10/29/2006: Day one for me in New Orleans. I was here last in the spring following Katrina. I was shocked by the damage by Katrina when I visited. As I drove though the Lakefront neighborhood in April, I started sobbing—the extent of the destruction was too much for me to comprehend, it was overwhelming. How would New Orleans ever return? Here we are 6 months later from my last visit here. How have things changed?
Mary and I started the morning by having coffee in The Garden District. There is a feeling of emptiness in the city. For a city that once had many people in it; both tourists and locals, you can sense fewer tourists and fewer residents—Especially African Americans. It’s a much more Caucasian city at this time; how many of its Black residents will return eventually is hard to tell. The change of demographics is noticeable.
The wealthy areas and tourist areas like the French Quarter have pretty much survived and moved on. Commander’s Palace, perhaps the most iconic and upper heeled restaurant in town reopened 3 weeks ago; unable to do so up until now because there was such a shortage of workers.
Poorer areas have not fared as well. There are places in the city where blocks of stores, are gutted, looted, abandoned. But there are islands of hope where people have moved back in. There is pride in home ownership, and it is heartening to see people tending to their yards, sweeping the sidewalks even though most of the rest of their block is still in a state of devastation.
The middle class areas do show rays of hope.
We drove through the upper ninth ward and Lakefront today and there are signs of a return to some normalcy. The Lakefront district is one that many of us could identify with; middle class, mostly modest homes. In the spring it was totally devastated with piles of moldy rotting garbage that used to be people’s possessions in front of every home. It was the sight that drove me to tears. Today, although most homes in this part of the city are still uninhabitable, the piles of garbage are gone.
Tangible progress is being made. I would say that the rebuilding process is 20-25% percent complete in most neighborhoods that were devastated. That may not seem like much but compared to what I saw in the spring it is genuine progress. We spoke with a local tour guide who described his neighborhood as 25% of folks moved back into their homes, 25% living in trailers working on their homes, 25% who are planning to return (Like himself) to begin the rebuilding, and the other 25% abandoned.
Our tour guide, David Roberts’ roots in the area run hundreds of years back. He has been living in San Diego with his grandchildren since Katrina. He has been back for 3 weeks staying with friends relieving the lone tour guide from the company he worked for. He told us he hoped to rebuild his home in Lakefront in the spring, when some relatives who were handy finished rebuilding their homes. Because builders are in such demand and overworked, going that route was prohibitively expensive. The lowest estimate he got was 125,000. Before Katrina a similar job would have cost him 65,000. His wife, after vowing never to return is coming back for Christmas. He told us, “It’s not a cliché when you say Hope Springs Eternal”
We did not visit the Lower ninth Ward, which I’m told is still in a desperate shape. Perhaps we will venture there later in the week.
There is a feeling of hope today as opposed to the hopelessness months ago. The reopening of the Superdome three weeks ago is a huge boost of the spirits of the region. The symbol of chaos is now a symbol of hope for the rebuilding of the city. You cannot underestimate how big the reopening of The Superdome is to psyche of the people here; and the Saints for the first time in years are winning.
Another sign of return to normalcy will be the return of the St. Charles Street Streetcar which should happen in the spring of 2007. The oldest streetcar line in the country is an emblem of this city, and having this city without this streetcar line is like having San Francisco without its cable cars. It’s sad to see the tracks still buried in mud. We did witness workers doing some track cleanup today. It was a welcome sight.
We also visited the Site where we’ll start working at Habitat for Humanity tomorrow.
I am really looking forward to starting work. As Dave the tour guide said, since Katrina, acquaintances have become friends, friends have become closer friends. He also told us, despite the failings of the government, the outpouring of volunteers from all parts of the country, all walks of life and political leanings, is a great untold story here. People helping people…
When he was first displaced; church groups came to his hotel in Dallas and brought food, when he was too tired to care for himself and his family; and no matter what side of the political aisle there are countless people have come to this unique city to lend a helping hand. That gives one hope to see this kind of outpouring of generosity when at times we seem so divided politically in this country.
There is still so much to do in this city…Besides the rebuilding, the problems of cyclical poverty, corruption and crime that still loom large in the future. Hopefully this is a new beginning and not an end.