Yesterday I finally made it to New Orleans, the place I’d been hoping to get to ever since the hurricane. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely don’t regret that I’m here in Mississippi — we’re doing important, necessary, work — but the reason I did this whole crazy Red Cross volunteer thing was because of what happened in New Orleans.
What to say? I didn’t know what to expect. Before I left New York, way back on October 12, I wasn’t hearing much about New Orleans anymore. A couple of stories here and there about the cleanup, plans for the future, stories about the rebirth of the French Quarter, maybe a follow-up about an individual resident or family. So I wasn’t sure what the state of the city as a whole was. Well, it’s a lot worse than I was prepared for. In fact, I have serious doubts as to whether they’ll ever be able to bring it back.
We (Lou, Julie [another ERV-worker from Kitchen 35], and Kay, who scored us the car) drove into the city over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, a 24-mile-long bridge over the body of water that flooded the city when the levees broke. The first sign things weren’t “normal” was the lack of traffic in a city that large, and of course the ominous sight of the Louisiana Superdome. We took the highway into the French Quarter, where we parked the car.
The Quarter, which was never flooded, looked pretty much the same, and we even had trouble parking, just like the old days. But the absence of people gave it all an odd feel, something nagging at the back of your brain. Many stores and restaurants were closed, and here and there you saw a boarded-up window, but there were tourists about, and business was being done. Thanks to a tip from antigravity_no, we ate lunch at Pierre Maspero’s, which was great. Like most of the eateries in the Quarter, they had a limited menu and served meals on paper plates, but the po’ boys were in prime form. Afterwards, we even strolled down to Café DuMonde for beignets.
Lou hails originally from New Orleans and partly why he made the trek was to check out some of his family’s property. So we piled back in the car and headed out to the 2200 block of St. Anne’s, which I think is in the Sixth Ward. (The floodwaters have receded so you can drive pretty much anywhere—especially folks like us in an official Red Cross vehicle.) This is where things got seriously freaky, as we drove around what seemed like a huge ghost town. As soon as we got out of the French Quarter, all we saw was street after street of empty homes, with wrecked cars lying at skewed angles. Occasionally, we would pass a surveyor or a road worker wearing a protective mask, and the only other vehicles were National Guard Hummers loaded with helmeted soldiers. and the rare moving van, there to pack up what was left after the floods.
I’ve remarked that the area along Route 90 in Gulfport/Biloxi looks like a nuclear bomb hit it, with nothing left except the buildings’ foundations. Much of New Orleans looks like what I’ve imagined would be the result of a neutron bomb: the people are gone and the buildings are left standing. Imagine that. Just try. It blows your mind.
Anyway, the house Lou wanted to see was his grandma’s place, which was now owned by his aunt. His grandma passed away some time ago, and his aunt left right before the hurricane and is now staying in Dallas. Unfortunately, even though the house is raised about five feet off the ground, water had gotten in and done its work. The place was trashed. The wind and water had combined to bring down an addition on the back of the house. It was a sad sight, especially because Lou had talked about how he had visited that house so many times over the years when he was a kid and played in the back yard. I was reminded for the umpteenth time that every disaster, no matter how large in scope, is personal.
Lou looked into another house on the block, a building that his family rented out for extra income. We were able to get inside that place, the door being wide open, to survey the chaos. Debris and furniture everywhere, holes in walls, broken glass, the works. Strangely, Lou found a Polaroid picture of a deceased uncle, still tacked to the wall even though his family hadn’t lived in the building for years.
Leaving the sad scene, we headed over to the infamous Ninth Ward, the scene of the heaviest flooding. As we drove along, every house, hundreds and hundreds of them, was marked in spray paint with codes for when they were checked, which task force did the checking, and whether any occupants or animals were found inside, dead or alive. Yikes. Many homes had their wrecked appliances set out on the sidewalk, ready for disposal (and freon removal) by the authorities.
We navigated through the empty streets to the Ninth Ward, without the aid of any working streetlights, and a few exciting trips the wrong way down one-way streets. (Hey! It’s hard to tell, what with signs having been blown down or spun around by the wind and water!) The Ninth Ward was just as deserted as the Sixth, and you could tell from the dark horizontal lines on the buildings how much higher the water had settled there. It too was totally empty and silent.
We decided to head back, for another meal in the Quarter and a little down-time before heading back to Gulfport and SeaBee base. On the way back, we passed this strange sight, a deserted powerboat sitting at a gas pump. Did it just float there, or was someone actually trying to gas up their boat at the Conoco Station? You tell me.
We had dinner at Angelie’s on Decatur (another of antigravity_no‘s recommendations), where we got a little taste of the scrappy NOLA music scene. These guys were really great, especially the old dude on trumpet and vocals. Anyone recognize him? We didn’t get his name. It’s sappy and cliché, but it was inspiring to see life going on in the city, despite (or perhaps because of) what it has been through. I mean, someone even passed out drunk at the bar and was carried out on an ambulance stretcher, and no one’s dinner was even interrupted.
Despite that nice last taste of “old” New Orleans, you can’t escape the realization that a city cannot survive purely on tourism. For the most part, those empty blocks and blocks of wrecked homes were inhabited by New Orleans’ poorest residents. Who’s going to rebuild them and put their lives back in order? An insurance or government check—or Red Cross disaster relief—can’t bring a neighborhood back to life, can’t change what already was a neglected community, can’t prevent something like this happening again. There are many, many hard years ahead for this unique, proud city.