Friday, July 25, 2008

Hurricane Preparedness?

After posting a serious entry on Hurricane Katrina's aftereffects earlier this week (Katrina Tattoos), I'm going for the funnybone now.

A friend who lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast sent me the following humorous e-mail. (Her hometown of Pascagoula was devastated by Katrina.)

This is a witty sendup of the many "hurricane preparedness" tip sheets distributed this time of year. It's going around the Internet via e-mail, with nothing to identify the original author, so I assume it's not subject to copyright protection and reprint it in its entirety.

Special Message from the Gulf Coast FEMA Office
Subject: Hurricane Preparedness 2008

To ex-Gulf Coastians, present Coastians, and future Coastians or those who know a Coastian: Hurricane season is upon us. It begins June 1 and ends November 30.

Any day now, you're going to turn on the TV and see a weather person pointing to some radar blob out in the Gulf of Mexico and making two basic meteorological points:
  1. There is no need to panic.
  2. We could all be killed.

Yes, hurricane season is an exciting time to be on the Gulf Coast. If you're new to the area, you're probably wondering what you need to do to prepare for the possibility that we'll get hit by "the big one."

Based on our experiences, we recommend that you follow this simple three-step hurricane preparedness plan:

STEP 1: Buy enough food and bottled water to last your family for at least three days.
STEP 2: Put these supplies into your car.
STEP 3: Drive to Nebraska and remain there until Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, statistics show that most people will not follow this sensible plan. Most people will foolishly stay here on the Coast.

We'll start with one of the most important hurricane preparedness items:


If you own a home, you must have hurricane insurance. Fortunately, this insurance is cheap and easy to get, as long as your home meets two basic requirements:
  1. It is reasonably well-built, and
  2. It is located in Nebraska.

Unfortunately, if your home is located on the Coast, or any other area that might actually be hit by a hurricane, most insurance companies would prefer not to sell you hurricane insurance, because then they might be required to pay YOU money, and that is certainly not why they got into the insurance business in the first place.

So you'll have to scrounge around for an insurance company, which will charge you an annual premium roughly equal to the replacement value of your house. At any moment, this company can drop you like used dental floss. Since Hurricane Katrina, I have had an estimated 27 different home-insurance companies. This week, I'm covered by the Bob and Big Stan Insurance Company, under a policy which states that, in addition to my premium, Bob and Big Stan are entitled, on demand, to my kidneys.


Your house should have hurricane shutters on all the windows, all the doors, and -- if it's a major hurricane -- all the toilets.

There are several types of shutters, with advantages and disadvantages:
  • Plywood shutters: The advantage is that, because you make them yourself, they're cheap. The disadvantage is that, because you make them yourself, they will fall off.
  • Sheet-metal shutters: The advantage is that these work well, once you get them all up. The disadvantage is that once you get them all up, your hands will be useless bleeding stumps, and it will be December.
  • Roll-down shutters: The advantages are that they're very easy to use, and will definitely protect your house. The disadvantage is that you will have to sell your house to pay for them.


These are the newest wrinkle in hurricane protection: They look like ordinary windows, but they can withstand hurricane winds! You can be sure of this, because the salesman says so. He lives in Nebraska.


As the hurricane approaches,check your yard for movable objects like barbecue grills, planters, patio furniture, visiting relatives, etc. You should, as a precaution, throw these items into your swimming pool (if you don't have a swimming pool, you should have one built immediately). Otherwise, the hurricane winds will turn these objects into deadly missiles.


If you live in a low-lying area, you should have an evacuation route planned out. (To determine whether you live in a low-lying area, look at your driver's license; if it says Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, Bay St. Louis, Gautier, Pascagoula, Waveland, live in a low-lying area.)

The purpose of having an evacuation route is to avoid being trapped in your home when a major storm hits. Instead, you will be trapped in a gigantic traffic jam several miles from your home, along with two hundred thousand other evacuees. So, as a bonus, you will not be lonely.


If you don't evacuate, you will need a mess of supplies. Do not buy them now! Gulf Coast tradition requires that you wait until the last possible minute, then go to the supermarket and get into vicious fights with strangers over who gets the last can of Spam.

In addition to food and water, you will need the following supplies:
  • About 23 flashlights.
  • At least $167 worth of batteries that, when the power goes out, turn out to be the wrong size for the flashlights.
  • Bleach. (No, I don't know what the bleach is for. NOBODY knows what the bleach is for. It's tradition, so GET some!)
  • A 55-gallon drum of underarm deodorant.
  • A big knife that you can strap to your leg. (This will be useless in a hurricane, but it looks cool.)
  • A large quantity of raw chicken, to placate the alligators. (Ask anybody who went through Katrina; after the hurricane, there WILL be irate alligators.)
  • $35,000 in cash or diamonds so that, after the hurricane passes, you can buy a generator from a man with no discernible teeth.

Of course these are just basic precautions. As the hurricane draws near, it is vitally important that you keep abreast of the situation by turning on your television and watching TV reporters in rain slickers stand right next to the Gulf and tell you over and over how vitally important it is for everybody to stay away from the Gulf.

Good luck and remember: It's great living in paradise! Those of you who aren't here yet, you should come.


Once again, I can't take credit for this clever parody. Kudos to the Unknown Wit who composed it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Katrina Tattoos

I live in Metairie, a suburb that suffered far less than New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. As we approach the third anniversary of the storm, I can drive around Metairie and see few signs of storm damage except some empty lots where buildings have been razed, and the occasional FEMA trailer still remaining in someone's yard.

If I go into New Orleans, however, it's a different story. No matter where you go in the city, except perhaps the French Quarter, you cannot escape evidence of Katrina. First, many devastated homes and businesses remain, neither rebuilt nor razed. Second, the streets--in bad shape before the storm--now are truly dangerous, with enormous potholes, sinkholes, and other damage either unrepaired or worsened or recently developed. Third, there are the Katrina Tattoos remaining on many homes, even those that have been restored and are reoccupied.

(Photo from the International Journal of Health Geographics,

What I call the Katrina Tattoo is the marking made by Search-and-Rescue teams as they made house-to-house searches for humans and animals in the months after the storm. If you saw pictures of New Orleans in the months after Katrina, you'll have seen the S&R markings on houses. S&R teams supposedly searched every building in all the flooded areas. Many houses were searched twice, by official teams and by animal-rescue teams. To notify others that a house had been searched, S&R teams marked each building with spray paint in a specific manner.

First they sprayed an "X" on the front (or roof) of the building. In the photo, it's on the roof, which means that the water was so high that searchers could access the house only through the roof. You can see they had to hack through the roof to get into the attic of the house.

(In other cases, people hacked through the roof from the inside after being trapped in their attics by rising water. I know people who keep a hatchet in their attic for precisely that purpose.)

The letters/numbers inside the quadrants of the X have specific meanings. In the top (north) quadrant is the date of the search; in the left (west) quadrant is the search-team identifier; in the right (east) quadrant is a notation of any hazards or unusual conditions in the building; in the bottom (south) quadrant is the number of victims found and their condition, e.g., live or dead. You can find an official explanation in the Army's Catastrophic Disaster Response Staff Officer's Handbook.

Interpreting the X in the photo by these guidelines, we can see the house was searched by team CA-8 on September 11, the team had to break into the attic, and they found one victim, who was dead. I interpret the arrow at left of "1 dead" as indicating to subsequent searchers that the victim can be found inside the attic, through the hole nearby.
On the right side of the photo are the pieces of wood the searchers removed when they hacked through the roof. It's obvious the hole is too small for the searchers either to have entered through it, or to have removed the body at that time. The initial searchers were looking for the living; the dead were removed later.

The second X, on the front wall of the house, would have been made after the water subsided. It indicates the body inside was removed on September 19 by "Kenyon."

Ray in New Orleans blogged about these markings a few months post-Katrina, with a couple of photos. I'm sure many other bloggers and articles have discussed the S&R markings, but I'm not going to take time to do a full Google search.

After Katrina's second anniversary Travel and Leisure magazine wrote in "Soul Survivor":

Even in mostly recovered neighborhoods, you’ll notice the persistence of "Katrina tattoos," the X marks spray painted on fa├žades by rescue workers after the storm, noting when the property was searched, by whom, and whether any survivors—or bodies—were found. Most have been painted over, but some are intact, left deliberately as symbols of perseverance. One Marigny resident has even had his cast in iron and mounted by his front door.

They were documented most famously in Chris Rose's columns for the Times-Picayune, which he later turned into
1 Dead in Attic, a book chronicling the aftermath of Katrina on the populace as well as on Rose himself. (I did a blog entry on Chris's work when the book was nationally released.)

What makes me think of this? Well, of course, it's only a few weeks until the third anniversary of the storm. (We are daily reminded by local news media, even if we wanted to forget it.) And, as I said earlier, you can't drive through New Orleans without seeing Katrina Tattoos still present on buildings. Some people, even after renovating their homes and returning to live in them, have left the S&R markings on them.

What message are they sending? I think it's something along the lines of "Remember the Alamo" or "Remember the Maine": We suffered and we survived, but others died; we came back, but we won't forget, and we'll keep a reminder ever-present.

For those of you who thought this entry would be about body-art, rest easy. Tattoo parlors, both local and around the country, have reported a huge number of requests for Katrina remembrances since K-Day (8/29/2005). You can see some of the results here and here.

Finally, I came across this while searching for links for other things: the most poignant reminder of Katrina--Unidentified Victims from Hurricane Katrina.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Running of the, Cows,, Roller Girls

(Photo from

Ah, the Big Easy! New Orleanians are always coming up with new things to celebrate and new ways to wear costumes and get wild. The latest craze is the Running of the Bulls, New Orleans-style. Imitating the annual encierro in Pamplona, Spain, a local group has organized to celebrate the Festival of San Fermin by analogy to the bull-running made famous by Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises; Death in the Afternoon).

Like the runners in Pamplona, the participants here dress in white pants and shirt with red sashes and neck scarfs. Unlike the runners in Pamplona, however, the New Orleans runners are chased by the Big Easy Roller Girls, a local team of roller derby pros. For the event, Roller Girls (self-described by one Roller Girl as "a bunch of bad-ass chicks on wheels") carry wiffle bats and wear horns.

The Running of the Bulls, New Orleans style, first took place last year. I don't recall reading or hearing anything about it back then, so I was doubly amused to read Chris Rose's column on Thursday announcing it. The 2008 bull run took place on Saturday (July 12) and hundreds of people participated. The route goes through the French Quarter (of course), and includes stops at two "watering holes" (e.g., bars) along the way (of course).

I've come across some amusing blog entries on the run. Pontchartrain Pete calls it "a winner of a new tradition." Humid City has photos: Roller Girls in their bull costumes; the field of runners in their costumes. Local TV station WWL's website has photos of a guy in full toreador garb, as well as The Rolling Elvi--Elvis impersonators on scooters. And there are videos posted on YouTube, of course.

Looks like the Running of the Bulls will become one of N.O.'s midsummer draws: Last year 150 runners were pursued by 14 Rollergirls; this year there over 600 runners and 33 Rollergirls--exponential increases!

And animal lovers can rest easy: no real bulls are used.

(The official title of the event is San Fermin in Nueva Orleans. I briefly considered that perhaps the subtitle should be The Running of the Cows--since all the "bulls" are in fact females--until I realized it would have completely different implications. Dropped the idea quickly.)

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Tale of Two Bridges

Eeks, egad, it's eerie how fast time flies, whether or not I'm having fun. I've neglected my blog for over a month due to workplace pressures and homeplace exhaustion. For weeks I was super-busy--barely checking e-mail, much less blogging. I hope I still have a few readers patiently waiting.

I started the post below a couple of months ago and never finished it, which turned out to be a good thing because I now have another experience to carry out the theme.

A few weeks ago I left my home in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb, to drive to the little town of LaPlace. LaPlace is about 15 miles away via a 12-mile-long bridge on I-10 that crosses the marshes at the edge of Lake Pontchartrain and goes over the Bonne Carre Spillway. The spillway is a man-made diversion, created some 70 years ago to keep the mighty Mississippi River from flooding New Orleans in times of high water. When opened, the spillway diverts huge amounts of river water into Lake Pontchartrain. This year was one of the rare occasions when the spillway was opened, due to the river's extremely high water level.

It was early morning and the weather was foggy, but visibility was okay. As my car approached the spillway, however, I could see a wall of dense fog rising over the spillway waters. It was eerie. The fog was so thick I could not see even two feet in front of my car. As I drove into it, I remembered some '50s-era SF movie in which the protagonist went through just such a Wall of Fog and came out...CHANGED. (Cue Twilight Zone music.) My wall-of-fog lasted the whole way across the spillway, which is several miles.

My left brain knew a confluence of air temperatures and moisture from the spillway waters had combined to produce the wall of fog. Yet my right brain ignored logic and my reptile brain took over: chills ran down my spine and I could feel the hairs on my arms and back of my neck lifting. Am I going to turn into a giant insect or something? I wondered. If only I'd had a camera with me; I'm not likely to see something like that again. (And it would have looked really cool posted on my blog.)

In another eerie bridge experience, a couple of weeks ago I was returning home from the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge is 24 miles long and runs from Mandeville on the north shore to Metairie on the south shore. Dusk had fallen as I approached the southern end of the bridge. Suddenly my car was surrounded by hundreds of small dark birds swirling around, over and under the bridge. It was bedtime for the purple martins. These birds make this area one of their stops in their spring migration. They live in huge flocks and while in this area they nest on the underpinnings of the Causeway bridge. They spend their days flying around hunting insects--fortunately for us humans, the martins love mosquitoes--and every evening at sunset they return to their nesting area. It's quite a sight to see them flying in from all over the New Orleans area in great flocks, wheeling and diving in unison, swooping and fluttering. Driving through their midst, I felt as if I were in Hitchcock's The Birds. They didn't crash into my car, however, and their swoops and dives seemed joyous, not malignant. Of course, nightfall is prime time for mosquitoes, so no doubt the birds' apparent joy was simply at having a plethora of prey rather than sheer joy of flying. Still, it was a cool experience.

So, metaphorically speaking, I've lived through two horror movies--but I haven't morphed into a giant insect or developed superpowers, nor been attacked by crazed birds.

I did get some ideas for stories. A writer's brain uses every experience, after all.

The photo shows one end of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge.