When people ask, "Why did you buy a house in New Orleans?" I answer, "So that we would always have a place to stay for Jazz Fest." Some think this is a joke. But that's only those who have never been to Jazz Fest. Or New Orleans at all, for that matter. Like so many, my husband Steve, and our friends Diana, Nettie and Dave started browsing the real estate listings during our very first trip to the city, such was its immediate hold on us, and after twelve years or so of vague fantasies, we jointly bought a 100-year-old double shotgun in the Bayou St. John neighborhood of Mid City and spent two years fixing it up.
It was Tuesday after Katrina, when our next-door neighbor, who rode out the hurricane at home, called. "Good news!" he said. "We own lakefront property!" Everything was fine initially, it seems, apart from wind damage, immediately following the storm, with only a couple inches of water in the street. But soon thereafter, the area began to fill up like a bathtub, ultimately flooding around three or more feet in the street, which meant two by the time it hit the houses. We were lucky; just a few blocks away, the water rose to four feet and more. Luckier still, our house is raised a full story off the ground, so all that flooded was our basement/garage, not our pretty living quarters. Less lucky was how many belongings we casually stowed down there, and that a large part was finished off with drywall, not to mention a brand new bathroom, all subject to what would suddenly become the number one topic of conversation in a city once devoted to discussions of food, music and political corruption; mold.
Last week, we all went down to see for ourselves, see our home, see our city. It was at once better than we hoped, as bad as we expected, and worse than we feared. Contrary to some hyperbole, New Orleans isn't destroyed, not even close. But it is broken. The extent of damage varies: the French Quarter looks like it always does, maybe even a little better thanks to the absence of debris-generating partiers. Uptown, including the Garden District, is cluttered with fallen tree branches and other debris, but is otherwise intact, as pretty as ever. It gets worse the farther in you go. Broad Street and much of Mid City shows high water lines along the once-flooded, now dusty buildings. Everywhere, signs are down, awnings are tangled, roofs and windows shattered. Trees are split or toppled over. Left behind cars were submerged. The majority of buildings have symbols spray-painted on them, signs they were inspected for safety, or for rescue attempts, or that the SPCA came by to feed the pets trapped within, the graffiti of disaster. Street signs are twisted, or missing, traffic signals don't work, if they are standing at all, not that there is much traffic anyway (and nearly all of it trucks; relief trucks, Army trucks, construction trucks), so you just drive how you can, though occasionally, because the signs and sometimes even the buildings themselves are missing, it's hard to tell where you are. And then there is Lakeview, and East New Orleans, which flooded to the rooftops; blighted moonscapes where even the asphalt has disintegrated after staying underwater so long. Though even that pales next to the total devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood from whence springs so much of the heart and soul of the true New Orleans.
And everything is brown, this once verdant tropical city; the vegetation drowned.
We spent our days ripping out soaked drywall, and hauling it out along with moldy, mildewed books, furniture, lumber, mattresses and clothes, salvaging some with a good hot wash, consigning most to a trash heap that would run the length of our property and stand several feet high when we were done. Now imagine a trash heap like that in front of 80% of the buildings, as there will be in a couple more weeks. And that's not counting the many appliances totaled from flooding or spoiled food. We cleaned out one fridge, a mess of moldy bread and ice cream, but the other, which had pork in it, was too foul to even leave inside another day. We duct taped it shut and some strong men came to help ease it down our steep front stairs, dripping noxious fluids as it went. Our timing was excellent; because most of the city had not yet returned, we were able to get repairmen over to temporarily patch the giant holes in our roof, and help with similarly quick temp fixes on other matters, like the ceilings damaged by rainfall from Rita. We cried over our giant pecan tree, once a spreading canopy over our backyard and sunroom, a landing spot for migratory birds, now fallen across that yard, a victim of nothing but the natural course of events. Houses can be fixed; giant trees cannot.
But all was not labor and mourning. We stayed with friends in Uptown, where they had power, and each night, they cooked for us and we talked about food, instead of mold, the way one should in New Orleans. Bacco reopened, and just sitting in a New Orleans restaurant made us feel like the world had righted itself. When a local coffeehouse remained closed, its usual regulars started bringing coffee pots, chairs and a boom box playing the blues, so that they could gather on the sidewalk and exchange news, like they always did each morning. As we drove around, people sitting on their porches would wave, and shout, "Welcome home!" Little purple flowers began to bloom among the debris. White egrets gathered along Bayou St. John. We couldn't drink city water (and had to keep our mouths shut while bathing in it), but we could drink other things, and the Maple Leaf Bar reopened during our stay, and everyone who came bought everyone else a round. And then we toasted our city. We were back, and whole, and it will be again, too.
"I feel like I died and went to New Orleans," Nettie said.
Yeah you rite.
Mary Herczog, author of Frommer's New Orleans, will report regularly on the clean-up and revitalization efforts in New Orleans. If you have any comments or questions, please post them on our Louisiana Message Boards.