Since the Storm: No End to Katrina in New Orleans
by Nancy Scola, Tue May 01, 2007 at 12:43:51 PM EDT
I've been back from New Orleans for a few days now and have gotten a chance to sort through my thoughts, notes, and research. I went down with the intention of focusing on the rebuilding process and it seems to make sense for me to chop up what I have into three posts. The first up is this post, on the scope and impact of Hurricane Katrina in post-storm New Orleans. The second will look at major factors in the rebuilding process. The third will be a report on the day I put down my pen and camera (mostly) and picked up a crowbar to help ACORN gut a house in the Lower Ninth Ward.
It doesn't take long back in New Orleans to figure out that Katrina is embedded in every fiber of this city's being. It's all "storm," all the time, some 20 months since the storm.
Here's what I mean. On the radio, for example, were advertisements encouraging applications for the HUD-funded Road Home program championed by Governor Blanco, an interview with locals starting an ambassadors program that just sent its first envoy to Boston, and pitches for home demolition services. Actor/write/HuffPo blogger Harry Shearer does ads for Levees.org and proposing a 9/11-style commission on levees. Talk show hosts discussed how useful local bloggers were in keeping the community updated in the days and weeks after the storm. (The local New Orleans blogosphere -- including honorary New Orleanians like the bloggers at First Draft -- is vibrant and active. More on that later.) Then there were local celebrities promoting the need for New Orleanians to have a voice in the national discourse and talk show hosts ruminating on the importance of New Orleans as an American city.
It just did not end. You hear updates on progress from neighborhood rebuilding projects, talk about wetlands reclamation, and ads from banks encouraging residents to restructure their debt, saying "you survived the storm -- now start your financial rebuilding." One show discussed new reports on post-storm depression rates, especially in kids but in everyone, really -- stemming from lost photos and from parents and grandparents moved away. This isn't right, a woman says. In southern Louisiana, she says, you're supposed to live by your family for life.
Two commentators debated Mayor Nagin's dig on the comparative cleanliness of Philadelphia, with the lead-in, "Ray Nagin is at it again." Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard took questions from callers and Army Corps of Engineers officials delved into where the levees stand now, about six weeks before the start of 2007 hurricane season.
In the French Quarter, "Make Levees, Not War" is emblazoned on mousepads and t-shirts for sale, alongside shirts showing an outline of a FEMA trailer and offering a twist of the New Orleans slogan, "Proud to Call it Home." Then there are "Proud to Swim Home" bumper stickers and t-shirts offering new takes on what FEMA stands for: Fix Everything My Ass or Find Every Mexican Available. Tchotchke shops sell copies of storm books: 1 Dead in the Attic, Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?, Waters Dark and Deep and Not Left Behind: Rescuing the Pets of New Orleans. The gorgeous Times-Picayune Katrina photo book is for sale in cooking stores in the French Market.
On late night television was a compelling program that offered a comprehensive take on the storm, covering everything from how the levees broke to mold remediation techniques. Between segments, quotes from the House "Bipartisan" Select Committee on Katrina's final report flash on the screen.
Of course, once you spend time in the city, all this is no wonder.
When I posted earlier that I was going down to New Orleans, several commenters suggested that I delve into the city beyond the Lower Ninth Ward. So I did that. On their recommendations, I explored a handful of racially and economically different neighborhoods: the Lower Ninth (in crude generalizations, black and working-class), yes, but also Lakeview (white and middle-class), Gentilly (racially-integrated and middle-class), New Orleans East (mixed in race and class, as far as I can tell), and Chalmette (white and working-class).
With just a few hours of daylight left on my first night, I found myself in New Orleans East. One of the first places I headed was the Sheralane Dog Grooming Shop on Downman Road. I had driven past Sheralane when I was in town in October, 2005, about a month after the storm. On that trip, I was so chilled by the spray-painted notices like "Dead Dog Left in Crate." (Something about animals...their fates are probably just easier to let my mind contemplate.) And when I visited again on April 21, 2007, and it looked little different from the outside, other than that those markings were just barely painted over.
So much still looks the same in New Orleans. (I have a full set of photos up on Flickr.) So many houses still bear the spray-painted markings on their doors and faces from the first days of the storm. Still, there's progress. Houses have been gutted, there is construction here and there. I toured neighborhoods, the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, for example, where I would see one rebuilt and landscaped house on an otherwise empty street. In one neighborhood, I found a boy of maybe nine years old shooting hoops on the street, alone, and not another soul around -- other than me and the folks in the National Guard humvee rolling by.
The whole city is a study in contrast, but Lakeview in particular. In a strip mall there, there was a women's clothing store (photo) that I swear I was the first person to set foot in since the storm. Like so many of the buildings still vacant in the city, the door is left wide open. A brand new shoe store stood next to a completely wasted fast food place. In the Lower Ninth Ward, one house had a bed post still sticking through the front window, still strung with Mardi Gras beads. On the front porch sat a television set and some children's toys. Those back had hung signs that say, "Welcome Home, Holy Cross Neighborhood," (Holy Cross is a section of the Lower Nine) and "We're Home -- Rebuild the New New Orleans." Also in the Lower Nine, someone has painted his car with the plea "I'm Back. RU?"
In Chalmette, signs lashed to fences read "St. Bernard Proud -- We're Coming Back!" (photo) Still, piles of trash and debris five and ten feet high sat in front of gutted houses, apartments, and stores (photo). After a hot afternoon in Chalmette, I went into Brewster's, a restaurant offering "Fun, Food, and Spirits" and newly reopened in an otherwise-empty shopping center (photo). The neon signs out front and inside advertised various brands of beer. When I order one, the waitress seemed a bit taken aback and says, "oh no, not yet."
A FEMA trailer parked in front yard and in driveway is a sign of progress (photo). It means that the homeowner has gotten some FEMA money and that the neighborhood has a clean water hook-up, and that's no small feat some 20 months after the storm. When I talked trailers with Mary Rickard, ACORN's web campaign coordinator, she had a great quote -- "When George Bush says to be patient...In his next life, he's going to have to live in a FEMA trailer."
Of course, that boy playing basketball in New Orleans East needs to go to school. Leaving the neighborhood one day, I passed by a school building. What struck me was that the door to the library was propped about half-opened. The gate to the school grounds was also opened, so I stopped the car and went in. Amazing, the way it still looked (photo). A friend of mine who is doing PhD work in sociology with a focus on disasters says that the photos I showed her of the Barbara C. Jordan in New Orleans East remind her of Chernobyl. A moment stuck in time, late August, 2005.
Schools, of course, need not only students but teachers and landscapers and food workers and principals. What will it take to bring people back to New Orleans? Infrastructure, for one thing. They need schools and stores and electricity and water and roads. Livability of the city is a problem, and crime certainly is too. I keep coming back to the idea that it seems just so difficult for residents to get firm footing in the city, no solid ground to start building on. The Lower Nine, for example, lacks grocery stores (and did so before the storm), schools, hospitals, and religious services. It's not exactly a situation that screams 'welcome home.'
You have to wonder if the people who have moved back in and rebuilt lives here -- almost like frontiersman -- are courageous or, shoot, just a bit crazy. But those brave souls may well be what it takes to get the city growing to the point where momentum takes over. They are attempting to regrow the city from the bottom up, house-by-house, business-by-business.
One aspect of New Orleans circa 2007 that is still so striking to me is the water line. You see it everywhere in the city, from the sides of homes in New Orleans East to the overpass support pillars in Lakeview, a line of muck showing just how high the waters rose -- and stayed, of course, for days and day and days (photo).
Along those lines, my mom (who is from Cottonport in central Louisiana) met me in New Orleans and we went up towards Monroeville, Alabama for a local production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Along the way, we stopped in Mobile and went to the excellent A Day in Pompeii exhibit at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center there. The sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 A.D., killed about 2,000 and the diagrams showing the lines to which the ash rose, the stories of people trapped on second floors -- the similarities to Katrina are a bit eerie. (Also looking forward to Hurricane on the Bayou, an IMAX movie on the survival of Louisiana's wetlands that wasn't getting to Mobile until June 1 but is now playing around the country . If you happen to be in DC, it's now playing at the Museum of Natural History.)
All signs point to this being a long, hard, slow slog. New Orleans is New Orleans, for better and for worse -- city living that's less about granite countertops and central air conditioning and more about old urban life. Mary Rickard suggested that Americans living in newer cities might not get understand what's important about a city as old and as gritty as New Orleans. She put it well: "If you've always lived in a new city, new is better. So many cities in America are interchangeable. People don't get why we just don't move to Salt Lake City."
So it goes for New Orleanians. For whatever reason, it was as I sat in the Clover Grill (motto: "we love to fry and it shows") in the French Quarter eating a grilled cheese and tator tots, with Natalie Cole singing "Pink Cadillac" on the stereo system, and enjoying the spectacle of Vic the waiter and the fry cook berating each other back and forth over who messed up an omelette order, that I realized that I have a great deal of love for this place and that it would just be a damn shame should we lose this city.
Next post: rebuilding the homes of New Orleans.