Do You Want Fries With That? Friday, Aug 28 2015 

TW K10

When the McDonald’s opened on Judge Perez in Chalmette in May 2012 I was pretty excited (especially for an environmentalist). To me it represented growth, change and recovery. In fact, you could say that McDonald’s represented hope to me:

  • It was going to be open 24 hours a day in the heart of Chalmette.
  • It has free wi-fi providing access to people who can’t afford it.
  • It has “healthy” food (hey, it’s the south. McDonald’s has salad and yogurt!)
  • It was the third location to open in da parish.

It was the last point that was most important to me. I can’t imagine a multi-national corporation investing capital/supporting a franchisee to build a new location if they didn’t think it would be sustaining. The large number of other fast food chains popping up support this logic too.  Sandwiched as it is between the Lower 9th ward — which has almost nothing by way of groceries/restaurants — and New Orleans East — which is also a food desert, St. Bernard is experiencing a recovery of sorts economically, even when on a personal level people are still suffering.

St. Bernard Parish was about 50% returned as of the last census, maybe 55-60% now. It’s a changed community. Lots more green space — where houses used to be — and not everyone is home.


So many people have moved across the lake to St. Tammany Parish that its nickname is now St. Tamm-Bernard. So certainly, recovery does not mean restoration to a pre-Katrina state. That is, unfortunately, never going to happen.

But the McDonald’s made me think…and these are questions I’ll be asking in my dissertation research…

  • What are your signs of recovery?
  • What was the marker (or what will it be if it hasn’t happened yet) that let you know your community is in recovery/has recovered?
  • What makes you feel like your home is back?

Because I feel like we have a lot of “fake signs of recovery“. Take this “lovely” social housing project for example.


Known as Marrero Commons, these houses, just a few blocks away from me on Martin Luther King Blvd are supposed to replace BW Cooper/Calliope. Until Katrina there were 1,550 units. Construction started in 2008 and people moved in four years later. According to the HANO website there are 250 units, of which 143 are public housing. Phase One cost of $158 million. Even assuming that the website is out of date, there were over 4,000 residents pre-Katrina and less then 1,000 at the 2010 census.

Or what about this lovely patch of green grass and fresh mulch on the neutral ground on Claiborne in the Lower 9th. I was workers out laying this on August 19th and 20th 2015…just in time for the President and all the media that is descending for K10.


I guess it’s important that the L9 looks good this week, but it doesn’t matter how the community feels about it the rest of the year. Are they not important enough for nice grass?

So tell me GNO folks. Have you a personal marker of recovery? What is it?


Why We Came Home Wednesday, Aug 26 2015 

TW K10 – The K10 anniversary has produced so much media coverage and reminiscences that it has become overwhelming. Instead of writing and posting I wanted to hide. And I wasn’t even here during Katrina. Hence the trigger warning.

A couple weekends ago I was driving to Mississippi with my chosen-sister Alexis. She was 10 during Katrina and lived in St. Bernard Parish. I was explaining to her the nature of my PhD research and its focus on examining resiliency and recovery in order to figure out why people return after a catastrophic disaster.

She looked at me like I had two heads. “Because it’s home sissy. Where else would we go?” This perfectly sums up what I’ve heard from everyone in the 7 years I’ve been visiting New Orleans. Because it’s home. (Now to turn that sentence into a 100 page dissertation!)

Picture by Amanda Fotes

Picture by Amanda Fotes

Last night I read an article by Lolis Eric Elie who I had the privilege of meeting several years ago at a Resurrection After Exoneration fundraiser. Lolis is a brilliant writer and this piece captures the spirit of the city in a way unlike I’ve seen anyone do. “Why We Came Home” looks at the good and the bad, the positive and negative, the hope and despair. New Orleans is not a perfect city and never will be, but what city is? It is vibrant and full of hope though, while at the same time teetering on the edge of depression and sadness.

Like my sister Alexis said it’s about home. The piece isn’t worded “Why We Came Back” because that leaves out the essence of New Orleans. It’s “Why We Came Home” because home = NOLA.

do you know what it means

For those who have never been to New Orleans I hope this piece captures some of the vibrancy of the city and yet explains its underbelly. For those who have visited my wish is that you see pieces you remember in Lolis’ words. For those who returned and are rebuilding your lives and your city I hope the author captured your reasons and if not, please share yours in the comments to continue this discussion. For those, like me, who have moved here since Katrina, I’m sure this piece reminds you of your reasons for planting roots in NOLA. For those who evacuated and have yet to make it back, come home soon, we need you here.

Volunteering with the Red Cross Tuesday, Jun 5 2012 

I’ve been volunteering since I was a kid. I think the first time was with my dad when he did his shifts at the Smith Township library; later I did my own shifts. In elementary school I began organizing fundraisers and events to help feed children in Africa. From high school on volunteering was an important part of what I did in my life. I dedicate a significant amount of time  to volunteering every week; even here in the US (as I write this I have just finished a call-in to a board meeting with the Professional Writers Association of Canada where, as I finish my 7th year on the board this week, I serve as Past-President).

I volunteer with the Disaster Services arm of the American Red Cross.

I’m really enjoying my work with the American Red Cross. I’ve written before about my two experiences on bigger Disaster Relief Operations – in Vermont with Hurricane Irene last August/September and in Carencro (Lafayette), Louisiana this past march with the SWLA Flood. Most recently, I trained as an instructor in the disasters stream and have been doing some trainings prepping volunteers to be shelter volunteers if needed in the hurricane season.

Red Cross cot assembly

The shelter training participants at the New Roads library in Point Coupee around a Red Cross cot they learned to assemble (My training partner, Jonathan Hammett, Regional Partnership Manager for Southern Louisiana is in the red shirt).

Even though my Master’s degree I received in 2009 and the PhD I am undertaking now are technically in Environmental Studies, there was/is a huge focus on disasters in both of them. The courses I took at York University – through the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the Disaster and Emergency Management program have been incredibly helpful and useful as I learn more about the inner workings of a Disaster Relief Operation. I sat in on a planning meeting last week; the number of volunteers that will be required if a large hurricane hits is enormous. On top of that, you have to anticipate that some trained volunteers won’t be able to respond given their own life circumstances, so training must include 3x the number of people  you actually anticipate needing.

The most common disaster in the United States is the single home house fire (image source: American Red Cross).

Even outside of “wartime” ie when there isn’t a formal, large-scale disaster there is lots of work to be done. A standard disaster cycle is Preparedness, Mitigation, Response and Recovery. But once you have recovered, the system is right back into preparing and mitigating. What worked, what didn’t work, how many people need to be trained this year, what shelters will be needed, where will they be etc etc etc.

My other main function with the Red Cross right now is helping the South Louisiana Regional Partnerships Manager, Jonathan Hammett, with some of the preparedness work. Not only are we training volunteers, but we are in a constant recruitment mode to try to find more. We are also connecting with groups and organizations, especially churches, to secure spaces for a shelter. This involves meeting with an interested church, assessing their interest and capacity, then if they are supportive having a full evaluation of their space completed to ensure that it is safe and suitable. Finally, a partnerships agreement is signed. During an actual disaster, I’ll be a Community Partner Services Lead for the South-East Lousiana chapter which will include connecting with our partner groups and helping to mobilize them (Jonathan has the same role but will be based out of the Baton Rouge chapter). The Madisonville office where disaster operations will be based for the SELA reponse is less than a 15 minute drive from my place (though there are rooms for sleeping if required).

A little blurry but this is *why* I volunteer. The question asks “How did the Red Cross help you” and under “other” the client wrote “Smiles”. In a time of crisis, knowing that someone was there with a smile and support is the most important gift we can give our neighbours.

Will you consider being

“Ready When the Time Comes”

and become a Red Cross volunteer?

Ask me for details!!

A day and a half in Tuscaloosa Tuesday, May 10 2011 

So, a couple of hours ago we arrived back from a day and half in Tuscaloosa. What a roller coaster that was. I think the first day we were there I felt every emotion possible.

There was excitement….of the car ride there, getting to know some people better and having some fun. When we got to Tuscaloosa we went to register as volunteers with Give Tuscaloosa (, and were sent off to a warehouse for the day.

Then there was confusion…. The warehouse was quite chaotic. There was more stuff coming in than anyone really knew what to do with. We started with a motivating assembly line to work efficiently and then approximately fourty trucks came with even more stuff. No one was really sure what to do with it all.

Piles of donations

Then there was a feeling I really can’t explain…. The amount of clothes was too much to even sort through and be helpful for those who needed it, and as a result much of it was to be shipped to Honduras by the end of the week. Spirits were down, people were angry, confused, upset, frustrated, etc. There were complaints that Tuscaloosa was not the only city that needed help, and while there were over 40 trucks here in that couple hours, some places were only getting two trucks a week…

Then there was pure sadness… After the workday we took a drive through Tuscaloosa to see some of the damage done by the tornadoes. I was in absolute shock and essentially speechless at much of what we saw. Most people described it as surreal, and it truly was that. There was a point on our drive where we got out to walk around a bit and take some pictures. It was at this point I wasn’t really sure how to handle any of it. I got out of the car and walked closer to the water we were by to look at the surrounding houses and damage, and had to turn back to the car to collect myself and hold back tears. I could not believe it. Most of these houses were just piles of debris. Everything that was inside that person’s home was gone. There were Xs everywhere, like those still on many houses in New Orleans, they were even on the cars that were in the areas. There was an older women who was looking through some of the debris and as we drove by I could see the shock and sadness on her face.

destroyed home in Tuscaloosa

The craziest thing about it was that here you see all this debris and half-standing houses, and across the street the buildings are fine or there are maybe a couple broken windows. Even on the same side of the street where there was extensive damage, there was somehow one cell phone store still open. I don’t know how, or why it was not damaged, but it was shocking to see. Seeing everything just broke my heart.

This difference in the damage really made me understand that the tornadoes in Tuscaloosa were a disaster, whereas Katrina was a pure catastrophe. I’ve been reading A Paradise Built in Hell and Solnit describes catastrophe as a turning over, an upset of what is expected, to emerge into the unexpected. Disaster has many of the same impacts, but not to the same extent; it’s a “misfortune due to astrologically generated trouble”. There was damage, but there were others still there to help keep those in need kicking. There were still stores and restaurants and so many things open. There were people coming together from the areas in Tuscaloosa there weren’t hit that were volunteering their help. On the other hand in New Orleans essentially everything was damaged. After the feelings I experienced in Tuscaloosa, I can’t even imagine the feelings of seeing New Orleans after Katrina hit. Whether the disaster/catastrophe is human made or natural, it’s devastating.

Even through everything it was inspiring to see the people who did come together, from in town and from out of town. Even though the amount of stuff that was donated was overwhelming, it was inspiring to see that people do care and want to help. As depressing as it may be good things can truly eventually come from disaster. The door above the warehouse yesterday said something along the lines of, if you think it can’t be done don’t get in the way of those who are doing it. It’s these types of things that really keep me going through the feelings of confusion, frustration and sadness.

Alright, that was enough rambling for me.

– Shannon K

%d bloggers like this: