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Post Katrina Essay 3 – My First Visit to Hell

Post Katrina 3

My First Visit to Hell

It’s 41 days after the storm, and my first visit to the city. My mission is simple enough, ascertain whether or not my daughter’s apartment is habitable; it’s in the Uptown area near her school, Tulane, and all indications are that area was largely spared.

I headed out of my town early, and headed across the Causeway, the 24 mile bridge that crosses Lake Pontchartrain. The Causeway had been closed for sometime after the storm, but has been pronounced safe. Not so with the “Twin Span” bridges that lead East out of New Orleans on I-10. Much of that structure is completely gone, massive pillars and roadways of concrete washed away by 30 foot waves that came in with the tidal surge.

Traffic is light to non-existent, except for military vehicles and rigs pulling some of the promised travel trailers that will be used for temporary housing. As I near the end of the Causeway, I see the high rise office buildings of Metairie before me, mosaics of broken glass, plywood, and blue tarpaulins dotting their exterior. It’s a scene I will see repeated time and time again as the day goes on.

Exiting the Causeway, I head east on the 10 towards the city, past some of our famous cemeteries which seem to be relatively intact. If you haven’t been to New Orleans, our cemeteries are all above ground. Ornate stone mausoleums containing the remains of an individual or a family. Some of the doors are broken open and caskets are on the grounds; one wonders if some went for longer journeys. Time will tell.

I take the Carrollton exit, and head towards Uptown and the river, and it’s my first view of the real devastation. Clichéd as it is, there are not words to describe what I see. The first thing one notices is the stench of rotting garbage along the streets, mixed in with the piles of debris and refuse; you wonder how bad it will be when the population returns – these piles are clearly not of a size that would indicate an entire neighborhood had contributed. Building after building on Carrollton is severely damaged. This was an area of substantial flooding and the watermarks are clearly visible on the buildings, along with the markings of the door to door search and rescue teams that came through the neighborhoods at some point. Orange spray painted circles, divided into quadrants, each with a purpose: one for the date visited, one for the identification of the team that visited, one for the number of bodies remaining in the building, one for an indication of hazardous materials on site.

There are piles of hazardous materials along side the curbs outside of businesses – discarded cans and barrels of solvents, chemicals, motor oils and the like, exposed to the elements, seeping out of their now rust damaged containers and flowing into the city sewers on their way to the Mississippi or the Gulf.

You stare at buildings that you have driven by a hundred times in the past; you try and remember what it was before, and the memory escapes you, there is nothing to indicate what business was located there, and the building in no way resembles whatever it used to be.

You pass blocks that now are merely piles of charred wood – entire blocks of our wonderful old wood houses burned to the ground after the storm as electrical fires started, and there was no water pressure from the hydrants or the trees in the streets prohibited fire engines from reaching the scene. Standing water remains in yards and streets. Cars are abandoned everywhere, and either parked at random, in a moment of panic, or picked up by the raging torrent that ran through the city and deposited miles from their original location. The cars are covered with muck, and the windows are no longer transparent. One curious point that strikes me is there are so many flat tires. It makes me thing the cars were picked up and violently re-deposited abruptly. Or perhaps the tires were cut by other debris in the water.

There are downed power lines everywhere. There are a few signs on businesses “reopening soon” but you wonder if they will. There are no people on the streets, nor are there many vehicles, other than out of state pick up trucks with magnetic signs for “Tree Removal” or “Roof Repair”.

There is no indication that the mayor’s invitation for business owners to return has been taken seriously. Business after business is destroyed or boarded up. There are stop signs on tripods at every intersection – there are no working stop lights. I wondered where they got all the stop signs?

The military is everywhere. There are humvees and troop carriers and heavily armed infantry on foot patrol – protecting what, I don’t know – as there are no people, and whatever businesses could have been looted obviously has been, there are smashed store windows everywhere, and those windows have obviously been cleaned out of whatever merchandise was left behind. Some of those stores and businesses were also burned out – whether that was a result of the looting or some other cause it is impossible to tell.

I approach the Riverbend neighborhood, near the end of the St. Charles streetcar line; who knows how long it will be before the street cars are running again? I drive ever so cautiously, terrified of getting a flat tire. Every tire store in the city has been commandeered by FEMA or the military as they are suffering the same fate that I fear. I have a good spare, I think.

It takes a bit of navigation to get back to my daughter’s house, there are still trees blocking many of the residential streets. As bad as I think things are in my town, I am astonished that there aren’t crews working down here. There aren’t tree crews, there are not utility crews. What is the mayor thinking that people can come back and stay here safely now? There is no electricity, there are no stores or restaurants open, and there is still doubt about the viability of the drinking water. It’s a crazy plan.

My daughter’s house is locked up tight, and from the outside, appears normal. I open the door prepared for the smell, but, I’ve lucked out. A broken window on the side of the house has aired the house out over the weeks. The smell is manageable. I think back to another impression I had coming down Carrollton, that whatever clean up workers I did see all had on hazmat suits and respirators. I regret not having at least brought a mask and rubber gloves.

The air throughout the city is thick with dust, like being the San Joaquin Valley during the Santa Ana’s, or a dust storm that makes you take refuge in Baker on the way to Vegas. At times you have to run your wipers to clear away the debris.

Katrina, or possibly Rita has provided a new 12 foot square skylight in my daughter’s apartment, it’s open to the elements, but the damage is confined to the front of the house. A couch and coffee table are ruined, as is the television, and the 100 year old wood floors are swollen and buckled. But she, like, I, was pretty lucky. Most of “her stuff” seems intact, and can remain so until she returns. It doesn’t appear her landlord has been here, and under martial law, rents are suspended, and evictions, in theory, can’t take place.

But with so many homes and apartments destroyed, and so many temporary workers in the city needing housing, many landlords have simply tossed tenants’ belongings out on the curb and re-rented the apartments for 3-4x the previous rent. It’s going on all over the city, and tenants, though the law is on their side, appear to have little recourse. One more injury to add to the long list. One more stab in the back.

I gather up a few things she asked me to get, mostly photos and albums, and lock the house up. I get back in the car, and head down St. Charles Avenue, towards the Garden District and downtown, past the stately homes with the large lawns that the English built when they decided to move away from the raucous French Quarter two hundred years ago. The area has largely been spared wind damage, but evidence of flooding is everywhere, as is evidence of looting. I imagine a lot of these multi-million dollar homes became crash pads for the bad guys during the days of lawlessness. Adding insult to injury was news today that a number of policemen “commandeered” 40 new Cadillacs from a dealer that made their way out of town for parts unknown.

The height of inappropriate behavior that I heard about during the storm was the arrest of FEMA truck drivers for looting. Bring in ice and water; take out plasma TVs and appliances. I think most of them were caught. What a world.

There is no traffic on St. Charles at all, except, again, the occasional olive drab humvee. No effort has been made to clean or reopen these businesses and hotels either. I pass Tulane and Loyola Universities, which have armies of workers engaged in clean up, and armies of the other kind providing security.

As I near the end of St. Charles, the high rise buildings of the Central building district come into view, again, similarly dotted mosaics of patched windows, twisted giant neon signs dangling from roof tops, cars pushed through lobbies of buildings, and the first sign of life: homeless people going through piles of garbage. Are these “old” homeless people, or “new” homeless people? For the amount of poverty we have here, oddly, there isn’t a very large, or evident, homeless population, usually. This is an uncommon sight even for our city.

As I make my way down the city blocks, I am often struck by things that are out of place – a boat upside down on a median. One car sitting upside down on top of another. A refrigerator or television in the middle of the road. You wonder how they got here. I drive by the Superdome, and see the damage, which is extensive. I think about the terror that took place on the streets and inside just a few weeks ago, and shudder. I think about the entire families that rushed here at the last minute, thinking it was a place of refuge, and only to find out they were walking into a new kind of hell.

After a few nights in the dome, many families rushed back out into the elements and waded through five feet of water to get away from that “refuge.” We’ll probably never know what happened to those people.

The dust choking the air, the devastated buildings, the piles of trash and debris, military everywhere, workers in hazmat suits, I’ve seen all this before. I saw it in Belfast, Soweto, Khartoum, and other cities, and thought, “how can we let this happen to our fellow man?” That devastation was man made. Maybe this was too; it will take decades to figure that out. For now we’re content to “blame” Mother Nature.

I drive by a building I had been working on purchasing before the storm, I was supposed to close the deal on September 1. I’m glad now that didn’t happen, but feel an immense sadness for the historical structure which stood proudly for one hundred years and was devastated in four hours on August 28. My sadness extends to the owner, wherever he is, the sale of the building represented the end of his career and he and his wife were going to do some traveling. I haven’t been able to find out any word about them.

The French Quarter, largely spared wind and water damage, and thankfully, escaping a single fire that could have taken the whole neighborhood, is nevertheless, a mess, with blocked streets, cleaning crews, and piles of garbage everywhere. The stench is unbelievable. I think of the abundance of local seafood our city enjoyed on a daily basis, oysters, shrimp, crayfish, crabs, fish of all sizes and descriptions. All from our inland waters or close off shore. How much damage have they suffered? Were the oyster beds swept out to sea? Have the toxic runoffs ruined the seafood for years to come? I guess the days of oysters for a quarter, and $2 a pound jumbo shrimp are gone for my lifetime. I’m sure there will be conflicting reports on their status, like everything else.

These days, who do you believe?

Our politicians get up each morning, put on a brave face, and say, “Come home, people, your city is waiting for your return.”

But it’s not our city anymore. It’s just a façade.