When our Trans-Americas Journey started back in 2006, our very first destination was New Orleans, Louisiana for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. In fact, days two through 28 of our journey were spent in and around New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged our beloved NOLA just eight months earlier and the city was 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.
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.
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.
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 lived 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.
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, one of our favorite spots 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.
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 let us see the clear wave of devastation fanning out from the breach in the levee.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, were still not restored 10 years after the hurricane.
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