Thursday, December 22, 2005

Katrina Encours et Toujours XXX

[A lot of this content is decidedly local in nature]

I've now been in New Orleans for 5 days, and there are some clear impressions about what's going on here. It started it off by going to a Saints game in Baton Rouge -- possibly the last Saints game ever to be played in Louisiana. It was one of the most pathetic sights I've ever seen in pro sports. Only about 15-20,000 fans in attendance (official tally was 30,000, but I don't believe it), and a lot of really depressed fans wondering what would happen to their beloved team over the next year. Just in case it was their last game, I saved our ticket and went around hunting for programs after the game to hold onto for later E-Bay sales.

After that, it's been several days of seeing friends, touring the city, and seeing how things are going. At first I was heavily depressed, because NO is like a limping old dog in an ICU unit. Never a wealthy town (at least in my lifetime), NO is now 70% empty, with miles upon miles of empty neighborhoods. However, while all I could do was mope the first couple of days, I had pointed out to me that a lot of good things are happening -- and that the folks who've been back for the past couple of months are long since past depression. By the third day, I could see why -- every day something or someone else comes back. For example, last week the streetcars started running again, for free until March. Tonight is the last night of the 2:00 AM curfew. This week is the end of temporary visiting rules for the entire city west of the Industrial Canal. Congress finally passed a significant Katrina reconstruction package -- although it had better not be the last one. FEMA trailers are pouring into town by the trainload. At this rate, NO will be something of a sick old dog by summer -- but no longer in ICU.

Yesterday, since I'd finally finished grading final exams, it was time for a big city tour. Pretty depressing on the whole, but with some bright spots. We started off going to West End Blvd, looking for the first levee breach at the 17th St Canal. It had become a pilgrimage site for visitors, as we were one of several cars coming in for pictures. That neighborhood, which had been a very comfortable middle class hood, was almost totally destroyed. Strangely, though, one house had already been completely renovated within 2 blocks of the breach. FEMA trailers were here and there, at about 1 per block -- a clear sign that homeowners were planning to rebuild.

Then it was off towards Lakeview, and the striking thing to me there was that the damage is inconsistent. There are completely trashed houses and there are eminently repairable houses, usually because they were elevated or on a slightly higher block. Most of the debris had been carted off in all of these neighborhoods, which I think must've been the primary focus up to now. At least one could go down streets without passing mounds of garbage -- meaning these parts of town are already looking better than they looked a few weeks ago.

Some islands of quick reconstruction or minimal damage popped up in the strangest places. The neighborhood bounded by City Park, Bayou St. John, Orleans, and Carrolton is coming back quickly. It has two bars already reopened, and most of the houses -- wealthy and elevated -- seem occupied and ready to go already. Lake Vista, a wealthy planned community right off Lake Pontchartrain, seems to have sustained absolutely minimal damage. This is bizarre, considering their location right off the lake. What I'd never realized until just now is that they are essentially an island, protected on all sides by levees. Both of these neighborhoods are quite wealthy, which is a pattern that holds quite frequently.

Mandino's -- a fantastic local family-owned neighborhood restaurant in Mid-City -- had a banner announcing "We WILL be back!" Several such signs were hanging here and there, which is encouraging.

Then we noticed several pelicans on Lake Pontchartrain right off Lakefront Airport. There's a poster going around the city urging people to consider the pelican their sign of rebirth, and the sight of several pelicans -- nearly extinct 15 years ago and now fully on the comeback -- was especially heartwarming.

Then up to NO East, a part of the city that is mostly African-American and stretches for miles and miles. Much of NO East is post-1960's and architecturally not that interesting. A lot of people died in NO East, as it was especially hard hit by flood surge. What was intriguing to me was the signs of activity going on in NO East, at least by the lake. Their were blue tarps covering about 20% of the houses, which is a sign that someone's looking over those houses. There were a lot of people going about started to work on houses.

Then Chalmette, which was devastated by floodwater. I saw a lot of signs of anger and defiance, scrawled on flooded out cars, houses, etc. There were hundreds of FEMA trailers at the parish government complex, and the place was bursting with activity. Chalmettans are a special breed, and they're especially tightknit. With all that activity, I'm fairly confident they'll be back -- although not in those flooded out slab houses.

Then off to the Lower Ninth, which was the most devastated area -- and by now the most famous. We saw the breach that destroyed the Lower Ninth, Arabi, and Chalmette. This was an unforgettable sight. There was a massive barge sitting half a block in from the breach, in the midst of a 10 square block area where not a single house remained on its foundations. They were all swept by the force of waters straight into the houses behind them. A total loss -- nothing can be saved in that part of the Lower Ninth.

In Metairie, the French Quarter, Uptown, and Bywater, you might be forgiven for thinking a storm had never happened. Aside from a lot of blue tarping on roofs, things are much as they were before. Metairie is bursting at the seems, with seemingly more population than before the storm. A lot of restaurants are closed, because there aren't enough restaurant workers in town to keep them up and running. Restaurants that are open are full of customers, though.
There are little placards, like election yard signs, all over town. They tend to announce roofers, house guttering, contractors, mold dryers, insurance lawyers, etc -- the detritus of disaster.
Blue tarp is everywhere, and whenever you see it, you're encouraged that someone's determined to protect at least that house. What's still depressing, though, is that there are thousands upon thousands of houses that aren't being looked after. A house that's not looked after over a couple of years gradually becomes beyond saving. This is why people have to come back now, not next year. Anything that pushes people to come back now should be encouraged. Anything that gets them comfortable elsewhere should be discouraged. While there is progress, there's so much more that needs to be done.

As I'd mentioned earlier, the curfew is finally being lifted tomorrow. It's been surreal having a curfew in one of the few places in the world where 24 hour bars are not at all unusual, and where staying out all night is routine and even a bedrock of the local economy. The police have been spotty enforcing the curfew, but in at least one case they've been way over enthusiastic in enforcement. A friend of mine, an educator, was stopped a couple of weeks ago on Magazine St at 2:15 for being out after the curfew. The officer then got her for DUI (she'd had 3-4 beers over the course of several hours at Tipitina's), then for a lapsed brake tag, and then for something else. She spent the next 5 hours driving around NO in the back of the officer's patrol car, and then a couple of hours in Central Lockup, until a well-placed phone call to the right contact in NOPD got her sprung from jail within a half hour of the workday starting. Now she's going to have to spend several hundred dollars to clear her record, which is incumbent on educators who hope to continue working. No one is going to mind seeing the end of this curfew.
The education system has taken a huge hit, at all levels. At the university level, Tulane has gotten hit worse than most. They had flooding north of Freret on their main campus. Their downtown medical school facility was completely flooded out and will require millions to reopen. They laid off over 250 teaching staff, and are going to be hurting for years. Loyola got off with only 4-5 million USD in damage, but they're deathly worried about the size of next year's freshman class. 82% of current students have a paid their deposit to return in the spring, and they're hoping a sizable freshman class will come in and get them back on their financial feet.
At the high school level, things are all over the map. Two Catholic boys schools, Brother Martin and Rummel, are sharing Rummel's campus. Also sharing Rummel's campus are three Catholic girls schools, Mt. Carmel, Dominican, and Ursuline. These three schools merged into one temporary basketball team, called the Rummel Transitional Team (which I guess sounds better than "Mt. Dominiline"). The team is winning, but will be disbanded in a couple of weeks, because each campus will reopen in January. Three Black Catholic schools have formed something called "MAX" -- St. Mary, St. Augustine, and Xavier Prep -- and they're holding classes at Xavier I think. Several Orleans Parish schools are being converted into charter schools, and Lusher is planning to take over Fortier's campus and expand into K-12 education. That one sounds a bit like a land grab, but we'll see if it sticks. For locals, these are huge shakeups. I wonder what it will all mean in the long term.

Oh well, that's enough for now. We'd all like to thank Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska for wrapping his ANWAR drilling bill into Katrina relief funding, which cost Louisiana several billion dollars of potential federal assistance when everyone opposed to ANWAR was forced to vote against the bill. That's the same senator who refused to give back his bridge to nowhere to help finance Katrina relief assistance. Thanks Ted.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?