Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina

PleaseForwardTen years ago, Facebook was pretty much only for college students and Twitter was still in the planning stages. So in late August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the main way people communicated publicly on the Internet was via blogs. And those of you who remember my post-hurricane training with the Red Cross, and my eventual deployment to Biloxi, Mississippi, will recall that I wrote about the experience on my blog (at that point hosted on LiveJournal). (I even self-published all my blog entries—and the various online comments—in a slim volume called Katrina Came Calling.)

I was only a volunteer—for those directly affected by the storm, blogs, online forums, and email were the lifeblood that kept these communities connected while they were physically dispersed.

In late 2006, about a year after the storm, when I began working on A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge for SMITH Magazine, I used the blogs of two of my subjects, Leo McGovern and Denise Moore, as primary sources. They spoke with eloquence and urgency about their experiences during the storm and its agonizing aftermath.

It was around that time that I met journalist Cynthia Joyce, who had started a blog of her own, Culture Gulf, which documented the rebuilding of New Orleans. As Cynthia now writes,

. . . it’s already impossible to recall with any precision the depths of uncertainty that was life post-Hurricane Katrina. Much of the collectively kept digital diary of that catastrophe has already been forgotten—in some cases paved over in page redesigns or simply lost to “web erosion,” relegated forever to 404: Page Not Found status. . . . Contrary to what high school guidance counselors everywhere will tell you, the Internet, it turns out, is not forever.

Which is why, a few weeks shy of Katrina’s 10th anniversary, Cynthia has edited a fascinating—and essential—collection of blog entries from those first two years post-Katrina. Titled Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina, the book  (quoting Cynthia again) “is a cross-section of first-person entries that reveals a layer of post-Katrina life that wasn’t typically picked up by traditional news outlets or preserved in any official record. It’s as much a testament to lost memories as it is to memories about what was lost.”

Published by the University of New Orleans Press, Please Forward is a blow-by-blow street-level chronicle of New Orleans and Katrina. Reading through it again is definitely intense: the lead-up to the storm; the flooding; the loss of lives, homes, and possessions; the chaos of the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center; the fear and uncertainty; the hyperbolic media coverage; the racial issues exposed by the storm; the demoralizing debates about the future of New Orleans—it’s all in there. Contributors include Kelly Landrieu, Rob Walker, Joshua Cousin, Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, Clifton Harris, Dedra Johnson, Cree McCree, and at least 50 other bloggers, most of whom are residents of the Crescent City. I have a couple of posts in there too, one from my stint as a volunteer and one from back in New York City. There’s a wonderful excerpt from the book on Salon; Rob Walker’s contribution is particularly affecting.

If you’re in New Orleans, the Please Forward book launch is on August 18 at Press St. HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.) It should be quite an event—sad and joyous in equal measure. For now, you can pre-order the book on Amazon.

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Katrina, Year 6. Irene, Year 1?

In late August 2005 I was at Sari's parents' house in the Berkshires as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf Coast. It was a frustrating, heart-wrenching time, made worse by our being so far "off the grid." As I wrote at the time, "We've got spotty radio reception, no TV, only the occasional New York Times, and a slow dial-up connection, so my ability to comprehend the enormity of the Katrina disaster is severely curtailed."

Last Sunday, Sari, Phoebe, and I came up to Sari's parents' place in Austerlitz, NY, or a two-week working vacation. Summer camp is out, Phoebe starts pre-K after Labor Day, and we've been enjoying the end of summer here in the "country." And now, with a new hurricane forming — ironically heading to my neck of the woods — it all comes around again.

The house still has no TV, but they've upgraded to DSL, which helps us stay abreast of things. Like the residents of the Gulf Coast back in '05, we're tuning into the latest developments, doing our own storm-tracking, and preparing for things like power outtages, flooding, and the like. But here in the Berkshires, Irene shouldn't be too bad, nothing how it could impact coastal areas from the Carolinas all the way to New York City. Our whole lives — our home, our friends, most of our family — are back there, and once again I'm absent — not there to experience the event for myself, to prepare, to help do what I can. And if the storm is bad enough here to knock out our electricity, I'll be just as in the dark (literally) as I was six years ago. Actually, more so!

As you know, the events of Katrina prompted me to volunteer with the Red Cross; which led me to getting trained in disaster relief; which led to me being deployed to Biloxi, MS; which led to Katrina Came Calling; which led (iindirectly) to A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. I'm glad New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, as they continue to rebuild from Katrina (and Hurricane Rita), have mostly escaped nature's fury since 2005; the fact is we on the East Coast are far less prepared than they were. And all we can do here is watch, wait, and hope for the best.

By the way, the upcoming anniversary has instigated a few journals to cite A.D. Here are a few recent mentions:

LJ spotlight!

So this blog is now spotlighted on the homepage of Livejournal, which is very exciting and flattering. If you’re reading this for the first time, hello, and please allow me to introduce myself (all apologies to Mick Jagger/Lucifer). In RL I am Josh Neufeld, a Brooklyn, NY-based cartoonist (e.g. comic book writer/artist) who speciaizes in nonfiction. If you’ve read Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, or Art Speigelman’s Maus, or Joe Sacco‘s Palestine or Safe Area Gorazde, then you know comics can be a wonderful way to explore, explain, and illustrate the real world. If you haven’t read any of their work, then go out now and buy some!

In any case, I’ve been working in this corner of the "alternative comics" field for awhile now, as an illustrator of Pekar’s stories, as an autobiographer of my own backpacking adventures, and most recently as a chronicler of Hurricane Katrina, as seen from the perspective of seven real-life New Orleanians who survived the storm. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge is coming out next month from Pantheon Graphic Novels. I’ll be going on tour to support the book, and maybe I’ll be coming to a city near you: stops include Austin, TX; Houston, TX; Chicago, IL; Washington, DC; Portland, OR; Miami, FL; and of course New Orleans and my hometown of New York City. (You can see all the details here…)

A.D. came about indirectly because I was an American Red Cross volunteer shortly after Katrina, where I worked for almost a month distributing food to Katrina survivors in Biloxi, Mississippi (about 90 miles outside of New Orleans). I wrote about those experiences as they were happening right here on my LJ, and eventually collected the posts — and readers’ comments — in a "blook," cleverly titled Katrina Came Calling. A little later, Jeff Newelt, the comics editor of the storytelling site SMITH, showed it to SMITH’s editor, who shortly thereafter asked me to do a comic about Katrina for his site. In January 2007, after about six months of research and reporting, and finding seven amazing, wonderful people willing to have their stories told in comics form, I began serializing A.D. on SMITH. Lo and behold, two-plus years later and a brand-new, expanded hardcover edition of A.D. debuts August 18 (right before the fourth anniversary of Katrina).

I’m extremely excited for the book to be out, not only because it’s the culmination of many years’ work, but because I think it’s so important that we continue to tell the story of New Orleans. I made a big effort with A.D. to show my characters’ lives continuing on after the hurricane, as the city begins to forge its post-New Orleans history. Four years down the line a lot has happened — some good and some bad — but the rest of America (and the world) needs to keep the "City that Care Forgot" and its people in our hearts and minds. I’m also excited about A.D. because I truly do believe that nonfiction comics are a vital part of the comics mosaic, and my hope is that if enough copies of the book finds their way into the hands of people who wouldn’t normally pick up a "funny book," it will help break down the continuing prejudices against the form.

I’m running on a bit, and I don’t want to bore my normal readers, so I’ll cut things short here. Normally, my blog is a place where I write about all sorts of things, not necessarily just comics, though I would say that 4-eyez (full title "Four-Eyes: Stories and Thoughts from One of Life’s Vagabonds") is mostly about what my comics are about: remarking on and treasuring the experiences of everyday life. Oh, and also my sad obsession with trivia, charts, and statistics.

So look back through some of my previous posts to see what catches your fancy. Meanwhile, to take advantage of LJ’s kind spotlight, I plan on posting once a day for the remainder of the week. Stay tuned!

In today’s N.Y. Daily News…

Today’s edition of the New York Daily News features a profile of yours truly and my “blook” Katrina Came Calling. I had a nice conversation with the writer, Clem Richardson, and they devoted a whole page of the paper to it. Other than some mistakes on my chronology over the last ten years, the story is even basically accurate! You can find the piece here (though it’s missing the two dramatic photos from the actual story).

“Katrina” pops up on Pop Candy

USA Today‘s Whitney Matheson plugged Katrina Came Calling today. Thanks, Whitney!

Katrina Came Calling Has Come Calling

Katrina Came CallingAfter a week’s delay at the printer, I finally got my 100 copies of Katrina Came Calling. It’s exciting to have a tangible testament to my Mississippi adventure.

I’ve already sent out copies to all those who ordered them (thank you very much!), as well as the comps to the folks who contributed to the project (thank YOU very much!). I also plan to bring a bunch to the New York Comic-Con, which will be happening at the Javits Center next weekend (Feb. 24-26), and where I’ll be at the Alternative Comics table.

Katrina Came Calling

Katrina Came CallingIn October 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I served a three-week stint as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi. Taken from my online journal and illustrated with photographs, Katrina Came Calling is an intimate look at my reaction to the hurricane; signing up for Red Cross training; getting deployed; the conditions in the Gulf; working with the survivors; a visit to New Orleans; Port-a-Potties; my co-workers; issues of race, religion, and regional background; returning home; and much more.

Being a public forum, my blog was read and commented on by people from all over the spectrum: not only by my friends, associates, and regular readers, but by other Red Crossers past and present, and by Biloxi-area survivors and former residents. Many of those comments (and my responses to them) are included in Katrina Came Calling, a unique marriage of print and the ongoing conversation of the Internet.

Katrina Came Calling is: limited-edition, 100 print-run, black-and-white, digest-sized, saddle-stitched, 102 pp. Send $7 ($5 plus $2 postage/handling) to: Josh Neufeld, 175 Eastern Parkway, #5C, Brooklyn, NY 11238. Or do the PayPal thing…

Katrina Came Calling

Image hosting by PhotobucketAs many of you know, in October 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I served a three-week stint as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi. I’ve just self-published Katrina Came Calling, a book (not a graphic novel!) about my experiences.

Taken from my LJ from that period, Katrina Came Calling is an intimate look at my reaction to the hurricane; signing up for Red Cross training; getting deployed; the conditions in the Gulf; working with the survivors; a visit to New Orleans; Port-a-Potties; my co-workers; issues of race, religion, and regional background; returning home; and much more. It also includes tons of photographs and a brand-new introduction. And — in a unique marriage of print and the ongoing conversation of the Internet — Katrina Came Calling includes many of your comments — and my responses to them. They augment the discussion, inform the reader, and otherwise enhance the project.

To all those who read my online journal and took time to respond, you inspired me to keep going, both as a volunteer and as a documenter of the experience. Specifically, these folks “made the cut”: aciddust_420, alibi_shop, al_monster, deadredfred, drockdamian, l8blmr, leborcham, man_size, nexusnrg, purvision, pivovision, rojogato, spaceman_fromrc, sugarc0atdlies, thamesrhodes, tracerchick, and wjcohen. (Throughout the book, I use your LJ screen-names — partly for privacy reasons and partly because I don’t know some of your real names!) In addition, Michael Simon and a few non-LJ users left anonymous comments.

This self-published booklet is a limited-run “vanity” edition, and as such, I beg your forgiveness for using your words without getting your prior permission. I am offering the book, such as it is, free of charge to everyone cited above. If, after seeing the book, you would rather I took out your comments, just let me know, and I will remove them from all future editions (if there are any). Hopefully, that won’t be the case!

So there we go. Katrina Came Calling is: limited-edition, 100 print-run, black-and-white, digest-sized, saddle-stitched, 102 pp. If you’re one of those cited above, claim your free copy by emailing me at joshcomix@mindspring.com with your real name and mailing address. Anyone else who’d like a copy can send $5 to: Josh Neufeld, 175 Eastern Parkway, #5C, Brooklyn, NY 11238.

(Thanks to alexdecampi), here’s a way to buy the book using PayPal:

That is all.

Wading Through the Floodwaters of Red Cross Red Tape

After a week of radio silence following my Mass Care/Sheltering training, I got an email from the Red Cross to show up for a DSHR briefing, ostensibly the last step before being deployed. So last Friday morning I and about 50 other people made our way to Red Cross HQ for the briefing.

Basically it was another two-hour PowerPoint presentation, going over issues we’ve covered before, like the mission of the Red Cross and the services they provide, and an introduction to the slew of paperwork required to be added to the DSHR team. The application itself isn’t too bad, just basic things like previous training, language skills, health history and the like, but the number of waivers, releases, consent forms, and other paperwork is truly daunting. There’s so much focus on the details of plane and rental car reservations, staff debit cards, intake forms, out-take forms, and the like that the reality of the situation in the Gulf is almost obscured. It’s as if with enough bureaucratic activity we’ll be able to rationalize our “clients'” lives back to normal.

Anyway, the upshot of it all is that I filled out and handed in my official DSHR application, informed them of my availability (now!), and was properly warned about the hardships to come, e.g., extreme heat, lack of toilet & shower facilities, poor accommodations, and the overall stressful environment. Sounds great to me. I’ll be sure to pack sunscreen, extra batteries, a first aid kit, and my own personal roll of toilet paper. So when do I get my 24-hour notice? I’ll be sure to let you know.

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update: BUY Karina Came Calling, the blog book I made of my Red Cross volunteer experiences. KCC is a limited-edition, 100 print-run, black-and-white, digest-sized, saddle-stitched, 102 pp. booklet. All for $5, plus $2 shipping, via PayPal.