Thursday, July 5, 2007

Coming to America - Reid Cater

Baseball+ gigantic hot dogs+fireworks+hot summer night = an idyllic American experience. On the night before the Fourth of July I felt like I was sitting right in the schmaltzy, cracker-jack filled heart of Americantown, USA. I could have been sitting in a hundred other American cities having the exact same blissful experience. Except this night the home team was not the Mobile Bay Bears or the Toledo Mudhens, but the New Orleans Zephyrs.

So far our posts (mine included) have focused how culture, climate, and Katrina make New Orleans radically different from our hometowns. Yet, going out to Metarie to see a minor league baseball game reminded me that New Orleans is after all just another American city.

The issue of Americaness for New Orleans and its residents is significant. In the wake of Katrina many of the cries for help focused on how the government could let something like this happen in America to Americans. Our country and our citizens often reach out to others in need around the world, but the priority has always been to help our own first and foremost. This is the reason that the aftermath of Katrina looms larger for most Americans than that of the tsunami which devastated South East Asia. It is also the reason that many were so outraged at the lack of a coordinated response to Katrina.

I do not seek to open the argument on whether Americans are more or less morally obligated to help other Americans in need but I do want to point out that while we all face challenges in relating to the survivors of Katrina, we also have many advantages. We are working with other Americans; people that share our national culture and values. I think that at times we give ourselves too little credit for what we do understand about the people that live here and concentrate too much on the differences. Even something minor like following the same sports is a significant cultural asset. While here I have had the opportunity open several conversations locals on the topic of SEC football. This would be possible were I working Indonesia.

The uniqueness of New Orleans can at times be enchanting, puzzling, depressing, or threatening (sometimes all at once) but I think that we should remember that the sameness of the Crescent City ties us more closely to its citizens than we realize.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Stay atop the toilets --Cart Weiland

“Hi there, maam, my name is Cart Weiland. I work for a New Orleans planning and architecture firm, and I’d like to speak with someone about toilets.”

Yes, the toilets, maam. It’s kind of urgent.

And so began another day in the office. The firm I work for is engaged in a high-profile “green” building project, and I have been assigned to do the bulk of the research regarding eco-friendly building materials that the work requires. Dual-flush toilets apparently use significantly less water than normal ones. Who knew?

But dual-flush toilets and green building supplies in general, I have learned, are considerably more expensive than your everyday, run-of-the-mill ones. And herein lies the problem. As I asked folks about their toilets, my mind wandered. Are we really worrying about the right things here in NOLA? I mean…toilets? Do displaced residents really care if their toilet conserves water? Is the extra money and extra time people are spending on finding solar energy panels, reclaimed lumber, and green roofing really worth the effort? Do long-run benefits really exceed costs?

My first three weeks have taught me that New Orleans is rebuilding, albeit slowly. But what I guess I ultimately was wondering during toilet time was this: Is New Orleans rebuilding “right?” Are the right priorities in place? Are the right people involved?

That’s when the second-guessing started. Eighteen Duke students and I are down here for the summer, but are we accomplishing anything? Should we be down here? We have already fallen into daily and weekly routines (work, work out, eat, go out, sleep), so it is tempting to lose sight of why we are here. I am an intern, and some of the work I do is pretty basic. I make phone calls, build spreadsheets, carry out research, and try to contribute in as many meaningful ways as possible. But I can’t escape the fact that what I do in the office doesn’t feel like anything more than a little three letter word that isn’t particularly noble: a J-O-B.

Before I came down here, I subconsciously said to myself, “I’m going to New Orleans to help a city rebuild. How cool, man! Way to go!” Now, I’m beginning to see the conceited error of my ways. I was wrong to think that coming to NOLA for a summer would be a feel-good, self-aggrandizing experience.

I’d like to think that most of us down here are still idealists. “Saving the world” (and New Orleans, specifically) hasn’t yet become an impossible dream of naivetĂ©, but simply a more abstract idea with a million layers of complexity. I will leave New Orleans in a month without having solved any monumental problems. There will be no farewell parades, no pomp and ceremony, and the overwhelming majority of people here will have no idea that we inhabited The Big Easy for eight weeks. So, let’s leave the congratulatory remarks behind. No recognition is deserved. We are here, and we’ve got jobs to do.

“Hi there, maam, my name is Cart Weiland. I work for a New Orleans planning and architecture firm, and I’d like to speak with someone about toilets.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Diane- By Dana Stefanczyk

I was starving.

It was Monday, it had been a busy day, and I was ready for lunch. Despite the ominous skies, I decided to run across the street to get something to eat, and planned to bring it back to the office to eat. Yet of course I had just ordered when the heavens opened up, something I have now learned to expect from NOLA. Well, I was starving, and since I didn’t feel like an afternoon shower, I sat down by myself in the crowded cafĂ©.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

A woman stood in front of me, tray in hand.

“Nope, not waiting for anyone.”

She sat down. She told me that she had planned on taking lunch to go and eating at her desk, but didn’t want to go out in the rain either. I smiled, told her I had planned to do the same, and went back to concentrating on my food, content to get lost in my own thoughts. As we sat there in the slightly uncomfortable silence, one thought persisted: “This is I engaged?” I chose to engage myself.

“So what do you do?”

I learned that Diane works in a nearby LSU clinic, and is a New Orleans native. She was here during the storm, but soon evacuated to stay with relatives in Texas. She came back five weeks later when she had power again, and has stayed because of her job and her husband’s job. I was surprised by her pessimism-as soon as her husband retires, Diane plans to leave the city. As a health care worker, she had spoken to many people who had left during Katrina, found a better life somewhere else, and decided there wasn’t enough here for them to return to. There isn’t enough for Diane to stay.

Two years after Katrina, the city is far from fixed. And the sad reality is that before the storm, things weren’t perfect either. In a meeting last week, the health department discussed problems in the city that lead to problems in health care. The long list included issues such as transportation, education, and “voter apathy.” With such basic infrastructure in disarray, how can there be any hope?

I had heard somewhere that after Katrina there was the question of whether it was even worth it to rebuild, and sometimes I still ask myself that question. Many have found better lives elsewhere, and if another hurricane comes, who knows what state the city will be left in? I have seen many sides of NOLA- it’s beauty, history, spirit, destitution, poverty. Something made people come back. Somehow, for some reason, they came back. Diane, though reluctantly, came back. And after living here, I know that at some point in my life, I too will come back.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Field of Dreams - Andy Winslow

Surrounding the unexpected meeting with Mr. C Ray Nagin, my job duties have taken a sharp turn. I bid my farewell to the leisurely French Quarter curb analysis to welcome a more important and less exciting windshield assessment project for FEMA. In teams of two, interns, city employees, contracted employees, and anyone else with two eyes and an arm or two take a drive out into “the field.” Similar to other “fields”, our “field” is the site at which our project is carried out, but the difference is this “field” spans the entire city of New Orleans, including each of thirteen separate planning districts. It is a massive project requiring the work of nearly everyone mentioned above and then some.

Conceptualization of the scope of disaster that New Orleans is faced with in repairing its roadways remains a feat even the city is still working on. In some cases, it is difficult to fathom attributing the destruction of the roadways just to floodwater. In many of these cases, the reality is that the damage came from multiple sources besides the flooding itself. First, a fair percentage of the minor roadways throughout New Orleans were in need of serious repair prior to Katrina. Second, the debris trucks and heavy equipment from the Army Corps of Engineers that served such an important role in the cleanup efforts of the city placed unrealistically heavy loads on the roads, sidewalks, and curbs. Unfortunately for New Orleans and much of southern Louisiana, and especially pronounced in the areas that used to be wetlands, the soil is soft and rich with sediment. The manifestation of heavy loading atop regions of poor soil, quite predictably, is widespread subsidence.

In the absence of the aforementioned hardships, this road assessment project would be made infinitely easier. Besides the inconsistencies in documenting the same problem across the teams of largely untrained and inexperienced inspectors, the real problem lies is the delineation and categorization of specific types of damage in a severely damaged segment of road. Some of the roads are so bad that documenting the short stretches with no visible problems is easier than pointing out the individual problems themselves.

On a more anecdotal note, when we converse with locals and let them know the type of work we are doing for the city, many of them are quick to point out the terrible state of their respective road or sidewalk before Katrina. Since FEMA’s responsibility is not to repair the problems that existed before the hurricane and flooding, an added importance comes with filtering out the preexisting roadway problems and deciding what damage is a direct result of floodwater or debris truck-induced subsidence. The irony behind the situation, we later joke, is that this friendly neighbor is revealing the very information that would prevent FEMA from considering repairs, in a sense “blowing the cover” for the entire block!

Although the monotony of the job is something I have come to dislike, working on the streets of New Orleans provides me the type of experience I sought when I joined DukeEngage. Aside from getting out to see firsthand the really hard and devastating effects of the storm, I have taken an interest in talking to the locals and piecing together certain themes they profess regarding the many failures of Katrina. These themes span from the (mis)engineering behind the levees, to the policy decisions by city officials, to FEMA, and even to themselves. Whatever it is, everyone around here has a certain opinion or strong feeling about how post-Katrina New Orleans was handled, which really spells out how disorganized it was. Although it is my personal belief that the root of the problem can be traced back to the engineering of the levees, I have learned over the first few weeks philosophies that suggest the problem spanned far beyond the levee breach. Rather than finding a scapegoat and pointing fingers, it is my personal philosophy that the best way to approach a solution the problem is to go out and get your hands dirty in “the field,” as large as it may be.