Deluge for a Deluge

Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock

NEW ORLEANS — You had to be here, you have to go here, to fully realize what’s going on here. If that is true then what of the Indonesian tsunami that began Dec. 26, 2004? Do you have to go to Iowa to understand its massive flood this month? You might, it’s lovely in the summer. The state fair in Des Moines is Aug. 7-17 this year.

The board of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists chose New Orleans for its 2008 conference site a full two years ago, sensing that news coverage of the city’s recovery from the Aug. 29, 2005, landfall of Hurricane Katrina would have ebbed but its needs still would be dire. And that we as writers could help. This past week, none of us was surprised of the accuracy of our two predictions.

I returned home three days ago, and find conveying the sadness, desperation and the ludicrousness is impossible in words. What’s ludicrous is how slow the recovery is going. Summaries of facts, cut with some observations, doesn’t cut it. Repeating the stories of hurricane survivors, along with observations, is better, but it shows only narrow viewpoints, when what’s amazing is the breadth. The Storm took out a region. It might as well have been one of the smaller states.

When you report on individuals, even adding in data for a wide angle, the better writers will persuade individuals to help Habitat for Humanity’s several projects there. My Beloved is ready to go back. But we who lean toward macro views insist, is this enough? Hie thee down to lay down laminate floors for a house or two during a long weekend away from work, when thousands of houses and apartments still need to be rebuilt. We heard Habitat folks tally its progress so far in the hundreds of homes.

By the time I get done raining a deluge of words and occasional tangential subjects here, it’ll come down to my proposing political action, change out the leadership, hold current leaders to task. A single vote is statistically insignificant, and the impact of letters and petitions has proved laughable. Please know that my eyes welled up, first during a slide show then on the bus tour. The images of our four days in Nola will come up in my dreams for quite a while. So let’s continue. You can’t type while wringing your hands.

I. Tears of hope

I’m far from an expert, but having spent most of my years in tornado country I know some of the worst Mother Nature does and what recovery looks like Continue reading

Big Money

NEW ORLEANS — The second speaker for the columnists conference was Jarvis DeBerry of the Times-Picayune. He had a heck of a column Sunday showing how this month’s flooding in Iowa and The Storm (Katrina-Rita of 2005) have at least this much in common: deliberate damage to wetlands to benefit humanity in what has become obvious, the short term.

This is only a piece of the problem but it’s important. Draining wetlands helps the oil business in the Gulf, and we all think we need plentiful cheap gas. In the Midwest, farmers are using former wetlands for crops, so we can have Corn Chex every morning. And ethanol.

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Some people were ready to find in the keynote speech of Mayor Ray Nagin proof for praise or criticism, no matter how innocuous Friday’s remarks really were. I don’t know enough to read him, or anybody, on the basis of a 15-minute routine speech and five minutes of good questions but likely nothing he hasn’t been hit with already. All I could do was observe: Nagin did not brag about anything he has done; he praised a lot of people. Continue reading

Home of the Owls

NEW ORLEANS — Come, see for yourself. My fellow conferees and myself, being journalists, have read about The Storm since it blew in Aug. 29, 2005, and refreshed ourselves before coming to town. Even though we’re writers, some of us very good, none can explain the devastation and slow recovery as effectively as being here. Even the terrific pictures by Ted Jackson and other Times-Picayune photographers, worth a thousand words each, don’t convey walking around or even being bused around.

We were bused through several districts then were met at Chalmette High School — Home of the Owls — by its principal of 34 years, Wayne Warner. His 15-minute presentation went for more than an hour, at our request. We needed to hear someone like Mr. Warner, and he was glad to help.

Our two buses each had a guide who survived the storm. It’s odd to have docented tours of flooded out areas instead of explaining historic sites or pointing out Homes of the Stars. This is about two months’ shy of the third anniversary of The Storm, but even the famous graffiti X’s still were on a great many homes in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.

It’s deliberate. The homeowners who didn’t lose their homes outright or until now — a number of homes are designated to be razed now, being posted with a yellow sheet of paper on which is a large red X — don’t want passers-by to forget.

Guardsmen or similar personnel went through each home as soon as they could to search for survivors and for bodies. The color did not matter, “whatever paint was at hand,” Continue reading

Pet a Penguin

NEW ORLEANS — Dinner on Friday followed a bit of planned silliness. Columnists gathered outside the Hotel Monteleone where the Storyville Stompers were waiting. They comprised a dancing drum major, bass drummer, snare drummer, saxophonist, trumpeter, trombonist and sousaphone player. They played long versions of about three Dixieland classics and we were their “second-line,” sashaying a mile to the Aquarium of the Americas.

A number of columnists knew to bring kazoos. One friend came with packets of combs and strips of wax paper, and I used that while My Beloved strutted. Actually, we both spent most of the parade in conversation with our fellows.

Dinner at the Aquarium was the treat of the Times-Picayune. The main speaker was Tom Dyer, senior aviculturist. The aquarium’s take on The Storm was as expected devastating: Thousands of animals died. The staff like the rest of the city was forced to leave. Tom and the others returned as soon as allowed and began a simultaneous clean-up of dead animals and rescue of the surviving fish and related creatures, such as penguins. Other aquariums, Monterey’s was Dyer’s example, stood ready to house the animals until the New Orleans facility could be set right, with companies like FedEx donating transportation and so forth.

The Storm was different. Dyer was not the first Friday to say residents handled hurricanes by packing a pair of shorts, two T-shirts, toothbrush and a pair of flip-flops, and drive to a relative’s house a hundred or so miles away. In a couple of days you returned and hoped your home and those of friends weren’t too badly hurt. After The Storm, it wasn’t just two days and hoping your home is mostly there.

Dyer brought out Millicent, one of the penguins. Some animal lovers question the purpose of zoos — alleging exploitation and harm to various species by them — but when he held this unusual bird and offered we five dozen grown-ups a moment to gather and touch its back, MB and I got in line. A unique opportunity. Warm, rippled thick skin. Confined critters are the best spokesmen for the rest of the animal kingdom. Are they caged? Yes, and big biologically correct cages are still cages. Yet these guys will have regular meals and so forth for far longer than their average lifespan in the wild.

Unless, of course, their building gets hit by a wall of water.

Getting Workshopped

NEW ORLEANS — For several years (see the Grapevine, Boston and Philadelphia categories at right), Brick has had write-ups of the sessions of the annual confab of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. I’m not sure if many besides the fellow conferees will be interested, but it’s for the record. I am secretary, after all.

My usual journalistic disclaimer: Full reports would be ridiculous. If you were there, you heard and later retained what was interesting or worthwhile. If you weren’t with us in New Orleans you wouldn’t even be … hello? hello?

Louisiana Lt. Gov.Mitch Landrieu was not there for his 8:35 a.m. Friday official welcome to the NSNC so the Katrina panel of Times-Picayune staff started early: “Covering the End of the World.” Photographer Ted Jackson’s slide show made many of us teary. He said he changed his approach to shooting: Helping people became within the first hours more important than getting the best and most timely pictures. Continue reading

The Storm

NEW ORLEANS — All morning, we visitors have been referring to Hurricane Katrina, occasionally to the other big one, Hurricane Rita, in the course of the all-day speeches and panel discussions. Instead of two days of workshops, this year’s National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference loaded up the teachin’ today so tomorrow we can move through the city and see what — The Storm — has left, nearly three years later.

A couple of Louisianans this morning referred to the The Storm, and all of us understood Katrina-Rita was (were) meant. Then Mayor Ray Nagin called it The Storm in his lunch address to us.

In the day’s last presentation, Americana musician Spencer Bohren defined it. (We’re listening to his songs — some original some folk or gospel classics — and stories all the while getting information not provided by the (other) experts.

“It’s like Voldemort, ‘He Who Must Not Be Named,’ where we’re not supposed to say Katrina,” Bohren said. Harry Potter fans in the audience understood.

I’m naming this series, or category, of Brick entries The Storm because the metaphorical sense works well. The NSNC is meeting here to see how the recovery is going, so long since Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. But as journalists as well, we want to use this knowledge to be better in our home communities. So other catastrophes have come up.

A panel I moderated, on coverage of mental illness, went from Katrina to the Virginia Tech shootings of April 16, 2007. Elsewhere we discussed this month’s flooding in the Midwest, worst in Iowa. Each of these is The Storm.

The Storm is inevitable. Maybe it’s global warming, or societal pressures, but every so often there’s an overwhelming natural or manmade disaster. The Storm.

Comments to Brick always are welcome, but they’re even moreso with this series. Columnists are invited to contrast how they view what we’ve seen and heard with my shaky notes and recollections.