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Dispatches from the Gulf Coast: Post-Katrina New Orleans

01 Jun

I REMEMBER WATCHING AN OLD EPISODE OF THE TWILIGHT ZONE late at night when I was a kid, where a man wakes up alone in the world. The city is still there- cars parked along streets, papers blowing in the wind- but there’s no sign of any other living person. I remember thinking how eerie that must have felt.

Last fall I was that man. Walking alone along a street with no name in the city that time forgot. A street paved with black sludge, littered with abandoned cars, fallen trees, and stairways leading to nowhere. It had been a full year since the flood waters receded, leaving piles of bricks and waterlogged timber. It might as well have been yesterday.

My wife stops the car and I get out to look around. As she drives on, I realize the the only detectable sound is the car’s engine. She’s just as interested as I am, but our baby is sleeping in the back seat, and from the looks, smells, and feel of this place, she is happy to explore the area behind the wheel of our air-conditioned rental car.

Stairway to nowhere, Lower Ninth Ward
House on truck, Lower Ninth Ward

We’re in the famed Ninth Ward- the New Orleans neighborhood that made a name for itself long before Hurricane Katrina. The region lies east of the French Quarter between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain, and is bisected by the Industrial Canal. Katrina made its second landfall in southeast Louisiana as a category 3 storm on August 29, 2005. The first levee breach at the Industrial Canal occurred at 9:00 am that morning, sending floodwaters spilling into this low-lying neighborhood. Another floodwall breach near North Johnson Street stripped houses from their foundations, leaving a wake of clamshell-speckled silt. The floodwall is rebuilt but the silt trail remains. I pick up a clamshell and put it in my pocket. This is where I begin my walk through the Lower Nine.

I pass a house whose exterior walls are gone but the interior ones still stand. There are children’s drawings and a portrait of Jesus hanging on one of the walls. I climb up a pile of rubble to get a closer look, but the boards break under my feet and I jump down as I start to fall through. Walking along the remains of Derbigny Street, I stop to look at a rusty child’s wagon and a bunch of cassette tapes scattered in what used to be somebody’s front yard. The silence is awkward and I am consumed with emotions that range from awe to sadness. Houses that still stand bare common marks- spray-painted symbols on the doors and holes in the roofs.

Signs scrawled out in marker or spray painted on any surface available reveal the desperation of a people trapped in their own neighborhoods, most with no food or water. That desperation lingers here still, long after the waters receded and the people disappeared.

I’ve never been here before, so there’s no way for me to realize what has been lost. And yet I feel a profound sense of loss as I survey endless miles of utter destruction.

I remember all the footage from last fall. I remember the Superdome, waves of desperate people making their way to higher ground, flooded streets, floating bodies. The storm came and went, and the nation watched as the levees broke and Crescent City drowned. Those who had boats or rafts gathered their loved ones and paddled toward the French Quarter. Some swam, some floated on mattresses. Those who couldn’t get out went up, first into their attics, then onto their roofs. Those that were rescued in the days following the flood were shipped en mass to places like Houston and Salt Lake City. Now the famous neighborhood with a very loud history is still, the silence broken only by cicada song and the occasional rumble of a National Guard Hummer.

This is my first trip to the Deep South. And it is one I won’t soon forget.

All photos by Bonneville Mariner

Dispatches from the Gulf Coast- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

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