Thursday, May 08, 2008

Back From New Orleans

The first thing everyone asks me is, “How is New Orleans doing?”

It’s hard for me to answer that because I didn’t know it well before Hurricane Katrina, and of course still don’t. One thing I can say is that the infrastructure is still surprisingly debilitated. There are still whole neighborhoods where hardly anybody lives, where many houses are boarded up or just abandoned, and where the shopping plazas are empty shells. It’s a vicious cycle—who wants to live in a neighborhood with no grocery stores? Who wants to rebuild a grocery store where nobody lives? I can see that it takes time to break out of a cycle like that, but I am a little surprised that more developers haven’t stepped in to make it happen. (I think that’s okay—recovery should happen organically, when people are ready to come home. I’m just surprised, is all.)

One other thing that surprised me is that signs of flood damage are everywhere. I had expected that after two and a half years, people would have moved to put the tragedy behind them by covering up as many visual reminders as they could. But I think that some of these scars are in fact proudly preserved.

When I say that I’m thinking mostly of the X marks that were spray-painted on virtually every residential building in the city in the days and weeks after the flood. Many are still visible. I understand that nobody is going to repaint an abandoned house, but some inhabited homes still have the marks. The home near the fairgrounds pictured above, for example, is definitely lived in (by an older woman I saw rocking on the porch) and otherwise maintained. But the owner still hasn’t painted over the Red Cross graffiti next to her door.

The Xs, by the way, tell very interesting and often horrifying stories. For one thing, if you imagine them being drawn by someone sitting in a boat floating by, you can get an idea of how high the water was. In this case, the boat wouldn’t have been in deep water when the rescuers came by, but look at the date (always in the top quadrant): September 9. That’s 11 days after the storm hit, and more than a week after the flood.

The left-hand side of the X is where rescue crews leave some kind of identifying mark, almost always involving the state they came from—someone from California seems to have looked at this house.

The bottom section is for a body count, the right-hand side usually notes anything else alarming found on site, like gas leaks, animal carcasses, or vicious dogs. Here, though, the story is relatively happy. No bodies were found, and the only warning note, “1 SIP,” stands for “One Sheltering in Place.” That just means that one person chose to stay in the flooded home. A later note, dated Sep. 28, asks that any would-be rescuers not take the pets away, and an addendum elaborates that if anyone finds the house empty, it’s just because the owner is out for a stroll with her dogs.

I’ll say one thing for New Orleans: It may be falling apart physically, woefully mis-managed, and abandoned by a third of its population. But the people who do live there? They’re as tough as nails.

Here’s a link to some of my New Orleans photos.

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