Tag Archives: New Orleans

Hurricane Lessons:  Gas Stoves, Oak Trees, Power, and Climate

New Orleans     Storms around Labor Day get my full attention.  Betsy hit hard in the fall of 1965 right after school began and took more than a week to get everything back in gear.  Katrina in 2005 hit at the end of August and decimated the city of New Orleans in what is now an oft-told tale still looking for a happy ending, fifteen years later.  Now in 2020, the year of the worst pandemic in one-hundred years and the worst recession since the Great Depression, we have now had five, yes, count them, five, storms hit Louisiana.  Lake Charles in the western part of the state caught a double whammy of terrible proportion.   Other storms with other names had glanced New Orleans with more bark than bite as kind of nothing-burgers.

Then here comes Zeta, so far down the hurricane chain that even the Greek alphabet is exhausted by the horror of this season.  This one smacked us around a bit, as a category 2.  When I left work at 5pm thinking I should buckle down a couple of more shutters at the house, I was surprised rolling down Elysian Fields from the lake towards the river to see, gulp, I was pretty much the last one on the road, and the wind was picking up.  After some stops and starts, power went off in our riverside neighborhood by 7pm, and now thirteen hours later as I write this, it’s still out there and in about one-third of the city.  Cox Cable, the dominant internet provider, is ghosting now.  There’s no power in our offices.  The radio station is off the air.  It’s going to be that kind of day.

I wrote a book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, but in weathering Zeta, there are a few lessons I left out, that I’ll mention now.

  • Gas stoves are the best! When electricity goes kaput for hours or perhaps days and weeks, you can still eat.  This morning I was able to eat my oatmeal and drink my coffee, thanks to a gas stove.  My family had one in Betsy as well when power was down for over a week, as I recall.
  • Stately old oak trees are beautiful and help define the city, but in a storm, they are nothing but dangerous. Weakened branches are every everywhere, including the yard in front of our organizing center.  Worse, I can see a very large branch, dangling over the sidewalk by a fiber.  Walkers and gawkers will be watching their feet not to trip on fallen timber, but they need to keep one eye to the sky for what is ready to fall.
  • Why haven’t the city and Entergy, the power company, come to grips with the need to bury the power lines after all of these hurricanes? Our organizing & retreat center is in a neighborhood developed by the Orleans Levee Board in the mid-1960s, and the lines are buried, so, voila, I drove five miles in the dark in the predawn to now sit by shining lights.

Oh, and one more thing.  This climate change thing is real!


The Disappearance of Service Industry Safety Net Jobs

New Orleans     Perhaps the most dependable host on WAMF, our low power noncommercial radio station in New Orleans, has been a product representative for a fine local distillery in the city.  Her show every Tuesday afternoon, “Road to the Ramones,” is a rocking, eclectic mix with feminist and contextual highlights that keep you thinking with your ears.  When I’m around, as I was the other day, she will always poke her head in and say, “Hi,” before she prepares to go on the air.  Since she travels from stores to watering holes in a three-parish area, she has often been my street side barometer on everything from mask-wearing to venue closings.

She has been particularly dark in her predictions on when – or if – there will be a recovery in the industry here.  The dateline keeps moving back in our conversations from the fall to the winter to next spring, and, more recently, she believes never.  As she sees the clouds over the industry, she sees no return to what was, only that a survival-of-the-fittest for those willing and able to adapt, largely to takeout and delivery.  Yesterday, we engaged in some gallows humor in this city where the service, hospitality, and tourism industry rules.  We joked that there would be TV shows and movies in the future called “February 2020” that were nostalgia plays on the “good old days” before the pandemic changed the city, the country, and the world.

She had always enjoyed this job, but she said everything she enjoyed about the job – especially dealing with so many people – was gone.  Her company was now making hand sanitizer.  She had a master’s degree in social work, and was thinking about other career paths and what might be out there for her.

Then she said something that at one level was so obvious, but seemed profound, because it had slipped by me, as I tried to keep up with the markers of change being forced by the pandemic.  She said she was worried that the current collapse of the service industry and its potential long demise would be crippling to her and a generation of workers.  She, like so many, had always thought, “hey, if this doesn’t work out” or “if everything else falls through, I’ll be alright, I can always get a job as a server or tending bar or something in the service industry.” In effect, been there, done that, I’ll be OK.  Now that’s gone.

Labor economists, politicians, and others have always thought these minimal wage and tipped service jobs were for younger workers or first-time employment.  Sure in Las Vegas, the union has made these career jobs until recently, and even at lower pay, the same could be said in New Orleans as a convention, festival, and tourism destination, but these jobs, as my DJ was saying, are more than that.  They also served as “safety net” jobs for the working class.  Only gig-type jobs are at the bottom of that barrel now, and for all the approbation that might be cast at service jobs, at least they are jobs with hours, schedules and fixed locations.  Gigs are still just gigs, and no one is sure exactly what that means, other than it’s not enough to live on.

This is a fear without a name yet, but one that workers and the unemployed are seeing much more clearly than anyone else.