I had to slow down for the last 100 miles or so, because of a sudden downpour: water coming down in thick sheets and lightning illuminating the night sky. It was as if nature wanted to remind me of the purpose of my trip to New Orleans - helping my friends Carol and John to fix up their house that had been flooded by hurricane Katrina a year before.
The trip had started in the rain but the fall colors were at their peak in new England and the rain and mist only made the landscape more romantic. Once I got into Pennsylvania the sky cleared up and the drive became just spectacular. It reminded me of a scene in the movie Sea Biscuit, which is a long traveling shot of the horse galloping along a hillside in fall colors. That is how it was for me, but it lasted for hundreds of miles!
My first observation, arriving in New Orleans, was that quite a few street signs were missing. It was not like in Boston where, to confuse the out-of-towners, the main arteries are almost never marked, there it was obviously signs that had been ripped out by the wind and not replaced yet. It makes it a little difficult to find your way around in the middle of the night when you do not know the town.
My friends live between uptown and Carrollton, near the Tulane University campus. Their house had "only" three or four feet of water in the first floor. They are among the lucky ones. In fact their house, built eighty years ago, was designed with flooding in mind: the main living floor is upstairs. The ground floor is meant to be used as a basement. My friends, however, had their master bedroom in the "basement" and, consequently, lost almost all their clothes. A lot of the stuff that was stored in the rest of the basement became moldy and had to be discarded too. The basement was stripped to the studs.
When they were allowed back in their house, several months after the hurricane, they decided to move their bedroom back upstairs (their 2 kids are now grown and out of the house), redecorate the entire house and replace the old electric cables as well as the downstairs a/c unit. Of course, when you do something like that, there is always a long "punch list" of things left undone. My job was to fix as much of the punch list as possible, and to start putting up drywall downstairs. Since I was there only 3 weeks, I worked pretty hard and did not have a lot of time for sightseeing. Nevertheless, I would like to share some of my impressions.
The first things you notice, even in areas that escaped the worst of the flood, are piles of debris sitting on the sidewalk and white FEMA trailers a little everywhere. This one is across the street from my friends' house. The town services come twice a week to remove the trash, but it keeps reappearing.
One afternoon, John took me on a tour of the areas most affected by the flood. The 17th Street canal was breached when the water pushed the levee out about 100 feet. Now a dam has been built at the lake end with pumps to keep the water out, but rumor has it that the pumps are not powerful enough to handle a very heavy rain! In this middle class area, some houses appear unscathed until you look closer and realize that all the windows are broken and the inside completely destroyed. Note the sign painted on the corner of the house by a rescue team, which went from house to house to look for survivors. Those signs indicated when they went through the house and what they found.
Other houses have more obvious damage and others are in really bad shape, many clearly beyond repair. Here is a sign one does not often see in Boston! It is estimated that, over a year after the hurricane, less than 50% of the house that need to be demolished have actually been torn down, and in large areas of town nothing has been fixed or rebuilt yet.
Next John took me to the marina on Lake Pontchartrain. The lighthouse is still at an odd angle and many boats are still piled up at the end of the marina. This boat is not going anywhere soon, nor these.
One of the worst affected area was the 9th ward (ward is New Orleanese for district). Here the devastation is complete. A lot of houses have been removed, leaving just a concrete pad or a stoop to nowhere.
There have been rumors and allegations that some of the levees were breached on purpose to try to save some of the better parts of town (as was done in 1927). Signs have been put up in the hope of getting to the bottom of this. I felt that some people in New Orleans were more interested in pointing fingers and developing conspiracy theories than getting the place back on its feet.
And yet, New Orleans is still there, with its wonderful ironwork in the French Quarter, its street vendors and musicians, its joie de vivre and wonderful food.
The live oaks have survived, with their beard of "Spanish moss" (which is neither Spanish nor a moss) and the hibiscus are still blooming.
Every day, new businesses and restaurants are re-opening. Jazz clubs are, once again, open till the wee hours of the morning and famous musicians still sit down at midnight at the piano of the Snug Harbor to give impromptu concerts. The big tankers are still churning the brown water of the Mississippi, and the cruise ships are beginning to come back.
Down in the delta the fishing fleet is getting back together, the cypresses are still growing in the briny water and the white pelicans are still soaring overhead.
What would New Orleans be without masks of all kinds? At Halloween the town was full of witches and other frightening sights, and Carnival is always in the back of people's mind!
And despite all the problems and obstacles, rebuilding IS going on (here is my small contribution).
Yes, New Orleans will rise again.