Friday, September 09, 2005

On the Road to Thibodaux

Dick Carney
Dude...really do wish you could come with me on this adventure. We could do some serious good. Guard all them hens and I'll contact you via one of my e mail hook ups as soon as possible. -- Dad

The e-mail brought a smile to my face, as I knew Dick Carney was right where he wanted to be. Just last weekend, the man responsible for half my DNA recoiled from the images of anarchy radiating from the Gulf Coast. Desperate to help, he posted his wish to assist on a Presbyterian website. Twenty four hours later his phone rang. The feeble voice on the other end identified himself as the preacher of a 120-member church in Thibodaux, Louisiana. ‘Did he really wanna help?’ the preacher asked. Dick assured him he did, quickly agreeing to come spearhead recovery efforts and help locate the many missing members of the Thibodaux First Presbyterian Church. The preacher soon hung up, a bit relieved perhaps, but in no way aware of the force of nature he just released by challenging a Carney to come lend a hand.

But the Old Goat knew he couldn’t do it by himself. So he pressed friends and strangers into service, accosting everyone he ran into around Pitt County with a no-nonsense dare to help make a difference. By the end of the week, he’d coerced elementary kids, car dealership owners, local politicians and retailers big and small to donate something, anything to the cause. Boy did they. With more supplies than he thought he could transport, plus a growing pot of more than ten thousand dollars, Carney knew it was time to saddle up. First though, he had to upgrade his mission’s communications base, so he barged into the nearest Sprint store and declared a state of emergency. Thirty minutes later, he walked out with a sweetheart deal on a cell phone package and a discounted ‘air-card‘ for his trusty laptop. When the local newspaper sent a reporter over, he didn’t hold back when praising the people of Pitt County.

"When this thing first kicked off, we didn't expect this kind of response," Carney said Thursday. "The volume of what we've been given has snowballed. I usually have a pretty good feel for what the community will do, but I've been overwhelmed with what the community has done."

Friday morning, Dick Carney, three other volunteers from area churches and a reporter/photographer named Paul Dunn steered their small convoy out of town. Two hours into the 1,500-mile trip, Carney dialed up his youngest son’s cell phone number, reporting in from the rumbling cab of a dangerously-overstuffed Ryder Truck.

“What ya got in the truck?” I asked from my desk in the newsroom.

“What have I got in the truck? What ain’t I got? 600 pounds of laundry detergent, 40 cases of bleach, generators, chainsaws, boxes and boxes of canned food, Pampers, Depends, motor oil, clothes, shoes, toothpaste, toys, tarps, toilet paper…”

I laughed at the alliteration and he chuckled along with me.

“I’m telling’ ya boy - there ain’t no flies on this operation!”

‘No flies‘. That’s ‘Carnese’ for ‘quality endeavor‘. Enjoying the excitement in my old man’s voice, I listened a while longer before bidding him adieu. ‘Pace yourself’, I told him. ‘And be easy on that reporter dude ridin’ shotgun’. He assured me he would and hung up. Shortly after dinner, he called me again. He and his ‘Cajun Convoy’ were inching through Tuscaloosa, Alabama - with plans to bed down in Meridian, Mississippi before making the final five-hour leg Saturday morning.

Brace yourself, Thibodaux - you’re about to meet a character you’ll never forget.

'Five Days With Katrina'

Via one of my true gurus, Mark on Media, a potent piece of citizen journalism in the form of a 197-piece slide show from New Orleans hotel worker Alvaro R. Morales Villa.

Entitled 'Five Days with Katrina', the captioned images serve as a visual autopsy of a slain city. I'm especially struck by the above shot. It reminds me of the time I waded through the hip-deep floodwaters of downtown Grifton, gear held high and scanning the murky surface for that tell-tale slither of evacuating serpentines...

But enough about that. Go check out a sterling work of personal journalism.

Evacuee Watch: Still Waiting...

I was loitering atop a live truck the other morning when a colossal orange orb rose from the Eastern horizon and ruined my shot.

“Son of a --”, I muttered as I reached for the iris ring on the focal tube.

“What’s up?” Jeff glanced up from his notes, a look of concern on the edges of his telegenic brow.

“Sun’s killin’ us, man” I said, twisting the camera’s flip-screen so he could see his silhouette in color. “You look like the first alien coming off the ship in Close Encounters.”

Jeff glanced over his shoulder at the sun’s blinding rays eclipsing the runway behind him, then looked back at the feeble spotlight atop my wobbly stand.

“What can you do?”

“Not much”, I said, adjusting the blue gel wrapped around the bulb’s outer casing. “You can’t out-light God.”

Jeff’s forehead crinkled as the voice in his earpiece talked about a storm named Ophelia. “True dat,” he said under his breath, “True dat...”

And so went the most meaningful exchange between Varner and I yesterday, as we manned a lonely outpost on the outskirts of Piedmont International Airport. For four hours we paced around the corrugated metal deck of the brightly-painted van, keeping a vigilant eye on distant tarmac and broadcasting the monotony every thirty minutes. The first rumors of Hurricane Katrina refu -- evacuees headed to Greensboro had surfaced over the weekend. Since then a series of phone calls and subterfuge reminiscent of Deep Throat had plagued newsrooms across the Piedmont. ‘The evacuees are on the way…no flights are scheduled out of New Orleans until tomorrow…Expect at least 500, if any at all…THE PLANE IS IN THE AIR!

Soon, assignment editors across the region were popping antacids and scratching out flow charts as rumors, misinformation and innuendo reeked havoc on their daily planners. I’d successfully avoided any involvement in this scheduled chaos until a midnight caller informed me I had less than five hours to sleep.

“Rumor has it the refugee plane lands tomorrow at eight. We need you and Varner at the airport by six thirty.”

Thus, I spent a brisk morning stepping gingerly around the many TV gadgets I ‘d piled on top of our newest live truck as Jeff shook the last vestiges of a two week vacation. As predicted, there wasn’t much to report, but that didn’t stop us from breaking into the endless anchor banter for breathless updates on how nothing had changed at the airport. At one point, more than twenty Greensboro police cruisers filed into the lot, making us believe a planeload of desperate evacuees was surely making their final approach.

That ended twenty minutes later, when, after mustering in a huddle at the far end of the lot, the Gate City’s finest piled back in their Crown Vics, shot us a variety of dirty looks and sped off to fight crime elsewhere. So much for my well-honed journalistic instinct. In the end, we chewed up several minutes of air-time, killed at least two camera batteries and held a bracing discussion about the effect of strong coffee on morning constitutions. As we left, Jeff and I both agreed that we probably woouldn't be returning to this lonely stretch of asphalt.

Until the next frantic phone call, of course.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Dispatches from the Gulf Coast, Kevin Johnson's globally-known website (and birthplace of 'Lenslinger') continues to showcase the very best in photog prose. New to the front page, a disturbing dispatch from Rick Portier of WBRZ in Baton Rouge, who tells of pillaged lives and plundered faces...

'Wednesday was truly the most emotionally draining day I have ever experienced -- even more tragic than 9/11. I was at the Baton Rouge Centroplex with 5000 refugees. The pictures from New Orleans were terrible, but they paled in comparison to the faces I saw there.

Imagine, if you can, 5000 people who have just lost everything they have ever known: homes, possessions, family. They paced the floors of the Rivercenter and the Arena with expressionless faces, like empty shells. All had harrowing stories of fleeing the storm with only the clothes on their backs.

One man told me of how he carried his nearly 300-pound neighbor across the street to his own house as the flood waters rose above his waist. He pushed him through a window into the house. When the water inside the house got waist-deep, he again loaded the neighbor onto his back and climbed to the second floor, the attic, and finally thru the roof where they waited to be rescued.

Another man told me he watched through his kitchen window as looters beat his neighbor to death then ran-sacked his home.'

Now go read the whole thing (click on Stories from Hurricane Katrina). It'll give you something to think about the next time you're peeking through your fingers at some horrible news footage you just can't bring yourself to ignore.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Operation Thibodaux: Loading Up

I’d simply be remiss in my duties as an honest blogger if I didn’t tell you about the efforts of one Dick Carney - a Pitt County man, who among many other things, happens to be my biological Father. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s no saint, but much like my older brother, the urge to help others is deeply engraved in his DNA. When he called me late last week in an uproar over what he saw on his TV, I knew the old goat might very well jump in his pick-up and head South. I just didn’t know how soon.

But don’t take my word for it, Check out what his hometown newspaper, The Daily Reflector says about him in their front page coverage.

Dick Carney, head of the mission operation at Peace Presbyterian Church, received a call for help last week from a church in Thibodaux, La., 45 miles southwest of New Orleans.

The preacher of the 120-member Thibodaux First Presbyterian Church has only heard from eight of his parishioners since Hurricane Katrina hit.

"We know there's a lot of damage to the homes of the members of this particular church," Carney said.

That's about all that Carney and three other men, who have nicknamed themselves the Cajun Country Convoy, know about the area. The group, including Randy Riddle of Hollywood Presbyterian, Danny Gonzalez of Covenant United Methodist and Homer Tyre, plan to stay at the church and work in Thibodaux for two to three weeks.

When they arrive, they'll start by recovering people who are still trapped in their homes. Carney, Riddle and Gonzalez are contractors, so they also plan to clear roofs, clean up demolished areas and build shelters.

Peace Presbyterian, Hollywood Presbyterian and local businesses began collecting money for the mission on Saturday. In two days, they received around $10,000.
"It's so rare that you find that kind of generosity blossom with that kind of speed," said Paul Lang, pastor of Peace Presbyterian.

They already have around 500 health kits and several cases of bleach and water. They still need a lot more, including generators, cleaning supplies, baby and child-care products, nonperishable food, paper products and medical supplies.

"We're getting some direction from the folks down there about what they're short of," Carney said. "Anybody that's bought a generator and feels like they can live without it, that's a definite need."

There are no doubt scores of people just like Carney who, tired of watching tragedy unfold on the tube, have decided instead to leap into action - but there are none I'm more proud of than My Old Man. Both a clever carpenter and trained medic, he is perfect for the task of rescue and reconstruction. He's also a gifted raconteur who promises to keep in touch with his prodigal son via e-mail while he’s down on the Gulf Coast - dispatches I plan to share with my half-dozen readers. Stay Tuned...

Media Redemption in New Orleans?

For days now, I’ve wanted to tell you how proud I was of my fellow journalists performance covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but with bodies still floating in stagnant water, the time didn’t seem right for a victory dance. Meanwhile, writers with many more zeroes on their paychecks have filed similar dispatches, from the New York Times to the BBC to the Washington Post to USA Today. Despite a variety of spins, all center on the same thesis: The media was KEY in exposing the madness that gripped New Orleans in the days following Katrina.

Like a lot of you, I’m still trying to figure out why leaders from every level of our government sat on their hands while a sat truck army moved into every reachable crevice of the Big Easy and began broadcasting. Never before have so many domestic U.S. journalists encountered such third-world conditions, all while politicians and generals tried to pretend it just wasn't happening. I’ll save that particular debate for the many other frothing bloggers out there, but suffice to say there’s no excuse for an elected official of any kind to feign ignorance of a national tragedy when the evidence to the contrary is blaring from every TV screen in the nation. What do you mean you can’t get help to the evacuees? Stone Phillips is down there with perfect three point lighting!

But I digress. All I really wanted to say was that for once, the electronic media worked as advertised. Long derided (rightfully so) as shallow, vain and celebrity-obsessed, TV reporters and their intrepid crews shone a much needed spotlight on a national disgrace - often at the tops of their lungs. I’m all for demanding neutrality among the Fourth Estate, but if you can point a camera at corpses and squalor withOUT getting worked up, well - I don’t want you in my camera scrum. That said, someone in Geraldo’s crew should have him with a face full of seltzer water the other night, for his eleventh-hour shrieks of outrage truly approached the clownish.

I much prefer the quiet wrath of Shepard Smith, who after days of touring his broken homeland, shut down confirmed ass-bag Bill O’Reilly’s proclamation that all was well with little more than a sour glare. Now THAT’S good TV…

Lord of the Corn

I kicked off Labor Day morning the way most Americans did, butt cheeks firmly clenched around the rickety scaffolding of a wobbly observation tower, fumbling with lenses thirty feet in the air while the sun broke over the rolling horizon of a freshly-groomed corn maze. What - you gonna tell me you slept in late? Not me. Having spent the better part of last week editing American Idol blather only to find out a planned trip to the Memphis auditions would not happen, I somehow found myself signed up for an early morning shift on this very last Monday of Summer. Bracing for balance atop my wavering perch, I scanned the rows of corn for Shannon, all the while repeating the two words that made me feel better for being up at work in the first place…

Double-time. Though truly, my level of recompense would mean little were to I pitch off my skeletal roost and land face first into the cornfield below. With that in mind, I wrapped my leg around a pole and gripped my camera tight as a familiar, folksy voice bled from my headset. ‘That’s your forecast, now let’s go to Shannon Smith - who’s lost somewhere in a cornfield...’ -- ‘Thanks, Roy...’ Shannon’s voice took over and I zoomed in ever so slowly toward where I thought she stood amid the stalks. As the lens pushed in, I picked up their forms, two ladies and having an early morning chat by the towering cornstalks. Thanks to the wireless microphone, I could hear the corn maze lady answer Shannon’s questions as clear as a bell. So too could viewers across the Piedmont. Now if only I could keep from taking a blind step into open air...

Which of course, I did. In fact, I got quite comfy atop my scaffolding as the morning wore on. When I wasn’t tracking Shannon’s distant form among the rows, I sat and watched the sunrise above the expertly groomed field of gold. A light breeze kicked up, reminding me of the promise of the Fall. Soon, the leaves on all those hardwoods would begin to wilt, and fabulously rustic colors would erupt from the trees’ final death throes. For now though, everything was still green and as I stared out over the rolling hills, I realized the smothering humidity of the Carolina summer was finally, mercifully, gone. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the people down in Louisiana still trapped in their own sweltering hell. That’s when I realized my meager corn maze assignment was the first non-Katrina story I’d pursued in the past week. The Gulf Coast’s plight seemed a million miles away from up there, but I knew all I had to do was climb down to my live truck for a rolling update on the national nightmare. But I didn’t. Instead, I sat up there on my shaky corn-stand and allowed my self to daydream, knowing full well the cell phone on my hip would soon bring it all to an end.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Rescue Bus Fiesta

“Unit four…”

“Hi Stew - gonna need to send you to Winston. There’s a busload of evacuees comin’ into a shopping center off MLK. “

With that, all thoughts of sunrises evaporated. I sat up in my office chair, leaned into the steering wheel and goosed the engine. Any cornhusks still stuck to my bumper quickly took flight as I fell into the fast lane. Twenty minutes and three interstate exits later, I pulled into the strip mall in question. Or so I thought. The lot in front of the Shoe Shop was all but abandoned. My eyebrows crinkled in the rearview mirror as I threw the Ford Explorer into its third u-turn of the day. Halfway through my impromptu donut I spotted the unmistakable profile of a TV live truck speeding past the parking lot. Falling in behind my competitor‘s van, I smiled at the freebie and tried to drive casual - tough to do when you’re the last float in a logo parade. I thought about tossing a few lollipops out to pedestrians, but the wino talking to a tree made me think better of it.

“Actually, it’s only one refu -- guest, a young man from New Orleans by way of Baton Rouge. We had hoped to bring back thirty-five people, but red tape kept them there …”

I pressed a button and marked my shot. Leaning into the viewfinder I rode the iris and zoomed in. As the image of a diminutive politician spoke into the microphones thrust before her, I fought with the low, stubborn sunrays behind her. Every time she shifted from one foot to another, blinding rays took enveloped the tiny screen, causing her image to silhouette. Three inches to my left, a newspaper photographer scrunched face and fired his own weapon. With every pull of the trigger, the shutter‘s sharp bark drowned out the sound coming from the coiled headset around my neck. I wanted desperately to reach down and pull the tiny speakers up over my ears, but with a face full of camera and colleagues, I couldn’t spare a hand. Besides, any sudden movement would jar the pens and lenses of a half-dozen working journalists - not something you want to do before lunch.

By the time the bus wheezed into the far end of the parking lot, the press-knot had loosened; assorted shooters and scribes fanned out among the mostly African-American group of volunteer, church leaders and just plain curious. Six says ago, this ad-hoc committee of congregation members had dispatched six of it own to Louisiana, in a local tour bus full of donated food, bottled water and good intentions. Today, as the very bus glided in and hissed to a stop - it’s familiar flat windshield a good deal grimier, heartfelt applause broke out among both the grinning and the embittered. With an eye on the other camera-heads in the crowd, I glided forward, letting my square lens-hood part the throng. By the time the doors of the bus hissed open, I held the entire de-boarding process at point-blank range. As the wall of lenses, loiterers and looky-loos tightened behind me, I pressed my eye into the viewfinder and wondered what was exactly that was pressing into my kidneys.

"Welcome to Winston-Salem!”

A tall skinny black man in a pale green shirt stepped from the shadows of the bus and into the bright sunlight. Cupping a hand over his eyes, he surveyed the assembled masses: squinting cameramen, beaming choir members, fresh-scrubbed children holding hand made signs. Through the blue haze of my XD’s eyepiece, I tracked the nervous look on the young man’s face as he took in the crowd in slow-motion wonder. We had to be a curious sight to this beleaguered traveler, total strangers putting on a conqueror’s return. For a moment, I thought the guy was going to turn around and get back on a bus, but after a few hard gulps, Rendell Bartholomew of the west bank of New Orleans smiled and waved to the grateful crush of onlookers, who instantly roared in approval. Perhaps the displaced Wal-Mart employee with only a duffel bag to his name sensed how badly we all needed a hero to cheer for. Whatever his true thoughts, the exhausted and affable young man hugged old ladies, signed autographs, answered countless dumb questions from the media and generally lifted everyone’s spirits, before climbing into his brother-in-law’s car for a final leg to Virginia.

I, for one, hope he rests well tonight.