Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Misery Tour


We took what locals have begun referring to as a “Misery Tour”  on Sunday. Lately I’ve been encouraged when we go to Napoleon or Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans. The streetlights on the entire route are now up and running, there are many FEMA trailers, lots of signs of rebuilding. I’d started feeling pretty good about the city’s future. Until Sunday.

We got off the Interstate at Elysian Fields. The streetlights were all working, although there were still many boarded up houses and closed businesses, their vacant front windows marked by a dirty water line. The telltale hatch marks of the rescue teams were still there, along with their tragic commentaries. (One dead black lab…) But still, here and there were houses with spiffy new coats of paint, new wicker chairs on their front porches. As we turned onto St. Claude and drove through the Bywater district, it got worse. Then we crossed the Industrial Canal into the Lower Ninth Ward.

Temporary stop signs still control traffic at major intersections. Electric poles lean at drunken angles, their wires dangling. Downed trees, their branches long dead and whitening under the fierce Louisiana sun, still half block some roads. Abandoned boats litter points of high ground. Most houses are still vacant, with no sign of life or reconstruction. The Ninth Ward is a largely African-American part of town, which has led some to portray Katrina as a mainly black tragedy. But if you drive through the Lower Ninth into St. Bernard parish, you’ll find yourself in Chalmette and Violet, a largely white area. And here the devastation is unimaginable.

Here are transformer stations standing empty. Cemeteries with their tombs knocked awry and split open. Mile after endless mile of shattered, empty homes. No blue tarps, no FEMA trailers, no people.

As we drove past these endless, silent testimonials to personal pain and loss on an epic scale, I found myself thinking of other devastated cities. Beirut. Baghdad. The ruined German cities I remember from my childhood in Europe in the Fifties.

In a week, it will have been a year since Katrina struck. I came home saddened, angry at a government that could cause this destruction by its mindless pandering to big oil and certain business interests, and then just walk away, and ashamed. Very, very ashamed.

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