Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Big Easy Is Hard Up for Cash

I've just been to New Orleans. Reluctantly.
On the flight down I sat next to guy in the Coast Guard -- in case you forgot, they were the only people who seemed to know what to do after Katrina hit.

I knew he was military by his haircut. After we were airborne he asked if I was from New Orleans. No. Chicago. He was returning from his first visit to my city, which he loved. I was heading to his city for my first visit in thirty years, which I wasn't sure about.

I thanked him on behalf of a grateful nation for getting all those stranded people off the rooftops. He laughed and said he only cooked for the guys who did the flying, but he'd mention it.

I didn't realize it at the time, but he is typical of the people who live in the Big Easy: open, gregarious, friendly, funny, and polite. My name is Tony. Hello, I'm Mrs. Linklater.

[UNNECESSARY FACTOID: I learned he had been stationed in Honolulu for a time and often cruised the waters off Alaska to keep the Russian trawlers from fishing illegally. Interestingly, the fish seem to know where the legal fishing boundaries are. There is an imaginary line that those gilled and scaly creatures refuse to go beyond. Apparently entire schools of fish are smart enough to swim up to the edge of that line and stop.]

As we came in for our landing, I was surprised by how lush and green the city looked from the sky. Such a change from last summer's camera views of water water everywhere.

On the ground, the air didn't smell like mildew or wet rugs like I half expected it to. The piles of debris we saw daily on the news are still there, but you have to look for them. A cab driver will take you on a one hour tour of the remaining devastation for $35 if you want to have a looksee. Of course, there are those who think rebuilding may never take place in those areas. Not if you have to wait for the insurance companies to help. But, this is America, never say never.

There were some abandoned cars pointed out to me beneath an overpass on the way downtown. I wouldn't have noticed them otherwise. They were still parked, waiting for someone to come get them. Their owners had left the autos there, thinking it was higher ground, only to have them submerged in the flood waters.

A thin yellow line runs along the walls of the highway, like the stain left by urine in a dirty toilet. It's one of the few reminders of how many weeks the city was under water. There are boarded up buildings, but not nearly as many as I expected. No more than any metropolitan area undergoing urban renewal.

The beignets are hot and delicious again at the Cafe du Monde. I had mine with some iced coffee and chicory. The French Quarter is all gussied up with gorgeous baskets of flowers hanging from the balconies overlooking Bourbon Street. The white mules are pulling carriages again next to Jackson Square. The gardens are blooming again. The River Boats are paddling up and down the Mississippi.

The people who work at the airport and in the hotels, who drive the cabs and bring you food in the restaurants all seem genuinely happy to have visitors coming back to their town. There is one notable exception to their kindness and hospitality -- the antagonism felt by everyone toward the insurance companies. The nameless, faceless people on the other end of the phone are still arguing about what percentage of damage was caused by water and what was caused by wind.

The hospitality when we arrived at the hotel was effusive. When we stepped out of our van, we were greeted by several smiling people who practically shouted, "Welcome to New Orleans!"  

The official drink of the city is, ironically, the Hurricane, made with Paddy O's [Pat O'Brien's] sour mix and rum. Unlike so many of my friends who can brag about drinking five Hurricanes and surviving, I'd never had one. I also didn't want to deal with the two shots of alcohol recommended for enjoyment, so I opted for the virgin version. Ack. It needed at least a little rum. So I had one with half a shot of dark rum. Perfect. Just enough to cut the sweet. But not enough to knock me over. Because that's a long way down.

Most of the people I talked to, those who worked in the city, had lost everything during Katrina. There are a million stories. One cabdriver I talked to woke up to find that he'd lost a fence to the wind, so he went back to sleep thinking the worst was over, only to wake up with water rising by the side of his bed.

His pregnant wife and their young daughter had left town as a precaution. He soon found himself alone in the attic kicking a hole through the roof to keep from drowning. Once outside, he spent the next two days in the hot sun, getting more and more dehydrated. The Coast Guard rescued him, which turned out to be the best and worst experience he went through.

He escaped the rising flood waters hanging onto one of the Coast Guardsmen, a man whose name he doesn't know, but whose face he'll never forget. However, he still has nightmares of the rig snapping as it pulls him up to the helicopter. Something that never happened.

I asked if there was any counseling offered to the survivors. Yes, he said. What did you have to deal with? You think it's your fault.  You've lost everything you had, everything you've saved for. You feel like you've failed your family. I pointed out that he had saved his family by sending them to safety ahead of time. He knew that logically, but emotionally he still struggles.

We watched FEMA and local government fail the folks of New Orleans last year. There are plenty of problems to go around still. The insurance companies refusing to pay for a lot of the damage, primarily. Plus the levees aren't entirely fixed yet. The SuperDome is still being repaired. And hurricane season is here again. 

One bright note -- the Convention Center is not only huge, it's busy.

To her credit, and, despite what the media might say, New Orleans is up and running, in large part thanks to the people who live and work there. What they've got now is a PR problem -- getting their bread and butter back -- tourists. Especially when most are like me and think the place is still a total wreck.

Now that I've had a chance to see how far New Orleans has come since last year, I realize there is something all of us can do to pitch in and help.

Forget the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. If you want to donate your money directly to rebuilding New Orleans, I can't imagine a better way than spending a weekend down there, eating, drinking, and having a great time. 

Like I did.


sistercynthiadr said...

As usual, your advice is right on target.  I'm so glad to hear that the city is in better shape than the media would have us believe.

shadierush said...

Thanks for the info. I too thought New Orleans was a mess. Glad to hear it's better.

ksquester said...

I am so glad you did this "report"  Shouldn't Anderson Cooper be down there letting us know about this?  As far as I knew the city was still a disaster area. New Orleans is a city vastly different than anyother. The people was wonderful and are unique.  Glad you had a good time.  Thanks Mrs. L for the information.   Anne

ladeeoftheworld said...

Thank you for sharing your view of New Orleans.  Your idea of helping the economy is right on target!  

jocko818 said...

Excellent writing, Mrs. Linklater!!

swibirun said...

Thank you for sharing this Mrs. L.  You make a very good recommendation.  Perhaps in the long run (decades long) this will become a part of the New Orleans mystique.


onemoretina said...

    Glad to hear that your visit included some pleasant surprises.  Like you, I would have expected things to be a mess.  It's good to know that the people there are ready and anxious to welcome visitors again.  
    As far as the insurance companies ..... well, that doesn't surprise me one bit.  They seem to have it together as fall as collecting money.  They just haven't worked out the benefits-paying end of their business.  Which is a shame for the people of New Orleans, as well as anybody else who is affected by accident or emergency.  Tina

ber144 said...

This is some of your best writing ever.  You should send this to the opinion pages of the Trib and Sun-Times.  Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

sunnyside46 said...

there is a soul and a spirit in New Orleans I have never seen in any other city. It is the home of my heart.