Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Southeastern Louisiana: A World Apart

That's what I saw spray painted on a small house in New Orleans.

I had expected that my first look at what was left of southeastern Louisiana would be from the air, but overcast skies prevented me from seeing anything until my plane landed. The gray day did nothing for my spirits as my taxi took me to Tulane, and I was immediately immersed in the chaos of a college reawakening after its semester off, so I had little time at first to take in much in the way of hurricane damage.

My first view of serious Katrina impact was of the tree in the first photograph above, blown down and against a St. Charles Avenue mansion. Nearly five months later it still lies there, in all of its former live oak glory. My guess is that the home behind it remains in good shape, so no one is going to turn limited resources toward its removal.

The next day we hopped on a bus for a city tour provided for Tulane parents. Most of the morning was designed to acquaint us with NOLA history and architecture (more on that to come later this week), but some parents asked for a trip to areas where the hurricane had done its worst. Our guide indicated that she had been told to stick to the usual tourist routes, but she acceded to the requests and took us out to the West End, to the suburb of Lakeview, bordering Lake Pontchartrain. (If I am a little off on geography and names, I apologize and gladly await corrections from NOLA readers.)

Imagine your home. Think about what you do there. You grab meals on the run from the frig. You spread your bills out on the dining room table. You sit around and watch tv in the evening. You clean the bathrooms and rake the yard. You roll your eyes when the phone rings and it's always -- always -- for a teenage member of the household. You take the dog for a walk. You spread the best china and silver and welcome friends and family for a holiday dinner. You sit down at the kitchen table for a heart-to-heart with a child who came in too late last night, or a parent contemplating a move to a retirement community. You arrange fresh flowers for the mantle and call the piano tuner.

Unless you live in Lakeview, in which case you don't do those things anymore.

Lakeview is an eerie reminder of the destruction wrought by Katrina. Street after street of middle-class homes, pleasant brick ranches and colonials, water-stained and vacant. Disorienting. You feel for a moment that you are in a construction site, host to a new development of homes not yet completed or furnished, and then you are quickly brought back, by a water line on a fence, or a pile of trash and applicances, to the reality that this is a place of de-struction. There is no con-struction. The streets are silent, empty. There is none of the comdraderie and laughter of neighbors dealing with yet another home maintenance disaster of the type those of us who live in older cities are accustomed to -- there are no neighbors. There is no plumbing to complain about. No electrical. No heat. No dogs.

I don't have any photos of the West End -- the bus didn't stop there and I decided to cover more ground the next day rather than retracing my steps. (The other four pictures in this entry, including that of the unperturbable osprey, were taken further down the coast.) But I am haunted by what I saw. My husband said that he thought he had read somewhere that Lakeview was, like our own city, one of the first suburbs in America racially integrated with some degree of success, and that there was a great interest in returning it to life. I thought about Lakeview when I went to the gym this morning, where the population was a pretty even mixture of black and white, and where the few skinny babes in stylish workout clothes were offset by the Orthodox Jewish women pumping away on the Ellipticals in their ankle-length skirts, long-sleeved t-shirts, and head coverings. I thought about my neighborhood, with its eclectic mix of elegant older homes, somewhat out-of-place ranches, apartments, funky shopping blocks, modern schools, and extensive parks. I thought about it all just being gone. About all of us being gone.
The news in New Orleans is all recovery-related. Signs posted everywhere advertise clean-out and tear-down and haul-away services. The mayor says in exasperation that the destruction is God's punishment. You might almost think so, if you were inclined that way. It does tend to bring Noah to mind.
And God's wrath or not (and no, that's not my way of thinking), the wake of Katrina does clarify why the ancient stories of floods, common to virtually all civilizations, retain such a hold on us thousands of years later. The damage is awesome and the silence is deafening.


betty said...

I'm speechless on what you wrote and the pictures. Absolutely a beautiful entry.

And along with you, I don't believe this was the Lord's punishment. If so, there are lots of other cities that should be destroyed too.

thank you for sharing your memories and thoughts.


Jessica said...

You have a way of writing that is compelling...lush with visuals but not pretentious and gaudy. I can feel the emotions as much as I can picture the scene. You strenthen a desire to visit "Nawlins" as my cousin still insists on naming it despite the popular lean towards the "NOLA" moniker. I have wanted to visit the city for a very long time....never during Mardi Gras, that terrifies me, but a trip to the French Quarter, the graceful mansions, and most of all the cemeteries that I will now never get to see (at last most of them)But even with the loss of that which I have wanted to visit, I am, perhaps even moreso, eager to see the rebuilding of this city, to see what blend of old and new, of history, destruction and rebirth the people of this area construct. So much I have read and seen of N'awlins residents ..and having a chance to meet and interview a few of the refuges during their stay here in Florida, leads me to believe the results will be worth the trip.

Carol said...

Your geography lesson is fairly correct but the spelling of the lake was not! It's Pontchartrain--no one who is not from N'awlins (NOLA's easier to write) would ever know that though. And, it's St. Charles Avenue rather than Street; many locals simply call it, "the avenue". I recognize that house by the apartment building next to it; I believe it's just a few blocks from campus and very near my late grandparents' home. So sad to see those images this far out timewise. Generally when one thinks of clean-up following a disaster (thunderstorm, tornado, snowstorm...) the fallen trees are the first things to get picked up/removed so that the larger work can begin. How eery that the removal of this tree is simply deemed unnecessary at this time.

And yes, Lakeview was integrated, by New Orleans standards. That means that while there were minorities in the neighborhood, there was probably minimal interaction between the blacks/whites/Latinos/Vietnamese...it simply doesn't happen in N'awlins. Sad but true. But that's a topic for another day and time.

Gannet Girl said...

Thank you, Carol! I think I have them spelled correctly now. In my defense, you can successfully google "Ponchetrain" -- which looks plus de francaise to me. But what do I know? I appreciate the help.

Paul said...

You really captured the hushed feeling of awe in your words. The osprey photograph is mythic...ruffled feathers, but determined to tough it out. I won't even bother with the wrath of god idiocy.

tess said...

...and the silence is deafening.
I can tell that you have felt IT!

Kathryn said...

You took me there. Amazing entry.

Red said...

Wow, wonderful entry.

alphawoman said...

I recently saw on TV the governor lambasting the mayor...perhaps about this remark? I can not imagine how all the homeowners feel...not even begin to imagine what it would feel like to loose everything and the hoplessness that would engulf me.

emmapeelDallas said...

I agree with Kathryn - you took me there. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Grabbed me by the eyes and I couldn't not read. For me, your last line says it all.