“Welcome to Katrinaville,” my friend Bill said when I called to tell him I’d arrived. It was my first visit to New Orleans since the hurricane, and Bill’s greeting indicated that the storm and its aftermath still lay heavy on the land—and on the mind.
Not that the hangover is breaking news. In the 18 months since Katrina, the progress of recovery efforts—or the lack thereof—has been a news staple. The Times-Picayune’s pages are full of depressing statistics: 62,000 Louisiana residents living in FEMA trailers; fewer than 400 of the 100,000 applicants have received federal funds to assist with hurricane-damaged homes; 19 murders in the city so far this year; an estimated price of $4.5 billion to fix a city water system leaking 50-60 million gallons a day. Guess what that does to water pressure?
Of course, the City That Care Forgot was more vulnerable than most, because even pre-Katrina the place had an encyclopedia of cares. The economy was stagnant, the poverty rate one of the worst in the country, the public schools appalling and the crime rate horrific. White flight had become so epidemic that some proposed building a second 30-mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to ease the exodus. The crisis engendered by the storm, and the ineptitude of all levels of government in responding to it, have exacerbated conditions already dire. A recent headline in The Onion, a satirical online newssheet, proclaimed: “FEMA Calls Rebuilding Complete As New Orleans Restored To Former Squalor.”
Despite the deterioration, which was apparent even when I lived there from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, my memories of the Crescent City are loving ones. I recall lying in bed at night listening to the siren call of boats on the Mississippi and the hum of the trolley on its tracks, the taste of my first crawfish bisque and the airy crunch of N.O. bread. Bicycling through the leafy Uptown district where I lived, I discovered that an urban neighborhood can be a thing of beauty unrivaled by newer suburbs, and that getting around an act of slow pleasure rather than a harried exercise in hurry-up-and-wait. I hadn’t ventured to see post-Katrina New Orleans with my own eyes because I didn’t want these memories shattered by bitter realities.
But when Bill invited me back for a reunion with former coworkers, I took a deep breath and booked a flight. Indicators of economic injury were apparent even before I left the airport. The baggage claim area was deserted except for my flight’s passengers. I shared the rental car shuttle with a lone couple. This in a city that mainlines tourism like an addict shoots drugs.
For the next four days I drove through the hurricane strike and flood zones. I talked to friends and strangers, to urban geographers and planners, all trying to pave a path through the ruins. And the ruins are considerable.
The neighborhoods of the Lower Ninth Ward near the Industrial Canal, where the flooding was most severe, have ceased to exist. Large tracts have been scraped and wait for the final verdict on whether, with a city population stuck at half the pre-storm figure, they are worth rebuilding. In one solitary stretch the bulldozers hadn’t yet reached were two small houses, one with an optimistic “For Sale” sign out front. The other’s walls featured a hand-scrawled plea: “Asking for Donation to Rebuild; 229-269-9078; Please Help.” Doubtful anyone has.
In the high water territories near Lake Pontchartrain, whole blocks of houses stand abandoned. Groves of trees in City Park, bathed in filthy water for weeks, are dead, and Nature is reclaiming the soccer fields.
Even in the Uptown district, which residents of less fortunate ’hoods call the “golden bubble” because large areas were spared widespread flooding, the evidence of damage is obvious. I quickly lost count of the number of boarded up storefronts; whole shopping centers stand abandoned. The trolley is still not plowing the neutral grounds (medians) of St. Charles and Carrollton avenues. Potholes, endemic to a place below sea level, have grown to gargantuan proportions and pockmark main avenues as well as side streets. Stop signs control traffic at major intersections where signal lights still are not working. Many streetlights are also not functioning, creating dark caverns under the live oaks along St. Charles. Imagine blocks of West End Avenue unlit, and the intersection with Bowling Avenue governed by stop signs—for 18 months.
Yet there are signs of resilience, manifestations of the stoicism of a people perilously poised between the Big Muddy and a big lake.
The resourceful hospitality industry had added disaster tours to its French Quarter and plantation homes menu. During my slow crawl through Pontchartrain Park, a 1960s African American neighborhood near the lake that demonstrates why building on a slab in a bowl is unwise, I tracked a “Tours by Isabelle” van. The miked operator pointed out, “See those sand traps? That’s all that’s left of the golf course.”
Downriver from the central city, where FEMA trailers are ubiquitous, I was pleased to find a more ancient form of housing. An 1820s West Indian-style raised cottage—that age understood the necessity of piers—sported a fresh coat of ochre paint. Nearby, Elizabeth’s Restaurant—“Real Food Done Real Good”—was open for lunch, a testament to the survival of culinary priorities.
Entrepreneurship at its most basic—and the index of injury—is evidenced by the confetti of temporary signs. In the most damaged areas, street names are marked by hand-lettered placards that compete for phone pole space with printed flyers: “Slab Removal”; “Unhappy with your Insurance Claims?”; “We Tear Down Houses: Locally Owned.” ’Hoods with salvageable building stock feature: “We Do Mold”; “Roofing and Dry Wall Specialists”; “Cleanout Crew.” Proof that the social life of the Ninth Ward has survived the devastation: an advertisement for “DNA Paternity Testing.” And then there are the rhetorical gestures of pride and despair: “Fauborg St. John Is Back!” and “Enough!”
Just beneath the surface of the Big Easy, however, lies much unease. “Most of the people who live here have major mood swings,” says local architect Wayne Troyer. “I fluctuate every day. Of course, New Orleans has always lived within its illusions. We’re up for Mardi Gras right now, next it will be Jazz Fest. But then it will be hurricane season again and we’ll all get depressed.”
For me it just took a heavy rain.
On my final day, a light drizzle began to fall just before dawn. It became a steady downpour by midmorning, as I dashed between shops on Magazine Street. By the time I emerged from lunch, the falling rain had become a torrent, the water having risen to the hubcaps of cars parked along the streets.
I’d lived through many such deluges during my years in residence, waded home from work with pants rolled to the thighs and shoes in hand, confident that the pumps would clear the city by nightfall. This time I had no such confidence. I jumped in my rental and headed for the airport far ahead of my scheduled departure, chanting, “Gotta get out of here. Gotta get out—now.”