Sunday, September 5, 2010

Good New Orleans

This month's Good Magazine is all about New Orleans. Not surprising given the month long coverage of the 5th anniversary of Katrina we have all witnessed on every news outlet from CNN to Rachel Maddow (I love you!) to my little ditty 'Renee Claire'. The rebuilding of New Orleans is on everyone's mind.

I lived through Hurricane Andrew in 1994 in South Florida and Hurricane Juan in 1985, which until this very moment always though it was named after a princess wand, not a man named Juan. Welcome to Reneeland. Neither of those hurricanes had the impact on the entire nation that Katrina has had. Andrew tore apart South Florida, destroyed communities, and sent our part of the state into chaos for a long time, but it was manageable chaos. I went back to school, children from Miami were bused to Broward, people didn't go homeless, they weren't given up on, the government was there to help.

Mention Katrina to anyone for any moment, even someone whose name is Katrina and there is a moment of pause. There is a moment where we stop and whatever photo most impacted your experience during the Fall of 2005, is what flashes before you once again. It has forever changed who we are or more what we thought we were.

In late 2006, my family went for a visit to New Orleans, Lafayette, and New Iberia where we were all born and raised and where the bulk of our family still lives. We stopped in New Orleans for 2 days to visit a cousin, Johnathon, who had been flown out of combat in Iraq to help at the Superdome two days after the storm hit, then to spend to next year patroling alongside the New Orleans Police Department. We all went to dinner and drinks and then I stayed with him for the rest of the evening. He showed me around the city, what his normal patrol looked like. We even met up with the rest of the Louisiana National Guard boys that were on patrol that night. We drank beers in the parking lot of some high school just outside the more touristy areas of the city. Just me and 10 National Guard dudes in full gear sitting in a Humvee drinking beers on a sweaty New Orleans evening.

The other thing I did that trip was visit Shylia Lewis. In 2004 Greenpeace partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build pvc-free homes for four families in the seventh ward neighborhood of Roche. I wasn't part of that project, but I went to visit her to see how her family and the pvc-free homes had stood up to Katrina. Besides about 4 feet of water damage on the inside of the homes, they stood up nicely and better than the homes that were built with pvc siding.

Shylia, returning each weekend from Houston to fix the damage, said that if she hadn't partnered with Habitat to build her home her family could never have moved in so quickly after the storm. She built new cabinets, took down the drywall and then built it back up again on her own. Shylia is raising three children, not all her own. The kids in 2006 had to attend a private catholic school since there weren't any public schools open near her home. There was still no school bus service to the Roche neighborhood. At the end of the street from Shylia's home was a FEMA trailer park. Hundreds and hundreds of empty FEMA trailers sat in a lot. Her neighbor to her left lived in a trailer in the front yard as they had been unable to repair all the damages to their home.

Shylia, two of her children, and I drove to the lower Ninth ward, where her grandparents house stood before the hurricane. We all know the images of a demolished lower ninth ward, so I'm not going to repeat them here. I will tell you that we had hard time finding the drive way of her grandparents home even though Shylia had visited for almost 40 years and on more than one occasion I saw one house resting on top of another house. At one point one of the boys said "mom, can we leave now?" Then we drove to see the Musicians Village that Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation is building. Later that afternoon Shylia dropped me off in the French Quarter where my family was staying and whispered "we don't come down here too many gays and prostitutes". You can read the article from Greenpeace about my time with Shylia and our work in New Orleans here.

Good Magazine's September edition is thorough and unique. Did you know that Louisiana passed the Digitial Media Act in 2009 to help attract companies working on software and mobile and video gaming applications. There is a 35 percentage tax credit on labor expenditures and a 25 percent credit on digital media expenditures made in the state. It's the most robust of its kind in the nation. Given the kind of literature and art that has seeped out of New Orleans for the past hundred years or so, I bet this will impact the kind of games and stories being sold to kids for the next several years. There is also an article about comic books. New comic books about the storm and alarming high murder rate are also on the rise.

There are also short articles on New Orlean's 25 best and brightest. Those that are changing politics, community, and renovation in the city. One of the best articles is about new media. How New Orleans bloggers are setting new standards on eliminating corruption by bird dogging and researching those that are vying for power. An interesting new concept in Louisiana. As Eli Ackerman, blogger of We Could Be Famous, stated, "Politicians in New Orleans have learned that people can google them." Ackerman's blog hasn't been updated since June, though his blogroll includes a dozen other local New Orleans blogs that are worth a scan.

The article continues, "Just like it did everywhere else inthe world, blogging took off in New Orleans in the early 2000s. But after katrina, when many New Orleanians grew tired of the way the government and national media were ignoring them, new media got a boost. Citizens turned to blogs to rant, inform, and otherwise take ownership of the city's rebuilding process. The impact as been tremendous. Blog reporting has spawned FBI investigations of the city programs, affect the 2010 mayoral election, and resulted in an injection of funding from the Rockerfeller Foundation. It also inspired old-dog media to embrace its online counterparts - which is no small feat in itself - and together, they have found innovative ways to foster collaboration: New media brings off the beaten path stories, and traditional media brings a massive audience, legitimacy, and infrastructure."

I'm leaving for a month in the city on Sept 15. I'm excited and overwhelmed by what I will do during my time in New Orleans, but I think I know I will have some good stories to share with you.

Renee Claire

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