Friday, December 30, 2005

New Orleans: Four Months Later

In what will probably be my last post of 2005, I thought I would return to a story that consumed a lot my posts since late August and that is the subject of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. Yesterday was exactly four months since Katrina hit New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This week, Roxi and I made a trip to New Orleans to visit Roxi's friend Jenny who had just moved to New Orleans two months before Katrina and returned to her insurance job a mere two weeks after the storm. She has been in New Orleans ever since and we made the trip to see her on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Prior to making the two hour drive east from Lafayette, we were told what to expect by friends who had already visited New Orleans. Nothing could prepare me for what we actually saw though. As we approached New Orleans on I-10 through the suburb of Metarie, the first thing that was noticeable were the blue tarps on so many roofs. Most houses had wind and water damage to their roofs and they have been covered and patched with blue tarps until they can be repaired. Also there was several buildings with significant structural damages.

As we continued into the city and approached downtown, you could see a difference in color of the roof of the Superdome where the large holes have now been patched. Driving into the city, many of the windows of the larger buildings are still covered by plywood as the panes of glass are slowly being replaced. Other buildings have tarps covering holes that were opened by the storm.

We drove to the Uptown area of the city near the Garden District and found things to be fairly normal but there was still a lot of damage and far fewer people around than usual. The restaurants are beginning to reopen, but with limited hours and menus. We stayed around that part of town for the evening. The most striking thing about the night was the lack of people out and the sense of emptiness of the city. The mandatory curfew had only been lifted a few days before our visit so apparently there were more people out and about, but this was not the New Orleans that I knew.

Another eerie feeling was driving around the area at night. Many parts of the city still do not have power and so for several miles, no stoplights are working. They have been replaced by temporary stop signs making just about every intersection a four-way stop. They are very easy to miss in the darkness as are the enormous potholes that have formed in the roads.

The next morning, we headed towards the French Quarter to have an early lunch but due to the limited restaurant hours, we didn't end up finding an open restaurant until around noon. Like the Garden District, the French Quarter is relatively unharmed but many of the business owners have not yet returned so there was again a lack of activity in the area. The French Market was open but the number of vendor tables was very small by comparison to what I am used to. Eventually we found food and then made a drive to the 9th Ward.

As most people now know, the 9th Ward is one of the poorest areas of town and many people didn't evacuate before the storm. After the flooding started, those who had remained were forced to take refuge on their rooftops while awaiting rescue by helicopter. When we drove into the 9th Ward, it was like a ghost town. The weeds have grown up since the city has been drained but other than that, there is very little life there. Some people have returned to clear out their homes of trash but many houses probably haven't been entered since they were searched for bodies in the month after the storm. The houses and cars bear the water marks of flooding. In our drive through the area, it appeared that water ranged from three to six feet.

After having seen enough of the devastation in the 9th Ward, we headed for Lake Pontchartrain and the Lakeview area. We made our way up to the south shore of the lake to see the remains of the burned marina and the boats that are still stacked like a pile of toys. It is truly amazing that none of the boats have been moved in the four months since the storm. We then made our way into Lakeview which has a street that literally runs parallel to the 17th Street Canal. What I thought was devastation in the 9th Ward paled in comparison to what we saw in Lakeview.

The water levels in the Lakeview area must have easily reach nine or ten feet judging by the marks on the homes. The homes that are still standing have been completely gutted of all furniture and interior walls. But those were the lucky ones. Many houses were partially or totally collapsed. There were also lots adjacent to the levee that were clear of everything but dirt and broken trees.

As we drove down the road running along the levee, there were many people driving through to see the damage. Residents had put up signs asking that no more pictures be taken, but I don't feel that anyone can be blamed for recording the aftermath of this unprecedented event. Finally we reached the area where the levee actually failed. There are still crews of workers there to reinforce the patch. We decided not to get out and walk up to the levee but many people were standing on part of it and taking pictures although it was nothing more than piles of dirt and rocks behind steel plates. It is truly amazing that this kind of catastrophe had never occurred before considering the amount of water that has been held behind that levee of dirt and concrete for so long.

People use the word "awesome" so much it has kind of lost it's meaning, but the destruction that Roxi and I saw in New Orleans is what the word awesome was coined for. It was staggering to us that we could drive so far around the city and see the same scene almost everywhere we went. The current estimate is that 20% of the population has returned to the city and that is probably true, but that 20% is probably concentrated in less than 10% of the city. I don't know how long it will take for the city to be cleaned up and I know that it won't ever be the same, but judging by it's condition four months after Katrina, it would not surprise me if it takes more than a decade for New Orleans to return to a level of activity similar to comparable sized cities.

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