Dark Days In Evacuated New Orleans

Robert Siegel talks to New Orleans resident George Schmidt. Schmidt made it to Monroe, La., before Katrina hit. From a friend's house there, he says he has been watching images of flooding and looting in the city where he is an artist, a gallery owner, a singer and a banjo player.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

George Schmidt is another refugee and native of New Orleans. He got out to Monroe, Louisiana, before Katrina hit. From a friend's house there he says he's been watching images of flooding and looting in his city, a city where he is an artist, a gallery owner, a singer, banjo player and co-founder of the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra.

Mr. GEORGE SCHMIDT (New Orleans Resident): We were actually going to stay, and there were a lot of people around there that were going to stay. And they--you know, they suddenly said it was really a terrible storm and it was going to be--turn into a 3 and then into a 4 and then into a 5. And then I thought, `Oh, my God.' I mean, 'cause I've ridden Betsy out back in the '60s and--but when they said 5, I thought that is really the Apocalypse. So--in fact we--I boarded up the gallery. Thank God there were some workmen across the street that we could do--you know, they helped me out with it. And we drove for miles and miles and miles through total darkness. So this whole trip is like--it was like phantasmagoria. It was like one sort of--one thing after the next, you know.

And now we've been here for three days and we watch the TV and it's all--it's--you know, we're glued to the tube because to, you know, see all the horror of the event and it's real--I mean, it's totally disorienting. I mean, Canal Street--to watch Canal Street with the looting, it's just...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. SCHMIDT: ...spectacular.

SIEGEL: Tell me a little bit about--tell me a little bit about the ethos of this city and in what ways it's passing and in what ways it's flunking the test that it's been dealt this week.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Well, you know, it's gonna--it's--I was telling this friend of mine, I said, `This is our San Francisco earthquake.' And, you know, it's not so much how people respond in the middle of it but it's how they respond after it. And I think there's going to have to be a kind of comeuppance--so what do you call it--it's like a realization that the--it's not enough for the city of New Orleans to exist, it has to respond a little bit better to its place, you know.

Now in terms of, like, the citizenry I don't know. I mean, there's not much you can do about that. I mean, if somebody's dying of thirst, I mean, break into a store to get the water, you know, but...

SIEGEL: But not the television sets.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Yeah, don't take the TVs. You can't eat a TV, you know.

SIEGEL: But, as you point out, New Orleans is not the most buttoned-up city in the country.

Mr. SCHMIDT: No, it's wild and wooly. Are you kidding? It's nervous. It's--it likes to have a good time. Then all of a sudden it come--it's a manic-depressive city. You know, it's either all the way up or it's all the way down. It's like its economy. You know, it's not a typical American town. It's very Mediterranean. You know, it's very excitable.

SIEGEL: Do you get the sense that, you know, there's been a grave injury of hundreds, perhaps thousands even, killed by this. But, you know, buildings destroyed by it, flooding. But, you know, the injury will heal. The scabs will come off eventually and the city will...

Mr. SCHMIDT: Well, San Francisco and...

SIEGEL: ...bounce back and be there or...

Mr. SCHMIDT: ...Chicago after its fire in the 1870s, that's still there, you know. People--cities are tough. I don't know about suburbs, sir, but I think cities will survive. The suburbs won't. I'm not saying the suburbs of New Orleans won't, but, I mean, there's a sense about people who live in cities as opposed to those who live in the--you know, it's like the country mouse and the city mouse.

SIEGEL: You think it's more provisional out there in the suburbs?

Mr. SCHMIDT: Yes, it's all provisional, exactly. It's a little bit softer. It's--you know, I mean, New Orleans has received an enormous wound in its side. I mean, in its 300-year history this is the worst thing that's ever happened. Maybe--well, there was a big fire back in the 1790s--two of them in the 1790s--but this is like a huge gouge out of its substance. It ain't gonna be the same New Orleans after this. What I'm saying, it won't be the same--it'll be the same New Orleans. I often say this to people--I tell the tourists that come in my gallery--I say I'm an artist that's working in the capital of a city that never came into existence.

SIEGEL: (Laughs)

Mr. SCHMIDT: Right, you see what I mean?

SIEGEL: I see. The state of mind will return, you say.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Yes, exactly.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Schmidt, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: That's George Schmidt, who is an artist, gallery owner and also a co-founder of the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra of New Orleans.

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