August 29, 2006

Remembering Katrina, Part One

Cross-posted from American Princess...

(Note: I wanted to do a tribute to the city of New Orleans for the first anniversary of Katrina, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought that my trip diary from my recent visit--just two weeks ago now--was a far better way to remember and look forward than to see the city itself, even if it is through my eyes. So here, in my own words and my own pictures (which I'll upload this afternoon when I am home and not on a limited capacity server) the city of New Orleans, one year later...)

In the voodoo religion, nothing really dies, not people, not their legacies, and certainly not their souls. What it destroys is only the physical body, the earthly shell; it leaves the spiritual body free to begin a new life, unhindered by the limitations of humanity. As the City of New Orleans is the epicenter of the voodoo culture outside of the Caribbean, it’s fitting that while the structure—the physical body—of the city disappeared almost completely, its spirit lives on.

Two weeks ago, I took off for the Big Easy, lured by a friend anxious to show me that her city didn’t evaporate in the wake of Katrina, and by my own curiosity as to what the third world really looked like. Last August, as an entire country tried to pull together enough resources to rescue the city before it disappeared under water, every major news outlet made certain to mention that the city could never recover. Its people were forgotten and then scattered. The country moved on to more important issues, like illegal immigration, Congressional elections, and whether Brad and Angelina would parent the next Savior of Humanity. Meanwhile, New Orleans made a conscious decision to rebuild and renew, despite a population that wouldn’t return, a simpleton mayor, and overwhelming odds. What I discovered when I arrived wasn’t a city in ruins, like I expected, but a city back on track, and probably better than its ever been.

“We’re scratching you off,� my boss said, “you aren’t coming back.� I was, expectedly, surprised. And he wasn’t the only one expressing concerns about my travel plans. My parents called twice a day to ensure that I had packed enough provisions for two weeks in Africa (I hadn’t, since I don’t particularly enjoy checking baggage), the airline emailed warning after warning about my airport like I was landing in the middle of a war zone, and when arranging a board for my dog, the receptionist wanted to draft me a last will and testament in case I never returned. “Why would you go there?� In all honesty, $500 in airfare could have gone a lot of places, Northwest having made the trip infinitely more expensive by limiting nonstop flights in and out of Louis Armstrong International to one. I prayed on the packed plane ride down.

We landed in the rain, and were let off into a practically-deserted domestic baggage claim. After finding my friend and her car in the dark, we took off through the East Bank (which is, actually, the North Bank of the Mississippi at that point, but for nautical consistency, and the directionally challenged, it remains East and West through the Crescent City, which is, incidentally named because the Mississippi creates a crop of land shaped like—what else?—a Crescent). The rain made everything look more depressing than it would days later when we passed through the same area on the way back to the airport. Katrina’s wind damage is very obvious in the East Bank suburbs, neon signs with letters missing—a game of retail crossword—bent trees and light poles, and the ubiquitous FEMA blue-tarp roofs that mark hurricane-prone areas across the Gulf Coast. Where the damage is worst, many establishments haven’t reopened, but the worst damage is scattered with no discernable pattern. In one area of the city, entire strip malls have returned to their glory, in others, indoor malls are dark; in one area of the city, store hours are back to normal—or as normal as they can be considering the shortage of workers to staff them—but just down the road, parking lots are emptied at two in the afternoon.

Katrina did not hit New Orleans as a category three. Just inside the Mississippi delta, the waters deepen and cool, and she was only a category two at landfall. Most of the damage, in the areas not flooded after a levee breach, the only wounds are from the wind. The French Quarter, which we toured in the car, in the dark that first night, was spared entirely “by the Grace of God.� The Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard’s Parish were the unlucky victims of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose reputation preceded their failure. For years, the residents of New Orleans had been warned that a Cat 3 would drown their city, but without a true test of their strength, the levees were not an insurance policy that you could borrow against. Katrina scored a direct hit into Lake Ponchartrain, which borders the city on the north side, sending the lake levels far too high for the (still visibly deficient) grass and cement levees and the series of canals to drain effectively. The Ninth Ward, a slum on the city’s border, would pay the dearest price for the water—its here where the television cameras found the most pathetic victims holed up on rooftops and in homemade pierous, and where the National Guard would find the majority of bodies. St. Bernards Parish would have pulled through in slightly better shape, had the local oil refineries managed to secure their rigs according to specified safety precautions. Instead, the floods knocked through the rigs, contaminating the upper middle-class neighborhood that, like the other Katrina damage in all of the areas where the citizens weren’t shooting at rescue helicopters, would almost never be mentioned on the news. In the Ninth Ward, they can return to their houses, though few have even returned to New Orleans. In St. Bernard’s, which you cannot even tour without a military escort; they lost everything.

My friends home is on the West Bank, more suburban, and almost indistinguishable from the Detroit neighborhood that I left, except that the round Craftsman bungalows have been replaced by “shotgun� homes whose designer placed one room directly behind the next (so that, were you to shoot your shotgun through the front door, it could pass through every doorway in the house before exiting out a rear window), and the shaky driftwood docks lead into the bayou and not a freezing freshwater lake. They wrote a rap song about Marrero, my friends neighborhood, but it doesn’t look like the ghettos up north, and the people are far friendlier, though they, too, looted local businesses for necessities after the hurricane—at least, she tells me, the businesses that weren’t the friendliest before the storm.

It’s a sea of cramped white FEMA-issue remodel trailers, which local residents can have if they promise to repair their own damage. Her family’s home hosted a foot of water when a local pump stopped working, and it destroyed everything that wasn’t off the ground, along with the interior walls, all of their furniture, and of course, their carpet, not counting more precious possessions. A year later, they have walls, working appliances, and some furniture—more than enough to make a visitor feel incredibly welcome, a trend in New Orleans or maybe just in the South in general; a trend that a Yankee, used to being slammed in doors and bumped on the subway, could get used to rather quickly.

The first morning, we tour the French Quarter, which could escape the news stories about Katrina devastation almost completely if it were not empty of the usual tourists, and were parking not remarkably available. There’s a Slum Lord problem here, but that’s ancillary (and almost incidental) compared what most of the city seems to be facing. Being jet-lagged, I missed the opportunity for breakfast at the famous Café DuMonde, and we set off to find a tour guide instead. She was dressed in shorts, sunglasses and a too-short tee shirt, holding a cigarette in one hand and coffee in the other and my friend commented that we could have gone days without finding someone who embodied the lazy-yet-cosmopolitan “New Orleans� style any better. While hiking to the high spot overlooking the bridges and the moored steamboats, across from Jackson Square, where the President delivered his “everythings going to be okay,� Post-Katrina speech, she turned away a charity fundraiser with a particularly bad schtick (no doubt taking advantage of the liberal intellectuals flooding the town for the Psychologist Conference that had booked up all of the hotel rooms and planes) with a speech about sympathy for the left behind that I’d hear often from residents during my stay: “there are more than enough jobs here now, and more than enough places to live,� she says. “I don’t feel sorry for anyone anymore. If they want handouts, they’ll have to go somewhere else. The rest of us are pulling through just fine. They can, too.�

She’s right. Everywhere in the city is the Fleur de Lis, the French symbol of the Easter lily, and a tangible depiction of the New Life Easter represents in the Catholic religion. Everywhere in the city is the Easter attitude. Coming out of their nature-imposed penance, New Orleans is, surprisingly to me—who fully intended to find ruins, riots, the homeless, hungry and infirm filling the streets, shots being fired at me from the roof of the massive convention center, a moldering Superdome, roaming packs of wild dogs, all the things that Anderson Cooper had conditioned me to expect—filled with the spirit of rebirth.

Very few cities are blessed or cursed with the chance to redefine their existence, while preserving their infrastructure. In essence, New Orleans had a rare choice between slow death at the hands of bureaucracy, waiting, probably in vain, for the rest of the country to rebuild them just to prove the American spirit, or they could take the reins. Most residents chose the latter, and the results are visible. In one short year, most of the city is operational, a little over half of the people have returned, and even a lowly tourist like myself, with no previous experience, can tell that the city’s future was rescued from the jaws of defeat.

William Greider once wrote that New Orleans is an extreme microcosm of the nation's general afflictions and social inequities. The poorest part of the city bore the brunt of Katrina injury, and its residents who were never quite weaned off the government “help� that it persists in providing to inner cities everywhere: a help, in the form of Welfare, project living and washes of handouts, benefits and urban “programs,� that has the foreseeable consequence of making urban citizens entirely dependent and eventually incapable of self-motivation, yet leaves them swimming, quite literally, in “self-esteem�. The people who demanded government rescue and government assistance in the wake of the storm to the evident delight of CNN, even if the government was never designed to be a first responder to this sort of disaster, and in the week before the storm, they had stubbornly refused to prepare, are the same people who are feeding off the unintentional “kindness� of taxpayers and Houston citizens now. Were they to come home, as some of them have, they’d be forced to abide by the decision of their fellow citizens to quit whining and rebuild; they'd have to do for themselves what they've relied on the city to do for them all these years, namely, provide them a house, food, cash, and all forms of entitlement. There is a distinct lack of sympathy from those who returned to next to nothing and wore themselves weary putting their lives back together, never asking for help, and waiting patiently, but not expectantly, for a life line from Mary Landrieu. In other words, they don’t quite belong any more, and the city is both unwilling to allow them to forget that, and unwilling to assist them if their idea of helping themselves is waiting on their front porches for passing network news crew to wail to.


The French Quarter feels like Paris must have around the time Toulouse-Lautrec was painting half-dressed dancers backstage at the Moulin Rouge. Its possible to love the city almost immediately, and almost physically, since even the air has a weight that it turns into rain for about an hour every afternoon. It’s a haunted city, in the literal sense, but unlike the haunted northern places that make the hair on the back of your neck creep up, it fills you with a sense of history and the souls of the writers and musicians who have always inhabited its sparse, and also haunted, rooms. It’s amazing that more romantic comedies haven’t been filmed there, since like Paris and New York, it’s as much a character as any actor, and living in it for only an hour, its easy to retreat into a cliché starving artist fantasy—a regular table at a street-side cafe, where pigeons roam free on reams of notebook paper covered in the first paragraphs of twenty short novels, and powdered sugar. I’m disappointed in the coffee, which has chicory in it, since I’m dependent on Starbucks, which descended on my town in a nuclear explosion of Save the Rainforest pamphlets. Here, the food and drink, and the atmosphere, haven’t changed in a century and a half. At Galatoire’s Restaurant —an island of class in a sea of the social deviance that transforms Bourbon from a normal street to a Deadly Sin—where Tennessee Williams once had a regular table, its been a century since their last menu change, even if the shrimp remolade was a bit more expensive when the shrimp vacated the Gulf last summer. They pride themselves on the fact that no celebrity escapes the dinner line, though the dinner line has been shorter as of late; the politicians, sadly, preferring to jump in and out of helicopters in destruction zones instead of wasting an afternoon in the pleasantly cramped dining room, listening to the wooden chairs squeak over the elderly tile, and counting the flowers in pre-WWII era floral wallpaper over iced tea and etouffe, my first. They’re missing out.

I see my first street performer on the way back to the car. The same lack of sympathy that drove the panhandlers outside the Quarter, drove away the musicians that made the French Quarter the birthplace of jazz. Before the storm, you couldn’t find a silent street corner, now, there’s only one roving troupe of tap dancing children and a handful of medium quality guitar and trombone players. Except at the Rock and Bowl, where, for forty years, people come from as far as Baton Rouge to dance to local zydeco bands on Thursday nights. Built inside the Mid-City Lanes, the balcony club features the requisite Catholic kitsch and LSU memerobilia; its been the site of a few movie shoots, a couple of music videos, and one really popular Miller beer commercial and it packs during Mardi Gras.

This Thursday, the 50s era plastic sign reads “New Orleans, Proud to Call It Home,� Keith Frank is playing, and the crowd takes an hour to creep up to its full potential. The city has been overrun with news organizations trying to get a jump on other news organizations, filming background shots for their inevitable Katrina retrospectives, and Dateline NBC has a cadre of cameramen anxious to get shots of the dancers. I’m a popular partner, having been singled out by the doorman for the first dance, and having apparently, proved myself to the locals, whose highest compliment is simply to point out that I’m lying about my Detroit roots. I dance with one older gentleman twice, and he asks what I do. I tell him I’m a writer on vacation. Maybe I’ll write something about the Rock and Bowl. He pleads the case in the soft Southern accent that the residents have. “They’re writing the obituary,� he says, gesturing toward the cameraman teetering on the edge of a wall that separates the band from the bowlers who, to the great dismay of the dancers, has not fallen yet. “This place—every Thursday for forty years they come here, even during Katrina. Even after Katrina when they probably didn’t have power. The music is how you know the blood is still pumping.�

“We aren’t dead,� he says. “Obviously.�

Part II: Tomorrow

Posted by E. M. Zanotti at August 29, 2006 09:33 AM