Monday, April 24, 2006

A Brief Visit to New Orleans

Last week, after dropping Mia off at her mom's for spring break, I drove on through to New Orleans. It was the first time I'd seen the place since leaving last June, which was of course before Katrina hit. I'd been warned that the place was still in rough shape; but still, I thought. It's been over eight months. How bad can it be?

Well, it's a mixed bag. The French Quarter is as good as new, for the most part. At least from all outward appearances. Because it was built on the natural levee, it suffered no flooding damage at all. Wind and fire damage was minimal, and walking down Decatur Street I couldn't tell that anything bad had ever happened to the city. The Central Business District looks all right from the outside; it's only when you notice how many businesses have failed to re-open that you sense that something is wrong.

The Lower Garden District, where I lived and worked, is also in pretty good shape. There is noticeable wind and rain damage here -- holes in people's roofs, defoliated trees, the great oaks looking sickly and bedraggled -- and many businesses are still struggling. My friend Ingrid told me that it's like living in Spain, with their afternoon siestas; businesses will close for a few hours in the middle of the day, sometimes without warning, if they are short-staffed. Many of them are.

But the real story is told in the outlying areas. These are the places that were once swampland and were drained in the early to mid-20th century to accommodate population growth. These are the areas that are below sea level and deal with serious flooding issues even after a garden variety thunderstorm. Here, almost nothing has been done. This was the first thing I saw driving in. I came in westbound on I-10 from Mississippi, passing through Slidell before I hit New Orleans. It was all I could do to keep my eyes on the road. Great ranks of trees which had lined the highway were uniformly snapped at mid-level, as though some wrathful hand had come down and chopped them all down with an angry motion. Outlying neighborhoods are devastated. It's as though whole acres had been lifted ten feet from the ground and dropped. A large sailboat was still beached yards away from a river. Oaks, their root systems as big as small busses, lay uprooted in people's front yards.

Driving through Lakeview, a suburb which hugs Lake Pontchartrain and borders the University of New Orleans, where I went to school, I was afforded a much closer view of the same conditions. Here the water line is marked by a thick rusty smear sometimes twelve feet off the ground. FEMA trailers are parked out in front of many of the homes, which seemed to me way past salvaging. Spray-painted glyphs on the sides of houses track the efforts of the SPCA as they searched for pets after the sadder business of human body removal had been completed. Small bushes and shrubs which had been completely submerged in the toxic waters are uniformly dead. They look like no dead plants I have ever seen before: they are not brown but a flat grey, like ashen constructions, like enormous leached brains lined up along the neutral ground and nestled in people's front lawns.

Here it was also clear how social class made a difference. The devastation is now almost categorically confined to low-income areas. Partly this is due to the fact that much of the wealthier New Orleanians lived on higher ground, and as the city expanded the less affluent had to move into the cheaper houses being built on converted swampland. But in the Lakeview area there are some upscale houses, and most of these had already been repaired and looked pretty damned good. Those who were waiting for insurance money to bail them out -- and the insurance companies are insisting that what happened to these houses was flood damage, not storm damage, thereby neutering thousands of claims -- are still waiting.

Claiborne Avenue, once a thriving center of black-owned small businesses, looks like a ghost town. There is nothing open there. Nothing. I used to dread driving through that area because the traffic was so thick; last week, as Ingrid guided me through the city, there were at best a dozen cars on the road.

I promised pictures, and I went there with digital camera in hand, but I have to admit I couldn't bring myself to take any. It felt too much like photographing the grievous wounds of a loved one. I understand there are tours through the devastated Ninth Ward, much to the anger of the people who still live there. I was reminded of a line from the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink: "You're just a tourist with a typewriter, Barton. I live here."

You've all seen the pictures anyway. If you want to see more all you have to do is use your search engine. You can check out the local news from The Times-Picayune by going here. Now that I'm once again distant from the ruin, I wish that I had taken some pictures. But at the time it felt too much like carrion-feeding.

After my last post Pam Noles reminded me that for all the neglect New Orleans still suffers, the rest of the Gulf Coast suffers even more. There is at least some measure of national press still devoted to my city; but nothing for the rest of the Gulf Coast, which suffers in the same way.

I want to go back again in the summer, and spend a little more time there. See a few more friends -- including Andy Fox, whom I was supposed to contact while I was there but didn't -- and just soak in the vibe of the place. Because it's still a beautiful city. And -- as I discovered on my arrival that night, feeling the place settle over me like a beaten leather jacket -- it's still my home.


At 11:04 PM, Blogger Tim Akers said...

I can't even imagine that. I can't think what it would be like to see a place I loved wrecked like that.


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