Tag Archive for Hurricane Katrina

Wishing safety to those hit by Hurricane Sandy

The news is full of disaster footage today in the wake of Hurricane Sandy making landfall. Photos of Manhattan subway lines submerged in water are only the beginning. As a veteran of Hurricane Katrina, I know this dance far too well.

As the waters ebb and we are able to get more accurate info from the ground, I fear the bad news will keep on mounting. You see, the storm hitting is only the beginning. In it’s wake will come the counting of the bodies, the battling with insurance assessors, and the long slow grind of finding a way to bounce back from the losses she brought.

If it follows the pattern we have seen with other disasters, we will see many new faces entering the ranks of the homeless.

Our thoughts are with the East Coast today. Our friends and colleagues, the people weathering the aftermath from incarceration, the people with no home to go to for shelter – these are all on our minds today.

There are going to be rough weeks ahead, there is no doubt of that. You will find yourselves bonding with neighbors in ways never expected. You will experience the disconnect between your reality and the news reporting. You will find an inner strength you never suspected. And that is only the beginning. Trust me, I know from experience.

From our team on the West Coast and our blogger on the Gulf Coast we send our best hopes to all of you!

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One Less Good Influence – Aspiring Filmmaker Gunned Down in New Orleans

Notice: Today’s post is a bit more personal than most as it occurred just across town from me and involves people I know.

The story begins a year before Hurricane Katrina when Joshua Short was the subject of a critically acclaimed documentary about the relationship between political corruption, our failing schools, and the plague of youth gun violence that have been the pernicious back beat to life in New Orleans for much of it’s history. Let’s start with the trailer for Left Behind; be warned that the language is raw and unedited (containing at least one F-bomb and Not Safe For Work).

Hurricane Katrina arrived in mid-filming for the documentary, and to their credit the filmmakers, my old friend and colleague Jason Berry and Vincent Morelli, forged ahead giving an unprecedented view of our at-risk population when under historic levels of stress.

Joshua and his brother, two of the main subjects of the film were living together in an apartment, putting themselves through school, parents long gone from the equation, when it was in production. The young man was inspired with a love of the medium and has since worked for Berry on several occasions. This last Spring he assisted Berry in recording an outdoor Jimmy Buffet concert during the NCAA Men’s Final Four basketball championships.

He was bettering himself, trying to be one of the survivors to claw his way out out of the morass of poverty and disfunction that was his ecosystem. This year, at the age of 25, he had already become that “one good enough adult” that we talk about here on the blog: the one adult who can make a profound difference in the life of a child. He tutored disadvantaged youth in his neighborhood and taught them basketball.

As a matter of fact, according to his brother, he was visiting with one of his mentees when flying lead ended his life. Berry’s words on his blog, American Zombie, are far more eloquent than anything I could say on the subject:

Yesterday, this city…you, me….we are all responsible…took the life of one of its brightest.  Joshua was a young man that gave me, and the people in his life, hope.  In spite of the horrendous circumstances he was born into, he continually found a way to rise above it all and strived to make better himself and the people he loved.  The challenges he faced in his life, as a child, would make most adults crack but he somehow managed to rise above it all.  The world of sh*t this city threw at him from the cradle on didn’t harden him or destroy his soul like so many other kids in his circumstances.  His hope and kindness humbled me to the point where whenever I, as a 40 year-old adult, would begin to feel sorry for myself, I would think about what Joshua had been through and how ridiculously privileged my own life really is.  If he could remain optimistic, I have no business wallowing in self-pity.

Here is an excerpt from NOLA.com’s coverage, including more comments from Berry:

Authorities haven’t publicly discussed exactly what unfolded when Short was shot about 10:40 p.m. on Tuesday. Jonathan said his brother had gone to the Night Out Against Crime gathering to greet friends and visit the youth he was mentoring. Jonathan doesn’t believe the deadly gunfire was meant for either his twin or his friend.

Berry lamented that Joshua Short became the second student profiled in “Left Behind” to fall victim to shooting violence in New Orleans. The first, Mario Pleasant, survived when he was attacked in the middle of filming the documentary.

“For an act of violence like this to take Joshua’s life, it makes me very angry,” Berry said. “I’m fed up with it. The entire point of the documentary, for me, was (to show) the way we are treating our children is leading to this epidemic of violence. I don’t see it getting any better. I don’t see any changes being made.”

That is why everyone needs to develop an interest in these matters. While progress is being made in many places, it is hard to see any here in the Crescent City. This is a cautionary tale about the consequences of neglecting our children and their future. Berry’s documentary showed the complex interrelation between education, lack of opportunity, and juvenile crime in a visceral fashion. Six years later our inattention to those matters has claimed another victim.

Why is it vital to push for change? Because New Orleans is an example of just how bad it can become everywhere if we don’t. This has nothing to do with politics; it has to do with wasted futures and blood on our streets, lives cut short and public money wasted. If your stance is conservative, you should support this because it is the path of fiscal savings and responsibility. If you are liberal, then compassion for the children should guide you along the same path.

I’ve been back in New Orleans for just under a year now, and once more I have read the headlines to learn someone I know was shot in the streets. I completely understand Jason’s depression and fatigue; it often feels like we are treading water at best. Still, there is no way in good conscience to sit on the sidelines while this is the norm anywhere in the United States.

It really is more expensive to do nothing.

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Invisible People: Former Homeless Man Mobilizes YouTube

Looking for cansWe live in an amazing age, the age of information, which has a direct and palpable impact upon the issues we try to address. One great example is homelessness, a major focus of the works we produce. Not only is social media an excellent tool for educating the populace about the problem, but it can also give a voice to those who are experiencing it.

Mark Horvath is the premier example of this in action. A little more than 15 years ago, he was homeless himself. Then he stopped drinking alcohol and managed to pull himself out of it. Now he leverages social media to give a voice and a face to the homeless, particularly through YouTube on his channel, the InvisiblePeople.tv.

Christie Garton interviewed Horvath for her USA Today‘s “Kindness” column, after his second of the two cross-country road trips shooting video with the homeless (made possible by the Pepsi Refresh $50,000 grant and a car provided by the Ford Motor Co.).

Garton asked about the reasoning behind Horvath’s use of video in general and YouTube in particular:

Kindness: Why did you choose video as the medium for this message?

Horvath: Video changes the perceptions of homelessness. Non-profits traditionally only share success stories, and people end up detached from them. I wanted to show the truth. I also have a gift for video, and just felt like this was the right way to go even if I didn’t have the right hard drive or editing software. Who knew that so many people would want to watch videos about the homeless?

Kindness: Why did you choose YouTube as the platform?

Horvath: YouTube has a mobile application, which is great as 25% of our videos are being watched by phone. YouTube is also non-profit friendly, and has a partners program specifically for non-profits which allows you to raise money through donations and will feature your work on occasion. If fact, they featured us on the homepage for a day, and we surpassed 2 million views. It’s also a community with it’s own social network, which unfortunately, I haven’t had time to tap into.

Putting a face on the problem is vital, and it’s integral to our own efforts here (take a look at downTownUSA as an example). Here is the latest of Horvath’s videos, an interview with Kerry, Sabrina and Keifer taped in Dayton, Nevada. Horvath first met Kerry and his family months ago through Twitter (Kerry: @alleycat22469,  Sabrina: @bully_lover78, and 13 year-old Keifer: @keifer1122). On his blog, Horvath writes:

As I think about this family I get emotional. I cannot imagine raising a child in a small RV with no bathroom or running water. This family’s life is far from easy, but together they keep fighting, and together they stay grateful for the little things.

Being a native of New Orleans, I can understand the cramped-quarters aspect of their personal shelter. Five years after hurricane Katrina and the levee failure, and I still know families that are crammed into FEMA trailers about this size. While this family is lucky in that they are not actually sleeping on the streets, any thought that things are easy for them should be dismissed immediately.

I’d like to add our voice to Mr. Horvath’s call to action from this blog post:

If you know of anyone in or near Carson City, Nevada, that can help Kerry find a job please contact them. He wants to work. They will hopefully have housing soon, but the battle is far from over.

The fact that Horvath has been able to effect actual change through his efforts is heartening. Several people he has interviewed during his road trips now have roofs over their heads, or jobs, or both. Every one of those instances is a success.

Source: “Former homeless man using YouTube to give voice to homeless,” USA Today, 10/05/10
Image by Franco Folini, used under its Creative Commons license.

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How To Become Homeless

HomelessAs we watch the economy spiral seemingly out of control, the specter of homelessness looms disturbingly close for people of all socioeconomic strata. Add in the chaos in the American housing market, and the picture becomes starkly unpleasant.

It’s a simple fact that we are seeing the number of the homeless grow, and it is disturbingly easy to end up on the streets. Right now, in Colorado, thousands face this possibility as the wildfires ravage the state. I know that feeling well from personal experience. You see, I am a native of New Orleans.

Just over five years ago, hurricane Katrina hit the city, and then the next morning the levees failed, flooding New Orleans. My wife and I had just emptied our savings account to pay for our wedding and honeymoon, and the checking account was low because it was a few days before payday. We ended up evacuating across the country with a total of about $200 and no vehicle.

With our friends, family and support network also scattered across the U.S., things became scary in very short order. Thanks to a few friends in other states we did not lack for a roof, but, as the weeks dragged on, the situation became more and more uneasy. I had a broken hand at the time, and so most earning opportunities were not viable. I was able to pick up a few bucks here and there, but nothing resembling enough income for a fresh start.

It was weeks before we had any inkling of whether we would be able to return to the city, much less whether anything we owned had survived. My then fiancee and I had a backpack of clothes each, a laptop, and our five cats. Things looked bleak.

“What about those legendary FEMA checks for $2,000 that everyone got?” you might ask. Not everyone got assistance, I know I sure didn’t. The Red Cross in New York helped us out with some clothes and a few hundred dollars. Let me tell you, you’ve never seen just how little $300 really is until it is all you have.

I will never forget having to swallow my pride and extend my hand for aid. We made it through thanks to the generosity of friends and strangers in Indiana and New York, but the awareness of the precipice was never absent from my thoughts. A few days before, everything was great: the wedding expenses were paid, I had a great new job, and we had just moved into a new apartment. Then, suddenly, it was all gone, taking all of my social resources with it.

We were very lucky. We made it back to NOLA six weeks after the disaster had struck — to find that most of our stuff had survived. It could easily have gone the other way, leaving us homeless. For many, it did.  I will never forget the fear in my heart during those times.

Just about anyone is susceptible to the whims of Mother Nature, and she can take the roof from over your head in a heartbeat. Whether it is the levee failures in NOLA, wildfires in Colorado, or some other species of disaster — it can happen to you.

Of course, due to my experience, this is what I think of first, but there are many other causes of homelessness. The Walk For The Homeless website enumerates a number of factors, including job loss:

As someone who has been homeless, I can tell you that loss of employment is one reason people, even whole families, become homeless. This is more likely to occur when there is only one wage earner in the family, if employment is seasonal such as construction or lawn maintenance, or if you both work and each earns only minimum wage. While there is usually a combination of reasons why people become homeless a particular one often stands out: illness.  Injury, sickness, and even mental illness can lead to being fired, laid off or replaced. Most of the time if you’re not able to do the work, you are out of a job. When you live from paycheck to paycheck, sometimes all it takes is to miss one or two paychecks and you can end up homeless. This is especially true if you have no friends or family to turn to for help.

Drawing on this information, Drea Knufken at Business Pundit boils things down into the Five Ways to Become Homeless, a list of things and situations that can leave you living on the streets. She also makes a very apt cultural observation:

Homelessness in the United States has always struck me as particularly painful. Penury is not well tolerated in the Land of Opportunity. People think money is easy to come by here, giving extreme poverty an especially powerful stigma.

In some countries, the homeless are seen as being cursed. In America, we do the cursing ourselves, labeling homeless people as lazy — one of Calvinistic capitalism’s direst sins.

The truth is that most homeless people know how to work hard.

This cultural perception is often borne out by observing the way that the majority of people treat the homeless when they encounter them on the streets. Not always, thankfully, but quite often.

Illness, job loss, foreclosure, or natural disaster — all can be harbingers of an upcoming life on the streets. It is worth remembering that these faces could be your own, and it would not take as much as you might think to end up there.

Source: “Why Do People Become Homeless?,” Walk For The Homeless
Source: “5 Ways to Become Homeless,” Business Pundit, 08/15/08
Image by Franco Folini, used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Forgotten Prisoners of Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane KatrinaFive years ago last Sunday, the city of New Orleans flooded when the levees failed in the wake of hurricane Katrina. The time following the flood was a complex and horrible stew of tragic tales and noble moments, many of which never made it into the mainstream media. Today, I would like to take a look at one especially disturbing set of stories: the plight of the imprisoned when the flood waters rolled in.

People have been thinking about this a bit more since the issue was addressed in an episode of HBO’s Treme. Last April, the critically acclaimed series presented a story all too familiar to people in the area, yet strangely glossed over by the national coverage. It was a subplot about a woman whose brother was incarcerated when the flooding occurred. All attempts to locate him had come to naught for months, until she finds picture of him amongst the prisoners from the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), who were herded onto an I-10 overpass, where they have stayed without supplies or shade for days.

The Back of Town blog, which analyzes Treme from the perspective of those who were there, immediately provided a counterpoint, penned by Sam Jasper: “You had him all the time! – Toni Bernette HBO Treme. [Disclosure: I sometimes contribute to Back of Town. – Loki] In it, she recounts being told of the reality of the situation by one of the former prisoners:

Eventually he was one of those ferried to the overpass. No water, no food, no information at all. Only sun. He said he noticed his skin was in bad shape from having been in the water with god knows what else polluting it. Eventually he wound up at Hunt in San Gabriel. There 3000 OPP inmates were put in a maximum security prison (remember, many had not yet been charged or were in for minor misdemeanors) in a field. At this point there was no more sorting. No more protection from the violent offenders. Everyone was dumped in the field. There was a young man who’d never been in jail before near Ike. The kid was panicking and falling apart. Ike got hold of him and calmed him down, explaining that he didn’t want to draw attention to himself or he’d be in danger. The young man listened and glued himself to Ike, shaking the entire time. He was shaking not only from fear, fear of the other prisoners and the extremely hostile inmates of San Gabriel, but also from dehydration. He remembers it taking a long time before the prisoners got food or water.

As for the authorities, they had no idea who any of these guys were. No records had accompanied them, not only because of their evacuation but also because most had been destroyed in the basement of OPP. So the authorities now had 7000 people in their custody and no earthly clue who any of them were. Were they violent rapists or a guy who mouthed off to a cop on Frenchmen Street? No idea. Families had no way of finding these prisoners and the prisoners had no way of knowing what had happened to their own families, much less a way to contact them when communications were completely useless at that time. Lots of people just got lost. The public defenders were gone, many just quit, already overloaded with casework before the storm ever hit.

It is common knowledge that the American penal system is a shambles. Add the chaos of a natural disaster such as a California forest fire or a man-made one like the levee failure in New Orleans, and the breakdown is terrifyingly complete. The lessons of five years ago are vital for all of us, no matter where.

If you want a detailed view of exactly what happens when an already broken system is embedded in a situation of a complete societal breakdown, I advise the following BBC documentary, embedded here in full, Prisoners of Katrina:

In a time when earthquakes, forest fires, tornados and terrorist threats seem to crop up every season, it seems wise to examine these stories and work towards the prevention of more of them in the future. When Mother Nature calls, she calls collect, and you can’t refuse the charges.

Source: ““You had him all the time!” ~Toni Bernette, HBO Treme,” Back of Town, 04/22/10
Source: “Down by Law: Orleans Parish Prison before and after Katrina,”  Dollars and Sense, 03/06/06
Source: “ACLU Report Details Horrors Suffered by Orleans Parish Prisoners in Wake of Hurricane Katrina,”  ACLU, 08/10/06
Source: “Prisoners of Katrina,”  Google Videos, 08/06
Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Dr. Perry and The ChildTrauma Academy

CTA LogoQuestions of abuse and neglect are the tricky ones. Just like so many issues in life, they are vastly more complex than they seem at first. In the case of the children, whose bodies and brains are constantly developing, these complexities can span a broad array or disciplines.

Enter The ChildTrauma Academy and its Senior Fellow Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. The Houston, TX-based CTA describes itself as a not-for-profit organization that is “working to improve the lives of high-risk children through direct service, research and education.” Dr. Perry is an internationally recognized authority on children in crisis.

As a native New Orleanian, I must admit to being quite partial to the work Dr. Perry has done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The plight of our city’s children and the elderly was one quite evident to me from the start, and I think his work was important. This excerpt from Dr. Perry’s article, “The Real Crisis of Katrina,” applies not only to the child survivors of the Gulf Coast disasters, but also to children in general:

We know that traumatic experiences can result in a host of chronic, sometimes, life-long, problems. More than 35% of the children exposed to a single traumatic event will develop serious mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That is just the start, however. Children exposed to adverse experiences are at much greater risk for physical health problems throughout life; this includes heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. Traumatized children are at much greater risk for other emotional, social and mental health problems; and as these children grow into adults the risk follows them. Adults with childhood trauma have increased divorce rates, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse and dependence, school failure, and unemployment among many other problems. These children have a much higher probability of requiring the services of our expensive public systems throughout life; special education, child protection, mental health, health and criminal justice.

That makes perfect sense to me. I am in my 40′s, and I have certainly experienced a deterioration in several aspects of my physical health in the five years since Katrina. I’ve also seen the widespread symptoms of PTSD firsthand after the flooding. One can only imagine the effects of these stresses on a developing child, especially when the adults around that child are experiencing similar privations.

Dr. Perry’s article continues with an important message of hope:

And we also know that when traumatized children receive appropriate services, they can heal. We know that if traumatized children can live in safe, consistent, relationally-rich, and nurturing homes and communities they heal. Indeed, traumatic experience can provide a wisdom and strength that is impossible to get any other way. Yet this healing takes place and wisdom grows only when the child is safe, secure and her emotional needs have been met.

Dr. Perry suggests we prioritize funding for children at the same level we do for other crucial infrastructure. After all, our children are the infrastructure of our future.

Dr. Perry can also be seen in our debut feature-length documentary, It’s More Expensive To Do Nothing by HUMANE EXPOSURES films. You can also follow The ChildTrauma Academy on Twitter.

Source: “The Real Crisis of Katrina,” The Zero, The Official Website of Andrew Vachss, 2006
Image: ChildTrauma Academy Logo, copyright retained; fair use: reporting

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