May 19, 2009
Once a visitor gets away from the ever-so-comfortable New Orleans gumbo of live music and clubs and seafood extravaganzas in the French Quarter, where flooding was relatively moderate and most of the damage wind-caused, and heads out to the neighborhoods of Lakeview, Gentilly, St. Bernard, New Orleans East and, especially, the Lower Ninth Ward, the fruits of denial come full circle.
Coming face to face with the residual devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the levee system that allowed Lake Ponchartrain to enter the city unannounced that late August weekend of 2005 is more than one can intellectually absorb. It’s almost too much for the right-brain to deal with on a purely emotional level.
One block after another, stain lines upon each now-gutted house attest to the high-water mark. Cryptic "Katrina tattoos" tell the human story of what went down when floodwaters rose to ceilings. Spray-painted notations noting what rescuers found when they first arrived are everywhere. "1 dead in attic" became the iconic image.
Even more chilling are the small irregular holes made by an axe from the inside as survivors of the initial flooding attempted to escape rising waters by accessing their rooftops from within.
Brad Pitts’s rebuilding project is ongoing with raised houses and solar-paneled rooftops reconfiguring the Lower Ninth skyline. And Habitat for Humanity continues with its Musician’s Village. But, by and large, much of New Orleans remains post-apocalyptic. Or, as they say, "the city that care forgot."
Arguments concerning whether or not the disaster was manmade or natural will no doubt continue forever. The time when the now-disappearing coastal wetlands were a sufficient buffer, "speed bump," if you will, to mitigate the force of hurricanes arriving from the Gulf of Mexico are now long gone.
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What’s to blame, from oil and gas pipelines to a "shortcut" dredged from the bayou that acted as a storm-surge funnel, are being bandied about various courtrooms as we speak. But one thing is for sure: Man has steadily diminished whatever weapons nature once had at it disposal to temper its innate fury.
When the Gulf rises 22 feet in a matter of hours, well, statistics such as "1,580 lives lost and 230,000 homes destroyed" become contextualized. But the effect upon New Orleans culture as a whole is equally devastating.
Many among those who made the "Big Easy" such a singular outpost, the world-class chefs, musicians, artists, and over-the-top characters, have yet to return. Supply and demand and the economy in general have caused rents to skyrocket. For those who suffered the most, there is no room at the inn.
This is not to say that New Orleans does not remain one of the truly most rewarding tourist destinations in the world. Those without the resources to volunteer time in reconstruction have other means at their disposal. As one neighborhood pundit put it, "Those who come only to party, also serve." Anything to help the local economy. It may be waterlogged, but it’s still Mecca.
And going off-season between all the music festivals proved a quite good call earlier this month. Locals had more time to shoot the breeze while laying a bit of that old Cajun and Creole laughter-infused vernacular on you with wide brush strokes.
And the rewards are huge. You might find yourselves the only couple brazen enough to dance upon the hardwood of the "Maison Bourbon," negotiating the intricate spaces between tables with just a hint of flourish and subtlety. There’s not much some folk can do to fight off the siren’s call of a "caterwauling" trombone on their first night in "the Quarter."
Or, for that matter, the seduction of aromas in that soft night air when sweet jasmine takes a turn around the dance floor with the fragrance of olive or when the burnt sugar of "pralines" mixes with the aroma of cigar smoke, and chicory.
Surprise awaits around every corner. Who would’ve thunk that Bourbon Street would house a fun-filled "Nazi" jazz club? An oxymoron to be sure, and that’s probably too strong a summarization of the self-described "European Jazz Pub." But everything, from the house band’s quite zesty interpretation of the jazz songbook to the young Aryan beauties tending bar, lent itself to such a perception. Let’s just say Wagner would have loved it.
And then there are the grand above-ground cemeteries, neighborhoods unto themselves and, admittedly, a bit spooky. And don’t forget Frenchmen Street, the comfortably-hip music district for locals tired of Bourbon Street and adjacent to the French Quarter in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.
And before heading out, let’s do a few dozen raw oysters at ACME and one last set at Preservation Hall? Sound good? Works for me!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.