New Orleans Tours Include Hurricane Ruin

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In New Orleans, there are signs of recovery in the 21 months since Hurricane Katrina struck the region. Homes are being rebuilt in flooded-out areas, business conventions are returning and tourists are trickling back to the French Quarter. One offshoot of the destruction is tours of the devastation to give people an idea of the scope of the ruin.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

New Orleans is a city of tours: cemetery tours, garden district tours, French Quarter tours, voodoo tours, and now Katrina tours. It's become a post-hurricane tradition. Everyone, it seems, has their own version of the disaster tour that they give to visiting friends, colleagues or relatives. They're so popular even commercial tour companies have gotten involved.

NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: Twenty-one months after Katrina, with hurricane season just around the corner, the numbers start to paint a picture of New Orleans on the rebound. Postal deliveries indicate the city's population has grown to 61 percent of its pre-storm size, 813 local restaurants have reopened, surpassing the number before the storm, including local landmarks like the Camellia Grill, Mandina's and Mr. B's. Home sales are up to what they were before the storm, about 940 a month.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BURNETT: In fact, everything feels normal on a tour of the French Quarter, offered by a company called Cajun Encounters.

Mr. BILLY LOBERTOS(ph) (Tour guide, Cajun Encounters): Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie just brought a three-storey mansion to my left on Governor Nicholls Street. Brad has been here the last year.

BURNETT: But then, tour guide Billy Lobertos steers the bus outward Lake Pontchartrain and the mood grows quieter. He stops at a worksite where earth-moving machines are patching the now infamous gash in the 17th Street canal.

Mr. LOBERTOS: Well, this has been breeched, folks. This is what you saw when the water poured in the city.

BURNETT: The passengers gawk. The bus drives on, past vacant houses with wildly overgrown shrubs and rescuer's symbols in orange spray paint still visible on porches.

Mr. LOBERTOS: It's getting better but still looks like a third world country.

BURNETT: The civic cliché that New Orleans after Katrina is a tale of two cities is truer than ever. The point of these tours is to show visitors both cities.

Mr. JAMES O'BYRNE (Features Editor, Times-Picayune Newspaper New Orleans): My name is James O'Byrne. I'm the features editor for The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans. I like to start my tours in Lakeview, because for people who've not been here, it's hard to believe. And yet, this was really in pretty good shape among the destroyed neighborhoods.

BURNETT: This is the lakeside neighborhood inundated by the breach in the 17th Street canal. The news here is somewhat encouraging. Developers believe Lakeview will come back. They've cleared lots for the construction of new raised homes. A scattering of residents has begun to rebuild. There spiffy new houses look like homesteads in the wilderness.

Mr. O'BYRNE: This is life in New Orleans in the destroyed zones, where you can live in a house that's been redone, but that doesn't mean you live in a neighborhood, because the houses around you are still blighted and empty and boarded or gutted to the studs.

BURNETT: O'Byrne stops his Honda Civic hybrid in front of a vacant lot at 6439 Louisville Street, where his family's one-storey cottage used to stand. He and his wife, a nurse, and their two children moved into a house uptown. They sold their drowned home in Lakeview to a developer who tore it down.

Mr. O'BYRNE: And it's bittersweet to sell your house. You're not selling it because you wanted to. And there's no kind of moving day where you get to pull the moving van up and take all of your possessions and belongings and memories and pack them into the van and move into another place where you can start building new memories. It's quite a bit different from that when you're selling a ruined hulk kind of through force.

BURNETT: O'Byrne gives this tour about twice a month, but he says it never gets any easier. Like other New Orleaneans, he's trying to move on with his life beyond August 29, 2005. But the tour throws him back into that grey realm of destruction, reminds him that his city remains crippled. He and others give these tours out a sense of mission, because people invariably don't realize how vast the damage still is.

Mr. O'BYRNE: I think that's really what the disaster tour, the misery tour as we call it, is designed to accomplish, just give people an idea of scope.

BURNETT: Another day, another tour.

Ms. DIANA PINKLY(ph) (Executive Committee, Women of the Storm): I'm Diana Pinkly. I'm a member of Women of the Storm's executive committee. And this is a tour of disaster and hope, which we give members of Congress and other the people who come to the city.

BURNETT: She turns her silver SUV into Pontchartrain Park, a middle class black community that was submerged in the storm waters. Unlike Lakeview, it is not rebounding. The presence of a few FEMA trailers in driveways indicates that some residents plan to rebuild, but the vast majority of the once tidy, single-family homes have been left to molder in the subtropical sun.

When you give this tour, what does it do to you?

Ms. PINKLY: Coming to Pontchartrain Park is very depressing and very sad. It almost always makes me sad when I give this tour. But we're getting ready to go into the part of the city that is more lively, that is more together. Even as we cross the street, I see a Broadmoor Lives sign. They're on telephone and light poles all the way down the street, and it's a neighborhood that has dragged itself back by its fingernails.

BURNETT: The streets of Broadmoor are busy with restoration crews - house gutters, sheet rockers and carpenters. When the storm hit, these residents, like those in Lakeview, had more financial resources, so more of them can rebuild.

Ms. PINKLY: People are restoring their houses. They are restoring neighborhood services. Right now, they are working to rebuild a library around the corner. They're becoming even more of a community than they were before, because now they all know each other. They have all worked together.

BURNETT: Our last tour heads toward the Mississippi River. The streets imperceptibly climb in elevation to the highest part of the city.

Ms. MARY BETH ROMIG (Director of Public Relations and Communications, New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau): They call the area of the city that wasn't flooded the Sliver on the River. After the hurricane, it was the Sliver on the River where people were able to come back to.

BURNETT: The Sliver on the River, a mile-wide band that hugs the Mississippi, is now the lifeblood of New Orleans. Here you'll find the historic houses, most of the nightclubs and restaurants, supermarkets and home supply centers.

Ms. ROMIG: I'm Mary Beth Romig, director of public relations and communications for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a lifelong New Orleanean.

BURNETT: Though Romig's job is to attract people to the city, she does not whitewash her tour. We visit the devastated Lower Ninth, and Lakeview, where her family also lost its home. But she insists that's only part of the story. The media's ugly little secret, if it bleeds it leads, has been bedeviling Romig. She says some conventions continue to pass her city by.

Ms. ROMIG: Some calls that we get at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, people still think that the city is devastated because the media keep showing archival footage of the city right after the storm. It's sexier, if you will, to show a damaged house as opposed to this area of the city that's beautiful. So there's a lot of misperception out there about the condition of the city is in.

BURNETT: There's a palpable sense of relief when she turns her champagne-colored Toyota 4Runner onto St. Charles Avenue. We glide between old money mansions below a canopy of live oaks.

Ms. ROMIG: Uptown right now in the spring of '07 is as beautiful as it has been always. Azaleas are blooming. We can see everybody's front yards are lush and green. It's just spectacular.

BURNETT: There's another clever nickname for this sliver of picturesque New Orleans: the isle of denial. One indignant uptown matron disagrees. She says, no one anywhere in the city can deny what we're living through.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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