I spent the past week in Louisiana on work related business but none of it would take me to New Orleans. I decided it was worth it stay an extra 36 hours to go to Jazzfest and to see New Orleans for myself. My time in New Orleans was brief but there was no way I was leaving with out seeing the Katrina damage for myself. At happy hour last week, a woman named Kate recommended that I go on the “Katrina Tour”. I was shocked that a tour company would have something like this. She assured me that it was not exploitive at all and that it had a profound impact on her. Reluctantly I paid my $35 because I wasn’t sure if it was safe enough for me to try and drive around by myself. The media will tell you it’s the “Wild Wild South” but I didn’t want to attempt to prove them wrong.
I booked the tour and it would be the last thing I would do before I left town. Earlier that morning as I was driving from my appointment I ran into some homes with significant damage. The closer I got to Lake Ponchatrain the more damage I observed. Street signs at odd angles from wind damage. The stores that were open had mylar banners indicating so; if you drove too quickly you would think they were out of business. There was a house that looked like no one had touched it in two years which was probably true. The mold covered the entire facade and the grass untouched. The windows were blown out so I pulled over and peaked in. The furniture was strewn all over and you could see the extensive water damage on everything in sight. It didn’t appear that the family who previously inhabited the dwelling had returned to retrieve anything. Actually, there was nothing to retrieve. An entire history lost to the storm surge and to the incompetence of our government for the last 30 years.
On every block there were several homes just like this one. The symbols from the rescuers still graffiti home after home. As I viewed the numerous symbols I tried to remember what it meant. The storm hit on 8-29 and every home was dated with somewhere between 9-14 and 9-24. Their homes weren’t checked for at least 15 days after the storm. Fortunately the number on the bottom on the X was always 0. Which means they did not find anybody dead in that particular home. They all escaped, fortunately.
The news has focused on the lower 9th ward, where there was total devastation and where many of the stranded poor black residents resided. I went through every part of town, rich, poor, large homes, small homes. Every one of them with a rescue squad symbol and a waterline. Each home featured a gray, brown or rust colored line that told the story. The waterline, the point where the flood water settled ranged from 2 feet to about 16 feet. This doesn’t include the 20 to 26 foot surge. Many one story homes had the rescue symbol on the roof indicating that when the home was checked the water was so high they probably checked it by boat. I passed by many two story homes with their first floors engulfed with quickly rising water.
Then there were the holes in the roofs, the attempts to save themselves from the rapidly rising water only to be me stuck in 100 degree without food, water, or a radio to find out what is going on. Even though the French Quarter survived how can you stay in a town with no electricity, no potable water, no police force?
Many people are back in town now. For every home you see untouched, you see at least one with a trailer in front. I even found a block where every home had a trailer in front. You also see numerous “Katrina Villages”, parking lots that have been turned into trailer parks. The trailers are very small, although we joke about them, they could at least give them a double wide. You also see the little red flags marking spaces where trailers are to come but haven’t arrived yet, two years later.
Finally there was light at the end of the tunnel. After passing by Fats Domino’s house we turned the corner to see two blocks of bright pastel rebuilt houses. These houses were a part of Musicians Village. Habitat for Humanity and Harry Connick Jr. started a project where they are building houses for displaced musicians. They get interest free loans and they must put 350 hours of sweat equity into the home. We rounded another corner and there was a family on the porch. They waved and clapped and they were happy to see the tourbus. Their house was in the middle of renovations but I saw three generations of New Orleanians enjoying a nice day in April. This was the end of the tour and I had slipped into a depression. Seeing those people happy with what they had brought tears to my eyes.
My camera battery died early during the tour so the links represent some of the areas where houses are still standing. In many places, whole neighborhoods have been lost. It was probably for the best because I stopped trying to get the best shot and just took it all in.
We rode around for 3 hours and I have no idea how many miles we covered but we covered many. The area impacted was much bigger than I could have ever imagined. I have heard many people talk about how the recovery is going slow. Now that I see that it’s much bigger than what we see on TV, I can’t see how they can go any faster. With so many people not returning, no insurance money for homeownwers to rebuild and no help for displacd renters I understand why it is the way it is. Almost every home in the city has some damage. New Orleans is much bigger than DC but if every home in DC was destroyed I can’t see it all being rebuilt that fast given that there isn’t any precedent for the situation. We didn't have a plan. Whatever plan they did come up with will not make everyone happy because there are always winners and losers. I want to go back soon. One to do more tourist things and volunteer. Everyone needs to see it for themselves because there is no way to understand the magnitude of what happened the day the leeves broke.