Saturday, December 30, 2006

Spokesman Review Part 1

My first story on Katrina recovery appeared in the Spokane, WA Spokesman-Review Idaho Edition today. It's the cover article for the Saturday local magazine section, "Handle Extra." Lots of pictures in the paper, though only text online. I'll have another one next Saturday. You need a Spokesman.com account to read them online, but such accounts are free - or, if you like, I can e-mail you the text. I don't want to post it here; it's too long for a blog post.

One slight correction for the print version. There's an error in the last sentence of the photo caption on Page 7, upper right hand corner. It reads, "Piles of debris were supposed to be hauled away by the Corps of Engineers but often the piles sat for months." The problem: the Corps has never, to my knowledge, taken "months" to haul away piles of debris. A week or two way back when, and a day or two now, but never "months." 'Twas probably a communication error between me and the guy who handled the photos, likely my fault, that caused that error.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fr. Jack's Christmas Eve Sermon

This is a summary of a Christmas Eve sermon from 2006. For more possible Christmas sermon topics, read this 2007 post with two sermon ideas, one cautioning against routine at Christmastime and one about Christmas as it relates to Christ's teachings, or this 2008 post about Mary's obedience to Gabriel.

As I've done almost every year since 2000, I went to church this Christmas Eve at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Father Jack, an all around great-guy and retired priest who doesn't really act retired, gave the sermon. He usually speaks on church history or symbolism, but this week he spoke about theology (albeit flavored with history - just the way I like it!).

Father Jack is much more conservative than I, but I really enjoyed his Christmas Eve sermon. It's my favorite Father Jack sermon. In a nutshell: The shepherds, by visiting the newborn Christ, risked all that was important to them. A shepherd's job is to guard his sheep no matter what, less a few get picked off by wolves or lions. Nothing is more important to a shepherd than the sheep - and yet, the shepherds Luke writes about abandoned these all-important charges to go and look at a baby. In doing this, they risked their jobs, their livliehoods, their reputations, and their families. This was the most irresponsible thing they could do (though it occurs to me that ignoring a host of angels above you might be a tad more irresponsible), but they did it anyway. I notice a parallel to Jesus' later call to his future disciples to abandon their lives to follow him - leave your father in the fishing boat alone, and let the dead bury their dead.

That said, Father Jack asked us if, in the spirit of the sheperds, we too would come and visit the manger.

For whatever reason, this holiday season seemed abbreviated to me, and it's somewhat shocking (and, as always, sad) that it's now over. Was it because I listened to less holiday music than normal? Because I was in New Orleans for the first part of the season, whereas I've become accustomed to wintery Decembers? Because I (shame on me) never put out the nativity scenes, and didn't read as much Scripture as I should have? Because I didn't read A Christmas Carol like usual? Because I crammed all my movie watching into a couple of days, rather than spreading it out? Because I didn't up the outside lights? Because we didn't get our tree up until the 22nd? (I doubt it was the last four reasons - I think these are more the result than the cause of things feeling abbreviated.) I don't think it's just me. My acolyte brother overheard the rector, Father Pat, on Christmas Eve saying it didn't feel like Christmas.

Sad. I'll just have to try harder next year, and do my best to remember to stay more connected to Scripture. And Dickens.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Departure

I got home on December 5 – my last few posts have been made from Coeur d’Alene, ID. I will continue blogging, as I have lots more to say about what I saw/learned in New Orleans, and about continuing news developments there. My next post will likely be one about the philosophy/mission of the Episcopal Church’s gutting program. I am also writing two articles for the Idaho Spokesman Review about New Orleans, and I will share those here.

While I'm glad to be back in North Idaho with my family for the holidays, I wish I was returning to Louisiana on January 2, rather than school in New Hampshire. Several reasons:

1. In New Orleans, I may not have been important or high-ranking, there were many people above me in the chain of command, but I did have my own role and my own responsibilities. I was me, doing my thing, and people knew me. At school, I will go back to being just one more student out of 4,000.

2. What I was doing in New Orleans was direct service. At Dartmouth, the only opportunity for direct service is a limited program on Saturday mornings. Sure, I can do activism and paperwork service, but that’s not direct service. For the most part, it’s back to self-indulgent activities and academia.

3. It felt good to get to know my way around New Orleans, and learn about the city, the storm aside. There’s just something about that place that hooks you once you drink the water. It happens to so many people – they come for a week and never leave. New Orleans feels more like home to me than Hanover, NH, and I’ve spent three times as much time in Hanover!

4. In Louisiana, most of my late afternoons and evenings were free, so I got lots of reading and personal reflection accomplished. At Dartmouth, as in high school, I’m often 24/7 busy with activities, groups, and studies. I would like to continue enhancing my prayer life and finding time to stop, breathe, think, and reflect, but I’m worried that I’ll get sucked right back into the busy vortex.

The readjustment will be tough, but I’m sure I’ll get through it without too much trouble. It’s something I have to do. As much as I may want to go back to New Orleans, it’s just not an option – I need to finish my degree. This may not be direct service now, but it’s preparation for direct service later.

I said my goodbyes to some of our regular customers at the mobile unit. One sweet older lady I got to know got very sad and said, “Why you leavin’ us, baby?” When I told her I had to go back to school, she was very understanding, and said yes, I need to finish my degree. Then she gave me a kiss on the cheek! Another lady, also sad to see me leave, was even more insistent that school was the right path for me to follow. How about that! I don’t mean to make a racial thing of this, but black mamas are always so wise! Even in the midst of their own struggles, when they need all the outside help they can get, they’d still kick my butt if I didn’t help myself by going to school!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Two New Bishops

The Diocese of Southwest Florida elected the Rev. Dabney Smith as its new bishop coadjutor (bishop-in-waiting) last week. Father Dabney was the rector at Trinity Church in uptown New Orleans, a prominent parish that runs the Loaves and Fishes meal truck I wrote about. I think I may have met him briefly, but I'm not really sure - we may have howdied, but we never shook, so to speak. But, I've only heard good things about Father Dabney. His parishioners seem to love him, and Katie, who runs the Diocesan gutting program, had only high praise for him. So congratulaions to Father Dabney and the Diocese of Southwest Florida!

Father Dabney is the second priest from the Diocese of Louisiana to be elected as a bishop this year. The Rev. John Bauerschmidt, rector of Christ Church in Covington (on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain), was elected Bishop of Tennessee in October. Having two of its priests elected bishops speaks well of the Diocese of Louisiana, and I would imagine that having experienced Katrina and its aftermath as a pastor is a unique qualification that will help these men make excellent bishops. However, my heart goes out to Bishop Jenkins, who has already lost a number of clergy in the storm's aftermath. Two more departing rectors is yet another cross for the Diocese to bear.

Stupid, Stupid, STUPID!

Shame on you, New Orleans voters! Shame!

As most news junkies are now aware, Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-LA) won his runoff election for Congress last Saturday. Jefferson is under an FBI investigation for taking bribes; an informant caught him taking $100,000, $90k of which was later found in his freezer. He was also roundly criticized for his actions following Katrina: while other residents were slogging through toxic, waist-deep water and other politicians were fighting bureaucracy to speed up the rescue process, Jefferson had a helicopter rescue him and a few possessions from his house. He defeated state Rep. Karen Carter, another Democrat, by about a 15 point margin, and that's a real shame for Louisiana. Most folks expected Carter to win in a landslide, not the other way around; endorsements from two key West Bank figures, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and state Sen. Derrick Shepherd, the third place finisher in the original Nov. 7 election, put him over the edge.

The popular character Lee was ticked because Carter criticized him and other Jefferson Parish officials for not allowing Orleans Parish residents to evacuate during Katrina (gee, Sheriff Lee, did you really expect that to win you more friends?). The speculation about Shepherd is that he expects Jefferson to go to jail, and wants to run again in the special election to replace him - something he couldn't do if Carter were elected. Voters also chose to ignore the FBI investigation, saying innocent until proven guilty (never mind that that only applies to the court of law, not the court of opinion), and that if the FBI were going to indict Jefferson, they would have done it by now (never mind the notoriously sluggish pace of Justice Dept. investigations, and the history of indicting politicians AFTER re-elections). Other voters said corrupt or not, Jefferson has seniority in Washington that helps New Orleans - which may have been true two years ago, but not anymore. A freshman Carter would have had more clout than the disgraced Jefferson - Speaker-to-be Pelosi kicked him off Ways and Means, the powerful money committee he sat on, and announced earlier this week that he won't be allowed back on, at least until the investigation is over. Any clout his seniority won him has been lost, and the folks with real influence and power no longer respect him.

Listen to me, Louisiana: The rest of the country is looking at this election and is wondering what the hell's wrong with you. Your politics are seen as corrupt, and you are seen as clueless - maybe that's true, maybe it isn't, but you sure didn't help the perception. What you did do is re-elect a corrupt oaf with no clout or influence in DC. He'll never be able to rebuild the influence he once had; if you'd elected Carter, at least she could have started saving up chits for later, something Jefferson can't do. This man is going to be indicted, he's going to be arrested, and he is going to go to jail - just look at the facts surrounding his case. When he does, you'll have to have a costly special election to replace him, and that's money you should have spent on recovery.

I hate to get upset with voters, because democracy is important, and I'll never blame someone for electing or reelecting a person of a certain party or philosophy. But corruption isn't a philosophy, Jefferson's reelection harms the NOLA recovery effort, and I don't want him in my Congress. Shame on you, Louisiana. (Full disclosure: I volunteered on Carter's campaign, and met her a couple of times.)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Story of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church

As I mentioned earlier, while in New Orleans (I got home a couple days ago - more on that later), I stayed with the other interns at the parish house of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, uptown on Carrollton Avenue. The congregation was very hospitable, and I sang in the choir. Since the storm, the church has lost 25% of its pledging units. That's a small loss compared to many other local churches, but St. Andrew's was not wealthy to start with, so it was a big hit. Fortunately, their school (grades K-8, I think) is back up and running.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, parishioners were very relieved to see this picture:


This Rite Aid is next door to St. Andrew's Episcopal School, about a block away from the parish house. What parishioners saw when they looked at this picture was not an attack on their local neighborhood drugstore, but rather, A DRY SIDEWALK! This depressing picture of neighborhood chaos had a silver lining: it showed that Katrina had spared St. Andrew's! And indeed, the storm whipped away one school building roof and drenched the contents, but the rest of the property was safe. (As you may know, 80% of the city was underwater. The remaining 20% was a narrow strip along the Mississippi River, where the ground was a bit higher - like in the French Quarter, or the Carrollton neighborhood. This is why wealthy neighborhoods tended to get off easier - riverfront property costs a pretty penny anywhere. The safety was an added fringe benefit, NOT an evil plot by the government to ruin poor or black neighborhoods to save the rich or white ones.)

Mother Gaumer, the rector, told us interns about finding this photo. It circulated very quickly through the e-mail inboxes of St. Andrew's parishioners. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband (a Dartmouth alum) drove into the city to get the church silver and some vestments and save them from looting. The most direct route to St. Andrew's was blocked by big tanks, but they finally arrived via an indirect side street route (going the wrong way on one-ways, as there was no other way to get around). What should they find but several hundred very polite, kind, and professional members of the Oklahoma National Guard, camped out on the church property! That silver wasn't going anywhere!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

High and Dry

Here are two photos I took Monday afternoon, about a mile inland in the lower Ninth Ward. 15 months or so after the storm, and there are still boats in yards. That tells you something.














Tuesday, December 05, 2006

More on Common Ground

Scott Crow, one of the two Common Ground co-founders, found my lonely island blog (how's that for an ego boost?) and left a comment on my recent post about Common Ground. I figured I'd put it up front so you could see it, since he's elaborating a bit on part of my post:

"hey i thought you might be interested in this article which covers the events that lead to forming common ground.
thanks for the mentions, i just wanted to clarify.
at our height when NO ONE was on the ground we had 5,000 volunteers a week.
we risked our lives especially in the early days (literally) as i was almost shot by white vigilantes and the policedue to our politics of self determinationfor the communities. this is why the state brought us under investigation.
anyway thanks for your good work and good luck.
scott crow
co-founder of common ground"

Three thoughts on Mr. Crow's comments:
1) There are two sides to every story, and I imagine the FBI and ATF might say he's under investigation for different reasons - but I'm not going to spend any time digging around for further articles on the subject. You can if you wish.
2) 5,000 volunteers seems a little high, but given what I've seen/heard about CG, I'm willing to believe it. But while CG might have had more volunteers on the ground than anyone else, he's wrong to say "NO ONE" else was around whatsoever; I'm familiar with several church groups that started rolling here immediately after the storm - there are numerous clergy members who used their clergy credentials to get in through military checkpoints.
3) Perhaps white vigilantes were the vigilantes who shot at Mr. Crow, but they weren't the only vigilantes in the area shooting at people. Violence does not know race boundaries.

But any little quibbles aside, this city is very lucky Crow and Malik Rahim founded Common Ground. Like many other organizations, it's done some amazing relief and recovery work. The ninth ward, Algiers, and other parts of the city wouldn't be where they are today without CG.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Some Good News on the Recovery Front

While most of the recovery news out of New Orleans is still bad, there are always spots of hope. Here are several good news stories from the past week, including two great court decisions in two days:

1) ROAD HOME IMPROVEMENT: The “Road Home” program is the official federally funded, state administered program for distributing rebuilding money to homeowners. Allegedly, anyone whose home was received 100% damage (which is just about everyone) is eligible to receive a $150,000 grant. The program is Governor Blanco’s baby. However, any money you received from your insurance or FEMA is deducted from the total, and if you didn’t have insurance, you’re penalized for that, too. In the end, the average grant has been between $30-$40,000. That's enough for many families to pay off their mortgages, but while it's better to be broke than in debt, it still leaves you with nothing to start with. Furthermore, the Road Home program is a bureaucratic mess – 123,000 homeowners are eligible for the aid, but as of November 14, of 77,000 applicants, 23,500 had been interviewed, 2,500 notified as to how much money they're eligible for, and 27 actually given their cash. Not 2700, not 270. Twenty-seven.

The good news: the program is still a mess, but it may be getting better. Gov. Blanco demanded that 10,000 award notification letters be sent out by the end of November, and the Road Home staff was tripled. The results are mixed, but better than before: the 10,000 letters were indeed mailed out (though 25% contained some degree of error), and the average award is now $64,992.

2) JUDGE PUTS HOMEOWNERS AHEAD OF INSURERS: In the first of our happy court rulings, a Louisiana federal judge ruled in favor of homeowners and against sneaky insurance executives trying to cover their own butts at the expense of hurricane victims.

November 29: “NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A Louisiana federal judge has ruled many New Orleans homeowners whose houses sustained water damage after Hurricane Katrina are not excluded from coverage under their insurance policies, a judgment that represents a loss for the insurance industry.

In an 85-page judgment, U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood Duval denied motions by some insurers seeking to stop policyholders from receiving claims they said were prevented by exclusion language spelled out in the policies. The insurance companies argued the industry standard wording for what constitutes a flood covers any inundation of dry land by water. But in his decision, which insurers are expected to appeal, Duval drew a distinction between flooding that occurs naturally and the destructive force of the water that rushed into the city when the levees gave way.”

3) 2ND JUDGE PUTS HOMEOWNERS AHEAD OF FEMA: In our second happy court ruling, a second federal judge ruled that FEMA screwed many homeowners in not fully explaining the rules before cutting their aid, ordering FEMA to restore the aid.

Nov. 30: “WASHINGTON — Condemning the bureaucracy at the Federal Emergency Management Agency as "Kafkaesque," a federal judge yesterday ordered the government to immediately resume housing payments to Gulf Coast residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. Barely six months after Katrina ravaged the region, FEMA began ending payments to several thousand families still in temporary housing and unable to return to their homes. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said the agency had violated the evacuees' rights by not adequately explaining why it was ending the benefits, making it difficult for storm victims to appeal the decisions.”

But like I say, it’s not all good news. Take me seriously when I say FEMA is screwing up as badly now as it was before the storm.

Friday, December 01, 2006

In Which I Give Out Stuffed Animals; and Other Vignettes

We must strive to pray in the closet, but sadly, I feel I need to come out of the closet for a moment. I'm leaving New Orleans soon, but this region's going to need help for a long time to come. I like to tell volunteers that being here is the second most important thing they can do to help the city recover - the most important thing they can do is to go home and send two more people to take their place. To try and inspire others to do so, it’s important to share these stories of lending a helping hand, even if it does seem boastful. :-( It feels good to help others out, so please, folks, feel good! Come to New Orleans and pitch in, this city sure needs it!

Stuffed Animals
The best part of my job is giving stuffed animals to little kids. Twice this week I got bigger smiles than usual, it was great! Sometimes the kids seem confused, like they’re not sure why I’m giving them a toy, or if they get to keep it. (A friend suggested they may not be used to getting gifts at all.) This week, I gave a little girl a Santa bear, and she broke out in the biggest smile I’d seen all month. I gave a little boy a stuffed gator the same day, and though he didn’t really smile or laugh or play with it, he cried each time he dropped it. Then there was the little boy who got the blue and purple hippo. He pushed it away, brought it close, pushed it away, brought it close, pushed it away, all the while with big eyes and a bubbly smile. He was too small for words, but I think words might have ruined it anyways. Oftentimes I’ll give particularly needy folks blankets – a cold snap hit last night, and many folks in the lower ninth ward still don’t have gas or heat – and they’re always appreciative. It feels good to know I made a direct impact, but nothing compares with a toddler’s smile!

The Spanish Truck
Earlier this week, a man stopped by our mobile unit looking for information. He was a white guy, originally from Alabama. He follows big storms to clean up after them, and has been here for awhile. Part of his construction crew, he said, is a group of Latinos from Beaumont – several adults and a few kids. They were living in a brand new truck, but unfortunately, the truck burned down – it was all these Latino folks had in the world and had all their belongings in it, and it wasn’t insured. :-(
The Alabama guy was hoping we could point him in the direction of help for his workers. I’ve been getting requests for help with the rent money more and more often lately. These requests are generally legit, but I can never give money – just information. I usually give the number for the Office of Disaster Response (which just hired a bunch of social case workers) and advice to see either NENA (a Lower Ninth ward neighborhood association) or Common Ground. If they need help gutting their house or rebuilding, I also give them a list of other programs that gut. I gave this Alabama stormchaser the typical numbers, and we got to chatting a little bit. He was feeling really bad about the tragedy, and said that everyone on the crew had chipped in $50 to help buy the Latinos new clothes. That gave me an idea: we have a handful of Wal-Mart gift cards in the SUV, so I grabbed two (I think they’re $25 each). The guy was flabbergasted – he was just asking for info, not an actual handout – but overjoyed. And that felt good.

Ms. Yolanda
The next day, I helped out “Ms. Yolanda.” She flagged me down in the SUV a few blocks from our warehouse. She was wondering my “Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana Hurricane Recovery” trucks meant we had an operation in the area. (Not really – the warehouse doesn’t have much to offer on its own.) She was a bit distraught because her car had broken down earlier in the day. Her roadside service wouldn’t help her out because the account was registered to her husband’s cell phone, and the account cell has to be with the car to get a response. She’d been stranded for a few hours (she lives a couple hours away), and was dirty and starving. I wasn’t able to offer much – just paper towels, bleach, a candy bar, and a fresh shirt. Quinn couldn’t think of anyone to call to help her with the car, so I brought her the few supplies we had, thinking I’d hand them over and wish her luck. She was grateful, but still needed a shower and some food – and just as I was saying goodbye, I remembered Cat, my friend from Dartmouth, was only a few blocks away at a women’s shelter! I called Cat, who said yeah, we can give her a bath and some pork and beans. (She was also able to give Ms. Yolanda some clean pants, I later found out). I had lunch with Cat the next day, and she said they met Ms. Yolanda’s basic needs and helped her feel better, but she didn’t really calm down. Apparently her husband told her to drive the car until the part clear fell off – not the safest plan, but what can you do. Anyways, I was lucky to remember about Cat at the last minute, and it felt good to walk Ms. Yolanda some clothes and walk her over to the shelter.