Friday, October 6, 2006


I unexpectedly find myself in New Orleans for the day. I don't know that I've ever been here; certainly not since Katrina. So I was eager to have a bit of a look around (not that I had a choice). Unfortunately, our hotel is right adjacent to the airport, and so we're not really near anything interesting to look at (or photograph), and there's not enough time to rent a car. And this part of town, anyway, is not walker-friendly. But whether I'm just filling in my own blanks or not, it's still interesting to be down here and to contemplate just what these people have been through in the past year.

I had lunch at a Denny's attached to a neighboring hotel, and most of the few clientele were construction people. The lunch conversations were about material procurement and building schedules, and, in the case of the restaurant staff, about work schedule adjustments due to stuff being done on people's houses. I assume that all or most of this is hurricane-related. The area around the hotel is pretty much a grungy industrial wasteland, but there are still signs that things aren't all copacetic. The open drainage canals are choked in places with stuff that should not otherwise be there: a pickup topper; a dining room chair; a stretch of linoleum countertop. There is an unnatural number of portable power generators still crouching behind restaurants and businesses. In the hotel parking lot is a swanky mobile office for a local vocational-technical institute. I'm assuming it's not a rolling classroom. But what then? A recruitment office to lure people... to school? The area's recovery will be a living for a lot of people for quite a while to come (to say nothing of what the rest of the hurricane season(s) will bring), and current conditions are a constant reminder to the region's residents of a viable alternative career.

One just senses that there is less flesh on top of the bone than one would normally find. I think we live in normal circumstances cushioned by a civilization security blanket, and it's a bit disconcerting to see what is underneath this blanket, like the discomfort of watching surgery on television: it's something usually kept from view and which we'd rather not contemplate. Our hotel, which seems to be running perfectly normally, must have spent some time in emergency mode, with its share of broken windows and distressed residents. Running water ceased. No phones or wifi or TV. No power except what they generated on site (the generators kept running in the hundred mile-per-hour winds and torrential rains by a maintenance staff who must have been worried about their own homes and loved ones). Food stopped coming to the restaurants. Bottled water supplies ran low. And this is a Hilton hotel. Imagine all the private homes, especially in the poor sections where there were (are) no resources to bring to bear. I think of the pictures of people squatting in their homes, half a foot of mud in their living rooms, keeping tabs on their remaining possessions through night after night without power or police protection while looting was rampant. How terrifying those nights must have been. Our return to the stone age. I think of the horrors of the Superdome, and not simply as a story in itself but as the best solution available to those thousands of residents. There's a yardstick for you of just how far things descended in those dark days. (And it's worth noting that large sections of the city, thoroughly picked-over and stripped of anything of value, are still closed and lawless.)

Flying into the region in the predawn darkness (passing over, in my multi-million-dollar flying machine, the campfires of the squatters in the Lower Ninth Ward, bringing can't-wait packages to the functioning parts of the city), I'm struck by how different in broad-stroke ways this place is from every other major metropolitan area in this country. A series of long spindly bridges connects far-flung regions, each surrounded by water. Like a mountain village whose layout is dictated entirely by topography, the patterns of lights reveal something of the task of establishing a city on the terms of this watery landscape. And it takes little imagination to see how a storm surge from the Gulf could absolutely overwhelm and threaten to obliterate what even from the air seems so tenuous.

I fly in and out in a few hours, but my waitress and the hotel people have been here all along. This wasn't a signal disaster that happened to someone else. This place isn't a novelty to them, but their home. It's tempting to bid this for a couple months to hear the stories.


Jeffy said...

The one time I visited New Orleans many years ago I was struck by how much more poverty there seemed to be there than in other large cities I had visited. With so many folks scraping by the security blanket of civilization was already worn pretty thin.

My impression even then was that the area around the French Quarter was kept presentable for all the tourists, and much of the rest of the city was not an entirely pretty sight to see. I could tell that some of it had once been quite grand (and a fair amount still was), but so much was suffering from neglect.

I hope that they can not only recover, but regain some of what they had lost over the years.

wunelle said...

Yeah, I'd like to see more of the city, though I guess you have to be a bit careful at the moment. I suppose the climate makes it a better place to be destitute (if a person has any choice) than, say, Chicago.

But all this is just an impression based on a quick glimpse. It'd be fun to see more of the place.