Rebuilding a New Orleans from scratch
Returning to the devastated city we left the week after Hurricane Katrina six months ago was anything but a celebration. With more than 200,000 homes still uninhabitable, 100,000 cars abandoned, piles of debris still littering the damaged streets and an infrastructure that would fit a banana republic more than a proud, historic American city, homecoming is emotionally difficult even for the lucky ones with a leaky roof over their heads.Of course, the half-full or half-empty cliché applies, but a realistic prognosis remains depressing for residents, like my wife and me, trying to re-establish a normal life in the Crescent City. Just as for all returning families, the first days back in New Orleans were spent in search of old friends and familiar spots. With the majority of the population, and most of the poor African Americans, still in Diaspora, one can only guess who is in town.After spending five peaceful months shoveling snow in Aspen – where everything functioned perfectly – we are adjusting to our dusty old home in the French Quarter, an island of semi-order in a disintegrated city where few things function normally.Friends cheer us up: “It will never be the same, but in a much smaller city good life will return soon.” Yes, the streets and big buildings are lit in the central sections, but traffic lights need to be repaired and garbage picked up before tourism can be revived. Neighbors in Bourbon Street’s residential section are busy repairing broken windows, fixing the moldy walls, replacing missing roof tiles. “We are the lucky ones,” one hears again and again. So are the Uptown residents who escaped the floods on high ground.
Large companies have moved out of town and the electric power provider is bankrupt. Medical and banking services are spotty. It is easier to find stores selling T-shirts or ball gowns than a post office, shovels or trash bags, but our corner grocery store, looted and boarded up for a while, has reopened. The bakeries and cafés, however, show no sign of life. The nice lady who used to deliver our mail moved to Houston. Only part of our mail is being delivered. The daily paper appears, but there are no home deliveries.We ask for the old people who used to live in the nearby Maison Hospitalière, which is open again. Some died as their oxygen and medication ran out, we are told. Others were bused to unknown destinations. The city’s larger midtown hospitals fared even worse. Abandoned by the staff and the police, dozens of sick patients perished. The huge medical complex of the city lost more than 50,000 beds. Most hospitals are still boarded up.Our professional friends are hard to find. Our lawyer moved offices to Baton Rouge; my wife’s orthopedist is in Alexandria. One of the largest Louisiana banks, Hibernia, was absorbed by a Texas firm. Offices of many physicians are closed. The neighborhood pharmacist was robbed (“of course,” he says, “all drug stores in town were looted”) but is back in business. Police and the sheriff’s staff are down to about half-size. The court system, with a hopeless backlog, is unable to handle cases. The City Hall is a “Wild West scene,” according to a councilwoman. My barber shop is closed. Our dentist has moved to Utah. But street musicians are back in the French Quarter, playing to wandering homeless people. Old restaurants are slowly opening up, making up half of the 1,200 functioning businesses in town.
To raze or rebuild?One late evening we look for a table on Royal Street. In a city famous for great food we were happy to find a good hamburger. Another day we go to Galatoire’s, where the pompano en papillotte is as delicious as ever. Our waiter, Imre, was in a happy mood since he received a new trailer for his family from FEMA. But don’t ask for the classic French restaurant’s crepe suzette; the pastry chef disappeared during Katrina. The clientele, however, was eerily the same as a century before the hurricane. The white-gloved ladies from St. Charles Avenue and the stripe-suited bankers were there drinking their usual sazerac and planning the debutantes’ carnival balls.We go to a Lakeview-area cocktail party in a building that was 8 feet under water after the storm. Now, the elegant condominiums are being redone, although furniture and huge unpacked crates are still in the corridors. Tenants moved back from as far as New England and Hawaii. But most of this upper middle class area near the big lake is a wasteland, just like the Lower Ninth Ward, the home of poor black families.The wisdom of rebuilding the homes in these devastated sections is the most debated issue in New Orleans. Half of our friends who lived at Lakeview want to rebuild, the other half wants to sell. The blacks say they want to build up their old wards, but who will give them a mortgage and who will issue insurance in the danger zones?Conversation at the crowded cocktail party quickly switches to the approaching Mardi Gras. Perhaps more for psychological reasons than for tourism, this year’s Fat Tuesday on Feb. 28 was expected to be as elaborately campy as ever. But the “greatest free show on earth” was neither free nor the biggest.
The city, with its tax base virtually reduced to debts, reached deep into its citizens’ pockets to finance the parades and police. Only Glad, the trash-bag manufacturer, offered financial support. King Zulu started the big day and for a glorious moment of madness, revelers pretended that all is fine in the Big Easy. Many of the parade floats made light of the city’s misfortune, lampooning for example the “Department of Homeland Insecurity” along with various politicians and decision-makers.But the mood and soul of New Orleans remains somber when it is not artificially pumped up for Carnival. The traditional nonchalance carried the day in the French Quarter, along the parade route under the oak trees of the Garden District and the elite balls. But questions are asked. Should the masked men and women throwing glass beads from floats and putting on the ritz be the priority in a city that depends on handouts from Washington?In fact, the debate continues as to how the money – much of it from FEMA – should be spent. What comes first – the hospitals or the sports stadium, the universities or the police, the prisons or finishing the levees in time for the next hurricane season? They are all in desperate need of finance and reconstruction as are the homeless families.Will the schools (only 15 public schools were functioning in February, all chartered) ever be rebuilt and staffed? Will the port and the airport regain their international traffic? Can this prime national convention city be a safe and fun destination again? We feel almost embarrassed returning to our 170-year-old brick house on the historic high ground of the city. The quaint French- and Spanish-style homes in the Vieux Carré are practically untouched, except for the roofs and some fallen trees. The streets are unusually quiet as the mobs of tourists are missing. Only one or two mule-drawn buggies are waiting for riders where dozens used to stand. Few stores are busy. Who indeed needs souvenirs or antiques in this environment? Even Saturday nights on Bourbon Street are subdued. The classic “hurricane” drinks are gone with the storm, and tired-looking local bar patrons are waiting for the good times to come back. The gay bars are putting on their tired old shows. It all looks like a brave, never-never land trying to project optimism with no basis in reality.
A future clouded with questionsThe likely future is an entirely new social order for this traditionally multiracial city. Much of the nation was shocked by the poverty of undereducated masses that surfaced during the hurricane. “We didn’t know or didn’t want to know of their existence,” one politician admitted. Who were those nameless sick old people that came out of the flooded parishes begging for transportation and water? In a city that was 70 percent black, with a black mayor, police and nearly all municipal services, there was no help available to answer their S.O.S. The city’s black districts may be bulldozed and forgotten. Will New Orleans now turn into a white city? Or will the thousands of illegal Latino immigrants who do much of the cleanup be the next labor source? The talk is about a “light-chocolate” city. Elections are coming soon. The incumbent mayor is black and the other seven candidates are white.With the political and business establishment in turmoil, the dynamics of transformation will be as drastic as the changes in Central-Eastern Europe when communism collapsed and capitalism replaced it overnight. Such sudden cultural change has never been seen in any other American city.In traditionally Catholic New Orleans, it took six months for the powerful archdiocese to realize it cannot operate its churches and schools. The damaged churches, many in the devastated districts, are being shuttered and a dozen parishes closed.St. Augustine, one of the oldest churches with colorful French stained-glass in this cradle of black Catholicism, also has to go. After serving African slaves, Haitians and Spanish faithful, the 1841 church of the Rev. J. LeDoux lost its flock. He points to an inscription over the marble: ” Si tu savais le don de Dieu.” A roofer eating his po’boy sandwich asks what it means (If you knew the gift of God). “This misery was all God’s will,” he says. Life goes on, though, with the usual suspects fueling a racially poisoned political race for the mayor’s seat in a nationally watched April election. To put the broken city’s puzzle together from scratch will be a Herculean task for the new leader, black or white.
In the meantime, much of the once- and again-white Big Easy remains in a state of uncharacteristically suspended mood. Even the once popular nighttime ghost tours stopped marching in the French Quarter. Will the old ghosts and spirits ever return?Paul and Elizabeth Fabry divide their time between their New Orleans base and their West End home in Aspen.