My favorite aunt, my mother's sister, is driving north on Elysian Fields as I sit in the passenger's seat staring through the window in disbelief at the doomed neighborhood of Gentilly, in eastern New Orleans. House after house is damaged and unoccupied, thick yellowish water lines visible four to five feet high.
We are driving to Anshei Sfard Jewish Cemetery, where my grandparents and great-grandparents on my father's side are buried. As anyone who has been to New Orleans knows, water lies six feet under, so the burial mounds are dug as deeply as possible and then a plot is raised and secured by stone. Damage to several graveyards was reported after the storm, and as the first person on my father's side to visit the cemetery, I am hoping for the best. Miraculously, only the oldest, thinnest stones were tipped over. If only the living had fared so well. As I walk around the graveyard placing rocks on the headstones of my relatives (a Jewish custom), the humid air turns to a rain that lasts for perhaps two hours. “It's only rained twice since the hurricane,” my aunt says. That's how they measure time in New Orleans—pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.
Those who believe that the tragedy of New Orleans was an orchestrated attempt to rid the city of its poor have not seen the damage with their own eyes. Multimillion-dollar homes in Lakeview were destroyed by the 17th Street Canal breach as indiscriminately as the poorer and more publicized Ninth Ward. All over New Orleans houses sit uninhabited, the lawns and the trees a sickly grayish-brown, the result of spending weeks inundated by salt water.
The scope of the New Orleans tragedy is incomprehensible. Vacant and haunted, the empty houses line street after street, their innards—carpeting, appliances, drywall, rotted family treasures—vomited onto the curbsides. As my cousin (a weather anchor for a New Orleans TV network) drives us to the 17th Street Canal breach, there is a funky smell in the air, and he warns us to keep the windows rolled up. He cannot guarantee the air is safe to breathe. As a visitor, I need to keep reminding myself that the levees did not break two weeks ago. Four months after the storm, the rebuilding of New Orleans is still an intellectual debate. The city needs to be cleaned up before the rebuilding can commence, but even so, no visionary master plan for the newer, smaller New Orleans has yet emerged.
The city that housed 465,000 residents pre-Katrina is now 80-percent empty, according to some estimates, and Time magazine has estimated that only 60,000 people actually sleep in the city every night. But those numbers are deceiving. Many people that once lived in the city are taking refuge with friends or relatives nearby, and those lucky enough to still have jobs are commuting to New Orleans every day. Traffic to and from the city is unbearable, but once inside the city, the roads are surprisingly empty.
So phase one of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is over. The water has long since receded, and New Orleanians that have survived the evacuation, the flood and the repopulation of the city are tired. They've lived through things that the news will never report, and every survivor's story is crazier than the last. They don't want to talk about the hurricane anymore. They want action, they want money and they want help.
My traveling buddy Lee has a friend, Ann, who lives in the Bywater neighborhood, technically a part of the Upper Ninth Ward. Ann and her sister, who pre-Katrina used to run a mask shop in the French Quarter, evacuated and returned to find their roof and much of the second floor of their house damaged, but never once entertained the thought of leaving the city they love. They had to close the mask shop because the rent was to be doubled, and now spend their days on the phone trying to hold together the threads of their life and their business. The nights are devoted to friends and to drumming up ticket sales for a Twelfth Night party at the House of Blues. By bringing musicians like their good friend Al Johnson back from Houston, Ann and her sister are doing everything in their power to keep New Orleans rocking. If in the next few years the New Orleans music scene really gets back on its feet, you'll have Ann, her sister, and others like them to thank.
They are doing all of this under extreme duress. Four months after the storm, the Red Cross still comes to the Bywater every day, ringing its lunchtime siren. One afternoon, Ann was too tired, so she sent me out to fetch the lunches—a Styrofoam container filled with a barbecued beef Sloppy Joe on a bun, a bag of Lay's potato chips, two Grandma's oatmeal raisin cookies, a small can of Del Monte mixed fruit and a bottle of water. The few people who remain in the neighborhood stagger to the truck like zombies and are given daily rations. I walk up to the truck and say “three.” A very nice volunteer with a yellow shirt and a white beard with compassion in his eyes asks me how I am doing. I tell him I am OK—I don't live here.
But for those who do, the new year poses major problems which the remaining residents of New Orleans cannot be expected to deal with on their own. Many believe (with much evidence) that the city was destroyed not by Katrina but by the incompetence and neglect of the Army Corps of Engineers, who built the levees and canals under faulty assumptions about the subterranean soil strengths. Many New Orleanians are rightly concerned that the levee system will not be ready for the 2006 hurricane season.
“The last time two Category Five hurricanes struck was in 1960,” Ann says, “and the following year there were two more Category Fives.” Even Mayor Ray Nagin admits that New Orleans is not prepared for another Category 5 hurricane—Katrina was technically a Category 4 when it struck last Aug. 29.
Even if the Army Corps of Engineers defies its own history and rebuilds the levees bigger and better for 2006, the actual infrastructure of the city does not look like it will be rebuilt anytime soon. Presently, there are 1,632 FEMA trailers set up in the city of New Orleans. If you were a homeowner lucky enough to lose your house but not your electric and water hookups, FEMA will allow you to live on your property in a trailer. If you lost everything or you rented rather than owned a home, most likely you are waiting on one of the 17,777 trailers FEMA says it is still waiting to deliver. Several different sites have been proposed for “trailer villages,” but most have been met with serious political opposition from neighborhood groups and elected officials.
New Orleans is gripped by a toxic sadness. Pharmacies have been running out of antidepressants and other prescription drugs because the post-Katrina demand has been so high. Those who remain have been irrevocably altered, living a shadow existence in a hollowed-out city with a changing racial demographic. The exodus of a substantial segment of the city's black (and white) population in Katrina's wake left a vacuum quickly being filled by an influx of Mexican laborers in search of high-paying construction jobs. New Year's Eve in the French Quarter just didn't feel like the old New Orleans. The Quarter was open, but military police and Hummers lined Jackson Square, tourists outnumbered locals and fireworks were banned in the city due to concerns that the blue FEMA tarp roofs were a fire hazard. Most of the locals stayed home, glad that 2005 was finally over.
A bright spot in all this is the local media in south Louisiana, which needs to be commended for its diligence. Television, radio and print media, particularly the New Orleans Times-Picayune (www.nola.com) and the Baton Rouge Advocate (www.2theadvocate.com), are doing a remarkable job covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from every angle. The depth and thoroughness of the reporting stands in direct contrast to the attitude of much of America's mainstream media, who were on the scene for the destruction, but virtually absent in its aftermath. A strange media bubble exists around the Gulf region. On the inside you hear nothing but news about Katrina and the rebuilding; on the outside you hear almost nothing at all.
The best gift we in New Mexico could give to the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina is our awareness. New Orleanians, and all those east of the city, face primitive living conditions and a long, hard road to normalcy. Electricity is still out in parts of New Orleans, but St. Bernard Parish just east of the city makes New Orleans look like prime real estate. People in Mississippi are living in tents and trailers, knocked a century backward by Katrina's tidal surges. At least they have homes, if only in theory. On Feb. 7, FEMA is scheduled to stop paying for evacuees' hotel rooms, and then another phase of the post-Katrina saga will begin.
But if the essence of New Orleans is its people, the city has a bright future. One of my cousins moved back home to New Orleans post-Katrina after 18 years in New York, and he looks at the city in terms of the ground-level opportunities it presents as a city in transition. My aunt is just grateful to have a home to fill. My family's Chanukah celebration was full of love, and of course presents to fill the void everybody in New Orleans so intensely feels. But of all the gifts given, the most poignant were the simple T-shirts adorned with the fleur-de-lis, New Orleans' symbol of eternal hope, and two words in lowercase letters—“save nola.”