Friday, May 4, 2007

The Big Easy

Last weekend my husband and I returned to visit one of our favorite American cities, New Orleans. I first visited when I was about twelve, with my grandparents. The oldest grandchild and the only one who didn’t get carsick, I was lucky to be taken on summer driving vacations with them all over the country. I particularly remember that my grandfather wanted to visit Al Hirt’s nightclub. Grandpa was a bellspinner; he spun the brass bells on band instruments, and he had worked on Hirt’s custom trumpet. We went to Preservation Hall and saw Sweet Emma Barrett at the piano. We ate at Antoine’s, and I have a souvenir menu from the long ago trip to prove it.

After we married, my husband and I traveled to New Orleans different times, after school let out for summer vacatioin, at spring break, at Thanksgiving. My point is that we had explored the city before Hurricane Katrina hit. We ate and drank, shopped, rode streetcars, went on tours of nightclubs, cemeteries, zoos and swamps. We had seen the terrific and the tacky; but we hadn’t seen the terrible.

This time we had three reasons to visit the Big Easy. We wanted to warm up our chilly Wisconsin bones after a cold a dreary winter and eat to fresh seafood. I wanted to visit a friend I only knew from online book discussions. And we wanted to see for ourselves the progress, or lack of progress, that the area is making in rebuilding itself after the 2005 hurricane.

The first two goals were accomplished easily. We had a comfortable hotel in the French Quarter, within walking distance of all the usual tourist destinations. The Quarter looked pretty much normal with the exception of missing live oaks, more empty storefronts than I remembered and and fewer people on the streets. I wondered if that was because we were two of the only people who were not attending Jazz Fest, or if folks just were nervous to return. So we wandered, peered at art and antiques, stuffed ourselves with gumbo and grilled shrimp. The Jax Brewery building that I remembered being filled with restaurants and shops was only part occupied, and whole sections were boarded up and silent, but shopping meccas don’t always succeed, and I was reassured. We saw a banner on a balcony hat read “Make levees, not war.” A shirt that read “FEMA, Fix Everything My A**”. A bumpersticker that read “New Orleans, a great city to swim home to.”

I also met the woman who I had known only through email conversations, and that meeting went well. We had a delicious brunch at the Renaissance Hotel in the Warehouse district. Still, we hadn’t ventured out far enough to see any real damage from the storm. My friend told us to remember, when we would finally take our Gray Line bus tour, that despite the devastation that remains now 20 months after Katrina, that progress is being made, and that many people have been and still are working to rebuild the neighborhoods, roads, utilities, and services that the storm destroyed. We had seen Jesse Jackson on television over the weekend leading a march in the city, protesting the slow pace and lack of progress in terms of a federal response to the damage. We had also heard about how the government had dropped the ball with regard to aid offered to the area by other countries. But I wasn’t really ready for what I would see.

We felt a little ghoulish wanting to take a tour of the misery Hurricane Katrina caused, but I felt that unless I saw for myself I wouldn’t really understand what happened. The Gray Line bus filled quickly with other people, and we learned that both Mike the bus driver and Joe the tour guide live in areas affected by the storm. Both were friendly, apparently ready to answer any questions and to tell personal stories. I started taking notes:
- the storm affected every neighborhood, black, white, rich, poor
- eighty percent of the city’s 450,000 were uprooted
- the French Quarter had heavy wind damage
- Antoine’s lost their roof and 22,000 bottles of wine
- there were 22 breaks in the levee system
- 300,000 homes damaged or destroyed
- sixty-five percent of the homes still have no electricity, and water pressure is unreliable
- 400,000 vehicles destroyed
- none of the area’s hospitals are fully functioning, the VA hospital will be pulled down,
at least 1,000 trees were lost
- of the 1,400 acres of city parks, 90% were under water

Then I stopped taking notes and just stared. I stared at high rise buildings that I could still see through because the glass of the upper stories was missing. I stared at middle class and ritzy houses with Xs on the doors indicating when the building was searched, by whom, and the the number of bodies that were found there. I stared at houses with holes in their roof, where the owners sat as the waters rose. There were houses that hadn’t been hit by trees, they had floated into trees, and now they sit off their foundations, filling with mold. There were some FEMA trailers linked by electrical lines, some heavy construction, some spray painted messages (Cindy and Ted OK; Don’t bulldoze; Help; U loot, U die). Some houses were being rebuilt on raised pilings. There were empty shopping centers and gas stations, a ghostly skeleton of a roller coaster at Six Flags. Little memorials. Teams of college students working to build Habitat for Humanity houses in the 9th Ward. It looked to me, even though I was told over and over that things are getting slowly better, like the end of the world, like a movie set of the apocalypse. It was overwhelming.

I believe that eventually individuals, charitable organizations, and the government will rebuild much of what has been lost here, that it is the nature of this country to come back from natural and manmade disasters. But I also am thinking of and praying for the people whose families, homes, jobs and schools were altered forever on that August day in 2005.

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