I didn't want to see it, yet I wanted to see it.
When I finally had the time and the opportunity to go to New Orleans, I took it. The first thing I packed was the container that held my father's ashes; it had been sitting on a closet shelf in my Sacramento, Calif., home since his death in 1994. I would put them in the Mississippi River. Dad -- a musician whose career earned him a spot in the New Orleans Jazz Archives -- had been a New Orleanian through and through. He needed to go home, and I did, too. I packed my cameras.
I approached New Orleans by air, and the first thing I noticed were the bright blue tarps covering many of the roofs. It was like noticing a child covered with Band-Aids. Louis Armstrong Airport was not terribly busy; quiet even. Normally, the tourist trade is fairly brisk in the spring; the weather can be good, and there aren't the huge crowds that come for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest.
I was joined shortly by my sister, Linda, who arrived from Texas. This would be a first trip back to New Orleans since the floods for both of us. We arranged to meet up at the airport and spend a few days discovering what had become of the places we had grown up, the city that we loved.
Driving to my cousin Gail's house in suburban Metairie, where we would be staying, we passed many large debris piles and damaged houses with white, 180-square-foot FEMA trailers in the front yard. My cousin's house, a brick ranch on a slab, had gotten 18 inches of water in it but looked fine now, with new landscaping and brick floors. I asked her why there were still so many FEMA trailers in the area, and she told me how long it takes to get anyone to do repair work, especially roofs. She pointed to the blue roofs in the neighborhood.
That first night, the three of us sat at a table eating together, as our families had done so many times years ago. Gail looked up and smiled a little smile. I knew what she was going to say; it was a family tradition, something our parents, working people -- a cabdriver, a musician, a secretary and a shoe salesperson -- would always say when they thought they were living high on the hog. I teared up a bit as the words came from her lips: "I wonder what the poor people are doing," she said. I hoped to find out.
The next morning, driving toward the Lower Ninth Ward, we saw fewer and fewer people. By the time we reached our first stop, St. Vincent DePaul Cemetery No. 3 on Louisa Street, it seemed people had become rarer than abandoned boats. The actual destruction caused by the flood was just becoming real to me. The neighborhood near the cemetery seemed abandoned, except for a man mowing a strip of grass in front of a cheery blue house across from the cemetery. Inside the cemetery, we went to visit the vault where many of my relatives are buried. My cousin set flowers beside the tomb that contained her parents (my mother's sister Mickey and her husband), our maternal grandparents and our Aunt Dee. The cemetery showed few signs of the devastation outside its walls. Eternity, for the moment, was uninterrupted.
We continued downriver toward the home we lived in when I was born. The houses got shabbier, and, except for a few flooded and abandoned cars and debris piles, the streets were completely empty. House after house stood abandoned with their doors open. Other than the streets being cleared of large debris, it looked as if time had stood still for eight months.
Our house was still standing and looked untouched except for the National Guard markings painted on the front porch. But the neighborhood itself was forsaken. The wrought-iron fence in front of the house, which I hadn't touched since I was 7 years old, felt familiar to my hand. In my mind, I could hear the sound of the gate closing. This place was, for several years, the center of my universe. My grandparents had lived down the street, and I'd often walked there with my brother and sister to have breakfast with Mamere and Pa.
Down the street, my grandparents' house hadn't fared so well. A group of laborers was in the final stages of disassembling it, carefully setting aside usable pieces of lumber. I gathered, as keepsakes, a few of the hand-cut nails they had removed from the lumber. When I hold them in my hands now, these nails make me think of banana pudding, red beans and rice, chicken and dumplings, and a sweet old woman who died when I was 6.
As we were leaving the Ninth Ward, we saw two men come out of a house. I stopped the car. "Hey, how ya'll doing?" I called. "Awright, awright," they answered. "We just finished gutting this house for my brother-in-law," said one of the men. I asked how high the water had been. The taller of the two pointed up to a water line on the roof and said, "About 13 feet." He added, "Yeah, the house was full of dead fish when we started."
"Really?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah, and there were a couple of baby alligators, too." Then he said, "Did you know that there are still 1,500 people from around here who are unaccounted for? ... Yeah, there were a lot of alligators down here."
My blood ran cold.
Next we headed for Arabi, a small town in St. Bernard Parish just across the parish line from New Orleans. Although only separated from the Lower Ninth Ward by the two-block width of Jackson Barracks, Arabi was much further along in its cleanup and rehabilitation. There must have been someone competent in charge. My cousin Gail grew up on Mehle Avenue in Arabi, so we went looking for the house that Gail had lived in. I spotted a pickup truck with "If this was Bagdad, we'd get $!" painted across it.
I strolled over and started to take some photos when a voice called out, "If you're wondering who wrote that, it was me." I walked over and met Bart Seigel, who rode out Katrina and became aware of the flooding when he looked out his window and saw a truck with no driver going down the street. Then he realized the truck wasn't rolling -- it was floating. "I jumped out the window with a cat in each hand into chest-deep water," he said, "then got up on the roof and stayed there for about 12 hours. It was pretty brutal and pretty horrible. ... You start to see dead animals floating by and all kinds of debris. You see people floating by, and you hope that you don't know who they are. ... It is a life experience that you should hope that you never have to live through."
Bart attributed the flooding to the federal government. "We got shortchanged by the federal government and the Corps of Engineers, and this is the price tag," he said. "There is no such thing as anybody that lives here being normal anymore. We walk around and try to pretend that everything is going to be OK, but we're all screwed up in the head. You can't help it after going through something like this. It's not OK. It is still not OK. It'll never be OK. This is the Third World now."
Later that night, we went to see a New Orleans comedian by the name of Jodi Borrello at a restaurant in River Ridge. She told lots of stories about her typically uncouth working-class New Orleans family, but when she turned to post-Katrina jokes, she became lethally funny. One went, "Las Vegas is so much like New Orleans. ... People are walking around talking to themselves, saying, "I lost my house. I lost my car. I lost my family. Oh, Lord, what am I gonna do?" There were nods of familiarity, and the crowd roared with laughter.
The next day, we drove east on I-10 and exited at Downman Road, just east of the Industrial Canal. Stunned by what I was seeing, I stopped the car in the center of the road and looked around in amazement. It looked as if a bomb had gone off. All of the buildings were damaged and dingy and ragged, none of the businesses were open, and the debris flowed out to the edge of the street. It looked like the people who'd come here to assess the damage months ago had taken one look and given up. We drove through one neighborhood that I had lived in for a short while. It was as empty as the Lower Ninth Ward, but there were more abandoned cars and boats. The park where I played Little League baseball was shabby and weed-covered. A new pool had been installed, but it was filthy and filled with floodwater and debris.
We were on Chef Menteur Highway heading east, and it was starting to get late; the light was starting to fade. But I wanted to find our house on Lurline Street -- it's the place I think of when I'm asked where I grew up. It was a typical tract ranch, but I had fond memories of it. This was the first place I'd lived where I thought that my family was middle class and not working class. It had central air-conditioning and we had built a pool. Well, we found it. The house was a wreck; there had been about 8 feet of water in this area, and there were two flooded cars in the driveway. In the backyard, there were downed trees and the remains of a carport in the pool, which I noticed was filled with black water. I suddenly started watching for snakes. I stood in front and named the families that had lived in the nearby houses: the Pinners, the Calamaris, the Welchs, the Abadies, the Madaus, the Hooks and the Landrys. Those people had moved on years ago. Other families had moved in. Now nobody lived there.
Next, we went to visit Marion Abramson Senior High on Read Road, my alma mater. It was still an ugly bunker of a facility. I parked in the back, on what we used to call "the smoking area." I walked past the "portables" that were supposed to be temporary classrooms when they were installed in 1971. They had been burned. I turned and entered the main building. I was greeted by a dry stream of moldy, muddy books. Taking care where I stepped, I followed the stream to its headwaters, the library. The library looked as if it had been attacked by a dozen drunken students with axes and fire hoses. Bookshelves had fallen against one another like dominos; their contents had spilled into the floodwaters.
As we continued our journey day after day, my mind struggled to get a grip on the enormity of the situation. The devastation goes on and on, mile after mile after mile. New Orleans East is huge -- perhaps the size of Rancho Cordova -- and it is completely devoid of residents. I toured just a portion of the uninhabitable areas of New Orleans, but there is also Mid-City, Lakeview, Gentilly, the Ninth Ward and all of St. Bernard Parish. These huge tracts of houses and businesses all were flooded and broken open and abandoned and resemble nothing as much as plundered cemeteries, toppled monuments whose roles are now as reminders of the past. Perhaps that is why so little has been done all this time after the flood.
Estimates are that almost 300,000 of New Orleans' residents were evacuated to somewhere else: Houston, Baton Rouge, El Paso, Texas, Salt Lake City, San Jose, Calif., and hundreds of other cities and towns around the nation. Many may never return. I wondered what it was like to be forced from your home, separated from your friends and family and from the only way of life that you have ever known. I couldn't ask them; they were not there.
On the last day of my visit, as the sun was setting, I took my father's ashes to the banks of the Mississippi, just downriver from Audubon Park. I found a spot on a mud flat underneath some willows, said a few words and poured his remains into the river. He was back where he belonged. The next day I would return to my home in Sacramento, to my wife and children, to my life.
Oddly, I returned home to a region that was experiencing heavy rains and swollen rivers. The condition of the levees was once again a serious subject. New Orleans, a great city and perhaps this country's most important port, is teetering on the edge of survival, and it soon will face another hurricane season, which many experts believe will be even more active than last year's. All New Orleanians know one thing: Should they get hit by another big storm before the levees are repaired and improved, it will probably mean the end.
I left New Orleans 26 years ago on my own terms, and my life is now in Sacramento. But as this bittersweet trip has reminded me, I can't remember a single day in all these years when I didn't think of myself as a New Orleanian.
This article originally appeared in the Sacramento News & Review and is reprinted by permission.