May 18, 2006

On Monday I had the privilege of a personal guided tour – courtesy of my friend AZ rapper Dollar Bill’s first cousin Rock – through several areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches that occurred to the north and east of New Orleans, in particular the West End/Lakeview, Lower Ninth Ward, and Eastover sections (starting down and left of the “North” arrow on the map, then moving east). Nine months after the storm, the scale of destruction remains incredible to behold, and no amount of written or viewed media coverage can do it justice.

(To set the stage for what I experienced, a brief recounting of what the Lakeview residents experienced can be found here. Also, Phil Casper is a local photographer who captured some amazing images that can be found here).

To put it bluntly, the place remains a mess. We drove the better part of four hours and saw damage everywhere. Some neighborhoods experienced anywhere between 6-8 feet of water, some more, others less so: you could tell from the waterlines easily visible on the houses. Blue tarps dot the roofs of houses in many neighborhoods. Houses, businesses, churches in any and all stages of destruction and recovery. FEMA trailers (“white envelopes” as Rock calls them) and PODS parked in front of houses where people can live and store what they have recovered while desperately working the phones for the laborers in short supply who have come from all over the world – many of whom live in tent and trailer cities deployed in parks and shopping center parking lots.

In the area called the West End, by Lake Pontchartrain, boats remain strewn everywhere – by the side of the road, on top of each other, penetrating houses, on top of roofs. Apartments and condominiums are torn apart and exposed to the elements, in various states of ruin and repair. This is actual storm damage, where, exposed to Katrina’s NE winds and a roiling lake, the area was battered for hours. Here the destruction was the typical kind of damage one would expect to see days or weeks after a hurricane damage; the fact it remains nine months later was something to behold.

Nothing could have prepared me, however, for what we would see just a short drive away, when we passed into the Lakeview and Lower Ninth Ward neighborhoods affected by the 17th Street Canal and Industrial Canal levee breaches, respectively.

First, Lakeview. Here whole stretches of streets are filled with damage. Here nothing was spared: most houses are vacant, collapsed, and/or windowless. Rusted cars, upturned trees, yards covered with a sandy residue left by the floods containing trashed possessions of all kinds. Canal water, like time and money in Las Vegas, cares little about the socio-economic situation of people. Six feet of water treats both rich and poor as equals, weakening foundations, destroying anything and everything in its path. But as bad as this was, worse was on the way.

Crossing over the Industrial Canal bridge and entering the Lower Ninth Ward, the destruction was on a scale impossible to truly describe unless seen first-hand. Even the pictures I took don’t do it justice, for the devastation is truly mind-boggling both in terms of breadth and scope. It was here where some of New Orleans’ poor and working poor lived: a predominently low-income African-American neighborhood packed together in small houses on tree-lined streets. While what existed there prior to the levee breach could hardly have been characterized as idyllic in any sense of the word, it was what thousands of people called home.

To tour this area is to understand the true power of water. While certainly Hurricane Katrina provided the elements that set in motion what happened here, this was a disaster resulting from human carelessness, corruption, politics, and general dereliction of duty on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers, local levee boards, inspectors, and a local, state, and federal government unable to either adequately prepare for, or respond to, the unthinkable. Here the power of rushing and rising water obliterated blocks of houses, cars, and trees, resulting in death, destruction, and desperation as the debris-filled water rose to the rooftops. Here, unlike in the Lakeview area, there are no waterlines on the houses – really, no houses left to speak of – that’s how high it rose here. What astounded me was both the lack of recovery effort underway – we saw only a few utility company workers milling around – and the silence. No birds, no people, no signs of life or hope, nine months after the fact.

Our final stop was the Eastover section – another predominently African-American neighborhood, but this one of more affluent means. Here we saw beautiful mini-mansions and homes of every kind sitting vacant, windowless and blue-tarped, FEMA trailers more in abundance, golf courses covered in weeds and sand. Again, water as the great equalizer.

I’ve uploaded these pictures to my Yahoo! photo album. If you have a dial-up connection, I apologize for the size and slowness of the photos, but I felt it was important to show a clear picture of the devastation that exists not more than 15-20 minutes north and east of the French Quarter.

As we drove back to my hotel, I couldn’t help but think that, regardless of what Mayor Nagin and local and national politicians think, do, and say, this is an area that cannot and must not be restored to what it once was, for what remains – especially in the Lower Ninth – is simply not recoverable in terms of money or effort without a decade or more of work. The question, of course, is where are the people who have either left or are now stuck in hotel rooms and difficult situations across the US to go? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. When large numbers of people are displaced, the government can only do so much: in life there are no guarantees no matter who you are, what you are, and where you live, and all things in time are destined to pass away. What New Orleans chooses to do with its future is, in the end, up to its people to decide; all the rest of us can do is try and help in whatever way we can by visiting, contributing, praying, and offering our help in any way we can.

If this post has touched you in any way, I invite you to share this link with those you know. New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (Rob says things remain pretty bad further east in Mississippi) continues to need your help. If you can’t visit and bring your travel dollars with you, here and here are some links where you can help.

Filed in: Politics & World Events by The Great White Shank at 14:29 | Comment (1)
1 Comment
  1. Mind boggling, isn’t it? Did you go to St Bernard, too? My work colleague has a house, concrete foundation included, on her block in the middle of the street. None of the residents of the block knows where it came from. The surrounding parishes (Jefferson, St Tammany where CrabAppleLane is, and even St Bernard) are well on their way to recovery. New Orleans is unique. With most of their residents elsewhere, most of the business destroyed or struggling, there is no tax base and no revenue for them to provide basic services like garbage pickup and traffic light replacement (I’m sure you saw a few four-way stop intersections). It’s a long road back. They’ll get there but they could use a little help.

    Comment by Rob — May 18, 2006 @ 4:39 pm

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