new-orleans2008-181After breakfast we met with Kathleen Johnson, director of Katrina Relief, to get our work orders. It seems standard that even with a pile of work orders for painting, lot clearing, roofing, etc. other things rise to the top. I was puzzled when three of our groups were sent to a swampy site in Bay St. Louis to clear the lot surrounding a radio station. But I discovered it was not just any radio station.

A trailer and small tower set among the scrub pine and cypress has operated since 1994, the love-child of a group of amateur radio operators, many of them disabled. It now operates under a low power license with a heavily blues format with classic rock and jazz thrown in. Just the kind of thing to get under the skin of corporate radio.

We met Brice Phillips and his partner and program director Christine Stach on the site. During Katrina, Brice removed part of the station’s antennae, all the radio equipment he could pack into his vehicle, and moved the station to higher ground near Stennis Airport. Tide waters came up to their feet but they continued to operate during and after the storm, powered by car radio batteries and solar power. For weeks it was the only communication link for the residents of Hancock County, who listened on thousands of portable radios handed out by FEMA. In 2006, Brice recieved the Small Business Administration’s Phoenix Award from the President for his efforts. And now the government is trying to shut him down.

He was first threatened with eviction, while college volunteers were present, for living in the station trailer. Brice takes his responsibility for providing emergency information to the residents of Hancock County seriously. For example, just yesterday, there was the possibility of tornado warning in the area (later downgraded to severe thunder storms) and he planned to stay at the station, watching the radar, just in case. And now the FCC is threatening to shut him down because the station and tower are not secure. And that is where we came in.

We spent the day clearing rubble and limbs and small trees so that Brice can install a chain-link fence around the perimeter of the site. One group removed tires, scrap, and a number of unmentionable items from the lot, while the rest cut and removed trees and brush for burning. We left that Winnebago in the canal — a souvenir of Katrina. By the end of the day, we fed three fires with the a pile of brush that would be as big as a small house. The students appreciated both the work and why we were doing it.

Kristine invited students into the trailer to record message breaks. We sampled MREs at lunch. At the end of the day, Brice informed us that he had set up an open account at the soda fountain at the Waveland Pharmacy — free ice cream for the week. We hope to go back to finish the job and help keep this public radio station of the air.

After showers and a dinner of meat loaf, we headed back to New Orleans for a lecture by jazz clarinetist and Xavier University professor, Dr. Michael White. We met at the recital hall at Xavier where White, joined by banjo/guitar player Detroit Brooks, gave a lecture/performance on the origins of jazz to a rapt group of college students. He asked us not to applaud, which was difficult; the quality of his sound and deftness of improvisation forced me to keep my hands buried in my armpits. The students and I were taken by the breadth of his knowledge of New Orleans music as he listed off the hip-hop and rap artists from New Orleans. They lingered for nearly a half hour to discuss music, Katrina, and the impact that it continues to have on the music community.

Afterwards, we went to the nearby Rock and Bowl, where students got a taste of contemporary New Orleans music. Glen David Andrews and his Lazy Six, played a blend of jazz, r&b, and soul, fueled by two tuba players and Andrews’ powerful trombone. Even after a day of hard work, students danced for two hours. Before the break, Andrews gave a heartfelt thanks to the volunteers and afterwards came into the crowd to talk to each and everyone of us. It meant a lot. After the break, he brought Teresa on stage to recognize her birthday (White had already played a traditional jazz version for her). Everyone cleared out well before midnight on account of a powerful line of thunderstorms heading eastward.

Rain this morning, so we’ll see what the day holds.