Sunday, December 13, 2009

Climate Change + Man-made Environmental Disturbance = Environmental Refugees

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is in full swing. Hundreds of protestors are being arrested while figure heads from numerous countries go to meetings, discussing how to slow down global warming and the cascading list of problems already resulting from it: melting ice glaciers, rising sea levels, drought, and climate change refugees.

Louisiana and Iraq are both seeing their marshlands disappear while the indigenous people become refugees. Louisiana’s marshlands have been compromised by the oil and gas industry and water management projects. Iraq’s Marshlands were dried up by eco-terrorism followed by drought. Water management worldwide is always problematic. Long-term effects of changing the natural environment are often ignored until the foreseeable damage occurs. These changes, like land loss due to salt-water intrusion and the exodus of certain species of plants, animals and peoples, are magnified by climate change.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians of Isle de Jean Charles will be forced to move as their Island is erodes away. The island falls outside the levee protection system proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, who deemed it unsavable. Many of the Island’s residents left after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike hammered the island in 2008. Approximately eighty remain, unable or unwilling to relocate just yet.

The Marshland Arabs population in southern Iraq is also being forced off their ancestral land. Saddam Hussein cut off the water to the Iraqi Marshlands by damning it up to punish the indigenous people for rebelling after the first Gulf War. The ecosystem changed from marshlands to desert rapidly. After Saddam’s fall, some of the dams were broken and areas of the marsh were partially restored, but drought has brought further hardship to tribes who remain.

While protestors are arrested in Copenhagen, a football field-worth of land disappears from the marshlands of Louisiana every 15 minutes.

Click here to see photo essay on the Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians of Isle de Jean Charles
Click here to see the newest video on Over – the- Wire films on the Marshland Arabs of Iraq

images on this post were shot on the Isle de Jean Charles and in Pointe- aux-Chene, Louisiana

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving in New Orleans post Po-boy Festival

I haven’t gotten used to Christmas lights going up before Thanksgiving and I’m not sure what to make of the newest addition to holiday lawn decoration, the blow-up turkeys. This year Wal-Mart is taking care so people wont get stampeded to death at their stores on Black Friday. Since they take out insurance policies on their workers, losing one or two of them probably isn’t too bad for the bottom line but equating shopping and danger couldn’t be a good marketing device.

Sure as it is Thanksgiving my father will be carving the turkey my mother cooks, tasting a few prime bits in between slicing the bird. Bo, the poodle will poodle will be nearby waiting for scraps that will inevitably end up her way.This Thanksgiving I am in New Orleans, touched by five different invitations from people who wanted to make sure I wasn’t alone since I’m away from my family. For fear of eating way past my limit I’m limiting myself to going to two celebrations.

Thanksgiving is a holiday I have had mixed feelings about ever since I was a kid and learned that the American Indians who so graciously helped the Pilgrims learn to farm and shared the original Thanksgiving meal celebrating their harvest were later banished from their land and in many instances massacred. Though I will never stop thinking about the plight of the American Indians on Thanksgiving, I understand why it is an American favorite and do participate in a special meal wherever I find myself on the day. Giving thanks is always a good thing as is eating with friends and family. This year I will have more crawfish pie than turkey. One of the advantages of being in New Orleans: lots of local goodies will be served along with turkey and cocktails will start being poured by noon.

Here is a link to another food related topic: the New Orleans Po-boy festival. I posted images of the event on Flikr. I don’t usually eat when I work but couldn’t resist the soft shell crab tempura po-boy. Though it didn’t win best po-boy in the festival’s competition, it has my vote.
Happy Thanksgiving

Images, Top: Father carving turkey in Englewood N.J., Lawn turkey light, Chalmette, Bottom: Soft-shell crab Po-boy, Po-boy festival offering in New Orleans, Taxidermy turkey form the Fairbanks Museum in Newbury Vermont

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Autumn brings subtle changes in Louisiana

Update from New Orleans:

This fall President Obama visited New Orleans for a town hall meeting. The USS New York, a battle ship built in Louisiana with recycled steel from the World Trade Center disembarked headed for its namesake. Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell resigned weeks after the international press picked up the story of his refusal to marry an interracial couple. Republican Congressman Cao, who ran against former Democratic Congressman Jefferson, voted for the health care bill while Jefferson got a 13 year sentence for bribery and racketeering. Some of Mayor Ray Nagin’s close associates have been indicted on corruption charges, creating speculation on when it will be his turn. The Saints won eight games straight and along the shores of Lake Verret cypress trees turned shades of orange.

Check out an interview about my news book that was on Fox8's morning show on Nov. 17. 09 - link to interview To see more images shot at Lake Verret click here to see a set on Flickr.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Gulf Coast A Year After Ike

Hurricane Ike, a Category 2 storm, hit the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana on Sept 13, 2008. The storm’s surge flooded the coast and caused billions of dollars worth of damage. According to residents of Crystal Beach on Bolivar Peninsula, just east of Galveston, where Ike hit the hardest, there is no official death count. Crystal Beach wasn’t under an order for mandatory evacuation. No one is sure how many stayed behind or how many were lost. Entire houses disappeared with no trace. Much of the peninsula is still uninhabited. Jean Peshenella showed a friend from New York the slab where his cabin used to be. He sold it six months before the storm and feels very lucky. A few more miles east in Gilchrest, Joan Vogel was shocked to find her home relatively damage free. It was one row of houses in from the coast. Only a handful of homes remain there. The pylons holding the house up were cracked, but her windows didn’t break, so her house didn’t flood. She now has beachfront property. Her insurance company covered the repair, but nothing makes up for her missing neighbors.

As I write, Angela Street in Arabi (just outside of New Orleans) is underwater. A heavy downpour is causing some minor flooding, a reminder of the area's vulnerability. Waiting for approaching storms when you are a property owner is no fun. Coastal erosion has added to the mix of already dangerous conditions for those who inhabit coastal areas
and low lying one’s like New Orleans, a reality one must deal with every hurricane season. Whether one acknowledges the connection between global warming and unstable weather conditions or not, hurricanes are a force to be reckoned with.

Watching people rebuild with the Gulf in their backyard and the ruins of damaged structures dotting the landscape left me scratching my head. Yes, it is nice to live next to the sea, even a polluted one. The Gulf Coast from Galveston to Cameron is polluted with all manner of contaminates. A sign on the beach at the Sabine Pass, where Texas and Louisiana meet, warned not to go into the water due to high levels of unfriendly bacteria. But a few miles further east I found people swimming and catching fish; pollution doesn’t lower peoples' desire to enjoy the sea. Why do people go back after a storm and rebuild? There's no single answer, but the concept of “home” is a common denominator. Sony Meaux of Holly Beach, LA is sixty-five and though he lost his home to Hurricane Rita and then a trailer home to Ike, he and his wife Loretta moved into a new trailer home on his lot. He reopened his seafood shop in a giant freezer and sells crabs and shrimp. He doesn’t know anything else and isn’t planning to ever live anywhere else.

The people I spoke to on Bolivar Peninsula and in Holly Beach are frustrated by new government regulations. Many cannot afford to comply with revised building codes. The new codes call for construction at costs much higher than their homes were worth. The Meaux’s were sent a certified letter saying their power will be cut since their trailer home is now an illegal dwelling. The local government is trying to force them out. Coastal communities that were made up of working and middle class people will now be accessible only to the rich. The rich aren’t any more protected in the event of a storm surge than the poor; though some of the hurricane-proof homes did make it through Ike, most did not. A mobile home can be moved before a storm, so it isn’t in danger. But economic factors dictate what's acceptable these days. If a residence has a license plate on it, the owner doesn’t pay property tax. The Meaux’s aren’t asking FEMA (Sonny says he has yet to meet anyone from FEMA) for money; they have spent their own. If the government would stop trying to regulate them, the rebuilding process would happen much faster. He is convinced the new rules are about economics, not safety.

Ike hit as a Category 2 storm. Nothing is in place to stop nature from whipping up a Category 3, 4 or 5. The big one is still an ominous possibility.

Too see a large range  of images from the Gulf Coast click here- Flickr se
And to watch and hear what coastal residents have to say about what life for them is like a year after Ike watch these video clips 

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

New Orleans four years after Katrina

Last year, just before the third anniversary of Katrina, President Bush visited Jackson Barracks, where a 200 million dollar renovation was well under way in the Lower 9th Ward, and reaffirmed his promises: “Together, we are working to make sure that New Orleans comes back - even stronger, safer, and more vibrant than it was before the storm.” He acknowledged more work needed to be done with the tone of a cheerleader, not a world leader. Bush's first view of the devastation after the storm was from the windows of Air Force One. I wonder which neighborhoods he toured before giving his rah-rah speech. Did he see what I was seeing?
A year later as Katrina’s 4th anniversary approaches, a headline in the local paper, the Times Picayuane, reads, “Obama keeps close tabs on New Orleans recovery -- from a distance.” I wonder what these "close tabs" are. Can one know the situation without seeing it for oneself? Block after block of abandoned destroyed homes, a city with the nation's highest murder rate, and many other substantial problems with no plan in place to solve them.
This anniversary, Mayor Nagin's focus won't be remembering the dead. He has said it is time to move on from mourning. Nagin plans to highlight some of the progress made under his administration while his staff scrambles to protect themselves against lawsuits and Federal investigations. The Feds are looking into numerous acts of wrongdoing going up the ladder to Nagin himself.
The 4th anniversary of Katrina is a good time to ask why New Orleans recovery is so far from complete. Ivan Van Heerden, a former professor at LA State University, stated, “If we had the will and one month’s money we spend in Iraq, we could do all the levees and restore the coast.” Many neighborhoods have not recovered much at all, others are threatened by levees that still do not offer protection against a Category 4 storm. While 130,000 troops and countless private contractors remain on stand-by in Iraq in case Iraq proves unable to handle its own security, and while we expand the battlefield in Afghanistan, much of New Orleans resembles a war-torn Third World country.

I have been following the progress of Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” housing project in the lower 9th Ward since 2007. Currently there are fifteen completed homes and another 150 to be built. I met one of the residents, Lloyd Griffin and interviewed him. Here is a link to a video interview of him
To see more images of a photo series on New Orleans right before the 4 years anniversary of Katrina check out this link

To New Orleans on Katrina’s Anniversary, may the healing process speed up.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

In Honor of Primo, a New Orleans Police Dog

Today in New Orleans there was a memorial for Primo, a police dog who died on May 27th. He was left in a vehicle by his handler on an 88 degree day; he ripped the interior of the vehicle up, struggling to get out. The dog suffered a number of seizures, and heat shock. Primo’s temperature was 109.8 before he died. Primo’s handler has been transferred out of the K-9 unit. This is the third K-9 death in New Orleans this year. Now all three are under investigation. Here is a link to the story that has images of the car's interior from the Times Picayune ( warning disturbing images):

In Primo's honor I'm posting another story from Iraq on other service dogs.

To see a video dispatch Phin Percy Jr. and I created with John Snell for Fox 8, New Orleans click here

On March 5, 2009, on Camp Victory I met bomb-sniffing dog Rain, and his handler Corporal Perkins. Perkins had Rain run through the training course before bringing out the rest of the training dogs and their handlers. The dogs are trained to find IEDs (improvised explosive devices) without setting them off. Still, setting them off remains a threat to both the dog and the handler, as do snipers who try to eliminate them while they are on the job. Rain found 17 IEDs on his first deployment in Afghanistan. His work has saved countless lives.

The unit lost one team in Iraq. Seargant Cooper, another canine, and Corporal Wiens, his handler were killed by an IED on July 6, 2007. Copper's kennel was turned into a shrine. Cooper’s collar and Wien’s backpack, sit on top of the empty kennel, a reminder of the dangers the unit faces

Friday, June 26, 2009

Arlington West on Father’s Day

"I thought the war in Iraq was over," I overheard someone say as I approached Arlington West on Father’s Day. With close to 140,000 troops still in Iraq and violence on the rise, the war is hardly over. Things are getting more unstable daily as the June 30th deadline for American troops to stop patrolling the cities and remain on their bases approaches.

It has been close to a year since I last visited Arlington West.  The memorial makes me feel an intense sense of loss every time I visit. The sea of crosses makes the number of dead palpable. My visits to the memorial gave me the inspiration to go to Iraq and learn about the war firsthand. Returning, little has changed except for the memorial's scale. It takes all morning to fully set the memorial up. I recognize most of the volunteers, a core group that shows up every Sunday. Long tape measures are laid out, the crosses staked into the sand, and personal mementos and name cards are added before the symbolic coffins are carried out.

The death toll in Iraq for the week was three. In Afghanistan, it was seven. The last death totals  posted at the memorial: 4315 in Iraq and 711 in Afghanistan, as of last weekend.

I met CLP (combat logistics patrol) Stephen Johnson who found his friend's name on the list of the fallen. He didn’t know about Arlington West and stumbled upon the memorial by chance while visiting Santa Monica. I spotted him as he fondled his dog tags  while looking for a friend’s name on a panel with names of the dead. He was moved to tears as he made a card identifying his friend for one of the crosses. Their Humvee was hit with an IED while they were on a patrol in Sadr City in 2006. Stephen is permanently disabled, both his arm and brain damaged. In California, Stephen told me, vets can get medical marijuana for pain, much better than the pharmaceuticals that he was first offered by doctors. He moved to Long Beach from New Orleans. The war isn’t over for him.

In recent headlines, the governor of South Carolina confessed his extra-marital affair. Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died and there is still unrest on the streets of Iran. The new totals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is hardly considered breaking news, but they will be posted at Arlington West this Sunday.