Sunday, February 26, 2006

The big Congressional tour began yesterday (March 3rd, that is) in New Orleans, with Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi accompanying a group of 100 congressmen and women through a disaster tour of the city. Pelosi said that what she saw "challenges the national conscience. I'm not sure that our federal agencies are meeting that challenge." An understatement if I ever heard one, though she could well have lumped city and state agencies into her assessment. What follows is an account of my own trip to hell. Since my own tour, the barge in the Ninth Ward has been removed, and demolition is slated to begin there and in Lakeview in order to clear public rights-of-way, the lawsuits against the city having been settled for the time being. But make no mistake: there is still loads of work to be done. -------

My mother told me I shouldn't have done it, and in retrospect, I shouldn't have. Not on my first day back, anyway. But my friend Edie volunteered to take me in the afternoon, so I went.

My second mistake was bringing my son along in the backseat of Edie's car. Now that I never should have done. I should have put that off as long as possible. But Edie's daughter had to go back to work, so there it was. The only thing he could serve as, and did very well, was as a beacon of simple hope. "Wow, they better fix it," was what he said.

So much for protecting him from most of what I saw.

Yep, you guessed it. I took the levee breach tour of 2006, and it was horrible, awful, terrible. I'm tearing up right now just writing about it. I threw on a T-shirt that morning that was to prove highly prophetic for me. It said "FARKLEMPT", the Yiddish for that choked-up feeling that can silence a person to tears. Mike Myers turned it into a big joke on Saturday Night Live. Well, it was not funny when I was in Edie's car. It was less funny when she brought me to a friend's house in Lakeview, near the 17th Street Canal breach, at the western end of the city. She said her friend had okayed looking in the house, which was abandoned. The former lady of the house had salvaged her china and a very few valuables that were still intact and had relocated elsewhere in the city. She didn't want to go near the house, and I could see why.

Edie waited outside with my son while I went in the house. I walked into a moldy, unkempt hell that had once been a nice ranch bungalow. The kitchen, once nicely redone, was filled with water damage, and still had its refrigerator - its doors were wide open, awaiting food it would never contain again. The water line in the house was at eyebrow level on me, and the house itself had mold creeping up the walls and onto the ceilings. Walking out the back door into the yard afforded a view of a neighborhood wasteland. Houses sporting blue tarps were largely abandoned, their FEMA emblazoned roofs a half-hearted attempt at salvageing what was clearly a lost cause physically. Debris covered a playgym in the backyard.

Edie said later she had been puzzled by the huge amounts of mud people were still carting out of their flooded homes - how could it have gotten there? Well, water is a powerful thing. The force of the waters that poured through the holes in the levees washed houses off their foundations and lifted cars up only to rest them any old place when the waters receded. That force also brought a lot of sediment out from the sides and the bottom of the canals, which deposited itself in homes that were in harm's way. It was also toxic mud - anyone in contact with it for long periods of time had to use an approved respirator and cartridges around it, and a flimsy dust mask wasn't going to do it for protection.

There wasn't much mud in the house I was in, but the mess was still awful. The worst of it, for me, was in the kids' rooms. Prized trophies, photographs of family and friends, favored books and toys were ruined - collateral flood damage and the end of someone's young memories. One girl had recently graduated high school, and a framed copy of her commencement invitation and her tassel were left to the rot and ruin.

Shaken by it all, I left the house, closing the door behind me. I was told later a different kind of looting was going on now. Rather than hitting the shops and businesses, looters are now making their way through abandoned homes, a tidbit of information that makes my iron-straight hair curl like Shirley Temple's. These places ought to be treated with respect, regardless of what their status is now. I could barely cross the threshold of the house I was in - it was unthinkable to me at that moment to just up and take anything from what had been a family home.

Out on the sidewalk, I ran into a Times-Picayune reporter who was writing a story about Lakeview and its status. He asked if the house I had just left was mine. I told him no, that it belonged to P_____, and he said he knew her. I was so upset about what I had seen that the first words out of my mouth to him were, "I don't know how anyone can rebuild here without jacking their house up." He then said that his home had been in Lakeview, and I felt so bad having said what I said to him. He reassured me that this was one of the issues he was concerned with himself, and I felt a little better, but not by much.

We drove past the second levee breach at the London Avenue Canal, past houses with mud for flooring, past a school that the New Orleans school board had decided to abandon. Edie, a former New Orleans school district administrator and teacher, lamented the abandonment of a perfectly salvageable school facility, in her estimation.

What I have been learning is that the issue of recovering and rebuilding school facilities is a touchy one now, especially in areas that flooded. At stake in the life and death of these places is repopulation, first and foremost. The repopulation prospects in the Lakeview area are not good right now, judging from all the damage and the large numbers of "For Sale" signs I saw. Even in the flooded areas where just over half the population has returned, people there are not sure if they will be able to stay where they are : some revised plans of the Greater N.O. area have parkland sitting where people are trying to rebuild and recover. The wild card in these scenarios is that the quality of the public schools is now slowly improving as a result of their becoming charter schools. Eventually, they could give the private schools in the area that have benefited from the mess that was the N.O. public school system a real run for their money.

The next and last stop was the Industrial Canal breach and the Ninth Ward, the nastiest of them all. Nasty not necessarily because of the size of the breach or the amount of water loosed on the neighborhood, but because the conditions of the houses in the area were so bad to begin with. It is here that houses were completely and utterly wiped out. Those that were somewhat intact crashed into other houses, landed atop cars, and blocked the streets. Contrary to what I admit was my initial belief, there were a lot of cars left in these neighborhoods. A person had the means to get out of Dodge when the storm was coming, he just didn't do it until his vehicle was under tons of water and he was using an axe to chop his way out of his own roof. I'm really at a bit of a loss to explain why anyone would stay in a place like this, but among the reasons might be an unwillingness to deal with evacuation traffic, an uncertainty as to where one would evacuate to, the somewhat secure belief that yet another bullet would be dodged, that the storm would weaken or turn, and, in the end, the beckoning presence of facilities such as the Superdome as places to ride it out, where people had to bring their own food and provisions, but where a certain amount of faith in the idea that the city would take care of its own was ever present.

A large landlocked barge that dominated part of the landscape by the breach was also present in the neighborhood, the tallest thing around besides the levee and the nearby bridges. I saw a picture Justin took of the area, and right beside the barge is a dreadlocked artist with an easel, canvas, and paints at work on a landscape of the area. Well, the only other people there when I was there were people at the Common Ground house setting up in a home as a relief outpost, and a tour group in a small bus flanked by an Army Corps of Engineers escort. Since any recovery efforts or demolition in the area was being tied up in lawsuit red tape filed by former residents and activists, protesting that the city wasn't giving anyone advance notice before beginning its efforts, the Ninth Ward destruction was serving as a tourist site for all sorts who wanted to visit...including, sadly, myself. I had asked to see it, had expressed an interest. Be careful what you wish for.

As for my tour guide, Edie seemed to be well up to the task of showing everyone around to the breaches that she possibly could. I told her, after she showed another visiting friend around over a week after my visit, that she should present herself as a guide to the powers that be who are organizing the big Congressional tour in March. In some ways, Edie acted as a nurturer of pessimism and doom one minute, and then the next, she brought us on a merry ride to find Fats Domino's house, which we did. Graffiti on Fats' house attested to the worst imaginings of locals, who thought at first that the man was dead: a big "RIP Fats" was scrawled in spray paint on an outside wall. Thankfully he was found alive, lost a number of his gold records to looting or flooding or both, and was put up by a boyfriend of a relative, a football player at LSU who had Fats hole up on his couch for a while.

Edie told me that if her home had flooded, however, she wouldn't have returned. Her home sports some graffiti marks as well from National Guardsmen going from house to house to see if people were there. The big "X" to the left of her front door had the date of the visit on top, the number "0" to the right and the bottom indicating the numbers of people found in the house alive and dead, and the initials of the person who did the examination. The flood waters missed her home by just a block or two. Aside from some storm damage, and her generator being stolen from her garage, her home fared the whole thing pretty well.

I wish Edie herself was faring better, though. She returned to a job teaching at her former school, where she had once been an admissions administrator and teacher. The school is now being run as a charter organization, which means that the running of it has become more like a corporation - and it also means that the political infighting amongst administartors has actually become greater, since the number of schools has dwindled. Edie is close to retirement age anyway, so she quit last week. She hated to do it, but she couldn't deal with the politics.

As for my tour, I wish this city all the luck in the world, because it will need it. Those breaches opened my eyes - no pictures or films can do them justice. I have run across many who haven't seen these areas even though they have been back in the city for months. For most of the people I know, it isn't difficult to avoid those areas, but I feel strongly they need to see them and get some idea of what they are in for. Help out with the Katrina Krewe or a similar organization that organizes volunteers to help with the cleanup efforts, just to get some idea. Circumstances could have put any of us in those same situations as the folks trying to rebuild or clean up these areas. Just standing right in one of these spots is enough to show the enormity of what happened and to marvel that it really could have been worse. Everyone here has the chance to make a fresh start, and I hope we make the most of it.

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