New Orleans Street lights and traffic signals operate on Canal Street north of Interstate 10 here. A year ago, that was a given. Now, it’s a sign of hope. As Crescent City voters choose a new mayor Saturday, they could use many more.
On my 15th trip to the Big Easy earlier this month, to attend my 11th consecutive New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, this delightful metropolis looks far worse than it did during my 10th Jazz Fest, but considerably better than when I arrived last November 18. That was 81 days after Hurricane Katrina lashed this city and left a 90,000-square-mile footprint of destruction from Louisiana to Alabama and points north — an area just smaller than the United Kingdom.
Most of the French Quarter, the Central Business District, the Warehouse District, Uptown, and the Garden District are in fairly decent shape. Some locals call the tony, largely untouched area around St. Charles Avenue and Tulane University “The Isle of Denial.” Compared to last November, what impresses is what one doesn’t see.
The dark-brown lines, which grimly indicated where flood waters settled against homes and other structures, largely have faded or disappeared thanks to sunshine, rain, garden hoses, and paintbrushes. The soldiers, military police, and Humvees that patrolled everywhere now are gone as well. So, too, are the once-ubiquitous, rotted-out refrigerators that cluttered sidewalks and street medians (or “neutral grounds” as locals call them).
Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose wrote last October 7, “We should rename the streets around here Whirlpool Way, Amana Avenue and Kenmore Court because that’s what it looks like. The streets are paved in appliances. Where trees once stood, they are sometimes the only shade on a block.” Thankfully, those refrigerators full of putrid groceries have been taped shut and shipped out. Rose’s essays are collected in 1 Dead in Attic, a slim, gripping book about life’s challenges in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The return of electricity and traffic lights to many areas has attracted auto traffic — not enough to frustrate, but enough to make much of New Orleans feel lived in, even though the city’s post-hurricane population has tumbled from 445,000 to some 165,000.
Workmen on tethers tread up and down the Superdome’s convex roof at dawn. They are busy renovating the now-infamous “shelter of last resort” for its September 24 scheduled reopening as a staging ground for something other than human squalor.
Once again, music fills the air. Bourbon Street offers everything from Maison Bourbon’s first-rate traditional jazz to the Famous Door’s live renditions of classic-rock hits and disco numbers. Howlin’ Wolf has relocated to a spacious facility on the corner of South Peters and Diamond streets, a block away from its old home: an 1850s cotton warehouse, a section of which collapsed after Katrina. The new place has much better sight lines and a very clear (if very loud) sound system. Guitarist Anders Osborne’s ensemble with Kirk Joseph on tuba is a hip-shaking Jazz Fest highlight.
The Fest itself feels and sounds like old times, save for the American Insurance Group’s logo on the ever-joyous Gospel Tent, previously sponsored by the Rhodes Funeral Home. Shell Oil also prominently displays its logo. Shell and AIG join previous sponsors, such as Acura and Sheraton, to present this year’s Fest. Absent such corporate underwriting, this year’s Jazz Fest might have been an insurmountable challenge. Organizers sold between 300,000 and 350,000 tickets to the six-day sonic smorgasbord, approximating last year’s average daily gate. Rock, jazz, funk, blues, zydeco, bluegrass, and other performance genres invigorate 10 different tents and stages. Shell’s slogan captures it perfectly: “Bear witness to the healing power of music.”
Food for Thought As before, it is very easy to eat extremely well here. Arnaud’s offers fine Creole cuisine in a collection of 17 different dining rooms filling a block-long section of the French Quarter’s Rue Bienville. Its 1918-vintage main salon boasts a large portrait of the establishment’s founder, “Count” Arnaud Cazenave. He is flanked by oil paintings of his wife, Irma, and her sister, Marie, his mistress. “He couldn’t make up his mind,” a black-tied waiter explains. The attentive staff serves shrimp with remoulade sauce, veal tournedos Chantal, and much more beneath a symmetrical array of 15 crystal chandeliers and 20 ceiling fans. The elegance charms the eyes as much as the taste buds. Flood? What flood?
Later, after lunching on fried green tomatoes, crab salad, an oyster loaf po-boy, petit filet mignon, and chocolate crème brulee at The Marigny Brasserie — where Frenchman and Royal streets intersect — local attorney and native New Orleanian Randy Boudreaux, my sister, Lorna, and I explore some of this town’s less appetizing areas.
Katrina disabled traffic signals in parts of Mid-City and much of Lakeview. They still are kaput. Sections of Treme and Gentilly look on the mend, though with a long way to go. In other parts, large shopping centers and smaller strip malls endure shuttered retail outlets and vacant parking lots. Near Xavier University, a small boat that eased into a dry gutter on Earhart Street remains there, ultra-marooned, on a hot, sunny day. A bigger boat is shipwrecked on a neutral ground on Lakeview’s Robert E. Lee Boulevard. Large and prestigious homes, once worth a half-million dollars each, now sit empty. Washed-out water lines stand as high as first-floor ceilings. Windows are blown in. Some front doors are boarded over; others are wide open, perhaps so these musty residences can breathe a little. In other cases, owners have not yet returned to close doors that the floodwaters threw ajar last summer.
Sad Scenes Much worse structural damage — wooden houses knocked on their sides; one home’s roof penetrating another’s — prevails closer to the 17th Street Canal. Fortunately, workmen wield cranes and other heavy machinery to shore up its floodwalls.
Boudreaux’s parents are retired. They moved into their daughter’s home on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain after Katrina demolished their house in Chalmette, a virtually wiped-out community in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans. They received their FEMA trailer the week of May 1 — nine months after the hurricane hit. Why FEMA’s delay?
“Because they’re monsters,” Boudreaux says. “Actually, I try to believe it’s incompetence, not malice. But still, at some point, does it really matter?”
Boudreaux outlines the hydrodynamics of what happened here, as the indispensable Times-Picayune also did in great detail last Sunday. Once the waters of a 10-foot storm surge gurgled or gushed into the city through 30 breaches in the levee systems, Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans merged. As such, a reported 58 billion gallons of water, equal to 3 percent of Lake Pontchartrain, settled into the Crescent City. Hence, as tides rose and fell in the Gulf of Mexico, to which the lake is connected, they elevated and lowered water levels in Lake Pontchartrain and 84 percent of the city. Until it finally was pumped dry in late September, this major lake and this grand city were synonymous.
Southeast of Lakeview, hundreds of abandoned cars that Katrina drowned have been towed and deposited beneath the Interstate 10 and 610 overpasses. Block after block of autos lounge in the shade in assorted states of disrepair. Some don’t seem so bad, save for the chalky water stains that mar their paint jobs. Others have flat tires, corroded hubcaps, busted windshields, and inverted roofs. They look totaled.
Follow Claiborne Avenue east past this automotive cemetery, cross the bridge over the Industrial Canal, and descend into the now-notorious Lower Ninth Ward. It remains one of the saddest, strangest spots in America.
Debris is everywhere. Shards of lumber, roofing materials, and household items are strewn randomly in all directions. Overturned cars are omnipresent. They sit, capsized, exactly where they were when the floodwaters receded. Power lines sag from light poles that mimic a famous Italian tower. Electricity is AWOL.
On one sidewalk, a blown-out refrigerator looks as if the Incredible Hulk yanked it apart while on angel dust. Its doors are ripped off their hinges. Its aluminum panels have been peeled back to reveal insulation and wiring that hangs out from all sides.
One house near Tennessee Avenue has seen its front and side walls torn away. Its roof is gone, too. The few living-room features and kitchen fixtures that face the open air look like a flimsy set for an off-Broadway play or a TV show, much like Alice and Ralph Kramden’s home on The Honeymooners.
Juxtaposed images defy logic. A large sedan’s steering wheel and dashboard seemingly rocket through the shattered windshield. The car’s roof is smashed across the top into a perfect V, as if by King Kong’s karate chop. It’s tough to envision a crash that could destroy a car just this way. And yet, just beneath its front license plate, a pristine, unopened bottle of green olives rests in the evaporated mud.
An eerie hush prevails, punctuated only by the sounds of the occasional cab full of onlookers and, here and there, former residents surveying the splinters of the world that kissed normality goodbye on August 28.
And it stretches east like this for 118 miles to Mobile.
The good news is that workmen busy themselves restoring the sections of the Industrial Canal whose collapse allowed Katrina to submerge this neighborhood. From Jourdan Avenue, immediately east of the canal, the wall looks pretty sturdy. However, the Times-Picayune made a vital and deceptively obvious observation in a May 8 editorial titled “Canals have two banks.”
“Bizarre” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “is rebuilding the breached portion of the eastern floodwall to an elevation of 15 feet above sea level,” the editorial noted. Hallelujah! “But,” it continued, “an undamaged portion of the eastern floodwall and most of the western floodwall — parts that now reach only 12.5 feet — aren’t scheduled to be raised to 15 feet until September 2007.”
One need not possess a hydraulic-engineering degree to divine the problem: For the next two hurricane seasons, parts of New Orleans west of the Industrial Canal will be vulnerable to rushing canal waters that rise above 12.5 feet. While the demolished Lower Ninth could stay dry until waters top 15 feet, areas west already would have flooded anyway.
As the Times-Picayune further editorialized, “The idea that parts of the same floodwall will be built to different heights is bizarre.” Asked why the Corps did not erect both canal walls to equal levels, levee reconstruction director Colonel Lewis Setliff III told the paper, “I don’t have an answer for that.”
This, and more, makes Al — a young waterproofing contractor, of all things — fret.
“I’m really worried that another storm will hit us, and the destruction will be worse than before,” he says, while enjoying John Mooney’s bluesy guitar at the Carrolton district’s legendary Maple Leaf Bar. The June 1 start of hurricane season permeates many conversations.
In vivid detail, Al recalls “The Storm,” as many locals call Katrina.
At about 1:00 P.M. on August 29, he and his family were enjoying the sunshine that erupted after The Storm barreled north. They were relaxed and relieved that, once again, they and their neighbors had dodged a bullet. Katrina had left fallen trees in her wake, but little else. Or so they thought.
Suddenly, Al remembers, he heard what sounded like a waterfall. Unbeknownst to him, storm surge behind a failed floodwall had begun rushing toward him. Water soon started rising through manhole covers and erupting from the sinks and toilets of his mother’s Uptown home. Within two minutes, Al and his family were in knee-deep water. “It was like whitewater rapids outside my front door,” he says. He grabbed his mom and brother and hopped into his car, which, fortunately, was parked on relatively high ground.
“I could see the water rising right behind us in the rear-view mirror as we headed toward the river,” Al says. The bank of the Mississippi River is high ground here. Al and his family raced out of town with nothing other than their wallets and the summer-wear they had on at the time. Had they heard about the earlier breaches of the Industrial and London Avenue canals, they might have packed their belongings. Unfortunately, the city suffered a power outage that silenced their TVs and radios. Absent contrary evidence, they celebrated on a sunny afternoon, utterly unaware that they were experiencing the waning moments of tranquility before their community plunged into pandemonium.
C’est Levee Somehow, New Orleanians take all this with incredible good humor. “Got mold?” inquires a placard for one decontamination service. A home repair company’s huge billboard on Broad Street slyly asks, “Blown by Katrina?” Jazz Festers dance in T-shirts that breezily say, “C’est Levee.” Another T-shirt shows Mayor C. Ray Nagin water-skiing through flooded streets stating, as he actually did during the crisis, “You gotta be kidding me.” Another shirt reads, “FEMA: Fix everything, my ass!”
Non-stop music is among the elixirs that cheer locals and their grateful guests. The Maple Leaf no longer is subject to a 2:00 a.m. curfew, as it was last November. Far from it. Music tumbles into its tree-lined back patio and out its front door onto Oak Street until 6:20 a.m. Organist Robert Walter, after blistering the walls with an encore, pleads with his tireless followers to let him go home. He pantomimes his head resting on his pillow as he alights the stage.
Wide-eyed live music fanatics shuffle from the intimate venue at sunrise, many sipping adult beverages. This is perfectly legal, so long as they are in plastic “go cups.” Most of these fun-lovers look both amazed and slightly triumphant that they literally have raged until dawn. After dancing hard to Vinyl, a high-energy San Francisco-based jam band, they mill about Oak Street, buzzing like the nearby towers of power that ward off aircraft with blinking, bright-white lights. They all wonder, what’s next?
Some split by cab; others pile a dozen strong into the back of a pick-up truck driven by a green-hatted stranger they met moments earlier. Moments later, they regroup and lumber into Igor’s Lounge. This 24-7 Uptown watering hole/Laundromat is jammed, inside and out, at 8:15 a.m. with relentless revelers who enjoy breakfast cocktails — Abita Amber drafts, shots of Jagermeister, Bloody Marys, and much more. Here and there, a few patrons actually eat food.
Steps away, tranquil New Orleanians stroll along St. Charles Avenue and walk their dogs in the Sunday morning sunshine, as if they have seen all of this before. They have. And, with luck, they will — for many years to come.