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Dispatches from the Gulf Coast: First Night in NOLA and Slidell Cemeteries

26 Jun

A boardwalk on the banks of the West Pearl River near Slidell, LA
This is part 3 of my series on the Gulf Coast. Scroll
down or click here for part 1, here for part 2.

I FOLLOWED THE NEWS CLOSELY WHEN NEW ORLEANS FLOODED, but was still relatively clueless when we arrived. I expected to walk off the jetway into a flood-ravaged terminal with visible water lines on the walls. I was anxious to see what this place was really like. Getting there, however, was no short trip. Our flight was set to leave Salt Lake City early in the morning, getting us into New Orleans early in the afternoon after a short layover in Denver. We planned on picking up a rental car and spending the evening in New Orleans before making our way to Pensacola. But a ten-minute delay on the tarmac in Salt Lake made us miss our Denver connection and the next available flight into New Orleans was much later in the evening. It was 9 AM in Denver and we were already frazzled.

When we finally made it through the line at the United customer service counter, we begged them to somehow get us on an earlier flight. “Sorry,” the United rep told us, “That’s the only flight. Not a lot of people flying to New Orleans these days.”

10 hours later we walked up a jetway into a nearly empty Louis Armstrong International Airport. A lonely jazz tune piped through its vacant terminals, echoing off the bare walls. This airport looks straight out of the 1980’s. The seats, the TV’s, the cigarette smoke-saturated carpet- I could have sworn I was walking through the set of the 1980 movie “Airplane.” Not that I minded. I used to spend hours as a kid running through Salt Lake City International back in the days when, if you were nice enough to the gate agent, she’d let you tour the plane and give you a pair of pin-on wings. I miss those days, and Armstrong International’s retro look reminded me of simpler times.

My first meeting with a true New Orleanian set the tone for the rest of our trip. With all the flight changes our luggage had not yet arrived, so we waited our turn at the customer service desk, where we greeted by a burly man in a white t-shirt waiting in line in front of us. Talking to him was like talking to an old buddy and we shot the breeze for a good while. He was a luggage courier who was waiting for his next run. He seemed to take an interest in the baby on my back. “My wife just had a baby,” he said in a noticeably sad tone that made me hesitant to ask about it.

I didn’t have to. He opened up to us like an old friend and explained that their baby had died shortly after her birth, cause unknown. That was two days before. Suddenly my flight woes didn’t seem so bad, and even after a frustrating day, I didn’t mind waiting in that line.

In the months prior to our trip I read everything I could find about driving the Gulf Coast. Of all the pieces on Katrina I read, one BBC article caught my eye. It was an account written by freelance writer Rhonda Buie from Slidell, a town just east of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain. Ms. Buie recounts her first trip back to the Slidell area post-Katrina through a combination of prose and video clips. What struck me most was that it was different than the New Orleans stories. With Katrina coverage decidedly concentrated on flooded New Orleans, those of us who relied on cable news and the national press hardly knew the rest of the Gulf Coast existed. Buie’s narration of her drive through a region less-known to us westerners really resonated with me.

I contacted Ms. Buie and asked her to give me some tips on visiting the area. We talked for a long time about the South and Katrina, and by the time our conversation ended I had made a good friend. Rhonda’s parents’ home was badly damaged by the hurricane and they had spent the entire year rebuilding. I re-watched her video clips to prepare myself for the trip.

“There’s people coming down to look at everything…they just come to look and then leave and probably never think about it again. For some people from out of state I guess this would be some kind of strange monstrosity to look at. But when you realize it’s not just Slidell; it’s not just Bay St. Louis; it’s not just Picayune, Mississippi; it’s not just New Orleans…This is what our part of the country looks like right now.”

This chimney is all that remains of this Slidell home.

It wasn’t a monstrosity, but it was strange on several levels. When I walked out of our Kenner motel room that first morning, the suffocating humidity reminded me I wasn’t in Salt Lake any more. It had been a hard night. Having arrived in New Orleans late in the evening we were forced to settle on a motel that looked a lot like one of those “after” pictures in a pre versus post Katrina comparison. We normally travel cheap (we have four kids), and usually prefer lower-end motels anyway. But this one took the cake. Maybe it was the blackened carpet or the semen-stained love seat, or my sneaking suspicion that this motel served as the local brothel. I don’t know. It was here that I made my first ignorant tourist statement to the night clerk, a perky young woman that seemed rather amused by my naivety:

“So how goes the Katrina cleanup here?”

“Sir, this area didn’t have any hurricane damage. This is what we look like all the time.”

Oops.

She didn’t seem to take offense, but I was embarrassed, which only made me more cantankerous.

See, United had promised to deliver our luggage within a few hours after our arrival in New Orleans, but I spent the entire night waiting for them to deliver it. No fresh clothes, no toothbrush, no deodorant, no bottle for the restless baby. The motel didn’t provide soap (the lobby did sell various soaps labeled with the names of other nearby hotels). The baby eventually fell asleep and I walked over to the lobby so my wife could rest as well. I’ve never seen so many Halloween decorations in my life. The place was adorned with every cheesy dollar store decoration one can imagine. Somebody at this fine establishment was a very big fan of Halloween. A stack of job applications laid next to a help wanted sign, and I took the opportunity to fill one out for my brother, because that’s what brothers are for.

Still feeling stupid from my earlier goof, I tried to redeem myself with the night clerk by chatting with her between rage-filled phone calls to United’s staff in New Delhi. She would be getting off at 5:00, but she offered to wait around for our luggage because another clerk wouldn’t be in until later that morning. When our luggage finally arrived at 10 am, we drove right through New Orleans and headed toward Slidell. Honestly, I made no memorable observation between Kenner and Slidell. I did get a phone call from United, though. Somehow my complaints made their way back to the States. They gave me a $25 gift certificate for my troubles. How thoughtful of them.

Old Town Slidell, LA


ALWAYS LOW PRICES!

Once in Slidell, we needed to regroup- and that meant we needed to find a Wal-Mart. Say what you want about Wal-Mart, but when you’re there, you’re home. There’s something comforting about that big open space, the down-home elderly door greeter, and aisles virtually indistinguishable from those at home. We had counted on finding a wireless network somewhere so I could use my laptop to get our bearings. But the motel we stayed in barely had electricity, let alone an Internet connection. I called Rhonda and asked her to guide us to a Wal-Mart, where we stocked up on water, maps, diapers, and snacks.

After the night we had, those yellow smiley faces were indeed a welcome sight. I think a person could almost live at Wal-Mart. I once read a story about a kid who actually did for a while. For a high school class experiment, he set out to see if Wal-Mart could provide all living essentials. He spent spring break at his local supercenter, dining on McDonald’s fries and sleeping on patio furniture in the garden center.

We had no need to stay that long. After all, this was the first official day of our great Gulf Coast adventure. With some directions from Rhonda, we drove to two cemeteries along Highway 190. As we pulled into the drive I got my first taste of Katrina’s wrath. For an outsider, seeing Louisiana’s above-ground tombs for the first time is shocking enough. But these particular tombs were not only above ground- they were cracked open, tipped over, and scattered. I hopped out of the car in my shorts and flip-flops and was immediately assaulted by an army of biting ants.

I should take a moment to mention that bugs love me- especially southern bugs. I don’t know what it is about me that appeals so much to them. But I can hardly take a step outside before I’m eaten alive by something. It’s almost like the little fiends just wait for me to walk out a door. As the ants began tearing into my right foot, I scrambled back to the car to scrape them off and put on socks and shoes before setting out again into the heavily-wooded graveyards.

CITIES OF THE DEAD

Much of New Orleans lies one to ten feet below sea level and the Slidell area isn’t much higher. The high water table in this region is the main reason for the above-ground cemeteries, which are often referred to as “cities of the dead.” Early settlers found themselves in a macabre dilemma when it came to burials. They had to dig shallow graves because of the high water table, which would rise after rainstorms and pop the airtight coffins out of the ground. Bodies floating around after rainstorms was a common occurrence. When weighing coffins with heavy rocks and boring holes in the caskets failed to keep the deceased at rest, above-ground tombs were the solution. Southern Louisiana cemeteries are like mini cities- little Main Streets lined with sun-bleached facades in various stages of decay. It’s an almost overwhelming scene. Grandiose New Orleans cemeteries are the stuff of legend, but these two Slidell graveyards were small and humble. No doubt this was a very peaceful place until just over a year ago.

Now it looked like something out of a horror movie. This entire area flooded during Katrina. A good portion of Slidell was literally washed away. The floods respected nobody- not even the dead. Local newspapers recounted reports of multiple dislodged coffins in Slidell cemeteries, some revealing visible human remains. One body floated into a man’s front yard. In these cases the coroner’s office acted promptly, removing the remains to a makeshift morgue. Many bodies were never found. Lacking the resources to move displaced coffins back to their original sites, the city left them right where they washed up, and they remain there to this day.

It’s hard to believe that a several ton concrete vault can float. The scattered coffins were yet another testament to the unbridled power of nature. Some were upright but filled with water- no lid in sight. One was slightly tipped, its lid upside-down and halfway off. Another vault laid slightly open with a crushed wooden casket visible inside. Yet another lay several yards away in the marsh. Most of the shelf vaults were simply vacant. To say this was disturbing would be an understatement. These were not ancient tombs filled with unknown people of civilizations past. These were family cemeteries with many tombs only recently populated. I was grateful these coffins were empty and sad for the families unable to pay to put their loved ones back to rest.

All photos by Bonneville Mariner.

Dispatches from the Gulf Coast- Part 1, Part 2

RELATED LINKS
Rhonda Buie’s Gulf Coast Diary (BBC) Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Bonneville Mariner’s post-Katrina photos on flickr
In Katrina’s Path– a Slidell blogger’s webpage full of pictures and links

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