Friday, February 24, 2006
I remember one time when I was a resident in neurosurgery at the University of Michigan, and I was called to provide a consultation on a gentleman in his mid 40's who was destitute and diagnosed with a mental disorder. When I examined him, it became clear that he had no memory whatsoever. He could not even remember me when I said "hello" and then returned five minutes later. He had no short-term memory and had absolutely no long-term memory either. In short, he had no past, present or future.
He was complaining of headaches though, so we ordered an MRI scan of his brain. What we found blew us away. He had a large benign brain tumor sitting in the front of his brain, squarely pressing on the structures responsible for memory. Sure enough, when we took it out, he rapidly started to recollect everything. He had once been an engineer, but had developed a personality problem that got him fired. In retrospect, that personality problem was probably the first sign of the brain tumor. He then turned to alcohol as a salve, which eventually led to him becoming homeless and destitute. Once the tumor was removed, it was as if the last eight years of his life had never happened. I have never forgotten that gentleman and his remarkable story.
Tonight, we tell the story of Doug Bruce. One day, he suddenly "woke up" on a subway. He got on the subway as Doug Bruce, but by the time the train had stopped, he was no longer that man. He had forgotten everything, including his name, where he came from, his family. He didn't even know why he was on the train. It turns out Doug may have had a cyst in his brain that ruptured, causing instant and complete memory loss. As a neurosurgeon, I can tell you that it can happen.
But it got me wondering: How many people out there who are homeless and dismissed as mentally ill might in fact have a very treatable brain problem? And how could we ever figure that out?
Our busted truck don't mean much
I was in Gulfport, Mississippi, the day before Katrina struck, preparing to cover the storm's arrival. Forecasts indicated the city of 71,000 would be hit by the powerful eastern side of the storm's eye wall. We knew the damage would be incredible.
Touring around Gulfport after the storm, we saw an entire empty beachfront where houses had once stood. Today, a half year later, the scene looks eerily similar.
The Gulfport coast, indeed, much of Mississippi's coast, is still full of wreckage. It looks like a bombing zone. FEMA trailers are set up all over the city. Many businesses in downtown Gulfport remain closed. Some still have blown out windows and shattered walls that appear frozen in time.
Our CNN vehicle was totaled the day of Katrina's arrival when a huge chunk of fence landed on top of us while we were sitting in it. We weren't hurt, but we were shaken up. It all seems so insignificant now after experiencing these last six months with the people of the Gulf Coast.
The misery of a camping trip that never ends
I guess anything is better than living on wet ground and using a garden hose to bathe, but life in this temporary tent city in Pass Christian, Mississippi, is far from ideal.
The Village, as it's called, was set up by the city and paid for by FEMA. At one point, it housed more than 300 people. Now it's down to about 83. I visited the Village to shoot a story this week and saw firsthand how these people are living.
Outdoor sinks to wash their faces. Shared shower rooms. Their kids go to daycare in a tent. They eat in the meal tent. Nobody has their own bathroom. It's like a camping trip that never ends.
Most of the people who live here have lost everything. FEMA says it's trying to get trailers for all of the Village residents, but it's been six months since the storm.
Tonight on the show, you'll meet a mother, 76, and her daughter, 50, who've been living in a tent since November, when the Village opened. They are living in limbo, waiting for a trailer that hasn't arrived.
The mother has chronic asthma and the daughter has liver disease and panic attacks -- conditions that have worsened since the storm. They say that for health reasons they need to live near other, even though they didn't before the storm. FEMA says that may be part of the hold up.
What can be done? What should be done? You tell me.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Old horrors, young victims (Part I)
I've covered horror stories across the African continent, and every time, I tell myself I've seen it all. But nothing could have prepared me for the scenes I witnessed in the tiny dusty town of Gulu in northern Uganda.
It is in this region that a rebel force -- the Lord's Resistance Army, which claims to base its principles on the Ten Commandments -- has waged a protracted 20-year war against the Ugandan government. The army is led by Joseph Kony, a 43-year-old so-called "Disciple," who is as elusive as he is mysterious. His modus operandi is to kidnap children from villages at night and indoctrinate them into his group. Reports from victims suggest he physically and mentally abuses them into submission. The United Nations says more than 30,000 children have been kidnapped in the last 10 years alone.
In a bid to escape danger over the past three years, every young child in every village surrounding Gulu makes a nightly trek from their village homes to the relative comfort of the town. The locals call them the "night commuters."
They're given shelter at several locations in Gulu -- a canvas roof; a cold, hard floor; and if they're lucky, a blanket. No food, no water, no showers are available. But at least they get to become kids again, knowing Joseph Kony would not attack the well-fortified town. In the morning, they get up and proceed to make the long commute back home, just lucky to be alive.
Those who are kidnapped by Kony's army live a life of horror. While reporting this story, we met Alice, a 19-year-old girl who recently managed to escape after eight years in captivity. She told me blood chilling stories of events no child deserves to witness. She spoke of how the group she was in was made to kill a child who tried to escape by biting him to death, of how she was made to cut up and cook the body of a village chief killed by the rebels and forced to eat the meat from his body, and of how she was raped and eventually had a child from the man who defiled her. She showed us the physical scars of her time as a child soldier -- bullet holes on her leg and shrapnel wounds on her chest.
The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant of arrest for Joseph Kony. Nonetheless, he's able to operate with relative impunity throughout the northern part of Uganda. As long as he's alive and leading his ragtag group of rebels, no child in northern Uganda will ever be safe.
What's your take on the Katrina report?
Looking for some light reading? The White House released a 228-page report
today on what it learned from the response of the government and the private sector to Hurricane Katrina. The main news
seems to be an admission that inexperienced disaster response managers and a lack of planning, discipline and leadership contributed to vast federal failures. What do you think?
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
New Orleans honors the cops who stayed
Walk into any tourist trap in the French Quarter and you will see a shirt that reads -- "Hurricane Katrina came and all I got was a new Cadillac and plasma TV."
It's a jab at the New Orleans Police Department. In the days after the storm, some cops were accused of looting high-priced items like plasma TVs. Others, it is alleged, swiped some cars from a Cadillac dealer.
Sgt. Todd Morrell can look at the shirt now and summon a slight chuckle. But nothing about Katrina was a laughing matter for him and other members of the city's SWAT team in the days after Katrina.
Morrell went into the flooded Ninth Ward after the hurricane, and he was simply shocked. He and other officers had two small flatboats, along with a chainsaw he had borrowed from his father and forgot to return.
For days on end, he used that chainsaw to free residents trapped in attics. He and the other New Orleans officers who stayed on the job did this work out of the media spotlight. They worked around the clock before most reporters even made it to the mostly heavily flooded areas. Morrell is credited with rescuing hundreds of people.
Today, some long overdue recognition came his and his colleagues' way. All the New Orleans officers who stayed on the job received a pin honoring their dedication and hard work.
Hurricane countdown: Is FEMA ready?
Start the clock. The next hurricane season is less than 100 days away, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is promising to be new, improved and ready to respond by then.
I am sitting in my office right now reading over a list of reforms the agency is working on -- better communication, streamlined supply chains, faster debris removal, a doubling of its capacity to register victims after any disaster, less red tape.
It all sounds promising. And, at first blush, it looks like many of the significant problems that arose during Hurricane Katrina are addressed in these plans and that, if they are implemented properly, FEMA officials could make some progress toward rebuilding public confidence in their agency.
Still, I'm going to sit down with FEMA Acting Director David Paulison today to discuss these matters, and I'm wondering how confident he is that all of this will go as planned. Reforms are never easy. They are even harder when a great many skeptical voters are watching. So, I'm wondering -- with the next hurricane season around the corner, what would you ask the head of FEMA?
Liar, liar, brain on fire (Part II)
So I'm the correspondent on the "liar, liar" story and actually took the MRI lie detector test discussed in an earlier post.
The MRI can be pretty intimidating -- it's a huge machine and constantly makes banging noises. The sound made me think of a metal bat dropping on a cement floor, over and over again.
The doctors slid me into the machine and asked me a bunch of questions over the course of 40 minutes. As if on cue, my brain "lit up" every time I lied.
Then I took a good old-fashioned polygraph. I had to wear an inflated blood pressure cuff for the duration of the test -- about 10 minutes. I didn't really beat the test, but I could certainly mess with the results by changing my breathing and thinking about other stuff.
Both tests were very uncomfortable and I can see why neither has 100 percent accuracy. But the doctors at Temple are on to something. And they are fired up about the possibility of one day having a fool-proof lie-detector test.
Tell you the truth, the whole idea kind of freaks me out. I'm not too excited about someone being able to see inside my brain and read my thoughts. What do you think? Is a fool-proof lie detector a good or bad thing? Yes, you have to type it out, because we can't read your mind...yet.
Liar, liar, brain on fire (Part I)
Remember that scene in the movie "Meet the Parents" where Robert De Niro gives his soon-to-be son-in-law, Ben Stiller, a lie detector test? Stiller's character is nervous and flunks the test even though he didn't really do anything wrong. Well, that's long been a problem with polygraph tests. They are pretty good at catching liars, but they sometimes wrongly accuse honest people too.
Now science is trying to come up with a better test. For tonight's show, we talked to two doctors at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who recently put 11 volunteers into an MRI machine and asked six of them to lie and five to tell the truth to a series of questions. The results are remarkable.
When the volunteers lied, twice as many parts of their brains were active -- about 14 unique areas. But when the volunteers told the truth, only seven areas of the brain were active. Turns out it takes much more concentration to lie and doctors can see the difference using an MRI machine.
The doctors are excited about their research, but stress it is still in the early stages. Nonetheless, I can think of a lot of situations in which this test would be pretty useful -- cheating spouses, criminals, lying politicians. I'll bet you can too.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Soap opera watchers need not apply
What will life be like in the "new" New Orleans? City Councilman Oliver Thomas doesn't want to see any loafers.
Thomas stirred the pot this week by saying public housing residents who want to come back to the city should be required to get a job. Thomas says he doesn't want people to "sit around watching soap operas." He also says he hasn't gotten any negative reaction to his comments.
But maybe he needs to go to the Hot Spot Barbershop, as we did, just across from one of the city's public housing developments. That's where we found Karrie McElveen. She says too many locals don't have the skills they need to get a job.
We also met Toya Madison, who's been back in New Orleans three days after evacuating to Indiana. She says she's furious that a city councilman would try to "kick people when they're already down."
What do you think? Is Thomas kicking people when they are down? Or is he saying what needs to be said?
Klansman told me to get out of America
I met Jarred Hensley, a Ku Klux Klan member, six months ago while working on a story about racial tensions in Ohio. I remember being struck by his age: At 23, he was -- and remains -- the second most powerful Klansman in the state.
Hensley told me the Klan was growing younger and larger, information we later verified with the Southern Poverty Law Center. I asked Hensley if we could attend one of his Klan meetings. He told me non-members are not allowed. But he eventually agreed to videotape the meeting for us. His tape arrived a few months later.
After reviewing the tape (only portions of the meeting were filmed), I went to Ohio to interview Hensley. He told me there was an increase in Klan membership after 9/11. He also said the Internet is the Klan's number one recruiting tool.
Personally, this has been a hard story for me to report. As an Asian-American journalist, I found it difficult at times to listen to his views objectively. At one point in the interview, he told me I should leave the country.
Some people have asked me why we are giving the Ku Klux Klan a platform. I respond by saying there is clear evidence the white supremacist movement is on the rise in this country and around the world. This story cannot be ignored.
What Katrina stories are we missing?
We're heading to the Gulf Coast soon and want to hear what you're thinking about Katrina recovery and rebuilding efforts. Do you live in an area that's seen an influx of displaced Gulf Coast residents? Did they bring crime or goodwill with them? Have you witnessed situations where your tax dollars are being wasted? Is your government getting the job done? Send us your stories.
And please make sure you let us know how to reach you.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Inside the port deal that's giving Bush headaches
Dubai is an amazing place, a small desert port at the edge of the Persian Gulf that has exploded into a work-in-progress of construction cranes and half-built high rises. Every time I visit, it looks different. Bigger, busier, more extravagant. The word boomtown seems inadequate to describe the frenetic pace. It is Hong Kong on steroids at the moment.
But the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is located, is also a place touched by 9/11. Terrorist money came through here, so did some of the hijackers, who flew through Dubai's famed airport.
This is how what seemed to be a dull business story about port contracts has become a political and emotional controversy. One shipping company buying another is big money, but not big news, unless the company doing the buying is another one of those go-go Dubai companies, the Dubai Ports World, and the other company controls container shipping at several U.S. ports, including New York.
That's where we are tonight. A company from a country tinged with 9/11 is seemingly suddenly in charge of running several American ports (did I mention the company they are buying-out is also foreign?). The White House says it is OK. International shippers say the company has a great record. But 9/11 families and members of Congress say different. Even the former head of DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, says he can understand why politicians are saying "wait a minute."
By the way, the British government also had a chance to block the deal, because the Dubai company would be in charge of a couple of UK ports. It didn't. This one ain't going away for a while.
So I am back in New York today, and much relieved. Just a few minutes ago, I sent my book to the publisher. It is a great feeling. The book was a couple weeks past deadline, and my editor was starting to get nervous. You know, calling me "just to chat" to "see how things are going." He was polite about it, but I could tell he was anxious. So was I.
I mentioned the book once before on this blog, and a bunch of you wrote in asking me more about it. The title is "Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival." But the truth is, it still feels strange to talk about it, so I'll blog about it some other time. It's something I've been writing in my head for many years.
This weekend, I stayed in Texas and met up with Oprah Winfrey. She's building a number of houses for Katrina evacuees and was taping her show in Houston. I put together some stories for her from New Orleans, and those will air tomorrow on "Oprah."
Then, tomorrow night, Oprah will be on "360°" giving us her take on the response to Katrina, and what she hopes to accomplish with the building project in Houston.