Sunday, December 23, 2007

Assignment NOLA:
Long road home - with a heavy heart, stories to tell

Along the empty streets of the Lower Ninth Ward (above, intersection of Florida Avenue and Andry Street), at every empty house plot and at every ruined home, there is a story to be told. New Orleanians and other Hurricane Katrina survivors have been more than willing to tell them. Whether it will help jolt them from the grips of hardship in the future, only time will tell.

Experience in journalism tells me that everyone has a story. But the adage is especially true of Hurricane Katrina survivors. Casual conversations with locals prove it.

As I sat in the lobby of St. Vincent Guest House on Friday night, the last evening of my stay in New Orleans, a woman walked up to me and asked, "Don't you ever go to bed?"

She was the front-desk lady, the same person who had told the college students that Bourbon Street wasn't "poppin'" on Wednesday night.

"Nope," I answered.

She introduced herself as Heidi. She was wondering what I was doing. I told her I was writing about New Orleans after the storm. (The lobby is where the Wi-Fi is available, so that's where I spent most of my downtime.)

She sighed, then mentioned that the Katrina Corps, a group of youth volunteers, had been using St. Vincent, above, as its headquarters. Many survivors, including herself, also were using it as a place to live.

Then, she began a nonstop, animated 20-minute story about her experience with the "big one," Ms. Katrina. I didn't ask many questions: I just let her talk.

Heidi fit the stereotype of a Southern country girl: green NASCAR hat turned sideways, ponytails with one tail sticking out of the hat's opening, a gold crucifix hanging from her neck and, of course, that drawl.

Heidi had lived in Plaquemines Parish, just southeast of New Orleans. Plaquemines is the big toe of the Louisiana boot that sticks into the Gulf of Mexico and is mostly a large bayou with a few homes dotting it. Much of it is below sea level. (It's 65 percent water.) All of it is very rural.

She lived in a house that she bought for $30,000. She raised animals: dogs, cats, horses, chickens (but no alligators). She commuted to a job in the city, where she made about $15,000 a year.

When the order to evacuate came through on Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, Heidi stayed put. Her car was old, and she thought it would break down on the highway. And she couldn't take her animals if she evacuated, so she resolved to dig in and look after them.

She rode out the storm in her bathroom, the only room in her house without windows. For 12 1/2 hours early Monday, she hunkered down in the bathtub as if Katrina were a tornado instead of a hurricane. Then, "all of a sudden, it was like turning off a hairdryer," she said. The wind "just stopped."

She walked outside. Trees were everywhere. "My yard was like a big pot of gumbo," she said. But her home was still in one piece. She would clean up later, she decided. Hours of covering her head with her arms in a cramped tub had tuckered her out, so she jumped into bed for a nap.

Later, when Heidi opened her eyes, she saw her TV floating around the room. She looked down, and she herself was floating on the mattress. Just before the water level reached the top of the doorway, she swam out of her house, clung to a tree and waited two days for her rescuers.

"I never thought I was that strong, that I had it in me," Heidi said. "I'm just lucky to be here."

She lost everything and later sold her property for $15,000, a $15,000 loss. Her newfound debt, rising insurance costs and high rents combine for a tough way of life for Heidi. A $400 one-bedroom apartment before the storm, she said, now costs at least $1,000. After Katrina, "the homeless stayed homeless, the poor became homeless, the middle-class became poor, and the rich became richer," she said. "We're not going to be able to live here anymore. And it's too bad. But it's the truth."

She talked about moving to the Carolinas, "but I don't know," she said. 'This is my home."

Two years later, Katrina pervades the Big Easy. The devastation and the emotional, physical, social reminders are inescapable.

Twelve thousand homeless people camp along the streets.

Crime is apparent. "Here we go again," a worker at the guest house said when she heard on TV about an "armed and dangerous" robber loose in the city.

This old apartment building along Florida Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward remains abandoned but still standing more than two years after Hurricane Katrina.

Some buildings are crumbling. They haven't been torn down.

Some streets are rough. They haven't been repaired.

Vehicles are abandoned along residential streets, above.

During my stay, Katrina was always the topic on New Orleans talk radio. It was always the lede story on the front page of The Times-Picayune, above.

Shops along Bourbon Street, such as Crawdaddy & Co. and Gumbo Ya Ya, sell T-shirts that say "Federal Emergency Mismanagement Agency," "Sorry I'm late. I work for FEMA," or "Make levees, not war."

The most popular alcoholic drink is the hurricane - a mix of light and dark rums, fruit juice, orange juice, lime juice, simple syrup, grenadine and a garnish of choice.

Many popular restaurants and clubs are still intact, but they can't find the workers needed to staff them. While many businesses survived Katrina, the hardest-hit sections were residential neighborhoods. So while some of the employers are still in New Orleans, the employees are not because they have no place to live. Countless eateries have "help wanted" signs plastered on their doors.

At The Trolley Stop Cafe along St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District, above, lines still file outside the door each day for breakfast. It's renowned for great butter grits, crawdad omelets and banana split pancakes sprinkled with pecans and topped with four dollops of whipped cream.

The old train station turned diner was built in the early 1900s. The restaurant opened in 1998 and fared well during the storm. The floodwaters stopped right outside the restaurant in this high-ground part of New Orleans, so water damage was minimal.

Unlike The Trolley Stop Cafe - located in a more residential, west New Orleans neighborhood where water damage was minimal - the businesses and hospitals along Canal Street near Interstate 10, where the water level was about four feet, didn't make out as well. Above, a wall along Canal Street shows the water line at about three feet. To the height of each water line on walls throughout the city, you must add one foot in order to figure out the overall height of the flood in that area.

On Saturday, the day of my farewell to New Orleans, I skipped the line by sitting at the bar.

There was a New Orleans cop on my left. He didn't say much.

On my right, there was Bobby, a middle-age man who seemed to spit a piece of omelet out of his mouth each time he spoke. It was only a matter of time before I got hit with a half-chewed projectile. But I didn't mind: His story was intriguing, too.

He had weathered the storm in his Garden District apartment, but had left when gangs "began shooting at each other on the streets and looting the homes," he said. For three months, he stayed with a friend on an ocean island near West Palm Beach, Fla. Ironically, Hurricane Wilma hit Florida in October 2005, flooding his buddy's home with a foot of water.

I ordered the banana split pancakes and grits with butter on the side, but I had to wait a while before getting them. A regular at the eatery, Bobby said service has been slow since the hurricane and that he heartily tips his servers in order to speed it up. All the workers know him and treat him well.

"Hi, Bobby," they would say when they saw him. "You doing OK? Can I get you anything?"

To the right of Bobby were Harmon and his wife, Jennie. Katrina forced them out of their apartment in the French Quarter, a prized place to live in New Orleans. Harmon and Jennie had been living in St. Louis, Mo., until the day before they ate breakfast at The Trolley Stop for the first time since the storm. They're living in the Garden District now. It's not the French Quarter, but they were just happy to be back and eating the food they missed so badly.

The cop sitting to the left of me - still silent - paid his bill, then joined some other officers who were sitting at a corner table. Harmon and Jennie paid, too, then Jennie told Bobby in a Southern accent, "We'll be seeing you around."

"I'm sure we will," said Bobby, who soon left after saying to me, "I've enjoyed our conversation. Have a good one."

It was sunny when I entered the restaurant Saturday morning, the first I had seen of the golden rays in New Orleans. But when I left, the skies were dark, and it was raining again. I felt a tug inside me. Maybe some of it was the stack of two 10-inch pancakes piled with every sweet ingredient under the sun. But most of it was the start of withdrawal symptoms.

New Orleans may not be able to escape the stigma of such a destructive storm, but its people are resilient, which wasn't the impression I had coming in. I talked with many locals, and they all willingly recounted their versions of Katrina. They weren't irritated that I had asked them about it. New Orleanians are some of the most friendly people I have ever met.

But while they're not tired of telling their stories, they are tired of the bureaucracy that has stymied their resiliency. There's hardly anything they can do when wages are putrid, when rent prices and insurance costs are sky-high, when promises of assistance are broken.

They're tired of racism.

They're tired of ignorance.

They're tired of being ignored.

The French Quarter, the main draw for tourists, is as alive as ever. Mardi Gras will draw hundreds of thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars in February. But Katrina victims' plight will continue.

At the mouth of Bourbon Street on Friday night, a group of young musicians I liked to call the B Street Band plays for crowds heading to clubs and bars. Occasionally, one of the trumpet players would walk toward the people, holding out a cardboard box for donations. For hours, they played nonstop.

Performers inspire cheers and dance among crowds at Canal and Bourbon streets in New Orleans.

New Orleans has a culture that must be preserved. Its music, its street performers, its restaurants and, more importantly, its people make it the most unique city I have ever visited. It's refreshing to tour a large city without once seeing a Starbucks or a Dunkin' Donuts. It seems that almost every building is historic. I grew up as a country boy, but I learned to love city life. New Orleans is the best of both worlds: a city with a profound Cajun-country feel, an urban bayou of sorts.

The extent of commercialism in New Orleans appears in the form of glitzy, neon-covered casinos, such as Harrah's, above, and the non-native palm trees, below, that are planted near them. Emeril Lagasse's restaurants, below below, and stores probably should be included, too. But even those are more attractive than Times Square.

I drove out of the city around noon Saturday, on the first, 79-mile leg to Gulfport, Miss., on my trek home to Melbourne, Fla. The first 15 miles of Interstate 10 east from New Orleans are lined with homes and businesses (most of the rest is swampland). I drove into the city under a veil of darkness, so I didn't notice them earlier.

But in Saturday's daylight, I saw that almost all of the homes were empty. The most intact ones were missing windows. Inside the windows was a void, a black nothingness. Other homes were just crumbling.

It's one thing to see this destruction on a certain block or in a particular neighborhood, but when you're traveling at 75 mph and your view of the destruction lasts for 20 minutes, you know it's bad.

As I passed block after block of destroyed homes, I would see an occasional car parked in a driveway leading to a wrecked home. Each time I saw a car, I asked myself, "What are the stories of the people in that car? What version of Katrina would they tell?"

And as I left New Orleans, I thought about the depression that came over me while walking and driving the forlorn streets such as those of the Lower Ninth Ward, above.

But now as I type on my blog in sunny south Central Florida, a depression comes over me again.

I miss New Orleans.


In the words of the old gospel song:
"When the sun refuse to shine ...

When the moon turns red with blood ...

When the trumpet sounds the call ...

When the new world is revealed ...

When the revelation comes ...

When the rich go out and work ...

When the air is pure and clean ...

When we all have food to eat ...

When our leaders learn to cry ...

Oh lord I want to be in that number

When the saints go marching in."

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