My Jay Thomas, Jon Terrell Story

the old Lakeview Theater in New Orleans

New Orleans  The actor, comedian, and radio personality Jay Thomas, born Jon Terrell, died recently. I read his obituary with interest. His career had included memorable parts and some awards in shows from “Mork and Mindy” to “Murphy Brown” and more recently “Ray Donovan” on Showtime. The obits mention that he was born in Texas, lived and went to high school in New Orleans, and died in Santa Barbara, California. In almost all of the reports they mention his recurring guest spot around Christmas on the “David Letterman Show” when he would retell a classic story of the time when he and a buddy were doing a radio promo at a car dealer in Charlotte, North Carolina with the original Lone Ranger in full regalia, Clayton Moore.

As it happens, I have a story that has often been retold in my own family as an enduring classic from my own adolescence in New Orleans where Jon Terrell is also a central character. I’m not sure how it all came to be. We must have been 10-years old in 5th or 6th grade together or maybe the Cub Scouts, but somehow Jon’s mother connected with my mother in the way of the world in the 1950s and invited me go with Jon to see a Saturday matinee at the Lakeview Theater across Bayou St. John from their big house on the other side.

We were scheduled to see the classic Disney film, Bambi, legendary to all children and making another appearance at their neighborhood movie house. One thing must have led to another and by the time Jon’s mom dropped us off, the crowd there had swollen to full capacity, and we couldn’t get tickets to the show. Mrs. Terrell had someplace to go and thinking nothing of it, there was another neighborhood theater right across the street on Harrison Avenue that was playing a double-feature, so she gave us our ticket money, and said she would pick us up at the end of the show.

The movie had already started, and we ran in excitedly getting seats in the darkened theater in the back where they were still available. It hardly mattered. Within minutes we were howling in horror, crawling under the seats in fear. We would occasionally both raise our heads for a minute or two above the seats, like small prairie dogs coming up to look around from our holes, before diving down to the floor again and holding our ears.

We had walked into Frankenstein in all of its black-and-white horror, and once we lived through that and finally settled into our seats for the first run release on the double bill, it was the The Blob, hardly less frightening to two young boys sidetracked from sweet fantasy of Bambi. In the Sputnik, duck-and-cover 1950’s, The Blob was almost more horrifying to us, because it seemed it could seep down our own streets and gobble up our houses as well, eating us and everything around us as we watched helplessly.

I’m not sure if Jon ever made anything of this story, but at the time it was the longest afternoon of our lives, and for me one of the most vivid memories of my boyhood. It is also the often unspoken explanation for why I usually change the channel and walk out of the room whenever anything remotely like a horror movie rolls across the screen.

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Lessons of Disaster

New Orleans We keep a constant hurricane watch at my house. Anyone who has ever had the eye of a hurricane pass over them, keeps their eye on every hurricane. Having just seen the impact of Harvey in Houston and Beaumont, I have been upset over some of the lessons forgotten since Katrina. I have daily texts from a friend and comrade in Puerto Rico about the continuing lack of power and water there from Hurricane Irma. We watch for news of friends and their evacuation from Miami and Tampa-St. Petersburg.

But, let’s focus on the positive for a minute. I wrote a book a couple of years after Katrina called ACORN, the Rebuilding of New Orleans and the Lessons of Disaster (2011, Social Policy Press), so let’s see what lessons have been learned, because some of this is better news.

  • After Katrina it took four days for federal authorities to even get approval for the military to help the stranded population. Reportedly there was virtually no delay in getting military into help after Harvey.
  • FEMA has spent $2 billion after Katrina to assist communities in making disaster plans and training local officials, and 80% now have confidence in their plans, compared to 40% in 2005.
  • Training of federal and local authorities is now aligned and collective.
  • FEMA now positions supplies at designated shelters before the storms hit, not afterwards when too often they are also blocked by flooded roads and impassable conditions.
  • After watching people in the Katrina footprint refuse evacuation because they couldn’t leave their pets to die, Congress passed a law requiring emergency mangers to make provisions for animals. In Houston existing kennels were evacuated and other kennels were set up in advance to be ready.
  • DHHS forced hospitals in the wake of so many tragedies in Katrina to have emergency plans and train their personnel to handle them. Reportedly some rough edges were still dragging, but talking to a friend whose mother was in a nursing facility in Houston, the response was much more effective.
  • FEMA now accepts volunteer help rather than resisting assistance from citizens even when overwhelmed allow the possibility of organizations like the Cajun Navy to move from Louisiana to Houston and Florida in order to be on the scene to help in evacuations and recovery.

It’s not perfect. There are still huge arguments over whether to shelter-in-place or evacuate. Houston’s mayor elected to not make evacuation mandatory. Florida’s governor gave an unparalleled order for over 6 million to evacuate. These are apples and oranges, but this debate will continue.

Fortunately, cell phones are now ubiquitous so it is easier to communicate with more people and issue emergency warnings.

All of this is progress, but we still have a long way to go.

We asked Amazon’s robot thing, Alexa, about Hurricane Irma. She didn’t understand. We asked about weather in Miami and then in Fort Meyers, and Alexa said there was rain and tornado warnings. Then we asked about storm surge, and Alexa was clueless. The moral of that story is simple. It still is going to take all of us on the ground to key an eye on hurricanes continually, because we have been there and done that.

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