Saturday, August 28, 2010

New Orleans, Five Years Post-Katrina

I moved to New York City two weeks before 9/11. I moved to Madrid two months before 3/11. I did not experience Hurricane Katrina first-hand, however I had been in New Orleans for the first time mere days before the city drowned, and had planned on moving down there two weeks after my visit, having no idea the destruction that was brewing in the Gulf. It was August, 2005 and I had just returned from a three-week cross-country roadtrip with my best friend, Shawna, after graduating from college in May. My dad offered to take me with him to New Orleans, since I still didn't have a job lined up and I jumped at the chance.
While my dad spent four days holed up in an air-conditioned basement of our hotel for work-related conferences, I spent my time getting acquainted with my surroundings, enjoying my solo exploration of a city I fell in love with instantly. A few activities involved hanging out with strangers. I went on a plantation tour and a swamp tour. The rest of the time I did a lot of wandering, listening and reflecting. I even found a photo studio that had a "Help Wanted" sign in the window. I took one of their business cards and silently vowed to myself that if I did not find a job within two weeks of returning to Chicago, I was going to pack my belongings and move down to N.O.L.A. to start a new life. Instead, I spent the next two weeks horrified by the media coverage of that same city drowning, my heart breaking once again for everyone in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Here are bullet notes, thoughts and even a few poems from the little blue notebook I carried with me everywhere I went for four years, as well as a handful of photos I took (although most of them are somewhere at my parents' house).

New Orleans

-lady @ shuttle desk said "You're such a pretty young lady."
Dad said, "She's my wife."
"Well she's still a pretty young lady."
"I'm his daughter," I said, more annoyed than I should have been.

-met Dad's work friends, Gary & Ernie

-Redfish for late dinner, local beer: Albita Red

-walked down Bourbon Street
--crazy even on a Sunday night
--"Huge Ass Beers To Go" sign
--old man stumbled over, said he was "alone too" & offered to buy me a HURRICANE


Right now I am sitting on the Canal Street ferry which goes from mainland New Orleans to Algiers, across the Mississippi River. It is only noon, which means I’ve only been walking around for two hours. But I am worn out. My mom wasn’t kidding when she said it was a “great city but too hot.” I’m glad I didn’t bother taking a shower this morning. This air-conditioned deck is a relief although I have yet to find any water. I walked down Bourbon Street—what a difference from last night—till I found St. Ann Street, which I then continued on to find the visitor’s center. I then sat in the park with a statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse, faced the cathedral and looked through all the maps and guides. The signs look like those on Spanish streets. I saw the famous Café Dumond across the street and walked through their outdoor seating area. Although the café au lait sounded really good, I knew it would just make me more dehydrated. And the donut things only came in threes. Instead, I strolled along the lazy Mississippi. A man, who appeared to have eyes in the back of his head pressed play on a tape player and slowly turned towards me and began playing along with his saxophone. Further along a man sat playing “Amazing Grace” on his harmonica. Watched a steamboat take off. Walked past the aquarium entrance. Eventually happened upon the ferry... Algiers was pretty empty. I really liked the neighborhood. A few seemingly abandoned houses I almost trespassed into. Maybe if my sister was here... Dad called while I was boarding the ferry to go back to the mainland. He made reservations for me to go on a 9-hour tour tomorrow of two plantations and the swamp. On the ferry a kid about ten years old was asking me about my camera. I called Abbi—she had just picked up her wedding dress. I desperately needed water. Instead, I got a 32 oz. lemon shake-up from a street cart. It was supposed to be $4. I paid with a 5 intending on leaving the extra dollar as a tip, but he never gave me change, so I just left. Finished it in less than two minutes. Stopped to see the fountain of Plaza España (also on the riverwalk I found a Holocaust memorial). It had plaques surrounding it with the names of all the Spanish cites. A bunch of funny southern ladies asked me to take their picture so I had them take one of me too. They were joking about posing with me since I was alone. I planned to take the streetcar uptown to the Garden District, but it turned out the stop was on St. Charles, right by the hotel (Intercontinental). So I took a break and had a po’ booy with 3 cheeses at the place right across the street—Serio’s. There, I met “Justcallme Skillet,” who has never traveled further than Pensacola, which he attributed to having 11 sisters and 3 brothers. I sprinkled hot sauce on the po’ boy, which was very tasty. Then I decided to stop back at our room to use the bathroom. Clearly my dad had been back because there was a lined up pile of papers on the edge of the bed—papers I had left in a disorganized pile in the middle of the bed that morning. I took about a 20 min. break in the quiet and cool of the room, laid on the bed reading about the different historic buildings in the Garden District. I had to motivate myself to continue my explorations because I felt so comfortable lying there. But I got up and went back into the sauna. There was a street car stop right across the street on the corner. $1.25 one way. I don’t think I’d ever been on one of those before. I liked it cause the windows were open and really, in the shade with the breeze, the temperature wasn’t bad. Plus, there was hardly anyone on it. It was nice to sit down. I accidentally got off a few stops past my intention, so I walked down to Washington Street, where I turned and walked a block to Cemetery 1. At first I dead-ended at a brick wall with a sign that said the cemetery closed at 2:30 p.m. daily. I immediately got really mad at myself, noting that had I not taken the break in the hotel room, I would have made it there in time to at least sneak in. It was just about 3. But I followed the wall around the corner and found the main entrance, which to my pleasant surprise was still open. There was a couple on their way out. Other than that I appeared to be the only one disobeying the posted times. I slowly maneuvered my way through the tombs, some times tripping over sticks, other times jumping at the slightest sound of rustling leaves. I read a few of the engravings as I passed, marveling at their antiquity, admiring the old-fashioned names. There was one tomb missing a door with a platform inside dividing the space in half horizontally as though someone had robbed two bodies from the same tomb.

(extra bullet note: intergraph happy hour, looking for typical Cajun fare, sales guy from dad’s Intergraph days took us out, sat at two tables, talked about his love of airplanes and how he grew up in a log cabin...)

[a self-portrait I took while waiting for my dad to go to dinner. later that night we went to a hookah bar to hear a Nina Simona tribute I had read about in the local news.]

Hookah Haiku

The fishtank's glowing
I wish I could swim like that
Drum beats the water

I want to smoke hoo-
kah with my dad but I think
He might be sleeping


This is the last picture I took. I was in the hotel lobby waiting to head to the airport and couldn't resist documenting this man having a staring contest with a larger-than-life fish.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

I am watching a rerun of this morning’s Oprah episode. She broadcast live from the Houston Astrodome, where there are thousands of gulf coast evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. It’s taken me over a week to write about this national catastrophe. I am still in shock. I returned from New Orleans on August 24. Four days later the hurricane slammed into the gulf coast—worst hit: Biloxi, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana. When I asked my dad if I could tag along on his business trip to New Orleans, it was sort of last minute and I just had always wanted to explore that city…for the history, for the music, for the environment…and I got to do just that. I took a self-guided walking tour of the historic French Quarter, I took a bus tour outside the city to see the Oak Alley and Evergreen plantations and then went on a swamp tour to see alligators, and even saw a Nina Simone tribute at a hookah bar. All of that is underwater now. Who knows what came of those people. What about Skillet, the charismatic man I met while having lunch at Serio’s across from the hotel? What about his 14 siblings? He said he had never been further than Pensacola. And what about the cat I came across in the cemetery? The only other living thing besides myself. And I can’t remember its name, only that it was female and started with an “M” and it matched the overall gray-ness of the tombs. For some reason this detail is bothering me.
One of Oprah’s correspondents was a surgeon and the footage he showed was so disturbing, I don’t know how anyone could watch that and not be upset. Not only upset, but embarrassed. How can our country have the audacity to continue sending our entire military overseas to fight in an unnecessary war when the worst disaster ever has hit our own land? The surgeon covered dead bodies—the first of a man who had been shot and left in the middle of the street, which he then surrounded by foldable chairs so that his body wouldn’t be run over. And the second of a woman who had died on the side of the interstate, using some white cloth.
Then there is the Louis Armstrong International Airport, that which I was just in mere days before this all happened. It’s morphed into an impromptu hospital, complete with tents and cots and even a morgue. Those who can’t be saved are put in the morgue so they can “die peacefully.”
And what about the animals? They showed people who had saved their pets on rescue boats but those same people weren’t allowed to bring those beloved animals on the buses. So they showed a bunch of abandoned dogs, then this man who claimed he was saved by the 24-year-old boy sitting next to him and his dog, which he’s had for 14 years, and the boy’s sitting there hysterical because he can’t take the dog with him. Nate, another one of Oprah’s correspondents (who survived the tsunami last year), embraced the boy and told him he was taking Rafiki (the dog) and two other dogs he’d met with him back to a private residence in Baton Rouge, and they would be reunited the following day.
The city is starting to drain, but the country holds its breath as the death toll is buried beneath the toxic remains. Many fear it will be in the 10,000 range. Unbelievable.
I can’t just sit here and watch this. All I want to do is go help people. I don’t know how to get down there, but I heard on the news tonight that Chicago has welcomed some people into our city from the south…I need to figure out where I can help around here before I am overcome with tears and guilt.

8.29.10, 5 years later

Last night I sat staring at Brian Williams on the T.V. He was recalling his experience covering the wreckage in New Orleans five years ago. I cried through the entire broadcast. I cried remembering how all I did was cry every time I turned on the T.V. five years ago. I cried at the images: both heroic and despicable. I cried for all the homeless dogs they showed paddling around in the flood waters looking for their owners. I cried for our ex-President's lack of help. "I was listening to the local radio in New Orleans. The president of the United States was visiting and he was on the ground and holding a press availability. And I remember the local radio anchor saying, 'We're not going to carry it because there is nothing he has to say that will help us,'" Williams recalled. I cried because our country has now spent TRILLIONS of dollars on a war overseas where people on all sides are being killed left and right, and here, in our own country, we couldn't put that money and relentless "effort" towards people in need. It's appallingly sad.