Support Occupy Sandy

As many of you know, I have lived in New York City for the last five years.  Harlem, to be specific.  We were blessed to survive Hurricane Sandy, and to have maintained a bubble of “normalcy” throughout the storm and afterwards.  I was not a Katrina survivor, but I have been an observer, and just from this perspective, it is harrowing to to see the wreckage and the struggle in Rockaway, Staten Island, Red Hook, LES, and all along the NJ coast and not flashback horribly to 2005.

If you are so moved, I encourage you to support Occupy Sandy.  These volunteers have been working hard delivering food and supplies and wo/manpower to those who need it since the early days after.  If you go to their website, you can see what is needed, in terms of supplies and volunteers.  You can donate there.  You can even go to their Amazon registry and pick out items and have them sent directly to the volunteers who will get them to those in need.

“What Jamal Saw: Finding the Disaster Aftermath in the Face of a Child”

5 years ago, a group of us writers spent an afternoon with evacuee children at the George R. Brown Convention Center. I write about it in my latest Huffpo piece “What Jamal Saw: Finding the Disaster Aftermath in the Face of a Child.”


Have been talking to my Houston friends, thinking about five years ago today, and just how awful and dreadful and thoroughly scary it was–and we were just observers! Just taking some time today to think about those who survived, and who did not. Also taking some time to give thanks for all the blessings that have come into my life since the day I started speaking with evacuees. I have made many good friends and I have learned so much. Thank you God, thank you Gulf Coast, and thank you to all the people who now have cherished places in my heart.

Now & Later: Oral History in Present & Future Tense – Documentary Film, Radio, Photography | Present

Looking forward to talking oral history this Sunday, June 13, 2010. If you’re in NYC, please consider joining us!

Thank you NOLA activist and blogger Nathan Rothstein for writing up the work!

Reading at Octavia Books/Thursday April 8th, 2010 (6:00pm)

Just wanted to share that I’ll be reading next month at Octavia Books in New Orleans (non-Katrina memoir: *Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House* (Ecco/HarperCollins).  Really looking forward to returning to Louisiana.  Hope to get in a few oral history interviews as well.  If you are interested in speaking with me, please send me a note.   For more info on the reading:

Hope to see you there!

In Haiti Response, Obama Administration Rising to the Moment

Strong words.  Decisive action.  A promise of “unwavering support” followed up directly by the might of the US Government.  In an emergency, for us, for our neighbors, this is how we hope our government will respond.  On Day 4 of the Haitian earthquake catastrophe, this is how the Obama Administration is responding.  Not only are they making our nation proud, they are showing us that we are in good hands if such calamity hits us at home.

On Thursday, the President promised a first installment of $100 million in aid, and gave us this update:

“I can report that the first waves of our rescue and relief workers are on the ground and at work.  A survey team worked overnight to identify priority areas for assistance, and shared the results of that review throughout the United States government, and with international partners who are also sending support.  Search and rescue teams are actively working to save lives.  Our military has secured the airport and prepared it to receive the heavy equipment and resources that are on the way, and to receive them around the clock, 24 hours a day.  An airlift has been set up to deliver high-priority items like water and medicine.  And we’re coordinating closely with the Haitian government, the United Nations, and other countries who are also on the ground.”

Just as reassuring was Secretary Clinton’s declaration that “we have a full court press going on here.” And that American aid efforts would be “long-term.”

Monday evening, I wrote the blog post <a href=”” target=”_hplink”>”Obama’s Haiti Moment.”  </a>While our leaders said they were observing and planning, it was hard to tell just how quickly they would mobilize resources, on what kind of scale, and with what level of commitment.   Now they are showing us.  The President said that he “made it clear that Haiti must be a top priority” for our military, for our diplomatic and development agencies and departments.  This is what a President must convey if our assistance is going to be maximized and not squandered.

Just as reassuring was Secretary Clinton’s Today Show declaration that “we have a full court press going on here.” And that American aid efforts would be “long-term.”

This is the kind of leadership that inspires confidence in the hearts, in the bones, of Americans that have worried that in true times of national crisis, no one is at the wheel.

This is the kind of leadership that shows us that our Katrina response was not inevitable.  That we can do better now and in the future.

The Obama Administration is showing the world that we know how to use our power for good, in a timely manner, in a way concerned with saving lives and creating stability. With President Obama, Secretary Clinton and Special Envoy for Haiti President Clinton at the helm, we are being shown that we have the kind of team that can truly assist the resilient Haitian people in these daunting days, months, and years ahead.

However, it is up to us to keep letting our leaders know that we care, that after two weeks we won’t have disaster fatigue.  I encourage you all to write the White House and your representatives, to post online as well, and let them know how you feel about aid to Haiti, and how we treat immigrant Haitians stateside.  The more they know that we prioritize assistance to our neighbor in need, the more support they will feel, the better the chance we will continue to offer meaningful help.

Anna Deavere Smith in *Let Me Down Easy*

Just have to say that I’m very excited about tonight.  I am going to see one of my heroes, Anna Deavere Smith (check out the *Influences* page), live tonight for first time.  I often wish she would have done a Katrina project in the same vein as her other projects.  There’s still time.

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Thank you!


Bring the Nobel Peace Prize Home to New Orleans

Don’t look back. Like some video star who walks away from explosions with nary a glance over her shoulder, my mother taught me that this was the way to deal with the traumas of life. She survived her youth with men who drowned their suffering in alcohol by moving forward, moving forward. In this way she created a new life for herself — and for me — with my step-father. Never turn around, I can still feel her whisper, lest the inferno blind you, turn you to salt, or rob you of your love.

But is this always the wisest approach for individuals, much less nations? I saw what happened to men torn apart by unexamined pain. They poisoned others’ lives as much as their own. Obsession with past hurts is unhealthy for sure, but so is the silence that does not allow for healing, for any chance at self-acceptance, or forgiveness.

Consider New Orleans. Don’t look back is a common ethos of its Katrina survivors. Attempting to rectify, or even acknowledge injustices is risky, for it feels like ripping open the rawest wounds. Even if a survivor disagrees with the turn-the-page approach, the weight of reconstructing one’s family, home and livelihood can be a crushing one, for credit cards aren’t all that’s maxed out in the recovering Gulf Coast. Day after day, what energy is left to sort through the anger and shame that rose up as wickedly as the surge waters through sewer grates?

Sometimes it takes outsiders to help. Currently, the FBI is investigating alleged police homicides and civil rights violations committed in those nether days after the levees breached. Justice for the victimized will always be a healing balm, but we need more than convictions. We need truth. Truth that might be difficult for whites to hear, for blacks to hear, for all of us to hear. Truth that might be difficult for rich people to hear. For the government leaders then and now. We need deep examinations of our systems and of our personal fears that lead us to fail each other so profoundly. How else can we hope to make peace with one another?

The White House announced last week that the president will travel to New Orleans in mid-October. Many of us have competing ideas as how best to harness presidential power in the service of rebuilding the city. However, the president can bring the peace prize home early if he does one thing: announce the creation of an 8/29 Commission.

Activists, including Sandy Rosenthal of, have long called for such a commission. Since this is still an idea and not a mission, yet, its marching orders are still to be determined. I imagine the panel as equal parts 9/11 Commission, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Medical Examiner of the body politic. The panel should be tasked to establish once and for all why the levees failed, and allow us a good look at all of the pre-existing conditions present at the time of the trauma. This panel should also shine glory on those who rose to their challenges (Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, the US Coast Guard, heroic medical personnel and a 1000 churches come to mind). Like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this is not about putting people in jail, or widespread wealth distribution. This is about hearing people out. This is about creating a shared understanding of events. This is about agreeing on the wisest use of public resources to improve security and prosperity for all. This is about having a political class that knows how to take responsibility, not one that invariably runs from blame and liability.

I have faith that when the President travels to New Orleans this month, he will do more than visit a school, check out a levee, and walk the Lower Ninth. If the President creates the 8/29 Commission, he will prove to us that we are not a nation forever doomed to sweep problems under the rug until the floor rots beneath us. He will initiate the hard work necessary to bring us peace.

For more on the 8/29 Commission, please visit

If you know someone who has suffered a Katrina-related death, including indirect deaths, consider contributing their name to the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List

Read more at:

Coast Guard Oral Histories

If you are interested in powerful first person rescue stories, I would encourage you to click here:  Just finished AST3 Sara Faulkner’s story.  Wow.  She rescued several who were stranded, including three babies.  A true heroine.

The Radical Choice this Katrina Anniversary: Celebrate

The New Orleans Police Department chaplain knows suffering. Joe Cull spends his days, and many nights, on the porches and in the parlors of neighbors’ homes as he listens to those who have experienced fresh trauma.  He did so before and after Katrina.  He does so today. 

But observers may be surprised to know that this Katrina anniversary, instead of organizing a memorial per se, or staging a protest, Chaplain Cull has made another choice.  Perhaps a radical choice.  He has organized a celebration of hope called “Silent Heroes and Hidden Gifts of Katrina,” an event designed to spotlight the positive in a city that still struggles to recover, a city where grief is breathed in and breathed out with the moisture in the air.

“The focus continues to stay on the chaos and controversy which I guess is simply the nature of the beast,” said Chaplain Cull in a recent interview. “I am not trying to deny the reality of all the suffering and terrible things that went on [during and post-Katrina]. But there is such a profoundly beautiful side to the people here in New Orleans and the events surrounding Katrina that is just waiting to be exposed.”

While first responders will be honored, the profound actions of everyday people are also on Chaplain Cull’s mind, especially the actions of those who on TV may have only appeared to be pitiable victims in distress.  “Witnessing a grandmother like Gwendolyn Martin Washington lay injured on a shadeless expressway and offer her umbrella to the two young children with her is an act of kindness and love I will never forget. True selflessness epitomized.  A lesson everyone can learn from, no matter who you are.”

A focus on the positive this anniversary can make some of us anxious, make us afraid that people will forget the crimes and cruel indifferences we vowed to rectify somehow.  But in traveling back and forth to New Orleans, I’ve learned that while no one in New Orleans or the diaspora wants to be forgotten, no one wants their lives reduced to mere victimhood eiyher, and they don’t want their abiding faith, their progress, or their positive moments ignored or diminished.  For too many who are simply trying to cope, it can be discouraging to encounter national news coverage of life post-Katrina and have the focus so squarely on disappointments.  If recovery requires optimism, as my oral historian friend Mark Cave says, then we can help our New Orleans neighbors by seeking some balance in the news coverage.  We can seek the light as much as we seek the dark. 

“The amount of suffering that took place here during Katrina was definitely beyond the scope of anything I have seen before,” said Chaplain Cull. “But this in my mind and heart makes the acts of kindness and generosity I saw even more profound.”

I couldn’t agree more.  This anniversary, I am going to try and be as radical as Chaplain Cull and celebrate love, heroism, and the progress that survivors have made, wherever they are.  I am going to reach out to my friends and near-family and let them know that they are cherished. If you have family or friends in the affected regions, I ask you to reach out to them, if just to say hello and see how they’re doing and to listen to what they have to say.  Just letting them know that they’ve got friends who care is an invaluable gift.  Let’s them know that they are never truly alone.  Gives them the support no government can give.

For more information on “Silent Heroes and Hidden Gifts of Katrina” please click:

For more information on the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List, and to contribute the name of someone who died directly or indirectly, please click:

[This was cross-posted on the Huffington Post:]

Thank you, Daphne

I just interviewed a wonderful woman from New Orleans East who now lives in White Plains, NY. Also was able to meet her 12 year old son who sat in on the interview. I haven’t been able to interview for the past six months+ and I’m glad to start again. Look forward to posting this interview, among others, in the near future.

Returning to Louisiana in August

John Mutter and I will be traveling to New Orleans for the anniversary this August. Itinerary and interviews TBD.

Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List — The Earth Institute

Please support the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List:  

Danger and Hope on this Katrina Anniversary

(first posted on the Huffington Post August 29th, 2008)

“I’ve got an idea,” said my friend Larry, “why don’t you come down and ride out Gustav with me? Don’t you want to experience a hurricane firsthand?” These plaintive questions were on my voicemail. I listened as I walked uphill on 145th in Harlem, laughing the entire length of the message. Larry’s a good friend, but no way in Hades was I going to get on a plane and head directly for trouble, at least not of the meteorological kind “Cause I’m not going anywhere,” Larry declared.

I laughed, but I knew he was serious. I also knew how this kind of attitude gets skewered by outsiders, many unaware of the mental gymnastics a person must make when preparing to face down a hurricane. From the outside, it’s so easy to forget that evacuations cost money. That you need a place to go. That you must concern yourself with the wellbeing of loved ones who may be too unhealthy, and well, too crotchety to travel. That you don’t want to leave your home and your businesses unattended, that you want to be there to repair any damage mid-storm. And then there’s the pets…

Larry has a cat, as well as a beautiful home near City Park, and a business in the Central Business District. I can understand his desire not to abandon all that’s his, especially as of today, when the slow-moving Gustav could land anywhere. But as forecasts change, his decision may no longer remain justified. As his friend, I don’t panic for him — yet.

But I feel for my friends who must make their decisions on the very day of the anniversary. As my friend Michael wrote me: “Emotionally, it’s a very overwhelming feeling to be bombarded with urgent TV broadcasts of the regional storm preparation on the anniversary of the LAST storm.” Knowing how most of my friends down there have either flirted with, or fallen into depression over the last three years, I know this time is drenched with anxiety. That they’re natural “get up and go” might be sapped.

This morning, I also spoke with my friend Suzanne who has decided not to leave — yet — because her ailing mother is too frail to move. She shared her contingency plans, including checking her mother into a nearby hospital. “If things worsen, I’ll reconsider [leaving],” she said, “but this storm does not look like another Katrina. There can’t be two Katrinas in a lifetime.”

I hope to God she’s right.

This Katrina anniversary is not like the others — neither for Louisiana residents, nor for me. This is the first Katrina anniversary where Gulf Coast residents await an approaching hurricane. Families across Louisiana weigh their options, figuring out what they should do. Many will forestall decision-making until the last possible moment, hoping the storm will shift, making evacuation unnecessary. Some will book their rooms elsewhere and just go, trying to treat this as a vacation, hoping that this time, it will remain as such. Depending on what kind of mandatory evacuation orders are given, some may be evacuated out of town by government-promised buses and trains, as well as concerned friends and neighbors. Others will simply remain. If there is any benefit to Gustav landing during the RNC convention, it must be that this time the response will be both competent and energetic from the federal level (yes, hope springs eternal).

For the first time, I count friends as among those making these decisions. This wasn’t the case before Katrina. I knew nobody who lived in Louisiana. Hurricane evacuations were total abstractions, the gritty details foreign to me. I have since worked on a Katrina oral history project (, and through this work, have made a few wonderful, deep friendships. I now join the millions across the country who worry for their loved ones on the Gulf Coast, wondering what they will do, hoping they will be OK, trying to offer whatever assistance we can.

I am going to keep Suzanne’s hope in my heart. Hope that this is not another Katrina, hope that there will be no devastating landfall and 30foot+ storm surge, and that the levees will hold.

But, when it comes to the levees, we should not have to operate only on hope. We should not be afraid of the truth. And the truth appears to be that there were deep construction flaws in the New Orleans levee system, as designed by the Army Corps of Engineers The fact is, Americans all across the country live near Army Corps of Engineers’ designed levees. How many floods will take before we focus our objective investigative powers on these systems?

Three years later, we’re still calling for an 8/29 Commission. Please visit to see how you can help. It’s important for Speaker Pelosi and for your representatives to know that we want an independent commission to get to the bottom of what really happened with the levee failures. Let this be part of our push to rebuild America’s infrastructure. Let this be one small way you reach out and help New Orleanians on this anniversary.

Still Counting Katrina’s Dead

(first posted on The Huffington Post on June 25, 2008)

The Katrina dead. Three years later and we can still see the drowned rooftops, the hospital staffs begging for evacuations, the lines of wheel-chaired sick fading before our eyes. Some of us remember this because we saw it on TV. Some of us remember this because we were there. No matter our vantage points, we should all be united in our desire that the dead be duly counted.

In a recent piece in Baton Rouge’s The Advocate, journalist Allen Johnson gives the latest update on state and local efforts to create an accurate accounting of the Katrina death toll. He focuses on the work of John C. Mutter, a professor of seismology at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and an expert on the impact of disasters on national economies, who is working to measure the full impact of Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Mutter defines “full impact” as “the entire awful landscape of death, the grief it causes, and the loss of spirit as well as the losses to the informal as well as the formal economy.” While all of this not obviously quantifiable, Mutter believes that the more we know about the circumstances of individual deaths, the better prepared we will be to prevent similar deaths in the future.

I know Dr. Mutter through my own Katrina oral history work and have followed intently his efforts to go beyond the purviews of state officialdom and create the most complete list possible of Katrina deceased. In doing so, he has created the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List . While he receives name-redacted information from state agencies, he also asks family members and friends of the deceased to submit directly to the list, given that many deaths may not be officially recorded in Louisiana or Mississippi records, and that families may wish to have the deaths publicly recognized. As for indirect deaths, he allows submitters to use their judgment as to whether they felt their loved one’s death was hastened by Katrina and its aftermath.

In Louisiana, the direct dead count now stands at 902, according to state epidemiologist Raoult C. Ratard. In Mississippi, the number is 223, according to Sam L. Howell, director of the Mississippi Crime Laboratory. The Louisiana number includes out-of-state deaths, but only if the out-of-state coroners notified Louisiana, as most were doing for up to a month after the storm.

“Direct” deaths are attributable to the storm and its immediate aftermath. “Indirect” deaths, such as suicide, loss of continuity of health care and profound heartbreak are causes whose victims are unlikely to be counted by state coroners as “Katrina-related.” Out-of-state deaths are most likely under-reported, too. There is also the difficult task of accounting for undocumented populations. And of course, there are the stories of killings during those initial dark days that must be either documented or dispelled — a task that is not Mr. Mutter’s, surely, but one that only investigative reporters seem interested in pursuing.

While no one is guaranteed an extra day’s life on this earth, there are certainly deaths that appear to be exacerbated, if not outright caused by Katrina-related factors. Researchers can later subdivide the groups by causation; in the meantime, Dr. Mutter strives to create the most comprehensive list possible. If you know someone who should be included on this list, or if you have any questions or information to share, you may contact Dr. Mutter at the address below:

Dr. John C. Mutter
Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List
The Earth Institute at Columbia University
405 Low Library
Columbia University in the City of New York
535 W. 116th St. New York, 10027

Arguably, this is the sort of work that could be sponsored by an 8/29 Commission if one actually existed. But it doesn’t. I’m glad and grateful that Dr. Mutter has taken it upon himself to take the lead.

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