Monday, December 31, 2007

Pic of the Day:
A year after victory, Democrats are still hung over

This is one of my favorite political photos I have ever taken. It's not artsy. It's not attention-grabbing. It's not even good (a bit hazy). But it is telling.

A case of Yuengling beer, the drink of choice among Washingtonians, sits outside the Democratic minority staff office of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. It was taken at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Nov. 8, 2006, the day after Democrats beat the Republicans for the majority in the House of Representatives.

The headline on a
Washington Post photocopy taped to the door says, "Democrats Take House."

I remember that the Republicans I talked with that day were very pessimistic. I got to meet Dick Armey, the former House majority leader (the staff of Maine Sen. Susan Collins snubbed me for an interview, though). Armey and his Texas bravado put things a little more positively. But the headline I wrote for the story was, "House turns blue, Republicans, too."

With many of the Democrats' campaign promises still unfulfilled, especially the Iraq pullout, it seems their headache is still lingering after the night of drinking. "I don't approve of Congress," Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in November. "We haven’t been effective in ending the war in Iraq." Of course, you could argue that the Republicans have been hiding the Aspirin from the Democrats by halting many of their measures. I'm not partisan, so that's for you to decide.

This is a photo you probably wouldn't see in
The Washington Post or in most daily newspapers, but I tend to note the details. After all, this is The Offlede, where the downplayed is played up (or some other slogan ... vote on the right sidebar).

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pic of the Day:
Newspapers kicked down, pushed over the edge

A newspaper box rests at the bottom of an outdoor stairwell in the historic district of Savannah, Ga. I took the photo in September as I visited the beautiful city on my way to Florida.

The symbolism, of course, is irresistible. I asked a local vagrant what had happened to the newspaper box. His words, mind you, probably are not very reliable.

The man said that after leaving a bar the night before, some town "kids" smashed the window of the news rack, loaded the box with some bricks and shoved it down the stairs.

It's ironic that the suspected perpetrators were young people, part of a demographic that supposedly has turned its back on traditional news media. The greater irony is the extent to which they went in order to publicly embarrass the poor newspaper box.

The kids left the box lying in the gutter, quite forlorn, almost completely forgotten and looking for some way out.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pic of the Day:
Snoopy shoots down Red Baron over Melbourne

Snoopy 1 flies over the Indian River in Melbourne.

Just kidding about the headline, but this is another new feature called "Pic of the Day." I won't necessarily do this every day, but almost. I'll post a photo that doesn't necessarily have any news value, but is something I would like to show off. Nothing more.

For a debut, we have Snoopy. Snoopy 1 to be specific.

According to the MetLife Web site, he's on his way to Sunday's Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins game to see the Fins lose once again, finishing the season 1-15. I mean, if I were on that team, I'd want to lose ALL of the games. Losing all but one or two just makes you a really bad team. Losing every game makes you a historic team. Right?

Either way, the Dolphins are bad.

I took this photo through my car's windshield with my point-and-shoot Canon while driving to work Friday. The blimp was flying over the Indian River, along U.S. 1 in Melbourne.

How to:
Beat a crippled and finish off a dead man

This is a good example of what I deal with as a copy editor at Florida Today (without overstepping the bounds, of course).

And it's the first post about grammar, word usage, news story content, etc., in which I will show you "How to:" really mess up.

These paragraphs were taken from a story written in late November by a Gannett reporter at the Tallahassee bureau. The passages made it into several Gannett newspapers.

The first paragraph made it onto the USA Today Web site. That is linked here.

The first and second paragraphs are on The News-Press (Fort Myers) Web site. That is linked here.

They did not, however, make it into the pages of Florida Today.

It's a great example of how poor word choice can come off as insensitive and, when boiled down, can be quite inaccurate.

The story is about the role Florida has played in past primary elections:

"The state's primary was crucial for the first - and probably last - time four years later, when Jimmy Carter beat the crippled Alabamian, effectively ending Wallace's national career."
Isn't it a horrible image: Jimmy Carter beating an already crippled person? The Alabamian, of course, was then-Gov. George Wallace, who was paralyzed when he was shot on the campaign trail in Maryland in 1972. The juxtaposition of "beat" and "crippled" is unfortunate, at the least. I would fix this by simply removing "crippled" from the sentence. It's not important information.
"The state had a blip of importance in 1992, when Bill Clinton got 51 percent of the primary vote to finish off the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., and Californian Jerry Brown."
Now, here we have an example similar to the first paragraph. Instead of being a crippled governor, however, this senator is already dead when Bill Clinton makes him even deader by finishing him off.

For one thing, Paul Tsongas was not dead when he lost to Clinton (he died five years later). Therefore, to say "the late Sen. Paul Tsongas," which means he was dead at the time of the election, would be inaccurate. Take it out.

Secondly, it's another unfortunate juxtaposition to use "finish off" with someone who is already dead.

The moral of the story: Don't beat a man - or shoot him - when he's already down.

These errors are quite amusing to copy editors, but I'm sure many readers would find them loathsome.

Friday, December 28, 2007

After merry Christmas, a happy, new year at work

This is a home across the street from me in Melbourne. It's not a great photo because of the darkness, but I'll never get used to palm trees decorated with Christmas lights.

I jumped back into the vicious cycle yesterday: wurk, wurk, wurk.

Don't get me wrong: I love my job. And I won't be blogging much about my job, other than a few subtle hints (wink ... wink). I know those boundaries and have read too many horror stories about employees, particularly journalists, stepping over the line on their personal Web sites.

No, I enjoy the vicious cycle. I look forward to my job each day, and I am happy when I'm there.

On the other hand, it is, of course, going to get in the way of my blogging.

To complicate things further, holding myself up to the no-misspelling and no-typo standards on this blog is quite taxing. Considering my profession as a copy editor, I feel the pressure to be perfect, as copy editors are known to be (and it's true ... mostly).

Just recently, I noticed that peek, as in "to peer" or "to glance," was spelled P-E-A-K. Apparently, I "peaked" into a bag of sugar. The sugar was in the form of a peak, as in the Pikes variety, but the similarities stopped there. It was a typo. And I apologize.

In an attempt to keep myself busy with tasks that matter, I'm planning to follow through with at least some of these ideas for posts:
  • Hurricane damage in Brevard County. I know it exists, more than three years after several storms hit in 2004. I've seen the empty buildings. As I did in "Assignment NOLA," I will go out and photograph the places that are still vacant.

  • Rocket and space shuttle launches. I plan to shoot the launches whenever, or more accurately, IF they ever do happen. I hope to produce better images than the one above, which is of the shuttle Discovery launch on Oct. 23. The photo is taken from outside my old apartment in Cocoa Beach, which is next to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center.

  • Explore crime in my area of Florida. There are a few areas of Brevard County known as high-crime neighborhoods. Having experienced real crime during my stay in Washington, D.C., I want to compare what I know as crime with what residents here call crime. Is it really that bad? It's a good chance to return to a beat I love.

  • Take a trip to Washington. D.C. is never short of things to write about. And I'm sure the flight will be rather amusing, as air travel usually is. Also, reportedly, the Newseum museum of news is set to open sometime in 2008. I plan to check it out.

  • Take a trip home. Washington County, Maine, is one of the poorest counties east of the Mississippi River. It's also a place I call home. Want to see rural America? Down East is it. Update: Mission complete.

  • Take a trip to the southernmost point in the United States. That's Key West.

  • Take a trip to Miami. Maybe meet another celebrity, check out the drought.

  • Attend sporting events. There is no shortage of them in Florida, such as the baseball spring training games. Update: Mission complete.

  • Plenty of media commentary. I'll offer my insights into the twisted world of journalism and its ghosts of past, present and future. Wait. I'm sniffing a holiday-themed blog posting titled "A Newspaper Carol." That will be coming by New Year's Day (if I can get creative). Whip up some eggnog and cuddle up next to the Offlede.

  • Google search analysis. A top-secret project. You'll only find out when I publish it.

  • Newspaper reading study. Another top-secret project. Why so secret? I can't let anyone swipe my ideas.

  • My first experience with real Indian food. The Offlede is just as much a cultural journey for me and you as it is a hard-news hub (ha!). I just heard that a good friend of mine from India is staying in Orlando. We're going to hit up the town and discover some authentic Indian cuisine. This will add to my debut as a food critic in "Biscuits with butter and jambalaya." Update: Mission complete.

  • Sweet tea. What is it with the South and its precious sweet tea? I investigate.

  • Real estate. It's a mess here in Florida. What's the deal?
As for work, I'll just have to stick with it for now - until I become a famous blogger and make millions, of course. Mua ha ha ha.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

in review
New Orleans two years after Katrina
A blog series by Andrew Knapp

It has been more than two years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Big Easy and destroyed parts of Gulf Coast Mississippi, ruining thousands of lives. This series explains my impressions of the aftermath, including conversations with victims, photographs of a tumultuous time in the New Orleans recovery and videos of the neighborhoods that remain a wreck.

A hypocrite and his mission to New Orleans
New Orleans is struggling to recover. Its people are depressed. And I can't get a good picture of the tangible and emotional destruction that still lingers. Mixed media messages are not a good gauge. I have to see for myself.

Shedding light on my travel ignorance
When I woke up, I realized I would cross into a different time zone on my trip to New Orleans. I would be gaining time, so I could sleep in an hour. But some things are just worth waking up for. This is one of them.

Prejudice appears amid darkness
The only reason I thought two vehicle occupants were wearing cowboy hats was because of the Texas license plate. Eyes deceive us. What we see or think we see is not always the truth.

Street of beer, women reveals faults
The French Quarter is a source of pride for New Orleans. But if you walk a few blocks in any direction, you see the city has focused more on the big-draw neighborhoods, while others have suffered.


Victim a clever deal maker

Storm survivor Larry Jones spent days in the Superdome before going to Houston. Katrina left him with a bottle of soap and water, a dirty rag and slick sales pitch to offer unsuspecting tourists.

A tour of destruction on a dismal day
I had heard much about Gray Line's Katrina tours, mainly the controversy: How could someone profit off such destruction? But if you take it, you'll see it's more of a public relations ploy.

Struggle to see good in a broken city
While tourists and college students continue to party on Bourbon Street, residents are protesting the City Council's approval of the demolition of public housing. It's a divide that is stifling recovery in New Orleans.


Brad Pitt, Moses start rebuilding

I decided to make a break for the residential areas when the weather broke today. While visiting the Lower Ninth Ward, I ran into actor Brad Pitt and others putting New Orleans back together.

'Tent city' ruined; homeless move on
Though a defeat, Bunker Hill was a crucial battle for Americans in the Revolutionary War and against the occupation of Boston. The homeless and poor made a similar stand in New Orleans.


Road home with stories to tell

Experience in journalism tells me that everyone has a story. But the adage is especially true of Hurricane Katrina survivors. Casual conversations with locals prove it. (Summary story.)

From Gulfport to Biloxi, emptiness
Like New Orleans, Mississippi suffered greatly in Katrina. Unlike New Orleans, where homes are decaying, it seems Mississippi has done a better job of moving on, of either tearing down and rebuilding, or of just tearing down.

Biscuits with butter and jambalaya
A large part of my motivation for a trip to New Orleans was the food. It's a shame that I didn't get a chance to eat more. But in the end, I left with a sweet taste in my mouth, in more ways than one.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

New York Times prints similar NOLA story

Published: December 26, 2007
Voters in St. Bernard, the parish just east of New Orleans, have ousted their longtime president in an act of frustration about how little their devastated community has recovered.

The New York Times took a page out of my book.

This article seems to have the same essential conflict I presented throughout the "Assignment NOLA" series: Louisianans are struggling to get on with their lives and to rebuild. It has a political slant, however, in that many St. Bernard residents attribute some of their anguish to parish President Junior Rodriguez.

But it was published Wednesday (I beat them, kind of, in my mind).

In addition, The Washington Post ran a year-in-review online multimedia feature, titled "After the Destruction," that includes several panoramas throughout New Orleans. It's a good before-and-after look that I can't quite offer.

Assignment NOLA:
Biscuits with butter and jambalaya

The gumbo at Lady River Eatery on the Mississippi in New Orleans was rich and flavorful, and the boudin sausage,
a true Cajun tradition to savor, had a unique texture.

A few days after returning from New Orleans, I must write about what I ate in the Big Easy. It's probably because I'm full of junk food on account of the Christmas holiday: It's good junk but not necessarily good for you.

A large part of my motivation for a trip to New Orleans was the food. It's a shame that I didn't get a chance to eat more. I was busy during most of my visit, so I had less time to eat.

This is an overview of some of the Cajun and Creole goodness I enjoyed.

Thursday lunch

Lady River Eatery, 600 Dacatur St.: Gumbo and boudin sausage, $11.90
*For a menu, click here.

My first full meal came at Lady River Eatery, specializing in "Southern Fare and Spirits," in the The Shops at Jackson Brewery building on the Mississippi River.

Gumbo always has been a favorite of mine, so I thought it would be an appropriate first dish for my Crescent City hiatus. For $5.95, I got a large and beautiful bowl of the sausage and chicken gumbo, above left. The menu says it is "slow cooked with seasonings," and the taste lived up to the description. The herbs had crunch, and the meat was tender. Freshness at its best.

The flavors and the color of the gumbo were richer than any canned version I have ever had. That just goes to show that you can never put anything authentically good in a can. Except for Spam, maybe.

On the side, I ordered two large links of Cajun boudin blanc (white) sausage, above right, mainly because I've heard my favorite Food Network character, Alton Brown, rave so much about it on his shows, especially "Feasting on Asphalt." This particular boudin (pronounced boo-dan, not boo-deen) included rice and pork. It has a consistency similar to tuna from a can: very flaky. It was served with saltine crackers. Truly a unique Cajun treat. The boudin was also $5.95.

Thursday "snack"

Cafe du Monde, 1039 Decatur St.: Three beignets and a cafe au lait, $7.49

New Orleans' French character shows through in its superb cafes. They serve some of the best coffee and French pastries in the United States.

Cafe du Monde is a premier coffeehouse in the French Market, near the Mississippi River. It offers a funky atmosphere. Inside, there is a sizable dining area from which the coffee preparation and beignet-making areas are viewable. Outside, a much larger, covered dining area allows coffee-sipping with the pigeons that come to snap up fallen doughnut crumbs. When I visited, a trumpet player came by and played "Amazing Grace" and a few Christmas classics. Very enjoyable.

The most popular items at this tourist trap are the beignets, rectangular French doughnuts smothered in powdered sugar, and a large cafe au lait, a 50-50 mixture of steamed milk and coffee.

Search for "beignets" on Google, and the first result is Cafe du Monde. Cafe du Monde IS the beignet. The pastries come in bags of three ($3.99), so I had no choice but to splurge. They were light and sweet, utterly irresistible.

When I first peeked into the bag o' beignets, I saw a lot of powdered sugar, but there wasn't much on the doughnuts. Then I remembered something I saw on the Food Network: This required a good shake. I gripped the bag shut and thoroughly rattled it like a gourd, covering the warm beignets in sugar. Delightful. I just HAD to eat them all.

Considering all the sugar on my beignets, however, it's amazing how much was left over, below (I assure you, this is not cocaine). A couple of days after returning home from New Orleans, I still have the bag of sugar. Don't ask what I'm going to do with it.

The cafe au lait drink ($3.50) was OK. But I can't say it's much better than a latte from Dunkin' Donuts.

Thursday dinner

Cafe Beignet, 311 Bourbon St.: Catfish po' boy and cappuccino, $12.98
*For a menu, click here.

One of the simplest of New Orleans traditions is the po' boy, a contraction of "poor boy." It's a sub sandwich made of French bread or a baguette and stuffed with meat. The most popular stuffing is fried shrimp. I went for the catfish po' boy ($8.99), only because I had eaten a shrimp po' boy once before, albeit in Philadelphia - the land of cheese steaks - instead of New Orleans. Plus, I had never eaten catfish.

The sandwich was simply superb. "Simply," I say, because it was dressed only with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. Often, po' boys come with a special sauce, and I was disappointed not to see any sort of Creole mustard or mayonnaise on mine. But the meat was so moist that it wasn't necessary. It had a clean, non-fishy flavor.

I got an expensive cappuccino ($3.99) to top my delicious meal and to warm myself in the nippy (60-degree) outdoor dining area. I stayed for about an hour, listening to Steamboat Willie blowing his horn and singing jazz with his bassist and banjo player.

Friday brunch

Mother's Restaurant, 401 Poydras St.: Biscuit with jelly and jambalaya, $8.10
*For a menu, click here.

One should not be shy when going to Mother's Restaurant. You have to compete for a spot in line, then make sure you don't accidentally relinquish it once you get one.

I jumped into the line around 11 a.m. I jumped out for only a few seconds to grab a menu as I waited, and the lady behind me gave me a hard time when I tried to reclaim my old spot. I eventually did. Don't mess with a hungry journalist.

While I waited in line, cooks came through the dining room with huge pots of food, yelling at customers to move out of the way as they transferred the grub from kitchen to serving line.

"Hot biscuits."

"Hot brisket."

"Hot gumbo."

When I actually got the food, it was not that hot. I ordered a much-ballyhooed homemade biscuit with grape jelly, just because I was between breakfast and lunch, and a small bowl of the vaunted jambalaya ($7.25), just because it's another New Orleans favorite of mine. Sort of a weird combo, though.

Mother's cooks food by the bulk. The eatery caters local events and to the tourists always choking it. Most of the tourists on the day I visited were also from Florida, so I fit in.

The food was OK. The jambalaya was full of flavor, but only warm, not hot, and the spices were sort of dull. The biscuit (85 cents) was a biscuit (with jelly).

My Hurricane Katrina tour guide recommended Mother's, so I thought I should give it a shot. I'm glad I did, but I probably will go somewhere else when I return to NOLA someday.

Friday lunch

Man on street, 1300 Perdido St.: Snickers bar, $1

I'm a sucker for a cheap meal, so when a man offered me a Snickers bar for only a buck, I couldn't resist. The atmosphere was nice: Duncan Plaza, just outside City Hall, where 250 homeless people had set up camp, which then was being torn down by city workers. Dump trucks revved, pigeons cooed, and morning doves fluttered - an urban orchestra of sorts.

I was hungry and busy taking photos, so I didn't see myself finding time to sit down for a meal until later. I bought the candy bar for $1. The man (I couldn't tell whether he was homeless or just desperate) said he needed the money for the bus ride home. He just had been turned down by a police officer, and he didn't pressure me, so I helped him - and got a cheap, wholesome meal out of it to boot.

Friday dinner

Cajun Cabin, 503 Bourbon St.: Red beans and rice, shrimp creole, jambalaya and shrimp remoulade, $16.95
*For a menu, click here.

There were still a lot of foods I hadn't eaten by Friday evening, when I had my last regular meal of my New Orleans stay. So I opted for the "Taste of New Orleans" platter at Cajun Cabin, a restaurant on Bourbon Street that includes a great wooden interior with faux swamp trees, complete with Spanish moss hanging down.

Each night, a live Cajun band plays on the tiny stage in the shotgun-style building, hence its name. The band was loud. The band leader was cocky and somewhat annoying. But they made good music, so I let it slide.

I had never tried authentic red beans and rice until this little cupful of it (above, cup on right). I don't know what more to say other than it tasted great and very unhealthy. I got a chunk of unexpected fat, so that was unpleasant.

Shrimp creole was a first for me, too (above, cup on left). It's a traditional Louisiana dish that gives off a little more spicy hotness than the other food I had in New Orleans. It's made with a sort of hot sauce, with shrimp, sausage and chicken, making it sort of a mix of jambalaya and gumbo. This was the most flavorful dish I had. I'll miss shrimp creole the most.

Jambalaya, on the other hand, I had eaten earlier in the day (above, mound between two pieces of bread). But it came with the plate, so I had no choice. And the rice was severely undercooked, making it sub-par. The other flavors were good: I just couldn't get past the firm rice. But I couldn't waste it, so I ate the whole thing.

The remoulade smothering the four pieces of cold shrimp possibly had cayenne pepper and horseradish (above, on bed of lettuce). I'm never good at pinpointing ingredients, but that's what it tasted like. I topped the four pieces of toast with the shrimp. A very good pairing.

The service was pleasant and fast at the Cajun Cabin.

Saturday breakfast

The Trolley Stop Cafe, 1923 St. Charles St.: Banana split buttermilk pancakes with side of butter grits, $8.45

My last day, Saturday, was the first chance I had for a full breakfast in New Orleans. The Trolley Stop Cafe is another New Orleans classic that draws tourists, but mostly locals. When I was there, the crowd was a mix of young professionals, police officers, middle-age men and young families. Good vibes, for breakfast.

I sat at the bar to avoid a wait. The native New Orleanian sitting to my right laughed when I ordered the banana split buttermilk pancakes ($7.50). (I also got a side of butter grits for 95 cents, which were excellent, of course.)

"Sometimes you just want some good stick-to-your-innards meat and potatoes for breakfast," he said. "That isn't it." But he admitted that he had ordered the pancakes once, only because he had tried everything on the menu and wanted something new. He said he struggled to finish it.

When I got my plateful of two 10-inch pancakes, they were stuffed with banana cream pudding and topped with a large banana sliced lengthwise in half, pineapple sauce, strawberry syrup, sliced strawberries, walnuts, powdered sugar and four dollops of whipped cream. I estimate that I woofed down all but about an eighth of it.

When the waitress returned, she was surprised by how much I managed to consume. "You did much better than most people usually do," she said. "Most people only finish half of it. Plus you had the grits. That's not bad."

I told her I had a long journey home ahead of me and needed my energy.

Between its music, its people, its food, I left New Orleans with a sweet taste in my mind and in my mouth.

The Trolley Stop Cafe is an old train station renovated into a restaurant, where the conversation is to savor and the food is very sweet.

Assignment NOLA home page

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Assignment Mississippi Gulf Coast:
Route from Gulfport to Biloxi lined with emptiness

biloxighosttown0067New Orleans' historic district, the French Quarter, is located in a higher section of the city, allowing it to escape devastation from Hurricane Katrina. The old town in Gulfport, Miss., however, above, sat near the beach and was inundated with water and pounded with wind. Few cars were parked along the downtown roads when I visited, and I did not see another pedestrian. It's a ghost town.

This is taken from a vehicle driving on Route 90 between Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss. It shows many empty lots where homes once stood and a few construction projects. By contrast, in New Orleans, the decrepit buildings remain standing.

Seventy-nine miles east of New Orleans, Gulfport, Mississippi's second largest city, suffered some of the worst damage of Hurricane Katrina.

The storm was on track for a direct hit to the Big Easy before it shifted slightly to the east and made landfall on Monday morning, Aug. 30, 2005. Considering the damage New Orleans suffered, it's amazing that residents there considered their town to have largely lucked out.

"We dodged a bullet," said Carole Stauber, Gray Line's guide for the still-controversial Hurricane Katrina tour.

On Mississippi's Gulf Coast, the devastation is just as apparent at it is in New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. Storm surge in some areas of Mississippi reached 28 feet and traveled six miles inland. I started in Gulfport and drove down Route 90 to Biloxi, another hard-hit city.

But there is a key difference here: It seems that Mississippi has done a better job of moving on, of either tearing down and rebuilding, or of just tearing down.

In New Orleans, homes damaged beyond repair still stand, empty. Their former owners have moved on and have started new lives elsewhere. Some are dead.

In Gulfport, where large homes of the Mississippi elite once stood along the coastal Route 90, land lots contain only weathered, crumbling concrete foundations and steps, both above.

Most homes have been torn down. All that remains of the First Presbyterian Church of Gulfport is the steeple, in two pieces, above, resting next to the church's old foundation. The church became known for the 6-foot alligator that was found in the sanctuary after Katrina.

Gulfport's historic district is a seaside community, where a tiny concrete wall, Route 90 and a low mound of dirt separate homes from the Gulf of Mexico, above. Sand blows from the beach and over the highways. For a Northerner, it reminds me of white snow wisping across the road.

While most buildings have been razed, the exceptions include a historic home that has been targeted for restoration, above. By the looks of it, that promises to be a very tall task. There are holes in the roof. The foundation seems unsteady. And the boards on the house still bear the markings of rescuers who came to check if anyone was inside.

Like New Orleans, there are some buildings left empty. But they are mostly old office buildings, brick and concrete block structures that have been gutted. Their foundations are still strong, so they're being renovated.

While New Orleans' historic district, the French Quarter, survived the storm, Gulfport's has been left an eerie sight. It looks like something straight out of a Western movie. It's a ghost town, above.

The black street signs are made of wrought iron - very classy, above. But they look out of place and like a waste of money in a now-barren urban area.

Parking signs say "TWO HOUR PARKING," above, but somehow, I don't think it would be enforced if you were to park there for six hours. The only vehicles along these streets are parked in front of a bistro and the post office, which have been restored. Signs on a boarded-up pizza shop promise that Tony's Brick Oven Pizzeria is "coming soon."

A train station stands just off what used to be the main thoroughfare through the historic part of town. But judging from the damage, I doubt the train ever stops there. Indeed, when I was photographing the station, the train continued to chug forward, above.

Stoplights and crosswalks are almost pointless: There are hardly any cars on the road or people on the sidewalks. I wonder if anyone buys any newspapers from the boxes on the sidewalk.

Many buildings look like they're in good shape, but the windows are shattered, above, and the insides are empty.

Most of the buildings are for sale. On some, the doors and first-story windows are missing so that you could walk inside. I didn't see any "no trespassing" signs, so I walked through, above.

Some buildings are exceptions to the torn-down rule. They don't seem reparable and don't have signs on them indicating a restoration effort is under way or that a sale is possible. They're surrounded by piles of rubble, above.

You could never get the feeling of emptiness and of hurt for the people who suffered during and after Hurricane Katrina, unless you visit the Gulf Coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana. Television, newspapers and this blog can't convey the extent of destruction and the deep pain the storm has caused in these communities.

Empty buildings have left me empty, too.

Assignment NOLA home page

Monday, December 24, 2007 hits No. 1 search result on Google

I've been following it for the past few days. Today, it finally happened.

Two days ago, a Google search for the word "offlede" didn't even show my Web site on the first page of results.

Early yesterday, became the No. 3 result. My YouTube page was No. 2.

Later yesterday, hit No. 2.

Today, it's No. 1,
above. (No. 2 is an page about journalism.)

The world is a better place.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Assignment NOLA:
Long road home - with a heavy heart, stories to tell

Along the empty streets of the Lower Ninth Ward (above, intersection of Florida Avenue and Andry Street), at every empty house plot and at every ruined home, there is a story to be told. New Orleanians and other Hurricane Katrina survivors have been more than willing to tell them. Whether it will help jolt them from the grips of hardship in the future, only time will tell.

Experience in journalism tells me that everyone has a story. But the adage is especially true of Hurricane Katrina survivors. Casual conversations with locals prove it.

As I sat in the lobby of St. Vincent Guest House on Friday night, the last evening of my stay in New Orleans, a woman walked up to me and asked, "Don't you ever go to bed?"

She was the front-desk lady, the same person who had told the college students that Bourbon Street wasn't "poppin'" on Wednesday night.

"Nope," I answered.

She introduced herself as Heidi. She was wondering what I was doing. I told her I was writing about New Orleans after the storm. (The lobby is where the Wi-Fi is available, so that's where I spent most of my downtime.)

She sighed, then mentioned that the Katrina Corps, a group of youth volunteers, had been using St. Vincent, above, as its headquarters. Many survivors, including herself, also were using it as a place to live.

Then, she began a nonstop, animated 20-minute story about her experience with the "big one," Ms. Katrina. I didn't ask many questions: I just let her talk.

Heidi fit the stereotype of a Southern country girl: green NASCAR hat turned sideways, ponytails with one tail sticking out of the hat's opening, a gold crucifix hanging from her neck and, of course, that drawl.

Heidi had lived in Plaquemines Parish, just southeast of New Orleans. Plaquemines is the big toe of the Louisiana boot that sticks into the Gulf of Mexico and is mostly a large bayou with a few homes dotting it. Much of it is below sea level. (It's 65 percent water.) All of it is very rural.

She lived in a house that she bought for $30,000. She raised animals: dogs, cats, horses, chickens (but no alligators). She commuted to a job in the city, where she made about $15,000 a year.

When the order to evacuate came through on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, Heidi stayed put. Her car was old, and she thought it would break down on the highway. And she couldn't take her animals if she evacuated, so she resolved to dig in and look after them.

She rode out the storm in her bathroom, the only room in her house without windows. For 12 1/2 hours early Monday, she hunkered down in the bathtub as if Katrina were a tornado instead of a hurricane. Then, "all of a sudden, it was like turning off a hairdryer," she said. The wind "just stopped."

She walked outside. Trees were everywhere. "My yard was like a big pot of gumbo," she said. But her home was still in one piece. She would clean up later, she decided. Hours of covering her head with her arms in a cramped tub had tuckered her out, so she jumped into bed for a nap.

Later, when Heidi opened her eyes, she saw her TV floating around the room. She looked down, and she herself was floating on the mattress. Just before the water level reached the top of the doorway, she swam out of her house, clung to a tree and waited two days for her rescuers.

"I never thought I was that strong, that I had it in me," Heidi said. "I'm just lucky to be here."

She lost everything and later sold her property for $15,000, a $15,000 loss. Her newfound debt, rising insurance costs and high rents combine for a tough way of life for Heidi. A $400 one-bedroom apartment before the storm, she said, now costs at least $1,000. After Katrina, "the homeless stayed homeless, the poor became homeless, the middle-class became poor, and the rich became richer," she said. "We're not going to be able to live here anymore. And it's too bad. But it's the truth."

She talked about moving to the Carolinas, "but I don't know," she said. 'This is my home."

Two years later, Katrina pervades the Big Easy. The devastation and the emotional, physical, social reminders are inescapable.

Twelve thousand homeless people camp along the streets.

Crime is apparent. "Here we go again," a worker at the guest house said when she heard on TV about an "armed and dangerous" robber loose in the city.

This old apartment building along Florida Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward remains abandoned but still standing more than two years after Hurricane Katrina.

Some buildings are crumbling. They haven't been torn down.

Some streets are rough. They haven't been repaired.

Vehicles are abandoned along residential streets, above.

During my stay, Katrina was always the topic on New Orleans talk radio. It was always the lede story on the front page of The Times-Picayune, above.

Shops along Bourbon Street, such as Crawdaddy & Co. and Gumbo Ya Ya, sell T-shirts that say "Federal Emergency Mismanagement Agency," "Sorry I'm late. I work for FEMA," or "Make levees, not war."

The most popular alcoholic drink is the hurricane - a mix of light and dark rums, fruit juice, orange juice, lime juice, simple syrup, grenadine and a garnish of choice.

Many popular restaurants and clubs are still intact, but they can't find the workers needed to staff them. While many businesses survived Katrina, the hardest-hit sections were residential neighborhoods. So while some of the employers are still in New Orleans, the employees are not because they have no place to live. Countless eateries have "help wanted" signs plastered on their doors.

At The Trolley Stop Cafe along St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District, above, lines still file outside the door each day for breakfast. It's renowned for great butter grits, crawdad omelets and banana split pancakes sprinkled with pecans and topped with four dollops of whipped cream.

The old train station turned diner was built in the early 1900s. The restaurant opened in 1998 and fared well during the storm. The floodwaters stopped right outside the restaurant in this high-ground part of New Orleans, so water damage was minimal.

Unlike The Trolley Stop Cafe - located in a more residential, west New Orleans neighborhood where water damage was minimal - the businesses and hospitals along Canal Street near Interstate 10, where the water level was about four feet, didn't make out as well. Above, a wall along Canal Street shows the water line at about three feet. To the height of each water line on walls throughout the city, you must add one foot in order to figure out the overall height of the flood in that area.

On Saturday, the day of my farewell to New Orleans, I skipped the line by sitting at the bar.

There was a New Orleans cop on my left. He didn't say much.

On my right, there was Bobby, a middle-age man who seemed to spit a piece of omelet out of his mouth each time he spoke. It was only a matter of time before I got hit with a half-chewed projectile. But I didn't mind: His story was intriguing, too.

He had weathered the storm in his Garden District apartment, but had left when gangs "began shooting at each other on the streets and looting the homes," he said. For three months, he stayed with a friend on an ocean island near West Palm Beach, Fla. Ironically, Hurricane Wilma hit Florida in October 2005, flooding his buddy's home with a foot of water.

I ordered the banana split pancakes and grits with butter on the side, but I had to wait a while before getting them. A regular at the eatery, Bobby said service has been slow since the hurricane and that he heartily tips his servers in order to speed it up. All the workers know him and treat him well.

"Hi, Bobby," they would say when they saw him. "You doing OK? Can I get you anything?"

To the right of Bobby were Harmon and his wife, Jennie. Katrina forced them out of their apartment in the French Quarter, a prized place to live in New Orleans. Harmon and Jennie had been living in St. Louis, Mo., until the day before they ate breakfast at The Trolley Stop for the first time since the storm. They're living in the Garden District now. It's not the French Quarter, but they were just happy to be back and eating the food they missed so badly.

The cop sitting to the left of me - still silent - paid his bill, then joined some other officers who were sitting at a corner table. Harmon and Jennie paid, too, then Jennie told Bobby in a Southern accent, "We'll be seeing you around."

"I'm sure we will," said Bobby, who soon left after saying to me, "I've enjoyed our conversation. Have a good one."

It was sunny when I entered the restaurant Saturday morning, the first I had seen of the golden rays in New Orleans. But when I left, the skies were dark, and it was raining again. I felt a tug inside me. Maybe some of it was the stack of two 10-inch pancakes piled with every sweet ingredient under the sun. But most of it was the start of withdrawal symptoms.

New Orleans may not be able to escape the stigma of such a destructive storm, but its people are resilient, which wasn't the impression I had coming in. I talked with many locals, and they all willingly recounted their versions of Katrina. They weren't irritated that I had asked them about it. New Orleanians are some of the most friendly people I have ever met.

But while they're not tired of telling their stories, they are tired of the bureaucracy that has stymied their resiliency. There's hardly anything they can do when wages are putrid, when rent prices and insurance costs are sky-high, when promises of assistance are broken.

They're tired of racism.

They're tired of ignorance.

They're tired of being ignored.

The French Quarter, the main draw for tourists, is as alive as ever. Mardi Gras will draw hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars in February. But Katrina victims' plight will continue.

At the mouth of Bourbon Street on Friday night, a group of young musicians I liked to call the B Street Band plays for crowds heading to clubs and bars. Occasionally, one of the trumpet players would walk toward the people, holding out a cardboard box for donations. For hours, they played nonstop.

Performers inspire cheers and dance among crowds at Canal and Bourbon streets in New Orleans.

New Orleans has a culture that must be preserved. Its music, its street performers, its restaurants and, more importantly, its people make it the most unique city I have ever visited. It's refreshing to tour a large city without once seeing a Starbucks or a Dunkin' Donuts. It seems that almost every building is historic. I grew up as a country boy, but I learned to love city life. New Orleans is the best of both worlds: a city with a profound Cajun-country feel, an urban bayou of sorts.

The extent of commercialism in New Orleans appears in the form of glitzy, neon-covered casinos, such as Harrah's, above, and the non-native palm trees, below, that are planted near them. Emeril Lagasse's restaurants, below below, and stores probably should be included, too. But even those are more attractive than Times Square.

I drove out of the city around noon Saturday, on the first, 79-mile leg to Gulfport, Miss., on my trek home to Melbourne, Fla. The first 15 miles of Interstate 10 east from New Orleans are lined with homes and businesses (most of the rest is swampland). I drove into the city under a veil of darkness, so I didn't notice them earlier.

But in Saturday's daylight, I saw that almost all of the homes were empty. The most intact ones were missing windows. Inside the windows was a void, a black nothingness. Other homes were just crumbling.

It's one thing to see this destruction on a certain block or in a particular neighborhood, but when you're traveling at 75 mph and your view of the destruction lasts for 20 minutes, you know it's bad.

As I passed block after block of destroyed homes, I would see an occasional car parked in a driveway leading to a wrecked home. Each time I saw a car, I asked myself, "What are the stories of the people in that car? What version of Katrina would they tell?"

And as I left New Orleans, I thought about the depression that came over me while walking and driving the forlorn streets such as those of the Lower Ninth Ward, above.

But now as I type on my blog in sunny south Central Florida, a depression comes over me again.

I miss New Orleans.


In the words of the old gospel song:
"When the sun refuse to shine ...

When the moon turns red with blood ...

When the trumpet sounds the call ...

When the new world is revealed ...

When the revelation comes ...

When the rich go out and work ...

When the air is pure and clean ...

When we all have food to eat ...

When our leaders learn to cry ...

Oh lord I want to be in that number

When the saints go marching in."

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