November 30, 2005,
New Orleans Symptoms of this city's grave condition appear on the horizon just before landing here. Two massive columns of beige smoke billow from the flatlands that stretch beyond my jet's starboard windows.
"That's where they burn the debris," says the passenger beside me, a Gulf Coast attorney who now shuttles between exile in Philadelphia, and the Mississippi beach town where he hopes to return and resettle.
Approaching the terminal is unlike taxiing in at most airports. On Friday, November 18 at 12:45 P.M., when weekend travelers should be racing in and out of town, gate after gate after gate stands empty. Eighty-one days after Hurricane Katrina rocked this region, a lone American Airlines jet keeps its concourse company.
"We used to do 15 flights a day," a US Airways agent tells me. "Now, we have three."
According to official figures, the entire airport now handles 73 daily roundtrips, versus 174 before Katrina a 58-percent drop-off.
Inside the terminal, a few shops function, including several newsstands. Conversely, the House of Blues store, a Sonic sandwich stand, and a Popeye's chicken outlet are dark. The Big Easy Lounge presents mixed signs of life. Chilled daiquiris churn away inside giant blenders, but there is no one to serve them.
A Hudson Booksellers is as closed as most departure gates. A worker boxes up books that suffered water damage. The store's periodicals offer a Katrina time capsule. Although winter approaches, copies of Newsweek and The New Yorker still read "August 29, 2005" the very morning Katrina roared ashore. Rapper Kanye West stares out from the cover of that week's Time magazine. Soon after that publicity coup, West gained even greater notoriety when he declared during an NBC Katrina relief telethon: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Louis Armstrong Airport's loudspeakers, fittingly enough, offer one of the few encouraging notes here. The sound system plays nothing but songs by this city's greatest son Louis Armstrong.
Examples of wind damage dot the drive into town. Several McDonald's have had their Golden Arches shredded. The neon sign on the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Metairie now reads " our oints." Impressive for now, this disarray is virtually subliminal beside the incredible destruction ahead.
While most of the French Quarter is surprisingly intact and largely back in action, a clear sign that things remain askew arises at the Quarter's edge. At Canal and Decatur streets, a major intersection, the traffic signal is disabled. Lights do flash red, yellow, and green heading north along Canal Street, just past Basin Street, about which Armstrong recorded a delightful blues number in 1928. There, the lights conk out again. Three blocks north, Interstate-10 speeds by. Behind this concrete curtain lies mile after mile of a major American city still in total darkness. Just past dusk, nearly three months after Katrina, these streets are pitch black, save for occasional lights at several padlocked, yet illuminated, gas stations.
In lieu of traffic signals, every few blocks, temporary stop signs punctuate the road. Like knee-high easels, metal legs prop them up from behind. Drivers respectfully ease through intersections, slowly and safely.
Headlights reveal the water lines on the sides of houses and office buildings. As tell-tale as tree rings, these black and brown marks indicate the heights at which water stagnated for weeks, drained slightly, then festered once again. Some structures faced a few inches of water. Others were submerged to their rooflines. Locals explain that these watermarks do not necessarily show maximum flood levels. In any given spot, floodwater rose even higher, but dissipated before stopping long enough to make an impression.
Tons of debris, abandoned refrigerators (ruined as their contents rotted inside of them during weeks of hot, humid weather), and other junk sits in heaps some small, some stacked high enough to conceal buildings that sit behind them.
Along side streets, the color is black, as consecutive blocks appear as if Thomas Edison never lived. Extinguishing my car lights briefly, the only thing visible is stars. These neighborhoods also are frighteningly quiet. There is hardly a soul around.
The few people out and about, more on boulevards than side streets, mainly wear hard hats. FEMA and EPA workers, construction crews, and various contractors cruise around in pickup trucks. Uniformed cops from elsewhere, primarily New York State and Florida, patrol these many dim blocks. There are plenty of Humvees around, too; not the fancy SUV models, but the rough-and-ready real deal, complete with flashing blue lights and camouflaged soldiers who command respect.
Homes are spray-painted with now-familiar hieroglyphics. "Dogs in back" appears in red on one house's side. Many are marked with big Xs. Each quadrant indicates the date each residence was inspected (generally in mid-September) the initials of the first responder who did so, and the number of cadavers inside each house. Most are marked "0" in this respect, but a "1" emerges occasionally.
As exiles return home, they do so from across the map. One receptionist fled to Baton Rouge, then spent a month in Alabama. Having lost her house in the Ninth Ward, she now works and sleeps at the French Quarter's Bienville House. This hotel, previously a rice warehouse in the 1830s, now operates with nine employees, down from 27 before Katrina.
A short-order chef cooks a phenomenal catfish po-boy sandwich while recalling his evacuation to Lafayette, Louisiana, then Kentucky. A young couple and their newborn son traveled from Memphis to Telluride, Colorado before returning to their Garden District home. One real estate executive, back since just a week earlier, fled as far west from Katrina as possible domestically to San Diego.
University of New Orleans classical music station WWNO is exiled in Atlanta. On-air host Jack Hopke announces that two more Zip codes have reopened to residents. One has power in 80 percent of its homes. The other is 95 percent re-electrified. Neither Zip code has natural gas.
"The Lower Ninth Ward opened to residents for look-throughs during the day," Hopke says. His words grow ominous. "Wear boots, coveralls, and gloves for safety and health. Protect yourself against mold and bacteria in any way you can. A tetanus shot or booster would be a good idea."
City Hall and the Red Cross have arranged for small buses to carry residents and visitors through the Ninth Ward from an aid station at Claiborne and Caffin avenues.
"This tour was set up by the mayor to give you a chance possibly to see your homes and possibly gain closure," Harold Evans, an actor by night and municipal mental-health worker by day, tells about 18 passengers. All but two of us are Ninth Ward residents returning to inspect what remains of their community.
He warns that what we will see could be difficult: "It's very dangerous back there," Evans says. "Houses are falling every day. Houses collapse every day. They're still finding human remains."
Oliver, the bus driver, says, "Some people have found their houses three or four blocks away" from where they belong.
As the bus proceeds, jarring images emerge as if in a surrealistic slide show.
A plastic tricycle is wedged into a chain-link fence. Like a broom, a stop sign leans against the side of a house. A sofa is impaled on a metal pole. A telephone dangles by its cord from a toppled tree branch. Through a home's missing wall, a mud-encrusted chandelier peers out. On the ground, a rubber duck peeks up from a small tangle of debris. While New Orleans turns out to be a giant bathtub, this is hardly what this mallard envisioned.
The destruction here is far, far worse than what exists in Gentilly, Mid-City, and most neighborhoods to the west. In those areas, floodwaters typically rose somewhat slowly, then gradually receded. While mold and water damage are serious, structures generally still stand.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, a 25-foot wall of water raced through a 930-foot breach and a 210-foot rupture in the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal (commonly called the Industrial Canal). This powerful storm surge smacked houses from their foundations and into telephone poles, onto cars, and into each other. In many cases, houses simply splintered, and soaked lumber sailed in every direction. This happened on block after block after block.
Returnees react quite differently as they encounter the remnants of their domiciles.
One woman quietly observes that her house is just outside the bus window. Trying to help, other passengers ask Oliver to stop.
"That's O.K.," she says, "keep going." She insists he advance rather than backtrack for another glimpse of the ruin she called home.
Later on, a woman and her son ask Oliver to halt for a close look at their tattered house.
"Oh, my Jesus!" she says.
She stares at her small, mashed, pink house. Its left wall has cleaved west.
"The kitchen chair is on the porch!" her son says, astonished. He also is amazed to see that a hamper gravitated from the back of the house onto their front lawn of caked mud. Two legs of a wooden chair have lodged themselves horizontally into this home's vertical, wrought iron roof supports.
"People are more in awe than they are sad," Evans tells me. He has seen few people cry on these bus tours. "They are just overwhelmed at what has happened here."
Just east of the patched-up Industrial Canal, a giant barge has plopped onto Surekote Road. Human remains reportedly were discovered beneath it recently. The torrent of water apparently sucked the barge into the Ninth Ward. Its owner has not come forward. He might consider explaining why his barge wandered the Canal during a storm in the first place. He eventually may get the opportunity to explain this in court.
The military has designated a badly damaged home nearby as "The View House." Passengers disembark the bus, briefly survey the shambles within this home, and analogize how things likely look where they once lived. After peering through the front door just long enough to snap three pictures, a palpable and haunting metallic taste creeps into my mouth. I immediately gargle with bottled water and spit onto the side of the road.
Just outside the quarantined zone, a husband and wife stand near the appropriately named corner of Claiborne Avenue and Flood Street. They are bemused to find a seated lawnmower that once sat beside their house. Here it is, three blocks away.
Beyond the Lower Ninth Ward, stands the London Avenue Canal. Dusk finds breaches in the floodwall that let water drown the Crescent City. These deadly breaks have been sealed temporarily with gravel. Researchers have discovered that floodwalls like this one only extend 10 feet into the ground, as opposed to 26, as the Army Corps of Engineers recommended. Louisiana's attorney general and the FBI are investigating whether this shortfall involved cost-cutting, shoddy workmanship, or deliberate fraud. The latter would have planted the seeds for the negligent homicide of many of the 1,076 Louisianans killed in Katrina's wake. The death penalty would befit such perpetrators.
Katrina round housed the Crescent City, but missed some areas. The Garden District is surprisingly untouched. The mighty live oaks along St. Charles Avenue still are grandfatherly, and the mansions and wide lawns there remain majestic.
While many French Quarter destinations still are closed, top-drawer music, Olympic-class dining, and cascading adult beverages are a breeze to find. A bumper sticker near Rampart Street puts it well:
"New Orleans: Proud to Crawl Home."
Still, David Freedman General Manager of local-music powerhouse WWOZ 90.7 FM warns against complacency in light of this city's monumental challenges.
"I see a lot of media coverage, especially on television," Freedman says. "It seems that there's always so much focus on the music, and the spirit, and the life of that music...But don't be fooled. This city is deeply wounded. I'd say it's like an amputee with phantom memory."
Freedman chats at a jobs, housing, and resources fair for displaced musicians at Tipitina's nightclub, sponsored by the Tipitina's Foundation.
"We are not well," Freedman adds. "And we could lose this city, and we could lose the culture. Oh, it'll still be here. It'll be called New Orleans. But it'll be a museum...Right now, we are perilously close to becoming a dead culture, if we don't figure out some way to renew, restore, and reinvent our lines of cultural transmission in this city."
Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in