I work at MBNA. At MBNA we are being allowed to wear jeans to work for $5.00. That is going on for three days. It may sound strange but lots of people will pay $5.00 to wear jeans to work. I am one of them. I hate business attire. It is called casual day. The money that people pay will be sent to the American Red Cross for the relief. That is one of the many things that MBNA will be doing for the cause. Each department in the bank will be doing other things as well such as selling food for the cause. That is the one thing I love about MBNA. Most people that work there make donations at work toward lots of charities. Every three months or so MBNA also does a blood drive. They set goals each blood drive to donate more than they have previous drives. Every year we try to donate more money than the year before to education and other charities. Thank you Jess for everything you do in the National Guard. Take care.
I have been working in the relief effort since fairly early on. I kept a journal that I circulated to friends. I thought I would post it here since the topic was raised. Here goes:
INSTALLMENT ONE - September 7, 2005
The Troubled Waters of Lethal Cronyism
My life just gets curiouser and curiouser. This past weekend I spent wearing ball gowns in the woods, hula hooping with fire and mixing cocktails by the five gallon bucket. That's more or less normal for me. This morning, I showered with a cockatoo and a kitten at the same time. Again, more or less "normal". This weekend, however, I will be spending my nights in an empty industrial building caring for hundreds of refugees left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. This is not even remotely normal. I don't know yet what responsibilities this will entail but I'll update you when I do.
These refugees are being bused here from Louisiana where their homes were destroyed. They have nothing - no money, no jobs, no hope and no place to go. Their faces are haunting. They have a dead-eye stare, like a fish in the bottom of a boat. Panicked, yet hopeless. Many have lost family members. Hopefully these family members are just misplaced but still alive but who knows? There are houses full of dead people in New Orleans from what I am told, people who climbed into attics to escape rising water only to become trapped there as attics filled too. It's been 10 days since the hurricane, 10 days since the levees broke, and we still have very little idea how bad things are. FEMA, instead of helping these disaster victims, has prevented first-responders such as firemen, policemen and guardsmen from entering. A Navy hospital ship still sits empty off the Gulf Coast. Throughout this ordeal, FEMA has repeatedly refused offers of help -- even for food from the Red Cross and materials from the US Navy. They don't want help and yet they do nothing. I am beginning to believe they want all those folks to die.
"Gosh, Carolyn! What a radical thing to say!"
It is. I know it is. And yet here's the deal. George Bush appointed his friend Michael Brown Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Michael Brown, a Republican Party activist, had no related previous emergency management and/or disaster preparedness experience. In fact, he was fired from his last job (certifying judges at horse shows. Arabians. Ironic.) "Brownie" (as Bush calls him) was forced out after a series of lawsuits related to his supervision failures but in an administration where failures lead to getting medals and promotions, Bush apparently found his crony more than adequately prepared to safeguard our country.
And here's the job the two have done:
Thurs, August 25 - Hurricane Katrina hits Florida late Thursday. This category 1 hurricane killed 9 people in Florida and then moved into the Gulf of Mexico, gaining power and momentum. Meteorologists predicted she would hit Louisiana and Mississippi early Monday, probably as a category 4 hurricane! President Bush is vacationing at his Crawford Ranch - again.
Fri, August 26 - Meteorologists measure Katrina as a category 2 hurricane as she moves across the Gulf. Gulf Coast officials ask residents to evacuate their homes. President Bush defends his ongoing vacation in a press conference saying, "I think the people want the president to be in a position to make good, crisp decisions and to stay healthy, and part of my being is to be outside exercising. So I'm mindful of what goes on around me. On the other hand, I'm also mindful that I've got a life to live, and will do so." (By this time, Bush has been on vacation for over one month.) The Governor of Louisiana declares a state of emergency. New Orleans is below sea level. The possibility of devastating hurricane destruction there had long been considered one of the most likely natural disasters in the United States. (The 3rd most likely to be specific.)
Sat, August 27 - At 5 AM, Katrina measures as a category 3 hurricane. At 5 PM on Saturday New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced a voluntary evacuation of the city. Major interstates are converted to one-land roads out of the area. Hotels are booked solid for 150 miles. Greyhound, Amtrak and airlines halt service late Saturday night. The Governor of Louisiana requests federal assistance in advance of the incoming storm and Bush declares a "National Emergency."
Sun, August 28 - Mike Brown and Michael Chertoff (secretary of Homeland Security) are briefed by the National Hurricane Center and told that Katrina "has potential for catastrophic damage" and that it may produce "storm surge capable of overtopping levees in New Orleans." By 11:00 PM, experts predict that Hurricane Katrina will hit the city with all the force and power of a Category 5 hurricane. They predict that 60-80% of the city's homes will be destroyed. The mayor of New Orleans declares a mandatory evacuation of the city. The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi request additional security forces from the federal government. (Most of the state's national guardsmen having been pulled - along with their equipment - to serve in Iraq.)
Mon, August 29 - At 6:10 AM, Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast. Entire neighborhoods are submerged to their roofs. Large numbers of people must be rescued from rooftops. It becomes clear many are being swept away by storm surge. President Bush hits the road to promote his prescription drug plan. Less than five hours after landfall, the National Weather Service reports the break of a levee on the Industrial Canal near the St. Bernard-Orleans parish line. Five hours after landfall, Brown decides to dispatch 1,000 federal employees to assist with disaster relief. He gives them two days to arrive! They are told to "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public." He also tells local fire and rescue departments outside Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi not to send trucks or emergency workers into the disaster area without explicit requests for help from state or local governments. Brown then briefs President Bush who, following the briefing, travels to Southern California to talk to seniors about changes to Medicare. He then plays golf before retiring to rest before his speech the following day to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the end of World War Two.
The USS Bataan arrives in the Gulf Coast. This ship is equipped with six operating rooms, hundreds of hospital beds and the ability to produce 100,000 gallons of fresh water a day ? only it sits for four days without patients. Also a team of volunteer firefighters from Houston with hurricane disaster recovery experience and with special expertise with oil infrastructure and repair arrives outside New Orleans and FEMA refuses them entry into the city until "the National Guard has secured the city." When asked if they should help out in other communities along the coast impacted by the storm, FEMA responds, "No. Your special expertise is needed in New Orleans." However, FEMA repeatedly turns down advice or help from the team. After waiting in a parking lot for five days (until Sat, Sept 3), the experts finally give up and return home to Houston.
Tues, Aug 30 - Breached levees have submerged 80% of New Orleans in water. President Bush gives his speech and returns to his vacation. CNN airs footage of a convention center filled with people and dozens of others stranded on rooftops.
Wed, Aug 31 - President Bush declares a public health emergency ... but he doesn't return from vacation. Chertoff reports that relief efforts are "going well". (Sound familiar? Things are supposedly "going well" in Iraq too.) The Forest Service offered their fixed plane aircrafts to extinguish the forest fire-like fires raging in New Orleans. Homeland Security grounded the planes because they had not "authorized their use". Canada tried to send Urban Rescue Teams directly to the area but was not permitted due to "mass confusion at the U.S. federal level in the wake of the storm." Governor Blanco requested Bush order the "expeditious return of a national guard combat unit from Iraq to assist with the rescue effort. She also requested a base for humanitarian relief be set up in Baton Rouge. Both requests went unanswered. Later that night, the first 100 refugees are evacuated...by an 18-year-old boy who finds keys to a school bus and drives his charges to the Houston Astrodome - where he is told he will be charged with stealing the school bus.
Thurs, Sept 1 - Governor Blanco reports the death toll to be in the thousands. Bush is still on vacation. Four days after landfall, the federal government finally requests airline industry assistance to evacuate flood victims. Bush orders "zero tolerance" against looting. No food or clean water has come into the area in over a week. Inside the convention centers, people who steal and provide food and water from stores are greeted as heroes. The caravans promised by FEMA Director Mike Brown to evacuate residents do not arrive - however the Navy announces it has hired Halliburton to "restore electric power, repair roofs and remove debris from three naval bases in Mississippi." (This while bases in perfect shape around the country have just been slated to be closed because we have too many.) Swift water rescue teams from California who have rescued hundreds of people are halted from rescuing victims by FEMA due to "security concerns" even though a CNN journalist embedded with them insists, "no incidents have occurred in this area!"
Fri, Sept 3 - The President finally decides to cut short his vacation and flies over the site on his return to Washington. The Red Cross reports on their website that they have been kept from providing food, water and medical assistance in New Orleans because, "The state Department of Homeland Security in Louisiana asked the Red Cross not to go into the city because they want that message to be, 'You need to leave the city. This isn't going to be a sheltering spot.' " Still no caravans have arrived. In fact, they are at a photo op with Bush. Erin Broussard, president of the Jefferson Parrish goes on CNN and breaks down while reporting that FEMA prevented the delivery of three trailer trucks of water donated by Wal-Mart, forbade the Coast Guard from donating 1000 gallons of diesel fuel that happened to be on a Coast Guard vessel docked in Jefferson Parish, and cut all emergency communication lines out of the parish. The communication lines were later repaired and put under armed guard. Mr. Broussard then broke into sobs as he described how the mother of the head of emergency management in the parish was trapped in a nursing home and phoned her son every day asking when help would come. The son tried to reassure her that help was coming but the woman died Friday evening (after President Bush's flyby) when she drowned to death.
Monday, Sept 6 - For four days, "Hundreds of firefighters who volunteered to help rescue victims have instead been playing cards, taking classes on the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and lounging at an Atlanta airport hotel for days while they await orders." However, some of them receive their first assignment on this day - to stand beside the president for a photo op as he toured the devastated area. FEMA and the federal government requested that the media make no photographs of the dead as bodies are recovered. (I believe this is based on a desire to limit unfavorable news coverage, just like with bodies returning from Iraq.) Senator Barbara Milkuski calls for Michael Brown's resignation.
The lethal ineptitude of Bush's buddy has led to thousands of deaths but Bush bears his part of the responsibility as well.
In 2001, Budget Director Mitch Daniels announced the Bush administration's goal of privatizing much of FEMA's work. In May, Allbaugh (the head of FEMA before Brown) confirmed that FEMA would be downsized: "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program....". Also in 2001, FEMA designated a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country."
In 2002, Allbaugh left FEMA after less than two years at the agency to start up a consulting firm that advises companies seeking to do business in Iraq. He is succeeded by his deputy, Brown, who, like Allbaugh, has no previous experience in disaster management.
In 2003, FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting acts of terrorism. Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.
In 2004, FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. Says Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: "You would think we would get maximum consideration.... This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it." At the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri comments: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay."
We paid a price all right. (The poor did anyway...) While I agree that no one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices that favor ideology and partisan loyalty at the expense of operational competence. It was the result of four years of balking at using public dollars to serve the public good (though these folks do not hesitate to use government dollars to reward their already rich friends.)
Experts say that the first 72 hours after a natural disaster are the crucial window during which prompt action can save many lives. Look what these folks did in the first 72 hours. Bush couldn't even be bothered to interrupt his vacation...
Anyway, I don't know what awaits me as I prepare to volunteer starting tomorrow night from midnight to 8:00 AM Friday morning. I'll write after I've caught up on some sleep (I have to work a full day after) to update you. Wish me luck.
I spent last Thursday night at the refugee shelter. Some people don't like calling these places "Refugee Shelters". They prefer "Evacuation Centers". The Superdome was an Evacuation Center...people evacuated all over it. These people did not "evacuate", they sought "refuge" after they were left behind. Political semantics. For my purposes I will refer to them from now on as "Survivors".
Three planes filled with over 400 survivors arrived in Raleigh straight from New Orleans. These survivors had no idea where they were going. Some found out in the air; some found out after landing. They were rescued, taken to the airport and placed on planes where they sat, some for hours, while "organizers" tried to find a place to send them. The irony is that the Raleigh facility was ready for survivors a full week before anyone actually arrived. Human services workers were twiddling their thumbs, prepared to help, while the federal government cast about in confusion.
When survivors arrived (many wearing paper hospital gowns or rubber hazmat suits, anything rescue workers could find to clothe them), they were quickly given a tetanus shot and then their first hot meal! This meal was provided free of charge by the RBC Center. In fact, all meals at the shelter have been provided by the RBC Center - and it's good food too. I am proud of them for being a good corporate neighbor. (A company that needs an good ass-kicking is the property management company "letting the county" use their empty office building to help their fellow Americans for the meager sum of only, get this, $100,000 a month! The building had been sitting empty for almost a year! Some of these refugees will probably have to live in this situation for the next six months. It would cost this property management company nothing to let us use this space and we could use that extra $600,000 to help the survivors! Arrrrgh!)
After eating, survivors were loaded on buses and taken to the RBC Center for their first shower. (The office building has no showers.) They were also given their first change of clothes. For many it was the first time they'd changed clothes in over a week. The clothes they donned were donated and, I don't mean to be ungrateful here but you wouldn't believe how many of them are paint-stained, torn garments that should have been thrown away in the first place! This is not a time for cleaning out the closet! These people are trying to start a new life. They need garments worthy of bearing them into a hopeful new future. (A Note on what else they need: Survivors carry their belongings in trash bags. They need suitcases and/or backpacks. They also need personal hygiene materials and underwear. And they also need GOOD clothes, clothes for starting a new life in! You can donate any size. We separate them into sizes and people get to choose one garment each. They only get one! Make it something nice.)
Many Katrina survivors needed medical care upon arrival and Wake County's medical staff worked with local doctors and pharmacies to meet a wide variety of their needs. An eye doctor comes everyday to address eye infections and to help survivors replace broken or lost glasses. (Can you imagine losing your glasses in the middle of such a nightmare--when you need sight the most?) A dentist comes once a day also. It is a testament to the poverty that already existed in New Orleans, even before Katrina, that 10% of the survivors who came to Raleigh had to have teeth pulled because of severe decay! Some survivors had broken bones. Many were dehydrated. Many were starving. Lots of people arrived sick from sores and infections too but I'll get to that later.
We tried to house families together, placing these groups in individual offices filled with cots. Some have 12 or more cots in them. There is also one large conference room filled with single men. Sadly, there aren't many "whole" families here. Everyone has someone "missing". I was thrilled to help one woman, Kim Schexneider, who is six months pregnant and separated from all her children who were with her sister when the levees broke, find her nephew Thomas Melton in an Evacuation Center in Texas. I can't describe her face when we found his name on the very last Red Cross list. She threw her arms around my neck and started alternately sobbing, then laughing, then sobbing again. Hopefully, between the two of them, they will find her sister (his mother) and her children. I'll keep you updated.
My first shift was overnight and, because many people were sleeping, my responsibilities were light. It gave me a unique opportunity to sit with folks who couldn?t sleep, comfort them and listen to their stories. The first man I really conversed with was an 81-year-old minister named Rev. Melvin Crossley. We met in a quiet hallway at about 2:30 am while he was looking for a place to read his bible. He told me that this was his normal rising time for bible reading and quiet reflection. It was after 'Lights Out' though, 11:00 pm, and the lights to all the offices had been cut off. (Vexingly, the hallway lights stay on! Survivors took pages from the newspapers donated by the N&O and taped them over the windows to try to attain some darkness.)
Even though many survivors had not slept in days, many have trouble sleeping. They still seem wired, like they can't turn off their "fight or flight response", like they're afraid to relax. (Many cried for the first time upon arriving at our shelter. I heard that again and again.)
Rev. Crossley spent 8 days trapped on a roof with his wife, his 16-year-old granddaughter and his son who requires dialysis. They were finally airlifted from that roof by a helicopter after 8 days of watching bodies float by and hearing people call for help. I will never forget his face when he said, "When the levees burst, the water just rushed in. The people didn't have a chance!"
It seems clear to me that the levees breaking caused more deaths than the hurricane itself. Apparently 700 feet of levee broke near the river at the 942 Ward where a lot of our survivors came from. One man told me that, when that happened, the water level in the street rose from one inch to five feet in an instant! This ex-Marine who served three and a half years as Special Forces in Vietnam was able to provide the clearest picture of what happened when the levees broke. His story was many people's story.
Alan and his partner of 11 years, Yvette, were in their home on Canal Street. When the wave hit, the whole house flooded almost instantly. Furniture bounced around treacherously. Yvette started screaming. Like things weren't scary enough, she doesn't know how to swim. There was nothing to get on that would raise them out of the water. It surged above the couch, the table, the kitchen counter... Alan tried to open the front door but it had swelled shut! Even worse, the windows were fitted with iron grates that were mounted from the outside!! There was no getting out. All over New Orleans, people were trapped by grates or ply board that had been nailed up to protect windows from the storm. All over New Orleans people drowned in their living rooms and in their attics.
Grabbing Yvette, Alan pushed her on top of the refrigerator and held her there while water and furniture convulsed around them. In the churning turmoil, he was able to grab two passing couch cushions and used them up to elevate her further. He told me, "Thank God the power had already gone out. There was water everywhere. If the power had been on..."
The two were trapped under these conditions for five days, her on top of the refrigerator, him on top of the counter next to it. Even on the counter, the water was to his knees. They were in darkness much of the time. They did have a battery-powered radio. The batteries lasted three days before they died. After that, Alan said Yvette's mental state took a turn for the worse. He was retired special forces so he was hanging in there but he worried about her ability to cope.
The water was obviously contaminated. Alan suspects he knows by what--the chemical plants and oil refineries just down the road. He named one chemical plant, Air Products, and two oil refineries, Exxon and Conico, in particular. Apparently he'd heard on his radio that Grand Isle, the island that was home to these companies, was now under 20 feet of water. Their contents were surely part of the primordial ooze lapping around him. His radio also reported that bodies were floating everywhere. People had been advised to tie them to any anchor to keep them from floating around until they could be collected. They are still not collected.
Alan located a few canned goods they'd stockpiled before the storm, even so, he was gaunt. Skin hung from his face as it does after sudden weight loss. It was papery and white, a pink, dry rash scoring each cheek. His legs, which were visible below his shorts, were covered with swollen purple sores from ankle to thigh. These were the infections of cuts and scratches that had been exposed to a toxic cocktail mixed in hell's own bar. The sores surely progressed all the way to his navel. He was in water up to his waist a lot of the time. The reason he was even awake to tell me his story was because his meds wouldn't allow him to sleep, because his legs ached and stung. They were swollen and lavender-colored from being waterlogged so long. Alan was already on his second round of harsh antibiotics. The first hadn't been effective in treating his injuries. He hoped to wean off these meds by the end of the weekend. I hope he was able to do that. The poor man needs some sleep!
Alan told me whenever he heard a helicopter outside, he'd wade to the window and wave a red scarf tied to the end of a long pole hoping to get someone's attention. Finally, two sheriff's deputies saw his signal and found them. They had to beat down the door to get the couple out.
It was a gripping story. After he finished, I was at a loss for words. When I could speak again, I said the one thing that had kept repeating in my mind throughout his telling...I told Alan, "Yvette was very lucky to have you. You probably saved her life!"
Then this rugged, craggy man, this big ex-Marine who sports a gray crew cut to this day, did the most unexpected thing...he looked at me and his brilliant blue eyes teared over and he said with great passion, "No! I am lucky to have her!"
I was taken aback by the intense emotion! Our whole conversation Alan had only shown emotion one time...when I told him that they were pumping the contaminated water from the city into Lake Ponchetrain. His jaw tightened and he growled that the federal government would never allow that! That they'd worked too hard to clean the lake from years of corporate pollution. When someone else confirmed it, Alan clenched his fists and trembled with an anger that was so intense it straight up scared me. He growled, "And I voted for that asshole too!" referring to George Bush. It was a moment of barely contained fury the likes of which I have never before witnessed. It made me catch my breath and step back! When I did that, he looked at me and I saw him register my reaction. Then he settled back into the dispassionate demeanor he'd maintained for most of our talk. He only strayed from this demeanor one other time...when he talked about Yvette. Let me tell you about that...
With tears in his eyes, this big man assured me he had been lucky in life. This vet who spent three and half years in Vietnam, who brought his unit home alive but not a one of them whole, this sick man who'd just lost his house and his every possession, this hero of a man told me that he'd be lucky in life -- he had been granted two loves. The first, the mother of his two daughters, was snatched from him by breast cancer at the tender age of only 38. He cared for her til the end but, when she died, there were no savings left. Alan was devastated, emotionally and financially. He wasn't interested in moving on or dating. He didn't think he would ever love again. For five years he devoted himself to being both mother and father and to accumulating enough income to provide for his two daughters. Then he met Yvette. He said he knew she was "the One" right away. He said she made him feel happy again for the first time in years. He said she was a gift from God! Alan pursued her, showered her with attention, pled with her to marry him...and though she loved him, she wouldn't. She'd been married before, to a drinker. She wasn't anxious to marry again. Instead they lived together. For over 11 years now they lived in New Orleans -- 11 years of him periodically trying to persuade her to marry him, her always refusing. Even now, he calls her his wife anyway. He ended his story by repeating, "No, I'm lucky to have her. I am the lucky one." His gratitude was so palpable I could have scooped it up in my hands.
After the long tense night, my nerves were frayed and this man's story, this man's emotion (he didn't even cry...just teared up) set me to bawling--I mean full out, snot snorting, red nose, swollen eyes crying. I guess it was the pressure... Alan just patted my shoulder, waited for it to pass. (I felt like an idiot. I was supposed to be comforting him!?!) He went on to tell me that he was worried about Yvette. She was having trouble sleeping. (Here he was awake in the middle of the night, worried about her sleeping... It was so sweet.)
I got to see Yvette the next morning. At about 6:30 am Alan brought her into the cafeteria where I was working. With his hand on her elbow he guided her stooped figure as she shuffled to one of the chairs at the long table and then he hovered protectively for a while before finally leaving her side to bring her a plate of breakfast. She was 50ish, with dark hair and gray roots. A third generation New Orleans resident. She was wearing what my grandma called a "morning duster" and she had pink slippers on her feet. Not the typical lady in distress but she was clearly Alan's Queen and the only thing he cared about.
I am glad they have each other.
Many of the survivors credited God with saving them. When someone asked Rev. Crossley if he'd gone to the Convention Center, the Reverend responded, "The Lord said to me, 'Keep your people separate. And I did. And later we heard there were gangs killing people there. People raping little babies. And I thanked God for protecting my family.'" It sounded so biblical it chilled me. Rev. Crossley (and other survivors too) believe that humans are being tested. They believe the Lord is challenging us to overcome our selfishness.
There are 31 kids at the Center right now. They started school in Wake County Friday morning--even without transcripts or shot records! The people who made that happen are amazing! Returning to school will at least return some routine, some "normalcy" to their lives.
There are also some dogs and cats there. During the day, they are allowed to be with their companion humans but at night most of them are boarded at a vet hospital near the office building. They return first thing in the morning. A few people with serious emotional issues have been allowed to sleep with their pets. They can be found in various little closets and hideaways throughout the building.
There was one pretty distressing thing that happened. When I was there, everyone was very excited because FEMA had announced they were going to give $2,000 debit cards to the evacuees for them to purchase clothes and toiletries and what not... only the FEMA rep on site hadn't heard anything about it. She seemed worried and distressed. I later heard on my way home that there had never been such a plan. Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, the guy who had announced this bold initiative, had absolutely no plan to institute it. Those poor folks are screwed again. I know they're disappointed.
(Here's what people need most: Razors, toiletries (toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, deodorant), new underwear, something to carry this stuff in. They also need NEW clothes and shoes. Lots of them are wearing paper shoes! Oh, and socks. It's cold and drafty in this office building.
Despite all they've been through, these survivors have an attitude of extreme gratitude. They are warm and kind. They look out for each other. They even try to comfort us. Some of them talk of settling in Raleigh since they have nowhere else to go. Alan, the ex-Marine wants to do this. He is a carpenter but he has lost all his tools. Even so, he is driven to create a new life here. He wants work. He strikes me as someone who would work his ass off. If anyone has work, I would be happy to put you in contact with him.
So that's what I learned from my first experience there. I return this afternoon for a 4:00 pm to midnight. I'll let you know how that goes...
The situation at the shelter is ever changing. The number of survivors left there has been cut in half. People have found places to go or are moving into homes and apartments in the area. The ones still there, though, seem to be the ones in the most trouble. They include the elderly, the folks having mental health issues... There are a myriad of problems really.
Thank you all for your generosity! There has suddenly been a huge response with clothes, especially children's clothes. Adult shoes are still needed I noticed. I can tell you one personal request you could help with! There is a young man who really really needs a laptop. It's a long story and I'll tell about it when I have more time to write. I have been there or working or sleeping with very little free time for writing! I did squeeze out some notes during the down time last night though and I am going to attach them below. They are kind of stream-of-consciousness. I apologize in advance...
Bad news about Alan. Very bad news. Remember Alan? The ex-Marine couldn't sleep at night because he was in pain and being treated with harsh meds for the purple lesions all over his legs, lesions caused by five days of being in toxic water up to his waist. When I saw him this time, I was hoping to hear that his course of meds was finished and that he'd finally gotten his first good night's sleep. Instead, Alan says the infection seems to have spread -- to his bones. While his color is better and most of the rashes on his face are fading, x-rays reveal that Alan now has black spots all over the bones in his legs. The doctors are very worried. They gave him five shots - one in each arm, one in each leg and one in the ass - plus another kind of oral medication. The doctor said if this doesn't work, they may have to try to scrape the spots off his bones. Surgery. If that doesn't work, Alan could be looking at losing both legs to amputation. His brow was furrowed when he told me this. It was the first time I have seen him look worried.
Everyone I've met who spent any time in that water is sick. Some are responding to meds. It seems to depend on how long they were exposed. Dwayne Brazil, II, a young man who helped save nine members of his family by carrying them one-by-one through neck-high water for a half mile each way was made much sicker than those he rescued. He was plagued with erupting white blisters and fever for days. He, too, is being treated with meds but seems to be recovering somewhat. He showed me some of the healing lesions on his arms. I couldn't help but notice that the skin on his face and arms was also significantly darker than his natural skin tone now. His cafe-au-lait colored skin is now tanned almost charcoal from the sun reflecting off the water and onto his face and arms while he repeatedly negotiated his aquatic gauntlet.
Dwayne and his mother Renette were/are antique dealers in Baton Rouge. (I say "are" because they insist they are returning to resume their lives.) When we met he gave me his card. It was still wet. It was still wet! The wallet had a green algae-like fur growing all over it. He told me he had already cleaned it with bleach once but the algae had grown back almost immediately.
I worry about the people exposed to that water. I also worry about the people doing the cleanup, being exposed to that water now. What are they being exposed to? Many volunteers from the 9-11 cleanup have since died from the toxins they were exposed to. I can't help but wonder how the volunteers in this cleanup with fare. Algae. Lesions.
Speaking of people doing the cleanup...On September 8, President Bush suspended application of the Davis-Bacon Act, a federal law governing workers' pay on federal contracts, for the Hurricane Katrina-damaged areas. Suspension of the act will allow contractors to pay lower wages. In New Orleans, where a quarter of the city was poor, the prevailing construction wage was about $9 per hour, according to the Department of Labor. In effect, President Bush is saying that people should be paid less than $9 an hour to rebuild their communities.
As I type this, a woman named Cathy has come in and is talking with another volunteer. It's 4:49 am but she can't sleep. She is telling a story about her cousin. She and her cousin had been stranded together for four days. The last time she saw her cousin alive, she was going out to scavenge water. She never came back. The next time Cathy saw her, she was floating face down in the water. She'd been shot in the head! (Holy crap!) As she says this, Cathy is crying...saying how hard it is to believe she's gone, how she can't even make arrangements for her, how she can't even find the rest of her family to tell them. Her family has been scattered far and wide by the evacuation. They are in shelters all over the country.
Cathy says she can't sleep. She says, "When I close my eyes, all I see is bodies." She says, "Sometimes I wish I was dead it hurts so much." The volunteer talking to her is not doing so good. I better go see if I can help.
We had to call Crisis Services to help Cathy. Turns out she has already tried to commit suicide once. At the airport, before flying here, she took 9 percocets, four vicotin, several somas (whatever those are...a sleeping pill I think) and something else that I can't remember. Apparently a woman at the airport kept her awake, slapping her and making her walk, and ultimately Cathy began to throw up. She threw up there, she threw up on the plane all the way here and she was still sick when she got here. Cathy is on suicide watch at Holly Hill Hospital now.
On Sunday, I am taking Dwayne, who I mentioned earlier, and his lovely mother Renette to the North Carolina Museum of Art. I am excited. They are both artists who are art deprived. I am blessed to have an opportunity to foster their spiritual sustenance in this way. They are also collectors. (New Orleans is famous for their antiques.) Dwayne lost his collection of books dating back to the 1600's. The family bible that had recorded their family history since 1820 - ruined. Their photos dating back to the 1860's - destroyed. He lost his entire inventory of antiques. He is an artist who has had all art ripped from his life. He says he craves the smell of "old".
Our museum may not be the greatest museum on the planet but it's not bad. It has some "old" stuff. It also has some interesting collections and a nice restaurant where we can brunch. Such a trip may seem frivolous when there are so many other needs but art can be very healing. It encourages us to think in new ways. It teaches us, feeds our muses, challenges our creative Self. It is both reprieve and inspiration--all things Dwayne and Renette need right now. Art and hardship have always had a special relationship.
I had planned to write tonight about the grace and optimism of the survivors here. It humbles me. I've gotten sidetracked by the individual traumas of this night but I am awed by the fortitude of the people I've met here. One of them said to me, "As a New Orelean, it's our tradition to prevail." Another said, "The only reason we folks lived through this is because we're all crazy." He said, "The sane people don't do so well when the world goes insane."
Among the belongings Dwayne lost to the flood were Ming Dynasty bowls, Tang Dynasty vases, 500 rare books dating back to the 1700's, engravings from the 1600's. When FEMA asked Dwayne to detail his losses, they told him that they would need receipts for all these things. Receipts. Dwayne is luckier than most. He has a cd with photos of his entire inventory of antiques. Most folks only have their word. Receipts. Jeeez.... (Other people have told me that FEMA reps have told them they're going to have to "prove" they lived in New Orleans. How the hell are they supposed to do that!?! These folks have nothing!)
He is lucky to have any proof at all. A state trooper tried to make him leave his overnight bag with his identification, insurance policies and other important papers. When he refused to leave it behind (it's the size of a briefcase and would easily fit in his lap) the trooper became angry and made him go to the back of the line, separating him from the rest of his family. His mother stayed with him because Dwayne was sick and feverish from the toxic water. That's how the two of them ended up here while the rest of the family ended up in Dallas. A moment of spite.
I have heard a lot of stories of Guardsmen and police officers mistreating people. Dwayne told me, "I had to save myself. They made no effort to save me. The National Guard wouldn't even give us water or ice...even though they had it. They taunted us with it but they wouldn't give it to us.
It kinda sucked hearing all the stories of people who could have helped but wouldn't. In frustration, I started asking people to tell me the stories of people who had helped them. (I wanted to hear them and plus I think it's important to place our attention on the good. Always.) It turns out the heroes were an unlikely lot. Check this out: Most folks had stories of family members who'd done heroic things but there are also stories about people like "Ronald the looter", a man who, while scavenging for food by flashlight in a stolen boat on a pitch dark night on St. Claude Avenue, saved a whole family from drowning, then took them to the dry second floor of a deserted building where he'd been squatting. He had to pull them through a second story window because the water was so high. He gave them food and water and a place to sleep and the next day he ferried them to safety. Another hero was Billy from the four-star hotel, Le Richelieu, who took in about 40 people and fed and cared for them for days while waiting for the waters to recede so that these survivors could return home. (The Guard "rescued" them from this four star hotel and forced them to evacuate against their wishes. People are mad about that.) There are stories of the Italian mafia sharing water and ice when the National Guard wouldn't. In fact, the Guard told people that they would give them water and ice only if the survivors agreed to leave the city. Some stores like The Quartermaster and Robert's opened their doors and gave away all their wares for free to people struggling to survive.
Largely, the people of Baton Rouge whose homes still stand were forced to leave also. Almost without exception, these people believe that the government made them leave because they intend to take their land. They say that while people of different races in New Orleans might not always agree on everything, they could agree on one thing...they would not sell their land to outsiders...and for some time, big corporations have been trying to buy up their property--only they wouldn't sell. I am told many of the old folks, especially, said they'd "go down with the house" before they'd leave. One of the survivors termed this takeover of private land by the government, "Progressive Urban Renewal with Extreme Prejudice." (I love these people talk. They are great storytellers with beautiful, warm accents.
Okay, that's all I got...
Thank you for your generous offers of help. As I start to understand what is happening with individual families, I will know more about their needs. Perhaps we can coordinate for folks individually. I know they all will need long-term things. Things like computers. Cars! You can't get around Raleigh without a car here and they have to go to FEMA offices and doctors and social services and stores to set up houses... You see where I'm going with this.
Anyway, I am headed to sleep now. Walk in peace my friends.
The fury is mine. I am so furious. Furious! I have just gotten off the phone with my brother, Tommy. He says that, in his opinion, the reason the levees broke is because court cases brought by environmentalists impeded our government's ability to repair them. He blames the woman governor of the state for not giving the federal government "permission" to help. He blames the elderly, the crippled and the poor for not leaving. I asked him directly if he thought the president or Michael Brown bore any responsibility at all. He would not answer.
I am so mad I am crying and grinding my teeth. I had to start writing just to channel it. So beware. This could get heated. It scares me that the "group mind" can be controlled that way... It scares the hell out of me and makes me really really sad...
This comes on top of what has been a very trying weekend at the shelter. HUD (Housing and Urban Development) had approved applications for many of the survivors left at the shelter. The Red Cross has agreed to pay deposits and first month's rent on apartments for folks and then HUD had agreed to pick up the first six month's rent while these folks try to find family and work and rebuild their lives. Many applications had already been approved. But HUD told everyone Friday morning that they would not be honoring that after all. One survivor told me they said had to use the money for Hurricane Ophelia. (I have to check to see if that's true.) FEMA does not seem to be helping. I've heard of at least one person having to fill out another FEMA application because theirs was lost. (These people are uniformly grateful for their lives and all the help they are receiving but I sense they are tiring of forms.)
But it gets worse...
Someone announced Thursday night that they will be closing the shelter NEXT Friday! Seven days. They'd dropped this bomb on the remaining survivors at 10:00 pm the evening before.
Imagine. The plan is for six months. It seems to be working. Why are they closing the shelter Friday and leaving these mostly elderly, sick and handicapped people with no place to go? On top of that, the next day, they tell a lot of them, "Sorry, can't help you with that rent thing either." And what is happening with FEMA?
Working Friday was definitely different. Quieter. Anxiety and worry hung in the air. I'd never really noticed that before. Mostly I'd felt gratitude, gratitude, gratitude and relief. On Friday afternoon, though, one gentleman said to me, "I could have been homeless in Louisiana. I didn't need to come to Raleigh to be homeless."
I'm not sure what to do. I am just monitoring the situation as best I can right now...
I went back to the Shelter on Sunday to pick up Dwayne and Renette and take them to the Art Museum. We had an incredible time. Dwayne knows so much about art and touring with him was like touring with a museum curator. I learned a lot and, though they thanked me many times, the pleasure was mine! They said it was the best day they'd had since the Hurricane and that made me awfully happy too. I think we all just had a great afternoon all around.
Renette and Dwayne are the family that needs the laptop. They are antique dealers. They could actually reestablish their business with a laptop. It needs to be a laptop because a desktop requires a desk, which requires a home. It would also help if it were wireless so it could be used in coffee shops with wireless internet access since the family doesn't have access to phone lines either. Perhaps we could take up a collection and buy them one. Any help at all in this area would be great.
They need to reestablish their business badly. Renette is 48 and Dwayne is in his 20's and they have lost their home and much of the antique inventory they had together. Some of it may be salvageable but they won't know until they are allowed to return. Their house is still under water. It's been three weeks. They need to get on their feet now. And, because they are young, they are not eligible for many of the programs helping others at the shelter. They are being told that if they can't find an apartment by Friday, the county will put them up in a hotel for two weeks. No one told them where they'd go or what would happen to them after that.
A lot of people seem sad about being turned out of the shelter. At first I thought it was just too soon for them to be on their feet. Now I realize it is something else. Many of these folks were neighbors from St. Bernard's Parrish in the 9th Ward. They are lonely and homesick and the last vestige of their home is about to be scattered to the winds. They are afraid of losing each other, saying goodbye to their community. It's sad.
I met a some more very interesting people. I met a guitar player named Bambi. He managed to save his guitar by floating it out on top of a tire. It was the only possession he was able to save.
I also met John Booth (64), and his aunt Rosemary who is 84. John was separated by his family who tried to evacuate (fairly unsuccessfully due to the chaos) because he was staying to protect this crusty old aunt who refused to leave. Aunt Rosemary is one tough bird. She wants to be back in Louisiana badly. She is not thriving "living among foreigners" - meaning non-New Orleanians. Rosemary Booth worked for the FBI for 35 years. She met J. Edgar Hoover! This woman is one of the elderly who said they go down with their homes before they'd leave! She stayed behind to protect her 200-year-old home with a .22 caliber shotgun. John Booth is her nephew from Boothville. (That tells you how long his family has been there. They are descended from the Los Islenos, the islanders who originally came from the Canary Island and settled that area of Louisiana in the 1300's. These people know their history!)
John tried to persuade Rosemary to leave but ultimately ended up staying with her when she chose to ride it out. That's how he got separated from his wife and three daughters. (They also got separated from each other somehow. One daughter is with his wife in Shreveport. Another is in Seattle. Not sure where the third is...)
John has a bright and ready smile. He is 64, has a shock of rumpled white hair and wears a pair of blindingly white new sneakers, brand new jeans and a yellow, Sunny 93.5, tee shirt. He introduced me to another woman from Bernard Parrish named Barbara Ann Valvo. She has brilliant red hair and is in a wheelchair. She has no other family here.
John was in the Air Force before he married. After marriage, he worked three jobs to support his wife and three daughters -- for CSX Railroad during the day, as a tugboat mechanic in the evening and, on the weekends, as a baker. He says, shaking his head, "I haven't had a vacation in 45 years, since I got married, and here I got one but without my wife." I asked where his wife was. "She was in Shreveport last I talked to her a few days ago..."
It is difficult for people to call from one evacuation center to another and actually talk to each other. The Centers are set up to take messages but they can't run people down and hand them a phone. As a result, when someone calls here for someone, we take a message and have them call the person back. If the person they're trying to reach is in a shelter too, that's problematic. So someone will call us from, say, Shreveport. We'll take a message and post it on the message board for their loved one. The loved one will get the message and call the Evacuation Center in Shreveport, which takes a message for their loved one. It is very hard for people to reach each other directly and it makes any kind of coordination between them almost impossible.
John strikes me as an optimistic man who is struggling with disillusionment. He happily danced to Bambi playing, "When the Saints Go Marching In." He got everyone else dancing too. It was a rare moment of pure joy. He is good and kind, helps people and since his retirement has served as a volunteer at a museum dedicated to his ancestors. Here's a website to see that museum: http://www.losislenos.org/. Last time he saw it a 300 year old Oak had mashed it down the middle.
John was mistreated terribly by a number of people. The police, the Levee Board and the Coast Guard all passed through while he and his aunt were trapped in her house but refused to share the food or water they had on board. Instead, "They drank that water right in front of us and threw away their empties right in front of us. They said if we wanted some, we'd have to go. But how could we go? We couldn't go nowhere. The water was to the second floor!" (John trapped rain water from a drizzle two nights after the hurricane to survive.)
John says he probably won't move back to New Orleans. "I'm 64. I can't do this again. I'll go back, get what I can... I worked three jobs my whole life and everything I own is in a duffel bag now. I worked my whole life and I never got to enjoy it. My kids grew up in a 960 square foot house, without a dad in the 1960's, and this is what I got to show for it."
Trapped and bored, every morning he would crawl out on top of his aunt's porch, prop up his American flag and write in his journal. About the flag, he said, "It was my way of saying, 'Hey, we're Americans! We can stand up to everything!" He'd sit beside his flag and write in his journal, recording notes about the storm/flood--how high it was, how long it took a garbage bag with air to move from one electic pole to the next. (10 seconds!) Here are some of the things he shared with me: "The wind took off the top of a huge pecan tree and then ripped the bottom half right out of the ground by the roots." "One of my friends made it out to the I-10 overpass where the National Guard told him buses would pick him up. Days later he came back though. He said they never came and that it was too horrible to stay. He said there were rats eating a body there." He told me, "I heard dogs and cats fighting on my roof, the dog trying to eat the cat. It was awful! I wanted to help the cat but the dogs are hungry and scared and turning vicious." He reports seeing "shipping containers on top of houses", "inflatable boats filled with people floating over six-foot-high iron fences with pointy tips that coulda popped 'em!", "helicopters everywhere and men descending from cables." He said gang members in stolen cement trucks were charging survivors $50 a person to take them to Highway 90. He and his aunt were picking up frantic cell phone calls for help over their portable radio but could do nothing.
This prompted Barbara Ann to tell me about a radio correspondent on WWL, a New Orleans local radio station. Garland Robinette got a call that still haunts Barbara Ann. A woman called from her attic and said the water was rising and she couldn't get out. She had children with her. Robinette advised her to get an ax and cut her way out. She said there was no ax. Nothing to use to get out. Barbara Ann said she sounded terrified. Robinette said he'd call for help; he assured her someone would be there in 20 minutes to save her. He sounded confident. He put her mind at ease. Half our later he returned to the air. This time he sounded distraught and defeated. He said, "There is no help coming. I apologize. There is nothing I can do. Please do what you can to save yourself. I'm so sorry."
On the last day before John and his Aunt were rescued, John got his worst insult. He had just finished mounting his flag and was sitting on the roof writing in his journal when a Coast Guard chopper flew by. John gave them the 'thumbs up' sign as he always did and returned to writing in his journal, patiently waiting for rescue, assuming that people who needed it more were getting it first. This time, though, the chopper turned around. John thought they were finally coming to save him! As they approached, John stood up and gave them an excited wave and another thumbs up sign. Instead, the chopper dipped to the side until its rotors reached almost into the water, creating huge white caps and swamping him with toxic water, almost blowing him off the roof of the house. It blew away his flag. "I was giving them the thumbs up!" John said. "That hurt me. I was in the military. I was in the Air Force! It's not right to treat people like that. They did it to try to force us out...only we couldn't leave. My aunt couldn't get out." (He said after, "I stunk so bad, I used clorox toilet wipes to clean myself. The only part that didn't get it was my legs, because I'd made waders out of garbage bags, the ones with the red ties built in."
John had great things to say about his experience in Raleigh, though. Glowing. He says that when they arrived here, there were people standing outside with signs that read, "Welcome to Raleigh!" and "God Bless You" and "We're Glad You're Here!" When he said this, his whole face crumpled up and he cried. He also thanked the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. He said he'd shook Governor Easley's hand and thanked him personally. He thanked all of us that were helping and even told me about a member of the symphony who'd replaced Bambi's amp when he got to Raleigh so he could make some money playing in the clubs.
(A quick aside about the Red Cross: The volunteers I have seen here are amazing. One has taken in a very elderly, rather difficult, Cajun woman who only speaks French. Even so, as an organization... I have heard tales that the Red Cross was accepting donations of frequent flier miles to fly folks to friends or family across the country...only they were using these miles to fly their own employees around the country to help with the evacuation. If this is true, it is just one more in a laundry list of Red Cross misdeeds dating back to WWII. At that time, they took donations of chocolates and cigarettes for soldiers...and then charged soldiers to purchase the chocolate and cigarettes. From my experience at the AIDS Hotline, I know that, in 1985, when an HIV test was developed that indicated the presence HIV in the blood, the Red Cross fought having to test their donated blood for over 18 months, even after every other blood donation program in the country was testing their blood. This economic decision led to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of HIV infections. As most of us know, the Red Cross also sought to keep a huge portion of the money donated for 9-11 survivors and use it for their other programs. While that debacle resulted in the head of the American Red Cross being forced to step down, much of that money has STILL not made it to survivors of 9-11. Just sayin...)
I know some of the issues I am addressing here are controversial. It is not about blame. It is about accountability. It is about learning from our mistakes.
I am hearing grumblings from certain conservatives that we must stop blaming and start helping. Well where are these Republican helpers? Out of 40-some volunteers I have asked at the Katrina Shelter, I have yet to meet a single Republican. If these folks are so tired of the "blame game" and ready to help the survivors, where the heck are they?
Also, I cannot help but notice that among the no-bid contracts already awarded to rebuild New Orleans are these major Republican contributors: Fluor, Becktel, Shaw and Halliburton. This is an important time to follow the money trail.
Natural and human calamities have stripped away the spin machine, created a rare moment of accountability -- not just for the Bush administration, but for all of us. We must take stock of the direction our country is headed and do what we can to reverse it. That's our job now -- to turn this moment from a frenzied trauma into a national reversal of direction.
Katrina is the very symbol of this administration. Michael Brown, the FEMA director the President thanked him for doing a "heck of a job", is to Katrina:
- What Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq;
- What George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence;
- What Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad;
- What Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy;
- What Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning;
- What Tom Delay is to ethics;
- What George Bush is to "Mission Accomplished" and "Wanted Dead or Alive."
And now Karl Rove has been selected to head up Katrina Recovery. I hate to mix religion and government but God help us!
My brother's earlier statements tell me that the rush to camouflage this administrations misjudgments and inaction is working. They are not suddenly listening. Politics as usual prevails. Their Gulf Coast Plan is shaping up to turn the entire region into a vast right wing experiment that includes private school vouchers, abandonment of environmental regulations, abolition of wage standards, subsidies for big industries, and, believe it or not, yet another big round of tax cuts for the very, very wealthy. The landowners at the Katrina Shelter believe it also entails a forced buy-out of their homes.
Does this guy have to get a blow-job from an intern before the American people will impeach him!?!
If you buy the peach, I'll IM him...
Seriously though, the Monica trial was so LAME compared to the shit that this guy's dragging us through. Its night and day, really. I agree, we oughta give him the big "I"...