A gothic-style home on Carondelet St., still standing but worse for wear.
A gothic-style home on Carondelet St., still standing but worse for wear. Jennie Westerman
Taking a buggy ride down Jackson Square.
Taking a buggy ride down Jackson Square. Jennie Westerman
Bourbon and Canal streets — once a tourist mecca, now a staging area for aid efforts.
Bourbon and Canal streets — once a tourist mecca, now a staging area for aid efforts. Jennie Westerman
Meager belongings left behind after victims seeking refuge at the Superbowl were relocated from a freeway overpass.
Meager belongings left behind after victims seeking refuge at the Superbowl were relocated from a freeway overpass. Jennie Westerman
Panes of glass stripped from the Galleria in nearby Metairie, evidence of the storm's violence.
Panes of glass stripped from the Galleria in nearby Metairie, evidence of the storm's violence. Jennie Westerman
I'm wearing bright green Mardi-Gras beads around my neck. I got them yesterday the way anyone did in better times — someone in the French Quarter was spreading joie de vivre and giving them away.
They do not feel inappropriate in the middle of a tragedy. They feel... normal. I've sported them before when I've come here for vacation, or for work. But today, they also feel larger-than-life, and very symbolic. As I went through New Orleans yesterday, whole sections felt much more normal than I — or anyone else around here — dared to hope for.
Of course, it certainly isn't normal here. There are some houses destroyed, and trees down, and power lines down, and debris everywhere. Even from the dry sections, you can look down some streets and see — and smell — standing water. There are National Guard troops with guns and Humvees and helicopters overhead. But through it all, I saw a familiar New Orleans.
Coming into town on the interstate, we looked south and saw the rising smoke and smelled the familiar stench of a chemical plant. From the bridge, the Mississippi River looked calm, and there were even a few barges. Sure, there was a gas station with a shotgun-toting owner, but some folks were getting gas there — for the surprisingly low price of $2.61 per gallon.
The view from the highway was of the familiar skyline of tall hotels towering over the river. From a distance, the windows were all intact — in fact, even up close, the vast majority of the windows were there. The first thought was: "New Orleans is still here."
In the historic Garden District and uptown, most of the streets were dry. In the median of one section of Napoleon Street, giant oak trees were on their sides, but the historic houses lining the boulevard were generally untouched. Many of the streets looked like any neighborhood after a severe thunderstorm or medium hurricane, trees and wires down but fixable. I saw laundry hanging from a balcony. The only thing missing was the traffic, and most of the people.
But on every street, there were people. Certainly not as many as usual — and no tourists. A group of three strolled with polka-dotted umbrellas to keep the sun off. An old woman walked down the center of a debris and leaf-strewn boulevard. People on bicycles rode through the streets, avoiding branches and looking at the scene. A guy hung out on his front step, drinking a beer and reading an outdated newspaper. Some folks came out to the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon to pick up water and food from a watchful police officer. He told me that the city was going to make everyone leave, but all he said to the civilians was "one case of water per household."
In the French Quarter, the trash-filled streets looked like an early morning scene on any day after a bout of reveling on Bourbon Street. I saw a moment of classic New Orleanian entrepreneurship and defiance: A horse drawn carriage, with customers, clopping down Jackson Square. I saw black and white people, of all ages, walking around their city.
Life is certainly not a bowl of gumbo. Most told me they were staying because they wanted to, but some had still not been able to get out and were waiting for rides. Of those staying, the reason they cited was that they were living OK, getting by with existing food and water (and the additional supplies being handed out) — and more importantly, because they couldn't imagine leaving their city.
I saw just a few places — the Gucci store, some bars, assorted food markets — that had been looted. But it did not match the image I had of what had happened. Beautiful and obviously wealthy homes were intact. I would have expected desperate people to have taken much more desperate action. Perhaps it was fear. Spray-painted on plywood boarding up one store: "I am Here. I have a gun." But I prefer to think the relative security of the place came from a sense of morality and community, and the possibility of a future.
But the tragedy should not overwhelm something that the people on the streets of New Orleans already clearly know: Much of the city we all treasure not only can and will be restored, but the path to restoration may not be the giant mountain that so many Americans fear.