On the year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it still seems necessary to point out a few things:
- Though 80 percent of New Orleans flooded, that did not include the historic French Quarter and most of Uptown, including the Garden District.
- The floodwaters were entirely pumped out a few weeks after Katrina. The city is not underwater anywhere and has not been for the better part of a year.
- It was the levees breaking, and not the hurricane itself, which did the bulk of the damage. This was a man-made disaster.
- The parts of the city that matter to tourists are fine and up and running -- serving delicious food, playing heart-stirring music and rolling those good times that everyone so enjoyed for centuries before.
- The city will die if tourists don't come back.
So come back.
Some or all of this may or may not be news to you, but it's important to repeat -- and repeat until the message sinks in. Apparently that message hasn't been transmitted strongly enough; businesses in New Orleans report a discouraging level of ignorance, on precisely the same points listed above, about the state of the city, which is struggling hard to keep going a year after the catastrophic affects of Katrina and the resulting flood. It's frustrating, because any local business that has returned, or newly opened, represents a heroic effort. While point #5 may seem melodramatic, but it's the truth. This is a city that relies on tourism, and without a resurgence of tourists, much of that will be for nothing.
Frankly, there is no good reason why tourists should not be going to New Orleans. Everything that a tourist wanted from this town -- good drinks, good food, good sights, good sounds, good times -- is here, and nothing is missing except the tourists themselves. The city has given pleasure for centuries, and now is the time to start giving back. The bonus is that you get the same pleasure as always in return. The only potential hesitation might be if you demand a three-star Michelin level of service in all areas. Everyone is putting forth his or her best effort, but it's not yet possible to maintain previous levels of service, thanks to staffing shortfalls all over the city. Such a requirement is certainly one's right, but it is also a suspect stipulation under the circumstances. Sorry if this sounds like editorial haranguing, but the situation is, if not dire, certainly in dire's neighborhood, and there is no room for niceties. History records the loss of major cities before -- anyone been to Babylon lately? -- and we stand at the brink of losing one right here in the United States.
It is a very difficult time in New Orleans. A year has passed, and so little, it feels, has been accomplished. And yet that's true only if one thinks about the massive, Aegean Stables scope of what still needs to be done. Hopeless defeat is an understandable emotion; it's overwhelming to look at the 9th Ward, upper and lower both, Lakeview and Gentilly, and swaths of Mid-City, to hear stories of ongoing insurance battles a year after the fact; to contemplate each piece of lumber and drywall, the logistics of construction crews and building materials, of housing and schooling and medical and payroll needs, of all the people who aren't here and what it will take to get them back, and that's even before the issues of levee strength have been addressed.
And yet, that kind of thinking removes one's sights from what has been done, of acts of optimistic valor, large and small. Of the people in the 9th Ward who have returned, and are holding fast to the house that has been their home for decades, even if they are the only family for three blocks in any direction. Of Leah and Dooky Chase, who are rebuilding their restaurant one piece at a time, even though they are octogenarians whose children have no interest in running the business one day. Of Kermit Ruffins, who seems to be playing even more than ever, if such a thing were possible, to fill the gaps on club bills left by displaced musicians, and his friend Ray who opened a brand new club, Ray's Boom Boom Room, on Frenchman Street. Of Edward from Gentilly, who works at the Maison de Ville, and who is the only member of his family to return to town. And of Calvin and Jesse, living in FEMA trailers in their spoiled neighborhood, back as porters at the Soniat House. Of the aquarium, which lost virtually every occupant, and reopened to cheers at the end of May. Of the new restaurants, from Couchon to Rotolo's Marigny Pizza, and of old, like Gene's, the Pepto Bismal-colored corner po' boy shop on Elysian Fields, which reopened despite serious roof damage. Of Ashton's B&B, which had a huge hole on their second story, but who went ahead and rebuilt anyway, ready to house visitors again. Of the many locals who have returned, or even never left, determined to get their city on its feet, even if their only dedicated act is simply being there. They have to keep going forward, they say. There is no other place for them. "I intend to be buried above the ground here," said one.
All, in their own way, are working together for their city, and their efforts gleam against the wreck that remains. If you ever loved New Orleans, or thrilled to the idea of going to New Orleans, then you owe it to them to visit. You won't be sorry. Restaurants are open, and doing some of their finest work ever. Hotels are open, many sporting fresh new paint and beds. Clubs and bars are open, with music coming from a deep and passionate place. And tour guides are there, ready to show it all to you, and tell the latest incredible story about a city that started generating stories from the moment it was conceived.
And all over the city are people who are so happy to see a visitor. They tell their stories, too, as part of their passion for the place. They are proud, and tough. We are here, still, they say.
Where are you?
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