Category Archives: Katrina

The Home Stretch: A.lmost B.eenthere D.onethat

I haven’t blogged anything (here) in over a month. I’m still alive. Deep cover, cramming for fiction comps, writing teaching and tutoring portfolios, teaching intro poetry workshop with almost 20 students, almost all of whom have never written much or any poetry, picking up my own honor-society slack, worrying about the semesterly parental medical crisis, letting in the handyman, and flushing time down the rathole called commuting-by-car. At least I get the BBC and other news outlets while I drive. I am overweight, under pressure, sleepy, cranky, and falling apart. And missing deadlines for things like conferences and journals, even though I wrote them down in my calendar.

But if I can just hang in there a few more weeks and get all these academic obligations nailed down, I will reward myself with all the gardening and exercise I can stand. If I pass my comps, I’ll be ABD and in dissertation-land.

Then the real fun begins.

I have been working on this idea the whole time I’ve been working on the Ph.D., and it’s grown and morphed in weird ways, as dissertations do. Over the next few months, I’ll be making a series of road trips to various locations around the country: wildlife areas, historic sites, archives, and quirky curiosities. I’m nailing down two or three likely grant/fellowship sources, and I’ve  got a line on a fairly unusual internship for a poet. I’ve been accepted to study abroad this spring, and hope to hear good news about additional (necessary) funding next week. I’m also working on a couple of fellowship applications for the scholarly aspects of the project: culling archives, plunging into libraries. None of this is the same thing as writing the poems themselves, but for a project of this scope, I’m at the point where I need to do more serious research to generate the individual pieces and the arc of the collection as a whole. It touches on science, history, geography. It’s most assuredly an adventure.

* * *

Did I mention that I’m writing a creative dissertation? Yes. Poets do indeed do scholarly work. Poets in the university are like women in the workforce: we have to do everything ten times as well to be considered one-tenth as… acceptable. We do creative work and literary criticism and academic papers and pedagogy and theory and and and. (Well, to varying degrees. But it never ceases to astound me when I hear people in other specialties claiming that they “don’t understand how creative writers think” or “don’t pretend t0 know what creative writers do.” Hey, it’s not that difficult to figure out. We write. Don’t you write? We also read. You do read, don’t you? We do not have three arms and two heads.

Some favorite creative-writer-in-the-academy tropes:

Of course, all this internecine silliness is part of older internecine battles, most of whose actors are long departed and whose once-groundbreaking theories have been reduced to anonymous conventional “wisdom.” Part of it is human nature. Humans get crazy when they’re trapped inside of institutions. Some become zombies, cogs in the machine, without realizing it. Others fight like hell, but never kick over the traces. Some of the wisest I’ve observed fly below radar. They have hobbies. They do not hang around campus unless absolutely necessary.

As I surf the professional journals and the unprofessional gossip, I can’t help but find the zeitgeist sticking to me. No matter the institution, no matter the discipline, proffies and grad students seem to be on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. Perhaps if we all were required to take part in an actual group writing exercise once a month–actually led by actual creative writers–rather than meetings on the policy on the policy, we might all be a little saner. Imagine putting off all that other writing to do your own writing.

* * *

In a post-Katrina, crude-and-Corexit-soaked world, signs and wonders: the comp folks are taking a new creative approach to portfolio-writing this semester. A sizable yoga contingent is taking over the department.

I’ve given up about 90% of my Tasmanian devil persona. I try to be patient with people who don’t realize I’ve been there, done that. I try to pass along what I’ve learned to the new crop of Tasmanian devils.

To preserve my severely-taxed physical, mental, and creative energy, I run from black holes of endless suck. If nominated as Mayor of Crazy Town, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.

I am into doing my own thing, which seems to me the point of being an independent (read: graduate) student.

It is the precondition and the raison d’etre of any artist, writer, thinker.

I do not tie my writer-ness to being in or out of the academy. I do not fret about having to wait tables instead of winning post-docs. I will write no matter where I am or what I do for a living. The current liminality feels oddly comfortable. I make no plans beyond next year.

My colleagues are all around me, all over the world, across space and time, inscribed in history, scratched in the dust of the future.

See you on the road. I promise I’ll write.

AWP 2011: Oye Como Va

This year’s AWP convention in Washington was one of the best I’ve ever been to. It was also one of the strangest. The far more serious matter of Egypt overshadowed everything–for me, anyhow–as did my other writing life outside of po-biz. The precise chronology of events is a bit fuzzy. I should fact-check like a good reporter; for now, here’s a poet’s pastiche:

DAY 0 (Tuesday): Drove from Atlanta, skirting the gargantuan storm system that kept many folks from flying into DC. Was almost the only person on road. Weather was foggy and misty in Georgia, not too bad in North Carolina, and extremely dense rain from Richmond up. Had the rain been snow, it would have been a blizzard. Listened to Tahrir Square events unfold on BBC World Service, CNN, and MSNBC via satellite radio, pondering geopolitics while driving through the storm.

After trolling from place to place until the wee hours, finally found room at the inn: a no-tell motel in “La Republica Popular de Takoma Park,” as the bumper sticker says. Slept on the unused of the two beds, still fully clothed. Contemplated adding both hammock and folding cot to survival stash in trunk.

DAY 1 (Wednesday): Thank you, IHOP. Thank you, strategically-located banks. Thank you, schedule, for not placing me in the bank when it was robbed four days earlier. Arrive at historic Omni Shoreham with its nifty diving rebreather history. Exceptional staff. Beautiful room. Clean room. Light switch cover that rests directly on wall surface. No DNA samples from previous occupants. A desk where I could line up 50 or so Katrina-poetry-related books, plug in my laptop, and refine my annotations. I watched TV as street fighting broke out between police and protestors, feeling the same dread I felt the first night of the (first) Gulf War, wondering whether I would see or hear people I knew get blown up during their liveshot. Finally removed to the hotel bar for a double and a call to my favorite newsheimer. Scary night, even now.

DAY 2 (THURSDAY): Friends arrive. Panels ensue. I hit the bookfair after the long hike across the street, down the block, down the stairs, up the elevator, through the hall, across the lobby, down the escalator, into the bookfair, and then back, and back, and back to small-press-hinterlands to see Louie, Palmer, and Pat at Pecan Grove‘s table. Hooray for Pat and her new book, Inherent Vice, which she kindly signed! Reverse-hustled through aforementioned maze to see “Trading Stories with the Enemy: Navigating the Cuban/American Literary Landscape” panel back at the Omni. On the sign outside the meeting room, someone has posted a note, along the lines of: “The Cuba panel has been cancelled. None of the presenters were able to fly out of the Midwest.” Shortages here, too? Is this how it’s gonna go? Oyame. It’s not often that I get to talk Cuban literature outside of my own house.

Meandered into overpriced hotel buffet and bumped into Nicole and Peter Cooley. Had old-home week with them and met Thomas Beller, to whom I apologize publicly for all the New Orleans-centric references.

Escaped from AWP to meet up with old pal at CNN’s Washington bureau. Got the nickel tour to see how the new setup works. Saw old friends and colleagues, more than one of whom asked,”So, when are you coming back? We need you!”

This gives me much to think about.

I’m thinking.

Went to Busboys and Poets with said pal to meet an old college pal of his. Had dinner, wine, great conversation. Then we get down to business, that being our 23-year relationship as dance partners. Regrouped at the funkalicious Madam Organ’s, where a badass Latin band did bossa nova interpretations of Nirvana, hipped James Taylor up to speed, and threw down some smokin’ Colombian dance music and Grateful Dead. Oye como va. Unfortunately, I was dead on arrival, feeling my age and his, and barely moved my exhausted gringa feet while he did all the work. Who are these tiny twenty-somethings with the 360-degree swivel hips? I want to dance like that when I’m 90.

We discussed the goat-decor’s pendulous appendages. I allowed as how they might function as mistletoe for guys betting on which girl they could catch.

Inexplicably, DC seems to put orange slices in all of its beer.

Beg for mercy because my feet hurt so damn bad.

Drag into the Omni lobby, exhausted but thrilled at seeing the old crew again. Who should I find in the hotel bar but my new crew–West Chester and FORMALISTA friends Marilyn and Kathrine? Drink, talk shop, show photos on various digital devices. Eventually drag up to bed, order room service (which arrives in even wee-er hours), fall asleep over $20 egg and revolution of people who would make far better use of both the egg and the $20. Self-indulgent poets and writers, spending all that money on hotel rooms and airfare. I can’t enjoy this.

* * *

DAY 3 (FRIDAY): Oversleep yet again, this time through Mezzo Cammin timeline panel. Hit the NEA how-to-apply-for-a-grant panel, only to discover that poets should read the website. Left with other poets who also have read the website, but were looking for finer nuances. Back to the bookfair. Hugs and catching up every few feet. And lunch with Marilyn, Kathrine, and Moira. And drinks with Mona Lisa and Sister Anne, talking about Catholicism and community and her upcoming trip to the Father/Mother Land Ghana, and especially about Mona Lisa’s finally disentangling the byzantine New Orleans permitting offices to pour the slab on the house in which she and five generations of her family had lived until Katrina took it. Every AWP since Katrina, we discuss the glacial progress that is rebuilding her piece of New Orleans. Six AWPs later, still no house.

* * *

I wasn’t organized enough to get new business cards before AWP. I zipped over to the copy center, whomped up something pre-fab, and had a very short run of cards made at the whopping price of about 26 cents each. I gulped and put it on the plastic. The place was slammed. The woman behind the counter dickered with the carpet installer about coming back after closing. He didn’t want to. She talked him into it. I figured I’d copy the bib in the morning.

Height of the night: the Floricanto reading, which blew the roof off the historic True Reformer Building. Highlights: Martin Espada’s poem about the marriage problem, Marilyn Nelson braving croakiness to read and run, the curandera/politician who read as if she were officiating at High Mass, Sonia Sanchez’s shaman-self channelling/chanting/exorcizing, and the room itself, which looked and felt like a church. Each reader was outlined by a white aura. Lighting? Energy? Spirit beings? Poets report. You decide.

* * *

Back in my room, still drained from faux-dancing effort, I tweaked an extensive bibliography of post-K poetry and poetics. I saved it to Gdocs. I saved it to my hard drive. I saved it to a jump drive. Multiple redundancies. The plan: print some copies and e-mail it to anyone who gets left out. Oye como va.

So then I start writing a few thoughts about poetry in and out of post-Katrina New Orleans. No big deal. I peeked in the mirror occasionally to see Egypt while I was writing what I thought was a quick and dirty set-up for the bibliography. And I kept writing. And writing. Nicole had asked me point-blank last year, “Why don’t you write about it?” And I stammered and said I hadn’t been there in the same way and that nobody really cared about my vantage point and all those things writers in denial say when they avoid writing. And then it was 4:37 in the morning, and I had this crazed, slightly disjointed essay about who has the right to say what. And it was a first draft, not anything I would read at the panel, but the makings of a really good essay for sometime in the near future.

Then I insisted on sanity and sleep, but just let me check my e-mail once first, and et cetera. So I open the ASLE mailbox, which apparently I hadn’t done since November. And there was an e-mail from Sheryl St. Germain about precisely this notion of outsiders speaking for locals, only from the point of view of nature writing. And from November. And, she was giving a talk about it at this same AWP, which hadn’t registered with me because I was only looking at poetry panels. So I opened her essay and it was a hell of a lot like mine, although clearly not a first draft. So I told her about this weird coincidence. Two writers plus one wavelength equals a certain kind of poetic zeitgeist.

We will explore further.

* * *

DAY 4 (SATURDAY): I have given up completely on all panels other than the one I’m moderating. The tubercular cough that’s haunted me all week inexplicably disappears in the oppressive mist that today coats everything. I eat lunch with Pat and Marilyn and Kathrine at the Lebanese place everyone’s been raving about. I hustle over to the copy center. It’s closed. The carpet guy is there. I ask you: who the hell decides to close the hotel bar and the copy center in the middle of the afternoon during a writers’ conference? Oh, it’s the hotel. Not my hotel, mind you. That other flagshippy one, where the ladies’ room looks like the Superdome’s by the third quarter. The hotel for which AWP probably paid a fortune because it had a copy center and a bar in close proximity.

Oye como va.

* * *

I don’t want to waste people’s time. Especially in the final session slot.

It goes like this:

Kalamu doesn’t make it. Peter has what he’s going to read. Julie has a DVD of clips from the Still Standing reading: Lee Grue and Paul Chasse. I bring the necessary dongles and cables to make the computer talk to the projector, but neither the audio nor the volume control appear. I am on my knees before a roomful of people, listening to Peter’s talk and making sacrifices to the computer idol. St. Fragile and St. Expedite intercede for us, in the form of the hotel a/v guy bearing an audio jack. Now we can all oye como va. I handed out cards to anyone who wanted me to e-mail a copy of the bibliography. And I felt compelled to read that strange essay.

We made it work.

And then we opened up the mic to the audience, as opposed to taking questions, and the room was energized.

They made it work even better.

Keep open to the poetry of the moment.

* * *

I rushed off with Peter and Nicole to the oil-spill reading, which overlapped the Katrina panel. This means I stood up my other friends and our vague plans. Oye como va. Anne Waldman did a Buddhist version of Sonia Sanchez’ exorcism, violently yoking rant and chant and manatee and humanity together. Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “If one woman were to tell the truth about her life, the world would split open.” I would like to see a Sanchez-Waldman reading. Just the two of them. That would split the earth in two.

Dinner at a little Ethiopian place. Again, I missed someone at home who knows more than a little bit about Ethiopia firsthand. The rest of the world was very much part of the little corner we call AWP this year, more so than ever.

Far more than choice of restaurants makes the matter pressing.

* * *

Day 5 (SUNDAY): The long leisurely drive back, but not before photographing plastic debris along the Potomac and visiting Mr. Lincoln. At the corner, another former colleague jogged past. I flagged her down, and we hugged and jabbered on the streetcorner. “Do what your heart tells you,” she says, and she is in a position to know what that means.

Many stops, a hike uphill in the snow, past deer tracks, hawks huddling in highway trees. Truckstops. Atop the mountain, after dark, Egypt by satellite and Cuba by radio skip.

Oye.

You’re a writer. Do you choose to spend the rest of your days caught up in adminstrivia and makework? Do you write your way around the world? How does your writing serve the world? How does it serve your fullest possible remaining time on the planet? How much time will you exchange for money? For writing? For having written?

Can you hear how it goes for you?

From the (real, not digital) archives

While I was in New Orleans last time, I managed to squeeze in a couple of hours at the UNO Archive, looking up as many old bylined Driftwood and Gambit articles as I could. It occurs to me that I missed a couple (I was rocketing through these bound copies at lightning speed two hours before closing), but here is a relatively complete list of my early newspaper work in New Orleans, plus some other stuff accounted for in less-than-resumé form:

UNO Driftwood (may be others ca. 1983-1985; missing one on visually-impaired tech lab)
18 Sept 86, “Russian enrollment reasons quite diverse”,11
2 Oct 86, “Funds allocated to Language Lab”, 3
30 Oct 86, “Lambda Chi Alpha opens haunted house,” 2
13 Nov 86, “Asbestos in library”, 2
13 Nov 86, “Psych, Bio animal labs get grant”, 18
20 Nov 86, “SGA treasurer resigns at meeting”, 3
4 Dec 86, “Boggs speaks about Congress”, 1-2
4 Dec 86, “Search committee members named”, 1, 3
14 Jan 87, “Coping with another hike”, 2
22 Jan 87, “UNO celebrates King holiday”, 1-2
22 Jan 87, “Professor published” (no byline), 2
22 Jan 87, “North: ‘Raise Contra money'”, 3, 10
22 Jan 87, “Damn this traffic jam”, 6
29 Jan 87, “UNO, Tulane, Xavier march in Georgia” (with photo), 2

Gambit (bylined pieces only–many, many more small news items not credited, esp. politics/environment–missing AZT story, cover story on public housing, perhaps others)
25 Apr 87, “Tales of Four Craftsmen,” 27
11 Aug 87, “Bump in the Night–A Word from Morgus’ Master”, 17
25 Aug 87, “Seniority counts…Sort of”, 23
1 Sept 87, “Two City Ballet: Risk Taking that Worked”, 23
8 Sept 87, “Collapsing Building; Collapsing Laws”, 12-13
29 Sept 87, “Medieval German, and Lots of Laughs”, 21
26 Jan 88, “A Hometown Wine”, 19
23 Feb 88, “Maunsel White: Changing New Orleans Forever”, 13
1 Mar 88, “Looking Up: Canal Street”, 17
8 Mar 88, “Public Education: The Voodoo of Statistics”, 14-15
15 Mar 88, “Housing Relocation: The Dallas Example”, 8
28 Jun 88, “Grand Isle’s Growing Pains”, 14-15
5 Jul 88, “Combatting a Stigma; Or a Story that Got Lost in Translation”, 18
26 Jul 88, (Cover) “Education in Louisiana. Is the bad image being erased?”; includes “Workshop Way: See Sister Grace Teach”, 13-15 and “The Politics of Higher Education”, 17
9 Aug 88, “The Politics of Cable Access TV”, 18-19
6 Sep 88, “Cable TV: The Past, the Promises, and the Future”, 13-16
27 Sep 88, “The Numbers Game: Rating New Orleans Radio”, 14
11 Oct 88, (Cover) Louisiana, The Disappearing State, 13-15; includes “Mister Sandman: A New Mayor Takes On Grand Isle’s Shifting Sands”, 14 (1988 Brown Pelican Award for Environmental Reporting with Errol Laborde and Stephanie Riegel)
25 Oct 88, “Dining Room Detente: Smoking or Non-Smoking”, 25
25 Oct 88, “Running the Show: Hotel Fod and Beverage Manager”, 43
1 Nov 88, “Streetcars: Modernization Vs. Preservation”, 8, 11
8 Nov 88, (Cover) “Dying for a Drink of Water”, 13-16; includes “The Brief and Strange History of Reveilletown, Louisiana”, 16 (also up for ’88 Brown Pelican Award, but we beat ourselves out with the coastal erosion issue)
6 Dec 88, “Dialing for Dollars: South Central Bell Has a Plan”, 15
13 Dec 88, “Lafayette: Bouncing Back”, 22
13 Dec 88, “Seattle’s Comeback”, 23
20 Dec 88, “Twilight Zoning: Rethinking the City’s Zoning Laws”, 14-15
27 Dec 88, “Bluesful Radio: Some Radio Stations Experienced the Blues, Others Play It”, 12
27 Dec 88, “Is There a Renaissance Along N. Rampart?”, 14
3 Jan 89, “A New Curriculum A New Year; Some people go back to school for fun, for others it’s a matter of survival”, 17-19
17 Jan 89, (Cover) “Encore! The Symphony’s Return”, 15-16 (17)
24 Jan 89, “Bar None: Return of the Coffeehouses”, 24
31 Jan 89, “Banding Together”, 24
31 Jan 89, “Who Is That Mask Man?”, 26-27
7 Mar 89, “Airport ’89”, 17-19
21 Mar 89, “The Vieux Carré’s Termite War,” 16
28 Mar 89, “Hidden New Orleans: As Others See It”, 164
4 Apr 89, “Watching the Kids: Questions of Child Abuse”, 16-17 [Last Issue]
4 Apr 89, “Passing Through: From the Pages of the Quarter’s Used Book Shops”, 27 [Last Issue]

* * *
Some other selected bits that include my writing relevant to New Orleans:

Freelance Stuff
IMPACT
Wavelength (N.O. music documentary)
OffBeat
New Orleans Magazine (some bylined, some not)
Louisiana Life (some bylined, some not)
The Advocate (dentists refusing PWAs treatment; mule carriage drivers mocking gay bar patrons)

Corporate
ca. 1989 Hertz Rent-A-Car guide to New Orleans
AP Radio/wire (New Orleans bureau stringer; covered Angola Death Row execution)
freelance PR writing for Zehnder clients Sav-A-Center, Hilton New Orleans Riverside, others

nola.com (as the only local on a four-person dot-com start-up; established local working relationships with NOPD, city, oriented staff to Carnival coverage, culture, etc. )
“Doubloons: The Shiiing Is the Thing” (article is occasionally plagiarized online, if that’s a compliment)
photo essays on Blaine Kern floatmaking, Aquarium of the Americas
Mardi Gras guide
other stuff

Various online pit stops
kd5qel.blogspot.com
Show Your Colors
Every Poet Needs A Patio
lambdaliterary.org (dispatches from Saints and Sinners litfest)

Encyclopedia articles
Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature (Kate Chopin)

* * *
Some things aren’t on this list, like an early article about Brennan’s for Gambit, but I hope to make another trip to the archives soon. I’d like to reconstitute my physical portfolio, which has been thinned out over the years, so that I never lose it again.

Facebook, friends, and fragility

A blast from the past: a post on finally hearing from Tom AC5TM, to whom “Stepping Out of the Car, After Not Recognizing an Old Friend’s House” is dedicated, in the days following Katrina and the levee break.

I’m keeping mostly to myself as comps arrive and as the nastiness of K+5 stuffed emotions occasionally bubble up. Poetry and planning are the two best ways to cope.

I’ve also been pretty well kicked in the gut over Facebook recently, so am thinking long and hard about who I really want to spend time dealing with (as I have no time whatsoever). All my real friends who read this: Come find me here. Come find me via real e-mail. Come find me via snail-mail–now THERE’S something new and different. If you want my real e-mail or my real mailing address, just ask. Maybe I’ll come back to FB, o crack pipe, o conflict, but I’m going to quit using it as Twitter, probably to the delight of hundreds. Perhaps I will no longer attract freaks and annoy acquaintances.

One of the great disadvantages of grad school is that, given our overheated schedules, there’s never any time to develop real friendships or a genuine sense of community. FB has filled that void, to a certain extent, because I could at least banter with old friends far away. I miss quality time in the real world with a few good friends. I’ve been reminded what the word “friend” constitutes. And because 20 years blows by in a second, I’d rather be alone most of the time, or with my partner and my family, than spread myself as thin as I have been in recent years. Life’s too short for time-wasting foolishness. I am no longer opening the door to my precious time unless I have a damn good reason for doing so.

Is your life materially better because of your electronic gadgets? Seriously? Of course I get the irony that I’m typing this on a computer and flinging it into the digiverse. As Katrina bore down on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, I tried to use social media as if I were still at CNN. I wanted to disseminate information through backchannels. I wanted to know how and where other poets and writers, many of whom are friends, were at the time. I wanted to do something useful, not just sit there and not report on the biggest news story ever in the place I know the best on Earth. So I made do, both in Atlanta online and in Mississippi via amateur radio.

Five years later, the city was fighting back like mad and making progress, and then BP turned the entire Gulf Coast into its own personal chemistry lab. Scratch all the plans we’d made for moving here or there. Scratch everything I know and love. At least on Facebook I’ve been able to communicate with my fellow New Orleanians, now living all over the country/world. At least it was something I could hold onto.

Now I am nobody, living noplace.

My closest friends from high school live in Australia, Spain, and Massachusetts.

My country has done little to nothing for my city, my state, my region over the past five years.

What else is there for me here? Seriously?

All I want to do is write my dispatches, whether poems, articles, or novels, from a quiet and relatively human-scale coastal village lacking DSL. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to teach those who want to learn about language and literature. My standard of living is modest. I don’t need (nor do I want) a ton of money. I want to pace my life according to the tides, the fish running, the dolphins and ospreys making their daily round trips, the sun sizzling into the ocean on the horizon. I want to live somewhere where I can shore dive every day and watch gobies in their natural habitat. I want a good tropical thunderstorm again. I want to dash under the patio roof, the water pounding the tin, rivulets roping from the eaves, to sit on the steps and drink beer and play the guitar and talk all afternoon. I want the kind of friends who know how that feels.

And the Clouds Broke…

I’m back in Atlanta after driving all night from New Orleans. I’ll update this post after work. However, I do want to say that yesterday’s readings were better than church, better than therapy, better than the best literary fest you could attend. All my writer friends and I had church, as it were, with Mona Lisa Saloy‘s summoning the spirit by calling out, “My grandma and your grandma…” and all of us responding, “Sittin’ on the bayou…”, and Errol Laborde‘s benediction: “Come home. The city needs you.”

And as I headed east on I-10, as I began to tear up about leaving where I feel most at home in this world, the gray squall that had hovered over the city all weekend, that rain I was sure was the tears of all the living and the dead, broke open above the Danzinger Bridge. Across from that platinum brilliance, a full rainbow dropped over the mostly-unoccupied shells of apartments near Bullard Road. I wept, hot-faced, so hard that I had to pull the car over. When I was able to go on, John Boutte’ sang his Katrinafied version of “Louisiana 1927” and I pulled over again, this time at Bayou Sauvage, and I got down on one knee before this sign and took photo after photo after photo, as if no one would believe such a story otherwise.

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Katrina, Five Years Later: Too Much Left Undone

Joan of ArcI thank God that I am in New Orleans today, writing this. 1,464 Louisianians are not able to give any testimonies of their experiences.

I am also grateful and overjoyed to have met so many fine bloggers and other dedicated New Orleanians at Rising Tide V. Seeing friends in person, some of whom I haven’t seen in years, and making new friends was the best possible therapy for this New Orleanian in exile. Rising Tide is New Orleans’ brain trust, and certainly its best grassroots think tank.

Today I’ll head over to Garden District Book Shop for the New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost book signing. In attendance:

Lee Barclay, Christopher Porché West, Sunday Angleton, Jason Berry, Simonette Berry, Amanda Boyden, Julia Carey, Tara Jill Ciccarone, Joshua Clark, Morgan Clevenger, Lucas Díaz-Medina, Joel Dinerstein, Louis Edwards, Gina Ferrara, Lee Meitzen Grue, Sarah K. Inman, Julie Kane, Errol Laborde, Katheryn Krotzer Laborde, Louis Maistros, Alex McMurray, Maria Montoya, Kami Patterson, Valentine Pierce, Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, Henri Schindler, Barbara Trevigne, Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Missy Wilkinson, and Kelly Wilson.

Then, I’ll hit Tulane University’s Kendall Cram Room for “Remembering Katrina: A 5th Anniversary Poetry Reading.”On the bill: Brenda Marie Osbey, Yusef Komunyakaa, Peter Cooley, Nicole Cooley, Kay Murphy, Brad Richard, Alison Pelegrin, and Martha Serpas. What an incredible reading this will be. You should get there if at all humanly possible.

Too many of the poor who have survived are still living in broken-down houses, in between too many boarded-up houses, with little hope from either the schools or from Baton Rouge for improving their economic and educational situation. The University of New Orleans continues to be slighted and is fighting for its life, along with every other public higher education institution in the state. Our President is going to speak about Katrina at Xavier today. I hope he gets around the city to places other than the usual advance-man scenic stand-ups depicting progress. Given the Gulf fiasco, I won’t hold my breath. On Friday, street flooding in the bowl where Xavier sits blocked northbound traffic on Carrollton all the way back to the Archdiocese within minutes. Clearly nothing is being done about that kind of street flooding. Moreover, adding drainage capacity is not enough to compensate for the greater volumes in the water cycle. We need federal dollars to rebuild and to clean up, but we also need federal mandates for green energy and transportation. If you don’t believe in climate change yet, please drive your SUV under the overpass at Carrollton and I-10 and kiss my purple, green, and gold ass. Until Americans change our fossil-fuel worshipping ways, we will continue to push the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast under the oil-slicked, Corexit-filled water. As New Orleans and the Gulf Coast go, so goes America.

At some point, I’ll post a longer piece reflecting on the journey home, which is, even at this late date, a work in progress. And before I press the START button in the rental hybrid car, I’ll take a walk on the levee, the way I used to take for granted I would do all my life, and remember The City That Care Forgot.

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Rising Tide V – TREME in da house!!!!

TREME PANEL
Maitri Erwin, Back of Town: Blogging Treme founder
Lolis Eric Elie, Treme/ex-Times-Picayune/documentarian
Becky Northcut, VirgoTex
Davis Rogan, musician/Treme
Dave Walker, Times-Picayune TV critic
Eric Overmeyer, playwright/TV writer/producer, “Treme” co-creator

ERWIN: Your connections to New Orleans? (ROGAN/ELIE natives)
NORTHCUT: dad a shrimper… only news that mattered was on the blogs.
WALKER: Chicago, came here for job at T-P. Heard Wild Tchoupitoulas on WXRT in Chicago.
OVERMEYER: Grew up in Seattle, dad came here on business, bought back Oscar “Papa” Celestine record back, plated “Marie Laveau” over and over and over. Also would put on the Wild Tchoupitoulas record and people would come over and say I don’t get it.

ROGAN: Can’t portray lives of N.O. musicians and chefs w/o cursing and smoking pot.
ELIE: Out of towners re: Carnival on St. Charles, locals their own thing, but truth is you see Carnival from where you live. Tells story without excluding folks.

Dumbest New Orleans show/movie?
ELIE: “Orleans” w/Larry Hagman–played a sitting judge; alligator common La. lawn pets, so no surprise this character had one. What reality is this from? Recently did a tribute to “Frank’s Place” (applause)
ROGAN: Thought “Panic in the Streets” was excellent.
WALKER: I wrote 1001 columns about “K-ville.” I think it was a noble effort to throw production dollars at New orleans. Eric wrote great two-part piece on nola.com about what the challenge was for K-Ville; hope you go back and read it because gives insight into TV production biz.

ELIE: Eric and David have done their homework… what I bring to it, Davis and Tom as well, is how best to reflect the scene.
ROGAN: We (locals on Treme) kind of fill in the color.
OVERMEYER: In a way, it’s a historical drama, it takes place 4 yrs in the past, try to be as accurate as we can; take some liberties, sometimes make mistakes, but always trying to bounce it off what happened in Feb. 2006. New Orleanians have diff recollections about what happened around certain events, so sometimes say, well we have to go with that version because we can’t nail it down definitively.

ERWIN:How do you nail it down before the show?
WALKER: Knew would have to find a ay to deal w/torrent of cultural refs that are not necessary for N.O. viewers. So came up with a way to basically drain all the enjoyment out of the viewing experience. (Laughter). Usually I would get an advance screener on Friday–spent a lot of nice spring weekends inside–but found a way to get other people to [resources] … who Smiley Lewis was, why it was funny when Davis didn’t hear the knock at the door.

Becky ran a blog called Got That New Package (Ashley Morris, Ray Shea, Scout, Nancy, etc.)–Back of Town is basically a continuation of that effort. How did it come to be?

NORTHCUT: Shared political sensibility also shared w/this room, failed institutions. Was originally about The Wire— I think Ray may have known about the show (in process) in N.O.–I’d ask Ray, and Ray would say ask Ashley, and he’d say ask Nancy, etc.

ELIE: Dawn Logsdon came up with idea of documentary about Treme. We grew up in Carrollton. Wanted to give some historical context to the builders, craftsmen, etc. who grew up in Treme. Dovetailed with her father’s work (the late historian). It’s been a big part of what I’ve been able to bring to the table, Great theme song too–thanks to John Boutte.

–Wil Treme be similar to The Wire: characters changing, or will it always be about post-K recovery?
OVERMEYER-Fall06-Spring 07. Fall 07-Spring 08 if it runs another season. Always going to be about the recovery in some way. Feel compelled to repeat what David and I have ad nauseam, which is this show is not The Wire. Blessing/curse: extraordinary success of The Wire allowed HBO to do Treme–without that success, we wouldn’t be sitting here in this room. OTOH, a lot of viewers of The Wire who tuned in looking for gun battles disappointed because they got a secondline and a guy playing trombone and a cook in a restaurant sauteeing crawfish–cdn’t be more ifferent. Also interested in big canvas–story of a city– and of characters. Some similarities, but they’re as different as N.O. and Baltimore are diff. I think we’ve driven away people who were interested in The Wire #2 and gotten people interested in Treme.
ROGAN: “The Wire is War and Peace; Treme is Anna Karenina.”

[The flashback was David Mills‘ idea–applause]

ELIE: I hope we can give people a sense of why as late as 2006, everything was not OK. (applause)

OVERMEYER: cleared uses of Ashley Morris’ FYYFF and etc.

ELIE: I think time will make it a lot easier for people to watch the show who can’t watch it now.

RAY SHEA: Lot of people in N.O. who have never been to a second line and probably will never go, who have this Katrina experience as well…will the community of characters expand?

OVERMEYER: Will have all chars but Creighton…adding some, dealing with return of crime, breakdown of criminal justice system, where did the $ go, the school system to some extent, mental health issues…the thing about 2nd season: 2nd year harder than first for some New Orleanians.

KIM MARSHAL: I want more Aunt Mimi and more Phyllis Montana Leblanc!

PFISTER SISTER HOLLY BENTSEN: LONG TESTIMONY ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE AS FORMER NOPS SCHOLTEACHER.
(Will there be a schoolteacher in new season?)

ELIE: Trying to figure out how to address the charter school issue.
ROGAN: Think the whole ed system gives itself over to Overmeyer/Simon gray area that I would hope gets addressed.

ELIE: One of my complaints is that cultural development is primarily between Warehourse District and French Quarter, into Frenchman, but as it extends into other neighborhoods (Kermit Ruffins’, etc.), hope we can see that culture grow as well.

QUESTION: Diaspora thank you for show. Does racial harmony on show grow out of certain cultural scenes?
ROGAN: N.O. music scene more integrated–hope that is an accurate portrayal.
OVERMEYER: Getting into more difficult issues in Season 2.
ELIE: Not attempting toescape the hard q’s, but have to undertsand what gets in cluded in partic show in partic season. Crime issue not as significant in Fall 2005, therefore you don’t see it. Re: music, who plays w/whom, experiences folks have, try to look at various ways in which this music is made and by whom.

QUESTION: What are your guiding principles? What are the common principles that you might share as you strive to tell a certain type of story? Was shocked by Tulane professor who said, “Well! They’re keeping identity studies! Getting rid of engineering!” It kind of jarred.
OVERMEYER: That list was accurate. For Creihton we felt that this was accurate reflection of what his POV would be. You can’t confuse the staff with the characters…we have to serve the characters first That’s not to say–I’d be surprised if there’s a Republican on the staff–there are big disagreements–but it’s important not to use characters to make an (ideological) point–you need that (character development) for conflict and drama.
ELIE: I want to make it clear: We are free to write whatever we want to write. David and Eric are free to change whatever they want to change. A big one is to have a roundness of character, to have some sympathy to some of the things the characters do. An NOPD character: “you have no idea what it as like, I slept in the car for days,” etc. Give the character enough for you to disagree with the character. I hope it results in something approaching the truth.

ELIE: All the folks who came here to help rebuild the city are now ambassadors for the city…We do have viewers in other parts of the country who can see something that’s not totally contingent on being from here.
OVERMEYER: One of our concerns: can you convey New Orleans? Not entirely convinced it’s doable or possible.
WALKER: Early on, I think I wrote it was a challenging/difficult thing to do. Think interest is widespread–backed up by cumulative audience….I think it succeeds, but I know the subcultures better than someone coming completely cold to the show would. Interesting conversations with other TV critics in US–“don’t know but I’m going to find out”. Will have another audience with DVDs–think it has a long life and people will be discovering it years from now,

Tagged

Ashley Morris Award – Rising Tide V

FOLLOW PROCEEDINGS ON TWITTER — HASHTAG #RT5

Made by Lee Checkman. Awarded to blogger who best exemplifies Ashley Morris’ spirit.

CLIFTON HARRIS

Rising Tide V: Levees, Dams, Failure

WHY CAN’T WE GET SOME DAM SAFETY IN NEW ORLEANS?

Tim Ruppert, Engineer/Rising Tide

1972(?) careful Congressional description of what a dam is. 1996, even more specific: “A levee is not a dam.”

Why should you care? You’re a few hundred yards from the river. Does the label matter? Yes, here’s why.

I’m a civil engineer. When designing/evaluating safety of a dam, 1st thing you calculate is: if this dam breaks, how many people die? How many living, breathing people will be crushed, drowned, killed otherwise? A dam is considered a life safety system. The more people involved, the more carefully we have to design, construct, and maintain our dam. Also calculate other potential losses later.

Compare this to how we design levees: 1st question engineer asks is, How much flood damage do the homes/businesses in floodplain sustain per year, and what would the damage costs be if we build the levee? Want to save as much $ as possible. Corps of Engineers has a rule: you can’t build a levee that doesn’t have a benefit. But does it benefit the taxpayer? We don’t consider it a life-saving system. We don’t ask how many people will die if it fails. We assume people will be evacuated. Not realistic. We know people die when levees don’t hold.

Testimony: “My past life died that day with Mother.”

1600 people died. That’s pretty horrific.

So how did we get to this point? Built dams to protect lives; levees to protect houses, carpets, furniture. This denial of killing potential of failed levees has huge consequences. If levee fails, just replace carpet/tv, right? And federal government will sell you flood insurance to pay for it.

Levee systems being created around N.O. right now designed to 100-year level of protection. Misleading name. If you live in flood zone for one year, your risk is 1/100 that you will experience the “exceedence flood.” Most people stay longer than a year. So here are some real numbers:

–within 30 years, 26% (before you can even pay off your mortgage). Russian Roulette has a 17% chance of disaster.
Who came up with this ridiculous 100-year standard? Goes back to national flood insurance. All about property: no death benefit. Homeowners/politicians forgot a levee protects far more than carpets/furniture. May be OK for some areas, but in densely-populated areas, 1/100 standard is irresponsible and dangerous–not just me saying this. Natl Academy of Engineers (specifically as it applies to N.O.) , Assn of State Floodplain Managers (500-year standard minimum acceptable in urban areas). 500 years = 6%. 100 years = 26%. Am Socy of Civil Engineers: have not recommended a particular level of protection–wants levees to be engineered by risk-based assessment (meaning, calculate how many people will die). I agree.

Say it with me: WHEN LEVEES FAIL, PEOPLE DIE. And we need to remind our elected officials of this.

Congress taking baby steps toward a program modeled after dam safety. But we have to push it all the way, including funding. Dams and levees share this: when they fail, they die. Those Americans who live with levees should not find that out the hard way.

SANDY FROM LEVEES.ORG: What can we do to help you get levees certified as dams?

RUPPERT: Bureau of Reclamation major player in dam safety. Agencies responsible for building levees take diff approach. Need to call congressional reps and get their full support for the National Levee Safety Program.

Data we use to extrapolate 100-year storm drawn from very small database, only since WWI (diameter of eye, windspeed, etc.)

Rising Tide V: Part Two of N.O.’s braintrust

FOLLOW THE #RT5 HASHTAG ON TWITTER.

POLITICS PANEL

Peter Athas, Rising Tide
Jason Berry, American Zombie
Clancy DuBos, Gambit
Jacques Morial, N.O. political expert
Stephanie Grace, Times-Picayune
Jeff Crouere, Ringside Politics

BERRY: American Zombie

DUBOS: Urban slush funds from 90s: Hotel-motel tax in 70s to pay bonds on Dome, based on what was then in existence. We built more hotels, got more tourists, thus more money than what was needed to pay off bonds. Legislature found other ways to spend it–set aside for separate Orleans-area slush funds. Senators got more than reps (higher-ranking). Jason asked, Why didn’t LSED (Superdome Commission) call bullshit on some of this? Well, that was the law. The Lege set up system to be abused. The LSED was in effect an ATM to give $ to various charities. Mitch Landrieu used his $ to put laptops in police cars, so some good effects. But basically, no rules. Each one got to sign off on a form explaining why this was a good thing, and the $ went out.

GRACE: There’s a reason the slush finds called that. Were timed to run out. When Blanco renegotiated w/Tom Benson…// what do you get when you get rural plus urban? A majority in the LA legislature. The Q to ask, was this business as ususal, with usual bad rules, or was this something that broke even those rules? Ex. Renee Gill Pratt and Jefferson: what we wrote wound up in the federal indictment. We think it’ our job (MSM) to do it with care and not rush into print w/o substantiating facts.

MORIAL: seen recent disclosures related to Public Belt Railroad–generally illegal for state agency to make donation to private org unless a particular statute. Not only a discussion for MSM, but for bloggers to advance. 2nd Congressional District elex we’ll hear more of that, especially if he advances to runoff.

DUBOS: Ed Murray and Peppy Bruneau were the masterminds, which shows $$ talks. Rolex = smoking gun. Bought in ’01, ’02. Cedric bought it in ’06, so I said “produce the receipt”–waiting for that. Allegation he got th Rolex on credit card for a charity doing biz with the state.

BERRY: Rolex not the issue, but the diamond bezel on it. Second smoking gun $60(?)K renovations to bldg that were never done. Was actually working with another MSM org on it–that reporter confirmed w/bldg owner that the work had never been done. Rules prohibit duplicate work in same area–a 2000-foot bldg would qualify as being the same area…on top of that, Cedric’s office was in the very same bldg, and grant states you can’t get any political gain from it. Now I’m going after the Desire Housing Project.

ATHAS: Due to complaints the panels left of center, brought in noted conservative commentator Jeff Crouere.

CROUERE: Want to congratulate Jason for breaking all kinds of stories others in local media not even touching. Slush fund problem black/white, Dem/Rep, for a long time, questionable nonprofits tied to legislators. As for Cedric Richmond, hope this generates more than MSM has done….Joseph Cao–how many other members of Congress reads these bills? Gets invited to football at WH? A former Jesuit seminarian. He’s a Republican but not a conservative. Independent voice, done enough to open eyes of some Dems and get some Democratic voters in general elex. Think he could do some damage to Cedric Johnson and should get the chance…has held more town hall meetings than Bill Jefferson has in 18 yrs. Has good chance to win re-election.

MORIAL: You say he has a good chance? You said at first he was going to win.

DUBOS: I think he has a shot–I don’t make predictions. Let me revise some of the facts, or delve deeper into the facts… When he did vote for some Obama things, your friends in the GOP cut off his funds, which is a form of punishment. He is unique, very very interesting political figure. Think he is one of the more sincere political figures on the scene today nationally, but tough row to hoe. This district created for an African-American to win. Last year, Cao got about 2-3% of black vote. Dec. 2008 turnout extremely depressed; this one larger–will predict a more proportionate black turnout, not proprtionate to white turnout, but closer. Given increased black turnout, how much can Cao pick up level of black support? Has worked very, very hard to serve that district balancing Rep affil with representing Dem district.

BERRY: I am a Dem, I may be helping the Rep candidate with what I wrote, but it transcends partisanship. Hope we get runoff and Cao pulls it out.

MORIAL: Think Cao will pay the price for voting vs. healthcare reform. Voted against extending healthcare to 88K people in his district. Either because GOP bosses told him to, or because the Archbishop told him to. Bigger question is do you want your elected officials taking orders from you or from GOP/Archbishop?

GRACE: Hearkens back to 60s, would Kennedy listen to church or Americans. He was actually in favor of many of the more controversial parts of bill that Dems favored, e.g. mandates. During town halls and “death panels” furor, he stood up and said “There are no death panels, and end-of-life care is important, and here’s why.” Every mailer he sends out tells why he did it, but think people don’t care. This is a district that wants this bill and wants Obama to succeed, so a lot of people in district take this personally. Pork barrel in good way–brings a lot of $$ back to district, but such a partisan season with House in play, early on Dems may give a lot more attention to this district because they can win it back more easily.

MORIAL: Cao entitled to own convictions, but the idea the health bill going to mean abortions is bullshit. Every Catholic group supported because they know this stuff about abortion was bullshit–the Catholic nuns in healthcare, everyone.

CROUERE: Cao got a lot of attention re: hara-kiri for BP execs. Think GOP going to give him a lot of attention and save up resources for runoff.

ATHAS: People calling Vitter “the Teflon douche.” (Laughter.) Does Melancon have a shot at all?

GRACE: Yes, but serious uphill battle. Whatever you say re: Vitter, brilliant strategic politician, knows how to run campaign/pick his enemies. He was the guy who was calling out Edwards at every turn. He has decided not to run against Melancon, but against Obama. Makes it about partisanship: really goes for the Fox News constituency, which is a very powerful one in this state..All the stuff re: prostitutes, the aide that attacked the woman, it’s all true, it’s all bad, I wouldn’t want him near my daughter (laughter), but we’ll have to see.

MORIAL: If Zombie was on that story, wouldn’t be having this problem… aide for omen’s issues assaulted girlfriend and held her captive w/knife. Vitter is a whoremonger and a criminal. He is. (wiretap)

DUBOS: Vitter could have been charged under RICO. Always wondererd why not indicted as part of co-conspiracy. Also interesting how prostitute killed herself : hanging. It is extremely rare for a woman to shoot herself in the head, whereas men will. Women do not hang themselves, yet Deborah Jean Palfrey was found hanged. I’m not saying they never do, but a lot of stats for Zombie to investigate.

BERRY: Something that needs to be looked into. History w/Vitter of carbombings and some really nasty stuff that went on. The reason I think he’s going to win is because Melancon is running one of the shittiest campaigns ever. If they wd just leverage the Huffington Post, they cd raise money.

DUBOS: Not sure that’s accurate–think well over half ppl in LA know he was involved w/prostitutes, they just don’t care. They know he’s a whoremonger, hypocrite, coward, but they vote for him because he’s got an (R) behind his name. Vitter wouldn’t have a shot in hell in any other state, but voters in Louisiana hate Obama more than they hate hypocrisy. All abut timing–Dems may hope for 1-2 more shoes to drop re: Vitter.

CROUERE: Melancon doesn’t have a chance in hell. Vitter running ahead in strong double-digits; this is the state McCain did 4th best in nation around 2008, just gonna tie Obama around Melancon’s neck every commercial; also Nancy Pelosi–even in the 2nd district, with different dynamic, this plays well statewide. Despite reumors more to come out, there was question in 2007 whether controversy would force him out, when wife did press conference “stand by him”, war chest pretty impressive even with that. Melancon’s campaign “pathetic.” If he could have faced competent opponents in ’04 and ’08, might be different story.

DUBOS: Chris John ran the dumbest campaign in all of LA Dem politics. Grossly miscalculated by saving it for runoff–never got to use it.

GRACE: This broke in ’07 under Dem. Blanco. Had that seat gone vacant, wd have been Dem appointee, so Reps rallied around him. Absolutely agreed Wendy Vitter’s statement important, but wrote in editorial that VItter shd send flowers to 2 women: Wendy Vitter and Kathleen Blanco.

* * *
BERRY: We’re breeding Republicans because no progressive voice in the media in New Orleans (in the most progressive city in the region).

DUBOS: See “The New Rules” tomorrow’s column. Basically, the new rules are the old rules. If we went back to old rules, open primary, only 2 people on ballot and Casieu (sp?) wd have won. You change the rules, you change the outcome.

QUESTION: Observation, really, that Vitter’s constituents like him because he’s racist.

CROUERE: He replaced David Duke in that district–has walked that district 7 times. You know how much time that takes?

DUBOS: It also takes a trust fund to walk the district 6 times. (laughter)

CROUERE: I agree with everyone here re: his character, and think more questions will be brought out, but he is an extremely hard worker. Re: Jindal, think he’s got his eye on some national position, but very disappointed in him, accomplished little, won’t serve 2nd term as governor.

DUBOS: He got lucky. If not gov, VP appointment or run vs. Mary Landrieu. After cliff year, bottom drops out. Will cut the budget. How do you cut adolescent healthcare in post-K New Orleans? Says send them across the lake? That’s the modern-day equivalent of “let them eat cake.”

MORIAL: Jindal is a hypocrite, too. Re: medical center, led around like a lapdog on a leash on transparency issue. Next year looking at removing 30% of constitutional mandates. Jindal says he won’t sign anything w/o revenue measure, will see university system closing, what’s left of Charity system, etc.

LOKI: What about expat New Orleanians refusing to move home until Jindal out?

CROUERE: Also talked to many people excited about moving back now that Nagin no longer mayor. Having a mayor (Landrieu) who comes on national TV and talks about the city in a compelling, articulate way.

GRAC: Thing to watch w/Jindal is where the universities go in our state. That sends a very strong signal.,

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