Momma's Mission

Amid the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, one woman stayed with a simple goal: to take care of those who need it the most. Momma D soldiers on in flood-tom Treme. She gives survivors strength to rebuild.

By Trymaine D. Lee
Staff writer for the Times Picayune

Diane "Momma D" Frenchcoat rises early each morning and pushes a cart of food and supplies through the sludge-spoiled streets of Treme and the 7th Ward.

She delivers food and hope for the hungry. She serves the delusional and dejected, the junkies and the flood survivors who have remained in the city despite its mass evacuation. Each day, she pushes her cart up and down Esplanade Avenue and Dorgenois, Aubry and North Tonti streets, calling to those too ill or too old or too stubborn to leave the neighborhoods that· they've loved for so long.

"You need something to eat?" Frenchcoat yelled to a skinny, shirtless man perched in a second-floor window of a home on Esplanade near Treme Street, earlier this week. "You hungry? You want some food?"

The man peered down from his post to the mud-crusted block below and responded with silence.
"You need some food, baby?" Frenchcoat hollered again.

The man stood there for a moment then vanished into the darkness. "So many of them are scared to come out of their homes. But they're hungry, I know they are. So, I just come by every day and let them get used to my voice and hope they come out."

She marches on each day, up and down Treme and St. Philip and St. Ann streets calling out to the frail and the frightened, to those who shutter their windows at the sounds of the military machines grinding on their blocks or hovering above their humbled homes.

Her cart is usually packed with baby formula, deodorant, canned soup and sandwiches. Some of it has been "liberated" from local groceries, she said, where it would have gone to waste in the wake of the hurricane and flood. Some had been given to her by out-of-state soldiers sympathetic to her cause.

"I can't think of a better gift in the face of this tragedy than Momma D," said Lt. Ken Noack, 24, of the 82nd Airborne out of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina. "She's just the sweetest woman."

Noack and his men piled out of a military vehicle Wednesday onto Dorgenois Street, bearing bags of ice.

"With this city being so sad right now, to see her so willing to help brings smiles to our faces,H he said, "the only ones we've had in two weeks."

Noack said Momma D has helped them find dozens of people in need of help. who otherwise might never gotten attention.

Frenchcoat said she has too much work ahead of her to leave the city. And she said she won't be forced out either. Not by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, not by New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass and not by any other official pressing people to leave their homes.

"This is me. This is my home," she said, pointing to the brown gravel beneath her feet Wednesday. "This is me to the bone. Why would I leave now?," she said. "Why would I leave my people when so many of them are still here, suffering."

Her graying dreadlocks flowed down the nape of her neck, spilling over her sturdy, sloping shoulders as she spoke of a city she hopes will be reborn from the loins of her people.

Momma D has a loyal following of community activists working to help stabilize Treme from the grass-roots up. They've stayed behind to help their people, their neighbors and themselves.

They call themselves the Soul Patrol, a loosely organized group led by Momma D. The Soul Patrol was on the front lines battling the floods and the hunger following Hurricane Katrina.
In the midst of the crisis, Soul Patrol members said they were about 30 strong. As time went on, the numbers dwindled. Tragedy gripped a few, some losing family members, others physically and mentally worn down.

"I ain't going nowhere," said Soul Patrol member Earl Barthe, 45. "I'm the son of a bricklayer. I'm ready to cut some sheetrock, lay some block, anything to rebuild the city."

Members of the Soul Patrol said they "liberated" nearby McDonogh Elementary 42, where they evacuated hundreds of area residents during the flooding. The fire department then shipped the residents to the Superdome and Interstate 10, said Manuel Mercadel, 48.

"We had facilities there, dry land and a roof for those people," Mercadel said. Mercadel said Frenchcoat has been an inspiration to th~ entire movement. She's been like a big sister who always has your back and treats everyone as an equal, he said. .

"She has a love affair with this city," said Jerome Smith, 64, a fellow activist and friend who said he's known Momma D since the early 1960s. "A love affair that she's had for a very long time."
Last week, Smith went looking for Frenchcoat to coax her out of New Orleans to a shelter in Texas. Smith said he had wanted to use her clout to organize the now evacuated young men from the community and prepare them to re-enter the city as a productive work force.

Smith called on Compass to help him find Frenchcoat. Compass, who did not support the idea of residents remaining in the city for any reason, extended the police resources to get Momma D.
Smith and a convoy rolled down Esplanade, where the sight of a short woman in dreadlocks and bright yellow waders brought a smile to Smith's face. The two activists met in the middle of the road, embraced and exchanged notes. The pair huddled and whispered.

Momma D had a plan.

"Rescue. Return. Restore," she said, each word seeming to freeze from her lips and hang before falling into the other.

"Can you here what I'm saying, baby? Listen to those words again," she said, leaning closer.
"Rescue, return, restore. We want the young, able-bodied men who are still here to stay to help those in need. And the ones that have been evacuated. We want them to come home and help clean up and rebuild this city. How can the city demand that we evacuate our homes but then have thousands of people from across this country volunteering to do the things that we can do ourselves?"

[This article first appeared in the Times Picayune
Sunday, September 18, 2005 Metro Section]

Date: Sat, 24 Sep 2005
Subject: needs for momma d and soul patrol
From: catherinejones [at] riseup [dot] net


Momma D is a long-time New Orleans resident living at 1733 N. Dorgenois in New Orleans. She stayed in New Orleans for the duration of the hurricane and its aftermath. There is no electricity or running water in her neighborhood. So far she is helping 50 families, more arriving each day.

See her story in the Times-Picayune [above].

Soul Patrol is an organization of community members working to assist and protect their neighborhood. Supplies needed:

  • Generators
  • Charcoal
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Cell phones with car chargers
  • Plastic cups, forks, knives/spoons
  • Boxes of soymilk that do not need refrigeration
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Juice
  • Propane grills
  • Non-perishable food
  • Water
  • Flashlights lanterns
  • Tents
  • First Aid supplies

Soul Patrol needs:

  • Big t-shirts (large, x large, 2 x, 3 x) that say "Soul Patrol" that are black, red and green (12 of each size)
  • Crocheted hats that are black, red and green (can be found in beauty shops- 50 needed)

Momma D says there is a need for a free clinic in her neighborhood. She is willing to donate a room in her house for this purpose. She also is asking for volunteers to come down to help clean.