Part IV: The Re-Occupation of New Orleans


Editors' Note: On the first year anniversary of Katrina, Louisiana resident and writer, Polydactyl reflects on her in-the-moment journals and diaries to remind us of what it was like in the eye of the storm.

Storm Wilma, then the Greek alphabet. Named storms in December way long after the end of the hurricane season. Al Gore. An Inconvenient Truth. Oil companies funding think tanks to combat "junk science."

We've come so far in a year and learned so much.

Some things you just have to learn first hand such was the experience of my second trip post-Katrina to New Orleans. I first wrote about the reoccupation --- wherein I accompany two of my long-term "guests" as they return home and we install replacement equipment in my company's New Orleans office -- at New International Times: It is Done

October 31, 2005
New International Times

It is done. I wasn't really ready to go, but it was time to start the rebuilding of New Orleans and let those with the most at stake get on with the rest of their lives.

It was cramped quarters in Alexandria while the New Orleans office crew was here, but there is something to be said for the consistency of routine. Most of them are displaced from their homes, but having a place to go to work was the anchor in their otherwise uprooted lives. It was good to be able to provide that sanctuary and we really did get closer and more personal--breaking down some of those professional workaday barriers.

Each of my guests has now made temporary housing arrangements. Wiith the company's building officially ready for occupancy as of Wednesday, the majority was ready to go back to New Orleans and give it a go. It would be a lonely trip to New Orleans with just me and a co-worker, a redhead, the Fiery One, doing all of the heavy lifting while they stayed settled in their temporary digs. Typical lawyers types, typical men.

It was going to be an hour and a half drive before I arrived at the rendezvous point to meet up with the Fiery One and that would be the easiest part of the whole trip. After that, in our own separate cars, it will be pretty much bumper to bumper at 75mph/120kph for the rest of the way. The Fiery One brought a couple of those FRS short range radios, so we were able to chat and watch each other's back in traffic.

Baton Rouge was miserable. I expected it to be. Baton Rouge is a busy town, the state capital and now has probably more than 300,000 extra semi-permanent residents. I had wanted to take the scenic route around Baton Rouge, but the Fiery One says "high diddle, diddle, straight up the middle" is the only way to go. Now, she typically drives a Corvette, but was relegated to a Chevy Malibu since her `vette was one of the cars stolen from Sewell during Katrina, during the time period when the New Orleans Police Department was reportedly "borrowing" Cadillacs to use for squad cars "after" the levees broke. The only real problem with this story is that many of the stolen cars were never driven through water, as they would have been had they been in service as squad cars. Hmmm.

After Baton Rouge, there is a pretty easy stretch of driving for about 30 minutes before the dense outskirts of New Orleans traffic. It was in this section that we really began to see the impact of the winds on the terrain with trees all askew and the grasses browned from standing rain water. It was but just a taste of what was to come.

I could get all melancholy and overly dramatic, but I don't know that it would do much good. Looking at pictures or watching the TV news accounts really didn't prepare me for what I saw. Coming into New Orleans you hit a stretch before the International Airport and Kenner that is miles upon miles of elevated highway over the marshes north and west of Lake Pontchartrain. The normal pool has a clearance of say 20 feet between the surface of the water and the abutment of the bed of the road span. But when we crossed, we could see the water line was between the bottom of the abutment and the road bed, 20 feet higher than "normal". There were drift piles of debris, parts of roofs and houses pinned to the piers in the shallow water of the marsh, and, as we got closer to the lake itself, the flooding was more evident.

What we were witnessing was all part of the surge.

Out in the natural environs of the lake, the destruction was not too hard to take. There were only a few crab shacks here and there plus the odd cabin, but as we eased into Kenner it was blue roof city -- the FEMA blue roofs tell-tale markers of buildings and homes that needed to be "capped" to protect them from future damage from the elements.. On the edge of town the pre-fab metal industrial buildings were twisted into weird contortions not easily described. These were not puny sheds in a home-owners backyard, but industrial buildings that provided people's livelihoods.

Our first stop was at the Fiery One's husband's shop in Kenner. It was a good place to get the blood back into our knuckles, quit vibrating with the wheels on the road and stretch for a bit before hitting the New Orleans Central Business District. Amid the blue roofs and twisted buildings stood his shop...a custom mechanics place that specializes in Corvettes and hobby racers. I only mention this little sidestop because it illustrated two points that were to be a common theme for the rest of the trip: on every available open space there was a trailer, a tent, or a gigantic pile of debris.

The other "new reality" was that the mail is only running every other day, and they are delivering first class mail only. I wondered aloud where all of the magazines and junk mail were going and was told that it is being held until they get enough mail trucks running to catch up with the current first class mail. Then, they'll start delivering the backlogs. Gud Lawd...where do you store 8 weeks worth of magazines and junk mail?

The three of us headed to the Poydras Tower in the heart of the Central Business District to unload. The trip took us through the residential heart of Kenner, into Metairie, through Mid-City and Uptown and then into the Central Business District itself. Now on the dry land under each span of elevated highway, they had towed all of the cars that had been left behind in the city. Thousands upon thousands of dead, drowned brown cars, probably 50,000 or more. As we drove, we saw aalong every median, every bit of green space were mounds of debris standing 35 to 40 feet tall -- each mountain very neatly separated into three distinct groupings: tree, de-construction debris and appliance.

Once we were off the interstate and into the Central Business District, the first thing we saw was the Superdome. I'll never be able to look at it quite the same way ever again. I've been to memorable concerts and rousing football games, even one big trade show, but I don't think the images of the Super Dome in the time of Katrina -- the humanity and loss of humanity -- will ever fade for me. The stories my National Guard neighbor told of the days right after the storm and the horror of New Orleans that eclipsed that from his time spent in Iraq burns in my brain.

Just past the Super Dome is the Hyatt, a high rise hotel that was featured prominently in the news coverage for all of the glass that it lost. The street alongside is still closed because of continually falling broken glass. If we hadn't known where we were going, it would have been very difficult to navigate. A good majority of the street signs are still blown down as are the street signals.

I was very surprised by the volume of traffic downtown. I really didn't expect the level of activity that I saw. I don't know exactly what or where everyone was going or doing. Although, there were plenty of civilians, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a federalized agent or law enforcement of some kind. They numbered in the tens of thousands; everywhere you looked there were guys in uniform with side arms or rifles, others in colorful polos with dangly photo badges. The humvees and blacked out SUVs all looking quite important, were not so busy, rather like road foremen, gesticulating wildly, but not doing anything. Lots of folks in Corps of Engineers hoodies, but who knows what they were doing, besides being huddled up in tents.

Our load out and hook up on Wednesday of all the computers and server equipment was uneventful and I was thankful for that. The drive had been hard and I had not slept well the night before..."first day of school" syndrome, I suppose. The offices are on the 27th floor on the Poydras Tower in the heart of the Central Business District, so the views of downtown, into the French Quarter and across the river were good. We lost only three windows in our small suite, so it wasn't too bad. And since they were pressurized double-panes with only one of the panes knocked out, we were among the first tenants to move back in.

The property management guys down at the loading dock said that the re-occupancy rate was only about 10%. Even though there are some large companies in the building, they were not particularly hopeful of an immediate comeback. They speculated that most would come back after the first of the year, if they came back at all.

With most of the day's work behind us and the networking of the computers on the agenda for Thursday, the Fiery One went with me to the Hilton Riverside to check in. Here, we were conspicuously the only civilians among more Corps of Engineers types, FEMA, FBI, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and Red Cross. Once the check-in paperwork was done, I was hustled off to get my very own photo ID to be worn in any public space in the hotel. The clerks were pleasant, but very tired looking. The young lady that was laminating the badge Wednesday evening was back at the desk early Thursday morning when I checked out again.

Blah, blah, blah...the room was nice, excellent view of the riverfront, but the air conditioning was out and it was 103 degrees Fahrenheit in there, so-I called engineering. Three maintenance guys later, it came on.

Did I mention the view? Had to check in with the Norseman who was very nervous about my making the trip...begged me to pack my own 9mm, but what was the use when you were surrounded by federales?

The plan was to ditch the cargo van and go with the Fiery One on a tour of Lakeside and my old neighborhood in Metairie before meeting her husband for dinner in Kenner. I'm not much of a party animal these days, so without the music, the French Quarter doesn't hold much attraction for me. We did swing by Audubon Park on the way out and it is a helicopter park full of Blackhawks and Core of Engineers.

Lakeside, like the infamous 9th Ward took 6 to 10 feet of floodwater when the levees broke. Unlike the 9th Ward, most of the folks in Lakeside had the means to evacuate and many left behind their "2nd vehicles." It was odd to see hundreds of muck-brown BMWs and Mercedes piled up on top of each other like matchsticks.

There are the boats like this one that just littered the sides of the road, supposedly something like 70,000 derelict boats statewide that are not recoverable. There is a plan is in place to use them for artificial reefs, but like everything else, it is hurry up and wait until money comes through to move them.

My old neighborhood in Metairie sits about four blocks off Lake Pontchartrain and is bounded by two intersecting flood control canals. It was about half occupied when I lived there 30 years ago and I have vivid memories of the new construction and the pile-drivers that would come in to drive the telephone pole like pilings into the gumbo like soil...about the consistency of jello.

This is what is left of my old house.

The northern part of Metairie and Kenner took mostly wind damage. They were without power for three weeks and as we drove toward the Fiery One's house in Kenner every single street was lined with appliances too funky to keep. It has been two months since Katrina and nothing has moved. More piles sky high of trees, sheet rock and roofing material.

There are no kids.

Next to the mounds of debris and the florescent orange paint on all the houses (bring out your dead), the absence of kids and pets was the eeriest --that and the thousands upon thousands of roadside signs hawking every kind of service imaginable from sheetrock removal to mold abatement.

The greater New Orleans economy is built upon small business and they are receding faster than the floodwaters. The biggest problem in stemming the outflow is the changing tide of politics and the absence of money.

I'll end on a happy note. I love food. Period. Particularly seafood. One of the things that I take most personally and worry about the most is the environmental impact that Katrina and Rita will have long term on the seafood industry and our ongoing trouble with coastal erosion. So, when the Fiery One was asking where I wanted to go for dinner (the options were pretty limited...about 1 in 20 restaurants are back in business), I wanted to go for seafood and somewhere off the beaten track. I love dives. Scary, dingy, authentic joints where the grease hovers in the air and there is a roll of paper towels on the table instead of cloth napkins. The Fiery One had just the place and we had a great meal...blackened redfish for me and her husband and a big fried platter for her. Plastic table cloths, rickety chairs and a fresh fish market next door. My kind of place. After we were done, the Fiery One walked out with her half finished beer and sunk into a plastic lounge chair outside in a heap. With a big sigh and a bigger grin, she said "It is so good to be home." That was thanks enough for me. It is done.

Because the blogging community at New International Times is, well, international, many of the posters grappled with how surreal the images from New Orleans were -- given their previous views of American life. One poster asked the especially important question.

It just seems so surreal and heartbreaking, to hear of all the devastation and the sort of half finished clearing up that has gone on. It seems as if the heart has been knocked out and no one can or wants to live there any more. Personally if I had a job and 5 restaurants with seafood I could manage. But I would be changed forever by the experience.

So many details utterly alien to me as well, like the American cars, the firearms, the houses but then I see the view from your office block and I see the same world. I have a similar view of the sea from my apartment.

It is the huge flooding that has killed New Orleans, and it seems as though it could have been prevented? Is there a word for murder of society?

Using just my office as a tiny microsm of the bigger picture, the re-occupation of New Orleans is characterized by hardy souls trying to stick it out at all costs, but the toll is rising.

ePluribus Contributors and Fact Checkers: Welshman, JeninRI, Standingup, Kfred, Vivian, Greyhawk, roxy and cho
about the author: Polydactyl dons her blogger's hat in Central Louisiana between shifts as a wife, mom, cat-herder and computer healer.
photo and song credits: Sheldon Morton, Polydactyl, G. Fesmire/dp design, David Rovics