CODEPINK Blogs from New Orleans

Monday, November 28
by Dana Balicki, CODEPINK LA

Today there was actually traffic! This is the first time in my life I was excited about traffic, because it meant that there were enough folks back in town to fill the highways in the morning. Yesterday we saw a butterfly, a ladybug and a bee. This might sound silly, but the sheer presence of these insects proves that life is returning. The magnolia trees may all be gone, but many trees have the smallest first signs of green on their seemingly dead tips. There is a growing concerted effort to green the area by local grassroots organizations and incoming environmentalists. Starhawk was here for at least a week and worked closely with volunteers and skilled "greening" activists to revitalize the soil and work on greening the city with solar panel projects, etc. The thoughtfulness and progressive strategies that are being used in the revisioning of New Orleans (especially the 9th ward) are revolutionary, and creating a sense of hope that is small still, but growing, growing, growing…

Thursday, November 24
by Dana Balicki, CODEPINK LA

Thanksgiving is a funny holiday. It is not a religious holiday, it is more of a "spend a few days trying to cram in months worth of quality family time and eat a lot of food then go bargain shopping the next day" kind of holiday. At least that is how I have always viewed it. The dinner and conversation can be wonderful and you give thanks for having a roof over your head and delicious food on your table and your loved ones around you. The sentiment is quite beautiful really. I gave many thanks today and I from now on, everyday I will give thanks for what I have.

Medea and I were put on chair scavenging this morning, to prepare for the 200+ people that would be at our 9th ward Thank You Feast. Scavenging on the streets was a bit useless, so we decided that we would try our luck at the Convention Center, where the hundreds of National Guard are based. We were there the other day and thought we would drop a name or two and play like we were told to pick up the chairs. We got in with some funny pass we flashed and dropped a name of someone who actually existed and found ourselves then with 63 folding chairs in the back of my truck! We then proceeded to the city's corporate Thanksgiving dinner which was pretty to look at but the food was not so good. It felt rather empty with the dozens of volunteers buzzing around in matching t-shirts and aprons handing out crossword puzzles and bubble bath.

To continue with the events of the day, we made a trip across the bridge into the lower 9th ward, which is still gated off and randomly guarded at points by local sheriffs, Blackwater Security (yes, the very same that are currently in Iraq) and National Guard with very large guns and hummers. We again flashed a pass and entered, being told that we were not to exit the vehicle at any point. I don't know what I thought I would see, but it was not anything I could have expected. The devastation was unlike anything I have ever seen. I could not even take a picture of anything. Taking photos of bent buildings, houses ON TOP of cars, huge trees uprooted and ripped apart, street lights bent like paper clips could not capture what we were seeing. It was the fact that it was ALL AROUND. It was as far as the eye could see; complete and utter destruction- like a bomb had gone off. I have heard from many that they don't want to see the lower 9th bulldozed; that it is another oppressive measure by a racist government to squash the lives and will of the poorest African-American communities. But I don't see how it can be saved. Nothing is left. It was dead. The lower 9th (you could see where the levees overflowed and gave folks only mere minutes to escape with their lives only) makes the upper 9th (where the Common Ground Collective work is based out of) look so full of potential and hopeful.

After spending an hour with our mouths hanging open and the repeated "Oh my god"s and "Look at THAT"s we decided to head back for the feast. There were community members, volunteers, local workers/residents and Louisa St. in the 9th was blocked off so everyone could eat, drink, connect and celebrate that today we were all alive. Many aren't particularly healthy (too much dust and mold- what some call the Katrina cough), many certainly don't have their roof over their heads, but we did have beautiful food and we were alive and together.

We finished off the evening with a dance party in the street under the stars and generator powered Christmas lights we strung between the buildings. It was really beautiful and all was much appreciated by everyone.

Wednesday, November 23
by Dana Balicki, CODEPINK LA

There is just so much work to do. Everywhere, in front of every house is a pile of once precious items and is now just another part of this graying landscape. The houses are dulled. What was once a community of colorful, sweet homes is now empty, full of rotting garbage, dead grass and rusted out, abandoned cars. People are returning slowly. And all of this being true, this city is a siren. It has an attraction that pulls people here and keeps them here. So many of the people I have met showed up after the storm and haven't left yet. And like a true siren, many of these new New Orleanians (I am referring mostly to the community activists, volunteers doing relief work here, etc.) drown some in the stories of those who weathered the storm, levee breaks, flooding, looting and subsequent chaos and madness.

Tuesday, November 22
by Dana Balicki, CODEPINK LA

Today, back in the 9th ward we (Medea and I) dropped off some supplies at a woman's house. You could tell her living room had been pink. She was in back taking a break. She said this morning she and the other volunteers shot out of the car like gun smoke, but it was late afternoon and things were slowing down. The front of the house had been covered by trees, lumber and who knows what else- anything that had floated down the street. Everyone was hard at work in the sun with their boots, respirators and shovels in hand. Her house was damaged beyond belief, and she had no mortgage left to pay, and she had no insurance. Every house on the street looks like her house. Every house in the area looks like her house. Some a little better off than others, but who know what the mold has done to the inside. You just can't tell.

Monday, November 21
by Dana Balicki, CODEPINK LA

It has been hard to cull my thoughts as so much is happening at one time. I drove around the lower 9th ward today towards the levee break and everything is dead and busted. Like giant feet came down hard and jumped up and down until only a few houses were standing. The power poles are bent like paper clips and the trees are brown and uprooted. After I picked Medea and another Bay Area woman up from the airport this morning, we went to the Convention Center to pick up 200 bagged lunches from FEMA. The Convention Center has been turned into National Guard headquarters. To get in we had to show an organizational ID (strange request I thought) to the armed guards and Medea pulled out an old 1-day pass from the UN and handed it off assuringly- they glanced at it and ushered us through. There were hundreds of guys just hanging out, in their pajamas, or exercising in this weird secluded part of this city. They are totally removed from the communities. The NG drive around the city in hummers and just patrol. I have yet to see them get out of their cars. They live in a tent city in the Convention Center and drive around in semi-armored vehicles to "keep the peace" I guess. Sure seems like they could be doing a lot more useful work.
I spent a bit of the day in a cafe that belongs to a sweet Iranian man, Ali. He lost everything too. Nonetheless, he dances around serves a mean cup of coffee and plays the best music for his customers. That's what I meant about the people. Whenever you ask, "How are you doing?" the response is generally, "Oh, I'm makin' it the best I can." And that is so true. Some of these folks "best I can" is better than many Los Angelinos best days. This place has a pull, even in its broken-back (not broken-spirited) way.

Sunday, November, 20
by Dana Balicki, CODEPINK LA

I have been here for 2 days and it feels like much longer. There are so many things to say, I hardly know where to start... Being in this city makes me feel like a child. I cant stop staring at every crooked house, busted sign, pile of junk on the street, beat-up car, wandering person, abandoned boat or couch, national guard humvee, official FEMA graffiti on every building. Maybe I am hoping that somehow if I stare enough it will make sense that 2 months after the fact there is still no damn electricity in the 9th Ward. No electricity, no hot water, but now there are stop signs on nearly every block and many, many police patrolling all day. They arrested a volunteer yesterday for double-parking. They keep a certain distance but blow through the area a couple times a day as we are pulling the convergence space (for the 200 volunteers coming in) together. The convergence space is another New Orleans minor miracle... It was a dirty, wet warehouse and now it is a busy, dry, semi-cozy spot for the volunteers to meet, sleep, eat, shower (cold and solar only) and debrief from the day.

Saturday, November 19
by Dana Balicki, CODEPINK LA

I never visited New Orleans before Katrina came along, but I imagine that this was a beautiful city. Small colorful houses, old knotted trees, winding narrow streets and everyone on their porches. I can't say that it isn't beautiful now, but it isn't the buildings or the streets that make it beautiful. I always heard about the soul of Nawlins, figuring it was a music, soulfood, southern hospitality kind of thing- and while those elements comprise the soul, really it is the people that I have met here so far that have proved this city's beauty. There are the folks of the Common Ground Collective, which is the grassroots organization CODEPINK is working closely with. This group is by and large young people, with the youngest organizer being 18 years old. It is amazing to see what this group has pulled together in the 2 months since Katrina visited New Orleans.

They started by setting up a free medical clinic in Algiers (up the street from the Collective's founder, Malik Rahim), where folks come in an get everything from prescriptions filled, vaccinations, minor surgery, to massage, acupuncture, and herbal treatments. There is a distribution center in the 8th Ward and one in the upper 9th Ward. The distro center in the 9th has a medical clinic, a law clinic to deal with illegal evictions (there are MANY) and a distribution point for the community. The center provides tool lending, food, toiletry, water distribution to all community members. There is also a women's space that is coming along slowly but surely. All of these spots are bustling all the time. There is a lot of need here, and these places are not just services they also train and employ local folk to take these services over. A real beautiful thing.

November 10, 2005
by Elizabeth Atly from Portland, Oregon

So, last night's blog was supposed to be my final dispatch from New Orleans, but no sooner had I left the computer center in Malik's former garage, than other stories surface, like the layers of an onion. There are so many layers . . .

The narrative is not complete -- nor will it ever really be -- without a brief discussion of devils and angels in the mix.

Devils: We all know the blundering idiots FEMA showed themselves to be. Call me an ingrate if you will, as the last few nights of my stay were spent in a FEMA tent (Hotel FEMA, we call it). Yes, it is good to know that some of your tax dollars are going to house, feed, shower and launder the volunteers from Common Ground and other grass-roots volunteer groups. But, as we scramble about the city, trying to help rebuild community, FEMA generators run day and night to keep that operation going, young men in military camoflage and carrying machine guns check our ID as we enter, and more circulate the site on foot or in their camo humvees. It is a military encampment. The military are everywhere. No doubt about it, this is an occupation -- a needless one. I don't retain statistics, but the amount of money to keep these military camps open is phenomenal, not to mention the energy waste of these generators and trucks running 24/7. They are not averting a disaster, they are leading ! to the next one. . .

That is the tip of the iceberg. The real horror story here is how employees of the NO Water Bureau staying in the camp are treated, as well as the food service workers employed by Cattlemen. Both groups work 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week; some are on 30-day rotations, with no time off at all. They can not leave the camp unaccompanied. Their wages are low, and they are forbidden (yes, that is correct -- forbidden) to seek medical help at the Clinic or elsewhere, for heart conditions, diabetes medications, etc. I wish I had more time here to record some of their stories. Last night we spoke with a lovely, very bright man who has worked for the New Orleans Water Department for over 20 years, and is now treated as a prisoner in the FEMA camp, hasn't seen his 16-month daughter for over 8 weeks, after sharing child-care with his wife and bonding closely with his infant. You can't help but cry as he spills out his heart about his little girl. And most of these people can't walk aw! ay from the job -- they need the work. I had hoped to do a vido interview with him this morning, but he was unable to keep our appointment. Next time . . . except that I hope he finds a sustainable way out of there and back to his family before I return.

I could go on at length about this; and others are preparing to do so. These stories must find the light of day.

I'll end with a story of angels: Acupuncturists without Borders is an inspiring group of professionals who are offering their services to city workers and residents -- people whose world view would never before have encompassed sitting or lying about with needles inserted at various points on their bodies, and who come back seeking the relief that these angels provide. I've even seen acupuncurists sitting in city parks administering their special form of care; and they are often over here at Common Ground and you'll see groups of us quietly sitting around with needles in our ears and ankles and other places.

And so ends the on-the-ground-in-New-Orleans phase of my saga, as I wait for my airport ride, who is stuck in traffic on his way to pick me up. Luckily I now am cellphonified (never thought I'd give in to the "leash")so we can update each other on progress. . .

Going back to edit video . . . My longtime friend Catherine Murphy, from Cuba solidarity work,has made me promise to send her VHS copies or transcripts of my video for showing on Cuban TV! "Hasta la Victoria Siempre!"

November 9, 2005
by Elizabeth Atly from Portland, Oregon

Here's a final blog, and it will be way too brief to account for eveything that has happened since the last one. I leave tomorrow, with sadness in my heart. I will miss this community of beautiful, hard-working, intelligent, brave and committed souls. Aida left today, and I miss her already. I'm the last of the Code Pink delegation to depart. However I understand many will be coming in just 10 days for the Thanksgiving caravan/convergence. How I wish I could stay for that!

My contribution to the convergence was to measure (in full-on tyvec suit, disposable boots and gloves, respirator, etc) and draw the working plan of a 3-year-old brick church office/school building that is being donated to Common Ground for 6 months free and 6 more months at low rent in exchange for our work in removing and replacing the mold-infested sheet rock (mold covers the lower 4 feet of wall like a mottled black and grey wainscoting). Restoration of this building to be a community center is one of the projects slated for the Thanksgiving convergence. Malik has pledged to light up the 9th ward for the Christmas/Kwanza/Hanukkah/Solstice season, and plans are already being set in motion for another convergence at holiday time. Common Ground is determined to rebuild community. It is amazing and inspiring to take note of what has already been accomplished by this community!

I found a sweet apartment,and was quite ready to spring for it, but reality intervenes -- I probably won't make it back here before February. But who knows? It's amazing how many volunteers come down here, expecting to stay a week and end up staying a month -- or more; and there are many who come for a spell, leave, and are drawn back.

It was exciting to have Laura Flanders host her three-hour Sunday night talk show from Malik's kitchen! Sakura Kone rounded up a most impressive group of speakers for Laura's show, and call-in guests included our stalwart attorney Bill Quigley. But it was Roo, the Rooster who stole the show, or tried to, from Laura and her guests, with repeated attempts to enter the kitchen/radio studio, crowing and fluttering his bright plumage. Laura laughingly acknowledged Roo's presence on more than one occasion.

Among the guests were the president of NOW, and a hip-hop minister, both of whose names escape me, but who were involved in planning the Gretna bridge march for the following day. It felt like a history-making march, crossing the bridge where black New Orleans residence were turned back violently from escaping to Gretna after days of hurricanes, flooding, survival in horrendous conditions in the Convention Center (much to Brownie's surprise! . . .) Rally speakers included the hip-hop minister as MC, Ron Daniels, Cynthia McKinney, Malik Rahim, and Mama D, among others. As names and vital information were being collected from those who anticipated possible arrest, the announcement came through that the bridge would be opened all the way across -- a victory! It was wonderful to march with 150 people across that long, high concrete freeway bridge, chanting and singing all the way!!

I came here with a one-way ticket, planning to stay 3-4 weeks, or until a work project called me back, or it seemed time to leave. What finally determined my departure day was that doggone dog! The dog was impounded the day after it bit me, and the procedure is to hold the animal for 10 days to observe it for signs of erratic behaviour that would suggest the presence of rabies, which I have learned attacks the central nervous system. Oh, I have learned ever so much about rabies! Believe me, I scoured the internet, spoke with the head veteranarian of the state of Louisiana, etc., and I'm convinced that following the process through is imperative. So I scheduled my flight to be the day after day 10, just in case I would have to undergo the 28-day, five-shot series to prevent me from foaming at the mouth and going stark raving mad and inevitably dying of it. . . But enough of that, surely! AND the good news is that I have verbal confirmation that the dog is fine and thus so am ! I -- but I will not leave this city without written confirmation, no indeedy!

So, as I said above, I leave this beautiful, warm and hospitable city with sadness in my heart. People here are incredibly friendly and warm. Yesterday morning as I walked through the neighborhood, a couple greeted me from their porch, asking if I was involved with the Free Clinic. I told them that no, I was involved with another project of Common Ground Collective, at Malik's house, and asked if they needed help from the Clinic or directions to it. They said, "no, we just saw you walking by last night and said to each other - 'that woman is walking like her feet hurt' and we wanted to check and see if you are ok today." That is not an out-of-the-ordinary experience. . . So many beautiful experiences, touching, heartbreaking, amusing, oh, all of it. I'm so glad I came, and encourage the lot of you to make the pilgrimage. Your help is so needed, and so appreciated!

I've collected almost 15 hours of videotape from here, and can hardly wait to start editing! I've already signed out for time at the cable edit suite, and a laptop to take home for a four-day weekend. Soon will be getting my own equipment. I can't wait to share my audio-visual impressions with anyone willing to watch and listen and cry and laugh with the wonderful survivors and heros and volunteers that make up this unique community.

October 31, 2005 
by Elizabeth Atly from Portland, Oregon

Tree on house

Vicki returned yesterday to live in the house while she works to ready if for a new tenant, or herself, so CodePINK had to relocate back to Malik's home, which houses an incredible number of people, on beds, floors and couches, not to mention the tent city in the neighobor's back yard. Many of the 9th Ward workers have started staying over at the daycare/community distribution center, and it seems new buildings are being donated to further extend this project.

I have spoken with people connected with my hometown (Portland, OR) ReBuilding Center, and Malik will meet with them this afternoon, to make connections with other involved in green rebuilding. Another item on the agenda today is a press conference with Mayor Nagin to address issues of returnees finding themselves evicted upon their return, and other issues.

Amazing people pass through and gather here from day to day. Two women from an organization named S.O.S. (Saving Our Selves), based in Alabama, stopped in and discussed their people-to-people rescue efforts which have saved and improved the lives of thousands already. The work goes on. . .

We take advantage of the amenities FEMA offers, such as showers, laundry, decent meals, shelter for some of us in heated tents. While FEMA's "response" leaves much to wish for, be assured that at least some of your tax dollars are improving living conditions for people who are trying to improve long-term living conditions for the local inhabitants. Never mind that you have to go through a camoflage, machine-gun-toting check point to enter the tent and claim your share of the amenities. . .

My personal life has taken a rather unexpected turn, beginning with a dog bite on Sunday. I'm receiving excellent attention from the Free Clinic, the dog has been impounded for a 10-day quarantine, during which any signs of rabid behaviour would manifest themselves (or so I am assured). I've learned a lot in the past two days abouit rabies, its incidence in the area, and the prognosis should it go untreated in a human recipient. Not a pretty business, but most signs point to it being highly unlikely, and yet, not a thing to ignore, so I will stay here at least through the 10-day period and make my return plans contingent . . .

I'm charging my video batteries so I can take the ferry over to the French Quarter, go to Washington Park and talk with the volunteers serving meals there, and from there to the Mayoral press conference, back here to the green building meeting, and so on.

Guarding the Algiers Courthouse (note machine gun - these guys are everywhere!)

Aaron's rooster is letting us all know that it is midmorning and if you aren't up by this time, you danr well should be. Malik's son Aaron is quite an interesting character -- collecting animals (the cutest puppy, Mamacita), interacting with all of the folks who have invaded his home, keeping the low-power radio stations going in Jenka's absence, reminding us daily that this is "a humanitarian effort." Just another normal day . . . About the dog that bit me: many people fled and left pets behind. We've heard about the ones that perished, and the ones that were rescued. What is probably less well known is that many pets who were left behind are becoming like feral animals. The one that bit me wore a collar and responded to commands, but demonstrated a kind of desperate wildness. The pound where it is being quarantined is full of yapping dogs. It is a concrete structure about a half a block in area, and only two blocks from here, but from the outside you don't hear a sound.

On Hallowe'en several of the young volunteers invited me to go with them to the French Quarter. I wasn't in a partying mood and tried to beg off, but was persuaded, and, I'll confess a little curious to experience Hallowe'en in the city of Mardi Gras. The median age of the revelers was about 25, they were predominantly white, and the music was not jazz, but rock/punk. . . The streets were about 1/5 as full as I would have expected, and we kept running into volunteers we knew. I suspect that most of the crowd was us. . .

People coming home are sad, and stressed about the amount of work that confronts them; and they are angry at a city, state and country that are not supporting them. I visited WAshington Park today, where Food Not Bombs and the Rainbow family are serving meals. I had a very tasty meal and sat down with people who were eager to tell their stories. A man of Malaysian descent who has called New Oreans home for 25-30 years, spent the last month or so in Atlanta, and is happy to be home, but has to return to Atlanta periodically for his medicines, as they are not available here. A woman who has lived in New Orleans all her life -- 63 years -- sighs as she enumerates the tasks ahead of her to return her home to normal, "no matter how much reconstruction we do, it won't make a bit of difference if they don't repair the levees. . ." Both expressed their profound gratitude and appreciation for the groups of out-of-staters that are feeding them and helping them regain a footing. The t! hree of us sat and cried together as I videotaped their stories.

The FCC came by today and closed down our low-power radio station, Radio Algiers. We seem to be a threatening presence to the powers that be. The other day as I sat in the hostess chair welcoming people to the distribution center, a couple of men showed up, announcing themselves as building inspectors, out to check on complaints by neighbors that we were defecating in the yards (not true!) and making a general nuisance (not true, though I'm sure the neighborhood was quieter before). They looked around and said "You're GIVING this stuff away???" -- in a tone that suggested there was something wrong, maybe even illegal about that.

Our deliveries vary significantly every day. The most requested item is cleaning supplies, and today we had several palettes of bleach. A couple of days ago, we got a huge load of frozen chicken. I worried about it spoiling, but in less than two hours it was gone. Young Joshua bicyled many of the chickens to the neighbors -- one of the more recent photos show him in action.

Mamacita lies her on the couch beside me -- the sweetest young puppy. Interestingly, she has the same color and markings, is probably the same breed (golden lab or retriever) as my attacker.

October 30, 2005
by Elizabeth Atly from Portland, Oregon

Candelight vigil at the ferry landing. Yes, we had one here too,with a small handful of people. We are posed in front of the statue of Louis Armstrong in one of the photos, but you can't see it. The ferry goes to the French Quarter and takes about 5 minutes to cross. The vigil moved from the ferry landing along the levee and back into the neighborhood.
It is several days since my last blog, and I've been unable to spend enough time at a computer (and stay awake)to put thoughts together, and in that time, experiences pile up, so that it seems more like a month and a half than a week and a half.

This morning I did a four-hour stint at the Algiers Commong Ground distribution center, signing new arrivals in and showing them where to find the supplies they are seeking.I specify Algiers, because we have now set up another distribution center in the 9th ward, at the day care center that we West Coast women started cleaning on our first day here. Several volunteers are staying over there now, and working daily to ready it for community use.

Every day, people are coming home, to Algiers as well as to the 9th ward,but so many homes still stand empty, especially over there on the north east side of the Mississippi, nearer to the broken levees. The returnees shake their heads in disbelief, needing everything from cleaning supplies and diapers to roofs and jobs.They are glad to be back and optimistic about rebuilding their city, but recognizing the mountainous effort it will take, individually and collectively.

The work of Common Ground is so important to these returning evacuees. So many of the "official" relief agencies put so many conditions on their donations that it can be humiliating for those seeking help. The motto of Common Ground is "solidarity, not charity." We are providing people the tools, supplies, labor and health care, free, no questions asked, to enable them to recreate their lives.

Mobile health unit parked in front of Common Ground Free Health Clinic (in Malik's mosque). The mobile unit makes visits to the 9th ward, hardes hit, as well is in Algies, where CG is located

It is ironically amusing to see the Red Cross truck coming round on it's periodic visits, heralding their approach with blazing horns, and announcing through a loudspeaker "Red Cross, we have hot meals. . ." I think it would be hard to sustain oneself on these infrequent meals! The MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) are an interesting phenomenon - a varied menu arrives in a little packet that contains some kind of chemical heating unit that heats up portions such as mashed potatoes, steak, chicken, whatever; some of them are actually somewhat tasty.

I was quite surprised one morning, taking a walk not too far from here, and passing by a community of well-kept tents, labeled City of Portland, Oregon Water Department. Turns out a contingent of my home folks from the water bureau are helping the city to get its water distribution services back to functioning -- not a small task! Algiers water supply was high enough to escape immersion, not the case with two or more other units.

Side door of the clinic

There are so many stories of heartbreak, loss and resiliency. A gentleman I met over at Mama Dee's distribution center in the 7th ward was walking his two young black labrador puppies, named "Hope" and "Lucky", his antidote to being down on his luck, having lost access to the home he owns, and having also lost his pet dog. A woman standing in line for an hour with us at the cell-phone store related a series of events, some harrowing, others amusing -- "I got me a man thanks to the hurricane. A tree fell on my car, and this guy came out to help me and well, he's now my man." And there is the story of the parked cars whose batteries shorted out as they flooded, leaving a "ghost parking lot" of flashing lights and bubbling emergency squawks.

The clinic continues to see hordes of patients free each day, giving them needed vaccinations and other medical services, including massage and acupuncture. They now have a mobile unit, which travels to various locations in the 7th and 9th wards to serve medical needs of those returnees.

Trucks arrive daily with goods, and the goods move out as fast as they come in. Cleaning materials are especially needed, diapers, food that can be easily prepared (many don't have functioning refrigerators or stoves yet), sanitary items, soaps, etc.

Wrecked house in the midst of untouched houses in Algiers neighborhood

The clinic needs office supplies, medical supplies, shelving, cars, cash to help struggling volunteers to keep body and soul together as they donate their time and energy, and gas money to get back home. . .

Our legal team helps returnees, advising them of their rights when landlords serve them eviction notices, and speaks with those being released from jail after being held since the storm, taking their histories of possibly jail abuses, and so on.

Carpenters and plumbers have our solar shower and composting toilets up and running, and are upgrading the plumbing, installing a shower, in the 9th ward community center, which managed to keep its running water supply.

Veterans for Peace are receiving a donation of some 300 computers, which will provide the basis for a city-wide project to open community media centers. I climbed to the top of the former Falstaff brewing building yesterday with a support crew for the hardy climbers that scaled the radio tower to install their own antenna to serve this project.

There are people here of all ages and backgrounds and from all states of the union, joining hands in this effort to recreate New Orleans for its people and not for the corporations. You should think of joining us! There is space at the CODEPINK house, for as long as we have it, and we'd love to have you join us in this tremendous community-building effort.

Time to go . . . People keep arriving, needing directions.

"Why, why Mr. President why? You didn't fix the levee. . ."

October 24, 2005
by Elizabeth Atly from Portland, Oregon

Spilled mardi gras beads

The ubiquitous CODEPINK refrain from the 24 September Washington DC weekend rings in my head as I walk the levee just two blocks from Common Ground headquarters in Algiers. Algiers is considered "high ground" relative to most of New Orleans and yet it, too, depends on the protection afforded by the levee system. The Algiers levee is earthen, and according to New Orleanians, is far more resistent to the onslaught of hurricane winds and waters than the federally-built (and poorly maintained . . .) concrete levees that buckled and caused so much misery and confusion that are yet far from resolved. Even though Katrina is probably receding from front page coverage everywhere else but here, the catastrophe will not be over for months, maybe years to come, if ever, for so many who lost so much. The earthen levee is high and wide and feels secure under my feet. Lowlands drop away gradually toward the water, and give one a level of confidence in their ability to sustain major natural forces.

Water defines so much of the area of New Orleans, with Lake Ponchartrain to the north, the Mississippi snaking through the heart of the city and Lake Cataouache and the Gulf to the south. On the map, it would appear that these major water bodies would be the most threatening, yet it is the small canals that were most vulnerable and that spilled into the low-lying neighborhoods that relied on them for protection. I haven't had a chance yet to visit the worst-afflicted communities, but another volunteer shared her photos with us, and as dismal a scene as her photos portrayed, she added "this is nothing compared to actually being there." I expect to go over soon, as my compost toilet at the Collective is nearing completion, which will free me up to move around the city with other volunteers.

Solar shower tank in place on roof
(Jeff the carpenter calls it Lenin's tomb)

A dedicated group of Common Ground volunteers spend long hours every day, still cutting trees that have fallen on houses, tarping roofs to provide protection from the rains, picking up hazardous materials, cleaning up houses one at a time, comforting neighbors, unloading relief trucks, distributing food, sanitary items and miscellaneous goods, and providing free health care. The list goes on. More volunteers appear every day; yesterday 22 Oberlin students arrived and are being put to work. We can always use more hands. Other agencies are helping with this effort as well. In fact, though FEMA leadership is justly maligned for its gross negligence and failure to act in a timely way, I'm told that the workers on the ground are as diligent as ours.

City crews are out today in hard-hats and dust masks, picking up the ubiquitous sealed refrigerators and piles of debris, people are gradually moving back, and daily more businesses are putting out open signs -- in fact one sees everywhere the signs driven into earth with two wires like election season campaign banners, announcing "such-and-such agency" is now open for business.

But the access to shopping for ordinary goods that we typically take for granted in American cities is far from normal. For example, our group of four CODEPINK women set out to go to the grocery store Saturday evening, planning to arrive at 7, expecting the store to be open until 8. Hundreds of people filled the aisles of the store, and yet we were turned away. "That sign in the window that says 'Open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.?'Oh, that's for tomorrow . . . We're closed at 7 today; you can't enter."

One of our amazing young work crew leaders slept last night in the 9th ward (scene of the worst devastation) in the house that we helped clean up last week, with a group of Oberlin volunteers. He just reported to me that police hassled them all night long.

But I ramble . . . Must get back to work. More later.


P.S. I'm waiting for a call-back from a reverend who has offered some space for our use in buildings that sustained some damage. I will walk through with him and another volunteer to assess the damage and how much time and materials will be needed to bring the spaces to a safe level for our occupancy. It appears I will finally need to overcome my resistance to cell-phone ownership and use -- it seems the only way to stay in touch with this myriad of workers.

October 19, 2005
by Elizabeth Atly from Portland, Oregon


Is it only three days we have been here? So much has happened. The four of us are now living in Vicki's house, just two blocks from Common Ground. It is luxury indeed to have hot showers and not stand in line for porta-potties.

On Wednesday, Susan, Aida and I got our inititiation by cleaning up a day care center. It is heart-breaking to be in a position to throw out someone's files, photos of the day care children, their adoring letters to their teacher, but all of these were soaked, and black mold was taking hold.We cut out the carpet, stripped the walls, took office furniture, emptied files of halloween ornaments and soggy teaching materials. I think I must have picked up the whole roof from the lawn, and our crew had already tarped the roof. (Blue-tarped roofs are showing up everywhere in the city, in a somewhat random pattern, following what one Free Clinic receptionist described as "little tornadoes that dropped down taking one house and leaving others intact.") We packed everything into big black garbage bags, leaving yet one more huge mound on the curb. These mounds are everywhere, and include the ubiquitous duct-taped refrigerators, which are now becoming billboards for interesting graffiti! . . .

Days two and three, I have been drafted into getting a new bathroom ready at the collective for the projected onslaught of new volunteers, and especially the November 20 thanksgiving caravan. The bathroom will feature a solar shower, and composting toilets, separated by function as to how their contents will be recycled. The urine will go into the grey water system, and apparently this combination will feed a crop of ginger. . . The heavier compost will be trucked to a farm to find its way eventually back to the food chain.

I sat on the roof yesterday morning, pulling vines from the garage roof (which now shleters the computer center and home of Radio Free Algiers) to make a space for the solar shower. And today I've been constructing a composting toilet designed by Starhawk, and a series of volunteers; that is to say, many people have "designed" and "re-designed" this facility, but (s)he who swings the hammer has the final say after all!

We have had tours of the 9th Parish, worst afflicted. I still haven't seen the worst of the devastation. Tonight we had our first gourmet meal, at the home of Medea's friends Bill and Debbie Quigley, and listened to them recount an amazing story of the days they spent at Debbie's hospital awaiting rescue.

It's wonderful to be down here helping. Come join us whenever you can, or join the November 20 caravan to participate in Common Grounds' thanksgiving weekend cleanup!


October 19, 2005

Dear all,

We've been here just one day, but it seems like a week. We are four women-three from San Francisco and one from Portland, Oregon. Last night we were graciously put up in the home of the amazing community organizer, Malik Rahim. We felt extremely privileged (verging on guilty) to be given a room in his house, because outside the house-scattering in tents, in chairs, on the porch-are dozens of volunteers from around the country. That's because Malik's home has become the staging ground for the collective called Common Ground.

The collective has been doing extraordinary work-setting up a health clinic in an empty mosque that sees over 100 patients a day, doing food distribution, starting a tree-cutting collective, cleaning up houses, helping to fight impending evictions of poor folks-you name it. They are feeding and housing legions of volunteers, and giving hope to many local people who have been abandoned by most of their elected leaders and government organizations.

We started our workday by offloading a truckload of donations-literally hundreds of boxes of goods that ranged from the very useful (crates of fruit juices) to the absurd (boxes upon boxes of pie crusts). This seems to be a daily occurrence here-unloading truckloads of "stuff" and then reloading them for distribution in the neighborhoods.

Then we went on a tour of the city, from the positive (the first day of the reopening of the famous Café du Monde in the French Quarter) to the most unbelievable devastation. Some parts of the city look like they've been hit by a bomb. Homes demolished, cars smashed, massive trees uprooted, rubble everywhere. Just to go inside some of the worst-hit homes, we had to put on gloves and a mask because the stench from the mold is smothering.

We talked to folks who were sitting outside their homes, filtering through the rubble in search of the salvageable. Most had an extraordinary sense of humor and an indomitable spirit. They'd show us their destroyed homes and while we were thinking, "You poor souls, you've lost everything", they'd be saying, "I am so blessed because my family is alive." They also seemed more interested in rescuing the family photos than rescuing material goods. "We just want to recover a bit of our history to pass on to our children," one woman told us as she tearfully went through a box of moldy photos.

In the afternoon, three of our delegates went to one of the poorest and hardest hit sections of the city-the 9th Ward-to clean out a daycare center that will become an operations center for Common Ground volunteers (there aren't enough children back in the neighborhood for the daycare to reopen). They tore up the moldy carpets, scraped the floors, scrubbed the walls. It was dirty work, but rewarding, knowing that this will become a hub of activity to help people rebuild their lives.

I spent the afternoon visiting several organizations: the manager of a 900-apartment low-income housing project trying to make it ready for the residents to return, the staff of Hope House and an advocacy group for the homeless who are pushing for the poor to be represented in the rebuilding process, and the staff of People's Hurricane Relief/Community Labor United. It's so encouraging to see the city rising again in the midst of the rubble.

Some of you might be reading this and thinking, "I'd love to go down and help out." Well, you should. Especially needed are folks who can do construction, legal aid, medical assistance, computer skills, finance and accounting. But all are welcome and will be put to work. Contact Aida Alston at for info.

A great time to come would be November 20-27, when Common Ground is trying to get 300 volunteers from around the country to come for Thanksgiving to work block by block cleaning up the 9th ward. Volunteers will work alongside local residents to make this community more habitable and functional. So if you can, plan to spend Thanksgiving week in New Orleans!

I can't tell you how wonderful it is to be part of a community down here that is not just talking about the horrors of Mother Nature and government neglect, but DOING SOMETHING concrete to help!

With hope, Medea