NOLA: First Impressions

So, last night we pulled into Louisiana. We knew Katrina had been here and the first unexpected sign were the hotel parking lots filled with work trucks. A bit unusual for Christmas Eve. Morbid curiosity compelled us to drive through our old Carrollton neighborhood. Never very clean, we were reminded by the roads that we were in Louisiana. The city streets are some of the worst I’ve ever driven on. As we drove by our old house, we saw three FEMA trailers crowded into the front yard. Evidently, our old neighbor who bought the house had family staying. I knew the neighborhood had only minimal damage, but I was impressed to see neighborhood coffee shop open and doing a brisk business at 11pm on Christmas Eve. And despite the destruction that Katrina had brought, we noticed more than a couple of new buildings had been built (and still looked fresh) in the two years since we left. We dragged into my brother-in-law’s place at 11:30 after a day of driving and soon fell asleep. The next day was Christmas, and like a child ready to open his presents, I wanted to tour the city. As soon as I could manage to drag her away, Alexis and I drove down to the lake-front — an area I had heard horror stories about. On the way there, we were able to see firsthand Oakwood Mall. We had heard news stories that made it sound like a Katrina-enraged mob had looted and torched the place, but it was still standing. Evidently, the stories had been a little exaggerated. We drove by the convention center. Again, we had heard stories of the filth and mob mentality that had been in action there. But, again, the only evidence we saw was the temporary Red Cross hospital at the up-river end of theconvention center and a couple of 40-yard dumpsters. We toured a little of the downtown area, but found it relatively active, even for Christmas day. It had an eerie similarity to Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras – no rowdy crowds, lots of trash, and plenty of cops. Except that many stores along Canal Street were boarded up and the trash, while stacked at the curb, hadn’t been picked up for some time. We stopped by our old house and talked to the current owner. We talked to old friends and old neighbors. Each one seemed to say the same things. “It’s quiet.” “It’s slow.” “Insurance companies aren’t paying quickly” My brother-in-law told about his insurance company that sent an assessor four times and wanted to send them a fifth before they finally gave in and sent him a check. With all this in mind, we made our way to the lake-front. I had heard that it was a war zone. I had seen flyover pictures that showed the flooding. But I’d also heard that many of the very wealthiest neighborhoods along the lake-front had made it through the storm ok. For the next few miles towards the lake along Canal Boulevard, signs of life became more and more scarce. We saw the occasional police officer, a few FEMA trailers, and the rare resident, but, for the most part, there was no one. No businesses open. No schools open. No houses lived in. Because even when there was a resident, they were living in a FEMA trailer. The houses are completely wasted. The water line is at least six to eight feet on most houses. And these are middle class houses. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, business owners. All of them had their homes destroyed. Sure, there are a few brave souls who are sticking it out, possibly fixing up their home after taking it down to the studs. While the older, drier parts of New Orleans continue on, the lake-front, much of it inhabited by professionals and working middle class people, will take thousands of extreme makeovers to return to any sort of semblance of the life that was here before. Especially poignient was the trip we made by the house of some old friends of ours. He was a urologist and she was a young mother and working artist. We stayed with them for a couple of brief weeks after they renovated their house in the late 90s. It was a beautiful cottage. Though they’ve long since moved, we couldn’t help but mourn a bit when we saw a dingy grey shack standing where the perky yellow house once was. We drove along Lakeshore Drive back towards UNO. Katrina sped up the erosion that the lake’s relentless pounding had been causing for the past ten years. I had seen dirt disappear gradually, but, now, when I came back after Katrina, whole sections of grass had been completely swept away along with six inches of shelly topsoil. But the reports I had heard turned out to be right. Many of these, the wealthiest homes along the lake, were relatively unscathed. Protected from the lake on the north by a levee and on land recovered from the swamp during the middle of the 20th century, the builders of these homes had purchased a little extra flood protection by adding extra dirt and shoring up the foundations just a little bit more. There was life and relatively unscathed housing. No where was the difference in planning more apparent than along Leon C. Simon, the boulevard that runs along the south side of UNO. UNO’s dormitories and buildings weren’t touched by the flooding — the campus was an old Navy base in the 60s — but just across the street (and significantly lower) houses and apartments sported the familiar six-foot high water-line stain. We escaped from the lake-front along Elysian Fields and found our way back to life and the French Quarter. Amazingly, we saw tourists and signs of life — even on the first Christmas Day after Katrina — and signs of business reopening. Cafe du Monde, usually open 24hours a day all year long, was closed, but a sign announced that “Beignets are Back!” After all that New Orleans has been through, this is almost like a giant purging has taken place. Violent crime and murder have plagued New Orleans for years, but since Katrina no murders have been reported in the city. And, while she’s struggled to hold onto any Fortune 500 company and seemed to scare away any business suitors, the city’s residents — those that remain — seem to have an idea that they will live here and, somehow, continue to eek out a living in this port city that care forgot. Tomorrow, I hope to check out parts of Chalmette and St Benard parish — places that got the brunt of the storm — and I expect to see even more devastating scenes than the ones I saw today. But I’m encouraged because I’ve seen life here. And while life isn’t the same, can’t be the same, as it was last year, I’m encouraged by each street corner on the West Bank, Uptown, and in Metarie where businesses put out signs: “Now Open!”; “We’re Back!”; “We’re Hiring!”

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