While visiting family in Lafayette, Louisiana the last week in July, we decided to visit New Orleans
for a night. It was the first time we had been there in six years. We missed the people, the places and, yes, even the smells. Even now, almost a year later, the residual effects of Hurricane Katrina were plainly visible all the way across the twenty-four mile Lake Pontchartrain bridge. Trees showed the effects of the horrendous wind and rotting trash was heaped up on higher ground.
We arrived around four in the afternoon and as we made our way into the city we were relieved to see that it was there at all. After the constant news coverage of the terrible aftermath, in the back of your mind, you wondered how anything could still be standing. We drove by the Superdome and couldn’t help but relive the live footage of dead bodies, huddled families and women holding their crying infants up to the cameras for the world to see, pleading for someone, anyone to help them get out of what was surely a death trap.
At the entrance to the Business District there was a watermark about eight feet high on an underpass with a sign reading, “We’ve had it up to here with the Levee Board, the Levee Board the Levee Board and the Levee Board.” A not so subtle dig at the agency mired in a slew of controversy over dubious pet projects that diverted funds away from the levees that broke and left the very citizens they were charged to protect, clinging for their lives.
Driving down Poydras Street, windows were still blown out of countless buildings. Evidence of construction was everywhere – scaffolding, cranes, lumber, but no workers to be seen. We had decided before we went that we weren’t even going to venture into the hardest hit areas, more specifically the Ninth Ward. The area left decimated by the water and the site of so much loss is still said to look like the day after the water receeded from all the first hand accounts we had heard. We just couldn’t bear to see the tangible documentation of a system failed.
That evening, we made our way through Jackson Square and had dinner at CafÃ?Â© Pontalba. The cafÃ?Â© is on the ground floor of the oldest apartment complex in the United States and overlooks the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral. The open-air seating is hot and humid, but if you can get a table by an open door the breeze makes it bearable. We traded air-conditioning for the unique atmosphere. New Orleans is the best place in the world if you’re a people watcher and CafÃ?Â© Pontalba gives you a front row seat for all that is wonderful about the city. Fortune tellers, artists and musicians all vie for the attention of the tourists with the Cathedral as their backdrop. The restaurant is not only a great place for the atmosphere, but the food is equally impressive.
Later that night we walked down Canal Street and into the heart of the French Quarter. For the most part, it appeared the businesses had remained relatively unscathed, however, reminders of the disaster were inescapable at every bar and restaurant. Each had tacked up on their front doors recertification certificates for reopening by the Department of Health and Human Services. Superficially, Bourbon Street was the same as we had remembered it. Bars were open, alcohol was flowing and people were smiling, but there was an emptiness. Typically, late on a Friday night, Bourbon Street would be filled with people shoulder to shoulder for blocks laughing, shouting and drinking in one huge street party, but the Friday night we visited there were approximately a quarter of the people that used to be there. The people that had come were subdued, almost in reverence, ashamed to show too much jubilation in the same vicinity as other people who had seen and lost so much.
Early Saturday morning we went to CafÃ?Â© du Monde for beignets. A street musician was on the sidewalk belting out a spot-on version of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. Everything was business as usual in the cafÃ?Â© – locals were there reading The Times-Picayune and sipping cafÃ?Â© au lait while a table full of tourists were huddled at the table next to us discussing how to pronounce “beignets” (It’s ben-YAYS, if you’re wondering). The only telltale sign was one marking the water line left by Hurricane Katrina. The water markers were scattered throughout the city – serving as historical markers of the storm, but also as badges of perseverence saying, “This is what we went through, but we’re still here and we aren’t leaving.”
We left New Orleans Saturday afternoon relieved. We had come expecting to mourn for the city we loved so much, but it was clear that the city was still alive – people were living there, tourists were returning and the majority of businesses were open. Above all, we found that the people of New Orleans are not ready to give up on their city, and in honor of their courage and as a testament to all those who lost their lives in those terrible days last September, we can’t give up on them.