On the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we’re all looking for easy answers, barometers of recovery, and people to blame. Simplistic messages of hope.
Yet despite the renewed conversation about our drowned American city, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be that much to talk about. Bourbon Street continues to assault the common senses. The French Quarter’s wrought-iron balconies are still fit for Mardi Gras; the antebellum mansions still impossibly big and beautiful; the food and music still among the best you’ll find.
It’s possible to regale in post-apocalyptic New Orleans without sensing the specter of fear and despair that looms overhead. Crisis averted, then.
Except, it wasn’t. It’s still going on.
Understanding New Orleans requires one to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable extremes of glut and want, languorousness and violence, insouciance and dejection — all telltale dichotomies of a city rich in history and culture, where nearly one-quarter of the citizens are unmistakably, devastatingly poor. That was true long before storm sisters Hurricanes Katrina and all-but-forgotten Rita arrived. Today, those extremes are just harder to avoid.
Entire neighborhoods are loitering in ruin, at best half-inhabited, littered with demolition signs and forgotten foundations.
Nearly every standing home in the once middle-class neighborhood of Gentilly, near Lake Pontchartrain, bears spray-painted scars detailing the date — most three weeks after Katrina — when rescue teams finally inspected the buildings and counted the bodies that were found inside.
With this land of the living dead comes an endless string of questions: what took so long? Will the demographics of the “chocolate city,” the birthplace of jazz, now be realigned? How is it that people are still fighting with insurance companies?
Checks are in the mail. “Better days are ahead,” said President Bush, when he dropped by for a moment of silence on August 29, two years after Katrina touched down. But rents have skyrocketed since then, due to increased insurance premiums and a lack of tenants, and property taxes have doubled. Crime and murder are again appallingly high, with more than 140 slayings so far this year. So at least one thing’s back to normal in New Orleans — it’s once again one of the most dangerous cities in the US.
But a sense of normalcy? Thirty-three thousand people displaced by the storm live in trailers; nearly 40 percent of the population has yet to return and as much as 29 percent of the current population may leave again, according to a recent University of New Orleans poll.
Ironically, in this city of extremes, Katrina assured that everybody lost.
“You see on the TV . . . people don’t want to come back,” says Bertrand, a valet at an unscathed Garden District hotel where I recently stayed. “But people do want to come back; everyone wants to come back. They just make it so hard.”
Having spent the past two years in Michigan, he’s recently returned to the Crescent City, to work the graveyard shift at a hotel that’s not quite empty but noticeably less than full. He has friends, he says, who paid hurricane insurance for 15 years — enough, they believed, to recoup the cost of buying two new homes. Instead, all they got was an $800 check. You need flood insurance, the agents said.
It’s a word game. Trying to evaluate New Orleans these days, it always is.
Too many ideas have been floated — raze crime-ridden areas and replace them with parks and hotels, for instance — but little has actually been accomplished: no simple answers, no plan to move forward, nothing but a miasma of red tape. So people are doing the best they can, relying on volunteers and on themselves. “If you just wait for the president and the government,” he says, “nothing’s gonna get done.”
It’s the better of times and still the worst of times these days — the tale of one city now fighting its way back from the brink.
Two years later, scant silver linings are on the horizon: re-opened businesses, parades and dancing in the street, a sense of camaraderie and defiance to beat the odds.
“People who you used to just say ‘hi’ to, now you treat ’em like family,” says Bertrand. “It made us stronger. It really did.” He repeats this last line several times, to let it sink in.
To let you know this matters.
Of course it does. It’s the way back. Five, 10, 20 years, no one knows how long it will take. Most agree New Orleans will never be the same. But nobody really knows how it will be different.