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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
still a total wreck.
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
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
Like I did.