Friday, April 20, 2007


We're back home from New Orleans. We made good time, leaving at 9 a.m. and stopping at the outlet mall in Gonzales for about an hour, we arrived home at 2:25 p.m., in time to pick up Logan at school.

I gave a fairly rosy view of New Orleans from the perspective of the touristy areas of the city. Alana's comments about the rest of the city give a more realistic, and depressing, view of the city's recovery.

Alana was involved in the largest Medicaid outreach event conducted in the United States. Louisiana does more to reach out to the public with Medicaid information than any other state (which is fitting, as East Carroll Parish was recently listed as the poorest county in the United States). This week's blitz of New Orleans, which continues through Sunday, is the largest event undertaken by the state.

Alana's work in New Orleans took her to the 7th and 8th wards. These parts of the city did not receive the same media attention as the 9th ward. The 9th ward was the poorest in the city and horribly flooded, so it was an obvious media magnet. The 7th and 8th wards are more of a lower middle class, working area. They, too, were badly flooded. Alana saw buildings with water marks well above her head. There was the odd repaired building, but around it remained homes still bearing search and rescue marks.

She was in a church that was wrecked by the storm. Volunteers from around the country and Canada have been coming down to fix up the church, living dormitory style in the gymnasium. The gym is in rough shape, with the floor pulled up to bare concrete, but it's serviceable. The sanctuary has a new roof and ceiling. In the pastor's words, this is just a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. It will be years before this church is up to what it was before the storm.

The human psychological toll is not something that's reported very often. Alana met a woman who was stranded in the storm. Her cousin was to pick her up on the Sunday before the hurricane hit, but the woman fell asleep while waiting and either missed her cousin or the cousin never appeared. When the levees broke, she was chased to the second floor by the rising water. Then she had to go into the attic. Part of the roof collapsed, so she climbed onto the roof. Neighbours rescued her via a small boat and took her to their roof. A day or two later they walked through chest-high water to a highway onramp, where they were picked up by rescue helicopters. The woman was doing okay before the storm, but now she has nothing. The psychological scarring is obvious.

This is just one of many, many stories to come out of the area.

A friend and co-worker of Alana's drove down I-55 to New Orleans (we came down via Opelousas, and drove home via I-10 to Baton Rouge). Our route was fairly sparsely inhabited until you got about 30 miles from New Orleans. That area wasn't hit hard by the storm. Alana's friend came down through Hammond, LA. Hammond is in very rough shape. It still hasn't recovered from the devastation. We imagine that Slidell, LA is in the same or worse shape, seeing as how it was further east (on the more powerful edge of the storm).

I mentioned yesterday how Metairie didn't seem in too bad a shape. The Lakeshore district is apparently another story entirely. If Katrina had been a bear that had mauled it, Lakeshore — like the 7th, 8th, and 9th wards — had seen little more treatment than some gauze and a bandaid.

As Alana's friend said, it's appalling that the city is in such poor shape overall some 20 months after the disaster.

Tourism is the lifeblood of New Orleans. For most tourists, the city is back in business. The French Quarter, Garden District, and shopping areas in Metairie are all in pretty good shape. The rest of the city, the parts the tourists never saw before the storm and are unlikely to see now, looks like a bomb had hit it.

* * *

We both felt a particularly strong affinity to New Orleans this week. I guess it's because we both saw parts of it we'd never visited before (Alana more so than me).

When we drove into the city, Green Day was singing "We're coming home, again" on the CD player. Alana choked up a little and smiled at that. There was something special about listening to the Tragically Hip play, "New Orleans is Sinking" (written in 1989, and with the song's original intention firmly in my mind) while walking through the French Quarter. More poignant was walking back from the New Orleans Public Library while the Hip's Gord Downey sang, "If New Orleans is beat, where does that leave you and me?" I had just spent several hours reading old New Orleans newspapers from around the time of the Union occupation. New Orleanians were as defiant then as they are now.

As we left the hotel this morning, there was a sadness, like we were leaving a friend without knowing when we would be back to see them. Alana said that if we ever came into money (Ha!) we would have to buy a condo or something in the city. That way we could go home any time we wanted. The feeling that New Orleans is the city we should be calling home was never as strong as it was this trip.

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