Thursday, March 23, 2006

My trip to New Orleans

I went to New Orleans for part of my spring break, arriving late Saturday and leaving Wednesday afternoon. Here are some of my notes and thoughts. Later I'll upload some photos that my friend C took.

Sunday we toured the devastation, which is totally fucked. OK, it was Sunday, not a work day, but the only neighborhoods with any construction going on were the ones without much damage. Basically, where it didn't flood, people have enough insurance money to fix things. Where it did flood, not much is happening because not everyone had flood insurance, and the government flood insurance program (that they all dutifully paid their premiums to for decades) ran out of money and wasn’t able to send out checks from September to January. There are still huge piles of garbage on the streets, and C thinks the deadline for free FEMA hauling passed last week.

Even folks who did get their money aren't sure it makes sense to rebuild when the city still might bulldoze their houses and take their land. There was an initial orgy of "urban planning," resulting in decisions like "let's bulldoze this relatively prosperous neighborhood where people did have insurance and are back, because it's close to downtown and would make a nice park." Like it's just theirs to take. Current Mayor Nagin has now rejected those parts of the plans, but the current mayoral race* may change that.

Those are just the better-off neighborhoods that got 6 feet of water or less. We also took a drive through the lower 9th ward near the Industrial Canal break. The water came out of there with enough speed and force to snap live oaks with 6' diameter trunks and wrap cars around trees. The houses near the break aren't even piles of rubble--there's just a debris field studded with concrete steps leading up to the front porches that aren't there anymore. A little further from the canal break, there are houses washed into the road, houses on top of cars, cars on top of houses, cars on top of houses on top of cars, etc. They've just started bulldozing the houses that are in the streets, so a lot of folks, including folks from the neighborhood, were out taking pictures to document the devastation while it's still there. We talked to a Nicaraguan guy who was in Colombia at the time, but whose daughter lived about 3 blocks from the canal about 4 blocks over from the break. (Her house was still roughly where it used to be, but a neighbor's place was in her front yard. I said “You must have been so worried!” and he said “Eh, I’m from Nicaragua.”) Now she's living with him in his house and waiting for her FEMA trailer. His house took about a foot of water, but it didn't stand for long--just came in long enough to ruin the furniture, then washed back out, so he feels fortunate. The flooded areas smell like a mixture of mold, motor oil, and some kind of acrid stinging something.

The town is also overrun with jackass out of town building contractors in massive 4x4s, who drive like assholes. (I think they used to call these folks “carpetbaggers.”) Every corner in the flooded areas has about 10 signs for demolition, drywall, tree cutting, etc. People are being gouged, and the city doesn't have the money/staff/wherewithal to regulate these people at all, although they are letting them camp out in City Park. (This may be ending soon.) There's also a lot of tension between the locals and the Central American day laborers actually doing the work. There was some kind of big immigration raid on Lee Circle. This seems extremely counterproductive to me. C hopes that 20 years from now, people will reflect that Katrina brought the Central Americans and their delicious food, heretofore unavailable in New Orleans. There are already a lot of barbecue places opening to accommodate the Texans.

After our drive through the Lower Ninth Ward, we stopped by the Common Ground Collective sites in the Upper Ninth so C could drop off some propaganda for the women’s center. While there, we were recruited to do a store run for dinner, so we took their $40 (very trusting, these Common Ground kids) and brought them back 40 pounds of onions and a big can of olive oil. The guy running the kitchen seemed to be a former professional cook, and was having to train his volunteer helpers on basic things like: peel the onion before you cut it. The Common Ground operation has been cleaning and gutting houses in the Upper Ninth ward, among many other things. Their operation seems very professional—they provide training and personal protective equipment (respirators, Tyvek suits, etc.) for the volunteers, maintain a tight schedule, spray down the houses with anti-mold stuff before the crews go in, etc. They supposedly had about 1,000 volunteers down during these spring break weeks, and gutted up to 60 homes a day. They’re also doing a summer thing.

We finished our day by going to a wine shop in the Bywater, buying a bottle, and drinking it with an incredible middle eastern meal cooked out in the wine shop’s courtyard by the chef from Marisol, one of C’s favorite restaurants, now closed due to the storm. We sat next to a gorgeous pale pink night blooming trumpet plant, and it was lovely. Here at the end of this entry, I want to emphasize that New Orleans is still a great city to visit--a lot of great restaurants are open, and the parks and gardens are still really lovely, if a little windblown. And they need your tourist dollars. Other awesome meals I had include: po boys at Domilise's and [some place I can't remember right now], crawfish and shrimp from Big Fisherman on Magazine (I had to drive to pick these up, and I'm pleased to report that I successfully dodged all the Honda-Civic-sized pits in the street), and some delicious French pizza thing that I packed in my luggage and ate last night after I got home.

*The mayoral race is also potentially very messed up. The neighborhoods that escaped flooding were disproportionately white, so the city is now disproportionately white. Most of the difficult land use decisions are in neighborhoods that are disproportionately black, and the fear is that if all the dispersed residents aren’t able to vote (the deadline for registration was yesterday), those decisions will be made against their interests. Additionally, the city’s top elections official is a bit of a nutball. Now, everyone in New Orleans is fully aware of that and many, many people are working to contain the damage. I don’t want to contribute to the “wacky, corrupt New Orleans” stereotype here. It’s just unfortunate that she’s in charge of this particular election, is all.


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