From the Gulf Coast: First looks are deceiving
NEW ORLEANS ” A myopic view of New Orleans makes it look like Mardi Gras did more damage to the Crescent City than Hurricane Katrina (see related story).
Photographer Paul Conrad and I didn’t fly into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport until 4 p.m., so deadline pressure forced us to come directly to our hotel then scamper about 10 blocks to check out the debauchery in the French Quarter.
On the drive along Interstate 10, we initially noticed the trees looked like they had been stripped and the roofs of a few houses had the tell-tale blue tarp pulled taut to offset wind damage.
Before we knew it, we were whisking by the Superdome, scanning neighborhoods we knew from all the media coverage had been submerged in several feet of water when the levees broke in early September. But driving by at interstate speed, we didn’t notice anything out of sorts.
High up on the white dome, we could see half a dozen or so specks moving along. We realized workers on long tethers were apparently undertaking patch jobs on the big tent. A huge banner on the Superdome’s foundation proclaimed “We will reopen September 26, 2006. Go Saints,” a reference to the city’s homeless football team.
After stowing our gear at our hotel on St. Charles Avenue, we negotiated our way to the French Quarter, sidestepping mounds of debris left over from the parades, weaving through drunks and dodging occasional traffic.
But somehow it seemed odd to journey into the city that’s been so terrorized and transformed by the hurricane and not really notice its effects, at least not along our route. A traveler who wanted to remain oblivious to New Orleans’ troubles could do so. And for many Mardi Gras revelers, ignorance was definitely bliss on Fat Tuesday.
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When we pulled up to our hotel at 5 p.m. Tuesday, my first impression was it didn’t quite match the pictures and description on its website. (It touted itself as a fancy place on the edge of the hip warehouse district.) It looked a little, shall we say, used. Never mind the mounds of beads and other debris left over from the last of the Mardi Gras parades that had ended just 30 minutes earlier.
The lobby resembled an inner-city YMCA with a swarm of kids hanging out, half of them looking bored and the other half wearing off the sugar buzz of candy and treats from the day’s parades.
Scaffolding, construction dumpsters and tubes to send down debris from upper floors lined the exterior of half the building.
Overall, it was a no-frills place that seemed a little lifeless.
Paul later learned from the guy manning the front desk that the hotel had not suffered at the hands of Katrina. Instead, it had become home for scores of hurricane evacuees. Many of the rooms and the public areas of the hotel were showing the wear and tear of six months of steady living.
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John Boomgaarden of Waukesha, Wis., was one of thousands of revelers who made the trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. But his mission was different from most.
Standing among the throngs of drunks making their way through the French Quarter, Boomgaarden held a sign that asked in black letters on yellow poster board, “What if it’s true?”
Sensing a joke, I went up to talk to him. (We were, after all, surrounded by some people who had pushed well beyond the limits of taste. One “gentleman,” for example, wore a baseball hat that read, “Schlong Ranger.” His necklace featured small penises.)
But Boomgaarden said there was no joke. He wanted people to keep the gospel in mind during their hard partying. He was definitely swimming upstream with this crowd. While most people ignored him, a few couldn’t avoid jeering.
Boomgaarden wasn’t the only one spreading the word. Mixed in with the mass of humanity on Bourbon Street, I caught a glimpse of a man dressed like Jesus, carrying a cross. It had been decorated with strings of beads, of course, and some thongs.
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The cleaners were as persistent as the partiers in New Orleans. Sometime in the wee hours, I heard a crew of workers pushing all the beads, cups, food scraps and other trash off the sidewalk and into St. Charles Avenue. Soon after, the street sweepers came by and made a first pass. By the looks of things after dawn, a few more passes will be necessary, but it’s a start.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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