Still A Big Mess In The Big Easy

Susan Page
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Wednesday - February 01, 2006
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The Ninth Ward still hasn’t recovered from Katrina
The Ninth Ward still hasn’t recovered from

Madeline “Max” Crawford stared at the piles of rubble that once were someone’s home and batted back tears.

“It’s tarnished, it’s damaged, but it’s home,” she said in her soft, Louisiana drawl. “We have a duty here.”

Max and her husband, Dennis, longtime New Orleans residents, have decided to stay - to stick it out in their city, ride out the storm of uncertainty, broken lives, flattened neighborhoods and political capriciousness. They are the few, the proud, the hopeful.

The city famous for its Mardi Gras gold standard often measured by chintzy beads, slide trombones and old money is indeed tarnished. Five months ago on Aug. 29, Katrina, the violent hurricane with the spiritual name - locals assure it means “cleansing” - pitted New Orleans so deeply many are left seriously wondering if it will ever polish up - ever regain its old luster.

But when is it time to toss out a treasure? This is the quandary many who evacuated from their now uninhabitable neighborhoods face.

The Crawfords downplay their Katrina experience because their 10th floor condo overlooking Lake Pontchartrain was scarcely damaged - the floor had to be replaced - and are surrounded by those still without power, who lost so much.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Dennis, an insurance company owner in his 60s, riding out a 145 mph hurricane, then escaping in chest-deep water from the condo lobby in a small paddleboat, and finally hitchhiking to the airport, where Max had left the car when she evacuated to Houston. Without communication for two days, how frantic with worry Max must have been. And, Dennis’ office, a 100-year-old structure, was flooded, destroying all his paper insurance records. (Mercifully, his assistant, Paula, had just completed a two-year-long project of putting all files on computer. As she evacuated her own home, she grabbed the backup discs!)

I was nervously curious to see the city I last saw from Harry Connick Jr.‘s Mardi Gras parade 10 years ago. My husband, Jerry, and I had been assigned to the “Blues Brothers” float with Dan Ackroyd, our float celebrity. We wore satiny gold costumes and hurled hundreds of “gold” beads (“throws”) to begging parade watchers.

A city of 450,000 people had thrown a huge party - wild, unique and masterfully hosted - the likes of which I’d never even imagined. But most remarkable to me was that civil order was maintained by the New Orleans mounted police force, and each night the sanitation department made tons of garbage magically disappear from the streets by daybreak.

St. Bernard Parish was hit hard by Katrina, with destruction as far as the eye can see
St. Bernard Parish was hit hard by Katrina, with
destruction as far as the eye can see

As we drove from the airport - and months before as I watched Katrina’s chaotic saga unfold on TV - I pondered how a city that so seamlessly manages Mardi Gras every year could be rendered so completely impotent by Katrina. But after touring the flooded areas by car and helicopter, I got the picture.

Mother Nature tossed the homes and citizens of New Orleans off their foundations like one of those cheap necklaces I had thrown. Then, they sunk under a flood of negligence, ill-conceived decisions, politics and bureaucracy - all man made. But by far it was the magnitude of the hurricane that did the city in.

I’ve heard a lot about the politics of New Orleans over the past five days. The mayoral election on April 22 is a make-or-break time. Will there be change, new leadership, no more Mayor Nagin “Chocolate City” faux pas that hinder real solutions dependent on cooperation and inclusiveness?

The Crawfords are optimistic, but many of their dear friends have left for good. Many seem in the kind of shock you feel when things are out of your control. It’s slow, they say. FEMA still won’t answer when you call. Where are our trailers? they want to know. The stories are endless: like the hundreds of trailers dropped off without the keys which took days to be delivered. Like the desperately needed generators denied to one parish because they were earmarked for New Orleans, which was inaccessible anyway. The stories are endless, the foul-ups senseless.

But I mostly came to see. Show me the just-opened Ninth Ward in St. Bernard Parish by the levee breach, Chalmette in East New Orleans Parish where the water went over rooftops, and the places reporters talked about on TV: the Lakeview district near Lake Pontchartrain, the FEMA trailers, the letter codes written on houses by rescuers looking for survivors. Show me Fats Domino’s house where it’s written “R.I.P. We’ll miss you Fats” though he appeared alive later. Little seems changed since those early images, except that the streets are clear to drive and a few residents have trailers parked in front of shells of homes. Cranes continue to repair the levees, but other construction is at a stand-still until the feds, the state and the city make decisions about the feasibility of rebuilding.

In the mostly poor, black Ninth Ward, where the Industrial Canal levee was breached, street after street of crushed, twisted and mangled homes, cars, boats, trees and telephone poles extend as far as the eye can see. My mind could-n’t grasp what my eyes saw. At street’s edge, stacked like garbage, are things of peoples lives: toys, clothes, computers, wheelchairs, furniture. Houses sit on fishing boats, and vehicles are blocks from their real address. Chairs rest on rooftops where rushing water dropped them off.

The upscale district which backs up on the breached 17th Street Canal levee, with homes gashed, flooded and gutted, shows a bit of hope. A few blue yard signs stick up from saltwater and sludge-burned yards, “Yes, I’m rebuilding, we can make Lakewood great again.” But in the Metairie district, many “for sale” signs by large elegant houses tell another story: a lack of faith in New Orleans’ future.

Yet the opportunistic and optimistic are showing up, too. Signs line boulevard medians advertising services: Tear Out - Total Renovation: Professional Mold & Odor Killing Chemicals; Class Action Lawsuit for Broken Levees; and Nuttin’ but Guttin’ House gutting.

At the Lake Shore Yacht Harbor, where the Yacht Club burned to the ground, we saw many large 30- to 40-foot sailboats with clever names like “Foul Play” and “Wind Swept” stacked like toys tossed in a corner. And the Lake Shore Airport sits in a mess of broken buildings and fractured planes.

Hundreds of shiny white FEMA trailers are in parking lots lined up ready for tenants, but delays still frustrate. However, Stewart Enterprises founder Frank Stewart, still managed to get 50 FEMA trailers put in the parking lot of his office building for 200 or so of his now “homeless” employees to live. His own home being flooded is overshadowed by the plight of his workers.

The highlight of our trip was a Black Hawk helo ride over the devastated region and a briefing by Gen. Hunt Downer of the Louisiana National Guard. His heroic efforts to fulfill his mission with no communication, a headquarters underwater, and no means of transportation, represents the kind of spirit and leadership that will bring New Orleans back.

And it will come back. Restaurants are slowly reopening and mall shops are selling - even if it is mostly to temporary government contractors. Mardi Gras, which will take place next month, forces a deadline on hotels and eateries and may kick-start a recovery, at least in the French Quarter. Headlines in the daily Times-Picayune show how conflicted and split the city is: “Planners Anticipate a Better City” next to “Looters Continue to Prey on Storm Victims ...” Stories on heroic rescues and the ongoing search for displaced caskets share space with photos of 19 new debutantes in strapless formals and long white gloves for the upcoming Debutante Gala.

New Orleans is nicknamed the Crescent City for a “C” the Mississippi River forms as it winds through the landscape. If all the political and financial stars line up, that C just may stand for “Can do.” But as third-generation New Orleanian Paulette Stewart said, “Come to our city, but go home and do something about it.” She means to remind your representatives not to forget that New Orleans is still hurting. And, hurricane season is just five months away.

As badly tarnished as it is now, New Orleans is a treasure that isn’t about to be buried, at least not for good.

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