Oh, where to begin? It's been a crazy few weeks, and I may be playing catch-up with my impressions for a while.
Suffice it to say that getting down here was no picnic. Events and lots of snow conspired to stop us from leaving at our appointed time on a JetBlue flight out of New York. Once the Port Authority quit holding us hostage, we took the airline's offer of a refund on our canceled flight, stayed with our now former landlords for the night, rented a car the next morning and were on our way. For Dan, it was his third time driving south in a little over a week. I ended up doing most of the driving, largely because I wanted to get there.
We stopped off at my granddaddy's house in Tennessee for the night that first day of driving. Wish we had had more time to stay there, especially since my grandparents haven't seen their great-grandson in a while, but we had to keep on. I was anxious to get there and a bit ticked that I wouldn't get to see the city in the light of day on our first approach in. I was feeling somewhat queasy that day and it felt better to be behind the wheel for some reason, so once again, I drove most of the way.
I began to get a preview of what was ahead when we approached Hattiesburg on I-59. There were clumps of downed trees right off the highway, and some clusters of trailers that were close by. I learned later that the hurricane's path had taken it nearly straight north into Mississippi, turning to the northeast just north of Hattiesburg. The storm was approximately a category 2 at that time, which meant that it still had the power to yank bunches of trees from the ground. The trailers have become a common sight around here as large numbers of people have snagged them from FEMA as a temporary stopgap while repairing their homes or for housing responders and cleanup crews.
Dusk was falling as we approached Slidell, Louisiana, which was hard hit. It was one busy place, despite the telltale signs of storm damage - large billboards ripped from their frames, houses minus roofs, or some rubble where there were houses. Driving across the I-1o "twin spans", the section of the interstate stretching between Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, was an experience in itself. Storm winds and surging waters had tossed sections of the spans off their moorings, and the temporary replacement sections carried signs warning drivers not to exceed a certain speed or else the replacements would be damaged. I could feel how flimsy they were just sitting in the car, and was glad when they had passed.
What came next horrified and scared me to no end.
The Jazzland theme park should have been showing up on our left as we approached Chalmette, but I could just barely make out the damaged sign in the darkness. The lights of New Orleans East should have beckoned to us shortly after that, but the only light came from the middle of the interstate. Occasional floodlights and the headlights of patrolling security vehicles shed some occasional light on acres of deserted apartment complexes, homes, and businesses damaged by the floods, all enclosed in barbed-wire fences. It was everything I could do not to drive off the "high-rise" bridge over the Industrial Canal, the waterway where the greater New Orleans area begins.
Driving into the Central Business District was better, but shocking in a different way. Lights shone on and in hotels, the Hibernia Bank Building, Entergy headquarters, but crucial buildings near I-10 : Charity Hospital, LSU and Tulane Medical Centers, the Superdome complex - all were shrouded in darkness. I had an added reason to get home: I needed to be around light, around people again. Little did I know how close these areas really were, how familiar, until my friend Edie showed me the very next day.
Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, described a people who decided to eliminate the middlemen in its society by placing them all on a giant spaceship and sending them away. Shortly after the people do so, however, a disease spread through telephones kills them all - all except the ones they sent away on the ship. If only they had kept the middlemen...
The storm most certainly sent a lot of those people away. What is now keeping them from returning is what kept them in squalor in the first place: the sense that they were inferior in so many ways that service and menial tasks were the only things they were fit to do. The recovery is occurring at a snail's pace, reinforcing this inferiority, and one of its hallmarks is what could well be called the Middleman's Revenge.
The Middleman's Revenge rests in fast food restaurants' inability to fill positions. It rests in the limited hours businesses are forced to maintain because there aren't enough people to work at the bars, the hotels, the restaurants - even the grocery stores and convenience stores. It rests in waiting in long lines to get even the smallest of errands done. It rests in infrequent trash pickups and limits on what one can receive in the mail - or whether or not one gets mail at all.
Ultimately, all of this is a further indictment of city institutions and how far they have fallen in providing for their citizens, no matter how rich or poor they were or what they did. People who had to evacuate and place their children in schools outside of Orleans parish noticed how much more their kids were learning. They noted how their overall quality of life got better outside of this area. Yes, there will always be a number of people who won't take advantage of those new opportunities. Fact of the matter is, though, many of those people saw this city as their home - and home should have had good schooling and a better quality of life all along.
I drove through New Orleans' heart of darkness that night. The heart of this city may be in the French Quarter, or Uptown, or tucked away in the bars and clubs, or even in the water that washed away so much. But what I drove through were conditions that were bad before the storm hit - and yet people had stayed. It took this storm to make them leave because they loved this place deep down, too. I believe that.
But what I also believe is that to sustain a beating heart, one must treat it right. This area, this state, this country must work to do that, because without these folks, New Orleans doesn't have a ghost of a chance of being reborn for everyone. In the past few weeks, I've learned that putting that kind of work into effect is way easier said than done, and I'll be writing about it for sure.
Off the soapbox. On to bed. 'Night all.
The above was entered into the Zero Boss' Blogging for Books contest in December 2006