Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Katrina Tour

We woke up to an overcast sky our Thursday in NOLA. It was apropos given our planned activity for the day. One thing that Eddie, my parents and I all definitely wanted to do was to head out to the areas that were badly affected by Hurricane Katrina and see firsthand what things were like. Fraggle and Emcee couldn't fathom why we would want to see something that "wasn't happy" while on vacation. If you agree with them, you'll probably want to skip most of this post.

We started the morning at Cafe du Monde. Yay for me remembering my camera this time!

Beignets arrive three to an order. As you can see, there are only two on this plate. I would like to blame Eddie, but I suspect I was the one with eager hands. Beignets are similar to a doughnut, but without a hole and topped liberally with powdered sugar. I like doughnuts, but beignets are even better. We all opted for a cup of cafe au lait made from ground coffee & chicory and steamed milk. The chicory gives the coffee drink a richer, more flavorful taste.
On the way to meeting our tour group we had an excellent view of Jackson Square. On the left is the Cabildo, the site where the Louisiana Purchase was signed. In the center is St. Louis Cathedral. On the right is the Presbytere, a museum housing an exhibit on the history of Mardi Gras.
There are several groups currently offering tours of Katrina-stricken areas. When the tours first started, locals, tourists and even the tour operators had questions as to its appropriateness. However, these tours eventually became the one of the most requested activites by visitors. Because most of the guides are from the affected areas, the tours have also helped people keep their employment, thereby assisting the local economy. We opted for Gray Line. Normally I don't recommend tour groups, but an organized tour was really the only way to see this. Our tour guide was very thorough and informative. My apologies in advance for any crooked photos. We weren't allowed to disembark the bus.

Within the French Quarter and downtown there wasn't much that was obviously still damaged or in need of reconstruction. I imagine things didn't look too different pre-Katrina other than a Hyatt hotel whose windows were still blown out on the upper floors. The hotel has decided not to return and re-open.

Just fifteen minutes outside of the Quarter, however, it was an entirely different story. The lasting impact of Katrina can be seen in several neighborhoods. Affluent, middle class or poor, no income level was spared although some have obviously been impacted more that others. Renters and apartment dwellers were especially hit hard, as many investment property owners decided it wasn't worth it to rebuild.

Below is the 17th Street levee. You can see where the levee broke, as evidenced by the obvious difference between the old gray wall and the newly constructed portion. (better if enlarged) Our guide educated us about levee construction and why the levees previously built had failed. He also taught us about the role of barrier islands in the Gulf and how they can act as a natural method for slowing down a hurricane. But because the islands are in need of restoration, this natural barrier had also failed.
This was in a suburb known as Metairie. The rebuilding process is slow. At the time Katrina hit, there were approximately 400,000 living in the area surrounding NOLA. A figure released earlier this year revealed that the population has dwindled by almost half.
It was not uncommon to come across random lots of empty grass. These lots used to have homes on them, which were razed. Rebuilding has been difficult for many people due to a slew of financial factors: lack of proper insurance, inability to afford higher construction costs (almost double the previous cost per square foot), inability to afford increased insurance rates, government programs that are laden with red tape, etc.

Some people are still living in FEMA trailers.
Even in areas being rebuilt, it wasn't uncommon to see homes like this one amongst the homes that have already been repaired.
This was in the Mirebeaux/Gentilly suburbs. The rust marks give you an idea of how high the standing water was in some areas. Many of the homes just a street or two over from this location had watermarks that were even higher.
Just one example of an abandoned strip mall. Our guide raised the very good point that even for former residents who want to return, it is difficult to do so because there isn't much to return to in some areas. Shops, banks, schools, post offices, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. are all gone in certain neighborhoods. Not only do people not have jobs to go back to, they don't have anywhere local to take care of some of life's necessities. In addition, the area has lost countless doctors, lawyers & teachers. Even major retailers like Wal-Mart have closed for good; we saw two that were abandoned.
Six Flags has also shut down for good.
Entire neighborhoods are like ghost towns. Just one empty boarded up building after another, each one bearing the graffiti markings of the first responders. Most homes had two sets of markings: one from the volunteers who arrived during the brief period between Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; one from the volunteers who searched after Rita's waters had finally receded. Even areas in the midst of being rebuilt weren't immune to the grim reminders that these homes displayed. Several homes had holes in the roof where people tried to chop their way to a rescue. One house that stood out in particular (I didn't take a photo) was a small yellow house on a relatively busy street in St. Bernard's Parish. The markings on the front of that house indicated that 6 people were found dead by the time responders arrived. I still get choked up thinking about that.

This was taken in the lower 9th Ward. Most streets looked like this one. Desolate. Empty. Damaged homes for sale by the dozen.
There is some hope on the horizon. These funky, brightly colored homes were built as a result of Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation. The foundation's goal is to build affordable, energy efficient housing in the lower 9th Ward. Not too far away in the upper 9th Ward, we had passed by the Musician's Village, a revitalization project spearheaded by Harry Connick Jr. and Bradford Marsalis.

This wasn't a pleasurable tour, but it was an educational and informative one. It certainly made an impact on me. I often tell people how much I miss my hometown of San Francisco. But at least I have the chance to go back there to visit my family home and see my friends. The residents who used to live here, however, don't have that option available to them. Their homes are gone. Their friends and neighbors are gone, either relocated elswhere or on to the afterlife. While most people remember the images of a city submerged, these images, the ones of decimated neighborhoods still struggling three years later, can't and shouldn't be forgotten either.


WeezerMonkey said...

I loooooove beignets.

A Feminist Gold Digger said...

Much of Mr. FGD's extended family is from the Baton Rouge / New Orleans area. We were there a few months after Katrina hit. We did our own drive through the ghost towns. I saw DOA more times than I ever imagined. Most of the time it was for pets left behind.