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The Best Way to Make the Best Of It 

When Don Delillo wrote the novel White Noise in the 1980s, it's hard to imagine he foresaw a government agency quite like FEMA, but who knows. In one of the novel's subplots, a chemical cloud, dubbed by local authorities as an "airborne toxic event," descends on the college town where the story is set. Soon concerned residents find themselves confronted with a government agency that has not come to help them, but to monitor events in order to design better future emergency preparedness exercises for its trainees. It's a fire department letting a fire burn in order to create better fire drills.

In the end, the residents appreciate that the particles now suspended in their atmosphere reflect light such that they get much grander sunsets. Call it a silver lining.

One can only guess what FEMA would have brought to the task had its crack staff arrived in time to help people evacuate, but judging by what the agency offered residents trying to rebuild, saving oneself was the best option. So New Orleans became a city of debris and MREs and blue tarps, the latter a positively Smurfy alternative to a real roof. Getting reacquainted with returning neighbors was facilitated by FEMA trailer keys that work on every third lock. Heckuva job, Brownie. While people toiled to rebuild, at least they put some of the junk to good use and found some humor to cope with the mess.

Perhaps one of the more ironic sites in the city in October was to drive through neighborhoods and see refrigerators lined up like oversized tombstones. What better sign of hard times for a city so in love with food? The duct-taped discarded fridges took on a new purpose as ad hoc message boards. While some were marked by spray-painted ads for contractors, others bore the wit of citizens rebuilding, with suspect invitations like "Free gumbo inside," "Katrina leftovers," and "Come and get it." Local artist and designer Tom Varisco published a sort of visual chapbook of fridge poetry titled, Spoiled.

In a city without power, MREs became a culinary necessity. They've come a long way since the concept of basic, portable and durable sustenance was introduced by the military as D Rations in the 1930s. In contrast to the mystery stew-in-a-can D Ration, MRE's are a multi-course feast. Or an adult unhappy meal, depending on how one looks at it, except there's no prize in the package. The brown bags, however, inspired many. CNN reported in the fall that the bags were being made into art, handbags and other mementos.

By far the most versatile material was the blue tarp. While the government's Blue Roof program was paying contractors as much as $175 per 10-by-10-foot square to tack them on top of homes, New Orleanians found plenty of other uses for them.

Some Mardi Gras krewes used them liberally to decorate floats. The Krewe of Mid-City skirted all of its floats in tarps. Krewe du Vieux's satirical parade was an homage to the blue roof. Under the theme "C'est Levee," the sub-krewes parodied everything about post-Katrina New Orleans, from spending "A Day at the Breach" and riding "Nola's Ark" to raunchy riffs on mold, water spills and stains, FEMA trailers and evacuation plans. Photographs of the parade were printed in newspapers around the world, signaling that New Orleans was not just back in operation but also back in spirit.

Blue tarps also became fabric for a pre-Carnival fashion show. Held at Antoine's, designers and costume makers created all sorts of blue suits for the Creole runway. Afterwards, the outfits were auctioned off with proceeds to benefit the Campaign to Save Coastal Louisiana.

Since then, blue tarps became the flooring of choice at Jazz Fest. Never let it be said that flooded-out New Orleanians couldn't find some use for a thin piece of waterproof plastic.

FEMA may not end up learning much from all this, but New Orleans has dealt with tragedy and rebuilt before. There have been fires, storms, floods, epidemics and wars -- and yet our city has retained its distinct character. One of the many visitors who experienced that spirit was the journalist and traveler Lafcadio Hearn, who spent just over a decade in New Orleans during the era of Civil War Reconstruction. He's beloved by many locals for recording for posterity, in a letter to a friend in Cincinnati, "It is better to live here [in New Orleans] in sackcloth and ashes than it would be to own the entire state of Ohio."

Nowadays, even amid blue tarps and debris, this city is still a good place to be!

click to enlarge MRE Antoinette says let them eat ... King Cake. - CHERYL GERBER
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