Friday, November 23, 2007

WTC Vets to Help Rebuild St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana

Newly-established emergency response team to assist Katrina’s forgotten victims.

St. Bernard Parish, LA (November 22, 2007) -- If you’re visiting the New Orleans area in early December, and you encounter some nice folks with foreign accents -- like Brooklyn and North Jersey -- chances are you’ve just met some heroes, the H.E.A.R.T. 911 Rescue Team. The New York-based emergency team will be in Louisiana working to rebuild parts of St. Bernard Parish, once a thriving middle class community of nearly 70,000 – that is, until Katrina came along.

The non-profit, volunteer response group is comprised of veteran police officers, firefighters and construction workers, all of whom served at Ground Zero during rescue and recovery operations following the September 11th attacks. On this special deployment, family members of victims of the 9/11 tragedy will be joining them.

Mission Possible
To fully appreciate the H.E.A.R.T. Team’s mission in St. Bernard’s, you need to understand how Katrina affected this quaint parish that borders New Orleans’ 9th Ward. In short, the St. Bernard’s was obliterated -- every home, every business, every government building wiped out. (read: The Backstory)

You’re probably asking yourself, “St. Bernard Parish? I don’t recall any mention of that community during coverage of the Katrina disaster.” You’re right; you never did see news reports from the parish, because the disaster in St. Bernard’s was never really covered. Instead, TV networks and news agencies chose to pick up racially motivated stories of government neglect coming out of New Orleans itself.

Two years after Katrina plowed through Louisiana, St. Bernard Parish is still very much like it was on August 30, 2005 -- a wasteland. That’s why the H.E.A.R.T. (Healing Emergency Aid Response Team) 911 Rescue Team chose the parish for its very first deployment.

The primary mission of H.E.A.R.T. 911 is to aid in disaster relief efforts around the world by organizing teams of volunteer rescue and recovery workers to help affected areas. While in St. Bernard’s the 50-member team will help rebuild homes and community facilities in the parish.

The H.E.A.R.T. 911 Commanders

"We learned a great deal working on the recovery effort following the events of September 11th and now we want to bring together our expertise to support the victims of other tragedies," said Lt Bill Keegan (PAPD-retired) who was the Night Operations/Safety Commander for the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) at the World Trade Center. He served at Ground Zero from September 11, 2001 until it closed on June 3, 2002.

Keegan heads the H.E.A.R.T. 9/11 Rescue Team along with Owen McCaffery and John Moran who held the same positions as Lt. Keegan at the site for the NYPD. The trio is joined by Tom Thees, whose financial background allows him to seek corporate financing for the team.

Their W.T.C. Rescue/Recovery experience has given the H.E.A.R.T 911 organization a unique overview of the coordinated and sustained effort needed to respond to a crisis.

"The experience of 9/11 left us with an overwhelming need to use what we've learned to aid in other disaster relief work", said Keegan.

The current team is made up of about 100 firefighters, police officers and construction workers who volunteered or worked on rescue and recovery on September 11th. In the event of another man-made or natural disaster, the team is ready and willing to help.

Bear Stearns Underwrites Inaugural Deployment

Unlike government run rescue teams, H.E.A.R.T. 911 is financed through corporate sponsorship. The team has been fortunate to have teamed with Bear Stearns Companies, Inc, a leading financial services firm which serves governments, corporations, institutions and individuals worldwide.

"We are honored to support an organization with such an admirable purpose," said James E. Cayne, chairman and chief executive officer of Bear Stearns. "We were all affected by the events of September 11th and it is wonderful to see that the lessons learned from the recovery effort of one tragedy will be translated into helping others in need."

You can join too!

H.E.A.R.T 911 is seeking additional, experienced emergency personnel to serve on this all-volunteer rapid response team -- regardless of location or affiliation. Personally, I think it’s an ideal opportunity for retired emergency personnel, as well as those who are training for an emergency services position. Enrolling is as easy as logging onto and clicking on “How can I help?”
A personal comment: It's been 2 years since Katrina wiped out St. Bernard Parish, and during that time the Parish Fire Department has cut half of its staff, and the remaining members still have NO Fire Stations to call home. What's the deal? If someone can enlighten me, please email me.

St Bernard Parish: The Backstory

Anderson Cooper, what were you thinking?

On August 29, 2005 St. Bernard was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The eye of the massive Category 5 hurricane passed over the eastern portion of the parish, pushing an unprecedented 25-foot storm surge into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ("MR-GO"). This surge was so powerful, and moved so quickly that it destroyed the parish levees. In just 15 minutes time, the entire parish was inundated. (1)

Most areas were covered with 5 to 12 feet of standing water as the storm damaged virtually every structure in the parish with the exception of only two homes. In many areas, houses were crushed or washed away from their foundations by the storm surge which ultimately submerged the homes.

See Google Map of St. Bernard Parish

I spoke to lifelong St. Bernard resident Benny Chappetta, a former government employee, musician and videographer. Benny was part of a skeleton staff who volunteered to remain behind at the Parish Government Center to handle emergency calls during the storm. His personal recollections of the disaster are detailed and vivid, and the video that he shot is that of a combat photographer, documenting the storm, the flood, destruction and death.

“I just couldn’t believe how quickly the water rose,” Chappetta told me during a phone interview. ”Within 20 minutes’, Benny recalls, ‘the (government center) parking lot went from a few puddles, to waves splashing over the roof,” of the 2-story structure.

Since Katrina’s visit to St Bernie’s over 2 years ago, Benny has lived aboard a cruiseship, under a tent and inside a FEMA trailer. Renovations to his house, which sat fully submerged for two weeks, are nearly completed, and Benny will soon be returning “home.”

But Benny Chappetta is one of the fortunate citizens of St. Bernard’s Parish. He held flood insurance on his home and was able to rebuild on his own, at his own pace. Others have not been so lucky. A great many parish residents who have chosen to return and rebuild continue to raise their families in 31-foot trailers. They hope and pray that someone will come along and offer assistance.

“It’s two years out from the storm,” says Parish Councilman Mark Madary. “These folks were made a promise and that promise has not been delivered.” Madary adds that those who are attempting to rebuild feel that they are no longer wanted, and that a sense of urgency is missing. (2)

Locals add that the delay in rebuilding the parish has to do with money that had been promised, but has never made it to the local coffers. Over 2 years after “the storm” the $116 billion that FEMA had allocated for reconstruction has not yet filtered down to many local governments. Why? FEMA says that assistance money must be requested by the state, but quickly adds that Louisiana has not made a specific request for St. Bernard’s Parish.

So, what does it take to get the attention of state government to recognize the urgent need in St. Bernard’s Parish? I thought to myself, perhaps a documentary. So I phoned the offices of Spike Lee, the award winning filmmaker whose HBO special “When the Levees Broke” won wide acclaim and huge audiences for the powerhouse cable network.

As the leading African-American filmmaker in the film industry, Lee’s focus was the area in and around the 9th Ward, a two square mile section of New Orleans that is joined directly to the 700 square mile St. Bernard’s Parish. During filming Lee was made aware of the situation in St. Bernard, but says he was unable to add that story to his Levees project, which already had hundreds of hours of interviews in the can.
So these days, when Spike Lee is asked if the Federal response to Katrina was racially motivated, he immediately refers to the plight in St. Bernard’s Parish.

“It's not just a black/white thing” Lee told HBO’s Bill Maher. “I think class has a lot to do with it, too.” Lee continued, “When I got to New Orleans, I was amazed to see St. Bernard's Parish got demolished just as much as the Lower 9th Ward -- but they (the networks) never showed St. Bernard's Parish on television.” (3)

When and if Spike Lee does a follow up to “When The Levees Broke,” rest assured that St. Bernard’s Parish will be somewhere near the top of his filming schedule.

(1) Wikipedia
(2) Video interview: YouTube
(3) HBO

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Race Once Again Rears Its Ugly Head in St. Louis

Promotion of Battalion Commander to Chief has STL African-American firefighters HOT!

St. Louis, MO (November 20, 2007) -- A veteran St. Louis firefighter is taking over as the city’s new Fire Chief, but during the initial stages of his term, Dennis Jenkerson may not be doing much firefighting. Instead, he'll be tending to an ongoing fight with African American members from his own department.

On Monday (11/17/07) St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced that Jenkerson, a 50 year old Battalion Chief, is replacing ousted fire chief Sherman George. Jenkerson is a 28-year veteran of the department and ranked highest during testing for Deputy Chief.

You may recall that Sherman George was removed as Chief of Department after refusing to end an embargo on the promotion process. Even though a federal court ruled that the tests did not discriminate, George wasn't convinced that the testing procedure was fair.

To support his position to deny promotions, Chief George cited a pending federal lawsuit, which alleges that tests to fill the ranks of captain and battalion chief were biased against blacks. In anticipation of the civil suit, George, an African American, placed a freeze on promotions. In the meantime, dozens of fire officers continue to serve in an "acting" capacity without the accompanying pay increase.
Mayor Francis Slay ordered the Fire Chief to lift the freeze, but George refused to do so. On October 1st, Slay demoted George to Deputy Chief and appointed an interim chief, Deputy Chief Steven Kotraba, to run the 700 man department. After his demotion, Sherman George resigned leaving an ice-cold environment in St. Louis fire stations and heated debates in City Hall.

In this city made famous by beer and baseball, African-American members are calling foul. Many claim that Jenkerson was promoted because he is white -- and has a personal relationship with Mayor Slay.

Racial issues have long divided the department which until a generation or so ago continued to operate with segregated companies. The segregation of white and black firefighters continues to this day with two unions representing department members, one for black firefighters the other for white.

The St. Louis American, a well-read weekly targeting African-Americans in Missouri, questions whether Jenkerson, a Battalion Chief, was even eligible for such a promotion. The paper reported that the City Charter held that only Deputy Chief Officers could be promoted to the rank of CFD (Chief of Fire Department). Officials disagree, saying that the Charter clearly permits the appointment of Battalion Chiefs to the top position. (1)

One white fire official chastised the newspaper saying, “Apparently your organization can only see things in black and white as it chooses to support candidates based only on the color of skin, not character.”

With the Charter issue out of the way, African-American firefighters quickly launched another attack on Jenkerson, citing the fact that he is under investigation by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for using city-owned equipment to do work at a private home.

That investigation deals with misuse of firefighting personnel and equipment. The complaint claims that Jenkerson ordered an on-duty group of firefighters to cut away a diving board from the pool of Louis Hamilton, a campaign advisor for Mayor Francis G. Slay. Slay acknowledges that he ordered Chief Sherman George to have the work done, who in turn ordered Jenkerson to follow through. Jenkerson says that he was simply following the orders of a superior officer.

While black and white firefighters trade barbs, Jenkerson says that the first order of business for his administration will be to revamp the promotion process, “making it more open and transparent.” Jenkerson will receive help because the city is restoring the job of assistant chief, a post to be filled by one of the five men also vying to be fire chief. (2) Leading that short list is Deputy Chief Charles Coyle, a veteran firefighter who had been the pick for CFD by African-American firefighters. (3)

It is interesting to note that the St. Louis Fire Department was the first municipal department to hire African-American firefighters way back in 1921. The city's first black fire officer was Claude Johnston, who during his career was promoted to Captain and served as an acting Battalion Chief. (4) All of this took place at a time when FDNY was only recruiting the sons of Irish and Italian immigrants.

Is anyone surpirsed? The Fire Chief serves at the discretion of the Mayor and in St. Louis, like every other major US city, politics plays a key role as to who is chosen to lead the fire department. Were politics involved in the appointment of Dennis Jenkerson? Sure! Did racial issues play a role in Mayor Slay’s decision? Perhaps. Read the St. Louis American, because they have an interesting take.

But this much we know. Jenkerson scored highest on the promotional test, and in a world devoid of race and politics, he is fittingly the best man for the job of Chief.

A personal note:

As a former St. Louisan and volunteer firefighter, I rode along with the St. Louis Fire Department on 50 or so occasions. Most of my time was spent with the officers and crew of Squad 2, the heavy-rescue that covers the northern part of the city.

The atmosphere in the 2 company station was like that of any other. Black or white, the firefighters at Squad 2 and Engine 21 were members of a special family. If there was racial tension, I certainly never noticed it. When the gong sounded, the men and women of the St Louis Fire Department responded with military precision. In fact, the only complaint I’d ever heard was from hoseteams, who joked that squad members would work their way to firefront only to “steal the nozzle” from the Engine Company.

I credit former Chief Neil Svetanics for handling the racial situation in St. Louis in a pro-active manner by promoting several African-American deputy officers. By doing so, he gave individuals like Sherman George a taste of what it was like to run a big-city department.

In closing out this blog entry, I’d like to recognize Captain Vince Wright, Squad Company #2. Vince had served in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret, returning to St. Louis to join the fire department. Vince was smart, articulate and a leader of men – he was also boisterous and had a flair for drama. I’m told by my friend Nick Morgan that Vince Wright passed away a few years ago, and my guess is that he’s probably serving with great firefighters like Ray Downey, Terry Patton, Joe Angelini and others aboard Heaven’s heavy-rescue. God bless you all.
(1) St. Louis American
(4) St. Louis Fire Department (History)