by Cory Richardson
I just returned from a morning walk around Berkeley with Leah. We smelled flowers, smiled at the sound of children playing in school yards, and were impressed by quaint houses made of reused materials. . . things lacking in Katrinaland.
During the walk, we pondered test results just received from water samples at Made with Love Cafe in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. The tests said, "We found 138x the Federal Standards for mercury and 2.6x the standards for arsenic." We showered in this water day after day since before Christmas and used it to wash and cook our food the past month. Why didn't the parish know about this and warn us? Obviously there are draw-backs to learning as we go. We need more expert help.
Made with Love Cafe sits on the spot where the Battle of New Orleans was fought. Andrew Jackson, with a rag-tag band of pirates and diverse settlers, beat a much larger army of British imperialists using gorilla-style tactics. Jackson's men didn't stand in formation like the British, who wore red and white uniforms and fired guns in unison; they hid behind trees and used their instincts. British troops suffered over 2,000 casualties, while the Americans sustained 13 killed, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. We could count it as an early grassroots victory demonstrating the power of unity and diversity.
Today, a rag-tag band stands on that land once again, toiling day after day without pay, risking their lives waging war against invisible invaders such as toxic pollutants and mold. We continue because each time we sit down to share a meal with a resident, they never fail to say "thank you." It feels great, like we are really doing something, not just protesting, or listening to another lecture about climate change, which can be overwhelming. There we are really in the action.
Everyday in Katrinaland is a new adventure. A few weeks ago, a lady came to me saying there was a rattlesnake in her attic. She was worried enough that I went to have a look. There I was, poking around in the dark with flashlight and shovel, breathing hard through a respirator mask, feeling very scared. The snake was still where she found it. I followed it through the floorboards stuffed with pink insulation, which were carefully moved away until I caught sight of it again. Then I jabbed with the shovel until it was surely dead. I'm not keen on killing animals, but you don't feel that kind of satisfaction in the comfort of home forwarding emails. Another lady found an alligator in her bedroom. I'm not kidding!
We have created an amazing space for the people of St. Bernard to reconnect, share their painful stories, dance and find a reason to smile. We have fed thousands of volunteers from across the country, from many organizations, who are gutting homes, offering legal and medical services, and clearing debris. Made with Love Cafe is the action hero training camp we've been dreaming of many years in circles at Burning Man and Rainbow Gatherings. From what people have said, there has never been anything quite like it in this nation's history. It truly is a great example of what an open circle of people can do when they put their hearts and heads together and work toward a common goal that serves humanity.
With that said, it is interesting to note that we are in the Bay Area at this time, seeking support for a disaster zone. Last week, a hundred years ago, April 18, 1906, an earthquake rocked San Francisco and fires turned this great city to rumble and ashes. Over a hundred thousand people, including the mayor, became residents of Golden Gate Park, living in tents. Of course they would rebuild, so this city is beautiful once again. It is certainly one of the most progressive in the nation.
It is an honor and exciting to be at the front lines of this grassroots movement, but what are we really creating, or supporting? Do we know what we are doing? People at the New Waveland Cafe and Made with Love have discouraged intentions of egalitarian community organization, saying, "We are rebuilding Babylon. We are not political and organizing is political." University students have left my nature trail blazing and bamboo tree house building projects saying, "This is not what we came here for; there must be houses we should be gutting." I explained that 80 percent of the houses in the Parish are built on slabs and may be demolished completely because they will cost more to
raise than rebuild new. Part of the reason why this hurricane caused such a huge disaster, and why the people have had a hard time getting their lives back together, is because they were not living in harmony with natural cycles and not empowered to organize as a community.
I attended an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) meeting in Waveland, Mississippi, at which Homeland Security told residents and volunteers that the federal government was shutting down free food kitchens to help get the economy rolling again. I witnessed a grassroots community meeting sabotaged by the people who ran the Homeland Security EOC because they obviously wanted to stay in control. Dependence on government systems is disempowering - be it water and sewage or the whole money system, which is controlled by a few bankers who want us to use their money to buy everything that sustains life. With just solar panels, rainwater catchment, and water filtration systems in place before the storm, people remaining in the disaster zone would have been much better off.
Do we have a clear vision of the future we want to build as a community? Do we have open unfiltered mass communication and wide support? Are we fighting a foreign war that the rest of nation has forgotten? Isn't every big city a toxic disaster? Does the evening news care to give 50 seconds to explain the importance of Starhawk's bioremediation workshop at the Meg Perry Garden? Do you know about bioremediation? Read about it here: http://water.usgs.gov/wid/html/bioremed.html
Here is an excerpt:
"Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had shown that microorganisms naturally present in the soils were actively consuming fuel-derived toxic compounds and transforming them into harmless carbon dioxide. Furthermore, these studies had shown that the rate of these biotransformations could be greatly increased by the addition of nutrients. By "stimulating" the natural microbial community through nutrient addition, it was theoretically possible to increase rates of biodegradation and thereby shield the residential area from further contamination."
Last Saturday afternoon, I found myself at Walgreens trying to get a discount on digital prints that would hang at Michael Gosney's Digital Be-In, an informative Earth Day party. The prints cost $56, and I wanted the business discount of %15 off. The photo guy and assistant manager wouldn't budge, saying there is an application process to getting the business discount. An elderly gentleman wearing a suit overheard and approached very concerned saying, "People here can't even image how bad it is down there. The media is not telling us. You need to tell the media to let people know how bad it is. I know people who have gone down, and they say there is no way to understand the scale of destruction unless you see it yourself."
Okay. . . I'm telling you now, things are very bad all along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Alabama. Now what are we gonna do about it? Where do we go from here? There is a great need for community builders, ecologists, and green design professionals to get involved. The process of rebuilding the Gulf Coast will take at least ten years, but unless more community organizers and green builders don't take part soon, this could be one huge missed opportunity.
Tonight I'll attend the Craigslist Foundation Non-profit Leaders Mixer at 111 Mina, a trendy club downtown. I've already been in contact with Darian Heyman, the director of Craigslist Foundation, and invited him to Made with Love. He just happens to be going to New Orleans this weekend for the Jazz Fest, and said he'll make an effort to visit our cafe. Since the cafe is set to close June 15th, I'm hoping Darian will support our mission to create a permanent community center in St. Bernard, with an all-resident board of directors. Iray has a building selected, near the community college; now we need the resources to develop it (hopefully using the most sustainable methods and appropriate technologies).