Sunday, September 28, 2008


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.

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."

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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.



Photos: Robert X. Fogarty, Julie Plonk