Monthly Archives: June 2006
Monday, August 29, 2006 came quicker than I thought it would.
Our brief stay at the Drury Inn, in Sugarland, Texas, was coming to abrupt halt, despite my efforts over the past two days, to try to extend our stay.
“No dice,” they told me in not so many words.
There was a convention in town the following day, Tuesday. Who the hell schedules a convention on a Tuesday? They were lying. That had to be it.
The front desk girl also told me that a lot of people fleeing from New Orleans had booked rooms.
“But I have fled from New Orleans,” I told them, pleadingly. “I don’t know when we can go back.”
I could have gone on, told them that I should be rewarded with a room because I, unlike the schmucks who were on their way, had the damned good sense to get out of dodge early. But it was pointless.
They put my name on a waiting list and told me the chances were good that I might get a room. Again, it was all a pack of lies.
I remember at some point, maybe after we’d arrived in San Antonio, trying to send Mike Ross, a reporter for the CBS network, WWL, from New Orleans.
I don’t remember the entire e-mail just the main points, which I hammered away in frantic prose –hotel people lie, Mike, worse than politicians and used card dealers put together. It’s lies Mike, all lies. Don’t trust them. If you can help it don’t stay in a hotel, rent a camper, and RV, something anything, but don’t go to a hotel.
Sunday had seen this bitch named Katrina doing nothing but getting bigger and badder as she steamed towards New Orleans. Late Sunday night, around ten or so, maybe later, I’d been downstairs walking one of the dogs. When I returned, Andrea told me I just missed an interview on, I think CNN, with Candace Watkins, mayor of Covington. As I sat down and collected myself, Eddie Price was being interviewed by someone with either Fox or CNN
Christ! These were my contacts, they were my public officials, the people I covered weekly and dealt with on a daily basis. I was a little annoyed that the fickle, feckless, fair-weathered friends-slash-journalists from the network news channels were getting time with my people. My contacts. True, I had chosen to evacuate. But by the same token…it just didn’t feel right. No, it felt horribly wrong.
I had Eddie’s cell number and had tried it a couple times but was unable to get through. It was the same thing with Candace. Frustrated, and still under the delusion that I could still collect information to write stories and file them from Houston, I hung up and tried Parish President Kevin Davis.
Bingo. He answered on about the third or fourth ring. I was elated. I wanted news. By this point it was probably closer to midnight or one.
“Hey Kevin,” I said. “How are things going?”
“So far so good,” he said. “But don’t know for how much longer.”
“Any rain yet?” I asked.
“A few outer bands,” he said. “I’m driving the parish as we speak. I just got back from out near the Rigolets. I’m headed back to the EOC.”
“How was the lake?” I asked.
“Water is already starting to really come in fast out there,” he said. “Nothing is flooded yet but it will be. This thing doesn’t look like it’s losing any steam at all. Usually they drop a category or two just before landfall but this one seems to just be picking up steam as it comes. I don’t mind telling you, I’m worried. I think we’re all in for a very long 24 hours.”
“Damn,” I mutter.
“Where are you?” he asked. “You got out Saturday after you talked to me didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m in Houston, but I don’t know for how much longer,” I said. “They’re turning a bunch of us out in the morning. We only booked the room for two nights. We had no idea it was going to intensify this much.”
He told me that depending on how bad the damage was, he would probably end up having to close off the parish.
“If you didn’t pack extra clothes, you might want to go invest in some,” he said. “I don’t know how long it will be until it will be safe for residents return, especially if this thing packs the punch that we think it will.”
This was getting more and more f***ed up by the second.
“Are you going to see Eddie or Candace when you get back to the EOC?” I asked him. “I’m trying to get through to them but haven’t been able to.”
“I don’t know if they’ll be there or not,” he replied. “Everyone is basically getting ready to hunker down to wait this thing out.”
“What time is landfall?” I asked.
“They’re saying anywhere from 6 to 8 at the southern tip of the state, closer to around nine or ten by the time it hits here,” he replied.
“You have winds yet?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve had a few good hearty gusts with those outer rain bands, but nothing too severe yet,” he replied. “Again, that’s likely to change too.”
“You hang in there man,” I told him.
“Yeah, you too bud,” he replied.
As the line disconnected, I felt a very sudden and very real sense of solitude. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more alone in my life, then when I did those first few seconds after we hung up…
I was disoriented when I woke on Monday. I know there was one morning when Andrea crept into bed next to me and whispered, “Honey its Category 5 now”, but upon reflection, I’m certain that was on Sunday morning.
No. Monday morning was all about trying to figure out what was happening back home and, also, trying to figure out a way to extend our stay at the Sugarland Drury Inn.
CNN, Fox and the Weather Channel were all broadcasting that morning, but I don’t seem to recall actually getting any worthwhile information. Between trying to pack and get out for checkout time and trying to figure out where we were going next, there really wasn’t time for it.
And, with the hurricane in full swing (I would later learn from local officials that Katrina more or less made landfall here on the north shore somewhere between 9 and 10 a.m.). News and weather folks weren’t sticking around for the ride. That’s it. Andrea woke me Monday to tell me the Associated Press had pulled out of its New Orleans offices. That, I think, scared me more than anything had up to that point.
Well, that and the three or four women from Chalmette, who were all outside, downstairs, smoking and bitching because they too had nit extended their stay either. There were a lot of us at that hotel that morning who were unable to turn back home because the hurricane was there, but also unable to remain any longer at the Drury Inn. By Monday morning, there wasn’t a single hotel in the greater Houston area with vacancies. Apparently, a lot of people got on the road at the last minute on Sunday and by the time Monday had rolled around, they had fanned out across Houston like wild fire.
“Those m***erf***ers, they can’t make me leave,” said one of the Chalmation chicks. “They gonna have to call the National Guard and drag my a** out of here because I’m not leaving.”
Jesus Christ, this could get ugly, I remember thinking to myself as I walked McKenzie, our Doberman. And it was true. If nothing else, the spirit of the Chalmations was contagious. I was ready to take up arms, dig myself in and not relinquish our room no matter what.
But I knew that wasn’t an option.
Confusion. North, south, east or west? Which way do we go? We should get something to eat. Where’s the cell phone? Tobacco Road….
We were all in the 4-Runner. The cats were meowing, at least our eldest, Gina, was. The dogs were shuffling around in the back. Alex was asking a thousand questions, Andrea drove and I tried to navigate, as I pulled out maps, and tried to locate phone numbers for a hotel anywhere, just a single hotel room with a vacancy.
I honestly don’t remember who was driving. But drive we did. We circled Houston at least twice, eventually pulling into a drive-through at some Tex-Mex fast food joint.
At some point we decided to say the hell with it.
We jumped on I-10 West, and headed towards San Antonio.
The drive to San Antonio was a long and weird one. We spent most of it, as I can recall trying to find a hotel room. However, I-10 wasn’t the best place to try to find an Internet connection. At least that’s what it seemed like.
Eventually, we stopped at a rest area that was, of all things, wired. There were Internet computers inside the rest area itself. And the whole area was a HI-FI wireless zone, which was good for Andrea because she was seriously jonesing for some Internet usage. We were still looking for a hotel and barring that, possibly some kind of news from home saying, “All is well, everyone can come home now.”
Believe me, I would have killed to hear those words. At this point in the game, I was driving, and would have turned around in a heartbeat to go home, Alamo be damned.
Yes. Admittedly, I wanted to go see the Alamo. I’d been once, as a child, but didn’t remember it all too well. What I did seem to remember was that it was located out in the desert, in the middle of nowhere. Not so. The Alamo is smack dab in the middle of downtown San Antonio’s central business district. And even after spending days there, I still didn’t end up going to see the Alamo. Go figure.
So, we sit at this rest area for almost an hour, until we firm up on a hotel room in San Antonio. As luck would have it, it was at another Drury Inn.
The ride from that rest area to San Antonio went by quickly. After only getting a little discombobulated, I pulled us into the parking lot of our new home away from home.
We made it to our hotel just in time for snack time. I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but the abridged version is – very afternoon at the Drury Inn is snack time. Along with nachos, pizzas, nuts and chips, each hotel guest is allocated two free drinks. This was a good thing.
Night came quickly that day. Before we ventured out for dinner, I brought Alex down to the pool. It was a nice indoor pool and we had fun. As we were swimming and playing a couple and their two kids showed up, also for a swim.
The guy was some sort of retro metal guy, with a bald shaved head and one of those weird goatees that made him look more butch than ominous. He wasn’t that tall, and was built kind of short and squat. His wife was no looker either. She had stringy, blonde curly hair and was fairly rotund. I noticed at that point that she was pregnant too; very pregnant. But she was also fat too. In other words the two, pregnant and fat, were mutually exclusive.
I couldn’t he their voices, so I couldn’t make out their accents, but they didn’t strike me as Texans. There was something more northern, maybe Chicago-ish, about the. The one thing I remember as the big pregnant wife sat down near the edge of the pool and stuck her feet in, was how her husband, the heavy metal nazi skin looking guy walked up and gently began to rub her feet and ankles.
And although her ankles were about as gig as my thigh muscle, I still remember thinking, “Awe, isn’t that nice of him to rub his pregnant wife’s feet. That looks like something I would do if Andrea and I were having another baby.”
Suddenly it was nighttime, late too. It felt like midnight. It might have been for all I know.
Although the Drury Inn was pet friendly, we were kind of pushing the limits with two dogs and two cats. Not to mention the fact that our damned dogs would bark every time anyone in the hallway knocked on another door or even opened their door for that fact.
The bottom line was that we didn’t like leaving the dogs alone in the hotel for any long periods of time, for fear that they might…I don’t know, do dog things.
They might pick up the phone and order up an eight ball, hookers and Kibbles and Bits. One can never tell with our dogs.
But that night we did leave them alone in the room. We ended up at a Bennigans and it was simply delightful. It was the closest thing we’d had to a home-cooked meal (barring the Drury Inn breakfast buffet) since before we left for the hurricane.
It almost made me cry. Somehow, we ended up telling our waitress where we were from. It became a usual question as the days progressed.
“Where are you from?”
“New Orleans,” we’d answer.
And then, a day or two later, after looters were carting off liquid plasma television sets (of course with no working electric sockets to plug them into) and allegedly taking pot-shots at rescue helicopters), we adjusted our answer, “Well we actually live north of New Orleans actually, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, the good side. It’s suburban, we don’t riot there, or wear white shrimper boots to church. Honest, we’re good people.”
A memory – At some point, either in our hotel in an Antonio or in Houston as we were making our trek back home, I met a young black guy in the elevator. I don’t know what it was, it was some sort of unseen, unheard vibe or something to where out of a room of 30 to 40 mixed people, I could look around and instantly pick out those who were evacuees and those who were just at the hotel for some other reason.
Me and his young black guy just sort of checked each other out.
“Let me guess, Metairie, Kenner,” he said to me.
“Where you from man?’
“Slidell,” I said. “You?”
Even though I live in Mandeville, I was born and raised in Slidell. Normally when asked this question, out of habit I guess, I answer Slidell.
“Ninth Ward,” he said.
“Guess both our homes were under water,” I said.
He nodded and then cleared his throat and then he did the strangest damned thing I’d ever seen. He apologized. I was taken aback, and didn’t really understand.
“You know, all that shit on TV back home man,” he said. “All that lootin’ and stuff. I ain’t about all that. Not me and not my family. Not most of the people on my block. We work hard. We ain’t like that where I came up.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me man,” I told him. “I’m from there. You don’t have to apologize to anyone man.”
He just looked at me with a far-away look in his eyes and nodded slightly.
“I don’t know man, it just feels like I should be,” he replied glumly. “Seems like we all ought to be. We probably all will be, explaining or apologizing that is, to somebody before it’s all said and done.”
Now, some ten months later, I realize that was probably one of the most accurate, profound and prophetic things I’ve ever heard in regards to Hurricane Katrina.
But on that first night in San Antonio, I was just happy to be alive, with my family and enjoying a good meal.
All hell didn’t break loose the next morning. At least not at first. News reports were scattered. On Tuesday morning, CNN was reporting that the French Quarter made out all right. In fact, a guy from some bakery was delivering day-old pastries and snacks to other business owners in the area.
Meanwhile, the news from the Mississippi was grim. Words like catastrophic damage were being tossed around and Hardy Jackson was wandering around dazed looking for his wife, who had literally been yanked out of his grasp by storm waters and sucked away.
None of it made sense. But as time ticked down and more reports came in – the uglier it got.
We were sitting in the hotel lobby, eating breakfast trying to figure out who had been destroyed and who had been spared. There was not a single news report on anything, no status, no progress, no nothing on anything in St. Tammany Parish.
Aerial shots were being flashed across the television when I noticed the couple from the pool, from the night before, also eating breakfast. As the aerial shots continued to show miles and miles of flattened and smashed…
What were they? Were they homes? You couldn’t really tell. As the aerial shots were shown, someone was being interviewed. They were discussing damages.
“This will take billions to clean up. This will cost three times more than Andrew, which is the costliest hurricane in history,” said a voice from the TV.
Just then I accidentally saw something.
I happened to glance again, over at the couple. As he digested this bit of news from CNN he rolled his eyes at the television disgustedly,
He then looked at his wife and muttered, “It’ll be our tax dollars they spend. Our hard-earned tax dollars are going to go towards helping a bunch of lazy rednecks and niggers. God that just pisses me off.”
His wife nodded in agreement but tried to also hush him so the kids or…hmm, maybe the lazy, redneck Louisiana man sitting right next to him, didn’t hear him.
It was like a punch in the gut or a slap in the face or whatever other analogies you could use to describe something so brutal and so savage that it just ripped your psyche out by its nerve endings.
Lives were destroyed. Whole communities were flattened. Jesus fucking Christ, a man was just on CNN walking the streets of Mississippi crying, dazed exposed for all the world to see, looking for his wife who was just ripped out of his grasp.
“She’s gone. She’s gone. I’m so lost”
Can you fathom that? Can you really?
Can you imagine your wife, your husband, your child, someone, anyone you love and cherish dearly, being ripped out of your grasp and sucked into churning and swirling torrential flood waters?
Can you see that? Can you imagine that?
Unfortunately, being a writer and all, I have a pretty good imagination and can see the scene replay in front of my eyes in startling clarity. In fact, at night, when all is quiet and the demons come, that is the nightmare that wakes me most.
I’ve never just grabbed a complete stranger by the throat and started to strangle him or punch him relentlessly with my fists until he spit out blood and teeth and begged for mercy.
Of course not. We live in a civilized world. We conduct ourselves in an orderly fashion and we don’t just walk up to total strangers and attack them.
But I came very close that morning, dangerously close. I’ve never felt such a severe urge to hurt or maim another person, not even an enemy, much less a total stranger. I know that if I would have started to beat him, I wouldn’t have been able to stop. That’s not a comfortable notion to live with.
I eventually got up, I think, and excused myself from breakfast. I was shaking, I know, and I needed to not have this man and his wife, with two or three kids in tow and another on the way; their shabby dress and his unkempt little skinhead goatee; which definitely didn’t look to be fashionable or welcome on Wall Street; I just knew they probably drained the welfare system themselves. That’s right. Those ugly, stupid, white-trash mother fuckers…
These were the thoughts that ran frantically, and righteously through my mind as I staggered into the bathroom. By now I was seeing red. My eyes actually were red and almost swollen shut and were tearing.
I locked myself in a stall and finally just let it loose.
The days we’d spent- the frantic exodus out of town, the first hotel in Houston, the anxiety as the storm intensified and loomed closer and closer; being kicked out of one hotel; not knowing if our house was safe or flooded or smashed by 20 large pine trees; and now this; this c***s***er is going to sit there and judge me, judge an entire region that is already down, already dying…
My own psyche had reached critical mass and nothing could stop the meltdown.
I don’t ever remember crying so hard, so hurt, so angered in my life.
I was so angry, but at that moment (And as those who know me can attest, I’m not a very spiritual man, or at least not before Katrina) all I could do was just keep thanking God for keeping me with my family, all alive all in one piece.
I knew, despite the burden on the asshole taxpayer over in the lobby next door, that homes could be rebuilt. You lose a house, you can rebuild. But if you lose your wife, or lose your husband or child, you don’t get them back.
It was this knowledge, this reconciliation with myself that made it possible for me to go back out and join my family for breakfast without doing grievous bodily harm to the a**hole at the table next to us.
Today was an easy day, in terms of deadline pressure, because I had most of my front-page stories done yesterday. I’ve noticed a weird phenomenon lately.
It turns out that these little “inside” stories I’ve been cranking out on Tuesday actually end up better (in my humble opinion at least) than the front stories that I seem to put all this thought and planning into all week.
Today’s “inside” kick-ass stories included a story about the icky conditions in our parish jail during the immediate days after Katrina – no electric, no water, no air conditioning, the heavy odor of fecal matter in the air and prisoner evacuations.
It just goes to show that the friggin Superdome and Convention Center (the MS media’s focal point of Hurricane Katrina) weren’t the only places with bad smells in the air. Or the only areas in the universe that were affected by the hurricane. Sometimes it’s comforting to know there’s a little stench right here in our own back yards.
The story also focuses on changes the sheriff has made since last season, like the installation of a deep water well to the tune of $81,000 and how he “will not” remain dependent on city of Covington’s water system, which lost all pressure after massive trees uprooted water lines all over town….
As if Candace Watkins, Covington mayor, could have somehow controlled this. I suspect that Boo-Boo’s still ticked off that she didn’t support his sheriff’s tax a few years back. It’s not always a very deep gene pool we’re dealing here in good ole St. Tammany. Political rivers run deep and trespasses are not usually easily forgotten.
But I digress.
The second story was a basic cut-and-dry announcement that the parish’s branch of League of Women Voters will be holding a forum in about a week dealing with coastal restoration.
Carlton Dufrechou, director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, will be introducing a 10-point plan aimed at restoring coast line and building hurricane protection for the area.
I was actually able to get Carlton on the phone today. And the latest figures on the loss of coastline during Katrina are grim, to say the least. I cite from my story:
Dufrechou reported that the latest tally shows that 79.2 square-miles of coastline were lost in the Lake Pontchartrain Basin alone during Hurricane Katrina.
“That’s three times the amount of coastline that the entire state loses in an entire year, gone in a single day,” Dufrechou said. “It’s hard to wrap your brain around it. We’ve never seen anything like this here and, quite frankly, I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything like this anywhere on the planet in recorded history. It’s like we have our own Atlantis that has slipped under the sea.”
Like I said, it’s pretty grim. I was half-expecting him to use the term “biblical” in his description of coastline loss, and was mighty relieved when he didn’t. I like Carlton. I always have. He has a keen sense of right and wrong.
And furthermore, he’s one of the few individuals I know who doesn’t have his head shoved so far up the ass of a developer he can’t breathe. But that is another battle for another day.
Carlton concluded the only way we can protect ourselves is through a combination of coastal restoration, big-ass levees and..yes…floodgates..Floodgates were proposed back in the 80’s for the area near the Chef Pass and Rigolets.
But, for reasons which still remain unclear, the project went by the wayside. Part of it undoubtedly had something to do with political patronage (Doesn’t it always?), but it was also that environmentalists were convinced that said floodgates would create a dead lake.
And like the Murphy oil spill during Katrina and the massive salt water intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico, which works its way into bayous and marshes and chokes off oxygen levels, isn’t going to make for a dead lake.
The idea of having manatees and dolphins in the lake is only fun for so long. Mark my words, the good times will only last until a big-ass tiger shark, or a school of hammerheads swim in and decide to start feeding on the Sea-Do population.
But process of restoration won’t be a quick one.
Carlton estimates it will take a good 15 to 20 years for the Louisiana coast just to get to a point to where it can become fully self-sustaining once again. And that, he noted, is a modest estimate
Again, I cite my own story:
“The best we can do at this point is help mother nature restore herself,” Dufrechou said. “But the two approaches, engineered flood protection and coastal restoration, have to work together. The alternative is that New Orleans will cease to exist, it will just recede further and further into the gulf until there’s nothing left.”
Which may or may not be for the better.
Despite the wave of “It ain’t there no more” nostalgia; despite the desperate pleas for residents and businesses to come back and rebuild; despite the food, the music and the unique culture…
Despite all of this, it still really remains to be seen whether New Orleans really is an invaluable treasure or a straight-up liability; just a shit-pile that insurance companies would like to see razed entirely.
Only time will tell, I guess.
The third story, which I just found out is being converted into a front-page story, is about an all-day meeting between fire chiefs. They’re deciding whether or not they should reinstate a burn ban.
This has been an interesting phenomenon since Katrina –
On the one had we’ve had so much tree and vegetative debris, mounds of it, mountains of it, debris as long as the eyes can see…And on the other end of the spectrum, we’ve had really bad, dry-ass weather. Well give Joe-Bob, up in Folsom, a six-pack of beer and a pack of matches in his hand and guess what?
It’s got disaster written all over it.
I don’t know how many times we’ve put the burn ban into effect, re-called it ad re-instated it. I’ve honestly lost count and almost don’t even care whether it’s four times, nine times or somewhere in between.
The twist this go round tough, is that fire officials themselves are torn over whether there should be a burn ban in place or not.
There are some fire districts who say “let it burn, the woods need clearing”; it meaning woodlands that are filled with storm-killed tree debris.
Meanwhile, the fire districts near the more populate area are saying “No friggin way, it’s too close to homes. Have you utterly lost your collective minds?”
Needless to say they’ve been in meetings all day, with no clear resolution in sight. John O’Neil, parish director of Fire Services though, said fire chiefs and Parish President Kevin Davis have called in the big guns, attorneys…and that some sort of agreement should be reached by tonight or Wednesday morning.
The obvious question, I guess, is why lift the ban in the first place? We know it’s dry. We know it’s been dry. We have a day or two of heavy rains here and there though, and Bam, the ban is lifted. It makes no sense.
But then again, very little makes sense these days inside the Recovery Zone.
Projects or bust…
So you want to move back to the projects.
I’ve been mulling over this one since last Thursday or Friday when local network news channels first started showing footage of the folks who have set up a “tent city” on the median in front of the St. Bernard Housing Projects, which are still under lockdown, no visitors allowed.
Tent city. Tell me that’s not a quaint little post-Katrina phrase. Power companies intend to set up tent cities this year if another major storm hits. Nothing good can come from tent cities.
Didn’t anyone see Scarface?
Al Pacino coked out of his mind, brandishing the machine gun screaming, “I’ll take you all to fucking hell.”
He, well his character, Tony Montana, started out in a tent city, during one of the more deplorable moments in U.S. history (maybe only rivaled by the scenes from the “bowl” aka N’awlins, between August 29 up to, well, now), the Mariel Boatlift, during the Cuban exodus.
I warn you, no good can come from this.
With that said, the good folks, the ex-tenants of the St. Bernard Housing Projects don’t give a rats ass. They have as much as said that they will storm the gates and take back what is rightfully theirs, laws, government and cops be damned.
In a strange way, I can feel their pain. I know what it’s like to lose a home. Two places I lived in during my college years no longer exist. The first place, an on-campus apartment that I shared with my then college sweetheart, was ploughed to the ground and, in its place, a huge recreation complex was erected.
I know this is a little different than the situation at the St. Bernard Housing Projects, but my points here are kind of (at least for now) in defense of why the former tenants feel like they do. I moved out of those apartments of my own free will, I didn’t have them taken from me by a Cat 3 hurricane. Later, another apartment complex I lived in, but had also moved out of, caught on fire and burned to the ground.
The latter was hard for me to deal with because, although again I had moved out of there, my stay at that particular apartment complex was during a very a complicated time in my life – I was learning for the first time, to live life single (without that college sweetheart), I was also rehabilitating from a total hip replacement that, at least at one point, almost made me decide to drop out of college.
But I picked my ass up from my bootstraps, and with the hip immobilizer still wrapped around my waist and leg, I moved the few possessions I had into that apartment, signed back up in school, graduated and lived there at least two or three years after I entered the grown-up world of work, responsibility and a career.
Although I had moved out and moved on, that apartment complex was still a place I liked to go visit sometimes. During the course of a particularly crappy or challenging day, I’d drive over, go out and sit by the pool and just recollect myself. The place was a dump but hey, I had attachments there. Memories. It was a place I could go to, to feel good about myself. Because it was a place where I overcame a lot of challenges in my life, it was also, later, a place of power for me.
Needless to say, that all changed after it burned to the ground. I didn’t have that place any more. I couldn’t go look at my old porch stoop. The place where I laughed, cried, and overcame was gone. Rubble.
Not unlike my mother’s house in Slidell, my childhood home, which took on eight feet of water during Katrina. No, I didn’t live there, but it was the place I grew up in. I had stuff in storage there – my book case, a ton of books, plastic topes full of old notebooks filled with my writings, poetry, fiction, old journalism stuff and a copy of the first newspaper I ever had a by-line in.
All of that is gone. My mom plans to rebuild but there are things that Katrina took which can never be replaced. It was the place I always called home, and even if it is re-built, I know it is never going to be the same again.
Eerily enough, it was only about a week or two before Katrina when I had to renew my driver’s license. That renewal was the first time that I ever actually bothered to change my address on it to the address I’m at now. I moved out of my mom’s house in the early 90’s, but still, for all those years when I was living at the dumpy apartment that burned to the ground, all the way until last August, I always kept Mom’s address on my driver’s license.
The point of all of this is yes, I understand how badly those folks want to get back in. I’m sure, for many of them, it is the only home they’ve ever known.
But I’m still not sure it makes it right. They are, after all, housing projects. True, my old apartment complex, the one that burned down, wasn’t a real huge step up from projects. Low-income housing is still low-income housing no matter how it’s dressed up and presented.
I guess what differentiates me from some of my fellow N’awlins-area natives is that I’m not willing to accept mediocrity, or inferiority for that matter, any more. I want better. I want better for my family than what I had.
Yes, our economy sucks.
True, there are a bazillion jobs out there today but you have to look at the high-water mark; yes the fucking pun is intended.
When thirty grand a year is considered by most to be “good wages”; when most of the jobs available are in the retail or hospitality fields (hey waiters and strippers may make a killing in tips but do they have medical insurance? A 401 K plan? Whose your baby’s daddy?); when you’re a young professional and work your ass off but still look at your paycheck and wonder, like that kid on the Skippy peanut butter commercial, are they mad at me?
It’s not good. But don’t just accept it. We’ve accepted mediocrity, we’ve accepted crap, we’ve have accepted crooked politicians and cops…Shit, we’re so fucked up we even root for them. We’re proud to have dropped out of school and going to work in the oil field when we were sixteen. How fucked up is that?
And then we have the nerve, the audacity to be angry, to have our sensitive little feelings hurt when the national media looks at us in judgment like we’re a third-world country.
Fuck that. Demand better. Demand better from yourself and for yourself. Demand better from others. Take action. Don’t sit passively in your fucking tents on the median and tell people, “We’re gonna go back in no matter what they say.”
Fuck that. Put on a suit and tie, call your city council members, march your ass down to the next planning and zoning meeting and tell them to raze those fucking oppressive-looking, ugly, brick projects and replace them with “low income” garden homes.
You’ve got to want it for yourself though. No one else is going to do it for you.
Just remember this, the next time you find yourself looking at the high-water mark.
Tracking the tracker – Part 2
The day started out..Well, tardy. The night before we’d laid out a plan of action.
It was simple enough. We were to wake up early, sixish, in order to make it to mass for 7:30. I’d arranged to bring Alex to my dad’s house for a few hours. There were a few kinks there but it was agreed that we would bring Alex to Dad’s church in Diamondhead for around eleven.
I knew this would be pushing it, if I were to meet Jim for between 11 and noon. But I figured it would be smooth sailing.
No such luck.. I woke around 7:30, obviously too late to make it to 7:30 mass. But I was sure they had a 9:30 mass so we should have been cool.
I showered and climbed into bed to wake my tired little soldiers, Andrea and Alex. Well, I kind of sort of had them awake, but…Yeah, you guessed it. I fell asleep with them. So we all wake up around nine, rushing and busting ass to get out of there. Needless to say we didn’t make it to mass. We did, however, make it to the Burger King that is inside the Texaco station on Louisiana 59. But to our dismay the Burger King was closed, probably hadn’t re-opened since Katrina.
We zipped under the interstate and ended up at Sonic, where we were pleasantly surprised to find that they were still serving breakfast. Actually, they serve it all day.
We ate and hit the highway. We made it to my dad’s church for a little after 11, right on schedule.
I wondered what was going on and why this was going so smoothly. We’re not really accustomed to smooth operations in our household. It’s usually a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants activity, usually riddled with trials, tribulations – a whole plethora of life’s little jokes tossed at us in an effort to slow us down. Lost keys, plugged in irons, cat shit, missing papers, coffee stains, hang nails, global thermo nuclear warfare, you name it. Whatever can slow us down usually can and does.
But this simply wasn’t the case on Sunday morning. We were sailing free and clear, feeling alive and talking about feeling alive too. Andrea and I also briefly discussed questions I would ask Jim.
Andrea actually sprang this one on me Saturday night.
“Well, do you know what you’re going to ask him?” she asked me. ‘You just can’t go into this interview not knowing what you’re going to ask him.”
“Why not?” I asked.
It was a fair enough question. Or so I thought.
“You just can’t go in there with nothing,” she said. “Don’t you usually have questions prepared before you start an interview?”
“Not really,” I said.
Which is true. There’s a method to my madness. I like to let the interviewee do most of the talking. I may ask one or two warm-up questions, but then I let them take the reins. Only after they’ve babbled for a long time and I think I have enough hand-written notes for at least a good solid half-page of copy do I start asking questions.
The only exception to this rule is if they say something in mid-stride that demands further explanation.
“Well, the public works department is usually funded out of the general budget, except for that time we bribed that judge in Delaware.”
I think you get my meaning.
No. I just let them talk, and only when they’ve talked a lot do I start asking questions, to start filling in the holes of the story. My brain is like a big empty word processor screen when I interview people. Yes, I care about the questions I ask and the information I’m getting, but there’s a part of my brain that’s like a built-in word count, always keeping in mind how much I have to fill in to fill up those big blank spaces on the empty page sitting there, waiting for me in the production room.
But I digress.
Andrea wasn’t having this.
“Well you need to know what you’re going to ask, it has to come full circle,” she said. “You can’t just ask him stuff that’s going to make you look like a dummy. I mean duh, where were you during hurricane Katrina? Everybody who watched the damned Weather Channel during Katrina knows Jim Cantore as at the VFW place in Gulfport. If you start off asking him that, he’s just going to look at you like you’re a moron.”
Ouch. She had a point.
I knew what she was talking about though. The perfect interview.
I’ve only had a few of them in my eight-year career as a journalist. They are these freak abominations where everything just seems to flow smoothly. Transitions are flawless. The interviewee is cooperative, articulate, not hesitant, doesn’t use cliches. We begin with a topic, flow to other ones from there, and when it’s all said and done we do come full circle with some sort of comment recapping the first question-answer segment from the entire interview.
Perfect interviews are few and far between. For every one perfect interview you’re liable to have 50 not so perfect ones and at least 10 straight-up shitty ones.
I freaked out. In fact, I think this is the expression I used when I answered her.
“That’s too much pressure,” I exclaimed, placing my hands to my face. “I’ll
flip out out. I’ll sound like a babbling idiot.”
By Sunday, though, I’d calmed down and actually even had a few questions in mind to ask Jim.
While en route, Andrea turned the I-POD on, and I requested Snoop Dog’s “187 on an undercover cop”
It’s a good song that got me in a groove of sorts. As I listened, I could clearly recall the riot and looting scenes from the Big Easy during those first days after Katrina. I actually saw this playing in my mind as I drove, like a video. The hatred of the poor and oppressed for the law man in blue was almost palpable.
And then we exited onto Hwy 90, at the beach and everything turned kind of grim. The devastation along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is unreal. I’ve been looking at scenes of destruction, cars in boats, boats in cars, houses in streets, trees on houses, now steadily since last September.
While cleanup efforts on our side of the parish have everything almost looking normal, there are other places that are not too perfect just yet. It’s almost kind of like you get immune to it though, or at least desensitized. When you’re around it every single day, it sort of loses its shock value.
That is, until you hit Mississippi.
It’s just decimated. Places, landmarks that have ben there since I was a kid. All of it is just gone. In the immortal words of Benny Grunch and the Bunch, it ain’t there no more.
It’s hard to handle.
We made it to the torn up Ocean Springs Bridge, parked and I climbed up onto a broken section. Sure enough, there was Jim. He eyed me curiously at first, like he was trying to place me.
“I made it out here,” I said.
A flicker of recognition crossed his face and he said, “I see you did. Cleaned up, showered, and rested I hope.’
“All of the above,” I said, as we shook hands.
We walked off to the side, found a small section of sidewalk and sat down and interviewed.
“Do you mind if I tape us?” I asked him.
“No, I’m glad that you are,” he said. “I wish more people would. It’s a pain in the ass getting misquoted.’
With that we launched right into it. I was sure I sounded like a jabbering idiot, or that I was going to freeze like some awestruck fan or something.
But Jim cut an unimposing figure even if some of his comments came off as sounding kind of condescending in a spot or two. I let it slide though.
He is, after all, a weather expert, and understands some of the more technical aspects of the weather. He’s entitled to a little superiority.
Only one really odd thing happened in the middle of the interview. The mayor of Biloxi walked by and suddenly, without cue, Jim just starts talking to him , leaving me holding the recorder like a dumb ass.
The conversation didn’t last long and we jumped right back into it.
It reminded me, though, of an interview I had a few months ago with our Parish President, Kevin Davis at this economic development seminar we had here.
Kevin and I were outside of the Castine Center plugging along when all of a sudden he looked up to the sky as if he were momentarily confused. He then looked down at me, re-focused and said, “I have to go back to my office to pick something up.’
And with that he walked away. No goodbye. No, we’ll have to finish this later. He just zoned out, like he got a message from the gods (maybe he did) and walked away. It was downright creepy if you ask me.
Well anyway, Jim’s little diversion from the interview wasn’t that bad, but for a moment I still had that weird vague feeling of….dangling….
I got over it quick, though, and the interview wrapped up quickly.
Well, sort of.
Jim walked back up to the top of the busted up bridge. There were some people, two young guys and then an older looking couple, who were sort of milling around, looking, I guess, to get a little time with the celebrity weather man.
I had wandered back to where Andrea was parked.
“Did you get some pictures of us?” I asked her. ‘Did you see that? He pulled me aside and we went and sat down in private for the interview.”
Sickeningly enough, I was like a giggling school girl who had just had a close encounter with a teen heartthrob.
Sean Cassidy eat your heart out. Even in your highest hey day, you’ve got nothing on Jim Cantore.
I was a little disappointed at how it had all sort of played out, because I knew Andrea wanted to meet the guy. The picture taken the day before at Clearview of her and Alex, well, Alex sort of stole the show there.
“Come on honey,” I told her. ‘Let’s go up to meet him.”
“Well, wait a second,” she said. “ I don’t want to get in his way.”
“We won’t,” I said as I led her up the clay embankment leading up to the road and bridge.
Just as I got up there and began to snap another picture or two of the bridge damage Jim says, “Excuse me, could I please ask you to step away here, we’re getting ready to do another live shot.”
Then, suddenly, he realized it was me. I’m not sure, but I could have sworn I saw him shake his head. By this point he was probably thinking, ‘Damn guy, I’ve let you interview me, what else more do you want. I’m married. I’m not your type. Go away. Security….”
The ugliness of it all.
So we let Jim do his live shot. Like I really had a choice in the matter. Andrea made me quietly wait it out and then made extra sure he was done before I assailed him. Also on the bridge with us were the two young guys, the couple, a black camera man…
About the camera guy – At one point, right after our interview, he was bitching to Jim about something. It was only a small tiff but I was secretly hoping that fists and tempers would fly.
Cantore does have this John McEnroe-like intensity about him.
Maybe it’s common in folks who are into the high-adrenaline game – like world class tennis or storm tracking. Who knows?
But I could definitely see Cantore flipping out, smacking the burly camera guy around a little and then dumping him over the broken remnants of the Ocean Springs bridge, food for sharks.
Another mindless Katrina digression – After the storm, as I talked to more and more people from Slidell (One, being a friend of mine who rode out the storm at Hwy. 11, another being a girl I grew up with, who ended up going to work for one of our state senators) who told me of the strange things that came in with Katrina’s storm surge. Chief among the were very large fish, like sharks, tarpon and tuna and massive red fish. Michelle, the girl who works for the senator, told me they found several large fish in her grandmother’s house, which is a few blocks up from my mother’s house.
Cantore didn’t smack his camera man, though.
There was also another guy, a correspondent of sorts, who I first thought was with a local television station. It turns out he wasn’t though. He too was with the Weather Channel. This guy, tall, lanky and white spoke with a British accent. At least I think it was British. It wasn’t domestic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Well, as I make my move toward Jim, this guy steps in front of me and sticks a microphone in my face and begins asking me the strangest questions (none of them hurricane-related) I’ve ever been asked, by anyone.
I identified myself first, spelling my name. Then the questions began.
“So what do you think of summer?” he asks.
“It’s hot,” I tell him.
He might have asked me where I was from but I’m not sure, and if he did, I have no idea what I told him.
He seemed pleased with my “It’s hot” reply, though, and his face lit up as if he’d stumbled upon some sort of precious secret.
“What does summer make you think of?” he asked.
It had to be a trick question.
“Hot days, cool water, beaches and cold beer,” I said.
He obviously liked this answer. For a moment it looked as if he was chuckling to himself.
“Do you have any particular fond memories of this area?” he asked.
Aha, here was my chance to throw in some Katrina references.
But still, I had to wrack my brain quickly for some replies. I did, in fact, have many memories of this area. Since I was a child, the Gulf Coast had been a place of recreation, sun and fun for all day-trippers from New Orleans and the north shore.
My father’s second wife, her family had had a house right in Pass Christian, not six blocks from the beach.
I mentioned this to him, adding that it was probably reduced to slab by the storm at this point. A fact that turned out to be accurate. I later confirmed it that afternoon with Andrea following the interview.
I also recalled Fourth of July fireworks shows that were always held in Bay St, Louis, just on the other side of the Pass Christian – Bay St. Louis bridge. This too pleased him and we wrapped up.
After wrapping up, I began to make small talk with Jim again. The British Weather Channel guy the nabbed Andrea, so I snapped off a few more pictures. Once they were done, I had Andrea take a picture of Jim and I. I then, in turn, took picture of Andrea and Jim.
She was much more composed and tactful in the way she carried herself in front of a celebrity. Me, I was like a teenage groupie. Andrea, on the other hand, was cool and composed. It might not have bee a perfect interview, but it was pretty damned close.
Interview with Jim Cantore –
Sunday, June 4, 2006
AD - I’m trying to think of where to start here. Well, first of all, where were you during Katrina? You were at the VFW out here on the coast here?
JC - The Armed Forces Retirement Home, in Gulfport.
AD - And it’s my understanding that you guys had to vacate that premises in the middle of the storm.
JC - Well no, we went up.
The water came in and we went up. Just like everybody else, we had to help, well we didn’t have to help, but we did. We helped the Seabees. We just did a small part of what they did. they deserve all the credit for getting some 450 heroes upstairs, as much food as we could get because of course the kitchens on the fist floor, and so was the ICU, and all the medical supplies it was just a freaking mass dealing of getting everything upstairs, but we didn’t have a choice.
AD - How long have you been doing this now?
JC - 15 years.
AD - What was the first hurricane you covered?
JC - Andrew, the second landfall of Andrew in Baton Rouge
AD - How did that maybe compare to Katrina?
JC - It doesn’t. Not even close. It’s not even in the same league; In my 15 years I’ve never seen water like that, not even remotely close.
And water so early in the game. Usually, the surge components I’ve seen come in, you know one to two hours before landfall. They’ll slowly start to build but you don’t get twelve to fifteen feet three hours before landfall. That’s incredible.
AD - We set a lot of records last season.
JC - We had three hurricane seasons in one, pretty much. We had three of the lowest pressures ever recorded in the Atlantic Basin. that’s pretty strong
AD - There’s a lot of talk of patterns and how this could be a repetitive pattern considering we set all the records we set last year I don’t see how the can be repetitive pattern.
JC - You know what, here’s the deal. I’m not saying anything about that. After 2004, I said we’ll never see anything like this again, this was a historic season in 2004. We covered huge landfalls, boom, boom, boom, boom. Then 2005 came along so I’m not saying a word. I’m almost afraid to.
AD - You were at ground level during Katrina.
JC - Ground zero.
AD - You were able to see a lot of the response as you were moving from upstairs to downstairs and how local efforts were coordinated. This year communications is a pretty big deal from the state level to the local level. We all saw what happened in New Orleans due to lack of communications
JC - There’s no question, I think everybody realizes a little bit in scope as to how we need to have things in place, before the storm and then after the storm. We need to be able to deploy to get communications out
There’s no reason why that shouldn’t have been done before, during and after Katrina. Somebody should have listened to Dr. Max Mayfield or watched us at the Weather Channel. I know Max personally and I know exactly how he felt about this storm as did we. But people disbelieved us. Having not dealt with anything like this since Camille, as far as the water was concerned especially. I don’t think anybody took it seriously.
AD - Which leads to the next question. Obviously we had last season. Do you find that people are taking this more seriously this year?
JC - We have to, we just have to.
We looked like crap as a country. We embarrassed ourselves. We’ve got to do better. I’m not saying we have to take care of everybody. The onus, I think, is on the individual. That’s where it starts. But we have to realize too that we have to be able to react quickly after something like this.
AD - At what point were you able to get outside after Katrina?
JC - We went out that afternoon. The water recedes after it comes in. It’s the coming in process that does all the damage. So yeah, we were out around two or three in the afternoon just shaking our heads. For me personally, it was like how in the heck, if we’re at 20-plus feet above sea level, did we get in that surge zone, four hours before landfall. I was just sort of shaken. It was a lesson for me
I’ll never forget my great mentor John Hope, the late tropical expert, he died back in 2002. He said ‘Jimmy, never get caught in the surge. That’s where you don’t want to be.’ He was right. Our vehicles were caught in it, we weren’t. We were in a building, we could go up, and obviously we took into calculation when we got there. Obviously we know better now, though, just what that surge can do.
AD - Being the Weather Channel, having all this technology at your disposal, you can pretty much forecast and see what’s coming, but once you’re bunkered down like that and once that storm is on you what can you tell from a scientific standpoint? Were you able to get wind speeds or anything?
JC - No. Nothing. I guess the highest wind speed recorded in Biloxi, was 90 mph gusts out near the airport. The wind, for all intents and purpose, was not the issue with this storm, but the surge.
AD - Not the magnitude but..
JC - The size.
AD - The size. I live in St Tammany Parish, at the western edge. I live over towards Mandeville not far from foot of the Causeway. I’ve got family in Slidell. I grew up in Slidell. We basically got a new shoreline there from the lake. Our house, my mom’s house, sister’s house and businesses, all of it was under eight feet of water.
It was perplexing. When we got back I went in to go take pictures for my mom. My childhood home. We had this huge piano that had been in one spot since I was a child. It never moved. It was flipped over.
She also had this huge dresser drawer in her master bedroom. It would take six people to move it. It was just just flipped over on its side. Out towards the lake, on Highway 11, boats and cars were just tossed. It’s odd because you see in previous storms, the damage these storms can do. But it’s different once it’s in your own back yard. It’s different when the eyes of the entire nation are on you, just basically shaking their heads.
JC - That was another thing that was different for me. It was kind of like I was a part of the storm. It was very hard to leave. I felt like I was leaving my wing men behind. I’ve got a family, I’ve got a home and family but it was still hard.
AD - It’s been weird. It’s been weird separating myself; I’ve been covering storm-related recovery efforts since the storm. It’s never really stopped for me since I came back from evacuating.
JC - It won’t stop. You could easily do two more years.
AD - It’s just incredible that we’ve got another season on us now.
JC - Yeah
AD - I guess one last question. Obviously you deal a lot with the media. What is the one thing that people aren’t asking you that maybe they should be asking you?
JC - Is my elevator going? Is it stuck? Is it broken? Why am I doing what I do? I don’t know. I think everyone has pretty much asked everything. I wish they would stop thinking that I actually bring them (hurricanes) with me. That’s absurd, that’s just absolutely absurd.
AD - I saw a guy at Clearview yesterday who was saying I don’t want to see you guy around, because all it means is trouble...
JC - I think it stems from simple fact that they have nobody else to blame. They’re like whose fault is it. And I guess you gotta blame somebody if it makes you feel better.
It doesn’t make me feel better, but it makes somebody feel better. But I don’t bring them with me. This stuff just happens. It’s mother nature.
Hurricanes are just huge heat engines, they’re supposed to take the heat from the tropics and redistribute it to the poles. Unfortunately, the United States just happens to get in the way every once in a while
AD - We had a really really mild winter. I doubt the Gulf water has ever really cooled. It’s already hot. In terms of coast line. Louisiana coastline, we lost..I’m not sure the exact figure we lost this year. around 30 or 40 percent, that was already already dwindling, was lost.
JC - You’ve got to realize that our mistakes for this hurricane we started doing them 40 or 50 years ago. You can’t wipe out marshland. You can’t just build whatever you want, wherever you want. We’ve always been susceptible to a Katrina, and not just New Orleans specifically. It just happened to happen last year.
Hopefully it will make us smarter. You can build stuff to withstand a Cat 5 if you don’t care about the first 30 feet of what your building on. That’s really the way stuff needs to be built..
But I still don’t think every friggin piece of coastline needs to be built on. Mayor Holloway is talking about rebuilding the entire barrier island out there, its gotten beat up, it will get beat up again but I think that’s the right step, the right track. Louisiana for example, you need to rebuild that marshland. You need to let that grow as naturally and as quickly as you can
AD - That’s the one barrier we have between us and the storm.
JC - That’s all you got
AD - That’s all we got down there, and basically, what they’re saying this season is that a category 1 is going to feel like a category 3 because of the amount of ground we’ve lost
JC - And the weakened state you’re in. Yeah. That’s true.
AD - I think that’s all I’ve got.
JC - Well thanks a lot for coming buddy.
Tracking the tracker
He’s been likened to Michael Jordan, inasmuch as Jordan has changed the sport of basketball, The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore has forever altered the field of weather forecasting. Whether it’s a blizzard in the northeast, a tornado in the mid-west or a Category 4 hurricane, like Katrina, on the Gulf Coast, Cantore has been there.
So when WWL Radio interviewed Cantore Friday morning, the second day of hurricane season, and announced he would be a special guest at a Cox Cable-sponsored hurricane preparedness seminar at Clearview Mall, in Metairie, on Saturday morning, I thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I could get an interview with the guy.”
He is, after all, a professional storm tracker. If anyone might have answers about these monsters that have been spewed out of the Atlantic, and into the Gulf of Mexico, the past few seasons, it had to be Jim.
On a separate, side note, Andrea has been threatening (Jokingly of course. At least I think so.) me since…actually since last August when he arrived in Mississippi to cover Katrina, that she was going to jump ship, abandon Alex and I and go have a not-so-secret rendezvous with Cantore.
Anderson Cooper too, but don’t even get me started.
Well, being the good husband that I am, and oh so secure in my masculinity, I figured what the hell. We’d go as a family to track down this infamous hurricane tracker.
We arrived at Clearview Mall at around noon or so. We had an interesting ride into Metairie.
We were about two or three blocks off of the Causeway when I noted, “It’s starting to kind of look like normal here.”
My astute observation was met with a snort of derision.
“You must need your glasses,” Andrea replied.
“What?” I said. “It is, just look.”
“Where at that lamp post that’s bent down to the ground there on the median,” she replied. “Or how bout that sign that’s blown out at that gas station. Oh look, there are some busted out windows. Yeah, it looks pretty normal. Should I start a list.”
Women. You gotta love’em.
I told her that wouldn’t be necessary and then, as we neared closer to Veterans Boulevard, I informed her I was going to get off there, rather than taking I-10 down to the Clearview exit.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t like the Clearview exit,” I told her. “It’s hard to navigate.”
Which is true. I’ve never liked that fucked up exit. Even when I lived right off it, I still used Veterans, or Cleary as a way to get there. She muttered something about us missing Jim and I told her traffic wouldn’t be that bad. It’s only a few blocks down Vets to get to Clearview, easily navigable.
And it was. Within a few moments, we were parked and walking into the mall.
I had no idea where, in the mall, Cantore was going to be set up at. But we rounded a few corners to a large open area near the food court and sure enough it had all the markings of an event. The first thing I saw was a large-screen TV, with some WWL DJ talking about hurricane stuff. Tables were set up all over the place, Cox Cable, WWL and Weather Channel personnel manning them.
It was about that time that I saw THE LINE.
Oh yeah. The line like totally wrapped the circumference of the entire area. It was like groupies waiting to get back stage at a rock concert to see Tommy Lee, Kid Rock or whoever it is the young girls are drooling over these days.
Lucky me. The guy the ladies, young, middle-aged and old, were lined up to see was none other than Cantore. The first thing I saw was the sunlight streaming down (the ceiling had one of those what are they called, sky-views) glittering off…well Cantore’s head. It was shinier than Nagin’s head, no small feat.
I caught myself though, muttering to myself, “be nice” as these thoughts filled my head. Was I actually getting jealous of a weather man? Of course not.
“He’s awfully damned short,” rang out the little ugly voice in my head.
Madness I tell you, sheer madness.
I got hold of myself though, got Andrea and Alex into line and decided to go see what was up. It was time to go play reporter. I say play reporter because I had (still have actually) a pretty good idea that my publisher wasn’t interested in a non-St. Tammany event.
And, unfortunately, Jim Cantore, storm chasing god or no, signing autographs at a mall in Metairie probably didn’t qualify as a St. Tammany event, no matter how I approached it.
“Hmm,” came that ugly little voice in my head again. “Maybe I can whack him over the head and drag him across the Causeway, to Mandeville, and then interview him.”
The only flaw with that logic being that the dude might just decline an interview if I whacked him over the head. Not too mention the felonies that would follow. It would get ugly. Especially if his legions of female fans found me out. They’d hunt me down like a bleeding boar. Mace me, do terrible things to me. Did I want that kind of ugliness? Of course not.
This was, after all, a family event.
I approached the stage, and snapped off a few pictures and then approached a Cox Cable lady. I told her I was with the local media (which wasn’t a lie), showed her my press credentials and told her I was interested in interviewing Jim. The Cox Cable lady then turned me over to a Weather Channel PR lady.
Ann was a nice lady who told me she would try to get me a few minutes with Jim after he was finished with autographs and pictures with the folks in the line. To kill time, I walked Alex to the bathroom, then made the rounds collecting hurricane stuff; tracking maps, those small plastic garbage bags that are the perfect car size; I even seized what I thought, at first were pens, but ended up being small pen-shaped tubes of hand sanitizer. I walked Alex to the food court and bought him a pretzel. The line was creeping.
Did I mention the line was creeping? Every now and then I would walk back up to the stage, snap off a few shots and talk to Ann, just so she wouldn’t forget about me. Somewhere in the midst of all this Andrea tells me to go fill out a card for the drawing they were going to have. Apparently they were going to be handing out a variety of different door prizes.
It was a way to kill a few more minutes, so I took Alex with me, walked over and filled out a card. Certainly no really thinking I was going to win anything.
Finally, just finally, the line was moving a little quicker; but only after the announcer told everyone to keep autographs and prolonged dialogue with Jim to a minimum, so that everyone would get a chance to be photographed with him.
Andrea was about maybe ten people away from getting up on stage with Alex, to go see Jim.
I was chatting with Jim’s PR lady and now, Jeff Morrow, another Weather Channel personality, though clearly not the star of the event. I kind of felt bad for the guy. It was kind of like bringing Alice to a Brady Bunch reunion show, when the only person people really cared about getting close to was Marsha.
Marsha, Marsha, Marsha, Marsha, oh how it sucks being the ugly middle sister. Huh? Where did that come from? Go away.
But yeah, I kind of felt bad for poor Jeff, so I was chatting with him too when all of a sudden they start announcing winners for the door prizes. I really want paying close attention. The announcer guy couldn’t have been but five feet away from me, but I was focused on Jim, and Andrea and Alex’s place in line.
Suddenly the announcer says, “And now, the winner of a complete set of golf clubs is, well, Ashton..Ashton, What’s this last name?”
“Daigle,” I muttered as I looked up at him.
He squinted at the slip of paper and cocked his head sideways, kind of like how my German shepherd does when I fart, or when she knows I have a snack in my hand.
“Yeah I guess it could be Daigle,” he said.
Bastard. Why didn’t he just announce to the whole mall, “Damn man, you’ve got the worst damned penmanship on the whole freaking planet dude.”
I was excited though. Barring a hundred bucks I won once off a scratch off lotto ticket in California back in when, 1993, I’d never won anything before. It didn’t matter that I didn’t play golf. I lived near a golf course. I could learn.
But there was still a slight logistical problem. I still had to interview Jim. Andrea and Alex got their picture taken with Cantore. And suddenly, a few minutes after the event began to break up. Cantore and his “handler” began walking away, like on the other side of the stage. I abandoned the golf clubs, made a break to try to head them off on the other side, and nearly flipped over a metal folding chair in the process. A state trooper looked at me like I was drunk, or crazed.
I’m not a celebrity stalker, I’m not a celebrity stalker, I was almost chanting to myself; but the state trooper could care less.
I rounded the corner and headed them off. There was general melee as some network news type, some young woman who had a really big vein bulging out of the side of her head, near her temple was trying to get to Jim. Jim’s handler looked around, saw me, nodded and said, “He was here first.”
Talk about feeling vindicated. Not only had I won the golf clubs but I had been there first.
“Nanny-nanny-boo-boo stick your head in poo-poo,” I wanted to say to the network news girl. I restrained myself though. I am, after all, a professional.
The handler turned to me and said, “Look Jim’s really on a tight schedule. How much time do you need?”
“About ten minutes,” I said.
“He doesn’t even have five minutes,” the handler tells me.
My elation began to fizzle out. What kind of chicken shit crap was this? She said it herself, I’d been there first.
My mouth moved before I could even think.
“You said Jim’s going to be doing live shots in Biloxi tomorrow morning?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Look if you an get me time with him there tomorrow, I can meet him. I live in Mandeville. It’s only about a 45-minute drive for me,” I said.
“You don’t mind?” she asked me.
“Not if I can get time with him,” I said.
She paused, obviously thinking this one over. She then grabbed Jim, who suddenly was being grilled by the network news girl, and quickly and quietly conferred with him. She then turned back to me and said, “Jim is going to speak to you real quick.”
He walked over and we shook hands.
“Man thanks for coming out,” he said. “I will be doing live shots all morning from the Ocean Springs bridge near Biloxi.”
“The one that’s crashed in the water domino-style,” I said, wanting to make sure I had my post-Katrina landmark correct.
“That’s the one,” he said. “How much time do you need?”
“Not much, but more than you have now,” I said.
“Yeah I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I kind of over-extended myself here. My producer is going to ape shit if I don’t get myself over to the Gulf Coast ASAP.”
“What time will you be there?” I asked.
“I start at 11, your time,” he said.
“Should I be there early, right after 11 or a little later?” I asked.
“Give me some time to get my head in the game, say about 11:45 or noon,” he said.
“Yeah, cool,” I said. “I’ll be there then.”
We shook hands. It was a done deal – an exclusive with the man.
And I won golf clubs. Things were looking up.
To be continued…..
The Coming Menace
On the second, full official day of the 2006 hurricane season, there is a general prevailing sense of ambivalence in the air. Is it the calm before the storm perhaps?
Or maybe I should just steer clear of such weather-worn clichés? In the immortal words of Britney, oops I did it again. It’s hard not to though in this climate.
Christ get a hold of yourself man, check all weather analogies at the door.
It’s time to break on through, break on through to the other side. There’s nothing like a dose of good ole crazy Jim to put things into perspective. But I digress.
It was an interesting day in the news today, at least from where I was sitting.
The first interesting conversation I had today was with one of our state Representatives, from the St. Tammany delegation, Tim Burns. I like Tim. Or at least I think I do. Deep down, I believe he means well. But he’s a freshman legislator and perhaps, maybe a little idealistic. Not that the two necessarily go together, but…well never mind.
Anyway, I called Tim in reference to a press release he sent out today (I just checked out his Web site and no, he does not have an archive of press releases. If he had I would have posted it here) which dealt with the progress of two communications bills that have passed through the House this session and which are on their way to be heard on the Senate floor.
The first bill, House Bill 540, seeks to (and I quote from the legislation) have “The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security develop a private encrypted microwave fiber and/or satellite network using an Internet protocol system able to withstand hurricane-force winds while making the best possible use of (And, no, I have no idea what this means) license-exempt spectrum to ensure that first-responders have a voice and data system post event.
The second bill, House Bill 619, and this one will be paraphrased for convenience sake, to create a wireless system of communication.
In a nutshell, Tim broke it down like this. He wants an Internet based comm.. system, instead of an 800 mghz. radio system and he wants to develop a system which relies on text messaging. The only flaw with either of these, as I saw it, were that they were both more or less dependent upon basic things like electric- which was in short supply following Katrina.
Tim, however, assured me that these systems did not necessarily need electric to function. Since I ‘m basically technically challenged, all I can really do is take his word for it.
“Text messaging was the only thing that worked right after Katrina when communications went down,” Tim told me.
I cannot remember if this is exactly true. My only recollection, as far as communications were concerned was me, sitting on the bed in our hotel room in San Antonio using my cell phone to call Andrea’s cell phone as she sat directly across from me on the other bed.
And of course the message when I dialed her number, “All circuits are busy due to the hurricane.”
The basic fact of the matter is that nothing really seemed to work. Some folks had luck with text messaging, while others didn’t. Some did okay with the Nextel walkie-talkie feature, while others didn’t. Satellite phones, from what I understand, were sketchy at best. Some people have said regular phone lines, in Covington, worked as long as other Covington numbers were being dialed.
The Sheriff, Jack Strain, claims the only reliable source of communications was the 800 mghz system used by his office, which allowed all (or at least most, it becomes a little hazy here) first responders within the parish to communicate with each other.
The state, ie..Governor’s office, state Homeland Security and State Police use a 700 mghz system which, apparently, isn’t compatible with any radio system used by any of the local jurisdictions; This, at least is what Kevin Davis claims.
Do you see the pattern emerging here? Or is it just me?
Tim wrapped up by saying the Governor’s office has done absolutely nothing to improve their communications systems with other state agencies. He wasn’t sure about communications with parish-municipalities or federal agencies, but was pretty adamant there’s no communications systems amongst state agencies- which is frightening to say the fucking least.
I mean if they can’t even communicate across the board with each other, you can bet communication with anybody else outside the Baton Rouge bubble will be for naught, which is going to be ugly come storm time. Hey, maybe they can just text message each other.
So, the next interesting conversation I had (speaking of the Sheriff) was with, yeah, you guessed it, the sheriff.
The Sheriff was in rare form today. He was apparently angered about Michael Chertoff’s recent visit to the NOLA area; and announcements from the state level that massive amounts of cash have been poured into state coffers in anticipation of the upcoming hurricane season.
“They have sent us no money in preparation for another storm,” Strain said. “They have sent us no assets with technical, military or FEMA expertise and we have had no communications from the state in response.”
Strain said the parish is fully prepared to take care of itself and its own citizens though. He noted that while last year his office and other parish government officials were prepared to fend for themselves for three or four days.
“We mistakenly thought the feds would be sending in the cavalry,” Strain said. “Now we know better. We know the state and feds will not be coming in. We have a two-week plan in place, where my deputies, as well as other parish agencies are fully prepared to be fully self-sustaining for at least 14 days, if not longer if need be. I’m here to tell you that agencies at the state and federal levels are all focused on New Orleans.”
Instead, Strain said he felt as if there was a lack of preparedness at the state level.
“I’ve seen little cooperation, no planning, no money for storm preparations at the local level, and no advanced communications. I keep hearing about all this money from the federal and state level. Who are they talking about? It’s certainly not in St. Tammany.”
Instead, Strain said he feels as if federal dollars, which in theory should come down the pike to be spent at the local level for first responders, are instead being funneled off and spent at the state level.
Strain said his statements are not meant to make any political statement. Nor are they a personal slam against Governor Blanco.
“I personally like her, she’s an extremely nice lady,” Strain said, in reference to Blanco. “The bottom line is that I could care less whether she’s a Democrat, a Republican or an Independent. I will not sit here and allow our residents think that they can expect something that they might not get…Don’t convince my residents of something that’s not real. Guess who they blame when that happens? Certainly not the governor or the federal government.”
Strain also noted that his statements are not a reflection on post-Katrina aid or FEMA and federal reimbursements.
“The help we’ve had from the federal government has almost made us whole again, and for that I commend and praise them,” Strain said. “But in terms of preparedness for future storms, the aid has literally been non-existent.”
A later phone conversation with Parish President Kevin Davis echoed similar sentiments.
“We haven’t heard anything from the state or the feds about any assistance,” Davis said.
Like Strain, Davis said the parish is prepared to be totally self-sufficient.
“I called Blanco’s office on Wednesday, the day before the start of the hurricane season and said, ‘Look, our plans are in place, but when were you guys planning on giving us a call. We have not seen or heard from you guys.’ Well, when I told them (the governor’s office) that I planned to say these things publicly, on the air, which I later did, then the Governor called and said she wanted to get with us in a week or so to make plans. This is something we should have been doing months ago, not two days, or a week later after the start of the new hurricane season.”
According to Davis, St. Tammany Parish isn’t the only parish to get such a response, or lack thereof, from the state and federal level.
“This morning,” Davis said Friday afternoon, “I talked to my counterparts in Tangipahoa, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes. They all told me that they didn’t have any idea either what the state was doing in terms of helping municipalities prepare for the upcoming season. It’s disheartening to say the least. But we don’t want our residents to be nervous. We will be all right, we will take care of our own.”
So, as you can see, the second day of Hurricane season 2006 was a live one. I, for one, do have faith in what both Jack and Kevin say. I’m certain our residents will be taken care of.
But the apparent disorganization at the state and federal level have all the markings of a disaster already in progress.
Flashback – I’m in Sugarland, Texas, a suburb that lies (I think) southwest of Houston. I am sitting in the 4-Runner with the air conditioner running.
The dogs, Zoe and McKenzie, are with me and Andrea and Alex are inside Wal-Mart. We evacuated from our home in Mandeville, Louisiana yesterday in a concerted effort to miss the path of destruction that is sure to be Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina became big news for us late Friday night, maybe even later. It’s just that we hadn’t noticed that her projected path had shifted drastically putting New Orleans smack dab in the middle of the storm’s cone of destruction. No. It was around midnight when Andrea and I logged on to check out Katrina’s latest coordinates and saw that it was more or less heading straight for us.
At that point, it was still a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, but the outlook didn’t look good.
I woke up leisurely enough on Saturday morning with the knowledge that we may or may not have to evacuate. Alex and I had all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Big K in Mandeville. We then drove up Louisiana 1088 to take pictures of illegally dumped trash for a story I was working on. Alex and I then drove up to the Abita Springs Airport to take some pictures, again, for another story I’d planned for the next week.
Loosely planned – I have to preface this story by noting that I’d been off kilter all week. I’d gone through the entire week thinking Labor Day weekend was coming. I realized on Friday, though, that Labor Day weekend wasn’t until the next weekend.
So it didn’t shock me that the storm had shifted. I chocked it all up to weirdness.
Initially, I found it hard to take a storm named Katrina seriously. She’d wrought some minor damage earlier in the week when she crossed the southern tip of Florida as a Cat 1 or 2 hurricane. I mean really, how bad could a storm named Katrina be? Even as we fled with dogs, cats and child yesterday in a mad dash for Interstate 55, before the morons with the state put the contra-flow plan into effect I was creating leads for the story I knew I would eventually have to write when I returned to work.
One lead, may favorite was: Although Katrina brought waves with her, no one was walking on sunshine as the hurricane pounded the Louisiana coastline.
I may still use that one. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
I’d been spending a leisurely day with my son. In many ways, it wasn’t different than many other Saturday mornings I spend with him, other than the fact that there was a vague, and I reiterate, only a vague feeling that something might not be quite right in the universe.
After the airport, Alex and I stopped at the paper. I’m still not sure why I stopped there. Oh yes, it was to get my publisher’s phone number so I could call her what we should do if the threat passed from “well, it could be hit or miss” to “Oh fuck! We’re all gonna die! Everyone run for the hills!”
I copied her number down and as we locked up and began to leave, I bumped into Louis Fitzmorris, the mayor of Abita Springs. He was on his way to an emergency meeting (The St. Tammany EOC aka Emergency Operations Center is located directly across the street from our newspaper office in the old Covington courthouse) with all the other mayors, cops and local government heads.
I asked him what was up, what he knew, if he thought this could be the big one.
At first he said, “Probably not.”
That’s the last fucking time I ever listen to Louis when it comes to forecasting.
But then he added that the collective heads of local government were treating it as if it could be the BIG one and that he would know more after the meeting-slash-conference-call with the big-wigs from the National Weather Service.
By the time Alex and I got home, people were lining up at gas pumps and the storm had intensified.
Andrea was ready to begin packing. And so it began…
I called Kevin Davis, our parish president and he said it didn’t look good, that storm tracks (all still projections of course) still had this storm with New Orleans dead in its sights. I asked Kevin when contraflow would go into effect and he asked the strangest thing, “Is this for print or because you’re trying to get your family our of town?”
I told him I just wanted to get out of town, but still thought it was a queer thing today considering the St. Tammany Farmer, my newspaper, was a weekly and that he knew damn well that we didn’t publish until Wednesday. It was then that he told me if contra flow did go into effect it would be at 4 p.m. on the dot.
“But you didn’t hear that from me,” he added, for good measure I guess. I told him to take care and that I would try to keep in touch with him via the telephone and/o email.
It was shortly before 1:00 p.m. when I got off the phone with him. The I called my publisher, to see what the plan was. I told her (Didn’t ask, didn’t beg or quibble) we were leaving town, just to be on the safe side, but that I would work on copy while evacuated and email stories to her from the road, from my hotel room. I told her I had some pictures that I would download for her when I returned to the office to pick up materials and documents for stories I was working on.
She said that if worse came to worse, we could probably operate out of the Daily Star’s office in Hammond. She also noted, with a hint of sadness in her voice that in its 100-plus years of publishing history, the St. Tammany Farmer had never missed a production week. It was a cheap shot, on her behalf, meant to instill guilt. But by the same token, I also felt her pain. If this were, after all, the BIG one, and we were in the epicenter, I should be staying put, not running away.
Alex and I rolled back out, returned to the paper and downloaded the pictures. We then raced back to Mandeville, back to the Big K to buy cat carriers, cat food, ice and several other things. By the time we arrived back at the Big K, store workers had already put plywood up in the windows and shoppers were scrambling like mad rats, buying up hurricane supplies. Four stores in the general area had already sold out of ice.
I felt like Alice right after she slipped through the looking glass or after she tripped on magic mushrooms. The Big-K had undergone a dramatic change in just s few short hours. It was surreal. I had to ask myself, repeatedly no less, “Is this the same store I just had a leisurely breakfast with my son in only a few short hours before?”
Indeed. It was that fucking weird.
Alex and I made it back to the house by 2:00 p.m. Andrea had gotten a lot of stuff, almost everything, packed and ready. By 3:15 p.m. we were on the road…..
The above writing is a journal entry, written in the very reporter pad I had been using the week before the evacuation. The writing of the entry itself was abruptly interrupted when Andrea and Alex returned to the car, hot and disheveled.
“It was so fucking weird in there,” she said to me. “I just got a real weird feeling.”
Indeed there was weirdness everywhere.
It is now, Friday June 2, 2006. Yesterday marked the first day of the official start of the 2006 hurricane season. It’s…well weird, to go back to that entry, reflect on it and then think of all that has transpired since that time and those initial two weeks we spent on the road.
Yes, two weeks. We packed as if we would be gone for a day or two; three or four at the longest. And although there was definitely a sense of foreboding in the air, as I can see in the writing in that entry, there was no way I could have, no way anyone could have really realized the destruction, the chaos, the governmental meltdowns- the personal loss and suffering that would follow, that has followed in the wake of Katrina for the past eight months.
I can’t believe it’s really been that long, that that much time has slipped by. There were so many things I planned to do. One was to keep a day to day journal, in that reporter pad, a sort of blow-by-blow Hunter S. Thompson-style chronicle of the events leading up to the hurricane and the shit storm that followed. But the images that hummed over the televsion sets first in Houston and then a day or two later in San Antonio were too shocking.
A new shoreline was created in my home town in Slidell. The shoreline of Lake Ponthcartrain now fell about eight miles north of where it usually was.
My mother’s house- the house I grew up in, the house where a lot of my stuff books, music and personal writings – was still stored took on eight feet of water. Eight feet.
Of course I didn’t know this at first. I didn’t know anything at first, except for the scenes that were coming out of New Orleans and Mississippi, death and destruction, looting, people walking around dazed…The one thing I remember the most, the image of Hardy Jackson a 50-something-year black guy in Mississippi, Bay St. Louis I believe, wandering the streets telling CNN reporters, “I’m lost. I can’t find my wife..she was in my hands but I she told me to hold on to our kids. She was just washed away..she’s lost.”
It’s his solitary image that still haunts me, more so than any of the other footage that was played and replayed, an endless loop during those first few days right after the storm.
Of course there was that. The initial trip back to our home in Mandeville, which only had slight damage, a small hole in the roof that as of this date is still tarped up and awaiting repair. This was followed by another week on the road, this one at our friends house in Atlanta.
Then there was the return home, for good, to the recovery zone. Back to work, back to reality. Boil water notices still posted in most places. Electric, phone, cable none of it back up and running at 100 percent. The first day back in ym office I found my old computer had blown. I was spending most of my time across the street at the EOC because the Red Cross, parish government, Department of Health and Hospitals were still basically living there and because some asshole hit something and ruptured phone lines.
Blackhawk helicopters hovered overhead night and day, the National Guard was set up in Target parking lot handing our free water, free food and boxes of MRE’s for weeks on end. And then Hurricane Rita, which re-flooded everything.
We’ve been under the national spotlight almost non-stop. Ray Nagin, whose hands are stained by the blood of hundreds he could have saved had he fucking just done something, was inaugurated today, re-elected after the fiasco..as the nation undoubtedly looks on at us in scorn shaking its collective head, muttering, “They deserve what they get if they re-elect him.”
Which is true, perhaps, but still a painful pill to swallow when you’re from here, trying to readjust and find your way in the recovery zone. Shit’s still being picked up from Katrina. Waterways are still clogged with fallen trees and sunken boats.
The Mississippi gulf coast is still flattened, FUBAR.
And now here we are, hurricane season 2006. Yeah, I’ve suffered from a pretty bad case of the would haves, could haves, should haves for the past few weeks. I’ve told myself, I’ve been too busy reporting the news to keep an honest chronicle of events. All of it bullshit, no doubt.
So, in this moment of redemption, I am embarking upon yet another attempt to chronicle both this new hurricane season, as well as the process of recovery that will be a part of life in southeast Louisiana, I’m sure, for many days, months and likely, years to come.