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Category Archives: Katrina

Alive And Almost Well in the Big Easy

Here it is the day we’ve all been waiting or dreading depending on your beliefs. It’s the day called Fat Tuesday (the literal translation of the phrase) a.k.a. known in French as Mardi Gras. Kind of ironic in more ways than one, too. Ain’t too many fat people around here, not to imply “fat” is a crime; I’ve never been. And although most people who have returned have finally exhausted their supplies of M.R.E.’s (Meals-Ready-To-Eat) that doesn’t necessarily mean we charge headlong into the massive Po’Boys and highly saturated fried seafood of the P.K. days (pre-Katrina, kind of like B.C. & Anno Domini by Gregorian standards). As of today there are few if any neighborhood restaurants operating as were P.K. unless you live in the Quarter. So if you have gained weight recently, it’s nobody’s fault but your own that you drove the four or five miles for each meal instead of jogging.

Apart from the culinary devastation my hometown has suffered recently, something must be said in favor of the spirit of returned New Orleanians. The Mardi Gras you all know is quite rightly defined as the “party of the parades.” It used to be the city tripled it size in the days surrounding the event with about a million people showing up for the biggest party on earth. I don’t have an official count as yet since I write this on Mardi Gras Day, but we’ve got a few people in the streets taking their mind off neighborhoods which lay dormant for miles around the parade routes. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The natives who couldn’t be here might be a little disappointed, but those who really wanted to be, of their own accord, found the way. If FEMA would have offered free money for the trip, many more would have been present. So, suffice it to say, those that did make it here earned the right to party. And you get what you pay for, don’t you?

Now don’t get all huffy! Generalizations aren’t intended to be blanket condemnations in my comments. They’re meant for those people who don’t fit in those shoes. If you’re not here, you’re not necessarily the target. Funnel your frustrations at the goal of being worthy of returning. You have the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness at your own expense because most of the returnees here right now are working for those same guarantees with sweat and toil. Wow, kind of like pioneers who used to make this country work in its early days . . . before political correctness hijacked “right” and transformed it into “entitlement.” Fits? Wear it.

Okay, back to the philosophy of Fat Tuesday.

In addition to being a French phrase, Mardi Gras is also a melding of dissimilar traditions. New Orleans being a Roman Catholic province, the holiday is the final fling before the 40 days of penance begun the day after Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday. You know, the old “sack cloth and ashes” thing where you self-flagellate for your sins? Depending on your belief system, secular or religious, this is another one of those generalizations not intended to spear Roman Catholics, per se, but the truth must be told for proper perspective. And it kind of falls into the same category as Christmas trees, Easter bunnies and Halloween costumes. If you believe the Judeo-Christian deity is it, consider this idea a toss-up for meaningful discussion without stoking up the Salem barbecue pit.

Does it make really good sense to consciously violate every moral concept by getting plastered, exposing yourself (genitally speaking; unfortunately I have seen this happen), wrestling old ladies for a pair of beads, spending inordinate amounts of money to buy those “throws,” and then the next day think your saying your sorry for forty days beyond is the correct thing to do? Granted, I think the majority of people who take the kids to a parade are not violating any moral principles in doing so. Just like the Old Testament people were forbidden to eat food offered to idols and the New Testament people were told food is food. So I guess the operative principle here is where do you stand in your belief and understanding of your role in any participatory event. And if a tree was a pagan symbol for some tribe in the past, does the use of one at Christmas constitute its degradation as a symbol? Remember the Old Testament Golden Calf? Ate at Micky D’s lately? You know, GOLDEN arches, COW patty (not field patty! Get a grip and follow my reasoning!). The dust of the broken tablets is on your conscience, huh? A pebble in your shoe?

I haven’t been a participant in parade revelry for years now. I don’t see the point, but that’s just me. Fundamentalists have their own Scriptural fence posts to skewer people with. I prefer to ride the fence so I can keep a good look at both sides equally and if I ever do “fall off” it most surely will be the Fundamentalist side sans a “judgmental” triple flip as I fall to the ground. I observe and I write my thoughts down then share them via blog. (Oh my! “Gog” & “Magog”! I wonder if there is something relative to alphabetical codes in words ala DaVinci!)

I took a ride around the neighborhood this afternoon. It’s hard to separate the concepts of judgment and circumstance when you tour the neighborhoods around here. Once again, your belief system tempers those glasses you see it through. Now about 6 months removed from the storm, it’s really hard to know what really happened to this city in minutes or years depending on your political belief system. Whichever political system you choose, it has failed miserably over the years to create the panacea that was promised. I don’t care what side you are on! And just like this party-like atmosphere this city is experiencing as I write, from the decadent, narcissistic body exposers to the ultra-Conservative Inquisition “damned to hell”-ers, most of us are caught in this vise in between. We are squeezed. Kind of like being a foot in the wrong size shoe. Between spirituality and politics. So I guess it’s one I will just have to wear for a while. Praise be to God . . . and Dr. Scholl . . .

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2006 in Katrina

 

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. . . If A Picture Paints A Thousand Words . . .

That’s from the Bread song “If” and it speaks to a girl and how words could never do her justice in describing her with mere words. It’s a romantic little song and unfortunately what brought it to mind today was anything but beautiful. Nevertheless, the words and their soulful lyricism of the song ring true but in a different way.

If I were to “paint” one picture today, it would have to be inspired by Poe or King and their dark vision of what evil things they would have us to believe lurk around us. And the only things I have circulating through my mind this night are memories of the 1970’s TV show “Night Gallery”, a “Twilight Zone”-like series which focused on the horror genre with weekly episodes to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Before each show, the host droned his brief intro and to close, the camera focused on a painting representing the name of that week’s scary show. They were always dark and gruesome images inspired to make you look behind you because you “heard” a door opening (only one didn’t) or it might cause you to hear a loathsome whisper from the next room (although no one was home but you). They set the mood for the story you were about to hear.

In my case, the picture before each story I would tell would be the same in most respects and the phrase “the words would never show the you I’ve come to know” eerily wafts in the background without a beautiful woman in sight. Moment by moment and step by step my eyes have only seen the same story over and over on this day. Some of you older ones will remember the nagging phonograph anomaly of a skipping record, hearing the same few seconds of a passage over and over until you bumped the record. You younger ones will just have to ask one of us elders to explain it. But no matter what I did today, the passage repeated itself over and over, not necessarily the same words but not very different at the same time. And a million words couldn’t do justice. You just had to be there because this attempt will fall far short of perceivable reality.

Words, like photographs, can only convey a momentary representation of visualized horror. In this limited two-dimensional communication between the eyes and the brain, we often forget that we must willingly force ourselves to add the “Z” plane to “X-Y” axis to form a realistic image closer to the truth. It’s a two-dimensional limitation of communication we must overcome. However, due to the safeguards of our grand design, the “Z” plane is either willingly or logically “padded” by our subconscious to ease the blow to our senses. So, by design, I believe our perceptions of what we see or experience is not always the complete truth in all of its depth or contour. We are so used to watching TV or a movie and allowing ourselves to fill in the missing “Z” plane with our own estimation of its depth or proximity, a level we know inwardly we can tolerate when we see horrifying things because we inwardly temper the intensity of our reactions to our ability to cope with that fear. And some people do it better than others. But what I have seen over and over today has been seen by millions and my purpose here is to amplify that what you saw is not what you saw. It is much more.

I had the distinct displeasure of touring St. Bernard Parish today—November 5, 2005—while journeying to my sister’s former home in hopes of recovering what little property she had left from Hurricane Katrina. For a frame of reference, Orleans (New Orleans) Parish is sandwiched between Jefferson (West) and St. Bernard (East), both Parishes being less than half the area of the Big Easy. St. Bernard was closer to the hurricane epicenter which made landfall in Mississippi about 60 miles away to the east. And St. Bernard is primarily flat marshland and extends southeast to the Gulf of Mexico on the east side of the Mississippi River. And for discussion purposes, St. Bernard bore the biggest brunt of damage for the Tri-Parish area of eastern Louisiana. And what I saw today cannot be captured in words or film.

It was like . . . like . . . a “Night Gallery” painting only the horror could never be put on canvas or this page. Since St. Bernard is nothing more than a narrow strip only a couple of miles wide (for the most part), I managed to tour a greater part of the upper parish going as far as Paris Road. I did not see one building, home or business that was not damaged in a major sense of the word. Buildings with no roof, strip centers with all windows blown out and contents strewn across the parking lot (or piled out front after cleanup), homes lifted from their foundations, water lines extending 6-7 feet on each building, vehicles stained with a white funk from top to bottom, shopping mall parking lots jammed with trailers of every shape and size and the occasional person carrying arms full of sheet rock or lattice to the six-foot by thirty foot pile of refuse in front of the shell of their home.

Chalmette/Arabi area

It was no better at my sister’s “home.” She lived in a double owned by my aunt near the Arabi Café right at the bend in the road. I used to love to the Cafe go there because they served breakfast 24 hours a day and my favorite was the pork chop and eggs plate with hash browns and grits. It was the best. But not now. Just across the highway is my sister’s street. Turning the corner I could see the three blocks of houses before hers each with its own distinct pile in front mostly consisting of a refrigerator, a washer, a dryer, a sofa, a bed, a pile of crumbled sheet rock and miscellaneous former belongings of anyone who lived in the respective home.

Community St. in Arabi.

Let’s do the math. Let’s say 10 homes on one side of the block times 2 for the other side of the street is 20. Take that times the three blocks to my sister’s house is 60. She lives mid block so that’s another 10 bringing us to 70 and another two blocks to the end of the street gives us about 120 homes. And everyone with the same problem, identical. None were spared in the least. Now I don’t know exactly how many streets there are in St. Bernard and exactly how many homes are on each block or street, but my sister is about two miles into St. Bernard and it extends another sixty miles down river. It does thin out in homes and population as you go further down but the fact is almost 60,000 peoples’ homes have been taken in one 24 hour period. And every home and business is its own “Night Gallery” painting in St. Bernard: one painting for a mass of lives.

My sister’s moldy living room water-damaged in Arabi

I entered my sister’s home which is raised about four feet off the ground. Furniture and shelving had crumbled and mold had been festering on the walls since August 30th or so. She had asked me to retrieve our mother’s rosary from the hope chest which lay in one corner of the room delaminated from the weeks of moisture. I had to pry it open with a crowbar because the wood had swollen as did all the drawers of any furniture throughout the house. The contents were soaked in aged moisture which had permeated from any crack or cells of the wood. The rosary was tarnished and the rest of the contents—pictures, mementos, trinkets, clothing and other things were hopelessly deteriorated, stained or now irreconcilable. I dared not open the refrigerator which fell backside down because no one in this region after two months of absence should really think it’s worth the effort. In the bedrooms, clothes hanging in the closets were putrid with mold from the water which had wicked up the three feet of internal water into the uppermost parts of the garments. Dressers and nightstands had both crumbled and swollen so drawers had to be busted out to examine the contents. The mattresses had also wicked the floodwaters and I’m sure the box springs were deteriorating from the infiltration also. The tongue-in-groove flooring had also buckled in many places making it hard and dangerous to navigate. Whatever was not on the top shelf of a closet or dresser was a lost cause.

That was just the one house that was closest to my life on this day. And if you’ve completed the math from earlier on you may be able to “touch” the scope and the magnitude of the words I have just described. That’s if you allow yourself the full effect of that “Z” factor I described earlier. But the “damper” effect may not let you.

Formerly Plantation Coffee House, Canal Blvd (previously Liberty Star Grocery)

Later, on the way home I decided to pass through my old neighborhood to assess the damage. For reference, I grew up in New Orleans in the Lakeview section of town which begins about midtown at the end of Canal Street which turns into Canal Blvd. at the Cemeteries. The Boulevard then continues north ending at Lake Pontchartrain. About a mile down Canal Blvd. just at the railroad underpass is the neighborhood I grew up in on the river side by Plantation Coffee House–formerly Liberty Star Grocery in my younger years–and crossing the railroad tracks to the Lake side, I spent my teen years and later my “father-care” years during his prolonged illness. So basically I lived my earlier life within three blocks of the two houses. And today no one lives in either neighborhood or for miles around, for that matter.

Ada Place, one block off Canal Blvd.

Lakeview is bounded by the Lake some 2-3 miles north, by the Marconi Canal to the east and by the 17th Street Canal to the west. And on the early morning hours of August 30, 2005, the levee wall breached forcing the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to equalize its own level in the homes and business of Lakeview and Lake Vista (redundant but actual) across to the Marconi Canal. The other “channel” directed the torrents down the Expressway lanes and sub terrain to Canal Street and into downtown New Orleans. It is also common knowledge that Lakeview is the tax base for the city of New Orleans accounting for about 65% income producing individuals’ homes. That’s not to be discriminatory, but it’s a fact.

I saw very little different in Lakeview than I did in St. Bernard earlier this day with the exception that many more of the structures along Canal Blvd. were standing but the guts were strewn about nonetheless. And oh so very few people could be seen working this day, some two months after the deluge. I would describe the scene but I’ve already done it once for you. And you already know how to do the math. Maybe I’m a little prejudiced since this area has been a part of my intimate life, but my eyes do not deceive me because my “Z” plane couldn’t be damped. I was there, formerly and presently. I was scared. Even worse than staring intently at a “Night Gallery” painting or reading through a Poe short story. And now it’s almost as if I wish that “Z” plane which makes the depth and coherence of reality so pleasurable when we allow ourselves to be entertained by the fear of the movie or the imagination of the written word, was just a theory. Only this time I didn’t look for entertainment–just information–on what happened just a few short weeks ago to the place of my birth and the realm of youth.

My “teen” home–waterline just below windows

I remember reading Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Sphinx” in my younger years. It’s an excellent study on the relativity of perception and how it affects our emotions and decisions. You really should read it.

DURING the dread reign of the Cholera in New York, I had accepted the invitation of a relative to spend a fortnight with him in the retirement of his cottage one on the banks of the Hudson. We had here around us all the ordinary means of summer amusement; and what with rambling in the woods, sketching, boating, fishing, bathing, music, and books, we should have passed the time pleasantly enough, but for the fearful intelligence which reached us every morning from the populous city. Not a day elapsed which did not bring us news of the decease of some acquaintance. Then as the fatality increased, we learned to expect daily the loss of some friend. At length we trembled at the approach of every messenger. The very air from the South seemed to us redolent with death. That palsying thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream of any thing else. My host was of a less excitable temperament, and, although greatly depressed in spirits, exerted himself to sustain my own. His richly philosophical intellect was not at any time affected by unrealities. To the substances of terror he was sufficiently alive, but of its shadows he had no apprehension.

His endeavors to arouse me from the condition of abnormal gloom into which I had fallen, were frustrated, in great measure, by certain volumes which I had found in his library. These were of a character to force into germination whatever seeds of hereditary superstition lay latent in my bosom. I had been reading these books without his knowledge, and thus he was often at a loss to account for the forcible impressions which had been made upon my fancy.


A favorite topic with me was the popular belief in omens- a belief which, at this one epoch of my life, I was almost seriously disposed to defend. On this subject we had long and animated discussions- he maintaining the utter groundlessness of faith in such matters,- I contending that a popular sentiment arising with absolute spontaneity- that is to say, without apparent traces of suggestion- had in itself the unmistakable elements of truth, and was entitled to as much respect as that intuition which is the idiosyncrasy of the individual man of genius.


The fact is, that soon after my arrival at the cottage there had occurred to myself an incident so entirely inexplicable, and which had in it so much of the portentous character, that I might well have been excused for regarding it as an omen. It appalled, and at the same time so confounded and bewildered me, that many days elapsed before I could make up my mind to communicate the circumstances to my friend.


Near the close of exceedingly warm day, I was sitting, book in hand, at an open window, commanding, through a long vista of the river banks, a view of a distant hill, the face of which nearest my position had been denuded by what is termed a land-slide, of the principal portion of its trees. My thoughts had been long wandering from the volume before me to the gloom and desolation of the neighboring city. Uplifting my eyes from the page, they fell upon the naked face of the bill, and upon an object- upon some living monster of hideous conformation, which very rapidly made its way from the summit to the bottom, disappearing finally in the dense forest below. As this creature first came in sight, I doubted my own sanity- or at least the evidence of my own eyes; and many minutes passed before I succeeded in convincing myself that I was neither mad nor in a dream. Yet when I described the monster (which I distinctly saw, and calmly surveyed through the whole period of its progress), my readers, I fear, will feel more difficulty in being convinced of these points than even I did myself.


Estimating the size of the creature by comparison with the diameter of the large trees near which it passed- the few giants of the forest which had escaped the fury of the land-slide- I concluded it to be far larger than any ship of the line in existence. I say ship of the line, because the shape of the monster suggested the idea- the hull of one of our seventy-four might convey a very tolerable conception of the general outline. The mouth of the animal was situated at the extremity of a proboscis some sixty or seventy feet in length, and about as thick as the body of an ordinary elephant. Near the root of this trunk was an immense quantity of black shaggy hair- more than could have been supplied by the coats of a score of buffaloes; and projecting from this hair downwardly and laterally, sprang two gleaming tusks not unlike those of the wild boar, but of infinitely greater dimensions. Extending forward, parallel with the proboscis, and on each side of it, was a gigantic staff, thirty or forty feet in length, formed seemingly of pure crystal and in shape a perfect prism,- it reflected in the most gorgeous manner the rays of the declining sun. The trunk was fashioned like a wedge with the apex to the earth. From it there were outspread two pairs of wings- each wing nearly one hundred yards in length- one pair being placed above the other, and all thickly covered with metal scales; each scale apparently some ten or twelve feet in diameter. I observed that the upper and lower tiers of wings were connected by a strong chain. But the chief peculiarity of this horrible thing was the representation of a Death’s Head, which covered nearly the whole surface of its breast, and which was as accurately traced in glaring white, upon the dark ground of the body, as if it had been there carefully designed by an artist. While I regarded the terrific animal, and more especially the appearance on its breast, with a feeling or horror and awe- with a sentiment of forthcoming evil, which I found it impossible to quell by any effort of the reason, I perceived the huge jaws at the extremity of the proboscis suddenly expand themselves, and from them there proceeded a sound so loud and so expressive of wo, that it struck upon my nerves like a knell and as the monster disappeared at the foot of the hill, I fell at once, fainting, to the floor.


Upon recovering, my first impulse, of course, was to inform my friend of what I had seen and heard- and I can scarcely explain what feeling of repugnance it was which, in the end, operated to prevent me.


At length, one evening, some three or four days after the occurrence, we were sitting together in the room in which I had seen the apparition- I occupying the same seat at the same window, and he lounging on a sofa near at hand. The association of the place and time impelled me to give him an account of the phenomenon. He heard me to the end- at first laughed heartily- and then lapsed into an excessively grave demeanor, as if my insanity was a thing beyond suspicion. At this instant I again had a distinct view of the monster- to which, with a shout of absolute terror, I now directed his attention. He looked eagerly- but maintained that he saw nothing- although I designated minutely the course of the creature, as it made its way down the naked face of the hill.

I was now immeasurably alarmed, for I considered the vision either as an omen of my death, or, worse, as the fore-runner of an attack of mania. I threw myself passionately back in my chair, and for some moments buried my face in my hands. When I uncovered my eyes, the apparition was no longer apparent.

My host, however, had in some degree resumed the calmness of his demeanor, and questioned me very rigorously in respect to the conformation of the visionary creature. When I had fully satisfied him on this head, he sighed deeply, as if relieved of some intolerable burden, and went on to talk, with what I thought a cruel calmness, of various points of speculative philosophy, which had heretofore formed subject of discussion between us. I remember his insisting very especially (among other things) upon the idea that the principle source of error in all human investigations lay in the liability of the understanding to under-rate or to over-value the importance of an object, through mere mis-admeasurement of its propinquity. “To estimate properly, for example,” he said, “the influence to be exercised on mankind at large by the thorough diffusion of Democracy, the distance of the epoch at which such diffusion may possibly be accomplished should not fail to form an item in the estimate. Yet can you tell me one writer on the subject of government who has ever thought this particular branch of the subject worthy of discussion at all?”


He here paused for a moment, stepped to a book-case, and brought forth one of the ordinary synopses of Natural History. Requesting me then to exchange seats with him, that he might the better distinguish the fine print of the volume, he took my armchair at the window, and, opening the book, resumed his discourse very much in the same tone as before.


“But for your exceeding minuteness,” he said, “in describing the monster, I might never have had it in my power to demonstrate to you what it was. In the first place, let me read to you a schoolboy account of the genus Sphinx, of the family Crepuscularia of the order Lepidoptera, of the class of Insecta- or insects. The account runs thus: “‘Four membranous wings covered with little colored scales of metallic appearance; mouth forming a rolled proboscis, produced by an elongation of the jaws, upon the sides of which are found the rudiments of mandibles and downy palpi; the inferior wings retained to the superior by a stiff hair; antennae in the form of an elongated club, prismatic; abdomen pointed, The Death’s- headed Sphinx has occasioned much terror among the vulgar, at times, by the melancholy kind of cry which it utters, and the insignia of death which it wears upon its corslet.'”

He here closed the book and leaned forward in the chair, placing himself accurately in the position which I had occupied at the moment of beholding “the monster.”

“Ah, here it is,” he presently exclaimed- “it is reascending the face of the hill, and a very remarkable looking creature I admit it to be. Still, it is by no means so large or so distant as you imagined it,- for the fact is that, as it wriggles its way up this thread, which some spider has wrought along the window-sash, I find it to be about the sixteenth of an inch in its extreme length, and also about the sixteenth of an inch distant from the pupil of my eye.”
  – – THE END

It depends on your “focus” as to what you perceive.

Canal Blvd. Note water-line one-third up windows

I know what I saw today and it wasn’t a moth. It was closer to representing the dashed lives of hundreds of thousands of people in this region. You—on the outside with the benefit of objectivity—may only see the moth. But that may only be because your “Z” plane perception is protecting you from the depth of despair because the “moth” is not on your window pane. And talk about faulty logic! That same beast is currently walking across window panes that seldom exist anymore in the houses I speak about today. I guess . . . you just had to be there.

“. . . then you and I could simply fly way . . .”

But fantasy and romanticism are only fabrications in the “Z” plane . . .

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2005 in Katrina

 

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Valleys and Mountains of One Day

It never seems to amaze me how this world works. We are individually in “control” of our own little personal worlds—to some extent—while the expanded real world juts and jitters along at its own pace with little or no concern for what these personal worlds intend to be. It’s almost like we individually form our own “goddoms” from which we can meld and form our own little realities from the dust of the ground about us with full control of its outcome, a genesis of sorts until such time when life itself intercedes rendering our efforts impudent at best. And, at this point of experience, our perception of what goes on about us is controlled not so much by what is happening to us as much as it is how we choose to process the information we are receiving. It’s a case of “the glass half empty/half full” concept and just like our insistence on focusing rather exclusively from within our myopic eyes—after all we were created/evolved (you are free to choose that orientation also), any choice of reality acceptance depends solely on your will; what happens happens and there is always very little you can do to change that fact. But the more important thing is how you react to the stimuli which dictates how the reality will affect you.

No matter your spiritual orientation, the most final reality is death if we go no further than the physical realm we can see, touch, taste, smell and feel. We return again to the matter of choice as to what extension beyond this mortal coil one chooses to grasp. That’s a matter of your personal world, but for this discussion let’s just assume it’s something better than the pain and anguish we must all deal with daily. And then again, the pain and anguish part—although it does exist in truth—most often can be redirected according to your choices. It’s pretty much all relative also because the pain of being called ugly as a child is just as intense as losing a parent at the age of 85 years old although neither incident could be considered life threatening to your own self; the pain real or imagined is felt. I don’t speak metaphysically, but we all can affect any perception of pain, loss or despair to some degree by the refocusing of our thoughts whether it is through philosophy or religion, again your choice. And sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised by virtually no interaction, as previously alluded to, and you can also attribute that to fate or other forces, your choice again.

To a certain extent, we all tend to be self-absorbed by our own condition. It’s a simple fact that if you feel good one day you expect the entire world to be of the same mind. The reverse is also true. But some of us insist on overriding the natural order by deliberately trying to redirect our condition into the inverse. It’s something like the old pessimist/optimist metaphor of the glass imposed upon by some willful force within us—whatever its origin, again you decide—in which a choice of how we will ultimately feel on that day. And on those miraculous days, outside forces can and will permeate whatever will you may have prepared for given times in your life rendering any “will” as only a temporary thought as reality assaults you.

On the negative side, our present New Orleans condition surrounding the events perpetrated by Hurricane Katrina can and forever will affect millions of people’s emotions predominantly negatively simply because of the loss of life or property. That’s an inevitable reality because it did happen, it was out of everyone’s control and there is little we can do short of clicking our ruby heels together three times and chanting “There’s no place like New Orleans.” That would be a temporary fantasy with no basis for any substance. And it serves no purpose but for avoidance and momentary relief from the tribulations encountered by an entire city. Some people lost others in life or in proximity and some of those instances will never be restored to pre-August 28th standards. Others lost all possessions and those can be restored eventually with the same amount of work it took to acquire them in the first place whether you consider wrestling with FEMA or your insurance company the task or merely putting in the needed elbow grease to re-earn the privilege of owning similar items. Just as intensely dismaying is whether the replacement cost for any or all of those items will be paid in full even though you just spent the last forty years of your life earning the premium and then paying it to the company who promised that you would always be in good hands in the time of need (no intention of singling out one insurance provider but the phrase is applicable to almost all insurers’ advertisements). The stark reality is they are in this for the money not because they wanted to help you. That’s not an evil thing, but you chose to believe it all these years. On the other hand, the flip side is the padders who always insist the “rich” insurance company owes them more than they really deserve, so why not file claim for those things you never did have? Do unto others before they do it unto you. Now that’s a civilized thought, huh? Wouldn’t either of these activities be elevated above looting? If that’s your will, again your choice.

You’ve got to drill down to intimate levels to get the real picture of life in New Orleans these days. The Quarter is the only thing happening in the Crescent City these days. And the reputation of “Party Town” has not been forsaken within all the tragedy and loss, but that’s not a bad thing unless you’re a Swaggert-type, again your choice. But if that’s your thing, at least somebody can be having fun and that’s what this city needs. We’ve been begging and grieving for way too long now and whatever relief—within reason of course—should be expected. Sure, we need to eventually get back to piecing all the parts back together during the daylight hours. But it does lift everyone’s spirits just to drive by and see something occurring for a change. Everyone’s on edge 20 hours a day right now wondering if life will recreate itself and what it will be like when it does. And since the functional area of the city is now relegated to the original settlement district of about the early 1700’s, it’s refreshing to think that our re-growth will have to be incremental because then maybe we can fix those problems that retarded the city just a short few weeks ago. Politicians don’t like to hear that; they would rather have everyone back tomorrow but very few had ruby slippers when they left and even fewer now. But those of us who have returned just want it to work be it in our own little worlds and neighborhoods.

Now that brings me to a crucial point in this discussion. Some interesting factors have emerged in this brave new world of Southeastern Louisiana, ones that I have never considered in my earlier diaspora while I had time to contemplate on what life and location would dictate if I were to ever return to the city of my birth. I knew I would, but I can never know for certain if conditions could exist or if I would be forced by circumstance to find another world to live in. Life is nowhere near what it was nor will it be for quite some time, but that’s not really a bad thing as I will explain in a moment. But life in New Orleans and the region does offer surprises, again your choice.

On a sad note, today I attended the joint funeral services for a good friend James’ parents. The couple—in their 80’s—had survived all hurricanes of the last century and were intent in waiting this one out also in their home just a mile from Lake Pontchartrain and just a couple of blocks from the London Avenue Canal. James, himself, worked during the school year as an educator for mentally handicapped children in St. Bernard Parish, as a gardener for selected clients after school and on weekends—more ironically as you will see—as a security guard nights and was a member of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Land and Sea Emergency Rescue (LASER) Division as a fully commissioned auxiliary police officer. I am convinced James does not sleep! And although I can only describe him to others as “Forrest Gump” because of his rather simple three word sentences, his very quiet demeanor and his down-to-earth approach to life, his exhaustive schedule notwithstanding, his in-depth knowledge of almost anything you want to talk to him about (except computers!) is astounding if you insist on judging books by their covers.

I did not know either parent well although his mom accompanied him occasionally when he cut the grass at my place. She would sit in the door of his truck with her old straw sunbonnet every now and then making her way to the garden to admire a day lily or azalea and maybe pluck a weed from the flower bed. She hardly ever said more than three words when I asked her how she was that day but I always remember her smiling which was an ample substitute for any missing words she so eloquently withheld. I could tell very easily whose mother she was. And one of dad’s friends from church who delivered a heartfelt eulogy made the chapel attendees laugh out loud as he discussed dad’s perpetual building projects which lasted decades and how he would willingly play dumb to building codes to save an extra nail here and there. I could tell very easily whose dad he was. We are who we are as a testament. It was designed to work that way.

James urged his parents to evacuate, but never before in the innermost areas of the city had such floods occurred. They made their choice. It wasn’t easy for a LASER deputy to accept the inevitability of their choice a week later when he and some of his fellow deputies were finally able to boat over six miles to their neighborhood before any waters subsided. In today’s unfortunate lexicon inspired by a hurricane named Katrina, they were classified as “floaters” and that term is not one ever wants to hear about anyone no less for both of your parents simultaneously.

I could hear the pain in James’ voice a few short weeks ago when he called to ask me to attend the funeral once they released the bodies. I was still hundreds of miles away in my refuge and there are no words one could ever find to make the news of his discovery easier to bear. Add to that an agonizing four weeks of holding in a statewide morgue with other victims of nature and you might only begin to taste the foul circumstance. It took authorities over a month to release them to their son. And I saw the same anguish in his face yesterday, the look that “I did what I thought was best and look what happened.” But I also saw a “Gumpish” response to all the pain one feels during such a horrendous experience, situations I have faced at separate moments in history but never all in one day. His response gave me hope.

I could have sworn I heard him say something about “chocolates” after the service outside in the parking lot, but a moment later I began to understand what he was saying. After all, he was the child of his mother and father, a man of few words like his mom and a little tight in the billfold like his dad but nonetheless “good people” as they say.

“Ticked off the funeral director,” he gumpishly groaned with a faint smile.

I looked at him for a moment trying to get a feel for his state of mind after this harrowing experience. I almost felt like I was waiting for a punch line. I looked at him puzzled.

“Ordered their coffins online. Saved $900,” he explained.

Mom and dad had raised him to be just like them to their credit. All is as well as can be expected. His choice this time.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2005 in Katrina

 

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A Second Date With Katrina

It’s now the day after. It kind of reminds me of the day after Mardi Gras when most of the city has had too much party the day before and everyone is sleeping later to nurse that pounding head and making plans to stop by the church to get the ashes on their foreheads. But this day there is one major difference: the “ashes” themselves lay in monstrous piles in front of homes in the desolate streets, that is if the home is not itself a heap of ash-like uselessness itself, something like a worn out wooden bucket filled with holes that can no longer hold the water it was never meant to contain. To see any movement—human or not—in this mass of “once was” is a welcome sight. But you won’t see much of that today. You could just as well plop yourself down with a cold Dixie—if you could find one of those—just outside St. Louis Number One and wait for someone long gone to rise from one of those ancient sepulchers. What’s even stranger, if you think about, is that’s exactly what will happen if you wait long enough. You can wax theological if you want but I’m talking more localized if you know what I mean.

Just over a month ago in the waning days of the month of August 2005, a million people packed their bags for a short vacation. The vacation turned into a month’s worth of anguish, uncertainty and devastating news reports. Okay, to put it into perspective it was no more than a December in a Saints season and the resultant angst will still last at least until well into the next year so things haven’t really changed all that much, emotionally at least. A little more intensely personal for most of us but for anyone who has been a Saints fan, today is nothing more than another glitch of a season, another “wait until next year” syndrome. And this “vacation” has turned into a Saints season in force because we will get no definitive results until next season—God forbid, even a hurricane season—and that will be the test of our mettle as it always has been now for a couple of centuries. So, it’s not that we’re not used to this.

But this time it’s a little bit different. We can go home after the Saints’ loss. This time about a million people have no home to go back to or, at least, not the one they remember. It’s much worse than the botched Carney extra point a couple of season’s ago after rallying back and then making a Hail Mary kick off return–with more lateral swishes than the Queer Eye For The Straight Guy Gang–which put the Saints into a possible tie and the chance to make the playoffs. Not that they deserved it. But New Orleans life has always been a dream of beating the odds and skirting the periphery of normalcy always knowing that luck has everything to do with existence unless you happen to be one of those who actually planned your life to a “T.” But Life has its on little way of keeping things even over the long run. This time the Big One that had been prophesied for years finally took her toll of Saints and anti-Saints fans alike. It’s a quick dose of reality that really wakens the senses, a nightmare you just never can seem to wake up from.

There are some things that are more insidious than others, especially in the realm of nightmares. It’s those horrific dreams where nothing threatening is happening that are sometimes the scariest. The big green hairy monster chasing you is obvious; you’ve seen a million Wes Craven movies and somehow your instincts should be affected but you kind of know the difference between Hollywood and reality. And, for the most part, dreams turned into nightmares remain warmly in that realm of “willful suspension of disbelief” which is part of the entertainment equation. We all like nightmares because somewhere deep within us some Jungian archetype craves the need to be scared. Some people strap bungee cords around their ankles. Others jump from airplanes with nylon chutes for fun. And about a million plus people chose to live in the New Orleans region just for kicks. Bad things mostly happen to other person, at least that’s what we used to believe with conviction. But that’s not what was really scary in this nightmare of a return to home just about one month after Katrina.

It was much more the nightmare which scares me the most. It’s that isolated tinge of being all alone in that city that once bustled 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Yes, those TV images across the screen for the past month were horrible to look at with water as deep as most New Orleanians are tall even in their above sea level living rooms. The images of people being rescued and even those who were not rescued but chose to stay in the “safety” of the Superdome or Convention Center. That was scary but that was not real because I saw that on TV, the same instrument I use to watch Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez or Julia Roberts and that ain’t real. What is reality is riding through the streets of New Orleans after the waters have subsided, eerily resembling 6 a.m. Ash Wednesday morning just after daybreak, then 6 hours with the sun a full azimuth later still resembling the lack of movement typical of the day after Fat Tuesday. Imagine, if you will, a freshly dressed corpse, the shell of a body now free of the disease which helped to extinguish the life it once had. You notice the mortician has done a fairly nice job of restoring some of the life look back into the deceased by removing some of the bad. Deep within you’re hoping the deceased will slowly or suddenly—it doesn’t really matter as long as life returns—spring back into motion. But also deep within there is that woeful dread which you know is the fate of our mortal coil that eventually all things must come to an end and return to the dust it originated from. Those fluids have been removed from the “body” and what is left behind is nothing more than a shell of what was just a month before.

That’s the dilemma of returning to New Orleans on this day. The “corpse” lay dormant flushed of the hellish liquid that drowned her once lively spirit. She is now devoid of any influence, both desirable and undesirable, as she lay in wait for the promised resurrection. All you can see as you ride through these vacant streets and gutted homes is a ghost of dashed dreams and virulent destruction and you wonder if you should hope for a cure or a peaceful interment. And what will the immediate future yield? Will it be a gracious Easter after a penitent Lenten season or will life return as normal complete with all the problems that plagued the city before her demise? That’s the genesis of the nightmarish vision which rivals any Stephen King novel if he were to write the ending of this Katrina story.

Ride down any street and you see the measure of what we are up against. Almost every home has the brownish mark of the beast at whatever level of judgmental water it had in it at one point in time over the past few weeks. Sometimes you see more than one mark stretching across the whole property as if to imply that some force arbitrarily decided that different measures of recompense were due and that once was not necessarily enough to make her point. After peering into a couple of friends’ homes who had about 5-6 feet of water in them, it was not hard to imagine the multitude of homes I witnessed this day having the same jumble of misplaced and disintegrated furniture along with water-soaked couches and rancid refrigerators, a veritable hodge podge reminiscent of an early Ash Wednesday morning on Bourbon Street just after the Street Cleaning jets have piled the sludge and degradation into a central pile for the dump trucks to haul away. And those that had snuck their way into the city before officially legal had already begun the process if, in fact, I am not mistaken and their possessions had found their own path to the now littered more than normal streets of a majority of the city as if in some macabre flotilla without human direction.

It would almost be appropriate to suddenly have a rogue sagebrush wisp past me and I stand looking down these deserted streets. After all just a few short weeks ago, national correspondents and officials alike reported the OK Corral nature of the city with firefights and mass human destruction taking place carte blanche. It was not enough that Mother Nature impishly wreaked her havoc but some of us that live here thought anarchy suddenly became permissible since there was no one around to tell them how to act, not that that would have mattered to them anyway since they more than likely only amplified their normal behavior in the freedom from “oppression”, a fantastical myth perpetrated by small minds and low ideals. And some others of us have excused this selfish narcissism as a long overdue retribution for injustices imagined because social progress should never be measured by mass conditions but more appropriately by the evidence that those who chose to move ahead have done so of their own accord, an American dream of sorts. Stealing a big screen TV while your neighbor’s ailing grandma is treading water is “justified”, kind of, depending on how you look at it, I guess. Or if you wear a badge. But someone did hot wire a bus to drive some of the unfortunate out of the deluge, a type of entrepreneurship and a worthy “criminal” whose creativity will surely be his redemption one day. Anarchial heroism at its best, I would say. If only the Mayor would have thought of that with all the RTA buses languishing in the yard unused but available.

And what I describe is the daylight hours. Just a few short hours later while finishing up our inspection of the property, the late evening sun descends below the month old pruning of the majestic oaks that canopy our street. Evening in the neighborhood usually means a torrent of workers finishing the day by stopping at the supermarket a couple of blocks down, the next door neighbor raking up the constant carpet of oak leaves almost daily, another across the street washes the daily dust from his beamer and countless walkers do their promenade in sweats and tennis shoes or perhaps being dragged along by their eager black lab chasing the other neighbor’s cat. And there are always congenial “Good evenings” although no one has really ever stopped to carry on a conversation longer than a few words of witticisms. But this evening is different. I could just as well be standing in St. Louis #1 hoping to talk with its tenants. I’d have a better chance to hear a reply. All I could hear this darkened day are my own thoughts ringing through the streets but connecting with nothing.

I always appreciated those instances out in the country far away from the city lights. Just to look up at the sky and count the millions of flickering specks and an occasional meteor flare has always been a welcomed diversion from normalcy. But one should never be permitted to do the same while living in a metropolitan area such as New Orleans. It’s unnatural. But it’s real. No sound. No passing cars. No lights. No breath but my own tonight. Even now the curfew has been pushed to midnight. It’s 8 p.m. and it could just as well be 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning with one exception: the two cars I would expect to see or hear heading down Gentilly Boulevard toward Gulf Outlet Marina towing their Center Console fishing boats are nowhere in sight. Nor will they be since there is no more Gulf Outlet Marina to launch at. And no one to go anyway since there ain’t nobody home. Anywhere.

You really don’t need to close your eyes. You can just glare down the street, that dark foreboding expanse in front or behind you, and you don’t even have to imagine what it might feel like to be comatose; all you need to do is stare. You might be lucky enough to discern some ethereal shapes from the starlight, but you won’t be able to recognize anything anymore than recalling what things looked like in broad daylight just a month or so ago. It’s our human habit to take those little things for granted like they don’t matter. Until now. It’s now you feel like a clown for not knowing the guy across the street’s name because at this point to talk with anyone would be a blessing. And you know how embarrassing it would be if he did show up and all you could muster was a “Hey, buddy” instead of a meaningful “Hey, Frank.” But staring down this street of void you can now realize that what you lived in before was much more than a trivial existence because living, breathing people once populated this area, people who could some how offer something useful in conversation or favor, or inversely something you could return to them to make life more fuller than just living a mere existence. Suddenly a cold chill runs down your spine, not a fear as much as a dread, that what you had previously may never return and if–by chance–it does how long will it be and how long should you wait to see if life returns to normal before you throw in the towel. There is also the chance that you’ll wait innocently and patiently only to find a Boogey Man behind that door.

That’s the scariness of the situation. It’s like being in the quintessential horror flick. Everybody’s having a good time and Katrina Voorhies shows up wielding her machete. Everybody flees but you know one by one everyone will manage to return because things will be getting better. But there are those creaky sounds. And subtle clues. What’s behind the door? Who will be the first to open it? What will they find? And we all know how stupid everyone is for “investigating” those odd sounds and questionable circumstances in horror movies: “Don’t do it!” And how many people are actually left alive or sane in the end of the movie. Please, no sequels!

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2005 in Katrina

 

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Not All Angels Have Wings . . .

Things could be better. But not all things are necessary. It’s a fact that you probably never want to learn and I hope you never have to. But what’s quite evident in the face of tragedy–especially on this day we so woefully remember September 11 from a few years ago—and now we New Orleanians are faced with our own version of catastrophe. It’s the little things that now count and should continue to count from here on and forth. There’s no rhyme and no reason you can put your finger on. It’s just an occurrence and we all must just get over it. Some of us will, but many of us need that little helping hand to push us just a little further over the hump toward normalcy.

So now we New Orleanians have one less thing to worry about today: The Saints are 1 & 0 in the season and the division. That’s a matter of pride and inspiration, but it’s really on a level much less important on the grander scope of things. I could hear the cheers emanate from Houston, Shreveport, Jackson, Pensacola and a thousand other places around this wonderful country of ours (except Carolina for some odd reason!) and it was a nice thing to know that amidst all the displacement and pain of not knowing what tomorrow may bring, alas there were a million plus cheers (more or less) and that’s a good thing. Without technology, there may have been no cheers whatsoever, just deadly silence over the City that care forgot and other parts of the world who wouldn’t have known the difference. But today, they do. Not because of the New Orleans Saints, but other forms of saints yet to be canonized.

Across this vast country, millions of people still with lives of their own, have postponed theirs to provide a much-needed commodity to us who have little left or are simply separated from it for the time being. Numerous times in my current situation the question “Are you from New Orleans?” has been followed with generous offers of cash, jobs, clothes, food, lodging, you name it. And this is not from people I’ve been talking with for hours. It’s a tap on my shoulder on the street. In fact, as I was doing the speed limit down a public street the other day in search of the right street to turn down, a truck sped up to me, slowed down to my speed and “forced” me to roll down the window. I thought he was lost and wanted me to give him directions. Or maybe my rear axle fell off and I didn’t even notice.

“Are you from New Orleans?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“I’d be glad to give you directions if you’re lost. By the way, have you eaten today?”

“Yes, sir. I have eaten and thank you. And I think I see the Interstate just ahead. Right?” I replied.

“You got it. Best of luck. If you need help call me at XXX-XXXX.”

No wings. Just a guy.

Later at the hotel, a local church ( http://www.victoryworshipcenter.com/ ) has adopted us evacuees. In spite of their jobs, their kids’ schooling, their financial situations, they are here everyday serving up beef stew, red beans and rice, beef pasta, vegetables, lemonade, ice tea, cupcakes, chocolate cake and a warm embrace when needed. I feel so guilty drinking the last drop of tea from my cup because before it clears my lips a child of one of these people grabs it from my hands because it would be “shameful” to allow thirst to over take me. But it’s not thirst that is overtaking me. It’s much more than that and it has nothing to do with a lack.

No wings. Just people.

Yesterday, a fellow New Orleanian who escaped with his wife and two kids in the back of someone else’s pick up truck asked me if I might give his wife a ride to Lake Charles (about 5 miles) for a doctor’s appointment. She had injured her back sometime ago falling from a scaffold. They had lost everything including the crucial contact with her doctor back home. That was only a small thing for me to do to repay all the kindness I had experienced. As we were heading back to the hotel, she told me her family was coming over to Sulphur to bring her some money and not to make plans for dinner Monday night because they were taking me out for a meal. I “protested” but it was rebuffed.

No wings. Just a favor.

At the moment, a hotel employee is in my room with a cup of Café Du Monde coffee in his hand (sans beignet, but that’s part of the discussion). As soon as the deep fryer gets here and the other hotel employee brings the only remaining box of beignet mix he received as a gift a couple of years ago, the French Quarter a la Sulphur will be formed.

No wings. Just chicory.

Things could be worse. But the next time you suspect that everything life offers has been wrestled from your grip, don’t be a fool and rush to judgment. There are angels there and they do not really fear anything.

No wings. Just a lot of treading . . .

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2005 in Katrina

 

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From the “Ripley’s Believe It Or Else” File

In crises, no other country in the world responds as positively as the United States. Blunders of this catastrophe aside, the citizens of this great nation ban together in both micro- and macrocosms. It is evident in the swift response and outreach of individual citizens and organized groups that is the spirit of love and caring which permeates the very fabric of Americana. Katrina is evidence.

On this localized level I introduce you to the dichotomy of one hotel chain against the other. Pastor Mel Estes, leader of a local congregation here in Sulphur– http://www.victoryworshipcenter.com/ —has adopted the Holiday Inn Express in Sulphur and the entire congregation is daily feeding everyone in the hotel with a fabulous dinner, dessert and refreshment and they have been doing so for the past week with a commitment to continue until all New Orleanians have checked out. Besides the meal, they insist on having each one of us fill out a Family Needs Assessment form just in case we are too bashful to ask for more help. With it, they hope to clothe, house, secure employment and provide any medical needs. Folks, this is Red Cross Jr. in operation with a local church group. Heaven—or something extremely close—is a place on earth figuratively speaking.

Upon my arrival at this new hotel, I was introduced to an elderly black gentleman who insists on being called Gerald—not mister—just Gerald. A few days ago he was plucked off his roof in the Kenilworth area of East New Orleans after two days of braving the flood waters by himself. He is a very pleasant man with almost a “nutty professor” hair style but well-kept and very colorful in conversation about the old days in New Orleans. He spent most of his adult life not far from my grandparents who lived in Gentilly also during my childhood. He is a retired HUD worker and a veteran of the pre-Vietnam campaign who did serve in the region before full-scale operations started. It wasn’t until a days later when speaking with him again that I figured out where I came up with the source of my “nutty professor” impression. Since so many of our intelligentsia are sometimes considered aloof or eccentric by nature, something in my mind clicked as to why I saw him in that way. Apart from his engaging conversational style and the depth of his insights and analyses, staring at his visage that additional day, I recognized why. At closer observation I was moved to ask him a simple but appropriate question: “Has anybody ever told you you resemble Albert Einstein?”

“No. You’re the first. But I have been told Mark Twain before,” he replied.

Good company to be in, Gerald! And if you wrote a book, I might begin to believe in reincarnation.

For four hours while waiting for our new room to be ready in the hotel lobby, we chatted non-stop about old Gentilly, the goose that chased me and grandma laying the bird to waste with her purse while passing the Gentilly duck pond, his experiences with the local merchants in the area I remembered but have been displaced by corporations like Rite Aid and McDonalds, the waste of government resources in agencies like HUD, the ultimate meaning of life; you name it we discussed it.

During our conversation, another Caucasian gentleman from the church mentioned above approached Gerald and asked if he had gotten in touch with the V.A. hospital in Lafayette. Gerald mentioned the busy phone lines and waiting on hold for minutes with no response. The gentleman said he got in touch with the V.A. in Beaumont Texas and had made an appointment for Gerald for tomorrow morning and that he would pick him up in the lobby at 8 a.m. Without missing a beat, Gerald proceeded to make a deal with him that the only way he would go was if he (Gerald) would be allowed to fill his gas tank when they returned. The gentleman shook his head in agreement and winked in my direction as if to say “Okay. I lied to him. He ain’t gonna pay for nothing.”

If you are familiar with Mike Myer’s “verklempt”—or however you spell it–I’m sure Shanna will correct me—I am right now. I didn’t mention race above for any other reason than to highlight the fact that especially in these trying times the politics and the crap we collectively as a nation think is the answer to the ultimate questions of life are just that–a bunch of crap. If that term offends, get over it. There is no other sufficient term to define with precise characteristics what I mean. Color is only skin deep and we all know where the beauty ultimately resides.

I don’t want to preach but this is what I would compare to the closest thing as heaven on earth, not to wax denominationally, but to speak to “original intent” no matter Christian, Jew, Atheist, Muslim, whatever. And as proud as I am to be associated with Gulf Games (please visit http://sacredchao.2mydns.com/gulfgames/about_gg.php for a better understanding of “Gulf Games”) and the quality of people who are members, I still see glimmers of hope for the world especially in times when cooperation is paramount to survival, when barriers of race, creed, class, et. al., are tossed to the hurricane winds of Mother Nature and we all coalesce into a proper functioning society. All is not perfect in this “heaven” I speak of but with understanding and tolerance those of us who actively and willing refuse to acknowledge random boundaries drawn by misinformed individuals, this world will continue to be chaotic but with momentary glimmers of human kindness searing through the darkest clouds of despair. And I just can’t wait until the sky is bright blue without a cloud in sight.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2005 in Katrina, Uncategorized

 

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