Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ongoing in New Orleans

For the past year and a half, the project's activities have typically been confined to less than two weeks. It's often something data collection related.

For the next seven weeks, it's going to be different. A Dartmouth undergraduate will be in New Orleans full time throughout the winter quarter.

Justine started on Monday. I flew down to New Orleans on Thursday, so we can coordinate what's going to happen with greater detail. No data collections are planned in the coming weeks.

Instead, lots of community engagement.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Coming Home

Yet another trip to New Orleans was this past weekend. This time was for another visit by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism course.

After a Friday morning trip to the Lower Ninth Ward (above) and an unexpected encounter with the Lt. Governor of Louisiana , we spent most of the time in Gentilly on Friday afternoon and Saturday.
This time the group focused on video interviews, and one of the general themes emerging is how hard it is for a household to return. It has everything to do with how we as a society handle (don't handle) the aftermath of catastrophes.

The extended inteviews tended to focus on older folks. It's a similar story as with everyone else. Being ripped off by contractors. It taking forever to find a reliable and quick contractor. Having some money from insurance or Road Home, but it not being enough. But something about this seems different for an older generation of mostly African-American people who have already seen and been through so much.

When one older woman was showing us her gutted house that she is gradually bringing back a bit at a time, she was casually describing rooms that really weren't there anymore. "This was my kitchen. This was my living room. This was my bathroom and where the bathtub was..."

I almost cried right there. My eyes water now just thinking about it. Sad tears and happy tears. Sad about the loss I was bearing some witness to. Yet moved by the resilience. Her nephew commented later that as long as she was breathing, she'd be working to get back into that house. Her home.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Back from New Orleans....again

I left New Orleans on Oct 23rd -- after being done with mapping the Lower Ninth Ward. Altogether with Gentilly , that's about 10 square miles of the city that's been mapped.

I was back in NOLA again last weekend to take part in a Neighborhood Leadership Forum on Data Collection and Information Systems Management. I was one of the experts on the panel and decided to add something more than talk numbers and statistics.

The most sophisticated data-collection system is a person, and the reliable and robust information system is people working together in an organized way. So for my opening presentation, I played a video. A Dartmouth graduate student (and NOLA native) Sarah G. Fischer created it from mapping photos, and she added some New Orleans songs to it.

She created it independently, and I prepared my presentation by adapting my remarks to the sequence of images and audio. I think the people side of mapping gets to the heart of what this project is attempting to do.

There's an opportunity to map more neighborhoods, and I'm now considering what can be mapped in December during winter break. It depends on the number of volunteers.

Monday, October 22, 2007

We finished on Monday afternoon

The rain poured hard. Some of the streets of the Lower Ninth had lots of high water. Yet, the rain paused during the afternoon and we picked up the pace to finish mapping the Lower Ninth Ward.

I can exhale.

Mapping in the Rain

The rain is coming down pretty hard, yet things are still moving. Several of the East Texas Baptist University group worked in the office this morning, keeping the data entry going and helping keep the filing system under control. I gave an impromptu 10-minute discussion about logistics. At my busiest moments here in New Orleans, I get very impatient and feel that half the government, university, and private planners should be kicked out for six months. And to replace them bring experts in operations and logistics.

Due to the rain, there's not much use for construction and yard work today. So we have greater capacity for volunteers than we otherwise would have. We also have one group of folks from a Unitarian church in New Mexico.

I've spent the day so far keeping our production line moving....dealing with and anticipating bottlenecks. Giving direction or instruction to NENA staff members and volunteers, so that they can operate independently. This is the way it has to be to build the capacity we need.

Someone has gone to pick up lunch from Chicken-in-a-Box. Five pieces for $3. And back where I'm staying, I have gumbo with okra. Yum.

I'm going to spend the next hour or so getting ready for an afternoon push. We have people out mapping the final areas of the Lower Ninth Ward, but I don't know exactly where are progress is. And the data-entry status is not as clear as I would like. By 3pm, I hope to know what it will take to finish mapping and data entry for the rest of the Lower Ninth in total.

East Texas Baptist University!

I met up with the team from East Texas Baptist in the late afternoon on Sunday. We began mapping the Holy Cross neighborhood for about a hour before the rain sprinkles began and dusk approached. I didn't get out into the neighborhoods all that much on Friday and Saturday, so I enjoyed taking a walk and mapping.

It was a lot like any other neighborhood I've seen in the world, except a lot quieter. A little boy answering my question about his age by holding up three fingers. His mother smiling and asking him to come back inside. A family packed in the front room of a small house with the door wide open, sounds of a football game reaching the street from the TV. Two guys - neighbors - talking to each other outside one of their cars. Me having a conversation with them about New Hampshire and how cold it can get.

I'm meeting Nilima from NENA and the East Texas Baptist University again at 9am to continue. The weather forecast still warns of rain and severe weather. If it does rain, I figure we'll make progress elsewhere -- such as data entry.

It turns out there was an article about this Lower Ninth Ward mapping in Sunday's Times-Picayune, the citywide newspaper of New Orleans. It was a front-page article of the Metro section. Due to the article, I've already heard from someone who'd like to refer her volunteers to the project for future mapping efforts.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Where to begin...

It's proving impossible for me to blog while in the thick of things. Especially a day like Saturday. And quite possibly today and tomorrow.

Saturday morning, an ear infection and other circumstances kept half of the six Washington University students from the volunteer set up.

We started with 38 people out in the field. It included a combination of residents, local college students from Loyola University and Tulane University, a team of college students from East Texas Baptist University. About a half-dozen students joined in later in the morning from St. Martin's Episcopal High School, helping with both mapping and data entry.

Kelley and Mary-Alice, some of the local college students, stayed behind in the office to help with preparing and finalizing the afternoon assignments. We had also had morning help from one of NENA design team staff, who provided the extra preparation capacity we needed.

A local resident - who is in her early seventies - seemed to take part in more mapping than anyone else. Whenever she'd return with a walking partner, she'd sit quietly at a table. When motion was gathering for another group to go out, she'd be ready to go. I walked with her at the end of the day, covering an area which turned out to be where she owned property. She knew a lot about the people who lived at addresses we covered.

The mapping and outreach covered about 60% of the Lower Ninth yesterday. In total, we've covered all but the Holy Cross area. So there's about 25% of the Lower Ninth unfinished.

Which brings me to today....

- The East Texas Baptist group's in town through Monday, and are offering to help finish.

- I've committed to stay in town another day so we have a chance to finish.

- Weather reports for Monday are indicating a chance of thunderstorms, starting this evening.

- The ETB group is now finishing other work they were scheduled to do today, and now it looks like they could help get started with the mapping in a couple hours this while there's still sunlight. If it doesn't rain. And other logistical details.

- If it rains on Monday, we're considering how we can still make progress.

Based on our mapping rate this weekend, we could finish the Lower Ninth in a half day with about two dozen people. The ETB team has 10 people. Counting me, we could get 2-3 others. I think we'd finish mapping if we had a whole day on Monday. But the most recent 600-mile doppler radar shows rain heading our way now....

Friday, October 19, 2007

Tell Me Something Good

A funny thing happened this afternoon. It wasn't how much we did. We finished mapping about 12% of the Lower Ninth Ward today, with about 8-10 people in the field (on average).

Yet today felt like the beginning of something good.

The 6 law students from Washington Univerity served as the core of the field team this morning. In the afternoon, I didn't send two of them out so that they could work with me a bit. When the others did a partial afternoon a field walking, I didn't send them out again when they came back.

Fortunately, one of the Tulane students (her name is Cole) arrived with about 8 additional AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteers to help map in the afternoon.

While the VISTA volunteers were in the field, there was a 20 minute period when I was sure that the Wash U students were feeling underutilized - except for the two who had stayed back with me and helped set up a check out/check in system for mapping assignments.

I don't know what changed what I was experiencing. Looking back now, I'm trying to recall the saying about how strength comes from enduring long silences. There was a bit of surrender on my part -- I didn't want to keep the Wash U team there if there was nothing for them to do...

But then it all seemed to quietly and gradually fall together. I showed Amanda how to make assignments, and she put her Excel skills to use finishing a project that I had hoped to finish today but could not. Melissa was making some refinements to the check-out system. Andris and Brenda were within earshot of her -- was my conversation about the project useful to them or was it "too much information"? Meanwhile, I settled Brittany and Natalia in the office NENA gave me to use, and they began entering the field data collected today.

Then a new volunteer named Claudia showed up, and began helping to input data. And John, one of the NENA design team members, picked up speed after what I had been showing him in pieces throughout the day about preparing mapping assignments.

And the whole time, Nilima and other NENA staff members were there - doing whatever was needed to help and keep things moving. A resident, Ms. Tilton, arrived for transportation duty in the afternoon, although she had for a time locked herself out of the house and (thus) had an excuse not to return if she wanted one.

Something feels good about all this, and I look forward to tomorrow.

Friday Morning

It turns out there's a third way to the Lower Ninth that I didn't know about. Nilima let me about the Florida Avenue bridge that just re-opened. Nice.

As I was driving in to NENA, I became easy and relaxed about whatever wasn't ready. "It's already in the batter, so it don't matter." Where did that thought come from?!

The Lower Ninth is broken up into 7 areas. We had about a dozen volunteers this morning. About half were law students from University of Washington at St. Louis. We also had a couple volunteers from Common Ground, as well as residents.


Thursday, October 18, 2007


Thursday was my first time on the ground in the Lower Ninth in a few months. Because I'll be mapping there in the morning, I'm looking at everything now with a different eye.

The photo above shows what the NENA office looked like early this year. Today, there are more desks, and it feels more crowded. Will there be enough space for a lot of volunteers here?

Nilima the community liason showed me an area to use as an office. I didn't recall that space being there before. Guess the wall wasn't finished being put yet.

The Claiborne bridge, one of the most travelled routes to the Lower Ninth, is out. Not good. That means only one bridge goes over the Industrial Street Canal and connects the Lower Ninth to other areas of the city. That means heavy traffic. Sure enough, it was stop and go trying to get over the St. Claude Avenue bridge.

Patricia Jones, NENA's director, was on TV earlier this week, talking about the Friday and Saturday mapping. Nilima was filmed this afternoon for the local 10 o'clock news.

We were initially expecting 8 volunteers tomorrow (Friday). It appeared that we'd get another 15 on Friday afternoon. And we are now expecting as many as 40 volunteers on Sunday.

We're expecting enough volunteers for me to start thinking about organization. I don't think we can do this unless we have more office volunteers -- those who can help with finalizing and printing the mapping assignments, as well as keep track of what we have done (and haven't done) and handle the data entry process.

In fact, I could use those office volunteers tonight. I expect a late preparing...

Will it go easy or hard?

I arrived in New Orleans last night to rain. A full but gentle shower covered me getting to the car, as I drove to UNO to pick up some of my mapping materials and props. Weather is one of those variables that trip things up, especially if we're looking to map a large area over a short period of time.

I think the Lower Ninth Ward is at least 2 square miles. It will take a long time to map if we don't have enough volunteers. Much longer than the weekend. And even having too many volunteers has its problems, if we're not ready for them or we don't adapt to the differences in having a much larger group.

My goal is to make it feasible to map the entire Lower Ninth this weekend. I'm heading to the Lower Ninth Ward soon to meet with Nilima, community liason for NENA (the Lower 9th Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association).

Mapping is tomorrow, so whether it goes easy and hard will depend on what we do today.