revised version is "much more lucid" and easier to read, but she said it still leaves several important issues unclear, such as how much of the city would be covered by new zoning."

In addition, they've got back and re-solicted for bids from bus companies for a new public evacuation system for those who cannot evacuate themselves, rather than taking the only previous bid- which was over 4 times higher than expected. Officials seem to have realized that such wasteful and inefficient spending will not be tolerated any longer, and have taken a risk to re-solicit bids instead of accepting the only one offered. Officials are smart and gutsy to ask fairer prices from contracting companies who are used to dealing with government bodies (seemingly) unconcerned about cost levels. I expect they'll get them.

At the same time, however, not everything is going well. One wonders why the public bus evacuation system received only two bids the first time- one which was withdrawn, and the other of which was far too high. Are too many buses being demanded? Couldn't multiple companies bid for parts of the contract rather than relying on one company exclusively? And why is it that "on the chance that the system becomes overloaded, the state Department of Education has agreed to provide yellow school buses, many with drivers," rather than using those buses first instead of spending more taxpayer dollars? Kids won't be going to school during an evacuation, so school buses should be available... these are mostly unanswered questions rather than major problems. One major problem, though, is that Louisiana is 140,000 beds short of its needs during an evacuation. While that is short of the estimate needed for the worst-case scenario, it is a seriously large number- more than half of the total estimated need.

Plenty of work done on lessons learned, and more to be done- just like on the houses. I built railings for a wooden stoop today with help from a couple of high school kids.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Going Crabbing, Improving Response Structures

I confess that this morning I did not work on a Habitat house. Instead, Tony, an electrical contractor and firefighter, took two Habitat employees and myself crabbing. We drove out to Reggio, southeast of New Orleans, at 5:30 this morning. We got to a canal, tied chicken legs to string, and tossed about eight lines in. Then we'd cycle through, pulling in the string and catching the crabs, which clung to the chicken, in a net. We crabbed for over four hours and reeled in around ten dozen crabs. We then brought them back to the Musicians' Village and cooked a nice lunch. Tony was a wonderful guide and showed us through the whole process.

The Times-Picayune reported today on other visitors in New Orleans who are raising awareness in much more creative and visible ways. The article reads, "Artist Takashi Horisaki, intent on creating a sculpture to remind New Yorkers that the Crescent City is still badly hurting, arrived in New Orleans on Sunday and set about a most unusual artistic endeavor: covering a severely damaged shotgun in the Lower 9th Ward with a thick coat of latex. The young sculptor, who graduated from Loyola University and now lives in New York City, planned to hang the resulting latex mold on a frame built to the exact dimensions of the house, creating a life-sized soft sculpture to be displayed at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens."

Horisaki is having some trouble, as the house is slated for demolition next week- which he should be able to avoid with the proper requests.

In addition, the Times-Picayune reports that the canal flood prevention system has been upgraded, with emergency response structures centralized and streamlined- two ways to reduce the slogging indecision that made Katrina as bad as it was. They also now have plans in case canal walls break- plans that didn't exist before Katrina.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Free Lunch

Today I worked with Chris, putting a couple posts on the bottom of a set of stairs and encasing the postholes in concrete. Chris lives in New Zealand, but is originally from Alabama, and is here for the rest of the week. Many of the volunteers were seniors from a local high school, who are spending their last two weeks volunteering. According to my friend who works for Habitat, generally 400 to 600 people volunteer daily.

A couple of friends have asked how I'm able to afford spending a week working without pay. There are basically three answers to that question: 1. I have a reasonable amount of money saved. 2. I'm staying on friends' couches the entire time I'm here. 3. Free lunch.

A great number of groups feed their volunteers and are always very willing to share. In the cases that there aren't generous big groups working, the Loaves and Fishes truck often stops by, as it did today. It is a refrigerated truck run by a local church that drives around the city handing out free lunches to volunteers. (The pastor's wife happened to be from Iowa, by the way- New London, just outside of Burlington. We're taking over the world.) Today, I asked if they would be back tomorrow, since I had already eaten lunch. They said no, but that I should take a lunch for tomorrow anyway. The generosity of the city's residents never seems to run low. In February, a mechanic gave me a good deal on repairing my exhaust, which had been damaged by the potholes Katrina's waters left around the city.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

What Home Building in New Orleans Sounds Like

Most homes under construction have a tough DeWalt radio on site. Most of those radios are constantly tuned to WWOZ, a public station playing jazz and "New Orleans heritage" music. If you want to hear what New Orleans sounds like, or what Habitat for Humanity home building in New Orleans sounds like, go to and listen online.

Also, the Washington Post has another interesting article on the recovery. Other papers are probably covering it as much, but the Washington Post is my homepage.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Post-Katrina Economic Adjustments

As you drive around New Orleans these days, those little cardboard signs on the side of the road don't say the same things they do in other cities. You aren't offered "$$$$ to work from home" or a tip on a "going out of business sale" with addresses or phone numbers printed on them. Instead, you might see signs for:

-Gutters: call 504-xxx-xxxx
-Drywall, $20/sheet: call 504-xxx-xxxx
-We Do Demolition! Call 504-xxx-xxxx

You can also catch billboards for insurance claim lawyers, "Come Home" loans, and construction companies. The New Orleans economy has made an adjustment to fit the needs of the post-Katrina market as well as possible. The Times-Picayune (which has been incredible on investigative reporting since Katrina) reports that the amount of construction dollars spent in New Orleans was 3,000% higher in 2006 than in the most recent pre-Katrina years.

At the same time, restaurant business and hotel rates, by June 2006, had not yet matched their pre-Katrina levels. While the article is a year old, it puts numbers on something that is evident from the ground in New Orleans: economic activty after Katrina is much more about the bare essentials in life. Improved shelter or any shelter at all take precedent in people's economic decisions, and thus advertising around the city reflects the skyrocketing demand for construction, legal assistance, and financial assistance, rather than selling consumer good, entertainment, or other items less essential to day-to-day life.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Finding a Way

One morning in February, during one of my first days building in New Orleans, I was saddened to see that sacks of concrete had been uncovered by the wind during a storm, and were set solid, still in the sack. There were thiry sacks in one stack and ten in another. It made the concrete useless for our purposes and seemed to my eyes to be a terrible waste of resources. Shortly, however, an elderly man and a young man drove up in a pick-up and began loading the smaller stack into the pick-up bed. Curious, I went to ask them what they were doing. The elderly man responded that he had just finished rebuilding his house, and he could use these blocks of concrete to build a retaining wall on the property. His eyes lit up when I mentioned the additional sacks in the back, which he took as well (with the blessing of a Habitat employee). The man looked at the sacks and saw building blocks instead of ruined concrete.

Yesterday, a police officer drove up to the house we were working on and asked what organizations were assisting people with rehabilitating existing homes. He and his wife lived a few blocks away and he was eager to fix up their home. He was looking for resources to help. This is something that the residents of this city have become experts at- seeking and using any and all resources in rebuilding. This resourcefulness belies a determination to revive the city, and seeing it on a regular basis is encouraging. The morning sights at the Musicians' Village is encouraging as well- generally around 200 people congregate to listen to introductions and safety instructions before being split out for each house under construction. Even now, nearly two years after Katrina, each day different hundreds help rebuild.

Today I worked on putting up siding with Mark and Brian, both Southwest employees from Phoenix. Southwest collected its employees for a management meeting in New Orleans and brought them in a day early so that they could help rebuild before holding their meetings. There are a great number of companies that send their employees to help rebuild, generally for a day or two. A Louisiana bank did the same thing yesterday.

I'm going sailing tonight!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Building Homes With A Grammy Winner

I'll be spending most if not all of my month working at the Musicians' Village. It is located in the Upper Ninth Ward, which was under 4 to 6 feet of water during Katrina. Each home is built upon concrete blocks to the Katrina waterline, so that if a similar storm strike, it won't be flooded.

The Musicians' Village will consist of 71 single-family homes and 5 duplexes, a small park, and a community center, which is meant for music lessons, meetings, after-school programs. Most of the village is built upon the site of a former middle school that was demolished in the 90s and had lain vacant.

Today I worked with Travelocity contest winners who were sent to New Orleans for a weekend of Jazz Fest and a day of working for Habitat for Humanity alongside Grammy Award-winner Joss Stone. Joss, her sister, and four others including myself put hurricane straps up on the homes walls- thin metal straps that reinforce the studs to the top beams of the walls. She worked for only the morning but did actually work, putting up plenty of hurricane straps- although a photographer documented every hammer swing. Celebrity volunteering occurs fairly regularly and is, for better or worse, an effective way to raise awareness about rebuilding.

Two of those others, Kevin a Republican from Austin, Texas, and Tod, a Green Party supporter from San Diego, were my main partners. We joked that we had a "tri-partisan effort." We finished the hurricane straps, and then worked on putting up some siding until another small group was ready for our help in raising a truss onto the roof, which we then fastened. This was their only day volunteering- most volunteers come for a day to a week. Bit by bit, day by day, homes are built.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Yesterday's Stats

Hours in Transit: 11
Hours in Transit while raining: 10
Lunch Stop: 50 minutes at Chubby's, the same roadside down-home spot about 40 miles north of St. Louis that I stopped at on my way back from New Orleans at the end of February. Great hot rolls and free newspaper.
Miles Driven: 654.6
Gallons of Gas: 20.2
Miles/Gallon: 32.4 (I love the Honda Civic)

Soundtrack: All 60s and 70s rock and roll.

Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland
Jimi Hendrix, Live at Berkeley
The Band, The Last Waltz Live, Disc 1
Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won (Live), Discs 1, 2, and 3
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Anthology, Disc 1

I'll arrive in New Orleans tomorrow. Memphis's Beale Street Music Festival has a better line-up, actually. Allman Brothers, Govt Mule, and Jerry Lee Lewis yesterday, George Thorogood, Kenny Wayne Shepard, David Honeyboy Edwards, and the Bar-Kays tonight. And its cheaper!

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Go Time

7 AM: Leave Decorah.
6 PMish: Arrive Memphis, TN.
7 PMish: Head to the Beale Street Music Festival with Tim Flowers, my generous host.
10:00 PM: Allman Brothers Band takes the stage!

Depending on who knows what, I may reach New Orleans Saturday or Sunday. But work starts Monday. 7:30 AM, bright and early.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A Serious Plan and a Serious Precedent, but One Serious Problem

Once again, the Washington Post comes through with a detailed, well-informed article on A Serious Plan for Future Hurricane and Flood Damage Prevention.


"Other elements in the plan call for mechanically pumping sediment to rebuild marshes and barrier islands. Hundreds of miles of new or reconstructed levees would add flood protection."

""I haven't heard any opposition yet; people in Louisiana know what's at stake," said state Sen. Reggie P. Dupre Jr., who introduced the bill that called for the planning effort."

And of course, the downsides:

"By removing all or most of the flow from the Mississippi River's main channel, the more than 6,000 ships that travel through New Orleans to the ocean each year -- carrying chemicals, coal and a significant portion of the nation's grain exports -- may have to find an alternate route nearby, possibly through a system of locks and canals. That would increase travel time and add to costs... The diversions would also dilute salt water in estuaries, altering the region's shrimp and oyster harvest, one of the largest in the nation."

There are ups and downs to the plan overall, but the most important thing is that people are thinking big. There isn't an easy solution to stop another Katrina- it is a problem that will take a great deal of time and money to be solved, but it can be solved.

Want proof? Look at what Holland has done. It took 47 years, like a serious project of that scale ought to.

What will it take? Not much. All we really need is a smart plan, willpower, and a competent, well-intentioned, honest government. That last requirement might trip us up most, especially when we read that
the Army Corps of Engineers solicited bids for drainage pumps for New Orleans, it copied the specifications — typos and all — from the catalog of the manufacturer that ultimately won the $32 million contract, a review of documents by The Associated Press found.... In a letter dated April 13, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called on the Corps to look into how the politically connected company got the post-Hurricane Katrina contract. MWI employed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother, to market its pumps during the 1980s, and top MWI officials have been major contributors to the Republican Party.

But we can fix the lack of a competent, well-intentioned, honest government with a smart plan and willpower. It might not be so much about whether it is a Democrat or a Republican- at the federal level, Republicans messed Katrina up. But Louisiana is run by Democrats, who fouled it equally. Its more about electing problem-solvers instead of politicians.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Foreign Aid Offers Went Unaccepted

"And administration has used only fraction of allies' pledged donations in hurricane aftermath"

The low-lights of the piece:

"And while television sets worldwide showed images of New Orleans residents begging to be rescued from rooftops as floodwaters rose, U.S. officials turned down countless offers of allied troops and search-and-rescue teams. The most common responses: "sent letter of thanks" and "will keep offer on hand," the new documents show."

""There is a lack of accountability in where the money comes in and where it goes," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the public interest group, which called for an investigation into the fate of foreign aid offers. She added: "It's clear that they're trying to hide their ineptitude, incompetence and malfeasance.""

I don't actually have much to say here, the article speaks for itself. While I hope to focus this blog on positive and hopeful events in New Orleans and I know it isn't fun to read more bad news about a terrible situation, one can't get a full picture without including both the good and the bad. So here's the bad. Come back again for the good.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Thanks for visiting

Over the coming month I will be posting regularly (4-5 days a week) about my experiences while working for Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans. The point of all this is raising awareness about the situation on the ground in New Orleans right now, nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina- albeit from the perspective of a young, temporary volunteer.

Some days I might just tell you what we did on the house we worked on, but on others I will make wider points about the process of rebuilding, repopulating, and renewing New Orleans. I encourage all kinds of comments and questions, perhaps even especially the antagonistic ones! There are a great deal of social, economic, and political questions about how this rebuilding process can and should occur, and I'm more than happy to engage in a discussion of them. So if you've got one, post it. I'll respond, and hopefully others will too.