I'm Having a Personal Crisis, Can I Take Your Order? Notes On a New Orleans Evacuation

08/24/2010 01:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Trying to write a series about the personal aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the week of the Federal Flood 5 Year Anniversary ensures you'll be as blocked as anyone who tries to get past The Saints' Jon Stinchcomb. But here goes part three for what its worth. By October 2005, Wilco was planning a November benefit in Chicago for the Preservation Resource Center and the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund. My husband Jeff asked the band if he could fly New Orleans musicians in to open for them, and they were all for it.

The musicians were all over the country at the time and that added a wrinkle to booking flights, but in the end we brought Craig Klein, Leroy Jones, James Andrews, George French, Cranston Clements, Joe Krown, Alonzo Bowens and Brian Barberot to O'Hare. The horn players learned Wilco charts for one of the band's songs with about 15 minutes to spare. It felt like dancing on a tightrope, but came together and James had the crowd dancing in his own inimitable way as the grandson of New Orleans legend Jessie Hill. Redfish Grill was kind enough to feed the musicians a New Orleans style meal, and they all sat around a table and compared stories of where they had ended up. Five years later, it's a shared experience that still binds us all together.

From a high like that, the next week we went back to our hotel where the manager said our Red Cross vouchers no longer applied, and would we wait in the manager's office while she called FEMA for further instructions. New Orleans was not open for returnees in any comprehensive way, there was still no power in our neighborhood and National Guard tanks patrolled the streets after dark. We were also told we did not qualify for a Chase credit card hardship postponement because our credit was too good. Joke's on them, it's now shot to hell.

There are as many holes in the logic of post Katrina recovery as there are in the BP oil recovery as my friend from the Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana calls me with facts like fishermen having to sign a waiver that what they catch is safe to eat, as they fish in legally open waters. Post disaster coverage is a tale of the sacred and the profane. There are the beautiful efforts of caring individuals, and there are counterproductive wombats you want to smack on the head with a pan. As Brad Pitt said in Spike Lee's new series, it makes you want to revisit the death penalty.

As December approached, we started a New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund toy drive. It's a delaying tactic I've realized, focusing on everything but what is happening to you. There's a certain comfort in staying busy in a crisis. Southwest Airlines gave us a 200 pound cargo hold and the charity bought more toys once we got there. Donors from around the country shipped in even more toys and we threw a holiday party where musicians picked out toys for their families. There were so many toys left over that we eventually drove to WWOZ, parked outside in a jeep and DJ Bob French announced to anyone listening that they could drive downtown and pick up brand new Christmas toys. "And this is good stuff too, not just some crap," he said. If it had been crap, that's the first thing he would have announced.

We were left with a few toys to give away, and not many children were back in New Orleans yet but we took a drive. It was the week that we were packing up our old house to move north, and the first time I had seen the unimaginable devastation of my town. Finally we saw some kids with their families surveying the wreckage of their homes. I asked the adults if it was okay to give out some presents people had sent for New Orleans children, and they said yes. A girl approached the Jeep and pulled out a few toys. Then a boy walked up and said, "My daddy died." I gave him a hug. I think I apologized for having toys. Nothing felt like the right thing to say or do. He picked out some toys.

Watching Brian Williams' NBC special was brutal, but as much as watching Katrina coverage constitutes ripping off the same old bandage it's something that helps with the healing process. Covering New Orleans recovery was my job until laid off its news reporters and editors earlier this month. But we're still planning to move home this weekend. I seem to be rambling, but my K-5 Anniversary Series can best be expressed in the words of Senator Al Franken's Stuart Smalley:

"I'm sorry, I'm having a personal crisis. Can I take your order?"


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