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9/20, 9PM





Friday, April 21, 2006
11:42 PM      

SEVEN Months Later,
and very little has happened. We paid a visit to New Orleans last week. It was a sobering experience, though there wasn't much we found that was unexpected. In fact, the obvious lack of progress since Katrina and Rita is perhaps the most unexpected thing about the whole mess.

We spent three days in The Crescent City — I never knew it as “The Big Easy” when I was growing up — including about 6 hours in the Lower 9th Ward. The area looks like a cross between the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster and Chernobyl. While we were there, I saw a few work crews beginning to gut some buildings, a flat-bed truck hauling car carcases for scrap, a crew working on the levees, and a carload or two of people who seemed to be disaster tourists. Neither the tourists nor the work crews seemed to have any personal connection to the place.

At least where we walked, the streets were cleared. That much has been done. We didn't find any roofs in the middle of the road, and a few buildings have already been gutted, but for the most part, it's the same is it was right after the storm, except the mud and the mildew have dried up a bit.

Houses had vanished, and some had strangely appeared where they didn't belong. Across the street from my aunt's house on the 2500 block of Lamanche sat a house with markings showing that it came from the 2700 block of some street... only Lamanche doesn't have a 2700 block, nor do any of the streets nearby.

Clearly, given enough water, even houses float. When the water receded, they dropped down onto cars, looking a bit like the scene where Dorothy's house landed on the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. The newly-relocated houses sported the initials GPS, possibly meaning that their current location had been recorded. That doesn't mean that their original location had been determined.

I heard a story about one house that had floated away from its original location, but searchers had not indicated that the house was missing. The family found the house on their own. It still contained the body of a missing loved one.

I can understand how some of this could happen, if one isn't familiar with the area: most of the street markers have been wiped away. Searchers without accurate maps and GPS systems might have a very tough time figuring out where they are, and what homes should and shouldn't be there. With so many houses just plain obliterated, the prospect becomes even more difficult.

After the flood, my Uncle Ervin went looking for his wife. They'd been separated for six years. The night before we left New Orleans, I got to see them. Uncle Ervin woke up to the sound of water leaking into his room. He looked out the window, and saw the water rising. As he was leaving his apartment, the water pushed the air conditioner in through the window, gushed in.

He went up to a higher floor, where he met another resident of the building. They realized that they hadn't seen a woman who lived on the first floor with him, and went looking for her. She didn't answer her door at first, but eventually, they entered her apartment and found her huddled on her bed, frightened.

My uncle and his neighbor helped that woman to safety. My Aunt Ester, the wife Ervin hadn't seen for 6 years, hitched a ride to the projects (of all places to flee to for safety) with a friend. Hey, at least it's high ground. At some point, it was no longer a good idea to stay in the projects, so my resourceful aunt found refuge on the I-10 causeway for three days.

I took pictures of what's left of my grandmothers' and my aunt's homes. I'll post them soon. I found myself thinking about all of the people from the 9th Ward that I've known. I wonder what's happened to them. I visited some of their homes. More came to me after we'd left the area.

We went over to Deslon street, where my father grew up. The area was close to the levee breach, and it looks like a bomb crater. There are no houses for several blocks, only markers where homes once were. Everything has been washed away, leaving a ring of destroyed cars buried in the mud at the periphery. It's been long enough, that the grass has grown back, but the void is striking.

As we were leaving, we passed by Fats Domino's houses. Workers were cleaning up the place. His publishing company sign was clean - probably replaced already. His garage looked like it had been gutted, and was ready for new sheet rock. No sign of the cars he used to own.

Just before we turned to head for the Claiborne Avenue bridge, we spotted a group of activists who were flying a banner about eminent domain abuse. I wonder how many actual residents they've encountered.

Uptown near Dillard University, the street lights still don't work. Word has it that Charity Hospital, not far from the Superdome, had enough water damage that they're going to shut it down. I was born in Charity Hospital.

My mother checked the status of Granny's houses on a government web site. It indicated that the smaller wood-frame house on the property was slated for demolition, but that the main house was not. She had been planning to sell that house before the storm changed everyone's plans. Now, she's decided to slate it for demolition, too.


The Riverwalk is a huge mall at one end of Canal Street. Like many businesses in New Orleans, it's clearly struggling. I'd be surprised if it's more than 40% occupied. Companies like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch have their logos up, with signs saying “coming soon.” The stores that are in operation tend to open late and close early.

We walked down Bourbon Street one night. Loud music blared from empty clubs, attempting to attract their share of the sparse customer traffic. It was clear that there were some customers visiting Bourbon Street: the police presence was strong, and the smell of puke wafted up often enough to remind us all that this was still a place designed for excess.

New Orleans is much like a tree that's been struck by lightning. Parts of it look completely dead and broken, while other parts seem perhaps even more forcefully alive. More than once, I've had the thought that the hurricane disaster was Mother Nature's way of saying Oppenheimer's toy has nothing on her.

I've met people who passionately want the city rebuilt. One friend plans to relocate there within the year. After the resistance to Mardi Gras died down, it seems that it's a good idea to get back to the things that make New Orleans what it is. And so, from time to time, Les Bontemps Roulez even now. In a week or so, JazzFest (The Jazz and Heritage Festival) starts up. With any luck, the tourists will return in even greater number than they did for Mardi Gras. Some of them will likely visit the 9th Ward, and maybe this time the talking heads on the news will show the viewers what the catastro-tourists are seeing.

My cousins and my aunt across the river in Marrero and Waggaman had wind damage. Their houses are mostly fixed up again. Aunt Ceedjah took the opportununity to add new crown moldings to many of her rooms, and she's rearranged the kitchen to make an island for food prep. On the other hand, many of my cousins from the 9th Ward have said they won't move back.

I realize it's taken me nearly a week to process what I've experienced. There's more to write, but that will have to come later...

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