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Conversations with Katrina

New Orleans, USA
August, 2011

St Louis Cemetery No. 1

On the 29th of August 2005, the huge category five hurricane we came to know as Katrina tore through the city of New Orleans and changed its face forever. Six years on the city is pulling itself slowly back together, putting on a brave face, smiling beneath the sequins and glitter of Mardi Gras, grinning behind the mouthpiece of a gleaming tuba blaring out a cheerful tune, but the wound is still so very raw. Katrina is there, waiting behind the laughter, looking out through the eyes of those who survived. She is on the tip of every tongue, mentioned in passing all the time, despite the city’s best efforts to wash her away.

A passing storm

Our trip out to the swamps on Pearl River took us past some of the worst devastated areas of New Orleans, in the East. Our bus driver told us on the way of the destruction the area had experienced.

“That house over there covered in vines, the inhabitants left…and never came back. Block of apartments… they never came back. All of them there, left rotting as they stand and the city can’t afford to even tear them down.”

“Hospital there’s gone. University building gone. That one too… gone,” he said as we passed by empty mouldering buildings.

“New Orleans East used to have more than a hundred restaurants, now there’s only six.”

The Pearl River bayou

As we drove past we saw houses completely overtaken by vines, all mildewed wood dotted amongst those whose inhabitants had returned and tried to restore their lives. In many places all that remained were the concrete slabs, bleak in the scorching, hot sun like bones scrubbed bare by the ravages of time. But these slabs were scoured in mere minutes as the water came rushing through.

Along the sides of the road were signs offering apartments for sale for next to nothing. We passed by a group of policeman lined up about to raid a house, a brief snapshot of the dangerous side of these forgotten places.

Ruined walls

An exhibit in the Presbytère, a part of the Louisiana State Museum had more horrors to show. In the foyer a piano belonging to Fats Domino lay upended, in the same position it was found, the mud-stained keys cracked, never again to be used. Littered throughout the display were ragged pieces of wood, eaten up by mould, fetid, dark and yet somehow flower-like in shape covering the surface. One room showed a collection of videos taken during the storm, houses ripped away by the floodwater, dirty water pouring in under front doors, trees whipped in the terrifying winds. I couldn’t help the tears that rolled down my face as I walked through that museum and listened to the voices telling their stories, the awful suffering that had occurred in this city.

Fats Domino's piano

The message of hope was there however, hope for people rebuilding this city they love. And it made me wonder, why is this taking so long? The thing that surprised me so much is how much of that devastation remains, tucked away in the poorer parts of town, away from the raucous bars and strip-clubs of Bourbon Street. Away from the tourists clutching their souvenir, plastic drink containers in hand as they wobble down the street. This is the question that was asked again and again by the people of New Orleans. Why is this taking so long? Why haven’t we been rescued yet? Why can’t we go home now? Why is our city still broken after all this time?

“There’s no supermarkets anymore in this part of town.” Our host.

“You can see there, the high water mark, that shadow along the wood there.” River tour guide pointing to the level the water came up to, higher than the light switch on the front porch.

“But after Katrina we had to move for a while.” Bartender.

“Some people are just coming back now, they’ve been back only for six months.” Our host.

“I’ve been volunteering here during my holiday for the last two months, helping with the building. She’s just arrived in the last two weeks.” Korean exchange student and volunteer gesturing to her knew friend, a girl from Germany.

“I lived on the bayou here, near Slidell. Been living there near seventy years. But my house went in the flood.” Bus driver.

The piano plays no more

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4 Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    I really appreciated this read. I don’t think travelers are exposing these atrocities enough, perhaps because they aren’t visiting anymore? Did you encounter a lot of tourists in New Orleans?

  2. Rosann says:

    Beautifully written article. You make this a very visual and emotional read. It’s so easy to forget those that are still impacted. Thanks for the insight.

  3. verity says:

    Thanks @Suzy and thanks again for including this in your stumbles! I have to say that all the other tourists I encountered were in the French Quarter or on walking past us on tours of the Garden District. I really do think a lot of people stay in the French Quarter and don’t see much else which is a bit of a shame.

    Thanks also @Rosann! I really appreciate your comment. I found it quite a harrowing visit at time as you probably noticed and I’m glad I managed to convey that.

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