Mid-Life Ramblings; Sanity Optional

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Emotional Rollercoaster that is New Orleans Part 1

My deepest apologies to just getting this posted. I went home early Monday afternoon with a nasty stomach virus that came upon me suddenly. I've spent the past two days in bed. E's had it as well. But today I'm back on track and will post the entire New Orleans stuff in two posts today.

As I indicated in Sunday’s post, E and I drove to New Orleans Sunday afternoon. It was my first trip back since the storm. It was a day filled with rollercoaster emotions and I want to tell you about them all. It’s going to be a long one so I’m going to split it into two posts for the sake of length.

First I want to tell you about what New Orleans looks and feels like nearly four months after hurricane Katrina. As we drove in from the west crossing the Bonnet Carre Spillway on I-10, the first thing I noticed was the bright blue FEMA “roofs” on the houses in the distance. At first it gave the impression of a beachside community with brightly colored blue roofs but one quickly realizes that, although we were nearing the edge of Lake Pontchatrain, this was no happy little beachside community. One of the telltale signs is that all the trees are bent severely to the east. There is very little green vegetation on anything.

As we entered Kenner and then Metairie, I was surprised at how “healthy” both suburbs appear. We exited I-10 and drove the length of Veteran’s Blvd. through Metairie. E and I kept commenting on how well they seemed to have bounced back. Many stores are reopened and were filled with holiday shoppers enjoying the last day of the Louisiana free tax weekend. Restaurants were crowded and I even recognized several new eateries that had not been there before the storm.

Then we crossed the city limits and turned onto West End Blvd. It was like crossing into the Twilight Zone. New Orleans has always felt like a second home to me and I’ve traveled West End Blvd. many times. I’ve always loved the old stucco homes with clay tile roofs. Now they stand empty, many of them gutted, with water lines above my head. The streets are lined with pieces of trees – limbs and stumps – and household items. Crews were working in different areas, cutting trees and trying to restore electricity.

We turned right onto Robert E. Lee Blvd. and rode past the Sisters of Mount Carmel’s motherhouse, a building where I’ve spent lots of time. Two of my mom’s sisters are Mount Carmel nuns as well as one of my grandmother’s sisters and they have all lived there at one point or another. In fact, it remains the home of one of my aunts but she currently has to live with her sister in Lafayette while repairs are made. We could tell that they’ve gutted the bottom floor and are well into restoring the building to make it habitable once again.

As we drove along the lakefront neighborhoods, we saw families obviously living in camper trailers in their driveways while working on their residences. Some of them had Christmas decorations up on houses that were not fully habitable. It was a sign of hope and of resilience.

We came upon my friend Charles’ house and that’s when I broke down. I hadn’t cried for that city in a while but seeing Charles’ beloved home was all it took. The house is a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired dwelling with lots of wood, glass, and right angles. Charles bought it a few years ago and had been adding his own touches. He’d installed a gorgeous stone shower and had restored the pool out back. It was furnished with pieces very much keeping in the Wright style. The last time we were there was last spring on our way to the Greek Festival at the Hellenic Cultural Center just down the street. Seeing this house in ruins brought it all home to me. Charles and his mother (who lost her St. Bernard Parish home) are well and living in the Dallas area but I’m not sure if they will return to New Orleans.

When we left Charles’, I told E that no matter how terrible it looks, folks in that area will be ok. The Lakefront area is a rather wealthy one. People there had insurance. They may never be able to live in their home again but they will have the opportunity to rebuild or start fresh elsewhere. By then we were entering the Gentilly area, home of folks that weren’t all so fortunate.

We decided to head into New Orleans East to find out if our favorite Vietnamese restaurant Dong Phuong had fared. The buildings along Chef Menteur Highway heading east are devastated. We saw several uninhabitable apartment complexes. The Buddhist temple was hit very hard. But we were thrilled to see that Dong Phuong is still standing. They have not yet reopened but the building appears to be in good shape.

More emptiness and devastation as we headed back west on Chef Menteur. We saw more police officers than ordinary citizens as we drove back into Gentilly. By this time the light was starting to fade and we needed to get to where we were meeting my friend M.

We didn’t get into the lower 9th Ward or St. Bernard Parish this trip. I do plan on returning sometime during my long holiday weekend to explore those areas.

E and I discussed my need to see these areas. He processes these things much differently than I do. He would rather not see the damage firsthand; in fact he thinks I’m a bit morbid because I do. But I am a visual type. I need to see things, I always have. Sometimes I need to see things through the lens of my camera as well. It is therapeutic for me. I have no morbid intent. I may never share the photos I take. But I need to see that city right now. It has always been a huge part of my life and I have a deep love for it. I also have a deep sense of pain for what it is now.

The emptiness of most areas is hard to bear. During the daylight, one finds it eerie to be driving along streets once constantly filled with traffic as the only vehicle in sight. The loss of vegetation is hugely apparent. Most red lights are not working so they are four-way stops now. But night time is the worst. As we left Keith’s Sunday, we were able to see what he meant about the world appearing to end just a few blocks away. Electricity still stops at St. Claude Ave. Driving out of the city, we were suddenly aware of a huge “black hole” that had once been filled with city lights. Few stores or restaurants stay open past 6 pm. Keith calls it creepy. It is sad that a city once so very full of life round the clock has been reduced to the appearance of a slow-moving small town. I don’t know if I could live there – visiting was hard enough.

But with all the sadness came moments of pure joy Sunday. You’ll have to wait until the next post but I promise to tell you about the hope that is still very much alive in that city.