Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Ressurrection and ruin

My legs hurt more today than yesterday. I traipsed all over the French Quarter today, to the Cathedral and Cabildo, down to Decatur, over to Central Grocery and the French Market, up Esplanade to Dauphine (and then over to Barracks to find out the book store I wanted to visit wouldn't be open for another hour!) then back to the hotel. After dropping off my leather jacket (hey, it was chilly this morning), I hiked down to Decatur, over to Canal, up to St. Charles, almost over to Poydras to get to a bank (to save the $2+ withdrawal fee, since it was a branch of our bank), back down to Royal (where I found a much closer bank!), then back down to Decatur again.

I should have gone back to the hotel at about 11, but I just couldn't do it. The day was crisp and clear. After all the times I visited New Orleans, I can honestly say that the Quarter has never looked as good as it did today. Even the ever present murky water in the streets was mostly gone (though there were two places where workers were powerwashing the sidewalks). While in a store today I heard a news announcer talk glowingly about the French Quarter, and how people needed to visit it now that it was open again. I saw a huge tour group from Germany in Jackson Square. There seemed to be a few more people around this morning than yesterday. Tourism is slowly returning to the city.

After checking out of the hotel, we decided to drive home by way of the Ninth Ward. We drove... uh... okay, I'm not sure of the compass heading (and if you've seen a map of New Orleans you'd know why), but we drove along Orleans until we got to Rampart, where I turned right. We were headed roughly in the right direction.

As I mentioned yesterday, the downtown and tourist sections had mostly recovered, at least as far as businesses were concerned. This was from walking Decatur, Royal, and Bourbon Streets in the Quarter, and Canal, Poydras, Leola, and St. Charles in the business district. People with money had returned. We saw a couple of Mini Coopers. Outside the police station on Royal, I saw a yellow Lotus. Perhaps it was confiscated. As we drove along Rampart, on the edge of the Quarter, we saw several more businesses boarded up. The further you get from the tourist areas, the more obvious the signs of ruin.

On the opposite side of the road and a couple of blocks further along Rampart was a building that indicated you were now entering the Ninth Ward. It did not have any signs on it. It was a blue building with a corrugated metal roof. Half of the roof had been peeled back like someone opening a can of Pringles potato chips.

Another home had its left side exterior wall ripped away. The obvious mildew and water damage suggested that it was wind that tore it off.

Everywhere there were houses with rescue symbols spray painted on them. We didn't know what the symbols meant, but we're pretty sure that one of the rarer symbols meant someone had died inside. Occasionally we came across buildings with information crudely spray painted on it. In each case it was to tell someone that an animaly — maybe a treasured pet — was found and rescued. Someone in the neighbourhood had taken care of the animal and left a note to tell whomever what had happened.

The rescue symbols were accompanied by dates. Alana didn't see a single date earlier than 9/6. She saw quite a few showing 9/12. Considering how low to the ground the symbols were painted (at about chest height) this area of the city must have been pretty much dry by the time rescuers got to it.

FEMA trailers filled several small parks: a couple of dozen in one park, a dozen in another. On one street, three or four homes had trailers parked out front while the house behind it showed signs of slow, but perhaps steady, repair work.

Most of the homes looked deserted. Most of the debris was gone, or had never been there in the first place, but there was no life in the homes themselves. We listened to a local guy on the radio while driving along. He said that homes in New Orleans should not be rebuilt with wood frames but with some sort of concrete composite capable of withstanding hurricane force winds. I've seen the pictures of destroyed homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, but very few of the homes we saw were destroyed. There were maybe a half dozen to a dozen lots that had been razed. The rest still had the building intact. They had not collapsed. The wind had done nasty damage, but the homes had mostly survived the wind. It was the water that destroyed. It was the water, the flood, the failure of human engineering that had killed.

While the structures were intact, roof damage was common. Anyone without a recent roof took some damage. Shingle curl with age. The wind scraped away curled shingles as it drove across the city.

The streets were fairly busy. There were people getting on with their lives. We passed two guys walking pit bulls; I couldn't tell if the dogs were for protection or intimidation. It was a poor section of town. There were more people around and more cars on the streets than I had expected. Poor folks with nothing to do, I suppose. Their faces were mostly young or old.

We didn't get to the Lower Ninth Ward where most of the damage occurred. We were in the Upper Ninth Ward and that was bad enough. We didn't take any pictures. For one, the traffic was busy enough on Rampart and the other major roads that we couldn't stop. For another, we weren't sight seers. We were witnesses. We wanted to see the devastation and see what, if any, progress was being made. People were trying to live on these streets, where — depending on the street — between one in three and one in ten homes were livable. Somehow, stopping for pictures seemed wrong.

Alana said something to me that made a lot of sense: there have already been enough pictures taken.

Pictures wouldn't give the right context, anyway. Maybe video would. You only get a real feel for the destruction as you pass house after house after house spray painted with emergency rescue markings. Each of those homes was empty of the living when those marks were made. The only homes that were not marked were those that were no longer there.

We looped around and drove back down Rampart toward the city core. As we approached the top of the Quarter\ I saw three damaged homes, obviously empty. Next to them were four homes built at the same time and in the same Spanish style. They were newly painted in bright colours: one was predominantly blue, another yellow, a third cinnamon, the fourth green. They had been recovered, but the ones next to them had not. The recovered homes just happened to be on the part of the street closer to the city centre. It appears that the city is rebuilding in the same direction that it originally developed, from the old city centre outward, with a smattering of structures in the outskirts. It was New Orleans' development re-enacted at a faster pace, but a pace that is still woefully slow.

The traffic out of the city was heavy, as was the traffic into the city. I suppose that is a good sign.

I will mention one other thing about our trip. There were hats and t-shirts for sale with slogans about rebuilding, or about FEMA, or about the mayor's infamous "chocolate city" quote. I didn't see a single resident wearing a shirt or hat of this type. If they wore anything that mentioned the city, it was an NFL Saints shirt (of which there were plenty). A number of stores had tasteful posters about New Orleans rebuilding and welcoming visitors. None of the proprietors of any of the stores I visited volunteered stories about the hurricane. I overheard maybe one discussion about the hurricane while I was there, and that had to do with a store that may or may not have reopened. The store owners were, for the most part, warm and friendly and happy to see you there. I'm sure if I asked them about the storm, they would tell me a "storm story". Its just that the storm didn't come up in conversation, and no one was volunteering. Like the tacky souvenirs, "bigass beer", and the beads sold on Bourbon Streets, slogans about surviving the storm or blaming FEMA are for the tourists. The natives of the city are too busy rebuilding (the city and their lives) for slogans.


Michael said...

Just a quick note to say that the wife and I were impressed (in a sort of depressed way) with these posts from N.O.

You probably noticed more than I would have, and it was nice to get a picture of what's really going on down there. Oddly enough, we seldom read or hear about New Orleans up here.

Allan Goodall said...

Just a quick note to say that the wife and I were impressed (in a sort of depressed way) with these posts from N.O.

Thank you.

I'm still sorry I didn't take pictures in the 9th Ward, but at the same time I'm not sure I could take pictures, not with folks walking around and living in the area. It just seems wrong.

Oddly enough, we seldom read or hear about New Orleans up here.

We, of course, hear about how slow the rebuilding is going. The news down there was saying that at the end of the year the Feds are no longer going to pay the non-FEMA covered part of debris removal. The state government was meeting last week to finish some end-of-session stuff, including dipping into an emergency fund to cover the debris clean up shortfall. They said that they just couldn't require the cities and parishes to cover the cost themselves.

Alana tells me that you still can't get down to Fort Jackson in Plaquemines Parish. The road is still not passable that far south.

Michael said...

Last night on "The Hour," George Strombolopolous interviewed one of the lead fraud investigators on the post-Katrina portfolio. This guy said the US gov't is pursuing legal action against fraudsters in over one third of the judicial districts in the US. These are people who've been claiming to be Katrina victims, or running charities for them, and defrauding the public or the government. Apparently even FEMA employees have been caught defrauding the gov't. What fun.