Friday, March 31, 2006

I Don't Want to Wait In Vain

I feel like I'm in a slow motion movie at times. Like I achieved a state of nirvana and it's now gotten to the point where I really don't care how long it takes Allstate to pay our insurance claim. We used to call them everyday to ask for updates. That lasted about four months. Then we called weekly. That lasted another two months. We filed this very official "Proof of Loss" form at the end of December, and while that got them to return our phone calls for a week, still nothing really has happened. We've now had six different adjustors and basically it comes down to this, at least according to Allstate: they can't proceed with our claim until they get an Allstate engineer's report to determine if our house is leaning from wind or flood. I was in the house during the hurricane, and it was racked from the wind. It was like being on an old wooden boat, rocking all over the place. But the saltwater really did damage to our brick & mortar piers, so the leaning was made worse by the flood. But I really don't care what the engineer determines. They'll no doubt say that the house is leaning from the flood, because then the insurance money comes from the Federal Government, and Allstate saves about $150,000. It is starting to look more and more like we'll move to another house in New Orleans, one that didn't flood. But of course all of that is on hold until we settle with Allstate. I'm starting to think that maybe they would like to delay this claim until after the next hurricane season, because if our house floods again, they won't have to pay twice. When the family moved back down to New Orleans after Christmas, Therese and I thought we would know our path at the end of March. It's now the end of March and we really don't know anything more about our future than we knew back in December, or even September of 2005 for that matter. When I see Allstate commercials on TV I honestly smile. The whole thing is comically surreal.

But that is just about me and my family. There are more pressing matters that will effect the entire city.

The Bush administration's Gulf Coast recovery czar Don Powell just said that it may take 25 years for New Orleans to recover, and that much of this city's rebirth will depend on factors outside of the government's control. I would have to agree with that estimation. As a friend of mine said, ten years from now if a day goes by that we don't think of Katrina, that will be a good day. More alarming, Powell told Louisiana officials that the 3 billion it would cost to bring the area levees to pre-Katrina strength is um, well, it's about 6 billion short. And we have just two months until the start of the 2006 hurricane season. It seems that my neighborhood and 30% of New Orleans will be covered for a category 3 storm with the initial 3 billion, but to protect the remaining 70% it will cost an additional 6 billion. And I heard on the radio that Louisiana is now officially the poorest state in the country. And so we wait, and wait, and wait. And once in a while I try to do something to expedite the process, but it turns out to be a waste of time, and so we wait, and wait, and wait.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Tom Levy or Jazzfest?

When I was a student at UCSD I had the privilege of working with Tom Levy. He supervised and co-supervised many archaeological excavations on which I worked, both in Israel and in Jordan. It was great working with him. Today I received in the mail an invitation for the inauguration of the Norma Kershaw Endowed Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands, and of course, Tom is the recipient of the chair. So I thought about going. I even went to Continental's website to purchase a ticket. It would be great to see my friends at UCSD. Plus the list of speakers is pretty damn impressive, and includes Jodi Magness, Bill Dever, Baruch Halpern, and Lawrence Stager, plus the UCSD Judaic Studies Faculty (Tom Levy, David Goodblatt, Bill Propp, Dick Friedman and David Noel Freedman). But then I checked my calendar and it turns out that the inauguration is the first weekend of Jazzfest. Damn! And this Jazzfest will be extra significant this year, very symbolic and emotional. So I can't decide what to do, but my dilemma revealed to me how much I have been changed by the whole experience of Katrina. In years past I would have gone to UCSD for sure, no hesitation. But now I sort of feel like being with my family and friends at Jazzfest that first weekend is where I am supposed to be. I'd wager that Siduri, the alewife in the Gilgamesh Epic, would advise me to go to Jazzfest. But then again the King of Uruk himself would probably go to UCSD. What to do?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Give Me Some Sugar Allstate

I just read that Allstate is sponsoring the next Sugar Bowl. That's good news for me and Therese, because now I know that Allstate will be here in the city of New Orleans in January 2007. I hope they might have enough time in their busy schedule to maybe come see my house that was structurally damaged by Katrina and then they might think about paying me for my loss because, and I know this doesn't mean much today, I had insurance with these good hands people.

A Time for Heresy

Bill Moyers recently spoke at Wake Forest Divinity School for the inauguration of a scholarship in religious freedom. His speech, entitled A Time for Heresy, is simply amazing, and it outlines how the wealthiest few have hijacked this country. In his words:
For a quarter of a century now a ferocious campaign has been conducted to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual, cultural, and religious frameworks that sustained America’s social contract. The corporate, political, and religious right converged in a movement that for a long time only they understood because they are its advocates, its architects, and its beneficiaries. Their economic strategy was to cut workforces and wages, scour the globe for even cheaper labor, and relieve investors of any responsibility for the cost of society. On the weekend before President Bush’s second inauguration, The New York Times described how his first round of tax cuts had already brought our tax code closer to a system under which income on wealth would not be taxed at all and public expenditures would be raised exclusively from salaries and wages. Their political strategy was to neutralize the independent media, create their own propaganda machine with a partisan press, and flood their coffers with rivers of money from those who stand to benefit from the transfer of public resources to elite control. Along the way they would burden the nation with structural deficits that will last until our children’s children are ready to retire, systematically stripping government of its capacity, over time, to do little more than wage war and reward privilege. Their religious strategy was to fuse ideology and theology into a worldview freed of the impurities of compromise, claim for America the status of God’s favored among nations (and therefore beyond political critique or challenge), and demonize their opponents as ungodly and immoral.

Then Moyers describes how they exploited our political system so that it now requires millions to get elected to congress and these people who "mastered the money game" have sold "democracy to the highest bidder." Moyers ends the speech with: "This is the heresy of our time – to wrestle with the gods who guard the boundaries of this great nation’s promise, and to confront the medicine men in the woods, twirling their bullroarers to keep us in fear and trembling. For the greatest heretic of all is Jesus of Nazareth, who drove the money changers from the temple in Jerusalem as we must now drive the money changers from the temples of democracy." Amen.

So thanks Bill Moyers for chronicling so eloquently the past 25 years of political history in this country, and thanks to my friend Mark Luvzus, or whatever he calls himself these days, for recommending the article.

Kingdom of Oprah

This week I get to talk with my Intro to Biblical Studies students about some of my favorite passages in the New Testament, such as the Beatitudes. We’re trying to discern Jesus’ primary message and explore such terms as the “Kingdom of God.” We discuss how the Gospel authors believed that it was being implemented in Jesus' lifetime, and how the implementation would bring out the opposite, as in if you are hungry now, in the Kingdom of God, you will be sated. And based on this I extrapolate the following: I'm currently a fat white guy so in the Kingdom of God I might be a skinny brown girl. My students eagerly eat up all of this rich material, UNTIL we get to the Jesus stuff about the preferential option for the poor. Suddenly, they all seem to believe that Jesus was OK with them becoming rich, and not just a little rich, but billionaire rich. That when Jesus says "Blessed are you poor" or "Woe to you that are rich" in Luke 6, he really means morally poor and the secluded rich. My students claim that you can make as much money as you want, just so long as you "give back a lil’ somethin’ somethin’ to society." I bring up Bill Gates, who does give back quite a bit these days, but I ask them if he might have made some morally questionable decisions along the way in building his company, as in selfishly squashing rivals. My students agree that Bill Gates doesn't match well with the terms that Jesus mentions concerning the Kingdom of God. But then my students always bring Oprah into the discussion. As in she is rich, powerful, and they say she makes the world a better place by giving audience members cars. They all seem to think that she somehow personifies the Kingdom of God. I need to do some research about Oprah and then next semester I’ll be ready. So if you have any dirt on Oprah let me know. Thus far I’ve found two things, both of which are pretty bogus. First, there is this website that claims Oprah is the tool of Satan. Second, there is this magazine cover:

I'm guessing it's slightly doctored. Of course, all of this inquiry could lead to my death, as Oprah is pretty powerful. I imagine it will play out much like the film Angel Heart.
Later note: it took me all morning to load this blog entry, as is painfully sluggish today. Is it technology, or could it be Oprah in her first of many diabolical moves to crush me?

Monday, March 20, 2006

After The Levees Failed

My friend Bart, the media-artist for BibleDudes, since 1992 has been producing an online television show called J&B on the Rox. He's the B part of J&B. They just finished episode 93, and part of it covers a trip that Bart and I made back to New Orleans just three weeks after Hurricane Katrina. You can download the episode and see links to the online versions here.

The Price of Eggs

Late last night I arrived back in New Orleans, and I was very happy to be back. I feel like my time is better spent here, sort of like New Orleans needs me more than other places. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe I need New Orleans, as recently I'm so emotionally invested in this devastated wasteland. I had been in Nebraska for a few days to visit with my family, as my father just learned that he has lung cancer and he's pretty sick. It was good to see him. He seemed scared but strong. I don't think he'll be around a year from now. Only one of his lungs is working and he keeps coughing up blood. Moreover, he has several other health related issues, such as Parkinson's, his memory is slipping, and his balance wasn't very acute. But we spent the few days we had together talking about life, and getting his "house in order" so to speak. We visited his attorney and my siblings and I have power of attorney to pay his bills and make medical decisions if need be. We talked about burial, and though it all sounds pretty morbid, I'm glad we got to talk about these things. They seem important. It was also nice to see my family and catch up with them. Therese, the kids and I will be driving back up to Nebraska just before Easter to spend a few days with my dad and others in our families.

But being in Nebraska bothered me in some ways, as life there continues as if the destruction in the Gulf Coast never happened. People spoke at length about whether the eggs were cheaper at HyVee or at Baker's Grocery. At my home in New Orleans, just last Thursday the Sav-A-Center reopened, the first major grocery store within 15 miles of my house. That seems more important to me. There was also a peace rally in New Orleans that I missed Sunday, but I was happy that Therese and the kids went. People at the demonstration wanted the government to spend money protecting citizens with levees more than they wanted the US to kill people in foreign countries. Therese said at one point our son Gilgamesh was on her shoulders, and an older man approached her with a framed photograph. He explained that the boy in the picture was his son, and he was killed in Iraq. That also seems more important.

Nobody here feels very safe with the 2006 hurricane season on the horizon, and moreover, we feel like many in the Federal Government are working against our efforts to rebuild. Take for example Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who questions the rebuilding of New Orleans because it is "a place that the laws of physics say doesn't make sense for people to live in." He sits on the Appropriations Committee, and to date he still hasn't visited the area. But unlike Senator Bennett, I have seen the destruction, and even before I moved here I knew that New Orleans was a major port city on the mouth of the Mississippi River, and so barring a shift in the river's course, there will always be a major city here. So while we have to keep on arguing for our existence, time and resources are wasted. It seems as if the government can't quite understand the magnitude of destruction--as if they are treating this like a Hurricane Andrew, but it is at least 10 times bigger. And the rest of the country talks about where they can find cheaper eggs.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Grocery Stores and Saints

So I'm sitting in my office waiting until "2ish" when my friend and department chair Jerry Farmer will take me to the airport so I can go and see my father who just found out he has lung cancer but honestly sounded pretty healthy on the phone and then I think about how happy I am that the Sav-A-Center grocery store is finally opening today so I will no longer have to drive 20 miles for milk and stuff and then I realize that my life sure sucks if I am happy about a grocery store opening or reopening as the case might be and then it hits me--All I need for happiness are season tickets to the Saints NFL team and I had heard that the sales were up 600% and I SURE want to see that first game back at the Superdome for its emotional symbolism and how exciting is it that we have Drew Brees as quaterback if his arm doesn't fall off at the shoulder so I go on the web and in the end spend a large sum of money to see rich giant men tackle each other but it is New Orleans and it's after Katrina and this seems to matter to me just like a freakin' grocery store opening matters in this crazy world in which I live.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

My Dad's Lungs

Sunday I learned that my dad had been in the hospital for the past three days. He had a hard time breathing on Thursday and the physicians in his town of Columbus NE suggested he go to the bigger hospital in Lincoln. There they pumped out quarts of fluid/blood from his lungs. My dad has had a difficult time keeping track of all the cell phone number changes I have had since Katrina, and his friend Elizabeth had called and left a message on an old phone. Luckily, Therese checked the old phone on Sunday and I was able to contact him. He is scared, and lonely. I asked him if I should drive up to Nebraska to see him, and he said to wait for now. They are running some more tests on him this afternoon, as apparently there are two tumors and one of his lungs has collapsed. So now I'm sitting back and waiting, something that I'm pretty good at since Katrina.

Later note: I just found out that they found quite a bit of cancer in his lungs, and he is trying to get the hopital to release him so he can go home to Columbus. I will be flying to Nebraska Thursday after my classes so I can spend St. Patrick's Day with my dad. I will fly back to New Orleans it looks like Sunday.

Friday, March 10, 2006

My Daughter's Katrina Movie

My daughter Kalypso made an 11 minute Quicktime video about New Orleans, Mardi Gras, and the recovery effort now six months after the hurricane/flood. I think she did a great job, especially for a 10-year-old.
You can see the movie here (314 meg) or a smaller version here (97 meg). The bandwidth frequently is exceeded on this site, so:

I also put it on YouTube.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Come On America, Be Like Newt!

I'm shocked to read that Newt Gingrich agrees with me. Shocked, I tell you. He argues that New Orleans needs to be rebuilt, and he writes about this in an article that appeared in Time Magazine March 6th, 2006 (co-authored with John Barry). The authors state that it should be rebuilt for financial reasons--it is the busiest port in the U.S. Plus they add that Washington has a moral obligation, and they write "It was the Federal Government's responsibility to build levees that worked, and its failure to do so ultimately led to New Orleans' being flooded." They even go green, claiming that the loss of coastal wetlands contributed to the mess, and they state "Compare that with the fact that in the past two years, we have spent more to rebuild Iraq's wetlands than Louisiana's." Could the world be so screwed up these days that I wish that Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, and not Hastert, who questioned right after Katrina the wisdom in rebuilding a city below sea level? America needs to be reminded that it is six months after Katrina, and very little has happened yet. My friends Bart and Xy made a video marking the six month mark. We need some help.


Originally uploaded by howieluvzus.
My friend Mark, or I mean Howie, took this picture on Mardi Gras. It sort of sums up my life right now.
He said as many people laughed that a tourist asked "What's up with Allstate?" The locals told him that if he wasn't from here, he wouldn't understand. That's about right. I am beginning to believe that I would have been better off if I had never had insurance to begin with.

There is a Season (Turn Turn)

Dennis Persica wrote an opinion piece in Saturday's Times-Picayune. He spoke eloquently about how life and death continue, but other things don't.
Time marches on, but recovery, on the other hand, seems to be having trouble keeping up. We've been through Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and now Mardi Gras. But I'm beginning to think that even by the time Independence Day rolls around, not much will have changed.

Similarly, in my Intro to Biblical Studies courses today we were reading about the cycle of life as recorded in Ecclesiastes 3:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up...

We then started talking about the Gezer Calendar, an old Iron Age inscription in which months are calculated by agricultural phenomenon, such as the month of harvesting barley, followed by the month of harvesting wheat, and then the two months of harvesting grapes. The discussion then turned towards the ways in which we mark seasons here in New Orleans. It is a pretty amazing time of year. Mardi Gras was one week ago today, and now it is the relaxed time of Lent. My liver is thankful at least. But soon it will be St. Patrick's Day, and then the Indians will be out on St. Joseph's Day, and then of course Easter, and then Jazzfest. However, as the seasonal cycle of life is continuing, still very little seems to be happening to the infrastructure of New Orleans. Even less is happening in the flooded neighborhoods to bring residents back. I am personally living in a racked house that has mold growing inside the walls, while we still wait six months later for our insurance company (Allstate) to settle our claim. I would like to repair our house, but Therese is pretty sure she wants to move to another house. I told her if she can find one that we can afford, I'd go along with her decision. But the prices of houses that didn't flood have skyrocketed. About two weeks ago Allstate finally sent out two engineers who agreed the house was leaning, and we are now waiting on their official report. New Orleans began demolishing houses in the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Lakeview just yesterday. The streets are filled with the debris of gutted houses, and many houses haven't been entered since before the hurricane. There are racoons and cats living in some abandoned houses. I believe the slow pace of recovery is shameful. I also think that it is purposeful. I think about how much money Allstate will make by settling our claim nine months later, and then multiply that by about 100,000. I also think the slow pace has to do with the gentrification of the city. I still believe that ten years after Katrina I will look back and see that I am better off for the entire experience. It is hard to see that now though. But I am more patient. You would go absolutely crazy unless you are able to see that this is much bigger than any individual can control.

Monday, March 06, 2006


Sigh...Our Criminal Court Clerk way down yonder in New Orleans, Kimberly Williamson Butler, finally came out of hiding last week. Today she appeared before a panel of judges and just got sentenced to three days in jail. Oh yeah, she's also quitting her job as Court Clerk and uh, she's running for mayor. As one hero of mine might say, "Buncha Freakin' Idiots!"

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Pre-Hurricane Videos and the Fog of Bureacracy

My students and I were just discussing the amazing new video released by the Associated Press. It shows FEMA director Mike Brown briefing Bush, Michael Chertoff, and local officials 19 hours before Katrina hit.

I believed for the past six months that this administration was grossly unaware of the potential catastrophe that Katrina, while still in the gulf, could bring, and the urgency that was needed to prepare for the approaching disastor. Now it is clear that they did fully understand. Brown voices concern that "this is, to put it mildly, the big one," and he's worried about the health infrastructure and architectural structure of the Superdome. Also Brown is almost heroic, telling people to cut through bureacracy and help evacuees and in the end he would take responsibility: "I'll figure out some way to justify it. ... Just let them yell at me." They discuss the breaching of levees and enormous loss of life. The video also shows Max Mayfield, the National Hurricane Center Director. He claims the storm is much bigger than Hurricane Andrew, and he predicts the possibility of a "large loss of life on coastal areas." Throughout the conference, Bush asks no questions, but at the end he states:
I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with the loss of property and we pray for no loss of life of course."

This footage, coupled with seven days of transcripts of briefings, shows that federal officials anticipated the catastrophe. They understood the magnitude and urgency, and accurately predicted the outcome. The problem was that they didn't know how inept they were. So, it is baloney when Bush claimed four days after the storm to ABC news that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." And it is baloney when the Dept. of Homeland Security claims that they didn't understand the severity due to a "fog of war." Wednesday Brown stated in an interview "I don't buy the `fog of war' defense...It was a fog of bureaucracy."
So in class we discussed catastrophic events recorded in the Bible, such as 586 BCE, and how knowledge about historical events disseminates. Again, Katrina has made the biblical world so much easier to grasp for my students. I would also like to apologize to Mike Brown. It seems much of my earlier anger towards him was missplaced. I still won't send him a Christmas card, but I hate him less.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Have You Seen This Woman?

Kimberly Williamson Butler, New Orleans' criminal court clerk, has gone missing. A judge last week issued an arrest warrant charging her with contempt, because a while back they ordered that she start cleaning up evidence contaminated by Hurricane Katrina. She declined. Katrina has dealt a severe blow to the whole legal system. There are still people in jail 6 months later who have not had a trial. Ms. Butler has had a pretty amazing past couple of years. She was fired by Ray Nagin a couple of years ago, and she sued him for discrimination (she lost). She then was elected County Clerk, but severely screwed up with the 2004 elections. I had students that waited more than 10 hours to vote here at Xavier. And now, she has gone on the lam. Only in New Orleans.

Another Student's Story Re: Katrina

I just read this from my Theo 1120 blog, and I found this student's loss to be very sad and poignant.
Sometimes I think my hurricane story is very hard to describe in words. Prior to hurricane Katrina, I lived in New Orleans East, but the house I was staying in received six feet of water. I not only lost most of my personal belongings and electronic equipment that I owned, but I also lost my grandmother. My dad and my 91 year old grandmother decided to stay behind when Katrina struck. This was one of the dumbest things my dad ever did.
Granny lived in the sixth ward, just blocks from Claiborne Avenue. Her home had no water. They did have water in the streets, so there was no place they could go when the levees broke. Soon, her gas and electricity was turned off. It is really hard for a 91 year old woman to survive in a house with only canned food items when she is accustomed to getting her bread, butter and soup at a certain time everyday.
Soon, my father decided to go and get my brothers boat on Gentilly Blvd. Then he decided to ask the neighbor to help him push my grandmother to the Convention Center. This decision was ever worst that staying in the house, since people were just waiting there to get help that never came. She and my dad waited almost three days with very little food and water. The whole situation became even worst when my grandmother fell and hit her head while my dad was getting food for her. Soon, my dad began telling the National Guards that they had to do something for his mother. They did something for her by evacuating her by helicopter to the Triage Center at the New Orleans International Airport.
My dad remained with his mom at the airport, but soon they became separated when she was taken to the triage area for medical test. When he last saw her, she was alert. Next, he was told to wait in a designated area for 30 minutes where she would be returned after the tests was completed. 30 minutes turned into two hours, and my grandmother never came out. Finally, my father was told that FEMA probably flew her by plane to a hospital or senior-care facility. They put him on a plane to Corpus Christi, Texas and told him that Fema would contact him in two days with information on the specific where a bouts of his mother. Two days became two weeks and soon months passed. After searching for her nearly three long months, my dad filed a lawsuit against FEMA. Not long after that, a lady from St. Gabriel’s morgue called and said my grandmother was dead.
She was dead almost three months earlier, the same day my father was separated from her at the triage center. This hurt me a lot because I wish I could have spent more time with her, but she is gone now. My grandfather died about two years ago and my grandmother always wanted to be with him. They were married over 50 years. I know my grandmother is in a better place with her husband. I only wish I could have told her how much I love her before she left this world, but it is too late now.