dilluns, de maig 29, 2006

New Orleans, more than 8 months after Katrina (English)

At first blush, life had gotten back to normal at New Orleans International Airport when I arrived there on May 20th. As I walked along the terminal, however, it dawned on me that it was not the usual terminal I would enter. Upon picking up my rental car, I realized that it was the new terminal, and that the one I would normally have arrived in was still closed. The trip into the city from the Airport also afforded little in the way of understanding what had befallen the city. A few buildings were in need of repair here and there, but the highway was busy, crowded, perhaps annoyingly so for a Saturday afternoon. I noticed a rather high number of pick-up trucks with out-of-state licenses: the new inhabitants of the Big Easy, the contractors and their laborers.

Once off I-10, and on to Carrollton Avenue, I did see the tell-tale signs of the hurricane. Abandoned stripmalls and supermarkets dotted the broad boulevard, and the FEMA markings were still spray-painted on the fronts of many homes, as were messages left by the animal rescue teams. Periodically I saw messages of a more personal nature left behind by some ardent loved one desperately seeking a missing family member, along the nature of, "David, where are call mom."

The drive down to St. Charles Avenue, life seemed even more back to normal than at the airport. However there were various things amiss. Here the street cars were no longer running, but had been secunded to the Canal Street line, killing two birds with one stone. The Canal Street cars had been destroyed, and the St. Charles line was damaged after the hurricane by workers removing dead trees; the whole line had to be replaced. There was something more, however. The homes were still their well-manicured selves in Uptown New Orleans, but there was a gentle edge that was missing. There were hardly in flowers in bloom in this sub-tropical paradise. The Old Dame was still there, but she wasn't wearing any make-up, nor any jewels. She was still elegant, but she had lost her luster.

Happily Barbara's home had suffered relatively little damage, and upon my visit and subsequent inspection, I could see no tell-tale signs of the disaster, aside from that same marked lack of shine. I arrived on the night of the big election, and Barbara decided she wanted to show me the devasted areas of the city. As we drove along once buslting thoroughfares, it was plan to see that the good times hadn't been rolling in New Orleans for a very long time. As we drove away from her neighborhood, we entered into various neighborhood that had suffered flooding. Eighty percent of the city had been flooded. We travelled to the Upper 9th ward, which had been totally destroyed. Here, houses and ruins of houses stood in a long "U" shaped patterns where the water had tossed them when the canal levees were breached. Entire blocks were gone. We then travelled to St. Bernard Parish, where once 45,000 people had lived. Now only 7,000 did and all of them were in FEMA trailers. The only regular sign of life there was the omnipresent Family Dollar Store. In any given neighborhood, if nothing else were open, you could county on the Family Dollar Store. Even Walmart was closed in the Parish. The main Walmart, however, had given its parking lot over for the FEMA and local government control center, where sundry trailers placed their for the government sat alongside some that were residences and medical centers. Prized among all the slots at this center was the "Katrina Cottage," a small metal prefab built to withstand winds of 180 mph and designed to look a little like a southern Louisiana cottage.

After the Parish, we travelled back to the city itself, to the area of the 17th Street Canal breech. This neighborhood was one of the newest in the city. While it did not suffer the same sort of damage as the Upper 9th Ward, possibly because the homes were better built, it was still abandoned. I grew up in the Cold War, with the constant threat of nuclear annilation. To me, it seemed like a neighborhood in a city hit by the H-Bomb. The buildings were there, intact, but the people were gone. The plants were still growing, but wild and unkempt. It was a city abandoned.

In the days that followed, I also managed to a trip down into the French Quarter. Here the city had sustained relatively little damage from the storm, but in the wake of the storm it is still suffering. The tourists aren't coming like they used to, of course, and many shops have closed, and still others are contemplating it.

In short, the city is still there, down to an estimated 180,000 people of some 450,000. I believe it will come back, but it will not be the New Orleans we all have known. It will be smaller, and I suspect more yuppified. The ruins of the city were crawling with real estate moguls in BMWs and Mercedes, fighting with contractors' pick-ups and busloads of Mayor Nagin supporters, hauled in for the election for space in the roads.

As for Nagin's reelection, I really have little to say about it, since I do not live there. One thing I will say, is I have never seen an election like it before in this country. On Saturday, hundreds of poeple stood at major intersections and waved placks for their candidates. Others went through the city streets in long caravans of pick-ups waving signs and baners in support of their candidate. This reminded me much more of Mexico or some other Latin American country. Whatever else the future of New Orelans is, I suspect it will speak more Spanish than is does now...