Gulf Coast Day 1: A Tale of Two Cities

I'll be down on the Gulf Coast all week, working on a year-after Katrina story. I'm focusing more on Mississippi (Rob Gurwitt drew the Louisiana ...
by | July 17, 2006 AT 3:00 AM

New_orleans_016 I'll be down on the Gulf Coast all week, working on a year-after Katrina story. I'm focusing more on Mississippi (Rob Gurwitt drew the Louisiana half of the package), but I decided that I had to visit New Orleans, too, just to see it. Journalistically, I wanted a frame of reference. And personally, as someone who's visited the city enough times to feel a genuine attachment and adoration for the place, I wanted to know whether I've been mourning too much or too little.

I drove into town yesterday through Uptown and the Garden District, a route that I knew would show me the living side of New Orleans. It was an optimistic way to start, and the right way. All the mansions along St. Charles looked dandy as ever, still cloaked in the shade of craggy oaks. There really appeared to be almost no wind damage at all, at least none that was still visible 11 months later. The ground seemed ragged; Audobon Park looked a bit jungly and the the St. Charles streetcar tracks would need to be dug out before the old railcars take a spin again. But people were out, walking their dogs, riding their bikes. Along Magazine Street, the fancy boutiques were all open and people jammed the sidewalk cafes, sitting beneath power lines dangling Mardi Gras beads.

The French Quarter, too, has an air of normalcy to it, if you call fannie-packed mobs normal. It's surely a good sign that two restaurants were too busy to seat me for lunch. Cafe du Monde was also doing a brisk business when I stopped by for my beignet fix. Yet it's also obvious that the numbers of tourists are way down. One guy with a camera enjoyed the normally-swarmed steps across from Jackson Suqare all to himself. In front of St. Louis Cathedral, a jazz band played to an audience of exactly two. That was a little depressing. But it was good to know that most of the Big Easy of my memories seemed intact.

But that was the end of the good news.

New_orleans_030 I'd parked my car off Frenchman Street, the eastern bounds of the New Orleans I knew. I didn't have to drive much farther east to begin seeing rotting houses graffitied with orange spraypaint telling the dates that rescuers searched there and, in code, what they found. When I crossed the Industrial Canal into the Lower 9th Ward, where the stoplights no longer worked, it seemed that every house had the codes. A church billboard still stood by the road, with letters scrambled up by the flood, but I could still make out Aug 28. It made me think of the melted stopwatches they found in Hiroshima.

I hadn't wandered in the 9th Ward for long before I'd already drifted into suburban St. Bernard Parish. The view from the main roads is what I imagine James Howard Kuntsler thinks about during his apocalyptic rants on the future of suburban sprawl. Empty, boarded-up strip malls, gas stations with collapsed rooves, drive-thru banks to nowhere.

I ducked down several side streets, into once-neat subdivisions of modest ranch houses. It was desolate, but not in the way I expected. CNN had led me to believe that most neighborhoods that got hit must've been pretty much washed away. Not these. Instead, the brick shells of most of these homes stood proud, some spraypainted "Do Not Demolish." I imagine that as Louisiana decides how to rebuild, it's these neighborhoods that pose the biggest dilemma. Do you demolish homes that look structurally sound? Will anyone want to live here? Apparently, some people do. I did see a few houses that had been completely repaired, and every street had 2 or 3 FEMA trailers out front--promising signs of life, if not normalcy. A lot of homes have for-sale-by-owner signs out front, though it's unclear to me who would buy.

New_orleans_0811 Heading back into New Orleans, I doubled back through the 9th Ward, and ducked down another side street. Here was the scene from CNN, where it looked like Godzilla had come through crushing houses with his tail and tossing cars around like toys. I stopped and walked around; it was completely quiet, a ghost town. Spraypainted on the side of a market, it said, "RIP 'Lil Joe!! Bitch!"

One house was nothing but a pile of bricks, with a child's tricycle sitting by the street in the weeds. Another house was nothing but a slab foundation, with a brick fireplace and a ceramic toilet sitting bare to the world. It was pretty startling. One house had landed in someone else's yard. Never mind the rebuilding; how long will it take to get rid of all the debris? Five years? Ten? The sky darkened as a thunderstorm approached; from my vantage point, lightning came down over the rebuilt levee that had collapsed and caused all this destruction in the first place.