Thursday, April 12, 2007
Highway overpass is home for balloon magician
Organizations like ACORN are trying to address New Orleans' need for affordable housing.
Cafe DuMonde is an institution in New Orleans. Tourists from all over the world come to the outdoor restaurant to savor its famous beignets. And every day, provided it's not raining or extremely cold, you can see 62-year-old Larry Lawler delighting the young and the young at heart with his balloon magic.
Pretty much anything a kid wants from a balloon, Larry can pull off. And if you're happy with his craftwork, he's happy to take a buck or two in tips. And that's how he makes his living.
This money used to be enough to pay his and his wife's rent in an apartment or a residential hotel. But prices have gone up dramatically in post-Katrina New Orleans. At the hotel they were living in when Katrina hit, prices have gone from $35 per night to $75 per night. So Larry and his wife Teresa have taken pretty drastic measures to find shelter.
It would be shocking to many of the parents who watch in delight as their children get their balloons, but Larry and Teresa spend many nights now eating sardines out of a can and sleeping in a box under a highway overpass in downtown New Orleans. We know that because we found them there while interviewing homeless people this week in New Orleans. The Lawlers are part of an expanding newly homeless contingent in this city.
New Orleans has a far smaller population now than it did before Hurricane Katrina. Most estimates have it at less than half of what it was before August 29, 2005. But experts say the number of homeless in New Orleans has gone from around 6,000 before Katrina to 12,000 now. The reason for that, they say, is that housing prices have skyrocketed as a result of an extreme shortage of housing units and shelters.
We find the homeless under bridges. We find them squatting in abandoned flood-devastated homes and churches. One man we talked to says he had never been homeless until three months ago. He says his daughter is in the U.S. Air Force in Germany, and she has no idea her dad is living in the streets. He says he doesn't have the heart to tell her.
Housing advocates in New Orleans are aware that people love their city and don't want to leave. But they advise those who want to come back here to make sure they have a job lined up before they come, because lower income people could find themselves as part of the newly homeless too.
Our balloon man Larry says he still hopes that home prices will come down and his life will go back to the way it used to be. But for now, sleeping outside is the fallback method of choice for a couple you might meet the next time you visit New Orleans.
Newcomers who are changing New Orleans
Editor's note: Susan Roesgen is a CNN correspondent based in New Orleans. She has more than a decade of experience covering New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
I'm tired. This town is tired. Tired of waiting. Tired of the run around from the insurance guy, the FEMA guy, the Small Business Administration guy, pick your guy. We're too worn out to be fed up. It's like, whatever.
The people who keep track of things like worn out New Orleanians did a survey. They found that about half the people who've made it this far after the hurricane are seriously considering throwing in the towel. The big indignities -- like crime -- and the little indignities -- like the hole in the street that won't ever get fixed -- are just too much. We survived the hurricane because we said we'd never leave New Orleans, but honestly, other cities are starting to look pretty darn good.
Lucky for us, reinforcements have arrived. Bright, well-educated, and eager. We could hate them if we had the strength. Instead, we're glad to see their new ideas and new energy, and they say they're here to stay. Here are a few:
- Pastor Ray Cannata from New Jersey. He turned down a cushy job in San Diego to take over a Presbyterian church that was down to just 15 members after the storm. Ray's real world philosophy -- "God is messy; a Christian's job is to go where the pain is" -- and his real world work ethic -- the church has gutted more than two hundred houses -- is winning new converts. The congregation is at a hundred now, and growing.
- John Alford, whiz kid from New York. Harvard MBA grad. Where is he today? Trying to hire teachers to reopen a flooded New Orleans school. He fell in love with the city's jazz and food, but says the schools here are "a horror." His goal is to start with one fifth-grade class to help spur a new wave of smart kids in what's left of one of the shabbiest school districts in the nation.
- Sherrita Bishop. Criminology degree from the University of New Mexico. Did the tourist thing in New Orleans a month before the hurricane, then waited for the water to go down so she could come back and strap on a gun. She's one of the first 30 new police recruits since the storm. Why? "I don't know why," she says. "I just found a niche. I want to do what I can to help people."
Who are these misty-eyed idealists? Locals call them the new "vanguard." Tim Williamson, a New Orleans native, founded a company that matches investors to budding entrepreneurs. He says the newcomers will change the city.
"They believe that New Orleans is one of the greatest challenges in their lifetimes. How could they sit back and go to New York, Boston, Atlanta, when they have this grand opportunity in New Orleans?" he says.
Their "grand opportunity" may be the city's salvation.
Slow going in the Big Easy
It is a beautiful day in New Orleans. We managed to escape the driving rain and miserable weather of New York this morning and make it to a very sunny and warm Crescent City.
I'm not sure how many times I've been back here; I guess more than a dozen since Katrina.
Each time I return, I check-in with old friends, people I've interviewed in the past, our reporters who live here. The questions I ask are always the same: How's your family doing? How's your home? Your business? Is your neighborhood developing? Is your garbage getting picked up?
There is progress, but it's slow. There is determination, but it's sometimes hard to hold onto.
The crime rate continues to rise, especially homicides. Tonight, we're going to talk to the husband of a filmmaker who was gunned down in her home. Her death was one of several at the start of the year that led to massive protests. But the violence has not stopped.
We're also looking at New Orleans' housing crisis. It's hard to believe, but it's now more expensive to rent or own a home here than it was before the hurricane. People who had roofs over their heads are now homeless and struggling to make ends meet.
That's just the beginning. We'll have a lot more from New Orleans on "360."
We'll also explore more angles on the Don Imus story. We continue to get hundreds of e-mails on the controversy and just who should be held accountable. Many viewers say this has all gone too far, that it's time to move on. Others, of course, are still waiting to see what CBS decides to do.
And, in a provocative column in the Kansas City Star, Jason Whitlock said the problem isn't one radio host, it's the gangster culture which has become a dominating social force in some African-American communities. We'll talk to him about the portrayal of women and the glorification of destructive lifestyles in hip hop music.
It's all ahead. And in case you missed last night's show, check out our podcast (click here to get the podcast
). See you later.
Husband recounts wife's murder
Sometimes, if you're lucky, there are certain people you interview who stick with you. They leave such an impression that long after the lights are out and the camera and tripod put away, your thoughts still go back to that conversation. That happened to me this week.
I flew to Canada to interview Paul Gailiunas. His wife, Helen Hill, was murdered in New Orleans back in January in their home. Paul has relocated to Canada with the couple's only son, two-and-a-half year old Francis. I met Paul just a week after Helen died, but he wasn't ready to be interviewed about her death until this week. She's been gone just over two months.
We met at a hotel for the interview, and when he walked in, he hugged me. I think he needed a hug more than I did. He is still visibly shaken by his wife's death. His speech is halting. He's a tad forgetful. And his heart is clearly broken.
Helen and Paul had been married 11 years. They met at Harvard and moved to New Orleans in 1992. They both found it enchanting. Helen wanted to unite the community, so she held regular tea parties at their house and invited the neighbors. She worked as an animated filmmaker. Paul was a doctor who catered to the poor. They fed the homeless together and raised a pot-bellied pig. I've looked at many pictures of Helen and there isn't one where she doesn't have a smile on her face. Life was good.
Then 5:30 a.m., January 4, an intruder slipped into their home, it appears, through a back door. Paul had fallen asleep in his son's room, so Helen was alone in their bedroom.
"I woke to the sound of her voice struggling and screaming, "Don't! Get out! Don't hurt my child! Get away from my child! Get away from my baby!'" Paul told me.
Paul says Helen was struggling with a man by the front door. She yelled to him to call 911. He ran to the back of the house, carrying their young son in his arms, and tried to hide in the bathroom.
"Within a few seconds, a man walked toward me through the house. I saw him walk through the kitchen holding a gun toward me. He stopped about four feet or so away from me and there were about three gunshots," Paul said.
We saw the bullet holes at the house. They are still in the bathroom cabinets. The bullets grazed Paul's cheek and sliced right through his arm and his hand. Helen wasn't so lucky. A single shot to the neck killed her. By the time Paul was ready to try CPR it was too late. He says the attacker, who was never caught, disappeared in minutes without a word. The police investigation appears to be at a standstill.
Helen's death was the 12th murder in New Orleans that week and the sixth in a 24-hour period. That is the kind of violence they are dealing with here. So far this year, there have been at least 58 murders. In all of last year, there were 160. The police force is still down about 300 officers since the storm. Now the mayor is asking Congress for $34 million to help fight crime.
But survivors like Paul wonder what the answer is. He says you can't just pour money into a city and fix it. He says the issues of poverty and injustice and drugs need to be addressed to prevent people from kiling each other. He knows fixing New Orleans won't bring Helen back.
Paul and Helen evacuated from the city a couple days before Katrina hit. They were gone about a year, but returned to New Orleans to save it, to help rebuild it, but now someone else will have to do it. This family isn't going back.
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Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Don Imus, Duke lacrosse: A common thread
We got a great response last night to our call-in segment on Don Imus. Tons of calls and thousands of emails. I wish we had been able to get to more of them.
We're working on two big stories for "360" tonight that have one thing in common: race.
The stories are the ongoing Don Imus controversy and the Duke University rape case. There were major developments on both fronts today. Tonight, we'll deal with the important issues these stories raise, such as accountability, double standards, free speech and punishment.
Two questions for you: Do you think Imus should be fired? Do you think there was a rush to judgment against the lacrosse players?
On a much lighter note, we have some pretty cool news about our foray into podcasts. We launched the first one yesterday. I know it's early, but according to iTunes, we were the 9th most downloaded podcast and the only news program to make it in the top 10.
If you haven't watched it, please check it out. (click here to get the podcast
) It's definitely still a work in progress. We'll continue to try to build on it, make it better, stronger, smarter. I'm beginning to sound like the opening of the "Six Million Dollar Man" so I'll shut up.
Anyway, thanks and we'll see you tonight.
One man's name cleared; another waits
James Giles spent 10 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. This week, he became the 13th man in Dallas County, Texas, to be exonerated by DNA testing since 2001.
Not too long ago, CNN Correspondent Gary Tuchman and I went down to Dallas to meet the 12th man: James Waller.
It took a jury just 46 minutes to convict Waller of raping a 12-year-old boy in 1982. He spent more than a decade in prison. After making parole, Waller was forced to register as a sex offender.
In an effort to clear his name, Waller contacted The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic. The organization used DNA testing to prove Waller could not have committed the crime.
On January 17, James Waller stood in court and heard the Dallas County District Attorney and a judge acknowledge his innocence and apologize for the years the justice system had taken from him.
The next step for Waller was to completely clear his name. That took a pardon by the governor. It finally happened one month ago, after a seven week wait.
During those seven weeks, many observers questioned why Texas Governor Rick Perry didn't act sooner. We'll be watching to see how long it takes the governor to officially clear James Giles' name.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
We're taking calls tonight on Don Imus
Was the two week suspension enough? Should Don Imus have been fired? Or is he getting a raw deal? We're taking your calls tonight at this number -- 877-648-3639 -- after 10 p.m. ET. Let us know what you think.
The Anderson Cooper 360 Daily Podcast has just launched. Subscribe to the podcast for free and get daily downloads. Check out the following page for more info on the podcast:
Monday, April 09, 2007
Was an innocent man executed in Texas?
Cameron Todd Willingham was just 23 when he was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three little girls - 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins, Kameron and Karmon.
Willingham told police he tried to save his girls, who all died in the 1991 fire at the family's Corsicana, Texas home, but fire investigators say clues at the scene told them he'd actually set the fire. He was convicted of arson homicide.
But today, some leading fire investigators around the country say the old method of determining whether or not a fire was arson is outdated and unreliable. Pour patterns on the floor are no longer considered proof an accelerant was used, they say. There is a newly understood phenomenon called "flashover" that can cause such patterns without an accelerant ever being introduced.
These investigators say for years arson determinations have been based more on folklore, than fact. Hunches handed down for generations.
So is it possible fire investigators in the Willingham case, who believe they found pour patterns on the floor and three points of origin for the fire, got it wrong in the Willingham case? That would mean on February 17, 2004, the state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.
Fire investigator and forensic scientist John Lentini studied the Willingham case and determined it was not arson that killed those little girls. He calls the original investigation B.S. - Bad Science.
Lentini told me, ''There's maybe 75,000 suspicious fires a year. That's 75,000 chances to get it wrong.'' We met Lentini at a Maryland lab so he could show us why he believes the relatively new arson science debunks the myths he says have been handed down for years. I was amazed at what I saw. I don't know if you've ever seen the show "Myth Busters" on the Discovery Channel, but I felt like I was in the middle of a "Myth Busters" episode.
One so-called "indicator" for those who originally investigated the Willingham case is something called "crazed glass." For years, crazed glass -- which has webbing or tiny cracks inside it -- was believed to be a sure sign of a very hot fire, one that likely involved an accelerant. But Lentini and the others showed us how "crazed glass" is actually caused by rapid cooling, not rapid heating. We sprayed a piece of hot glass with water, the same way a fireman would spray a window with his hose, and that is when the glass began to crack inside. It didn't crack at all when we heated it up.
The man who prosecuted Willingham calls the new findings "silly" and says he has no doubt Willingham was guilty, based on fire evidence and Willingham's history of drinking and domestic abuse. The original fire investigators also stand by their findings. The Texas Governor's office would not comment for this report.
These new forensics are now used as the gold standard of arson investigation around the world. It may have come too late in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (the governor of Texas reviewed the new findings just 15 minutes before Willingham's execution and chose to go ahead with it) but they could save hundreds of others behind bars for arson who claim they're innocent. Problem is, the International Association of Arson Investigators, doesn't see a need to reopen or revisit all of the arson convictions on the books.
If that was your loved one behind bars, wouldn't you want the new ways of looking at evidence heard?