Harriette Brainard, a reporter for the Addison Independent, recently visited New Orleans and begins a three-part series on the status of the city and its recovery with this personal commentary. The next installment will be Monday, June 5, followed by reports next Thursday, June 8. The reporter is a former resident of New Orleans and has attended Jazz Fest, an annual spring music festival, for the past 17 years.
â€œThe dead donâ€™t need flood insurance to buy a new house, and for that you almost have to envy them. Taking the pulse of the town and its citizenry, the driver told me: â€œIâ€™ve never seen or felt anything like this. Iâ€™ll tell you, brother: Iâ€™m scared. Iâ€™m real scared.â€?
â€” Chris Rose, reporter Times Picayune
By HARRIETTE BRAINARD
A picture is worth a thousand words. Itâ€™s a phrase that particularly rings true for New Orleans because the pictures have shown so much suffering in the immediate aftermath last August of Hurricane Katrina and continue to show the slow progress being made eight months later. Itâ€™s easy to recall the scenes broadcast live as many of us sat paralyzed in front of the television â€” pictures that have been permanently etched in our memory. For much of the nation, however, life goes on and those pictures dim as the nation returns to its daily routine.
What brings those images of disaster to the forefront of our memories again is the news that New Orleans is gearing up for another hurricane season, and that people there are scared and nervous.
Recall that many neighborhoods in Gulf Port, Biloxi and many other towns in Katrinaâ€™s furious path were completely wiped out. The Gulf Coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi suffered a loss beyond the nationâ€™s comprehension, and the lives of those most affected are anything but normal today. Many peopleâ€™s homes are either still flattened and lay in heaps of debris or are partially filled with mud and mold and decaying more and more as each day goes by.
The city of New Orleans, in particular, has been crippled by the loss of population, homes and business, but even more than that, the city and its people have sustained spiritual wounds that go far deeper.
â€œOver 1,300 citizens in Louisiana and Mississippi died due to Hurricane Katrina â€” the number as of February 2006 â€¦ Six months after the storm, 100,000 families are still homeless,â€? writes author and Louisiana scientist Ivor van Heerden in his book â€œThe Storm.â€? â€œSome of those deaths and some of those dislocations were inevitable because Katrina was a natural disaster. Others â€” the majority â€” were man-made â€¦ the levee system failed inexcusably.â€?
Although, I have never been in the midst of a war-torn area, I have to imagine that it must look like the war zone that met my eyes only a month ago when I returned for my seventeenth annual trip to the New Orleans Jazz Festival. But this year, in addition to being a part of the festival, my friends and I spent part of our days as volunteers helping with the clean-up and rebuilding.
What we saw was agonizing. Rows of houses, schools and businesses that stretched for miles were empty or gone. There were parishes with only five houses left standing out of what had been hundreds. In middle class and some upper class neighborhoods residents had returned to their houses and now live in their second stories while repairs are gradually being made below. While the second stories are largely intact, the first floors are skeletons of their former selves and full of mold.
Trash and debris are everywhere, although itâ€™s improving compared to the mountains of trash that existed this winter. Abandoned cars are a common feature of the landscape now, as are mostly gutted, empty houses.
The most unsettling feeling came when I realized I had spent all day walking around the devastated areas, including Ward 9, without seeing any children or animals. There are places in the city, today, that feel like an empty wasteland.
Just in late April, I walked into a couple of houses that were wide open, filled with mud and had not yet been gutted by volunteer crews. Here there was a resemblance of a former life â€” a television, family photos, clothes and furniture all strewn violently about and all covered with the same moldy color and musty odor.
At night, one can see and feel the quiet of the city â€” a disturbing feeling for the normally jubilant sounds so common to New Orleans. Even so, I could only get a small sense of the fear that exists in the city as it faces another season of hurricanes without the necessary protection. There is still much hope that the work of volunteers, the government, and others will eventually rebuild the city.
LEVEES AND WETLANDS
Talk about adequate repair of the levee system in New Orleans is like discussing the weather in Vermont. Itâ€™s a daily subject with frequent updates, grousing about ineffective bureaucracies, and new concerns â€” such as repairing the natural wetlands around the city.
â€œThis (Hurricane Katrina) was a combination of a natural disaster and a systematic failure on the part of our society. We now thoroughly understand the need for coastal restoration as a buffer against the big storms,â€? said scientist Heeren, â€œbut land loss continues at an alarming rate.â€?
Whatâ€™s important to know is that Louisiana is Americaâ€™s wetland. The state has 40 percent of the total coastal wetlands in the country, and those four million acres of marshes and swamps and estuaries represent one of the worldâ€™s greatest ecosystems.
â€œThis dynamic interplay of land and water has produced an unsurpassed diversity in vegetation, wildlife, and fisheries, and an extraordinary biological productivity,â€? says Heeren.
That rich cultural environment, however, presents a host of problems for city planners. One of the biggest problems is how to protect the wetlands environment while also accommodating the cityâ€™s needs and, crucially, the needs of the Port of New Orleans, which moves much of the nationâ€™s grain from the Midwest to places around the world.
There is no question that the wetlands must be restored to protect the port and the city in the long run and that in the short run the levees must be adequate to do the job. How that can be accomplished is a question of engineering; whether it is done is a question of politics and money.
SOUL OF THE CITY
Beyond the environmental importance of the restoration of the wetlands and the economic importance of its port system, what is it about the city that defines it and makes it special to anyone else outside of the city of New Orleans? And what, if anything, is significant about New Orleans to the residents of Addison County and why should we care?
For those area residents who have been to New Orleans the explanations may find a sympathetic ear, but to others who have never witnessed the passions that pulsate through the city, an appeal to economic sense is one reason we should all care and an understanding of the cityâ€™s cultural influence is another.
New Orleans inspires a passion that is inexplicable, though might be captured in the popular admonition to â€œlive in the present.â€? Local poet and author Tom Piazza describes the cityâ€™s magnetism as â€œa reality lived by its inhabitants every day, and as often as possible by those who love visiting. The past in New Orleans cohabits with the present to an extent not even approximated in any other North American city.â€?
Vermont, to some, inspires the same kind of passion. Many Americans cannot imagine living in this climate, and even many Vermonters complain of it, but most residents would not think of leaving. Vermonters also pride themselves on their links to the past and their ability to retain the elements that make Vermont unique, despite the continual pressure to change.
A friend was telling me about a T-shirt being sold in New Orleans that says, â€œNew Orleans: So far behind, that we are ahead.â€? Itâ€™s all about not letting go of traditions, not conforming to everything new, but retaining oneâ€™s past, and therefore being unique, which ultimately defines you.
Like Vermont, Piazza writes that â€œNew Orleans gains its character â€¦ ultimately from the people who live there â€” those who have chosen to live there, and those whose parents and grandparents and ancestors lived there. That spirit, as much as the cityâ€™s economic and physical infrastructure, is what is in jeopardy right now. In the wake of the worst natural disaster in the countryâ€™s history, one from which New Orleans and the rest of the country will be digging out for years, it may be good to remember what has been lost, and to think hard about what is worth fighting to save.â€?
For those interested in helping in the cityâ€™s restoration, the first thing area residents could do is to read the small book by Times Picayune reporter Chris Rose titled â€œ1 dead in the attic.â€? Roseâ€™s book is an easy-to-read series of short, sad, sweet and funny vignettes that can be finished in one afternoon, but it will affect your heart and your soul for years to come.
Piazza, who spoke at a Middlebury College event this past fall, also has written a short book titled â€œWhy New Orleans Matters.â€? Both books provide a glimpse into the hurricaneâ€™s aftermath, the residentsâ€™ struggle, and their hopes and fears.
While itâ€™s difficult to imagine losing everything one possesses â€” house, vehicles, clothing, food, personal items, photos, pets, memories â€” if we put ourselves in those shoes, we can understand the devastation that has plagued the city and the plight of thousands of New Orleans residents. We can have a sympathetic heart.
But many Americans still canâ€™t fathom why the nation would rebuild a city with so many social, economic and geographic problems. For starters, the city sits below sea level and is surrounded by water. Its inner city is poor. Welfare families are a drain on resources, and its levee system is in need of significant repair.
Why is New Orleans so special that it be rebuilt where it is? What would be lost by relocating it a bit inland? There are no hard and fast answers.
If it is the people of New Orleans â€” their culture, their music, art and writing â€” that make up the cityâ€™s soul and character, couldnâ€™t they be relocated? If it is the architecture and the beauty of New Orleans, well then letâ€™s just preserve the French Quarter, Audubon Park, Uptown and St. Charles Avenue, and while weâ€™re at it we might want to renovate the universities and hospitals.
Rationally, that seems to make sense to the rest of us who donâ€™t live there.
But if you have ever been to New Orleans â€” and I refer to those that have actually experienced the city as opposed to those who attend that kitchen and bath convention during the day and hit Bourbon Street at night â€” then I guarantee that you would want to preserve the city in all its glory.
New Orleans gets inside you. It stirs passion within the depths of your heart; your soul is nourished by the thought of your return and replenished upon your visit. Its beauty is in the richness of its soul.
Piazza writes of the â€œhuman beautyâ€? of the city, which refers to the relationship the people have with each other as well as anyone else who is lucky enough to be a part of it. â€œNew Orleans inspires the kind of love that very few other cities (in the world) do â€¦ New Orleans has a mythology, a personality, a soul that is large, and that has touched people around the world. It has its own music, its own cuisine, its own way of talking, its own architecture, its own smell, its own look and feel.â€?
In rebuilding, itâ€™s that uniqueness â€” and the love it has inspired â€” that needs to be sustained.