“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” That pretty much sums up New Orleans six months after Hurricane Katrina. I visited New Orleans two weeks ago, so I speak from firsthand experience. The good news is that there is a lot more good than bad — or ugly. The bad news is that there is a lot of work to be done.
There is a lot to be said about the future of my favorite American city — so much that I am writing this column in two parts. Today, I will detail the bad news. Tomorrow, you’ll be amazed by the good.
When assessing the future of New Orleans, it’s important to understand that the recent devastation was not directly caused by any natural body of water. Lake Pontchartrain kept within its shores; the Mississippi River stayed well within its banks. The damage you see is due to the failure of the levees, manmade marvels that were under-engineered from Day 1. When they failed, floodwaters were released, flooding — and even eradicating — entire neighborhoods.
The Lower 9th Ward and Chalmette were the neighborhoods hardest hit. The Lower 9th is a workingclass town and a neighborhood of very old homes. Many of the houses were built by hand, and none was designed to handle flooding of this magnitude. As I drove through this area, there was very little sign of life. The homes were in shatters. Shrimp boats were propped eerily against houses and other buildings. There was no electricity, no water, and very little movement in terms of a recovery. Unfortunately, the best option for this area might be to raze it and let the neighborhood rise again over time. Of course, many old-timers are saddened by this prospect. Fearing they will lose the legacy of the generations of families that lived here Pre-K (as the locals like to say), they are refusing to leave and insisting on rebuilding.
A short distance from the Lower 9th Ward is Chalmette, a hard-hit community that has experienced the added misfortune of getting very little face time on the news. In addition to the flooding, Chalmette has suffered the largest residential oil spill in the world. Its neighbor, Murphy Oil Company, apparently lost a storage tank during the storm, which leaked just over 1 million gallons of oil into this upper-middle class neighborhood, leaving a layer of oil sludge two feet deep. A week before Mardi Gras, the streets were busy with contractors pressure washing walls and gutting houses — making a start at a new beginning.
Outside of the Lower 9th Ward and Chalmette, other storm-damaged areas are abuzz with activity. Homeowners are back, doing what they can to rebuild. What impressed me most was that so many people started by rebuilding their garden — a seemingly universal symbol of hope, color and rebirth.
All over town, bulldozers are scraping the muck from the streets, and the telltale signs of search and rescue (those ominous orange “X” marks) are slowly being eradicated. The city has set up recycling areas to receive ruined appliances, household goods and wood. (Mulch is not a problem in New Orleans!) More vexing is the large number of abandoned and destroyed vehicles. Currently, if a vehicle is found blocking a street, it is being towed to a makeshift parking lot (graveyard?) under the interstate, where it will sit, rusting, until its owner can be found. Of course, finding the owner is a challenge since so many people have fled the city and may be beginning life anew someplace else.
Last week, I watched the network news do its best to dampen the spirit of this struggling city. One talking head was so intent on forcing her opinion on the nation that she neglected her facts. Her opinion was that the city must now be crime-ridden because the police force must be decimated. Wrong on both counts. Not only are there more police officers in New Orleans now than ever before, but Katrina forced a lot of the criminal element out — unfortunately, from what I hear, to Baton Rouge and Houston.
Let there be no doubt: The citizens of New Orleans are planting their gardens and setting their neighborhoods on their way to recovery.
When you go down to New Orleans (and I recommend that everyone head down there), please take one of the so-called “disaster tours.” I was conflicted about these tours at first; I felt that by taking tourists out to gawk at the damage, they were cashing in on people’s misfortune. But having seen the devastation firsthand, I feel the tours perform an important service, reminding us how powerful nature can be. Last year was New Orleans; next year, it could be somewhere else.
Tours by Isabelle (877-665-8687, $50 per person) is probably the best of the New Orleans hurricane tours. This company, which has been offering tours of New Orleans since long before Katrina, does not operate large motor coaches, but rather small, comfortable vans that are better able to navigate the city and reach some of the more seriously affected areas. Your guide is a local resident who lived through the storm and is participating in the rebuilding of the city. While the devastation is very disturbing to see, it teaches a lesson we must never forget.
For a glimpse of some scenes not shown on the nightly news, I have prepared a slide show of the good, the bad and the ugly. Watch it with compassion and respect for the people so grievously harmed — and with joy that they can celebrate new beginnings with such a zest for life.