Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Politics of Katrina

While sorting books, we met the AmeriCorps team that is working in New Orleans (more on AmeriCorps below), so I am now a bit more qualified to talk about the politics of that area.

Hands On Gulf Coast -- formerly run by Hands On USA and now by Hands On Network -- has a core mission, which is to rebuild the community by rebuilding houses so that people can move back into them. You have doubtless heard of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the poorest and most flooded area of the city. Hands On does not rebuild houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, because there is some probability that the whole area will be demolished in the end anyway, and my guess is that any other volunteer organizations in the city have the same policy. Thus, no one can move back into houses in the Lower Ninth Ward (unless they can pay for a contractor) and so there is no community there for people to return to, which is a bit of a self-propogating cycle (the government says the area might not be rebuilt, so the houses aren't rebuilt, so there's no community there, so there's no reason to rebuild the area, etc.).

The houses in New Orleans have much more mold than those in Biloxi, since the water stood for weeks. In Biloxi, there is usually a coating of various kids of mold on the surfaces. In New Orleans, the mold is three-dimensional, a thick carpet of mold on the walls and studs and everything else. Thus, people cannot "camp out" in or near their homes, as they can in Biloxi in FEMA trailers and the like.

Another issue is AmeriCorps itself. This is the 12th year of the AmeriCorps program, which sends several thousand 18-24-year-olds around the country in teams of 10 to work with nonprofit agencies. The government gives them uniforms (grey shirts and tan cargo pants), medical insurance, and $12 a day. In return, they spend 10 months sleeping on the floor and eating peanut butter sandwiches, doing community service all over the country. They tutor children in underprivileged schools, build houses, and do disaster relief.

According to the AmeriCorps teams I have talked to, there is a significant probability that AmeriCorps will "get the axe" next year, so that this will be its last year. (They told me it was to make room for tax cuts for companies, but that's another issue entirely.) Thus, 80% of the teams will spend the last few months on the Gulf Coast, doing hurricane relief. This is probably partly to do as much rebuilding as possible before the program is cut, but it is also to show the government how effective the program is and to try to convince the powers that be to keep AmeriCorps going.

In other news, it wasn't a million books sitting around waiting to be sorted; there were a million books all in boxes waiting to be sent out to schools and children who didn't have any. We shipped out about 150,000 books to schools and children's organizations in the Gulf Coast where either the books were destroyed by the hurricane, or just they didn't have many books to begin with. This organization that we were working with, First Book, gives books to children -- not for them to borrow, but for them to keep. We learned that 61% of low-income children don't have a single book in their house at their reading level. That's pretty sad, and that's what we were working to fix.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Actual surveys

Today I did surveying again, and this time we actually got to survey people, rather than just advertising a meeting! The survey is 52 questions with demographic information, and then questions on what the person liked about Biloxi before the hurricane, what they think the highest priorities should be after the hurricane, and what they think the most pressing issues for the city are. The idea of the surveys is that the Coordination and Relief Center will compile the information about what the citizens of East Biloxi want and give that information to the mayor and city planners, so that they will either have to take that information into account when they plan what will happen next, or they will have to knowingly go against what the city's people want.

We first went to two trailer parks, which are not trailer parks in the traditional sense, but just fields full of FEMA trailers that have sprung up after the hurricane. This was to survey people who had lived in East Biloxi before the hurricane, but who were living elsewhere after the storm. Most of the people were not home -- who would stay in a tiny trailer on a Saturday if they didn't have to -- but I surveyed one woman who was home. She was 20 and had two small children, both about two or three years old, and they were all home watching Saturday morning cartoons. She was African-American, and worked cleaning casinos before the hurricane. I realized later that I'm 20, too, so we were the same age, but living very different lives.

The population in Biloxi is about 15% Vietnamese, and one of the two open places for lunch in East Biloxi is this Vietnamese sandwich shop called Le Bakery. Everyone raves about their sandwiches, and indeed, they are very delicious; we had them for lunch. They have marinated meat and shredded carrots and onions and some sort of exotic leafy stuff, which is quite delicious, especially when you are ravenously hungry.

In the afternoon we did more surveying, this time on streets in East Biloxi. We interviewed a woman who was clearly very well-to-do, and another woman who was clearly less well off, and therefore much more interesting. She and her husband had nine children, the youngest of whom was 15, and she had gone to college on a basketball scholarship. The first floor of their house had been flooded up to the ceiling, and the roof had blown off and landed in front of the house, where they were using it as a shed for the tools that the husband was using to fix the house.

Although it's usually entirely obvious, we are always supposed to ask what the person would like us to put down for gender and race/ethnicity. So we asked this woman, who was a very dark-skinned African-American, what she would like us to put down for race/ethnicity. "White," she said. "No, Black, honey," she laughed. She was very interested in the survey, and labored over which of the 12 choices she should choose as the three most important.

I mention this only because you might think that a 20-minute, 52-question survey would not be people's favorite thing to do on a Saturday when there is clearly a lot of other work to be done. But these people are really invested in their community, and want to see it become a better place. Many people answered the questions very carefully, and really thought about what was most important for the city. When we told them about the meetings, they expressed genuine interest in going.

In contrast, the next woman agreed to do the survey, but really wasn't that interested in it. She just breezed right through it and didn't even bother to have me read off the 12 options; she just told me what she thought was most important and I checked it off. I am not sure if this is because she was not invested in the city, she had something she wanted to be doing instead, she thought the survey was useless, or she was in some sort of chemically-induced state.

I mention this last possibility because the street we were surveying was apparently the big street for drug dealing in East Biloxi. You wouldn't know by looking at it; it looked like a perfectly nice, though significantly storm-damaged, neighborhood. But everyone we surveyed said crime was the most pressing issue for the city to address, both before and after the hurricane, and some complained specifically about street-level drug dealing (primarily crack, apparently).

The last guy was very interesting. We had talked to him at the beginning of the afternoon, and he asked us to come back later since he was busy just then, but very interested. Then he saw that I was holding a detailed map of the area, with every house drawn on it, so he asked to make a photocopy.
Weird thing #1: He wanted to copy the map.
Weird thing #2: He had a photocopier in his FEMA trailer.
We let him copy it, and we went back later. It turned out that he had a Master's degree (there wasn't even a box to check for any education beyond completion of college) and was working on a plan to turn his property and the adjacent ones into affordable condominiums. His theory was very interesting:

In order to live in that area of Biloxi, it is essential that the house be built up off the ground, so that if it floods, it doesn't flood the house. If every single person has to build their house up that far, that's prohibitive; people don't have the resources to do that. But if you put in condos, then everyone above the first story (which I suppose could be a parking garage or something other than living space) is just fine. This is a great idea. He even showed us the preliminary plans, which he had printed out on those big blueprints-size sheets of paper.

So, that was that. It was a good day.

Tomorrow four Williams students of which I am one, five long-term volunteers, and five Berkeley students will go five hours away to do a different project, where we will be until Thursday. There is this organization that distributes books to low-income areas, and over the years it has distributed 40 million such books. After the hurricane, it received one million books to distribute to the Gulf Coast, but it had nowhere to put them since all the warehouses in the Gulf Coast were destroyed, so it put them all in this one big warehouse, and there they have sat for six months.

Anyway, Hands On agreed to send people to sort the books. So I am going to go and sort one million books. It is going to be totally awesome. We are going to sort books all day, and live in a cabin in the woods with hiking trails at night, and the town is going to give us meals, because that is just how awesome they think we are. So I won't be in Biloxi for the next few days, but I will be going to the area of greatest need, sorting books in an effort to expand literacy.

Clearly, it's unlikely that I'll have Internet access. Six Williams sophomores have agreed to take over the posting at EphBlog, so go there and comment and support their noble efforts at continuing the Katrina blogging tradition. I have every indication that it will be stellar.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The elementary school

Today a group of 10 Williams students went to the local elementary school to do "tutoring." Unfortunately for us, the most pressing need at the school today was sorting books, so we didn't get to talk to individual children or do any tutoring. However, I love sorting, and I love books, so it was all right. This school had a lot of its books destroyed in the hurricane, which was terrible, and then it got a huge number of donated books from everywhere in the country, which is also overwhelming.

We went through perhaps 20 boxes of books, sorting them by type (picture book or chapter book) and genre (part of a series, has "God" in the title, Disney or television character books) and boxing them up again. The good thing is that the books are very well sorted. The bad thing is that we didn't really accomplish anything tangible; we just moved books around.

My job, which I took upon myself, was to collect and sort books that were in a series. There were many series I had heard of and read myself (Babysitters' Club, Nancy Drew, Boxcar Children, Goosebumps), many I hadn't ever seen before, but that other people knew well (Alex Mack, Captain Underpants, Mary-Kate and Ashley), and many that someone had clearly started, thinking it would take off, that flopped (I don't even remember their titles). The others were unpacking boxes and separating picture books and chapter books, with several sub-genres within those. Every time they saw a series book, they would give it to me, and I would sort them. I even put the ones with numbers (Babysitters' Club, Boxcar Children, Goosebumps) in order. There were, for example, five copies of the book wherein Karen, the younger sister of Kristy in the Babysitters' club, wins the county spelling contest and gets second place in the state spelling contest. Apparently this is a book parents really like to buy, or perhaps one they really like to discard and send to hurricane victims.

We worked in the school library, and the librarian was quite possibly The Meanest Librarian Ever. Four classes came in to get books while we were there -- first, second, third, and fifth grades -- and if I were in any of those classes, I bet I would be well on my way to disliking books. Every time a child expressed any sort of interest in a book, the librarian yelled at the child. A boy picked up a book off of the table to look at it? "Did I give you permission to touch the books on that table? Get away from that table and be quiet." A first-grade girl tried to check out a chapter book. "This is not a first-grade book. Put it away and go stand in the corner. You won't be checking out any books today." I kid you not; this happened repeatedly, and there are other examples along the same lines.

When we got back, Caitlin and I went for a short run, and at the end we encountered the rest of the group, who were going to walk to the beach, so we joined them. "The beach" in Biloxi is certainly a beach, but you would not want to take your family there, as the beach is condemned and swimming is prohibited. The sand is in big piles in rows, like really long sand dunes, from the machines that scoop up the sand and filter out all the debris. On the ground and in the water there is also a lot of debris -- broken glass, pieces of insulation, and large identifyable objects. Today, for instance, we found:
- a bumper cars car -- seated two, still had the pole that touches the ceiling attached
- a Hooters nametag for someone named Brooke, who was a "trainer"
- the top half of a teddy bear, with a ribbon still tied around its neck
We walked back along highway 90, which is right next to the ocean and is where all the businesses, hotels, and stately homes were. As we were walking along the sidewalk, we came upon something that looked like a marble gravestone right there on the sidewalk next to the highway, which said essentially, "Jefferson Davis's House." We looked up, and indeed, there was the shell of a stately mansion there overlooking the ocean. There were the remnants of a nice entryway, with marble stairs and pieces of fluted pillars, and marble blocks that informed the viewer that this was the home of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy. Interesting. His house is on some nice grounds, with nice trees and grass and such. The house, though, is not so nice anymore.

We walked back past the Biloxi Colosseum, a big round convention center where FEMA's headquarters is currently located, which is across a small road from Jefferson Davis's grounds. Outside there are literally thousands of chairs -- first stacks of thousands of folding chairs, then stacks of chairs that stack on top of each other -- which are just laying out there, discarded, because they are rusty. Assuredly they were stored inside and got wet, and now no one will use them again, at least not in the convention center, because they are rusty. I suppose many people have problems of this kind.

The things you find are really strange -- the nametag, the bumper car, the teddy bear -- but you have to remember how they got there. The water came through people's houses and tore the walls out, and then floated up all of the objects in the house. When the water receded, the objects either came to rest on the ground, or floated out to sea, where they will either remain or come in on an incoming tide and come to rest on the beach. Did I mention this already? This is my favorite fact, so I'm going to offset it by itself:

There is a major shipping lane for container ships that runs eight miles off the coast of Biloxi. When they dredged it after the storm, they found an eighteen-wheeler tractor trailer out there -- full of live grenades.

Now, I didn't get this from the guy who was running the dredger, so I'm not sure how exactly a ship managed to pull up an eighteen-wheeler, or why (and if) live grenades are actually shipped around in eighteen-wheelers in this country. However, it is probably true that a large truck was found in the shipping lanes eight miles off of Biloxi, and that, my friend, is pretty amazing.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Animal rescue

Today I did "animal rescue" with another volunteer and the long-term volunteer that does it every day. First, we organized the warehouse where they keep the cat and dog carriers and cages and everything that they can give out to people, including assembling a lot of cat and dog carriers. We really made the warehouse (which was the space under stadium bleachers) look much better.

Then the "animal rescue" began in earnest. We had a certain section of East Biloxi to cover, so we drove down every street, and every time we saw a dog or cat, we stopped. We asked the people nearby (because there were almost always people nearby) who owned the animal, to which the answer was usually "I do." We asked them if they would like food for the animal, to which the answer was usually "oh, that would be great, thanks," so we gave them cat or dog food -- and a lot of it -- from the supply in the warehouse. We also asked if the person wanted to keep the animal, and usually they did, but in a few cases they were just feeding it because it was a stray that hung out on their property, so we put them on a list to come get the animal next week. (At the end of March, they will drive a cargo van load of animals "up north" to be adopted.)

People were usually very happy to learn that they could get free food for their pets. It is really hard for people to feed their pets, since they often don't have work, so it costs a lot. One guy had seven dogs, including some big ones. We gave him two really big bags of dry dog food. He told us about his grandmother, who had "a lot of cats" and probably needed food for them, so we went to her house and even though she wasn't there, we left 12 small bags of dry cat food on her porch (with a business card so she'd know who left it).

For people who were keeping animals but had a significant need for food for them, they go on a list of people who will get weekly deliveries of food. So each week, someone from the organization will drop off one or two big bags of dog or cat food. That's pretty neat. I guess there are a lot of people there who really care about animals, and who have donated all of this food so that "Katrina dogs" and cats won't go hungry.

One guy had a dog that he was pretty sure had heart worms. Heart worm treatment is very expensive, but there is some new government grant where if the dog is a "Katrina dog" -- essentially any dog living in the Gulf Coast during the hurricane -- it can get heartworm treatment for free (so long as the treatment starts by the end of March). This guy really liked his dog, but he had no money, so he was really glad that this program existed, and the long-termer animal rescue guy we were with helped to set him up with an appointment at the vet, and make sure the treatment would be reimbursed.

This guy was living with his uncle, because although they lived on the same street, the nephew with the dog had lost everything, and the uncle's house was basically rebuilt by now, because he had flood insurance. The uncle invited us into his house, where we sat around the table and talked with him and the nephew about the dog and whatever else. He asked us, "can you believe the water in here was seven feet deep?" And you really can't. In most houses, seven feet is about the level of the ceiling, so basically the whole first floor was full of water, like a fishtank. Can you imagine that in your house? It's almost inconceivable, the ocean in your living room, in your kitchen, all of your stuff saturated and filled with water. But this guy had flood insurance, and the insurance company paid up, so he had, in the last seven months, put in a lot of work and gotten his house back to normal.

The nephew had stayed in his house during the hurricane, and when the water got to a certain level, he realized he had to get out of his house, because it was going to flood completely. So he put the dog under one arm and swam, swimming with one arm, across the street to his parents' house. The problem (one among many, obviously) was that the street was essentially a river with flowing debris, so he had to time it just right when he was going to cross the river/street, so he wouldn't get killed by the debris floating by at a high rate of speed. Luckily, he and the dog both got to his parents' house, and somehow they all survived.

Others were not so lucky. In Biloxi, since the tidal surge was about 25 feet, many people went up into their attics as the water was rising, and then when it rose into the attic, there was nowhere to go, so they drowned in their attics. (Those who survived by staying in attics that didn't flood say they'll always keep an axe in their attic from now on.) In New Orleans, people went up to their attics when the levees broke, and while the water didn't get up to the attic, it also didn't recede for two weeks, so they starved to death in their attics after two weeks up there. (The water receded in Biloxi within about 12 hours, if not fewer.)

Yesterday we talked to a Biloxi Public Works worker who had horrible stories to tell. He had been a first responder, so he walked along the streets immediately after the hurricane. He had personally found seven bodies. I cannot imagine how horrifying and scarring that would be. His friend was in a rescue boat, and his cat jumped out of it into the water. The friend dove in after his cat, and never came back to the surface. Down the road from where we were, a Vietnamese family of 13 all died in their house.

I thought that the people who stayed in their houses during the hurricane were pretty stupid. I mean, there was a manditory evacuation, and it was a Category 5 hurricane with the strongest part predicted to fall on southern Mississippi. How could people not leave? But today I heard a reason why.

People in Biloxi are very poor. I learned of one family that had $400 in the bank when the mayor ordered a manditory evacuation. If they left the city for however many days the hurricane would take, it would wipe out all of their savings to stay in a motel. So they couldn't afford to leave.

Of course, if they died in their house, the $400 wouldn't do them much good. Luckily for them, they survived.

In the afternoon, we were done at about 2:00 with the animal rescue, so we helped out a group that was doing mold. In the morning when the group entered the house, it was really moldy. A previous group had taken out all of the remaining furniture, bathroom fixtures, drywall (walls), actually everything but the studs (2x4s in the walls) and floorboards. Today's group's job was to scrape the mold off of everything that was left. Apparently this was one of the moldiest houses they had yet seen, with green, black, and white mold growing all over everything. But they scraped, brushed, and otherwise extracted all of the mold, and then vacuumed it up.

Our job in the afternoon was to wipe. We took a special mold-killing liquid, dipped our cloths in it, and rubbed every surface to get off the mold dust from the surfaces that they had scraped in the morning. The cloths got very dirty very quickly, so we changed them often, and we scrubbed down the whole house in about an hour. While we did this, we wore "respirators," which is essentially a gas mask, filtering out 99.97% of the particulate matter in the air. (They make you sound like Darth Vader, except harder to understand.) We wore gloves, but mine had holes, which I realized after a while (why are my hands getting wet?). Luckily it was mold dust mixed with mold-killing liquid.

It is interesting, this mold killing, because no one has ever studied how to do it before. FEMA and the EPA are going on this one study that was done on just three houses, which is kind of statistically ridiculous in terms of accuracy, but it's the only study to go on. The experts in mold came down and saw the Hands On process, though -- the scraping, wiping, and then painting over with mold-sealing-in paint -- and said it was way overkill and definitely enough, which apparently they knew. The question is what the happy medium is between, say, spraying Clorox on the mold (doesn't work) and the Hands On process (extremely effective) where it would kill a lot of mold without four days' labor on each house.

Apparently they are doing a study now with 106 identical houses in the same region, trying out the various methods of mold killing to see which one maximizes effectiveness with the least amount of labor. This seems like it could potentially be a statistically valid study, and probably will inform future mold killers.

In lighter news, we got prizes today for taking out the trash. I was sorting recyclables, and I got a prize for that, too: Bling. That's right, I said the word "bling." I got a Mardi Gras-like necklace with black plastic beads and a gold plastic medallion that says Cuervo on it. The Hands On folks found a big box of this kind of stuff when they were helping clean out one of the casinos after the hurricane, so they brought it home and hand the bling, if you will, out to the volunteers for noble reasons, such as sorting the recyclables. I think this necklace I am now wearing has some great significance, even if it is a cheap necklace sponsored by an alcohol company and looted from a casino.

I went running for half an hour today. It was great. I only got shouted at a few times, and I felt just great, since I haven't been doing much running at all. I wanted to run along the beach on Route 90, but wouldn't you know, Katrina had the nerve to tear up the whole sidewalk, so there is nowhere to run. So sad.

We are losing a few Williams kids, but we gained five new ones tonight, so we should have a good contingent here for the next week. The Williams group will be here until early Sunday morning, April 2. If you have nothing better to do (and really, what better do you honestly have to do than help the people who need your help the most?) you should really consider coming down sometime in the next two years. No, really, these organizations, and in particular Hands On, will be here for two years. The weather's great, the company is awesome, and the work and the people you meet will certainly be unforgettable. More on that later.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Building and surveying

Please note that this has not been publishing correctly, so there are three days of posts below that have not appeared on the days I wrote them. Read away.

Yesterday I worked on building a ramp for what will be a clinic in a town outside of Biloxi, near the border with Alabama. I painted some boards white, and then I cut strips of tar paper, and then for a very long time, I hammered "joist hangers," which are these metal things that help to hold the joists up. The joists are the boards under the walkway that go perpendicular to the direction you walk, and the joist hangers help to hold them to the edges of the walkway. Each one had 10 nails, which I nailed in. This took me a very long time. Eventually that was the only thing left to do, so the two men and the other Williams student (a boy) hammered the rest of them in with me, which took only about 10 minutes (it took me a few hours to do the first half). My arm was kind of tired from hammering for a few hours.

After we got back I went for a short run. It was very hot out, and I got to this intersection where there were cars and cars for a long time so I couldn't cross, so I went home. My parents and I went out to dinner for the third and final time, this time to a catfish restaurant. We talked to our waitress, and she had lost her whole house and everything. After dinner we went to their church, where we listened to this guy pray and give a sort of a sermon about how God was showing through the people who were working there and such. The real reason we went was so we could watch this DVD made by a local news station about the hurricane. It showed the issues the citizens were concerned about before the hurricane, the interviews with people about what they thought was going to happen in the days before the hurricane, and then the news coverage of the rain and wind during the storm (the roof got blown off the news station building) and of the aftermath.

Since this area is very Christian, and Christians don't like casinos, there was a law that said you couldn't have casinos on land, so the building with slot machines would be floating, and the hotel and restaurants and shopping and all would be on the land directly adjacent. During the storm, the casino boats got floated up with the 25-foot tidal surge, and when the water receded they came down in places other than where they had started. One in particular broke in half; half came to rest in the middle of the highway, and the other half on top of a very old house, Something Manor. (You can't see the house at all.) In order to remove the casino barge from the highway, they imploded it with explosives.

I realized I gave a shorter account of that before; this is to tell the whole story.

The video had these 911 calls from people in their attics when the water was rising and they had nowhere to go. "That's why there was a manditory evacuation," said the operator, "our crews can't reach you." "I know you can't do anything," said one woman, "my mama and I are going to die; I just wanted you to know." (There are sound psychological reasons, of course, for her to call 911 and just let them know; I am only surprised she called 911 instead of her other close family and friends.)

Today I did "survey," which means we walked around a part of East Biloxi with flyers advertising this community meeting that will happen next week. This is a time for the citizens to come together and discuss what they think should happen in East Biloxi, rather than just listening to the mayor and others tell them what will happen. Some people actually said they were very interested in the meeting and would definitely go. Some invited us into their houses and talked with us for a while, sometimes because they were lonely and wanted someone to talk to, and sometimes because they really wanted to tell us what they thought should happen in Biloxi.

This one woman told us, "don't ask me what I think of the people in New Orleans." So naturally I asked, "what do you think of the people in New Orleans?" She thought it was ridiculous that they were getting all of the attention and help when they had gone and built their city in a bowl. "They built their house in a ditch, and now they want all this help?" She gave the example of when she was in a fabric store, and she was buying a particular fabric to cover some of her chairs. "I really like that material," said another woman, "and that's the last of it. I should get it, because I'm from New Orleans." The woman thought this was preposterous, and there was no way on earth she would yield to a demand with such a ridiculous justification. "They don't do anything for themselves," she said. "We rebuild slowly, because we're doing it all for ourselves." Her house was all cleaned up because she and her family had done a lot of work on it.

She invited us in, telling us that her husband was Santa Claus. It turns out that they had 12 children, and now have nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She was happy to know that we were in college, telling us that we can do anything as girls, and if anyone ever tells us otherwise, we should go do it! She said she had done everything, especially when someone told her she couldn't. She had danced on television many times, was a costume designer, wrote a novel, and wrote articles in magazines. When someone told her she was too old and her hands didn't work well enough to use a computer, she went and learned it, and now, four years later, people ask her how to use the computer. She gave us each a copy of the magazine in which her article appears, which is a free periodical called "Senior Scene."

The interesting thing about today was trying to figure out if someone lived in various houses. At each property, we had to either decide that no one lived there, or knock on the door and either talk to someone and give them a flyer, or leave the flyer in a place where it wouldn't blow away. There was often a house that looked somewhat inhabitable, with a FEMA trailer beside it. We would knock on the trailer first, then on the house, because people with trailers had them for a reason. But what about just houses? Maybe people lived in the ones that didn't look very good at all. Unless there was clearly no way to enter the house (wires or pipes across the gate, a big pile of debris in front of the only door) or the house was clearly uninhabitable (spray painted "do not demolish," indicating that the person was out of town, or all of the windows were gone and the house was off its foundation) we had to assume that maybe someone lived there, and left a flyer. It was kind of scary to go to these houses that looked like a haunted house, with dried mud and rubble on the doorstep and no sign of life, dust on the windows and maybe barred entrances, and knock on the door.

Anyway, we survived. Tomorrow I shall rescue stray animals and deliver animal food. Rebecca would be so terribly proud.

(P.S. the text box for the title has not been appearing, which is why my posts have had no titles.)

Monday, March 20, 2006

The first thing I did today, after eating breakfast, was to call Exeter and try to get them to hire me immediately. They didn't (or, I suppose, couldn't), so I accepted the job at NMH. So I'll be teaching geometry and coaching running at Northfield-Mount Hermon summer school this summer, about an hour from Williamstown.

Today we first went to a house where there was a dead tree in the yard that would fall on the house at the next storm. One of the guys climbed up in the tree and cut pieces of off of it with a chainsaw and the other people pulled the pieces away with ropes so they wouldn't hit anything (him or the house). We cut them up and brought them over to the side of the road where someone would pick them up.

Then our group split into two, half to do interiors and half to plant sunflowers. I went to plant sunflowers. We went to a place called "Harmony House," which is built on the first piece of land in Mississippi ever owned by a black person. It has the only old-growth forest in Biloxi, and the only organic farm in Biloxi, and sort of the only small piece of nature in Biloxi. Since it was all messed up by Katrina, we are trying to fix it up.

Previously they had made this big patch of dirt shoveled up and loose so that we could plant things in it. We planted about 10 packets of "mammoth" variety sunflower seeds. The idea is that sunflowers clean the soil, so after a year of sunflowers, they can plant a garden there again. They had an herb garden before. Also, there will be beautiful sunflowers, which are really nice to look at. So we planted lots of those, and watered them, and put hay on top of them.

In the back there was a path through the forest, and it was a boardwalk with boards, and trees fell on top of it. So the three people who had used chainsaws before cut up trees with chainsaws, and the person who hadn't (me) carried the pieces and put them in the bucket of the tractor. It took a lot of trips.

When I got back I took a shower outside. The showers are enclosed, and there are some with hot and cold water, and some that are just On or Off. I had one with temperature changes. After the shower I read my book, and then my parents came and we went out to dinner again, Mexican this time. It was nice. My mother had laryngitis. We will go out tomorrow night again, becuase it is their last day here tomorrow, and they leave on Wednesday. Tomorrow I will do something with wood and trees again.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Today I did "home improvement," which meant that, along with four other Williams students and a class of '75 Williams alum and her daughter, we swept the main hall where we eat, and swept and vacuumed the stairs that go to the loft where we sleep. That occupied most of the morning. This is because there was a lot of dirt, and also because we had some issues with the vacuums (both of them) pushing air out instead of sucking it in. (We took it apart and put it back together and then it worked.)

After a lunch of PB&J, we went to the grocery store, where we bought a tremendous amount of food very quickly. This is because we were buying about 10 different things, just in tremendous quantities. We got 100 pounds of potatoes, a whole box of green peppers, 6 bottles of A1 sauce, and 50 T-bone steaks, for example. This is because the organization has been saving up its food money by scrimping on meals for the past few weeks, so that they could spend a lot on this dinner and have a really good meal.

I helped to wrap up the potatoes and corn in tinfoil to grill, chopped peppers and onions, and helped smash peanuts and cut canned pineapple for ice cream sundae toppings.

The bad thing about this fancy meal is that I didn't go to it, because my parents took me out to dinner. (They have been here since Wednesday, working with another nonprofit volunteer organization -- the Lutherans instead of the Methodists.) First we drove around on the road right next to the beach, and looked at the destruction.

Basically the first few floors of everything are rubble. They are either the bare iron bars of the framework because everything has been cleared out, or they are reinforced concrete hanging by the reinforcing bars. The bottom floors of everything are grey and broken. There were some very old homes on the water, and some of them are just completely gone -- there is a concrete slab left, and you have to guess that there was a house there -- and in other cases the top floor and the columns are still there and the inside is all washed out and grey.

All this rubble washed into the ocean, so there is all this junk in the ocean. You can't put your boat in because you might hit something, either sunken or floating just below the surface. They have these special machines that drive in the water and scoop up the junk onto the beach. So there are these big piles of junk by the waterline that have been scooped out of the ocean.

There was this five-story casino that floated because there are some rules about what can be built on land and what can't (woo hoo, marine policy!). In the hurricane it got washed out of the water, across the highway, and toppled onto its side. A five-story building! Now it just looks like a gigantic pile of rubble, with the floors perpendicular to the ground instead of parallel to it.

That whole road along the beach was a thriving place for business. Now all the buildings are either washed away, reduced to rubble, or cleared out. There was a whole strip mall that is ruined, motels that just look like floors and floors of empty matchboxes, etc. And it goes on for the whole coastline.

On the bright side, we had a nice dinner at a Japanese place. Tomorrow I will do trees. It will be most excellent.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Arrived in Biloxi

This morning we left the Williams club in NYC at 4:15, and flew to New Orleans, where the parents of two current Williams students drove us to the organization in Biloxi. I was pleasantly surprised to see that we were met by Zach '05, who I knew was working down here but I had no idea he was working with the same organization in the same place where we would be.

It turns out that there is this big building and we get to sleep inside. I borrowed a tent from Colin and set it up, but it is actually moldy smelling because it was damp and I think just sitting there damp for a month, so I probably won't sleep in it (people sleep in tents inside for privacy; I could sleep in it outside to be hard core). We didn't have to do anything today because the work crews were already long gone when we got here in the afternoon, and also we got up at 3:00 Mississippi time, so we had the afternoon to check out the area.

As we drove from New Orleans to Biloxi, we saw a lot of the destruction. The highway went through these rather nice housing developments, some big buildings with lots of units inside, and some neighborhoods with single-family homes. They look very nice until you realize that they are all uninhabited because they were sitting in water for three weeks. The Williams dad who drove us said that when you drive through that area at night, it's completely dark.

There's a long highway bridge over Lake Ponchatrain. The lake is really big; it was kind of windy today, so there were whitecaps. It didn't look particularly polluted, but I suppose it is very much so.

Everywhere there is debris, but just small debris, like bits of paper and stuff on the ground. It might just be that it's a dilapidated area; you can't really tell. But there are a lot of places where things were clearly blown off because of the storm. We were driving along the highway and all these billboards, the board part was gone and so it was just the frame, and then the frame was tilted way up in the air. There were many of these.

I learned two phrases today: "blue roof" and "FEMA trailer." If your roof is unstable, FEMA puts a blue tarp on it to stabilize it until they can get it fixed; this is called a "blue roof." A FEMA trailer is a trailer (like a mobile home) that they give you to live in if your home is uninhabitable. You put it in your yard. Apparently they are very small inside.

The organization here seems to be a very good one. Lots of people have been here for months. They live in tents outside that are very homey and customized, even spray-painting the outside. There are big government-surplus green tents that people set up individual tents under, for even more protection from the rain. Apparently it will rain tonight with an electrical storm.

The Williams parents were really nice. They took us to a coffee shop and bought whatever we wanted, since we had a weird eating schedule today (breakfast at the airport at 6:00 east coast, 5:00 gulf coast time). The dad was a Williams alum, so he was happy to know about what is going on there, like anchor housing (he thought it was the dumbest idea he had heard) and the destruction (he hadn't heard about it) and the focus on athletic tips (he thought it was a very odd focus for Williams to care whether their sports teams won or lost). In any case, I was glad that they were there to take us where we needed to go; it was a spot of organization in a bit of a disorganized mishmosh.

I was surprised that the Williams Club in NYC was not as posh as I thought it would be. The people working there were certainly not all Williams alums, and the rooms were just like regular motel rooms. My alarm clock did not work; my light was not plugged in; my door handle and lock didn't work very well. But they provided soap, shampoo, etc. and there was a leather folder explaining about the Williams club with free stationery, so in some ways it was quite nice. And of course, we got to stay there for free (most people sleeping on the floor in a conference room on the top floor).

We will have dinner this evening, and go out and work tomorrow. The jobs are "Interiors" (gutting the insides of houses, sometimes carrying out all of someone's stuff), "Mold" (scraping and ammonia-ing walls), painting, debris (clearing it out) surveying (looking at houses to see what needs to be done), and trees. We split ourselves into teams, and each team is assigned to a job (Interiors and Mold have five times as much work as the other four). It should be exciting.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Music for the Ode to Williams

Over the course of the last two days, I wrote music for the Ode to Williams.

I was able to typeset it all nice like that because Evan installed Lilypond as a wikimedia extension on Willipedia, and after a bit of messing around with it I was able to get it to show up right. Lilypond makes the music into a convenient .png file, which Blogger conveniently converted into the .jpg file that you see above.

Please try it out and see if you like it (click for a bigger version). I think it is quite catchy. I will have an audio version after spring break. Tell me what you think.

Edit: I had some of the notes at the end wrong. I changed them. So if you sang it this morning -- ha! how unlikely -- and thought it sounded wrong, you're right. Try it again. And note that the tune of the last line quotes from the Williams song "The Mountains".

Monday, March 13, 2006

My big empty room

My parents asked for pictures of my room a long time ago, so now that they're leaving for a week or two and won't have Internet access, I'll finally get around to posting pictures of it.

Here is my bed. I was lucky to find that the bed in my new room was as insanely high as the one in the room I inhabited during winter study, so that I didn't have to do anything to get it up there. I have various things under the bed, such as a snow tube and a box full of thirty plastic bags, because you never know when you might throw them away and then suddenly need thirty plastic bags the next day.

Over my bed I have a self-identified "decorative map" of my region of Maine that my parents sent me while I was at Mystic. People look at it and try to find the place in Maine where they visit in the summer. I try to convince them that it covers a very, very small region of Maine, but to no avail. They keep trying. If you look at the size of Deer Isle on a map of all of Maine and you compare it to the size of Deer Isle on this map, you will see how small a region this map actually covers. On the bright side, every tiny island off of Deer Isle appears on the map, including the one that Bunny owns.

Kathryn gave me a SEA poster of the Cramer. That was nice of her. I also have my inspirational running essay, my inspirational running poster, and my inspirational Academic Progress Report, for inspirational purposes. And a picture of the cutest five-year-old nephew in the world. I wouldn't have to be so specific, except that my three-year-old nephew is also very cute. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of him on my wall.

Turning about 120° to the right, you see my rolling wardrobe. This room is big enough so that I can fit the bed and the wardrobe in the room and still have the drawers open! Wow. Here I have my inspirational decorative map of Phillips Exeter and my inspirational poster of potential perimeter-minimizing curves in sectors of Gauss space. You will also note my wonderful heater, where I have complete control over the temperature of my room. It's wonderful. And when I feel lonely and scared in the middle of the night, I can -- what? reach for the teddy bear? -- no, turn up the heat and listen to the comforting gurgling noises.

Now we have turned another 60° to see the other side of the room head-on. The shiny curved things on the wall in this picture do not exist in real life; they are merely digital ghosts. Do not be alarmed. In the corner you see the shoebox, which is the box where I put my shoes. On the wall you can see part of my art gallery, which began in the previous picture. I printed multiple 8x10 pictures from my photography class so that I could decorate my barren walls.

On the floor you will see the floor rug that I purchased from Sean. I purchased this rug when someone suggested that I should get a dog to fill up the empty space in my empty room. The rug does not work very well to fill up the space, but I don't like dogs and it does fill up some of the visual space. Not that "visual space" actually exists and can be full or empty to any variable degree, of course.

Now we turn another 60° and move back a bit (to eliminate glare) and see the best part of the art gallery. This part of my room isn't very interesting, other than the art gallery and the six even numbers stuck to my door -- not very interesting, that is, unless you click on the image and look at the big version.

Then you can see that at the top of my door I have these four pictures that I cut out of Math Horizons magazine. You can't really see the two on the left (which are of Fibonacci and Botticelli's Venus) but you can tell that the two on the right are Michaelangelo's David and the Mona Lisa. If you look at them up close, they don't look like that at all; David is made of tubes of two colors, and the Mona Lisa is made of 10,000 dots connected by lines in a way that is a sort of solution to the Traveling Salesman Problem.

It's not called Diana's Mathy Blog for nothing.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Williams at winter track nationals

After a series of disappointing races for those of us who aren't fast enough to do anything better than sit at home and criticize, Caroline Cretti came back and ran an amazing race, so that along with Liz and Mallory, she was the shining light of an otherwise thus far not so stellar racing weekend. Then some other pretty stellar things happened, and Williams came out doing pretty amazingly well.

Let us recap. Yesterday, Dan made it to the finals in the 35-pound weight throw, and then was eighth, good enough for All-American. Awesome! That was great.

Then Mike ran the mile in 4:18, which is seven seconds slower than his best time of under 4:12, so he missed qualifying for the finals. Mike is wicked fast, but he didn't run his best race. Too bad. He wanted to be All-American (don't we all?). Still, he is 11th in the country, which is pretty amazing.

Then Carrie ran the 400 and missed qualifying for the final (but she's more of a 55-meter runner, anyway). Then Katie ran the 55 in 7.30, when if memory serves is 0.09 seconds slower than her school record, which she set this season. Unfortunately, the last person to get into the final ran 7.20, so she would have had to run a new school record just to get in the final. These were some fast runners. (Carrie and Katie are both 10th in the country in their respective events.)

Then was the women's 800. I would have liked to watch these trials. Lissy and Katie (a different Katie) finished 0.14 seconds apart, with Lissy just ahead. In the second heat, two people finished within that 0.14-second gap, keeping Lissy in the final but nudging Katie out. This makes Katie ninth in the country.

That was all last night. Today Dan missed the finals in the shot, finishing 11th in the country (not too shabby).

Then Kristin was third in the high jump! Wow.

Then Caroline was fifth in the triple jump! Wow.

Then Katie (the third one) was 11th in the shot. Pretty impressive.

Then Lissy was seventh in the 800, making her an All-American. Her PR in the event would have put her third, but seventh is excellent all the same. Diligent people will recall that Lissy only beat me by a few seconds in the mile and the 1000 yards at Exeter/Andover in winter track in my senior year, her junior year, of high school.

Then Macharia Yuot, who was second to Neal in the cross country championships in the fall, won the 5000. Neal finished 15 seconds later, about 17 seconds off his PR but good enough for eighth place and All-American status. This after he had been hacking out his lungs with some sort of illness for the past couple of weeks, so that he would run for 15 minutes (i.e., about three miles) and then have a coughing fit.

Then -- THEN -- there was the 5000. She smashed the track record by over a minute, winning her race over 15 seconds -- or about 100 meters -- faster than the next person. Pretty awesome. And Liz and Mallory were not far behind, earning third and sixth places, respectively, only six seconds apart. Wow.

I cannot wait for the DMRs and the 4x400s. I think they have actually occurred already, but I am stuck refreshing the page and waiting for a results link to come up. Want to join me? All of the results are here.

This, by the way, puts Williams in second place in the team scores with 31 points, behind Wisconsin Oshkosh with 40 and ahead of City College of NY with 27.

UPDATE (9:10 PM)

Less than an hour after running the NCAA Division III year's best time, Caroline anchored the DMR, which came in fifth, less than five seconds behind the winning team. Think what they could have done if she and Lissy hadn't already run All-American races already today?

But before that, take a look at this absolutely crazy race. Mike Davitian anchors the men's DMR, finishing seventh in 10:14.07. The tenth-place team was only 0.11 seconds back, meaning that four guys were leaning over the line within 0.11 seconds of each other, all trying to cross the line first. Or rather, since tenth place was last, they were all trying desperately to not be last, and Williams won the effort. Awesome.

This puts the Williams women at 35, five points now behind the leader, still at 40. Williams women were hoping for a top-five finish, and it looks like they'll probably get it. Pretty impressive when they only sent 12 women, and when the 13th woman who qualified, the one who earns the most points for the team, had to stay home with an injury. Pretty impressive, indeed. I look forward to the 4x400.

Update (9:30 PM):

I am way more excited about this than is probably necessary. So it goes.

The women were sixth in the 4x400, averaging under 59 seconds. The men were seventh, averaging just over 50 seconds. Thus, the women won second place at Nationals this year, with 38 points, second to Wisconsin Oshkosh with 44 points.

This year's All-Americans, then: Dan, Caroline, Kristin, Lissy, Neal, Caroline (the second one), Liz, Mallory, Bill, George, Chris, Mike, Lissy (twice over), Katie, Katie (the second one), Caroline (twice over), Deividas, Tyler, John, Alex, Katie (twice over), Carrie, Veronica, Heather.

Pretty good. And if that's not all, Coach White is Coach of the Year.

(Note that I am not using last names, out of deference search engines.)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Four hours a day

The average American adult watches 30 hours of television per week. That is a lot of television. If you don't count movies, I probably have not watched 30 hours of television in the past year.

This snippet is from a 1990 article in the New York Times about television addiction that we read for decision theory class. I bet you could write an identical article today, replacing "television" with "Internet," and everything would be equally valid.

This is one reason I enjoy running Linux now, because I am so afraid of it freezing (as it has done twice now) if I try running more than one program at a time for more than a half an hour or so that I don't spend very much time on the Internet. It's a wonderful thing. Almost as wonderful as the noise Ubuntu makes when it turns on.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

An inappropriate title

By the way, the title given to my Letter to the Editor last week was "Ski Team Skit Insensitive." I think this is an inaccurate characterization of the tone of the letter. Let me explain.

If you called someone "African-American" when you knew they preferred to be called "Black," that would be insensitive. If you used the N-word, that would require a stronger word than merely "insensitive." "Inappropriate," perhaps, or "unacceptable" or "unconscionable," because in this case you knew it was wrong and you did it anyway, just for the effect it would have. This is the same way I feel about the ski team skit.

I am very much looking forward to the next issue of the Record tomorrow (Thursday) to see if the ski team has anything to say. I would totally fight them. Division I athletes? No problem. I will crush you with the sheer force of my intellect.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A new kind of visitor

This is what the reports look like that I get from sitemeter. Here is what it looks like when I visit a web page:

Notice anything different?

That's right, I've joined the ranks of the cool people now. Let's just hope everything doesn't die, and that I can get it to work consistently forever.

I am currently encountering problems due to a complete lack of knowledge about the system whatsoever. For instance, I cannot get the sound to come out of my speakers instead of from the laptop's icky speakers. But that is merely a minor consideration; let us look at the bigger picture, which is that now I am embracing freedom in all things.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Letter to the Editor

My guess is that the intersection between the people who read this blog and those who read the Williams Record is close to empty, so I'm going to put my letter to the editor here so that nobody will miss out. I am not sure why they didn't put it online, but they didn't. So, here it is.
Last weekend at the Winter Carnival opening ceremonies, the women's alpine ski team put on a skit that was completely inappropriate. While the first part of the skit was funny in an acceptable way, it ended with a derogatory reference that specifically targeted, to the point of ridicule, an individual Williams student, in front of the hundreds of people assembled at Goodrich. This was done in such a way that all of the Williams students, but none of their families, the skiers from other schools, or college staff (such as Morty and Scott Lewis, who were there) would know what they were talking about, so the team ran no risk of being held responsible for their actions. Some might call this clever; I would call it deplorable.

What is more, when I confronted one of the captains about this, she was unapologetic, refusing to even consider the possibility that their skit had crossed the line. She actually tried to justify the skit by saying that one could interpret it as endorsing the choices of the targeted student. Luckily, the student did not happen to be there that evening, but this fact does not change the severity of what the ski team did. The responsibility rests mostly with the two captains, who acted out the offensive part of the skit, but the rest of the women’s alpine ski team is also responsible, because not one of them was brave enough to step forward and point out that their skit was in poor taste.

I was shocked at the insensitivity displayed by the women's alpine ski team, and shocked that the Williams students in the audience would laugh at the joke and clap for their skit. Williams, we know better than this. You wouldn't want to be individually humiliated in front of hundreds of people, so please, don't laugh when the ski team does it to someone else. It's really not that funny.
I wrote this letter in such a way that you will only know what it is about if you know what it is about. I am kind of good at that. I am kind of infamous with Rebecca for doing that. But look, here it came in handy! And I will not answer any questions about what it is about. If you don't know, I'm glad. Let's keep it that way.

So now you know that college has not disintegrated my moral fiber. And you know that I don't like stupid horrible people who do stupid horrible things.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Rockin' out to Gerrard's blues

Today in psych lab we had to go into the psych computer lab to type some numbers into a spreadsheet. Professor Kirby makes his spreadsheets very very very user-friendly, so that you just have to type in a couple of values, and then the right answer pops out in a cell that is conveniently made bold and red.

My partner in this process was also a math-psych double major, so we were doubly excellent at typing values into the spreadsheet and obtaining the right answer in the red bold cell. So, we were done. What is there to do in the computer lab when you are done with your task?

You could ask the other person about herself, but I had already asked her her major, her year, where she was from, and where she was living while we waited for the computer to reboot. So naturally, I brought up iTunes. I mean, it was right there in the dock. (We were using macs.)

There isn't any music on the psych lab computers, but oh, the possibilities of shared music! Those macs are on the network of all the faculty macs on campus, so we had about 10 libraries of shared music to choose from. Naturally, I chose Professor Gerrard's library, called, if I remember correctly, Gerrard's House of Blues. I let my partner pick the song and turned up the speakers, and soon we were all rocking out to "Julia" by the Beatles.

Professor Kirby came into our little cubicle, checked out our spreadsheet, saw that we had finished, and then went over to iTunes and changed it to one full of electric guitar and bass.

This is the same professor who once drove by when Professor Cruz was meeting with students (including me) outside on the grass. He slowed down, rolled down the window, said "hey, dude," rolled up the window, and drove on.

Hey, dude. Spreadsheets are way more fun with professor-endorsed guitar solos.