Bringing joy this Christmas to the children most affected by hurricane Katrina through the charitable donation of gifts.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Chapter 3 - The Distribution

I'm going to let the photos speak for themselves:

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Chapter 2 - Ms. Johnson's Family

One thing missing from our drive and our New Orleans excursion on Saturday was seeing the effect that Katrina had on the people. We saw buildings and signage and streets. On Sunday, we would be able to focus on the people. Sunday morning, we got up early and headed to Gonzales to meet Ms. Johnson’s family. Ms. J is a sixty year-old black woman, New Orleans native, and feisty little grandma. When Katrina came, Ms. J packed up her family in the one car they could salvage and headed out of town. They set up camp at a Holiday Inn and have been there ever since. This is home for them now. Although we would not get to personally meet all the recipients of our gifts, we were surely going to meet Ms. J’s family.

We spent the better part of our morning trying to figure out what would be the first thing we would say. How do you even begin to tell a family whose life has just been swept away that you are there to bring them Christmas? Will they be insulted by being your charity case? Will they turn away the pity they think you have for them? Will they shed tears of joy for what little they are receiving? It took Ms. J a little over thirty minutes to answer the door. When she finally did open the door, things were awkward at first, but she eventually welcomed us into her home with open arms.

Her home. Room 113 at the Holiday Inn. Not a suite, not a penthouse, merely a hotel room with two double beds. Nicole was sitting on the bed nearest to us nursing 6 week old Cameron. The other bed, they call this “the hole”, was occupied by Ms. Blackwell. Ms. B is 95 years old, in diapers with a feeding tube. Standing around the room were the rest of the family: Colin is 10, Kevin is 12, Edith is 37 and Joanne is 38. In case you lost count: that is eight people. Eight people living in Room 113 at the Holiday Inn. They had a mini-fridge, a microwave, a short supply of food, and some clothing. Things were literally stacked up to the ceiling. They only brought with them the things they could fit in the trunk of the one car they could salvage. A car that was now broken down. Looking around the room, there was barely room for us to stand much less, for the gifts we brought. We had a lot of things for the baby, figuring this would help everyone. We had also made a special stop to get two matching bikes for Colin and Kevin. Ms. J teared up when she saw the bikes, saying “praise the Lord, now someone can go to the grocery store.” My heart sank. While I was glad some of Ms. J’s chores will be eased, I was saddened that these bicycles will not bring the joy to these two children that it will to others around the country. With these bikes, comes more responsibility laid upon their shoulders.

We stayed and spoke with Ms. J and her family for a while. They talked about how difficult it was to live in such close quarters, especially with a baby. They expressed their disgust at FEMA and others they feel are not helping them. They spoke of saving Ms. B so she didn’t “float away in the storm.” They talked about living day by day. They have a rental car now so Edith and Joanne can get to work, but that will have to go back on Monday. They have looked for apartments but just cannot afford anything. Post-Katrina, one bedroom apartments in Baton Rouge are going for $1500. Come January 7th (or February 7th depending on what Congress decides) Ms. Johnson and her family will have to leave. Nicole has a small amount of money saved and asked the manager at the hotel if they could stay in their room until they find somewhere else to live. They said no. The Holiday Inn is ready to get things at their hotel back to normal. Ms. Johnson balks at the word normal. She and her family won’t know normal for quite some time.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Chapter 1 - The Drive

The sun had finally risen on Saturday morning around the time we got onto Interstate-10. This was "the homestretch". I knew the I-10 portion of this drive like the back of my hand; after all, this was the way home from the beach when I was a child. I was looking forward to the familiarity. In Mobile, Alabama, after a two hour trip to Wal-Mart at six in the morning, we stopped for some nourishment. The Golden Arches were still standing high but the rest of the sign was gone. We thought enough of it to take a picture, but not enough to realize this marked the beginning of what would be a long stretch displaying the wrath of Katrina.

Once we crossed into Mississippi, things became more apparent. Trees were downed everywhere, but that is pretty par for the course in a bad storm. I did take my camera out when I noticed a twisted metal billboard. It was if the top just snapped and was hanging there. We wondered about the forceful wind that took down the sign inviting you to rest for the night with free cable. As we rounded the curve, we noticed that all of the billboards seemed to have followed suit. It was as if they had just bowed down to Katrina. Sitting so high and wide, they didn’t stand a chance. Around Gulfport, we needed to stop and fill up the truck with gas. The sign on the interstate said Chevron was 0.3 miles north and Texaco was 0.3 miles south. Seeing that the Chevron sign was pretty much gone, we took a left to head to Texaco. The truck went over I-10 and rested at the bottom of a hill in a parking lot which used to have a shopping center. The Texaco was now a huge pile of rubble with a little pink shoe. We filled up at Chevron and got back on the road

Around Biloxi, things began to feel as if we were entering a war zone. Katrina left her mark on much more than the trees and signs. Many of the cars and trucks presumably swept up by the storm remained wherever they landed, many of which were right on the side of the interstate. At one point we saw a boat, upside down and tattered, resting comfortably in the median of I-10. We were still limited in the destruction that we could see from the interstate. By this time, the familiarity I had come to know as a child was all but gone.

Once we hit New Orleans, we exited I-10 and proceeded around the city in our Penske. We drove around some of the residential areas for a while just trying to take it all in. Maneuvering the sixteen foot truck was not a problem because there just wasn’t any traffic. Still near I-10, we parked the truck and walked around. Up to this point, we had been driving along with the windows up and the radio blaring. Turning that truck off and opening the doors to a deafening silence was not quite what I expected. Walking down the street, so many of the words from my family and friends came to mind: surreal, indescribable, eerie, ghost town. Steph turns to me and says “it’s like one of those Sci-Fi movies where some disaster swept through town and made time stand still.” It was very much as she said, with the exception of the Sci-Fi part; this was reality. I stood there, in the middle of Elysian Field on a Saturday around noon and there was not a car or person in sight. That, in and of itself was strange, but even stranger was the piercing sounds of nothing all around us. As I was taking photos, I was startled by the noise of a screen door continually slamming against the side of a house.

Looking down the street, Katrina’s mark was everywhere. She took the form of spray paint all over houses letting people know that they had been inspected. She threw trees into cars and cars into homes. She ripped apart living rooms and bed rooms and left their contents in the front yards. She piled up the contents of people’s lives for everyone to see: clothes still on hangers, coffee mugs, trophies and “mom” t-shirts were strewn in front yards. Then, when she was almost done, she left her watermark on everything. It looked as if some great creature took a brown marker and painted a stripe across everything standing on these city streets. Just in case anyone missed the wind damage, Katrina wanted them to know she was there.

The silence followed Steph and I back into the truck as there were just no words worthy of what we had just seen. We cried. She said “a whole town, gone...never to return.” I disagreed. If I know one thing about my fellow Louisianians, they are a stubborn breed. New Orleans will be back. That much I know.

We pulled over again to walk the streets of the French Quarter hoping to regain the spirit of Louisiana. Artists were in the streets, patrons were in the bars, shops were re-opened. The numerous t-shirt shops had new shipments spouting “I survived Katrina”, “The Battle of New Orleans 2005” and some with choice words about FEMA that I shall not repeat. Most places were only taking cash and everyone had hand-written help wanted posters in their windows. We stocked up at Aunt Sally’s and headed to Café DuMonde for some beignets and coffee. Aside from the ethnic make-up of the wait-staff being different than it used to be, the Café Au Lait and three pack of beignets still hit the spot. As we wiped the powdered sugar from our jeans, we were approached by a stranger (not uncommon in Nola). She merely wanted to tell us thank you for coming to her city. She said she was a native New Orleanean and said it was so good to see people coming to her city again. I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself before she had moved on to the next table to thank them as well. That Southern hospitality...that is what will rebuild New Orleans. We got back into the Penske feeling as if we had seen one side of a city: beat down worn and tattered and the other side of this great city proud and determined and ready to move forward.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Home Sweet Home

I just want to let everyone know that the Caravan has arrived safely. I got into the Penske around 11am (DC time) on Friday. Steph got into the Penske around 7:30 Friday evening. We both got out of the Penske around 5pm (Louisiana time) on Saturday. That sure is a lot of time in the cab of a Penske. We each got about 2.5 hours of sleep, although not simultaneously. We also spent a few hours in Alabama spending another $1,000 at Wal-Mart and we took a few hours walking around New Orleans.

I will write all about it when the dust settles a bit.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

On the Road.

(Ed's note: written Friday night, but not posted until Saturday afternoon.)

Kinda like Roger Clemens, but without the blistering fastball, I have been called out of semi-retirement to bring you this special “Live” blog of the Caravan 4 Christmas journey from DC, or “Winterland” as my South American friends call it, to The South.

Santa's Little Helpers Laura and Stephanie are having a jolly good time driving the toys to Louisiana. As of 10 pm Friday night, the 16’ Penske® is being piloted by intrepid driver Stephanie and guided by navigator Laura who, upon deciding that driving a 100 ton truck while drowsy was not a good idea, relinquished the driving duties after the last fuel stop. The pair are somewhere in North Carolina, a.k.a. “The State That Never Ends” (yeah, try driving through Texas on I-10 – Ed.), about 40 miles from South Carolina.

Driving apparently gives the mind time to think about other things. Things such as The Official something-or-other of Caravan 4 Christmas. For example:

Official Truck of Caravan 4 Christmas: Penske®. [Rainman] “Uhaul sucks.” [/Rainman].

Official Drink of Caravan 4 Christmas (upon arrival, and after the driving is done): Egg Nog Daiquiri.

Official Travel Drink of Caravan 4 Christmas: Red Bull.

Official Travel Snack of Caravan 4 Christmas: Cheetos.

Official Song of Caravan 4 Christmas: Funky Town, by Lipps, Inc.

Official Food of Caravan 4 Christmas: Wendy’s, at least until they got tired of eating it.

Other fun facts about the trip: It costs $70 to fill the gas tank. And, the truck has a sticker that says “Truck not equipped to exceed 75 mph.” I wonder if that means that they got one of the trucks without a flux capacitor?

And in case anybody was worried, Laura’s Mom has assured both Laura and Stephanie that yes, they will have the opportunity to hug a kid before traveling back to Winterland.


Friday, December 16, 2005

The day is here

Me and her in one of these with lots of these heading south. This is going to be wonderful. I will keep you posted!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Entering December

It's Friday and the week is not over yet. First, let us reflect on the days past:

The GW Law School had a toy drive all week that helped us get a couple of boxes full of toys and a little over $300. Most importantly, though, it gave a lot of people an opportunity to help out in a hands on way. I had many conversations with people who, if nothing else, want to send love down South. They want those hurting to know that we all do care.

My fabulous law school helpers!!!

Along those lines, I am also grateful and proud to say that the DC Bloggers chose to sponsor Caravan4Christmas at their year end happy hour. The outpouring of support was unbelievable. I spent the evening getting the opportunity to meet many of the lovely ladies and gentlemen who are supporting this cause. I also walked away with $350 to buy toys. It was inspiring to see just how far the reach of DC Bloggers goes. In fact, we even got a donation from a group in Georgia that could not be at the happy hour.

Me and Kathryn (one of the gracious hostesses)

As of this morning, we had raised $988 this week alone, putting our total well over $2500!

Tomorrow, though, tomorrow we will get to see how it is all coming together. Holly has coordinated an "Operation Toy Drop" at the storage facility and over 150 invitations went out. I envision volunteers getting to meet, people stopping by with bags full of toys, coffee and donuts and of course a whole lot of Christmas Spirit!