Previous vlogs in this series can be viewed here:
- NOLA Speaks – The Teaser
- NOLA Speaks – Meet Ed and Hillery Moise (like lou-ise)
- NOLA Speaks – Meet John Barquet and Tessa too.
- NOLA Speaks – Meet Kojak Davis
- NOLA Speaks – Meet Katie and Kathryn
This installment is not presented in the standard format because I didn’t sit down to interview Eddie. We just drove and talked while he made sure to point out stuff that I might want to film. He was an excellent guide, but if the tour seems a little disjointed that’s why. Eddie wanted me to get a good look at what happened in the Lower Ninth and what is still happening all over the city today. Katrina is everyday for Nawlin-ians. There’s a lot more to this story, but as in every installment in this series I’m going to try to maintain the focus here and just cover a few aspects of the story here. Eddie is also the focus, he was as old-school as you can get and he’s the star of this show.
Eddie is 79 years old and he’s been driving a cab for 57 of them. He lost his wife a few years back, but they raised a pack of 8 kids in his spacious 5 bedroom home in New Orleans East before diabetes ended her life. Eddie didn’t leave before the storm like so many others. He promised his son that he’d be out by “Sunday night at the latest,” but Eddie stayed in his home, his pride and joy, until his son came back on Wednesday to evacuate him. They got a Coast Guard cutter over to the Jefferson Parish side of the 17th Street Canal.
When we drove by the Fats Domino House and Museum in the Lower Ninth Eddie told me that if the laws weren’t what they are then Fats would probably have himself buried right in his backyard. Fats loves the Ninth that much, Eddie too loves his home like that. Thankfully, Eddie’s house didn’t get too much damage and he was able to return 4 months later and started back driving the cab 10 months after Katrina. He said his house is up about a half story and that lessened a lot of the damage from flooding for him, but his whole neighborhood was under water and by Monday night he knew he’d have to leave.
Eddie took one change of clothes with him and he and his son left. Eddie told me he “felt like a cripple” when he was gone for those months. He said he hadn’t been without a license since 1946 and there he was with no car, no home, no nothing. After they got evacuated they spent 2 days camping out in Jefferson Parish (not sure where could have been anywhere) before they got a bus to Baton Rouge. Although he didn’t lose his house, his vehicles were totaled in the flood. All the damage had to be repaired with out of pocket expenses because he only carried liability on his cabs and truck. He told me that he “got some good support from FEMA,” but Eddie doesn’t strike me as much of a complainer so I can imagine he got something but not his due. I’m glad Eddie’s home is still his home and I’m so glad that he’s back driving his cab. It was an amazing ride and Eddie, I thank you for your time and trouble.
First, a bit of the history of the Ninth Ward can be viewed at Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.
That’s one of the greatest sites I’ve ever seen anywhere, the link goes to the pre-Katrina site. The post-Katrina site is also a wealth of information, but I can’t fit that discussion in this diary.
They were around before Katrina and have combined census data, maps and histories of the city neighborhood by neighborhood. It’s a great resource if you like that kind of thing, I certainly do. The Ninth is comprised of two distinct areas: the Lower Ninth and Holy Cross, click on “neighborhood snapshot” to get a brief description of the Ninth Ward through the years. The Ninth is isolated from the rest of New Orleans and because of its swampy nature it was one of the last areas to be developed in Greater NOLA.
From the website:
Slow but sure growth
Originally a cypress swamp, the area was the lower portion of plantations that stretched from the river to the lake. Poor African Americans and immigrant laborers from Ireland, Germany and Italy desperate for homes but unable to afford housing in other areas of the city risked flooding and disease to move here. In the 1870s, several African American benevolent associations and mutual-aid societies organized to assist scores of struggling freedmen (formerly-enslaved Africans) in the area…
Because of the isolation of the Ninth Ward, the community did for itself and was very close knit. It had a country feel because services were limited, but that weakness also tended to contribute to its strength. And in the midst of the bustling city it felt different and more peaceful than many of the other cramped and hectic areas of the city:
History of activism
Due to the Ninth Ward’s geographic separation and working-class inhabitants, residents have developed a history of activism encouraged by seeming neglect by city officials.
Civic groups established in the neighborhood fought diligently to obtain funds and services for the Lower Ninth Ward.
As a result of the activism of residents (particularly from the Lower Ninth Ward) that emerged with the fight for civil rights, and the expertise of the NAACP legal team, the school desegregation movement marked New Orleans as the first deep-South school district to open its all-white doors to black children.
In September 1965, Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans with a vengeance. The storm took a total of eighty-one lives. Eighty percent of the Lower Ninth Ward district was under water. At that time, the levee was eight feet high, but Betsy’s storm surge was ten. Following the storm, people walked through water that for some was above their waists, holding children in their arms, to escape the water. Others had to be rescued from their rooftops. Many residents believe this tragic disaster was the beginning of the downward turn for the neighborhood. Some say that residents did not receive sufficient financial assistance in the form of loans and other support to revitalize the area and longtime residents and commercial and industrial businesses began moving out of the Lower Ninth Ward.
now for our regularly scheduled vlog …
No time? Try the highlight reel:
Video: Eddie Mims – Highlights (9:57)
As usual the clip above focuses on Eddie and not so much the tour, but you get a good look at the deplorable condition the Lower Ninth is in today. Some people are back in some areas more than others and Eddie was absolutely overjoyed to see street lights, brand spanking new, up in the area for the first time since the storm. Eddie was just captivating and that’s hard to do when you’re soft-spoken. “How many times are you gonna die?” That’s Eddie tag line, no question. Although Eddie is a firm believer in God’s plan and his infinite wisdom in all that is done, Eddie is also a firm believer in the American spirit, the human spirit. He told me that “we are a daring people,” and that’s the way it’s got to be. We don’t cower and turn away from a challenge, we meet it and succeed or fail we rise to the next challenge. That’s in our nature. I’ve often thought that American companies do stuff, particularly in the tech sector, because we just don’t realize that some things are impossible. Sometimes that’s the only way.
Video: Aggies United (1:25)
As soon as we got over the bridge we came across a group of kids down there to gut houses on their Spring Break on Forstall St. We stopped and got out to do a little interview and thank them for their work while they ate their lunch out of the back of a mini-van. Although they came to the Ninth through Aggies United from Texas A & M, Common Ground (“Solidarity not Charity”) is sponsoring and organizing crews to help out and get some life back into the place. If you can’t make it down there yourself then you can donate at the website. It’s a great cause and you can do a lot to help someone get back in their home. Many still want to return but can’t find a job to return to, can’t get the money together to do the work, can’t find a crew of workers to do the work, blah, blah, blah. If you’ve been reading this series then you know that people are pretty much left on their own to work it out down there and all over the Gulf Coast. Common Ground and churches all over this country are stepping in to fill the void and enable a family’s return. Thank you for everything that you do.
Video: Eddie Mims – Part 1 (4:47)
We pick up the tour right after talking to the Aggies and Eddie jokes about how everything is “a lot of fun and a lot of laughs” when you’re young like the Aggies, but he’s very appreciative of the efforts of grassroots relief organizations in helping many in his city. “Thank God for people with a lot of love in their hearts to do this.” Today, the Ninth Ward is not secure and many areas lack a lot of basic services that people need to return like water for the hydrants, schools, churches and just about everything. There is also an ordinance that states that homes with more than a certain percentage of damage are not candidates for rebuild. They have to be bulldozed and carted away. Many houses have been removed as debris but there is still so much left to do. We saw a few houses that looked pristine and a few FEMA trailers, but not many. Yet people do want to return. Many owned their homes and were not renters, now they face an empty lot and a neighborhood that has been effectively cleared of its inhabitants and structures. The future is uncertain.
Video: Eddie Mims – Part 2 (6:42)
In this clip Eddie mentions that many people might want to come back but they’ll never return. They have to stay in their new city with their new job. Kojak talked about a lot of friends he knew that had gone to Houston and they’ll never return. They found “better jobs, schools and real hospitals,” in their new homes and do not want to come back to the uncertainty of life in New Orleans.
He drives us past the new levee and wall built where the breach had occurred. He said the previous structure was only a few feet high and it was an earthen damn or a mound of dirt. Now the Lower Ninth is protected by a sea wall that stretches the length of the neighborhood along Florida Avenue. Pictured here is a “shot gun with a camel on the back.”
Eddie also tells us a heartbreaking story that made me so mad I just didn’t know how to respond, but he also gives us a glimpse of his life in this clip. A life lived with “good strong shoulders” these 79 years. We drove by a house, destroyed and clearly abandoned, and saw a pipe sticking up out of the ground gushing water. Eddie says:
Look they’ve got a broken water pipe there. See the water pipe there and the water’s still running. They’re gonna charge you for that. Some lady – her water did that and they sent her a bill for twenty-three hundred dollars.
And she was crying because her social security was only five hundred dollars. How’s she gonna pay that?
I’ve been doing this for fifty-six years and I’ve lived off of a couple hundred dollars a week for years. And I still live that way. The way I live is sometimes less because it’s nobody but me and I only have my utilities and my cab insurance to pay. I have no family now. I have my sons and daughters, but I don’t have any responsibilities anymore.
No one living in the house, no mouths to feed…
That’s right, I did all that for my children and … You just have to get strong shoulders and do what I did with my budget. I worked 12 shifts a week for over eleven years. I went to bed Monday night and Thursday night for eleven years.
Tessa: Eight children.
And they don’t like me too well. They say I had, ah, too many rules.
But now that they’re doing it for their families they understand what those rules were for
We get interrupted by a “good little strong house.” We saw that many of the wood frame houses were completely destroyed, but many of the masonry buildings were standing quite well and even if the house was destroyed by the water the structure still looked solid. You’ve got to remember that the force of the water coming through moved many of these houses right off their foundations especially near the levee breeches, but the brick houses, the “good little strong houses,” withstood the force of the water rushing in and they’re still standing today.
Video: Eddie Mims – Part 3 (8:42)
We come across the Greater St. Rose Baptist Church, Pastor Noily Paul, Jr., in the start of this clip and we see the trucks removing the scrap from demolition in the area. Eddie also sets me straight about the problems after the storm. One of the problems with the flooding is that none of the pumps could come on line because they weren’t high enough to begin with. There was nowhere to pump anything with the breeches of course, but most of the pumps in the city downtown shorted out when they were submerged because they were located in the basements.
We discuss how there are no basic services to come back to. The hydrants are not functional and some electricity has been restored. We saw a few FEMA tra
ilers, but vast areas of the Lower Ninth are still in the debris removal phase. Eddie talks about how blessed he feels to be alive and how he didn’t lose as much as so many others he knows. He tells me that four thousand lost their lives to this storm all over the Gulf Coast. He also says that one of the main differences in his city today is that the rents are jacked up so high that people are either unable to return or once they get back they can’t really pay to rebuild.
When you go to a lumber yard to redo your place, and then you find out that material that costs you three thousand dollars before the storm will cost you nine thousands dollars now it makes it hard. And well if you need it then you’ve got to buy it. And then the labor has gone up. Carpenters were working for like 120 a day and carpenters helpers were getting like ten dollars an hour, eight to ten dollars an hour. So now the carpenter is getting 250 a day and the helpers are getting 140 a day.
So you have to pay…
And here’s another nice little brick house here. I think I want to move into a brick house.
Tessa: You remember the story of the three little pigs.
Video: Eddie Mims – Part 4 (4:13)
This clip starts with a shot of us running a red light at the corner of Caffin and Galvez in the center of the Lower Ninth. Eddie was overjoyed to see real street lights up and running and we even said hi to the Entergy crew that was installing the things just then as we drove by. Tessa reminds us, “we’re the first to break the law!”
Eddie got a real kick out of that. We were nearly through the intersection before Eddie realized the lights were back up and he wanted me to get a shot of it, so he backed up right in the middle of the intersection so I could film it.
It was pretty cool. Those are the first lights Eddie has seen in the Lower Ninth Ward since the storm.
Video: Eddie Mims – Part 5 (5:39)
In this clip we drive by Fats Domino’s house and museum. It wasn’t until Katrina that I found out that Fats was born and raised in the Ninth. After traveling the world he came home and set up housekeeping and a museum. You can listen to an interview with Fats on NPR at this link: Fats Domino, ‘Alive and Kickin’ After Katrina
Fats Domino nearly perished in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The legendary lifelong resident of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans stayed in his home and had to be lifted out by a Coast Guard helicopter.
It was a horrifying experience for him and other victims of the storm. But, the singer says, “I’m still alive and kickin’ and I’m sorry for them that didn’t make it, but we’re gonna make it… we’re making it.”
Eddie says in this clip that if the laws were different then ol’ Fats would probably be buried right in his backyard in the Lower Ninth. Eddie feels the same way about his home in New Orleans East. Eddie talks about why so many people want to get back to the city and he rails against people so scared of their own shadows in life that they forget to live with a fearlessness that life often requires of us, “How many times you gonna die?”
Well said, Mr. Mims because everyday above ground is truly a gift. Life itself is a mysterious gift and no one knows when or how it will end. Every death is an insurmountable loss and those that are taken so young are the hardest to bear, but their life is what they leave they leave behind – not just their death.
And a well lived life is sometimes the only comfort to those of us left up here top side. A well lived life is sometimes like those “good little strong” brick houses we saw throughout the Ninth that day. Bowed but not broken, empty to all appearances now but still setting atop a strong foundation where they were built and where they were alive with a family inside. Where they provided comfort and shelter. Where they did their job. Unsung perhaps, but not forgotten. Never forgotten.
Eddie drives a cab to and from the airport most days and he can be reached at 504-258-6812. So if you need a ride it should run you about 40 bucks from the airport to the Quarter, plus tip.
These vlogs are dedicated to the four thousand people that lost their lives to the storm and the water throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
… and to all of those we mourn today from the Smoky Mountains of Virginia to the deserts of Iraq and back again.