Return to New Orleans

“FEMA, the new four-letter f-word.”

This was one of the signs I encountered minutes after leaving the New Orleans airport on a brief trip to see family this past weekend.

There’s gallows humor about too though. The Times-Picayune was running a FEMA Trailer Holiday Makeover on how to spruce up your temporary domicile despite the circumstances. This of course only applies to the areas with power since you can’t get a FEMA trailer if there’s no power in your area. I was flabbergasted to see how much of New Orleans still lacks this basic utility.

In fact, I was stunned the entire time I was there. From the shockingly understaffed emergency room at East Jefferson General Hospital (another story entirely) to the three-story high mounds of wreckage piled into the medians between boulevards to the patchwork quilt of blue FEMA tarps covering rooftops from Slidell to the bayou, there was so much more still hurting in the area than I — or most of America, I’d bet — realizes. News outlets occasionally check back and there’s the sometime blip on the political radar of Katrina fallout, but for the most part I was unprepared for the degree to which New Orleans is down for the count, seemingly for quite a while.

I had composed a draft of this post before I even arrived in NOLA. I was going to put into words my feeling that Mardi Gras should go ahead full steam this year as a show of the vitality of the city. I’ve scrapped that draft, filed away for some time in the future. New Orleans is not ready. The city is non-functional. Sure the airport is open, but it is ghostly. Only a few gates and a fraction of the concessions are operational. There’s a palpable pall the moment you set foot in the terminal. Driving into the city proper is horrific. Destroyed cars have been towed to the center of I-10, a vast graveyard of corroded metal. The West End, like much of Orleans Parish, is in total ruin. Cryptic FEMA spray-painted symbols adorn every home — and all are abandoned. Doors open, high water mark stains clearly visible, entire neighborhoods are empty. Houses lean and lurch from the foundation damage. Every street intersection — where the traffic lights, if upright, are still not working — is cluttered with makeshift signage for all manner of assistance: tree-shredding, gutting, roofwork, and generic disaster relief services. Yet, basic services are unemployed. (When was the last time you saw a Jiffy Lube offering a signing bonus?) Church steeples point horizontal, straight at the ground still somehow attached, or have impaled parking lots in front of the places of worship. And the trash. By one count there is 34 years worth of rubbish to be hauled away. Junk is literally everywhere, even in the higher-ground neighborhoods relatively untouched by the water.

I arrived and took a cab to my wife’s grandmother’s house where I was to meet my family momentarily who were coming from elsewhere in the city. Entering the neighboorhod I encountered a sign that said “Looters will be shot.” I exited the cab and, without a key, poked around the house for a way into the backyard to wait. I should have known that I would look suspicious. I immediately noticed people mulling about the subdivision looking at me in an unfriendly way. Luckily my wife pulled up shortly, but I am not sure circumstances would have been different if I had loitered longer. I was not prepared for this. I imagined a city on the mend — hobbled for sure, but bound together in a kind of sturdy let’s-get-on-with-it mode. I didn’t see this at all. I’m sure it exists in places, but most of my relatives are depressed and not a few bitter. There’s racial tension in people who have never been disposed to think in those terms. And looting jokes are not funny. This is one case where the news seems not to have covered the worst of it.

Two of my wife’s uncles stayed through the storm. One stayed with his two teenage children, a decision he forcefully admits regretting now. The day after the hurricane when the levees broke he and his kids spent their time moving from house to house shutting off neighbors’ gas lines. At one point my uncle was in the back of the house working with the gas while his children were inside trashing things that would rot from the refrigerator. Suddenly they saw a man through the front windows with a shotgun yell “Hey!” Scared, they ran to get their father’s pistol and headed for the attic. A showdown was averted when the man turned out to be a state trooper from the neighborhood who did not recognize my uncle’s car in the driveway. He was also African-American. Such is the near-tragic misunderstandings that ensue when an every-man-for-himself mentality results from the complete breakdown of law and order.

McDonald’s are shuttered. The Wal-Mart is closed. Yet, drive-through daiquiri bars and po-boy shacks are up and running. The good times will roll again, there’s no doubt. But New Orleans needs time and help and an army of able-bodied workers to get back on its feet. I think Mardi Gras should be celebrated this year. But only for the local residents as a celebration of the living. The city cannot afford the extra police presence, the tonnage of trash, or the degree of lawlessness that normally attends Fat Tuesday and its run-up. New Orleans is no stranger to hangovers, but this time we need to let it recuperate fully before inviting her to party again.