This spring, I was in New Orleans for the thirty-eighth annual Jazz Heritage Festival. Late one night, I entered a package store to purchase some bottled water to take back to my room. As I reached into the cooler for an ice-cold bottle of Evian, a large rat emerged from under one of the shelves that held souvenirs and fancy bottles of hot sauce and ran right between my legs.
After contemplating what I had just witnessed, I retrieved a bottle of water and walked to the counter only to find it unattended. Off in the distance, up a set of stairs, the shopkeeper sat aimlessly. He smiled at me. It was clear he had seen the rat, too.
He held up two fingers, meaning “$2.00” for the water. It was business as usual in New Orleans. I set $2 on the counter, exited the store, and laughed all the way back to the hotel.
I went around New Orleans with my friend Steven Cummings, a photojournalist who has family ties here. Like me, he wanted to see the city from his own viewpoint. He didn’t want to take a hurricane tour with fifty other gawking tourists, and he surely didn’t want a narrator telling him what he was observing.
First, Steve and I drove to the Lower Ninth Ward or, as Steve calls it, the Lower Nine. Both of us had read about the devastation and seen it in movies and documentaries. But even with a huge level of preparation, you’re never ready to see an entire neighborhood that is dead and gone.
The streets (if they can be called this) of the Lower Nine are deserted. There are few businesses, if any, on most streets. I didn’t see any functioning schools. No barbershops, hair salons, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, dentists, nothing.
Houses were destroyed. The Lower Nine, for the record, is simply rows and rows of vacant lots where houses once stood. Now and then, you see brick stairs that once led to a home, or a gate that led to a porch. Now and then, you see a trailer where someone is living, but I cannot imagine how desperate that life must be. Community, that ideal that sustains us all in the end, is nonexistent.
The few residents had made their own street signs and nailed them to the electrical poles. If they hadn’t, you wouldn’t have known where you were.
Some residents had For Sale signs on their home if it was still intact. Some had painted a contact number on their home asking for help. I doubt anyone ever called. Most of the homes remaining had three letters on front—“TFW” or “toxic flood water.” This means even though the house is still standing, it isn’t worth much at this point.
We saw a church out there, and for a moment it looked as if the church was open and was helping people cope out in the Lower Nine. But when we parked our car and walked inside the church, it too was bombed out, gutted, washed away, and was no longer a functioning house of worship. The doors of the church were wide open, as if to welcome you, like on Easter Sunday, yet there was nothing here. This was the story in the Lower Nine.
The levee wall has been rebuilt there and it is higher, but it serves no useful purpose right now; there is nothing out there to protect. It is almost an insult to build it without also helping to reestablish community. But if you stand in the Lower Nine at just the right spot, you notice an even more insulting truth.
Off in the distance from the Lower Nine, you can see downtown New Orleans: the high-rise buildings, the spacious hotels that are like miniature cities, the streets where most of the money in the city is collected now. That scene off in the distance from the Lower Nine is New Orleans today: Harrah’s Casino, the Riverwalk, and, of course, the Quarter, the French Quarter, which looks at times as if Katrina passed it by completely. This is where the stark class lines that Katrina revealed come sharply into focus.
These days, you can fly into Louis Armstrong Airport; taxi down into the city; stay at the Sheraton, Hilton, or one of the other many hotels that are full these days; drink, gamble, eat gumbo, jambalaya, or crawfish pie; take in a jazz show in the Quarter; party at one of the festivals; and never see the rest of the city. You can taxi right back out and barely glimpse the horror of the failed levees.
For the most part, the employees at the hotels downtown where you stay will be black, Latino, or a member of another ethnic or racial group of color. The individuals staying at the hotels are mostly white. I saw this because I stayed downtown at one of those hotels.
Steve insisted that we go to East New Orleans. East New Orleans, or New Orleans East, as it is often called, is where Steve’s wife’s family once lived. This is the place of big dreams, where post-Martin Luther King Jr. America came into focus for some African Americans over the last forty years, and where they bought nice homes, kept neat lawns, accumulated some savings, and enjoyed neighborhoods that were New Orleans, in culture and in spirit. East New Orleans is not talked about much in the media when Katrina comes up because it is not a sexy news story.
But as he and I rode slowly through these streets, I could see that East New Orleans is just another version of the Lower Nine. The houses here, the beautiful homes, spacious and wonderful, were gutted out as well. At first, the houses looked new, but then we saw the ominous black lettering on the front of some of the homes. These were letters used by government rescuers after the storm to let the other rescuers know that the house had been searched. Thousands of homes in New Orleans have the letters on the front.
Gas stations were open but the banks had departed. There was one title company operating out of a high rise. This was appropriate, with so much property screaming to be bought.
One entire mall, a mall Steve says was once thriving, is gone. Not just part of the mall is missing, or a wing of the mall; the entire mall is now gone, reduced to rocks and dirt. Bulldozers were still moving the rubble and sorting it out for recycling as we sat in our car and watched.
Some of the residents of East New Orleans had already given up and had For Sale signs out front of their homes. Then there were those other signs—from demolition companies. Quay Demolition signs were all across the city. Acme, another demolition company, had signs, too, in East New Orleans.
“People don’t talk much about this part of the city,” Steve says as we drive along and he holds his camera. “This is not like the Lower Nine.”
Outside of New Orleans, amongst activists and advocates, the Lower Nine is always the main story. In New Orleans, with so many areas leveled by the flood, so many lost lives, it is “a” story, not “the” story. Only a few blocks from the Quarter, buildings were boarded up. Neighborhoods all over the city are still trying to make a way out of no way. The recovery has a long way to go.
The city’s troubles really came into focus about halfway through my stay. As the legal education conference I was attending moved along, it began raining monsoon-like outside one morning. When I went to my room to check the weather, the local news reported flooded streets, cars half under water, and people being warned to stay inside. Some had to be rescued from their cars because they were nearly submerged. No one knew what to make of all of it. Is it normal? Didn’t the city make changes to its pumping system?
Workers at the hotel where I was staying had the 411. The city floods a lot but this is a thunderstorm, no way the city should be flooding like this from just a thunderstorm.
People who were out at the Jazz Fest say the water ran into the tents above their ankles. Rumors circulated that the new pumps that were put in place after Katrina were not turned up high enough.
That night, more of the locals on Canal Street talked.
“Category 1 or 2 hurricane,” a black man mused, “this place is back under water.” He then told how the people around the city called and told him that on one of the canals the water rose to the edge. “Right to the top,” he said a friend told him, “a few inches more, and the water comes over the top, just like Katrina.”
The next day the Times Picayune didn’t mince words about the affair.
“DOWNPOUR,” the paper screamed from its headlines, “New pumps fail a major test as a strong storm knocks out power and downs trees.”
The city’s black weekly newspaper, the Louisiana Weekly, ran a story about how even control of the city’s antiquated water pumping system is political. Jefferson Parish, according to the Louisiana Weekly, is so angered by the pumping system’s failings that residents wanted to know when the pumps that protect their neighborhood were on. When the city’s sewer and water board, headed by the city’s beleaguered mayor, Ray Nagin, refused to agree to such a transparent monitoring system, attorneys for Jefferson Parish sued. It was just one little piece of madness the city is enduring right now on top of so much more.
Upon my return to D.C., Jeremy Broussard, a native of New Orleans who has just graduated from Howard University School of Law, brought to my attention a recent report showing that the population in the city increased 14 percent in the last ten months. The city is now up to 56 percent of its population before the storm. It was, despite the low number of residents, very good news.
The city has a new school superintendent. He is pro-privatization.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson and Mayor Nagin organized a march in the Lower Nine to protest the delayed progress in the city’s recovery.
By the way, Jazz Fest was well attended. Hotels reported 92 percent occupancy for the week. The music, as always, was superb. So was the food.
Before I left the city, I went back to the package store. This time, no rat ran between my legs. I am sure, however, that it’s still there.
Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer who teaches in the clinical program at the Howard University School of Law.