November 8-11, 2005
The Plenty bus had been sitting in my yard for the past week, full up to the gills with great supplies that Elaine Stampalia had scored. It looked like it was ready to go, and Joel Kachinsky and I finally got our schedules clear and gear packed for a four-day tour. I had been in touch with our contacts in New Orleans about coming back down to distribute the funds we had been granted. It would be an exciting trip, and along with supplies and money, I would have Joel with me.
Joel was cut out for this like a duck is cut out for water, and he proved to be invaluable. First stop was to see Peter Schweitzer (Plenty’s Executive Director) and go over some planning, such as not getting lost, and also to get the grant contracts and cash for some on-the-fly help to people. We had a great meeting, gathered all manner of paperwork and maps, and headed out.
About halfway through Summertown, I was doing a mental invoice of what we had with us, and had a sudden jolt. I looked at Joel, riding shotgun, and asked him if he had the checks, which were to be made out to folks in Louisiana. He said no, and I didn’t remember getting them either so we decided to stop at the Shell station and inventory. Sure enough, neither of us had remembered to get the money, just a small oversight, so I called Peter and he agreed to meet us out at the highway. First potential pitfall remedied within 20 minutes. Hippies.
The drive through Alabama was uneventful, and we were making good time when Joel offered to spell me at the wheel. I needed to stretch, so took him up on it, and off we go. I was just getting a sleeping bag out when I hear Joel say, “I’m off the road.”
“WHAT?” I say.
“I’m off of the road, the highway, and I’m on the exit ramp,” says he.
“Oh, okay, we’re off of THAT road!” says I, and I look out the front window of the bus. If I hadn’t seen the white line along the roadside, I’d have sworn he drove us straight into a lake. Black all over with gray around the edges; this was FOG like I hadn’t seen lately. Apparently when you have warm summer-like days and then very cold nights, this is what happens. The soupy mix was too much to deal with, so now came the issue of where to stop. I’d learned on previous trips that when you are moving you are okay, but once stopped you become a still target. Read sitting duck. All sorts of law-enforcement and local types can swing by and check you out closer. The search for suitable parking became a jigsaw puzzle, as it seemed every exit and entrance ramp was taken up with trucks parking along the edges. We soon found an old truck stop that would open in a couple hours, and roosted there with some other vagabonds.
The drive into New Orleans was much nicer, once some fog had lifted and we were even treated to a little sunlight later on. We landed at the Algiers home of Malik Rahim, now called the Common Ground collective. A great group of volunteers and organizers has come together here, and I run into Jimmy again. Jimmy has been in the area since we first met him early on in Covington, and stayed around after his ride left. He usually drives a truck picking up and dropping off supplies from this distribution point in Algiers. He laughs when he sees us, and notices the bus is packed, so he sets to making room for this load of supplies. I don’t know Jimmy’s age, but he looks 15 and has a license (I think), and I’ve noticed that he has grown at least an inch or two since early September. He’s one of the people who really keep this place going.
Once unloaded, Joel and I find Malik and make plans to meet in the next 24 hours to get the funds into his hands. We then head over to Gordon’s place (Veterans for Peace) in Algiers Point, right on the levee road, and take a break. We make camp for the night, as it turns out our meeting will be tomorrow mid-morning. The local corner bar isn’t enough noise to keep a couple tired hillbillies awake, and we’re a block away so sleep comes easy.
Lisa S. is one of Malik’s organizers, and she helps us get the meeting together. Just before we are to sit down together, one of the supply folks comes back to the yard and tells us “The police are out front and waiting for Jimmy.” We walk to the street and see a New Orleans police officer in the midst of questioning one of the workers who has parked to pick up some water. The officer is giving Jimmy the third degree and telling anyone who will listen that “I’m taking the next one to jail.” I ask what the offense is, and he says its obstructing public access. I ask him if that’s an arrestable offense. “Yes, it is,” he says. I ask if he has the number of that statute, and he says he knows what it is, he knows the number, but it’s in the car.
OooooooKaaaaay. Nuff said. We take a couple pictures and talk to those present making sure they know to tell everyone who pulls up that they CANNOT double park. This is now a jailable offense. It will be less than 24 hours later, over by the clinic, when they will arrest Greg for videotaping their harassment of some other workers. Greg was just taping, and he was accused of “crossing a police line,” “resisting arrest,” and “carrying a concealed weapon.” Well, he did have a pocketknife on him. It’s just another case of harassment by the local police. It seems they are trying to re-establish their foot-on-the-neck policies that lead to the abuse of local citizens directly after the hurricane.
B., who was being hassled, was one of the first ones to help protect Malik’s house from the vigilantes riding around the neighborhood. We discuss the police for a few minutes, and some of those who are passing through here take notes on what just happened. Malik is right back on track, and we sit down at his kitchen table and begin to talk over the basics of our grant agreement. His needs are to continue rebuilding this neighborhood, along with tree removal (still) and mold abatement. We write this into the agreement and hand him a check for the funding. He is full of gratitude, and while shaking my hand asks us to remember that they still need help from qualified builders. Skilled builders are needed who can train some locals in fixing these homes. I tell him I’ll let people know.
The signature on the check is barely dry and we are saying our goodbyes for today, as we still have to get to Raceland and see Chief Brenda Dardar-Robichaux (United Houma Nation). I notice that quite a few of the supplies we dropped yesterday are already gone, and make a note to bring back some more water. We hear that the clinic must be moved in the near future and they don’t have a solid place to land yet.
Meetings are taking place to figure out just what will occur. We talk to Scott W. some, who thanks us for bringing more supplies and lets us know that the clinic will continue its work regardless of where they have to move. This is comforting, as the clinic not only keeps track of the sick and injured in this neighborhood, but is a gathering place for many who want to know where they can help out. They too have been hassled by the local police, and it’s getting hotter now that most headline news has left the area.
We get back on the West Bank Expressway and head west towards the bayou area and Chief Brenda’s place. Calling ahead, we make plans to meet and Joel and I discuss the local problems with FEMA. We decide to try and get some info from a FEMA office we saw earlier, and will stop there on our way out of town.
Chief Brenda is a great woman with a huge heart, and all her efforts lately have been to cover the needs of the Houma people. I like her attitude and appreciate that she will do what it takes to keep her people together. We arrive at her house, and soon are sitting down at the dining room table and signing the grant agreement for the Houma Nation. We also meet with Michael T. Mayheart Dardar, her assistant and historian of the tribe. They have a nice website, www.unitedhoumanation.org
They are always expressing gratitude for help given to them, as they are used to being overlooked or just outright ignored by the Federal government. NO tribal lands, NO tribal funding, etc. It is interesting to me that the Houma have been recognized by Louisiana since the Louisiana Purchase, but still no Federal help. Some of the volunteers who have been here for months still remain, and are now the “straw bosses” of a couple crews.
We discuss other options for funding with Chief Brenda, and leave to go visit the solar powered radio station being built in Golden Meadow. We take Louisiana Hwy 1 south into the lower bayou, and meet up with Bob Gordon from Canada. He and a nice gentleman from Ireland named Kieran are completing the construction and it will be the first solar powered radio station on the Eastern side of the United States. If the 21 solar panels don’t have enough power to keep it running during cloudy days, there is a backup propane generator to fill in. The radio station, WHVN, will be the voice for the Houma tribe, and provide community and tribal news and shows of interest. Some of the original builders are here, guys from Humboldt County who brought this equipment here and are also seeing it through. Kevin, Ray, and Bruce are leaving the next day, headed back to California for more supplies and funds. They will return in a couple weeks.
Joel and I take the crew out for dinner at Roses, a local cantina with plenty of spicy food and waitresses straight out of the 60s. During dinner, one of the waitresses is talking about her daughter having a baby, and Kevin announces that he’s a midwife. We all laugh, but he is serious. He explains that he’s nearly memorized the book Spiritual Midwifery, and delivered the last four of his five children.
Dinner is wonderful, and the waitresses keep stopping by to hear more stories of children and midwives. I know this discussion hasn’t happened before here, especially with some crusty looking men talking about delivering babies, and we all agree that Kevin isn’t a midwife, but he did help deliver four babies. I know midwives, and you sir, are no midwife. Good try though.
While driving home the next day, we still see the devastation along the roadside that was wreaked by the first Hurricane, Katrina. Trees are still being loaded into trailers that are headed for landfills, and some are being placed on logging trucks headed for the sawmill. Trash and debris is still everywhere along the roadside, and it’s not hard to imagine how furious that storm was. It’s now over two months later, and so much still needs to be done. We’ll keep helping as long as we can, and I think plans are already in place for work in December. The bus hums along, lighter and happy to be headed home. Joel also has picked up those FEMA papers, and is reading them during the ride home.