Thursday, January 12, 2006

My Gulf Trip, Last Day (Day 4)

Yesterday, my last day in New Orleans, had the deepest emotional impact of any other experience on the trip. Our day started calmly enough. We ate at Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter, a famous eatery known for its coffee and beignets (scone-like, donut-ish sin muffins). On any day before Katrina, breakfast lines averaged 30 minutes. We walked straight to the counter. The place was great, though.

After breakfast, we went to the 9th Ward of New Orleans. As most of you probably know from news reports, this was the hardest hit area. It differed greatly from what we experienced in Pascagoula where there was mainly wind damage. In New Orleans, while suffering extensive damage from 100+ mps winds, the main story is the flood damage. Driving into the 9th ward was like driving into a waking nightmare. The streets, utterly devoid of any human activity other than our small group, were littered with more debris than I have ever seen in my life. This area was the one under 10 feet of water.

Keep in mind that this is an entire section of the city, thousands of homes, that have been completely abandoned by their owners. There is nothing salvageable, nothing to be saved. The houses look intact, but upon closer inspection, the completeness of their destruction is apparent. The yards are littered with cars, television sets, washers and dryers. Dried out, spoiled food products are everywhere, along with their containers. Thick coats of mud covered everything from rooftops to abandoned SUVs and sports cars. It was as if the residents just disappeared and let the place deteriorate. The reality, which is worse, is that this all happened in a few short hours.

Holes were in almost every roof, visible proof that the occupants within had made desperate escapes. Each house was marked with a spray painted "X" which was filled with shorts numbers (number of occupants, date inspected, number of dead bodies found). There were many houses with red X's - bodies had been found.

We drove for blocks and blocks covering scores of square miles. All the houses were dead. Of course, electricity didn't work anywhere (and that still rings true for half the city). There was no need for traffic lights, because there was no traffic. We slowly made our way through the streets, snapping pictures of overturned cars, boarded up storefronts and abandoned houses. The infrastructure that once supported a human civilization had failed.

But this was not even the tip of the iceberg. We eventually made our way through middle class neighborhoods. It was the same story, only the abandoned houses were much bigger. Only about one house out of a hundred had someone working to repair it. Those represented the lucky people who had flood insurance. On each house was a brown line stained into the paint by mother nature. This represented the waterline. On some homes, it was only a few feet high (yet enough to render the entire house a complete loss), and on others passed the second story.

Every corner of this city, every single one, has a pile of debris. Some piles have been somewhat organized by the city or local residents. However, most debris remains scattered in intersections, yards, parks - it even hangs from the trees. Debris cleanup is probably the biggest obstacle the city faces. From one estimate given to us by an engineer, the City of New Orleans is now 43 YEARS behind in garbage removal. Seeing the amount of trash on the streets, I think this is a conservative estimate. Even in the good, working parts of the city, telephone poles lay in the gutter, stores have parking lots full of wall paneling, rotting carpets and broken signs. I don't see how the city can ever clean up. Where would they start?

There are signs of life, however. While 400,000 residents have left the city (the biggest mass exodus of any American region since the Great depression), 125,000 remain. Those people are determined to make the city work. It may not be the same, but it will stay on the map. The city has a 5 year projection to increase population to 250,000 (still less than half the previous level). Some semblance of normalcy will return, eventually. But for now, the city has a cloud of doom in the air. And as for the 9th Ward and other hard hit areas, those 70,000 homes will have to be destroyed. Probably never to rise again.

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