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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Shiny Cars and Hippies

New Orleans   05/16/06 (Day 21)
Shiny Cars and Hippies

That’s what seems to be keeping folks going in the obliterated 9th Ward and annihilated St. Bernard Parish. We knew it was going to be bad in these areas, but it was so much worse without the television screen separating us from reality. As we cross over a bridge into the 9th Ward area we get an aerial view that lets us see the clear wave of destruction fanning out from the breach in the levee. Ninety percent of things within a few blocks are completely gone and the rest of the neighborhood is in a condition much like the Lakeview area we’d spent time in a few days earlier. None of it looks salvageable.

We watch from a distance as a family returns to what is left of their house (a lop-sided, soggy shell) just a block or two from the breached levee. As if they’d done it a dozen times already they pick their way up the stairs and into the lower level doing what, I don’t know. Maybe just “being home.” We are reminded of how good it felt when the National Guard and FBI allowed us to go into our apartment after September 11 and do stuff that made us feel like we might, someday, be home for good—like empty the refrigerator and water the plants. This family, however, will never be returning to this home. It’s clearly too far gone.

Debris removal crews have recently entered the neighborhood to finally start disposing of the remains after months of political wrangling. We talk 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.

Fats Domino still lived in the 9th Ward and kept his business there (long after his success would have allowed him to move elsewhere) and we remembered the news reports of his rescue during the hurricane. On a long shot, we ask some men if they know where Fats’ house is and they direct us straight to it.

The Fats Domino compound is on a corner across from a Dollar Store and takes up about three lots. White, angular and vaguely modern the house is trimmed with festive stripes in Miami Beach pastels and has surveillance cameras all around it. Next door is a home that’s been converted into the equally distinctive office headquarters for Fats Domino Productions. Both buildings are 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. Even now, most buildings are still uninhabitable.

In nearby St. Bernard Parish the scenes of destruction are much the same. But, weirdly, many of the car washes are open for business (even if banks, hospitals, grocery stores and schools are not). And they are doing a scorching business. It’s as if—and we totally understand this—folks are desperate to be able to keep some aspect (any aspect) of their lives in control and having your car washed has become something like therapy.

Also in St. Bernard, a group of volunteers have set up a mega aid station that is 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’s called Made with Love and the centerpiece is a huge geodesic dome tent in which 1,500 people a day are estimated to get free meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch).

Other (not round) tents house 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 are also available, which makes us stop taking our ability to remain in touch with our friends and family for granted. Everything is cheered up by the addition of hand made signs with happy slogans and smiling animals on them.

Made with Love is run by young volunteers with a visible hippie streak, which explains the recycling bins and vegetarian peanut oil in the fryers. By coincidence, we stop by at lunch time (salad, broccoli—with or without cheese sauce—and sloppy Joes) and find a whole cross-section of locals there: single moms, whole families, elderly couples, office workers.

The whole little cosmos is set up in the parking lot of a hurricane ravaged Off Track Betting business and it’s obvious that the patrons are folks unused to taking and the volunteers are folks used to giving.  Which works out just fine. Unfortunately, a sign tells (warns?) everyone that Made with Love will serve their last meal on May 31. We’re not for indefinite hand outs, but there’s clearly still overwhelming basic need here and we did not come across another group that seemed able to pick up the slack that will be left when Made with Love closes down.

The good news is that The United Way and members of the Plaquemines Parish government invited Emergency Communities to open a Made with Love Café and Grill in Buras (about 2 hours south of New Orleans). The new kitchen will stay open until August 20 and they expect to serve up to 1,000 warm, nutritious meals each day.

We are tempted to stay and have a sloppy Joe, but we stuff some bills into the donation box and head out instead. It’s pathetic, but after only a few days of exposure to Hurricane Katrina and her evil aftermath we are both slowly losing our battle with destruction fatigue. Cars full of mud left wrapped around trees are beginning to seem normal. Hearing folks talk about “taking water” is getting mundane. It’s time for a change of scenery and a few days of distance and perspective on what we’ve seen in New Orleans. We cannot imagine what it must be like to call these areas home.

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