Hurricane Katrina Flashback – New Orleans, Louisiana

When our Trans-Americas Journey started back in 2006, the very first destination on our so-called itinerary was New Orleans, Louisiana for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. In fact, days two through 28 of our journey was spent in and around New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged our beloved NOLA just eight months earlier and the city was far, far, far from recovered but the Jazz Fest must go on and, as live music lovers and lovers of the city, we had to be there to see the music and to see the city. As the world marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina we flashback to our  thoughts and images from the city eight months after the storm.

Katrina that Bitch bumper sticker

First impressions of post Katrina New Orleans

After passing through still-vivid signs of hurricane destruction in Slidell, Louisiana, we drove across the Slidell Bridge where a sign warned us to reduce our speed to ease the strain on the temporary spans holding the whole thing up. Most of the other vehicles on the road were trucks full of tools and day laborers on their way to clean up a yard/house/life in post Katrina New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina destruction 9th Ward  New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina destruction in the 9th Ward as it was eight months after the storm.

Then we entered East New Orleans. We’d seen the news reports and read the papers and had even talked to New Orleans residents post Hurricane Katrina but nothing prepared us for the wasteland that greeted us as we approached the city on I-10 through East New Orleans. Destroyed houses, abandoned businesses and downed trees were everywhere but there was hardly a soul (or ridiculously white FEMA trailer) in sight.

Almost exactly eight months after the hurricane hit, the place looked not only little improved but as if it would never be improved—like it would sit and rot for years to come as a sort of fetid, sprawling memorial to the destructive powers of nature and political and social inertia.

New Orleans City Yacht Harbor Hurricane Katrina destruction

New Orleans City Yacht Harbor had yet to be cleaned up eight months after Hurricane Katrina.

September 11 comparisons

Comparisons are tricky, but we were reminded of how relieved and hopeful we felt when the World Trade Center site (two blocks from where we were living in Manhattan) was cleaned up in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The folks living in New Orleans hadn’t even gotten the moral boost of having the uprooted trees removed from their smashed rooftops. No wonder so many residents hadn’t returned. Who could get up day in and day out and live in this ghost town?

And if residents don’t return why should businesses come back? Within minutes we could feel the despair of this vicious cycle sinking into the city. We drove on in silence.

New Orleans Lakeview Katrina Destruction humor

Homeowner black humor in the Lakeview area of New Orleans where little had been done eight months after Hurricane Katrina.

Fleeting signs of normalcy

We were snapped out of our funk when we turned onto St. Charles Avenue and saw very little visible damage to the stately houses. The famous St. Charles Streetcar was not running and the road itself was a pot-holed mess, but it honestly probably would have been in disrepair even without the hurricane.

Hungry enough to eat the dashboard, we pulled up to Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar, our favorite spot for the quintessential New Orleans sandwich, only to discover a sign that said “Closed Today Only.” Reduced hours were a fact of life in post Katrina New Orleans as a way to cope with a lack of staff and a lack of customers.

That was all too much to process without the lunch we’d been dreaming about for weeks, so we quickly moved on to plan B: Cooter Brown’s where the menu made us crack up (try the Looter special, formerly the Cooter special but renamed post-Hurricane Katrina). The guy taking our order made us seriously consider a tattoo and the po-boys were so big we could hardly lift them…but we did, along with a couple or three Abita beers.

Frustration beyond the French Quarter

Tourism is obviously a major source of income in New Orleans and the heart of that industry is the French Quarter and events like the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival that we’d come to take part in. Eight months after Katrina hit it was clear that whatever funding was available for hurricane recovery had been poured into the French Quarter where we saw plenty of evidence that everyone was working hard and rebuilding to get back to normal as soon as possible.

Beyond the French Quarter, however, little had been done. Even in swanky areas like the nearby Lakeview district, home after fancy home sat washed off its foundation and car after car was wrapped around a tree awaiting some miraculous clean up that hadn’t yet come.

17th street canal Katrina frustration Lakeview new orleans

Post Katrina frustrations with insurance companies, local government and aid agencies were running high eight months after the storm.

The overall mood was frustration aimed at the institutions that displaced residents had turned to for help, including their insurance companies and their city government. It made the looming mayoral run-off election between incumbent Ray Nagin and rival Mitch Landreau even more relevant. Even the most destroyed and abandoned yards in this area were sporting an election sign declaring allegiance to one or the other.

After a few hours it began to feel like the whole world was one big disaster area, but the worst was yet to come.

A family returns to the Lower 9th Ward

We knew it was going to be bad in the hard hit 9th Ward but it was so much worse without the television screen separating us from reality. As we crossed over a bridge into the Lower 9th Ward area we got an aerial view that lets us see the clear wave of devastation fanning out from the breach in the levee.

Katrina destruction alongside levee breach 9th Ward New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina destruction along the levee breach in the 9th Ward where recovery has yet to happen.

The Lower 9th Ward is surrounded on three sides by water so when the Industrial Canal breached the area was devastated. Nearly 90% of structures within a 12 x 12 block area, roughly 60% of the entire area of the Lower 9th Ward, were obliterated by the storm. The few that remained had been transported blocks away from their original locations. None of them looked salvageable.

We watched from a distance as a family returned to what was left of their house (no more than a lop-sided, soggy shell) just a block or two from the breached levee. They picked their way up the stairs and into the lower level on some secret, internal mission. Maybe just “being home.” was the point of the visit.

Hurricane Kartina 9th Ward destruction New Orleans

A house in the 9th Ward sits undemolished and unreconstructed, eight months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

We were reminded of how good it felt when the National Guard and FBI allowed us to go into our apartment for the first time, three weeks after the terrorist attacks on 9-11 and we were able to do stuff that made us feel like we might, someday, be home for good. We emptied the fetid refrigerator, puttered around, watered the plants. This family, however, had no refrigerator or plants and would never be returning to this home.

Clean up crews had recently entered the neighborhood to finally start disposing of the debris after months of political wrangling. We talked to one contract worker from Colorado who was frustrated and disgusted by Mayor Ray Nagin and his inability to make or stick to decisions about how to proceed with the clean up. This worker had been in New Orleans for six months and figured more than half of that time had been spent waiting for the official governmental green light to go in and do what he was being paid to do.

9th Ward Hurricane Kartina destruction not on TV

A poignant sign in the 9th Ward of New Orleans.

Fats Domino’s house under water

Singer and pianist Fats Domino lives in the Lower 9th Ward and kept his home and business there long after his success would have allowed him to move elsewhere. We remembered news reports about his rescue during the hurricane and, on a long shot, we asked some men if they know where Fats’ house was and they directed us straight to it.

The Fats Domino compound is across the street from a Dollar Store and takes up about three lots. His simple white brick house with a huge “FD” insignia on it is connected to another home that’s been converted into the office headquarters of Fats Domino Publishing.

Discarded retro furniture in front of Fats Domino's hose 9th ward Katrina destruction

Discarded furniture outside the flooded 9th Ward home and office of singer and pianist Fats Domino.

Post Katrina, both buildings were abandoned but not destroyed since they’re located many, many blocks away from the levee breach. However, even this area was under water deep enough to require that Fats be evacuated and most buildings were still uninhabitable and the retro ’70s furniture on the curb out front indicated that the home had extensive water damage.

Hippies to the rescue in St. Bernard Parish

In neighboring St. Bernard Parish the scenes of destruction were much the same. Weirdly, many of the car washes were open for business even if banks, hospitals, grocery stores and schools were not. And they were doing a scorching business. It’s as if—and we totally understand this—people were desperate to keep some aspect (any aspect) of their lives under control and having your car washed had become something like therapy.

Also in St. Bernard, a group of volunteers had set up a mega aid station that was a cross between the Burning Man festival and the coolest Red Cross center you’ve ever seen. Run by a group called Emergency Communities, it was called Made with Love and the centerpiece was a huge geodesic dome tent in which 1,500 people a day were getting free meals.

Made with Love Cafe St Bernard Parish Katrina destruction

Volunteers at Made with Love met the basic needs of New Orleans residents left with nothing even eight months after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Other tents offered things like free clothes, free furniture, free groceries. FEMA had a table set up and the volunteer there was actually doing something: giving away free cell phones and service plans. Free internet access and phone books were also available and everything was cheered up by the addition of hand-made signs with happy slogans and smiling animals on them.

Made with Love was run by young volunteers with a visible hippie streak, which explained the recycling bins and vegetarian peanut oil in the fryers. By coincidence, we stopped by at lunch time (salad, broccoli—with or without cheese sauce—and sloppy Joes) and we found a whole cross-section of locals there: single moms, whole families, elderly couples, office workers. All in the same boat, so to speak.

Emergency Communities Made with Love Cafe St Bernard Parish Katrina destruction

Made with Love volunteers served more than 1,500 meals a day to residents of New Orleans who still needed help with basic needs eight long months after Hurricane Katrina hit the city.

The whole little cosmos was set up in the parking lot of a hurricane ravaged Off Track Betting business and it was obvious that the patrons were folks unused to taking and the volunteers were folks used to giving.  It all worked out just fine.

We stuffed some bills into the Made with Love donation box and headed out.

Cars destroyed by Hurricane Katrina New Orleans

Areas under elevated freeways in New Orleans became ghostly parking lots full of cars destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Still storming, 10 years later

It was pathetic, but after only a few days of exposure to the fresh aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we were slowly losing our battle with destruction fatigue. Cars full of mud left wrapped around trees were beginning to seem normal. Hearing people talk about “taking water” was getting mundane. It was time for a change of scenery and a few days of distance and perspective on what we’d seen in New Orleans.

We could not then (and still can’t now) imagine what it was like to call post Katrina New Orleans home. On our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve returned to New Orleans four times since our visit eight months after Katrina, the most recent time in 2014, and each time we’ve seen many areas of the city make a comeback. It is a shameful truth, however, that poorer, predominantly black areas, like the Lower 9th Ward, are still storming 10 years later and seem as if they’ll never come back.

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The Confusing Legend of Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar, narco terrorist and head of the Medellin Cartel, was shot on a roof top in Medellin, Colombia in 1993 ending one of the most violent and profitable crime sprees in history. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the scale of the murder and mayhem the “King of Cocaine” unleashed, you still see Escobar’s face around Colombia. Take, for example, the sticker with his face on it along with the words “El Patron” that we spotted on a bus in Medellin (below).

El Patron Pablo Escobar sticker Medellin, Colombia

The enduring legend of Pablo Escobar is a confusing and complicated thing, as evidenced by the “El Patron” sticker with the narco terrorist’s face on it that we spotted on a public bus in Medellin.

To many Colombians, particularly residents of poor comunas whom Escobar helped by building schools, backing soccer teams, etc, the world’s most notorious drug lord is an enduring legend and even a hero to some.

Is Hollywood to blame?

Hollywood can’t get enough of Escobar either. Many movies have been made based on Escobar’s story and right now Tom Cruise is wrapping up filming in Medellin where he’s shooting scenes for the latest, a movie called “Mena“. Last year Benicio del Toro starred in Escobar: Paradise Lost. And the 10 part Netflix original series “Narcos” premieres tomorrow (August 28). Colombian media produces its share of Escobar entertainment too, including an excellent mega-series made by Colombia’s Caracol Television called “Patron del Mal.”

The legend of Pablo Escobar has even inspired a controversial form of narco tourism in Colombia, which we wrote about for

For travelers in Colombia, seeing Escobar’s face can be confusing — like spotting a bus in Chicago with an Al Capone sticker on it. But the Escobar issue is fresher and more complicated than Capone and remains confusing terrain for Colombians as well, many of whom are still trying to figure out where Escobar belongs in their history.  In the meantime, the Escobar legend continues.

Grave of Pablo Escobar Medellin

Pablo Escobar’s grave in Medellin is part of a controversial form of narco tourism in Colombia.


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9 Free Things to Do in Medellin – Medellin, Colombia

We kind of fell in love with the second largest city in Colombia because of the perfect weather and the Texas-sized attitude of the local Paisas. In a previous post, we explained why we love Medellin and also acknowledged that the city is not exactly jam-packed with tourist attractions. There are, however, a variety of things that travelers can do and see for free (or damn close)–from art to dead people to butterflies. Here are our nine favorite free things to do in Medellin. After all, nothing makes a travel budget go further than free.

Free things to do in Medellin, Colombia

Real City Tours: Pablo Alvarez-Correa, 28, was born in Medellin. He trained as an engineer and traveled extensively before returning to the city where he started Real City Tours in 2013. Since then he’s been running an increasingly popular four-hour free walking tour of Medellin twice daily Monday to Friday. The all-English tour is peppered with Pablo’s entertaining explanations of complicated elements of Colombian history and illuminating personal stories which bring historic and modern Medellin to life. Please tip as generously as you can.

Real Medellin Tours

Pablo Alvarez-Correa, founder and tour leader of the free Real City Tours of Medellin.

San Pedro Cemetery Museum: Not every cemetery is also a museum. Then again, not every cemetery holds the history of a city like Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery Museum. Founded in 1842 as a cemetery for the elite, it grew over the years. In 1970 it was opened up for use by the general public and in 1997 it was designated as a museum, in part to protect the final resting place of some of the most important figures in Medellin politics, journalism, the arts and business including three former Colombian presidents.

The vast cemetery is free to enter (open 8am to 2pm) and features some lovely carving and statues, but its real value is as a one-stop-shop of the city’s history as told through the dead. To really understand that side of the cemetery you need a guide. We were guided by David Graaf who was working for Palenque Tours.

David showed us some of the most famous graves in the cemetery, explained some of the statues and said that the cemetery is open on full moon nights when it hosts bohemian gatherings of students and artists. We noted a grave dating back to 1875, then it was time for more recent history.


Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery Museum is free to enter and full of city history.

In the 1980s and 1990s drug traffickers terrorized citizens of Medellin with random and brutal acts of violence that killed cartel members, police officers, politicians and innocent bystanders. As the drug business boomed so did the burial business.

Pablo Escobar’s grave is not in the San Pedro cemetery, but some of his victims and associates are. One of the most memorable examples is mausoleum #17 marked Lilia. Here a mother has buried six of her sons. All of them were hit men (called sicarios) for Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. All of them were killed violently. The glass-fronted Munoz Mosquera mausoleum is lovingly arranged like a living room with a chandelier, side tables and an open bible. A radio used to be hooked up to an illegal electrical connection so it could play her sons’ favorite music (ranchera). Loudly.

An ironic factoid: Pablo Escobar allegedly got his criminal start by stealing marble gravestones.

Though the bad old Escobar days are in the past, gangs still exist in Medellin and the San Pedro Cemetery can be a dangerous place when gang members are being buried due to a combination of heavy drinking by mourners and the occasional attack by rival gang members. This explains why visitors to San Pedro Cemetery are wanded for weapons before being let in.

San Pedro Cemetery Museum

San Pedro Cemetery Museum in Medellin, Colombia.

Plaza Botero: When an art world heavy hitter famous for enormous bronze statues is born in your city, well, you better make some space for his work. Plaza Botero in central Medellin is a huge, free, public outdoor space jam-packed with the 23 sculptures by native son Fernando Botero.

Plaza Botero Medellin Museum of Antioquia

Fine examples of bronze sculptures by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero in Plaza Botero.

Botero sculptures - Plaza Botero Medellin

Sculptures by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero make Plaza Botero a favorite (and free) place to hang out.

Medellin Metro: Residents of Medellin are proud of their metro system and they should be. It’s clean, civilized, safe, efficient and nearly free at just 2,000 COP (about US$0.70 per ride anywhere the lines go including the metrocables (see below). Construction of a new tram system called the Tranvia is being finished now and will service even more parts of the city. Two new metrocable lines are in the works too.

Medellin Metro

Clean, efficient and nearly free, Medellin’s Metro system is a winner in the city.

Encicla Medellin: Even cheaper than the metro is the Encicla network of city bikes at automated stands offering bikes that are free to use for up to an hour even for foreigners. Just register on the Inscribite section of the website by submitting a copy of your passport and you’re good to go. New stands of bikes and new bike paths are opening in Medellin all the time.

Escolaras de Comuna 13: In 2011 escalators that travel from the valley up through a poor community known as Comuna 13 were inaugurated in an attempt to ease the commute for more than 12,000 residents, reduce crime and beautify the run down and often dangerous area. Escolaras de Comuna 13, which were built in six sections, replaced 350 steep, dilapidated stairs that residents used to have to navigate to get up and down the hillside.

Escolaras de Comuna 13 Medellin, Colombia

Medellin’s Escolaras de Comuna 13 take residents and travelers up into a hillside community above the city for free.

About 1,000 riders a day use the free escalators and they’re mostly locals though travelers are welcome to make the journey too. Young local caretakers are stationed along the way armed with uniforms, walkie talkies and information about the escalators and the community. We talked to Jose for a while and he told us that crime in the area has gone down because of the increased traffic and attention the escalators brought to the community. Most of the walls around the escalators have been painted in bright and creative murals with names like “The Wait”, “New Horizons” and “The Lovers” by local artists.

You may be told that the escolaras are not safe, however, we spent more than an hour traveling on them, taking photos and talking to Jose and we never felt threatened.

Comuna 13 escalators - Medellin, Colombia

Murals with names like “The Wait”, “New Horizons” and “The Lovers” were commissioned from local artists to brighten up Medellin’s free Escolaras de Comuna 13.

Botanical Garden of Medellin: This is a true haven in the city. Opened in the late 19th century but expanded to more or less what you see today in 1972, the five acre Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden of Medellin is home to thousands of species of plants and flowers and is totally free for anyone who want to enjoy the open-air orchid house, a butterfly house, a cactus garden and peaceful paths and picnic areas right in the middle of the city. There’s also a very nice cafe with outdoor seating.

Butterfly Botanical garden Medellin, Colombia

Inside the butterfly house in the totally free Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden in Medellin.

Medellin Metrocable: In 2004 the city of Medellin inaugurated a system of aerial cable cars (like a ski lift without the snow) to provide transportation for residents of some of the poor communities that cover the hillsides around Medellin. The Medellin Metrocable, considered to be the first cable-propelled transit system in South America, also provides an exciting sight seeing ride with steep ascents and descents, spectacular views of the city below and an illuminating progression from developed city up into under developed areas and it’s free to ride up through the comunas if you’ve already purchased a Metro ticket.

Right now there are two Metrocable lines (J & K) that service several comunas. A third line (L) continues beyond the K line to Parque Arvi. The total length of the three Metrocable lines is 5.8 miles (9.3 km) Two new lines that are being constructed now will ultimately connect with the new Tranvia train line in the city.

Medellin Metrocable Linea J

Take the Metrocable (free with your 70 cent Metro ticket) for the best views down on the city of Medellin.

Up above the comunas tickets are required to travel on the L line (4,600 COP or about US$1.50 each way) which climbs even more steeply over forested hillsides and small farms. Your final destination is Parque Arvi, a large mountaintop protected area that is free to enter and features free geared mountain bike rental (including helmets) through the Enciclia network that we already mentioned, hiking trails, picnic areas, babbling brooks, a handful of restaurants and even a small farmer’s market in front of the Metrocable station at the top of the line.

Check out our time-lapse video, below, of the 24 minute 4.1 mile (6.6 km) ride up to Parque Arvi.

Medellin Museum of Modern Art:  Entry is based on a donation system at the Medellin Museum of Modern Art which is really just two loft-like rooms which house rotating shows. The installations we saw were interesting enough and the museum store is your best bet for souvenirs.

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