Magazine Street, New Orleans
Eerie isnít the word. I donít think there is any word for this.
My friend picked me up at the New Orleans airport, from a flight from Houston in which I was assigned seat 26A in a plane with only 25 rows. Fortunately, the plane was far from full.
Around the airport, in the suburb of Metarie, things are bustling, bright. We cross the canal into New Orleans, the darkness begins. Mile after mile we pass empty houses, windows blown out, massive holes in walls and roofs, some leaning on foundations, with abandoned cars in medians, debris everywhere. Down the main boulevard, Canal, lights begin to glimmer about two miles from downtown, where some houses are occupied and businesses open, though most are still boarded up. Further down, the French Quarter has sporadic crowds on a Saturday night, where we grab a bowl of gumbo soup and catfish sandwich. The Quarter looks fine. There are obscene Katrina t-shirts in shop displays, the kind of raunch you rarely see in public California. "Katrina: Thanks a Lot, Bitch," reads the mildest one. We drive up through gloomy streets through the warehouse district to the Garden District bed and breakfast on Magazine where I am staying. A very gracious young woman gives me a beautiful two-room suite in a fine old house with two cable TVs, historic furnishings, and a balcony (for $80? this canít be true!).
We spend several hours catching up on old times, she leaves, and around 1am, I decide to go out for a walk. The fantastic old Garden District north of Magazine is intact, a bit of wind damage and piles of tree limbs around the big 1800s mansions and junk on the curb. Most of the houses seem occupied. A couple of cars pass. I walk further north for several blocks to St. Charles, still no major damage beyond wind, though the street car line is shut down and tracks blocked. North of St. Charles, the devastation begins. The historic old street of Carondolet is in shambles, with vacant lots and piles of junk everywhere, but still lights in a few houses. I venture one more block north, to Baronne, where flood surges reached several feet. The street is dark, dismal, rows of vacant houses, empty lots, no sign of life at all. Gigantic piles of trash are everywhere, tree limbs, appliances, furniture, sheet rock, boards, clothes, household junk, filling lots and front yards and blocking sidewalks. Further north is more devastation in a deep, silent darkness that is hard to describe because you so rarely see it in a city. Even though I havenít seen anyone in an hour of walking, it is simply too scary at 2am to go on in that direction. I walk back down the old brick Felicity Street, where I used to live. Inhabited houses start to appear again south of St. Charles, and some businesses in the ancient storefronts on Magazine. Eight blocks later, at Magazine and Jackson, I stop by my old house, where I lived on the second floor in 1973. The house is boarded up. I canít get into the courtyard to see my old balcony because piles of junk are ten feet high in the driveway. There are signs on houses declaring, "SPCA go away! Owner is feeding dog," or "Looters will be shot!" (there are no looters and nothing to loot). There is a makeshift memorial to "Vera" in a vacant lot at the corner. Vera, the board sign says, was hit by a hit-and-run driver fleeing the storm, and her body lay in the street for five days. "Signs of Hope!" the daily newspaper reads in the newstands. They must be talking about areas other than what Iíve seen. There is no sense of urgency around here.
I knew I was going to have this reaction, but still, it is a terrible sight. I canít believe a major first-world city (the countryís largest port) is in this condition, and little seems to be done about it three and a half months later. Today weíre driving around more, perhaps go to get stuff from my friendís flooded house in St. Bernard.
12/12/05, 1:15am, Magazine Street, New Orleans
I was ready to be depressed by New Orleans. But not ready enough. There was no way to prepare for this. Iím so glad I went, even though there were many moments when I just wanted to leave and forget everything I saw. There are so many dimensions to this horrific disaster.
Sunday and Monday, I and friend Sue grabbed great coffee in the busy Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter and drove around. The city is an endless nightmare. East of the Quarter you immediately run into flood damage. Houses are spray-painted with the numbers of bodies found inside, Many have HELP! on the front, from people who were trapped for days with no food or water. Over the canal bridge, we reached the Lower Ninth Ward, the poor black area that was completely drowned. It is an indescribable nightmare. Pictures and TV scenes fall short of showing how massive the wreckage is, how literally nothing is left but mud and scattered shells of houses and piles of junk of neighborhoods that once housed tens of thousands of people. On anything that seems to be the front of a building are the grim cross-hatched spray paintings showing the date of inspection, bodies found, pets or other items to look for, sometimes crossed-out with new additions. We have to steer around piles of debris, houses still blocking streets, salt-encrusted cars, rather surprising that we could get in to these destroyed neighborhoods at all. In one in a hundred homes, someone is working like they intend to come back. We see a few black guys taking a break, drinking beer amid a giant stack of muddy shit, who knows what it was. They grin and wave.
Further east in St. Bernard Parish, we arrive at Sueís home in Arabi. Fourteen feet of water, lines still marked three feet above the second floor. Again, I canít describe the inside of the house. Three months of slop and mold and reeking crap piled everywhere, junk littering the yard, blown and floated in from miles away. I carefully climbed the rickety stairs to her daughterís scattered room on the second floor and brought down a few undamaged items that were up on shelves. We drive further east to Chalmette, past devastated shopping centers with rows of FEMA trailers (most empty) and a hundred porta-potties and some snack food and tool stations and bottled water. Chalmette suffered more than just water damage: ugly oil lines rise a dozen feet up house walls where toxic chemicals contaminated entire neighborhoods. The oil company offers a standard $11 per square foot of living space settlement, plus cleaning. We see a few houses with workers in space suits pressure hosing the remains. Boats are angled up against walls, a car sits on a shed roof. Pretty tough shed, I joke to Sue, you should get the builder of that shed to rebuild your house. Ha ha. There is junk in the streets--she had eight flat tires in the last month.
I takes two hours to return to New Orleans due to debris-filled main streets and emergency and reconstruction vehicles. We meet Sueís 21 year-old daughter Lindsay for lunch at a cute little sandwich shop downtown, open like most places only a few hours two or three days a week (due both to lack of customers and lack of employees). After lunch, more misery. We drive past miles more devastation, capricious depending on a rise of only a couple of feet in elevation, from downtown out to the upscale suburb of Lakeview. Here again, water levels reached over a dozen feet. The marina is a windblown sea of cracked timbers, shattered windows, and damaged boats leaned up against walls. Trees are stuck through houses, cars jammed through windows. But Lakeview is rich. Lots of reconstruction activity going on here. At this rate, theyíll have it cleaned up by 2050, I guess. Here and there is humor. One house, tilted and skewed in the street, has a spraypainted sign with "wicked witch underneath," arrow downward, like the Wizard of Oz. Another says, "Happy ___! with holidays to check off (not coming back, I guess). Another, not so funny, just says, "Iím Home Gun." K dude, lighten up. Nobodyís going to break in to steal your soggy rubble.
We return to my room, sit up and drink. It isnít the loss of her own home that gets to her, so much as the loss of an entire city. She has never lived anywhere else. Monday morning, Sue shows me where she had a panic attack at night a few weeks earlier while driving down a deserted boulevard, just because it was so dark and silent right in the middle of the city. Sure, it was more dangerous when people were around to rob and shoot, but the complete absence of people, and activity and light, is even more frightening, as if any human at all is an unwelcome intruder to the spirits. We then arrive at the scariest neighborhood of all, a very poor district outside the downtown and pretty much in the center of New Orleans. Again, the damage is horrendous, water marks show perhaps five to ten feet of floodwater was there, junk is everywhere, and something worse. Most of these houses have no spraypainted inspection markings at all. Despite FEMAís assurance that they have searched every house in the city, there are hundreds in these blocks that no one has entered at all. What could be inside, three months after the storm? It is nothing I have any desire to know. The smell is terrible, but itís hard to know what it is. We get out as fast as we can.
Sue has had enough of disaster and now wants to see hopeful areas. So, before I leave, we walk around the intact Garden Districtís fantastic old mansions dating back 100 to 150 years, drive out beautiful St. Charles Avenue lined with miles of historic houses, to Audubon Park and Tulane University, the one strip of New Orleans that remains relatively undamaged. Miraculously, most of the old live oak trees overhanging the boulevard survived. Some wind and water problems show up, but they are being (or have been) repaired. That part of the city will be fine. True, if you venture three blocks away from this strip, there is massive devastation and little hope of recovery. But in this one margin, things are picking up.
I guess now you have caught my drift. The frightening aspects of New Orleans, what canít be captured on mere news footage or photos, are twofold. First, how widespread the destruction is, and how it inundates you in just a few hours. Second and worse, how little has been done about it more than three months after "Katrita." Even basic tasks, clearing streets of cars and houses and wreckage, have not yet been completed--let alone getting peopleís lives back together with housing, food, jobs, repair aid, and other necessities, which is going nowhere. I expected to see hundreds or thousands of National Guard, Americorps, and other workers busy cleaning up and rebuilding. Yet, there was practically no repair activity in destroyed neighborhoods except by a few homeowners.
So I came to a dismal truth, voiced by several other people. Itís not that federal government leaders donít care. Itís that theyíre not CAPABLE of caring. They just donít get it, or even want to. This country, mired in an orgy of personal selfishness and indifference, is no longer psychologically capable of mounting the kind of massive, sustained response to this massive, ongoing disaster as justifies its mammoth scale. Capable monetarily? Sure, weíre so rich that even a New Orleans-scale catastrophe is well within our means to handle. What is lacking is any sense among leaders, elected by Americans, of national community and identity with other Americans that would compel an urgent, massive federal response.
Iím glad I went there. The owner of the bed and breakfast where I stayed told me she was just happy anyone wanted to visit to see what was going on. The seafood and coffee in the Quarter are still excellent, and much of the history of New Orleans remains. But no one can guess the future, except to hope that itís better than what now appears to be the case.
At the airport, I leave at 5:30 Monday. As when I arrived, my plane is the only one you can see anywhere at the airport.