Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Resistance at St. Henry's


St. Henry's Church
812 General Pershing St.
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The 24-7 occupation of a local church has lasted longer than expected, on the backs of women in wheelchairs, retired couples, and on long-time parishioners who used to only see St. Henry's on Sunday.

It's a quiet place most hours now, where air mattresses are laid out for overnight vigil shifts and Christmas lights go on at dark. One vigiler leaves donuts for the people who relieve her. There is a mini-fridge, like the ones in Tulane dorm rooms about a mile away.

St. Henry's is 157, but the archdiocese of New Orleans closed it two months ago, citing a lack of priests parish-wide. After the final mass, when St. Henry's priest asked everyone to abide by the archdiocese's wishes, two parishoners refused to leave.

St. Henry's new existence, an around the clock vigil, enters hour 1, 500 on New Year's eve.

Leaders of the movement began a newsletter along with the vigil campaign. Their letterhead reads, St. Henry's: "Established by New Orleans Catholics in 1851 and Suppressed by the New Orleans Archdiocese in 2008."

When one month became two, parishoners silently congratulated their successes--spreadsheet schedules, breakfast duties and even a vigil cell phone left near the alter at all times. But, as these families are hoping for a victory--a sanctioned reopening of their parish--they are simultaneously preparing for a long and unglamorous task.

In Boston, one parish is staging a 24-hour vigil that will enter its fifth year in 2009.

"We'll be here as long as it takes to get our church back, vigiler Donna Williams says. "They can even turn the lights out on us."

Currently, all electricity works at St. Henry's because an adjacent building the parish owns is being rented, Donna says. Vigilers say that even if the power is shut off, their occupation will not stop. Most shifts last four hours, but the overnight shift lasts eight.

St. Henry is financially stable and had little flood damage in Hurricane Katrina according to parishoners. The archdiocese cites declining Priest roles as the reason for the closing.
“The driving factor is that there are fewer and fewer vocations,” archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah Comiskey told The Associated Press. “There are a declining number of priests and we have to be responsible as to how we assign them.”

The Louisiana Weekly says a total of 33 parishes have been closed to date. Among those, six churches have been converted to other uses. The three closed Oct. 26 — St. Henry, Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Francis de Sales — are the last to be shut down, Comiskey said.

Parishoners have filed an initial appeal in Rome and recently found out that it was denied.

In a decidedly Catholic city, the parish closings have been lumped in with other post-Katrina tear-jerking scenarios. Tragedy piles are high, and the heaps continue their growth three years after the storm. Churches closed. Schools closed. Hospitals closed.

St. Henry's demise is head-scratching because parishoners claim financial stability, a physically sound building and a Priest who has been its leader for 19 years.

A statue of St. Joseph flanked my air mattress during my overnight vigil. I only decided to sleep in a church because it was a mini-adventure. I now realize though, people love their buildings. Especially in New Orleans, where so many were lost, keeping the ones we have means very much.
The buildings where people say, "I was born there" or "That was my school" are even more important to the health of a community. They keep the City's memories and host the new ones.
The final archdiocese-recognized activity at St. Henry's happened in November.

It was a wedding.
Best,
Robert







Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hurricane Media


December 13, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

It wasn't quite sunrise when I realized hundreds were here to write New Orleans' obituary.

That day, September 1, 2008, three hours until Hurricane Gustav was due, I slept little.

Outside, the wind blew back a reporter from the Weather Channel hoping for a live shot. Inside, I counted coins. Nickels first. I'd heard Katie Couric was staying in the same hotel. The only people in New Orleans, it seemed, were military and media. The military were necessary. The media, as I now reflect, I'm not so sure.

The previous 35 hours, we evacuated 18,000 New Orleanians on trains, planes and buses. Over 2 million fled the region. Officials estimated 5,000 people stayed in the City for Gustav. It's unclear whether they count about 1,000 media members.

They came from around the world. Reporters with notebooks. Cameras. Production teams. Microphones. As I watched them work, and read their words on blogs and websites-- while witnessing what they were witnessing--I wondered how many stared at hotel room walls, penciling out their yet to be printed versions of "Death of a City."

Most only knew two neighborhoods. The Lower 9th Ward and the French Quarter. Most tourists only know two neighborhoods too. Lakeview? Nah. Broadmoor? Forget about it. The difference between a breached levee and overtopping? Does it matter?

And, I guess, that's what bugged me most. Are journalists from New York or LA qualified to report events in unfamiliar territory? I went outside several times during Gustav. And I went back to my computer every time I came back inside.

And nearly every time, the national headlines read something entirely different than the reality I'd just experienced. But, I turned on the local radio and the local media and minus a few instances, I felt like they were getting it right.

There were not doomsday photos flying across the wire like the one of a nearly submerged stop sign near the industrial canal. If the photograph was taken by a local journalist, it would have been, with local knowledge, understood that the area off the St. Claude bridge floods with a hard rain.

I felt like the national media were willing a story that wasn't there.

At one point, however, in a sign of redemption, CNN actually started a live feed of a local television station. It seemed like a producer finally woke up and said you know what, somebody who lives in New Orleans should be our voice!

As it turns out, no obituary was written about New Orleans. In fact, I believe once the storm had passed and there was no turning back, the national media had to cover the positives of an historic and successful evacuation.

But I'll still remember feeling like a TV crew speaking Italian in a New Orleans bus depot as awkward and uncomfortable. So much so that I started taking pictures of the journalists. You see, the people who left with assistance have told their stories enough. They've spelled their names and the neighborhoods for the last three years.

Not much after one writer finished interviewing a man boarding a bus, I went up to him.

"What's your name," I said.

"Jerry," he said.

"Good luck."

Because sometimes, a notebook can be a scary thing.

Best,

Robert

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

Be a New Orleanian. wherever you are.


Dirty Coast Headquarters
5704 Magazine Street.
New Orleans, La.
October 13, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,


Stickers are on skateboard bottoms and little boys' bedposts. On backpacks and lunch boxes. And as time goes, stickers generally do too. Skateboards break. Little guys grow. Backpacks wear and lunch boxes just aren't cool anymore.

But sometimes, no matter where or how long some stickers stick, they last.

Recently, when I saw a “Be a New Orleanian. wherever you are.” sticker on a leaning post in a struggling New Orleans neighborhood, I knew it had staying power--even if the post doesn’t.





Blake Haney, 33, created the sticker while he and several-hundred thousand other New Orleanians found themselves displaced in different cities and towns after Hurricane Katrina.

“'Be a New Orleanian. wherever you are.' is a shout to all of us that were scattered across the country," Haney says. "Even if you're stuck in Houston or Jersey, remember to be who you are."

It’s now the adopted ode of displaced locals around the world, frequent visitors and never-beens who can’t shake Katrina images from their minds or internet searches.

Three years post-Katrina, Haney and his business partner Patrick Brower, 30, have turned the "we're in this together" rallying cry into a profitable tee-shirt company called Dirty Coast.

Their flagship shirt was an adaptation of the “Be a New Orleanian. wherever you are." sticker. They have since released over 50 often inspirational, sometimes satirical and always pro-New Orleans tee-shirts. Dirty Coast's best-seller these days has a head shot of Barack Obama, with “Geauxbama” underneath in homage to Louisiana’s French roots.

Others play recognizable American themes with post-Katrina New Orleans twists.




Their shirts have ended up in national media on the backs of Angelina Jolie, Jimmy Fallon, Brad Pitt, Sienna Miller and others. The company has grown considerably from the weeks after Katrina. They opened a store in a hip section of New Orleans and hope to open a second store in the next two years, while continuing to grow internet business at dirtycoast.com.

There are at least 30 more shirts in the developed idea phase according to Brower.

Dirty Coast's trademark X and fleur de lis sometimes trips fans up because of the thousands of spray painted Xs on the facades of New Orleans homes.

"The X marks the spot and New Orleans represented by the fleur de lis is the treasure," Brower says.


Haney created the X marks the NOLA design while in a coffee shop in Lafayette, La. about three weeks after Katrina.

"If you know New Orleans, there is something about it that attracts a certain personality. It's a mindset, a way of being, and I think it's the thing locals and NOLA converts connect with."

Haney ordered 5,000 stickers while to return to New Orleans. Guerilla marketing, Brower and Haney say, built Dirty Coast.

"I started dropping off stickers at local businesses when I got back," Haney says. He knew he was on to something when he would return and storekeepers asked for more.

"They couldn't keep them in the stores."

Dirty Coast has distributed about 800,000 stickers, Haney says.

They've ended up on turn tables in LA, bar shelves in Manhattan, bumpers in Maine and water bottles in South America.

One New Orleanian, Brower says, tattooed an image of the sticker. He has a picture at his desk to prove it. It's even signed by the tattoo artist.

About 10 minutes after Brower shows me the picture and after several more stories of random "Be a New Orleanian..." sticker sightings, I ask him where the craziest place he's heard a sticker is.

"Oh," he says.

A moment goes.

"That guy's back."

Best,

Robert

To buy Dirty Coast gear, go to http://www.dirtycoast.com

To see some places where the sticker has been sighted:

http://www.flickr.com/groups/312424@N20/pool/






Sunday, September 28, 2008

504ward


504ward Promotional Film from Benjamin Reece on Vimeo.

A buddy of mine, Mark Martin and I are in the above video as well as some other young professionals in New Orleans.
--Robert

Competition Looks To Keep Youth In N.O. PDF Print E-mail

NEW ORLEANS -- Business leaders are launching a competition aimed at trying to keep 23- to 35-year-olds who came to the city to help rebuild it after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans longterm.

The competition, part of a new initiative called "504ward," a play on New Orleans' area code, offers a package worth more than $200,000 _ including cash and professional services _ for the winning idea, according to The Idea Village, an economic development group that invests in local entrepreneurs.

"There are so many challenges in New Orleans," said Tim Williamson, the group's president.

Those who are smart and have drive can rise to lofty positions _ in business and elsewhere _ at a relatively young age now, he said. "Those folks don't have the historical baggage of what was; they look at how it can be."

Applicants must meet certain criteria, including being a for-profit with "high potential" for long-term sustainability and demonstrated ability to hold onto that prized demographic. Just what they propose _ and how broad their reach may ultimately be _ remains to be seen.

Pitches for the initial round must be submitted by Dec. 4 and can be made on YouTube. There will be three rounds, with five finalists brought here in March.

After Katrina hit in August 2005, volunteers flocked to the region to help with relief and recovery work, such as house gutting. The city was billed as providing Peace Corps-type opportunities for younger people, and idealists of any age, interested in helping rebuild a major U.S. city and key institutions, like the public education system, flawed before the storm.

Younger people came; there's evidence of that in the new teachers in the state-run Recovery School District and within city or redevelopment agencies.

But some new-recruit teachers and fellows are with finite commitments, like two years. Keeping them beyond that is a trick for a tourist-dependent city still faced with violent crime and limited health care and in the midst of efforts to tap into the green revolution and otherwise diversify the economy.

504ward plans a Web site to act as a networking hub, plus a mentoring-style program to link younger and older professionals and bring them into the business fold.

Greg Rigamer, a demographer who's closely tracked post-Katrina New Orleans, said he'd expect young people moving to the city to register to vote if they're committed to the area longterm and that he hasn't seen "any blip" in voter registration rolls relative to pre-Katrina to signal a major influx of such newcomers.

"What we really have to do is build a sustainable economy," he said. "That's what keeps people here."
___

On the Net:
http://www.504ward.com/
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or

Friday, September 19, 2008

The First Re-vacuee


Union Passenger Terminal
September, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

It seems long ago now, July 9th, when kids played homeless men, old ladies and mothers with children during a dry-run of the City's Assisted Evacuation Plan (CAEP). Afterwards, everyone involved not-so-quietly hoped we'd never have to do it for real.

Hurricane Gustav's path became apparent on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That cruel irony heightened some New Orleanians' senses--eyes, ears and the little hairs on their necks--enough to pack up and leave town three years to the day they saw their City drown.
Over the next two days, nearly two million residents fled New Orleans and Southern Louisiana. Part of that number were 18,000 New Orleanians who used the first no-kidding rendition of the CAEP.

They were New Orleans most vulnerable citizens.

A homeless man with one shoe. A mother with five kids under eight. An 80-year old married couple.

Thousands representing the family-unit in poor, Urban America came through the turnstiles. I never quite realized how matriarchal it was.

Great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, and sisters towed small children.

Sometimes family units would be 16 people. They'd often have a single spokesperson. It was usually the most senior woman unless she was extremely elderly. Family after family came through that way. And off they went.

Several hundred homeless residents came through.

Nearly 1,000 Latinos with little English skills came through and bi-lingual translators assured them they wouldn't be hassled about their residency status.

The spectrum of evacuees was large. Many evacuees were run-of-the-mill New Orleanians, who, for some reason or another, have not adopted the American "I need a car" mindset.

My favorite group was the 20 international young people who work on temporary visas as servers and busboys, linen changers and line cooks in French Quarter restaurants and hotels. They arrived with huge traveling backpacks and "What did we get ourselves into?" looks on their faces.

We waved and well-wished several people I'd known pre-evacuation, including a clerk at the Walgreens beneath my apartment and a retired bookkeeper who volunteers at City Hall.

The planes, trains and buses took evacuees to cities and towns in northern Louisiana like Shreveport as well as shelters and Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. The process took just over 35 hours to complete. Residents had 17 different pick-up locations where they could catch a ride to the main transportation hub for the evacuation.

The local city-bus operators shuffled thousands from the different neighborhood pickup points to the Union Passenger Terminal. Special needs citizens were given door to door service.

Once the UPT shut its doors about 12 hours before Gustav made landfall, it looked ready to resume Amtrak and Greyhound service. A City employee who worked the Superdome during Katrina said one of the CAEP's litmus tests of success was the appearance of the UPT after the last train headed to Memphis.

When we left, I told him I'd be happy to eat a bag lunch on the floor.

Larman Sparkman's left foot hit New Orleans' soil last Thursday, making him the first returned resident in New Orleans historic and unprecedented assisted evacuation. There wasn't a welcoming committee waiting for Sparkman and the people he'd spent the past week with, just a few people who happened to be on sight at New Orleans' Union Passenger Terminal planning for the first of the evacuee arrivals to begin the following day.

Sparkman (pictured in white) and 26 returned others became the impromptu trail-blazers of an elaborate plan that, by and large was a success. The measurement stick: the evacuation would have saved several lives if Hurricane Gustav had actually carried the bite forecasters feared.
There are three camps with observations about the treatment of City Assisted evacuees once they arrived at shelters.

Some evacuees said they were treated miserably. Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor and other social activists are protesting alleged inhumane shelters in northern Louisiana.

Quigley volunteered during the evacuation and more than once he told me how well he thought the plan was working.

Shelter-condition protesters came to City Hall on Tuesday. As residents of Galveston and other Texas communities deal with Hurricane Ike devastation and as several southern Louisiana parishes are still in states of emergency, the timing seemed off. There is no doubt a time and a place is needed for those conversations, however.

Others said they'd had pleasant experiences and would definitely use the service again.

Finally, there were accounts from people like Gloria Ivory, 64. She wasn't upset by the conditions or the treatment at the shelter in Knoxville, Tenn. She was "embarrassed" by her fellow New Orleanians that fought, stole and were disruptive while in Knoxville.

"I doubt they'd ever take us back," Ivory said. "I don't blame them."

Gustav missed New Orleans and the City was largely spared minus the week-long, city-wide power outages.

Several scenarios and replays, reflections and "lets work this out" discussions have and will continue to occur while preparing for the next hurricane. The biggest fear for us all, however, is that many evacuees who returned weary, beleaguered and bleary-eyed from Gustav will choose to stay for the next storm.

Sparkman said he'd do it again. Beverly Mitchell, the volunteer at City Hall, said the same.

Best,

Robert


Photos: Robert X. Fogarty, Julie Plonk

Sunday, August 31, 2008

City Assisted Evacuation from Hurricane Gustav


Written from City Hall
8/31/2008
23:00

Dear Family and Friends,

By now you've heard.

What you may not have read however, amidst the impending danger, was New Orleans' ability to evacuate 18,000 people without alternative transportation. Homeless, elderly, special needs, you name it, they came through the assisted evacuation program.

There were guys like Jerry, 51 from the Carrollton neighborhood. There were thousands of people like Jerry actually, all scared about what lies ahead yet sensible enough to leave. The process is called the CAEP and the city, state and federal government have been planning it for three years.

We hoped it would never be needed.

Over the last 41 hours I spent 20 of them at the Union Passenger Terminal.

You might be wondering why I was there? Backstory, 25 words or less. Been here 18 months. In AmeriCorps. Coordinate volunteers for Mayor's Office. Needed volunteers for this plan.


---- Original Message -----
From: Robert X. Fogarty
To: xxxxxxxxxx
Sent: Sun Aug 31 15:11:05 2008
Subject: Volunteers at UPT

Over the last two days concerned and invested New Orleanian Citizens and AmeriCorps members displayed incredible passion, knowledge and unlimited willingness to do whatever incident commanders at the UPT needed to successfully run the CAEP.


Working a minimum of 12 hours with shifts often more, loaded buses with a highly effective counting system taught to the by the La Natl Guard. By O70
0 Sunday AmeriCorps members from around the country who have moved to New Orleans after the storm were running the bus loading process along side state employees.

AmeriCorps members also embedded with Red Cross personnel to distrbute thousands of bottles of ice cold water.

Concerned citizen and AmeriCorps volunteers also were the first to greet evacuees and afix tracking bracelets to their wrists. When special needs citizens needed help getting off buses AmeriCorps members were their to provide wheelchairs.

A special team of bilingual volunteers who were on site to translate and calm anxiety of non-english speaking latinos.

Bilingual translators were community leaders who were calling with bus updates on the hour to local spanish radio stations

With a drastically reduced help from city and state organizations who had large numbers on Saturday,
citizen and AmeriCorps volunteers were vital to the CAEP on Sunday.

Incident Commander John DeMartini and Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed are cc'd'on this email.

Over the last 72 hours citizens and post-K AmeriCorps transplants now living in the City accounted for over 700 hours of service to this evacuation.

Breakdown
30 individual New Orleanians

25 AmeriCorps members provided by sponsoring organization Rebuilding Together a local non-profit whose mission is to restore homes or elderly and disabled citizens. Rebuilding Together executive director Kristin Palmer were on site to lead. 16 AmeriCorps National Civilian Community members
10 AmeriCorps members sponsored by the Tulane University Center for Public Service.




So there's the skinny. I'm hunkered down at City Hall with the Office of Emergency Preparedness and their command center. It's the safest place I could be.

I hope to be able to do these things at least once a day, but sleep may become a priority.

Know this about the people yo
u see in these photos. They are safe and sound outside of the City. No matter what happens, remember that.

Best to everyone,

Robert
(8/31/08 23:40)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Year Three


August 29, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The calendar is still valid here. Modified, of course.

Post-K New Orleans turns three today, and the City still carries the markings of its embattled recovery. Over 100,000 people have left, one in three residential addresses is vacant or blighted and its crime rate has passed casually guarded on its way to "Wow, I really do have to think about my safety."

Government-dispensed spray paint still lingers on many homes' facades. The X's are as common as mailboxes around these parts. "They're memorials," my friend says.

But, we, as Americans, shouldn't give up on New Orleans.

You'll read a lot about the bad today. And you'll read a little about the good.

For that, a buddy of mine decided to round up the 100 best things to come out of New Orleans since Katrina to balance the good versus bad scale. Like never before, thanks to the internet, bottom-up information gets the same street credentials as the stuff delivered to your doorstep.

He calls the list the NOLA 100.

New Orleans blogosphere is filled with citizen activism. No grants, no awards. Nothing but concerned citizens in love with their City. Likewise, neighborhood groups have been and continue to be the leaders of recovery. Caring for returned neighbors and the resurgence of one's neighborhood now comes right behind family, food and church.

They're paying it forward too. A contingent of neighborhood organizers went to Cedar Rapids in the weeks after the Iowa floods to give best practices on mobilizing neighbors.

Observing neighborhood resilience is enough to for me to know New Orleans is going to be fine. People who came back right after the storm will tell you that the City has progressed in many ways.

My co-worker Loretta, she uses military-issued "filtered drinking water" on the office plants.
We still have a case of the stuff.

She spent three months on the floor of a college basketball arena in Lafayette, La.

Talk about progress.

Now that I feel like I've got one foot in here, I sometimes forget about Loretta's story. The everyman story here, actually.

I watched the Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke the other night. My friends and I, who've come here post-Katrina, we should be obligated to re-watch and re-read the accounts of New Orleanians who watched their City drown.

Because sometimes when we're partying till sunrise, New Orleans without the baggage feels too damn good.

My friends in DC, policy kids, capitol hill kids who get chided for their insatiable need to be inside are sending similar criticism towards New Orleans' transplants.

"You're using New Orleans," they say.

And now I wonder aloud. Is New Orleans becoming a frontier for socially-conscious opportunists? An it phrase on a resume?

I must disclose now that I didn't move to New Orleans with its professional benefits on my mind. I thought a year here would do me good. The "you're only young once" mentality.

Tulane University had more applicants for this year's incoming college class than ever. They stopped taking applications at 34,000. Shut down for an entire semester after Katrina, Tulane is now the most selective school in the country.

Seventeen-hundred new Tulanians began class on Wednesday.

People say the flood of applicants to Tulane is a direct correlation to the service trips by church groups and other organizations since the storm. Talk to any neighborhood activist and they talk about service volunteers like knights in shining armor or guardian angels.

But the need for unskilled grunt work is nearly gone now, any houses that still need gutting should be demolished. Volunteers are being used nicely to help curb neighborhood blight, however. Because, as I said earlier, one in three residential homes is vacant.

I sometimes question how people still coming to help view this place. Is it a pity trip? Is New Orleans like a kid whose black eye is seemingly still swollen?

Maybe.

The black has turned though. Kind of yellow and brown now. Just give it awhile.

Best,

Robert

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hurricane Evacuation Exercise

July 14th, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Volunteers,

I once stood in the dark with Ken Fisher.

He'd taken me over to the municipal auditorium where 250,000 bottles of water and 25,000 packaged meals are stored. "Just in case," he said. "We're ready this time."

Mike, a fictional Category 3 Hurricane was 50 hours
from landfall last Wednesday during the Southeastern Louisiana evacuation exercise. Fisher was an important decision maker in the New Orleans Emergency Operations Center. As you waited at pick-points and went through registration, Ken was getting fictional worst-case scenarios thrown at him, making strategic decisions.

"Ken, yet again, demonstrated his prowess in emerg
ency management last week during our Hurricane drill and the after action comments indicated as such," Jerry Sneed, the director of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness said.

Ken died Saturday.

It was quick. Natural causes, Sneed said.

Times like these that make you remember the value of friends and family. A sense of community. Last Wednesday, while you didn't see him, he was watching out after you.

After all, it was his job and
he loved it.

This letter began as a simple thank you for your
efforts. With a heavy heart, I realized Ken would be proud of your engagement. He'd also be proud of those of you who had comments of uncertainty about the evacuation plan. If anybody could handle heat, Ken could.

So, for your time and insight last Wednesday--Thank you.

Three hundred and twenty volunteers was the largest volunteer turnout for a Hurricane evacuation exercise in a single parish since Katrina.

If we learned anything Wednesday, it's that the real thing will not be easy.

You played elderly and disabled. You
played criminals and pregnant women. And sometimes you felt like yourself, and wondered why first responders weren't treating you like you were 86.

The drill, you said, is an imperfect operation with progressive concepts and unsettling setbacks.

In the real deal first responders will not have the bright orange cards identifying special needs. You asked, "How are you going to tell?" "What about a sick person who gets separated fro
m his family?" "Are bus drivers considered first responders?"

Others found the evacuation exercise eye-opening and positive. The City has a plan and the ability to execute it kind of thinking. "I'm glad it wasn't easy for us because it won't be easy if it really happens," one volunteer said.

Wednesday was hot like it would be during an actual evacuation. All of you sat hours with little information.

Cole Judge, a volunteer, said, "At one point, I felt like I was actually evacuating."

Another's eyes teared, knowing how close it felt to 2005 and how it might feel if it happens again.

An emergency planner said that the evacuation exercise shows that preparing to get out on your own or to hitch a
ride is the best way out. From an organizational standpoint, the drill was a success, officials say. They found glitches they need to work out. Several first responders wondered aloud where all the volunteer role players came from.

You challenged them.


The emergency operations center at City Hall is on the ninth floor and behind a security door. It's a little enclave of technology and information. Ken watched monitors, tracked the storm and made decisions with you in mind.

He loved talking about the stockpiling of goods for the next storm and the improvements the office had made after Katrina. Especially the evacuation plan that you were so valuable in testing last week.

Thanks Ken. We'll miss you.

Best,

Robert











Sunday, June 22, 2008

Day 473


New Orleans, La.
June 22, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

New Orleans is a city of things uncommon. Its core is filled with orange cones and flashing yellow street lights that are the everyday signs of consistent brokenness. The longer I stay here, the more I believe back to normal is in a constant state of maybe tomorrow.

This is a move away from my honeymoon days when I neither cared nor noticed the systemic problems that may never be fixed. Or maybe I noticed the problems too much, still naive to believe that one year's time was long enough to make a difference. Now, when six days pass before a downed streetlight is removed, I shrug and say, "Only in New Orleans."

I don't blame the City's department of Public Works. In fact, I applaud their efforts. Sixty-thousand blocks are in New Orleans and all of them have been neglected for decades. Throw in Katrina, which devastated infrastructure and City staff, and New Orleans picked up more broken streetlights, massive potholes and missing street signs.

Then again, people aren't screaming from the rooftops about these daily inconveniences.

This has always been a violent city. The French sent criminals and prostitutes to populate the colony. Decades later, the Ursuline nuns came to center their spirituality. Today, in high crime neighborhoods, street signs suddenly become far less important where police staffing is low. The New Orleans Police Department lost 500 officers after the storm and the post-K attrition rate is just now starting to settle.

When people ask me whether I'm apprehensive about my safety, I used to say no. But, now, little doubts have crept in. As a 473-day veteran of New Orleans, I know now there are inherent risks while living here. These are the tiny disclaimers that everyone should hear, I suppose.

Out of my extended circle of friends, five have had their cars broken into and/or stolen, two have had their bikes stolen, one had her house broken into, one has been mugged.

One has been shot.

My friend who was shot loved the neighborhood he worked in, despite its notorious reputation for drugs and overall down-and-outness. He was AmeriCorps member and spent three weeks in the local (LSU) university's hospital. One of only four fully functioning hospitals here, by the way.

Thank whatever deity you choose that he was a college athlete. His physical strength saved his life, doctors say. He's back in Pennsylvania, and I'm hoping, not entirely spoiled on his altruistic post-college pursuit to do something bigger than himself.

Because laying floorboards and hanging drywall for poor people is a long way from where he could have been during his first year out of school. He'd joined a new community worked long for little and finally was fed up with his friend's car being stolen for the second time. When he and a friend saw the thieves, "We chased after them," he told his local news station. "I caught up with one of them and when I caught up to him he pulled out a gun and shot me twice."

Some say he was stupid to chase. His youthful gumption was courageous, I say.

It's too bad, but only $10,000 of his $90,000 in medical bills will be paid by AmeriCorps.

"It's a horrible thing that happened, but I met a lot of good people, lots of friends down there and I helped a lot of great people, so I don't regret going down," he told his local news station.

So, yes, New Orleans is a City of things uncommon. Uncommon because with all its flaws, the little heartbeat it still has left beats loudly enough for us all to want to be near it. Perhaps, those of us who aren't locals, have been drawn to its dysfunction. Every day here is unlike any other day somewhere else.

And now, during my 473rd day, I wonder whether we're working for a restoration we'll never see.

Who cares, I say. As long as we try.

Robert

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ten month wild ride


Camp Hope by Habitat for Humanity
May 15, 2008
St. Bernard Parish, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

They aren't glamour children. Often they're just out of high school or taking a break from less than starry-eyed college experiences. Some have finished their degrees. Whatever the path, AmeriCorps NCCC members are quietly doing some of the most important work in the rebuilding of the gulf coast--the stuff that happens in the sun and sometimes the moonlight.

At the Orleans St. Bernard parish line Claiborne Avenue becomes Judge Perez Avenue, residents' skin goes from black to white in nearly an instant. The boarded doors and vacant businesses remain strikingly strong, similar.

Fifteen miles past the parish line, an old elementary school now houses up to 600 recovery volunteers a night. They cook for each other, clean up after each other and ultimately work with each other here in south Louisiana, understandably foreign to all of us.

One license plate in Camp Hope's parking lot tonight reads, "Ontario."

Camp Hope is the brainchild put into action by Habitat for Humanity. Currently there are about 200 people staying here because of President Jimmy Carter's blitz build happening this week. The non-profit hopes to start and finish 7 homes from start to finish as well as dedicate and/or start 50 more.

But, I've come to meet some of the most interesting young people in America. Of the 200 people staying here, about 110 of them are members of an AmeriCorps' program called the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).

The "N-triple-C" members implant themselves into communities in teams of 11 for three months at a time. They are at the beck and call of the non-profits they serve. Once the locals get to know them, the National Civilian Community Corps members are referred to simply as the "N-trips." Their total term of service is 10 months.

Jessie Loubet, 24, is a leader of an NCCC team. His nails are painted black and his hair passes his shoulders just enough to look like a rocker on R and R. He says his team works 9-12 hour days that include physical training three days-a-week. NCCC teams live, eat, sleep and work together. All teams are composed of Americans 18-24.

It often, former AmeriCorps NCCC members say, becomes the Real World without the cameras.

"At the end," Loubet says, "we become like family."

Loubet's team is working in New Orleans with a non-profit called Hope has a Face. They are working to turn a warehouse into a community center and volunteer housing quarters. Before New Orleans, the team spent seven weeks in Pearlington, Miss. This is the best description of Pearlington, written by blogger and photographer Clayton Cubbitt:

Pearlington Mississippi was never much to look at, as far as towns go. Even before Katrina it had barely 1,600 citizens. It doesn't have a main street, or a town square. It doesn't have a mayor or a city council. Since Katrina, it doesn't have a post office, a library, or an elementary school. It's a collection of winding country roads, of mossy trees and swamps, dotted with a patchwork constellation of homes, most quite humble even before the storm sank them under twenty feet of muddy water. It's primordial America. It's America before mega-malls and exurbs and freeways stitched it up and plasticized it. But this isn't the autumnal village America featured in political ads or Rockwell paintings, either. This is the dirty deep American South, scruffy and proud. Red mud and fried shrimp. Hard work and love of God. Blacks and whites on different sides of town, mingling in the middle. It sits on old Highway 90 midway between the decadent nights of New Orleans and the white beaches of Biloxi. It's a tiny microcosm of Louisiana and Mississippi lost in the bayous on the border between them. It's the old American dream, covered in drifting Spanish moss (www.operationeden.blogspot.com)

Pearlington, corps member Andrea Portales says, made the team of 11 bond quicker than expected.

The town had no stop lights and no places to go, so they spent time with one another, she says.

At 24, Portales is the oldest on the team.

"They used to call me Mother Goose," she says.

Portales is from Del Rio, Tex. She started school at Texas Tech in Lubbock and went to school for three years. "I'm going to have to start all over," she says. Portales isn't unlike many of the people NCCC attracts. Young Americans looking for something bigger than themselves and the personal benefit of getting 10 months to think about their next move.

On Loubet's team, three have college degrees, five have attended some college and three have not been enrolled in school.

"Last year I got the exper
ience of a lifetime. I gutted homes in New Orleans, I did forestry work in the hills of Tennessee and tutored kids in Charleston, S.C.," Loubet says.

"What other program can you do that in?"

There's four teams (44 people) working with Hope has a Face so they've broken the work into shifts for all the teams. From sunrise to darkness, NCCC teams work at the warehouse.

The last team finishes just before midnight.


Best,

Robert












Wednesday, May 7, 2008

AmeriCorps week profile: Narda Hernandez

May 7, 2008
Tulane University Community Health Clinic
611 N Rampart Street
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

When we heard the news, it made us feel like, at least for a moment, somebody got something right.

Narda Hernandez, 23, has been awarded a fellowship to stay and work in New Orleans for two more years. There's talk down here about a brain gain--young people with educations moving here falling in love with the City and staying.

Hernandez is a part of this group, but she's more valuable than most, because she's big on ideas others don't pay much attention to.

Hernandez is from Laredo, Tex. Her word choice switches from English to Spanish, sentence to sentence, no matter the native tongue of her counterpart. She came to New Orleans with the AmeriCorps, a one-year commitment she made right after graduating college.

Over 600 AmeriCorps and Teach for America members are currently working in the City.

After the storm, Spanish-speaking day laborers flooded New Orleans. They, in no small part, have been major contributors to the recovery.

She's always had an interest in community health, and heard about the migrant and seasonal workers moving to New Orleans. Hernandez wondered what kind of health care options would be available.

New Orleans' Latino population pre-storm was only 3.1 percent according to the 2000 census.

Tulane University Community Health Clinic organizers tell the simple beginning story of one doctor, one table and an ice chest keeping the tetanus shots cold. The clinic is now funded by a portion of the 100 million dollars the nation of Qatar gave to New Orleans after the storm.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Amir of the State of Qatar, visited New Orleans two weeks ago. Maybe to see how his money was being spent.

Since she's been in New Orleans, (less than a year) she's started a language translation program at the health clinic. At almost all times, a Spanish speaker is available to translate doctor-patient dialog. When Hernandez first came, few Spanish speakers used the clinic. Receiving healthcare in a different language is often an intimidating or unpleasant experience, Hernandez says.

"Word of mouth started spreading and we started getting alot of Spanish speakers," she says.

Now clinic officials say that they see 30-50 Spanish speakers a week in the four full-time doctor staff that is augmented by medical residents at the Tulane University Medical School. The Spanish interpreter program is volunteer based with eight people who commit to six to eight hours a week. Tulane University undergraduate Spanish students also volunteer during the school year.

Hernandez will be leaving the AmeriCorps and community health clinic at Tulane in June for the the New Voices fellowship. New Voices provides the salary for its fellows to work for two years in accredited non-profits around the country and its mission, like the name, is to fund social entrepreneurs who may not look like decision-makers from previous generations.

"Eso es mi mero mole (That's my thing) ," Hernandez says about working with the Latino population here. During her fellowship Hernandez will be working with the Common Ground health clinic. She'll continue healthcare outreach to the migrant workers in New Orleans, but will be focusing on the Latinas who work in the hotel and tourism industry.

"The focus has been about helping males," she says. "But what about the Latinas?"

Hernandez is one of the won't take no for an answer people that New Orleans desperately needs. The small group working to improve Latino access to healthcare is strong she says.

"There is a sense of uncertainty about what will happen. The health care infrastructure is above us, but because we are a community health clinic, it gives us a sense of flexibility," she says.

"There's nothing stopping us from a community front."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A spring afternoon


Holy Cross Neighborhood
Lower 9th Ward
April 16, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

I am not a New Orleans expert. I’ve only been here 24 days. Houses have no windows. Houses have no doors. Houses have no roofs. Concrete foundations sit isolated and open, almost waiting for a DJ so they too can serve a purpose again. Only this time, these foundations can only become makeshift dance floors. But there isn’t much celebrating going on in this neighborhood. Really, there isn’t much of anything going on.

It's been a year now, since I said the above, a description about a place I knew little about then and still know little about now. I went back to the Lower 9th Ward on Tuesday. Crossing over the Industrial Canal and into the face of New Orleans' despair, I hope the signs of progress will have appeared.

Grocery stores and gas stations.

The gas stations are beginning to come back, grocery stores are lagging. It still is, in many ways, a photo opportunity for what it hasn't become.

But, when you go out to the Lower 9th Ward, get away from ground zero and cross a street called Claiborne, a different more vibrant section of the area appears. Holy Cross, a junior and senior high school for boys, was the foundation of the community for over 100 years. The school moved sites after the storm. The neighborhood towards the river off of Claiborne has kept its namesake.

Neighborhood leaders have big plans for the Holy Cross campus. A community center with a focus on green, eco-friendly and sustainable living.

Until then, it's a time capsule.

The Holy Cross neighborhood isn't what you'd think it to be if you listened to the New Orleans' naysayers. Homes are nice. Yards are kept. People are active in the recovery. And by the river there are two steamboat homes that were built at the turn of the century. They provide the backdrop for Twain-like spring afternoons.

The Holy Cross neighborhood association as well as a cooperative by Tulane and Xavier Universities called the Center for Bioenvironmental Research invited scientists and academics from around the country and the world to talk environmental triggers in hormones. Stuff I can't and won't try to explain.

Know that the people were smart, very smart. I tagged along.

So when I said a year ago that there wasn't much celebrating going on, it's because at ground zero, there isn't much there. I had no idea what was nearer the river about 10 blocks away. On our afternoon, the Hot 8 brass band played, the Mississippi river behind them. The Hot 8 have become one of New Orleans most popular local live acts. Lil' Dizzies, a noteworthy restaurant and caterer, served red beans, crawfish etouffee and baked chicken.

Scientists danced.

The afternoon was the first time that I'd experienced happiness in this part of the City. I'm usually showing it to people while their jaws drop or stomaches ache when seeing it for the first time.

It's such a joyful place, New Orleans, but the celebrations are usually held on the other side of the canal. The sun set over New Orleans' skyline. The Holy Cross neighborhood has the best view of the City, its residents say.

There's nothing sad about that.

Best,

Robert













Friday, April 11, 2008

Little bit of NOLA everywhere



American Flyer Ski Lift
Copper Mountain, Colo.
April 8th, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

It contributes to pollution and maybe the ambassadors of environmental stewardship on Copper Mountain hate the Mardi Gras beads hanging from trees at 10,000 feet.

I'm stretching by saying that the beads hanging next to the Copper ski lifts somehow symbolize New Orleans. But I'd be willing to bet the what comes next for the skiers who say "look at that" is a fleeting image of New Orleans.

Leaving the City this time has boosted my battery. Living there is living in the center of joy and pain, optimism and doomsday. It takes energy, persistence and devotion.

I'm sitting at the gate now in Denver. We board in 20 minutes. The flight will be full. People are flying stand by. I just peaked over a woman's shoulder. Her itinerary is headed with "Girls New Orleans getaway." This, for lack of a better explanation, is positive.

She's not being dragged by her company to a convention. Judging by the pink stationary, they picked New Orleans for all it once was and continues to be. The guy behind me is also taking his wife to the French Quarter festival this weekend. "We wanted to go down and spend some money to contribute to the recovery" he says to the women sitting next to him.

The women are going for a healthcare conference. I'm a total eavesdropper.

The man goes on to tell them how the doctors in New Orleans are well-versed in gun trauma. "The turf battles" he says. I already knew this was how conversations outside New Orleans go. He then goes on to butcher some French Quarter street names. But to them, he's a New Orleans' authority.

New Orleans:

Sympathy from the storm
Great Food
Wonderful Music
What about the Violence
How about my Safety

And so it goes. On and on. Over and over in boarding areas and inside of airplanes the perception of New Orleans' instability rules.

The couple I sat next to on the plane are on a weekend getaway from San Francisco. "We've never been to New Orleans," the man said. "Our friend told us we had to come."

--Best

Robert

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bertha's Place


1523 Basin Street
February 25, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

We were misfits.

Locals in first-name friendships with Bertha Bradley, the owner and bartender, wore fedoras and shiny-tipped shoes. The sign outside said, "No one under 30 allowed." None of us met the age requirement, but a girl in the group had met Walter "Wolfman" Washington, the night's act the week before.

Bertha said we were ok.

Bertha's Place is on the corner of Basin Street, curved like several of New Orleans' streets. Her bar sits where the road begins to straighten. I'd driven by it often, noticing the bright purple and white sign, a portrait of Bertha in a white hat bookending the right-side.

"Bertha's Place. Where customers become family," the sign says.

We found her on a Monday night. The group walked in and stood out. People watched us order drinks, talk in the corner. I felt out-of-place. This wasn't our spot. We were too young, too pale to be inside. But Bertha came over and introduced herself after setting down the buckets of beer. This was her place, she said. Thanks for coming.

The music and friendship were what you look for in a night on the town--good-natured and hassle-free.

Bertha moved to this corner 13 years ago when the area had seven bars. It was spot of hot nightlife for the Treme (tra-may) neighborhood. Today, Bertha and one other are the only ones left. Treme, New Orleanians say, is where New Orleans musicians are bred. When you talk to someone from the neighborhood, they tell you how Treme kids learn on trumpets taller than them.

Historians call Treme the oldest African-American neighborhood in America. In the late 1700s and into the early 1800s, African slaves who obtained freedom were able to purchase property in Treme. Hundreds of properties were owned by free people of color in this neighborhood during an active-slavery era in America.

Bertha's business takes work. She spent 80,000 dollars to repair from Katrina's damage. It's a lot of money for a woman who charges three bucks a beer and offers free catfish and potato salad on Monday nights.

"It's been tough," she said.

Most times, when insiders talk to outsiders, they give the glossy-eyed answer that's been in circulation during year two of the recovery. The "we're plugging along and we'll be back" answers. I've noticed this often in the outsider role.

Bertha was different. She teared up. Tired now of being one of the few small business owners to come back in this section of the City. Afraid of ending up like bar-owners who end up old and penniless.

"I don't want to grow old in a bar," she said. "But I felt I needed to come back."

Bertha is originally from Pensacola, Fl. She moved to New Orleans and worked for the phone company in the 80s. She also was a bar-maid at Club 38 in the area of
town she's now synonymous with. "I always wore gloves and had my hair done," she said. "We knew what brought the men in."

Today, close to 60, she's the same way. "I always need to have a hat on," she said. "I feel naked without one."

She treats her employees like family too. In this business, she says, if the bar-owner doesn't make money, neither does the help. Too often, she's heard stories where the help didn't get paychecks.

"She paid us out of her own pocket," Maura Batiste, an employee for Bertha since 1996, said.

Walter "Wolfman" Washington plays here every Monday. It's new, she says, acknowledging that Washington is helping her increase business on a typically slow
night.

"1985 was the first event Walter worked for me," she said. "He said it was an honor to come back."

Best,

Robert

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Alternative Spring Breaks attract students to New Orleans


Gentilly
March 19, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends--

New Orleans in March was a do-gooder gathering. Thousands of different students came each week. They hammered nails. Read to kids. Built playgrounds and surveyed neighborhoods.

I've heard many times that the volunteer effort in New Orleans is the only reason why the place is where it is today. A credible argument, for sure.

But it's 2008 now, and the once-a-year week long visits are tripping some of these students up. They're stuck in a moment that down here most folks are desperately trying to put behind them. The summer of 2005 is burned in all of our brains, though, d when spring-breakers come here, these are the images that guide them.

When they look at a home with six-feet high grass and a hole in the roof, they wonder what happened to its owner.

Too often they don't wonder about the next-door-neighbor who is back. When a group of Howard University students volunteered last week doing surveying, they were asked to assess conditions of homes in some of New Orleans' flood affected homes. Good, fair or poor were the ratings.

"How is this helping the people in Houston?" a student asked fearful that what he was doing wasn't helping in the relief effort, but actually hurting.

I didn't answer it the way I needed to. I danced, trying to calm his concerns because the last thing I wanted was 200 students who drove 20 hours on a bus to get here and think they're somehow hurting the community.

What I should have said is this. The people in Houston, if they're coming back, are keeping up their homes-which typically means they're paying someone to cut their grass. The homes you see in disarray aren't coming back. Chalk it up and lets help the people who are here or who are keeping their property up remotely.

The fly-in volunteers, I hope, will move with returned residents in this paradigm shift.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Day 365


March 6, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

My dad is here. He's come with an expectation of viewing a City patched with band-aids and duct tape. He wonders if the City staggers like a beat-up boxer or claws like an an unruly underdog. To this, I've told him, "It's a little bit of both."

In either description it's safe to say that, down here, the K-word will always be worse then the F-word.

Residents grit their teeth. About insurance companies. About naysayers who call them stupid for living below sea-level. About life, really. Loretta, my co-worker, has given up on the insurance companies. "I'm going to let my lawyer handle it," she says. She had flood insurance. She had hurricane insurance.

She received $1,000.

To the naysayers, the best response I've heard is something like this. Call it what you like, it doesn't have to be New Orleans, but there must be a city here with people to operate the port at the mouth of the Mississippi. It is and will always be fragile. But, a society must be here.

Then there's the bad stuff. Visitors expect it on the drive from Louis Armstrong Airport and are often surprised when they get to their downtown hotels without seeing what they watched in 2005. The bad stuff exists in areas outside of the bells and whistles of the visitor's section of New Orleans.

The bad stuff has left those areas bleak to the observer. But insert yourself one step closer. Attend a civic association meeting in a battered neighborhood and you'll find an illustration of how civic participation is supposed to work. There were over 200 people at the Lakeview neighborhood association meeting last Saturday.

They announced a post-office would be opening in the area soon, catalyzing applause and even more side conversations about how nice it's going to be when the three-day-a-week mail cycle increases to six.

I feel like the whispered-opinion in America at-large says that the slow recovery in New Orleans is the fault of the poor, black people who live here.

The whispers are wrong.

A drive through the on-its-heels New Orleans exposes that the politically- correct view of the storm, the one that says Katrina knew no race or class, is actually true.

Many people have asked whether I've seen any progress since moving here. For the first six to eight months I would say it's too early for me to recognize any changes. But, lately it's safe for me to say that yes, I do see progress during my trips throughout the City. Construction is steady, reports of returning New Orleanians put the Orleans-proper at a smidge over 300,000. Four-hundred and fifty thousand lived here before the storm. Several thousands of that loss though are people who've moved out to the greater metro area, not to Houston or Dallas. And any of them will tell you, they're still New Orleanians who work and play here, dine and dance here.

Wonder all you want about New Orleans future. But, know there are amazing people devoted to this place. I think most of the young people who've moved here will come and go gaining incredible experience in the process. At the end of the day, it's up to the locals. Like one resident told me last week at the neighborhood meeting,

"Don't worry about us, we're going to be ok."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Riding with the NOPD Crisis Unit


Riding with the Crisis Unit
February 21, 2008
New Orleans, La.

Dear Family and Friends,

The night began and ended like many others. Two friends continued a bond that began in kindergarten. Life in the new New Orleans for David Mitchell and Kenny Martin contains a fiancĂ©e and a stepson for Mitchell, a young wife for Martin and new business together. These days, there are speckled moments of the previous New Orleans, where normal actually meant normal—before Mitchell spent three weeks first-responding in the Superdome and Ninth Ward. Before Martin went to Baghdad.

Tonight, they’re together, like they always are on Thursdays, patrolling New Orleans streets.

Voluntarily.

The two are members of the Crisis Intervention Unit of the New Orleans Police Department, an all-volunteer force tasked with transporting the mentally ill to local hospitals after a 911 call comes through. They are unarmed.

“Just our mouths and our fists,” Mitchell says emphasizing that they’re called to calm situations, not irritate them. On the books, they’re called “Peacemakers” he says.

Why would anyone help patrol New Orleans for free?

“It’s our way of giving back,” Mitchell, 23, says.

The story goes a bit further. Mitchell is a third generation emergency man. His grandfather was a New Orleans firefighter. His father was too. He’s a paramedic that also works for the New Orleans Emergency Services department.

Martin, 22, joined the Louisiana National Guard before he finished high school. By 19, he’d gone to Iraq. Thinks he'll be called up again. "Afghanistan," he says. The two would text-message while Martin was away.

Mitchell joined the Crisis team right after the storm. Martin joined him a few months ago.

Their first and only call tonight came at 7:42 pm.

The call came from a New Orleans thoroughfare familiar with police on a street where I once saw two toddlers each wearing a roller skate, one on the little girl’s left foot, the other on the little boy’s right.

Two men who’d been in scuffles before were screaming at each other. Curtis* is a paranoid schizophrenic. He tells a nurse at the hospital that he’d kill the guy if he’d ever saw him again.

“How?” the nurse asks.

“With a gun.”

“Do you have a gun?”

“Yes.”

I can’t help but not take him seriously about the gun part. He didn’t sound malicious. Didn’t look it either.

Curtis carries his medicine in his pockets and has a plastic bag with a bunch of clothes. He’s not quite sure where he lives, but his mom is going to buy a place he says. He agrees to an AIDS test. A condom falls out of his pocket.

I smile. Not a "ha-ha that's embarrassing" smile.

Martin asks him his name. “I’m in my 40s,” he says, I’m getting too old to remember exactly.”

“Do you do drugs?” Martin asks.

“I used to smoke crack and drink whiskey,” Curtis says. “Not anymore.”

Mitchell tells me that everyone they transport says he or she isn’t on drugs anymore.

Since Nicola Cotton, a 24-year-old police officer was killed by her own gun by a homeless schizophrenic last month, the police department says the mentally ill they drop off at hospitals are supposed to be “fast tracked” and kept for observation. Bernel Johnson, the 44-year-old who killed Cotton, had been picked up on a night like this three months ago.

“Nobody even knew that name then,” Mitchell says.

They talk about how the hospitals don't like to see the Crisis van coming. Mostly, they say, because there aren't the beds to treat the people. Charity hospital, closed since the storm, used to handle the lion's share of the police's mental health drop-offs.

Now, it's a struggle to spread it out evenly. Mitchell says that the calls from uptown homes and white-collar families for emergency assistance after the storm have gone up. They are called whenever a suicide is attempted. But, most often, he says the unit deals with the chronically homeless.

I ask what the mission of the Crisis unit is. Mitchell says that it's a way for a police situation to be resolved for people who don't need to be taken away by officers with guns. The Crisis team is a more humane option, he says.

Mitchell and Martin are part of an often unrecognized community in the new New Orleans.
People who have lives and jobs but are also neighborhood association presidents and community organizers, food donors and youth mentors.

They are a tribute to the resolve of America's City on the mend.

When Mitchell walked to the end of the St. Claude Avenue bridge during the aftermath of the Storm and saw a lake that used to be a neighborhood, "my world just dropped."

He pulled people off their roofs on a 16-foot-boat. For two days, Walter Boasso, a state Senator from nearby Chalmette, La. helped along side him. During much of the three-week rescue mission, Washington slept on the boat.

"When we were in Iraq," Martin says. "We had a bed and a warm meal to go home to. Katrina was nothing like that."

They drive the van through all parts of the City listing the hot spots and shadowy corners as well as prospective job sites for their heating and air conditioning business. When midnight comes, Martin pulls into an NOPD driveway, saying he'll be the early person into work the following morning. Mitchell says that he'll stay later then.

True friends.


-Best

Robert