Hard to believe but it’s been ten years since America witnessed one of the nation’s greatest natural disasters. At least it began as a natural disaster but unfortunately it quickly became a man-made fiasco.
I’m a big fan of New Orleans, having been there on many occasions. The first visit was somewhat an accident. We took a trip to the Mississippi coast and decided to visit the Cajun country in rural Louisiana. Driving along the coastal road we suddenly found ourselves on Rampart Street with the French Quarter in full view. I had just read a story about NOLA being the nation’s murder capital and had meant to avoid it during our trip. Nevertheless, here we were so we decided to park the van and check it out a little. We ended up getting a hotel on Rue Bienville in the heart of the Quarter. We only spent the night but had a great time and left with a new perspective.
Several years later I went back for an extended week-long stay. During that time I got to know the city pretty well by taking a couple of organized tours and going off on my own. The place was beautiful, the people beautiful, the food fantastic, and along with the aroma of stale beer in the morning, NOLA reeked with the aroma of history. It is one of the oldest communities in North America and much of what the French Quarter is today is what it was three hundred years ago.
NOLA is so popular because it is so different. There is an excitement and spontaneity that isn’t found in most places. The Creoles and Cajuns aren’t afraid to have fun and they don’t always need a reason. On post Katrina visit I was coming out of a favorite restaurant having finished an excellent lunch and behold, a parade, along with a jazz marching band, was coming down the street. As it went by a marcher came up to and handed me a fist full of beaded necklaces. I asked why the parade and she replied, “Why not? Isn’t it fun?” Well, yes it was and why not?
I was in NOLA several times before Katrina and three times since the city was devastated by flooding. I’ve seen it at its best, its worst, and I’m watching it re-emerge from the muck, mire and mud.
I’m not going to relive the disaster that followed the flooding except to say that many of us should be ashamed of how we reacted. The majority of Americans did what they always do, reached into their hearts and helped the victims in any way they could. Volunteers poured into the region to feed and shelter the victims, people in far away places opened their homes to provide temporary homes. and armies of volunteers showed up with hammer and saw in hand. Too many Americans, however, saw Katrina as a giant eraser wiping clean a blackboard they didn’t know or understand. On more than one occasion during the days after the flood I experienced people I knew voicing horrible things about the flood’s victims. One person told me it was God’s will, His way of cleaning up all that squaller. It became immediately obvious this man was referring to the black residents of the city. Another person told me it was “those people’s” fault because they didn’t get out when warned. Well first of all, for the most part those people were those extremely poor people without the financial and physical means to get out. Secondly they were told by the local authorities to seek shelter at the Super Dome and the Convention Center. In other words, they followed orders.
I’ve not spoken to either of those people since observing just how racist, insensitive, and inhumane they were/are. I’ve also never forgotten the sights and sounds of those thousands of human beings stuffed into those storm “shelters” and then abandoned by their governments. I’ll never understand why an Army helicopter didn’t air lift water, food, and sanitary wipes onto the the roofs of those shelters.
NOLA is on the rebound. The population is approaching pre Katrina numbers and the economy is growing, some say booming. The Saints won the Superbowl and the revelers have brought Bourbon Street back to life. Whether it will ever be the same is anyone’s guess. Most of the Ninth Ward is still vacant and the notoriously corrupt governments of Louisiana are still notoriously corrupt. Billions were allocated to reconstruct the city and bring the people back but much of that has resulted in a gentrification that is keeping the displaced poor forever displaced.
I am planning another trip to NOLA in the near future and one of the things I’ll do is head for the Lower 9th Ward and the Treme. I want to see for myself how much progress has been made since I was their in 2014. Before I do that, however, I’ll be stopping in Treme for some of Willie Mae’s “wet battered” fried chicken. It is really the best fried chicken on earth and reason enough to want to see New Orleans get another lease on life.