In 1991, I made my first trip to New Orleans. A girlfriend and I spontaneously drove 15 hours south from Virginia, for Mardi Gras. I remember walking around downtown in awe of the uninhibited exuberance, the flashing of breasts and world-class drinking, the goofiness of the costumes and the giddiness of the music and dancing. It was like some pagan ritual, but to me -- the product of a Catholic school education -- it all seemed so amazingly colorful, so enviably uninhibited and self-assured.
My next trip to New Orleans, exactly 15 years later, was a far different experience.
Though I had enjoyed myself during that first visit, and always loved the music and history and the idea of New Orleans, I had not developed any particularly deep emotional connection to the place. That's why my visit in March of 2006, to start researching a book about Katrina's impact on a small private school outside the city, hit me so hard. I thought I knew what to expect. I had seen the news coverage of the storm, the aerial shots of flooding, the mayhem at the Superdome. But none of that prepared me for the horrific destruction and all the weariness and fear I saw in so many eyes.
In place of a defiantly raucous and cocky city, I found mostly sorrow.
Even six months after Katrina, the city's mood was still uneasy, and the war zone scenes remained...everywhere lay trash bags, abandoned cars, piles of wrecked lumber, mattresses and appliances. Electricity was still out in many areas, which meant useless traffic lights stared blankly at major four-way intersections. The air carried an edgy and uncertain vibe. Lingering signs of destruction and slow-moving repairs weren't here and there, they were everywhere: in the projects, along the waterfront, downtown, in the French Quarter, and in upscale suburbs. Driving around I felt tentative and nervous, as if the entire city was structurally unsound, as if the whole place might collapse or sink beneath my car. Signs of hope were few, and faint.
At times I felt my throat constrict and had to stop myself from crying. I thought: This is a major American city. Half a year after the storm, it still looked like Baghdad. Classified ads pleaded, Anyone knowing the whereabouts of so-and-so, please call . . . and job listings practically begged for workers, offering "better than pre-Katrina salaries."
I drove slowly through the Lower Ninth Ward, so terribly victimized by a levee break, and now something of a macabre destination for adventurous tourists. I filled my digital camera with images of upside-down houses, and some that came to rest in the middle of the road or atop cars. Later, when I showed them to family and friends, I realized that photographs couldn't capture the smell, the filth, the sadness. It looked as if some giant, malicious arm had come through and swept the neighborhood off the map. Like other sections of New Orleans, the Ninth Ward felt like a graveyard. A month after my visit, they were still finding bodies in those homes, day after day.
Indeed, as most of America seemed to move on, assuming that New Orleans was on the rise, the only thing rising was the body count, which by mid-2006 grew to 1,800.
Across many subsequent visits to the city, I saw very little improvement. The strippers returned to Bourbon Street and tourists cautiously came back to the French Quarter, but FEMA trailers remained home to far too many New Orleanians, well into 2007, even in the nicest of neighborhoods. Of the 120,000 temporary trailers that FEMA supplied to Louisiana and Mississippi, half are still occupied.
Despite the wishful thinking -- the "Lowe's now hiring" and "We Will Rebuild" billboards, and the newspaper ads about "looking forward" and "coming back" -- and despite other signs of hope, like rows of trees planted at an I-10 interchange and the Saints' pending return to the Superdome, there was a pervasive feeling of woe and loss, a feeling no positive slogans could easily fix.
President Bush did far too little to keep the nation's attention focused on what still needed to be done in New Orleans, despite his elaborately staged klieg-light appearance at Jackson Square, on Sept. 15, 2005, where he pledged "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen." With the second anniversary of the storm around the corner, the president's words bear repeating: "[T]onight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.''
That visit came more than two weeks after the storm, and 12 days after his insulting fly-over, when he peered out through a small Air Force One window and declared "it's got to be doubly devastating on the ground." Bush's New Orleans fly-over struck many as a wildly insufficient gesture, as if he didn't want to get his feet wet, or his hands dirty with the reality of the suffering, by actually visiting the city, the way he had so soon after the 9-11 attacks.
By comparison, it took just two days for Laura Bush to visit the Minneapolis bridge collapse (though at least she didn't claim that the tragedy was "working very well" for the victims, as Barbara Bush said of the "underprivileged" Katrina victims who'd been evacuated to Houston's Astrodome). Laura's husband appeared in Minneapolis the next day. But, as he had three days after Katrina, he toured the destruction by air, not by foot. This time, he apparently did not remark that down below must be "doubly devastating."
Of course, Bush wasn't alone in stoking America's change-the-channel attitude toward New Orleans. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested that a lot of the damaged city neighborhoods could simply be bulldozed, and Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker claimed that Katrina had "finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did it." Other theories posited that Katrina was God's way of punishing New Orleans for its decadent lifestyle.
Does that mean God is now punishing Minneapolis? If so, for what? Its lifestyle?
I revisited New Orleans many times through 2006 and 2007, most recently on July 28, and I continue to be awed that armies of garbage collectors aren't roaming the streets, cleaning up the mountains of wreckage, that the military isn't here helping to rebuild. New Orleanians I spoke with remain likewise baffled at the lack of progress, and many of them felt abandoned and hurt. Even two years later, the city is still in mourning, both for the physical losses and the sting of being forgotten by their government.
The conclusion I reached is that I know exactly why New Orleans isn't rebuilding, why America has chosen to forget, and maybe I've known it all along. New Orleans, as its mayor once claimed, is a chocolate city -- a chocolate city in a country desperate to think of itself as vanilla. I can sense that desperation when I hear talk of the New Orleans "scum," the talk that it's not the government's responsibility but it's up to "them" -- you people -- to fend for themselves. You people. You poor people. You poor black people.
After 9/11, we as a nation supported all federal efforts to help the city. No one said, "It's your problem, New York." No one blamed New York's lifestyle or its "scum." Race was not part of the equation. New Orleans continues to be ignored and mostly forgotten because its residents are those who have been historically ignored and forgotten. Some observers wonder if the administration's plan is just that, not to rebuild.
Douglas Brinkley, the Tulane University historian and author of The Great Deluge told The New York Times he thinks the Bush strategy is "deliberate inaction," with the goal being a smaller, less ethnic, more Republican-friendly city -- a whiter New Orleans. New Orleans was nearly 70 percent African-American before Katrina, but surveys have found that more whites have returned than blacks.
''The last blue state in the Old South is turning into a red state,'' Brinkley said.
And yet, what people don't realize about the lingering woes on New Orleans is that white and black, rich and poor continue to suffer.
In the suburb of Metairie, and its wealthier cousin, Old Metairie, which were spared the more horrific flooding that engulfed other neighborhoods but still soaked in water for two weeks, roofs remain covered in blue tarps and trailers still sit in hundreds of front yards beside storage boxes called "PODS" (portable on demand storage). By now, residents have connected pipes directly from their trailers to the city sewer system. Most of the trailers sit up on blocks, and some even have small decks built off the side, decorated with hanging plants and optimistically landscaped around the edges.
This is not the unemployed "riff-raff" waiting for government handouts. Some of these homeowners are members of Old Metairie Country Club. They are white and black alike. And like many thousands across Greater New Orleans, they continue to wait for insurance settlements and for the billions in federal aid president Bush promised nearly two years ago.
New Orleanians are a stoic people and, I've come to learn, independent, stubborn, and resilient. But they feel terribly abandoned, as if the rest of the country either doesn't know or doesn't want to know that they are still living in FEMA trailers, or with relatives, still trying to repair their gutted, mold-filled homes.
Maybe feelings of abandonment explain the patient kindness I've also witnessed. People make eye contact and nod hello. At four-way intersections still without traffic lights, drivers are solicitous and patient. They all seem to be looking out for each other, sharing subtle "we're in this together" gestures like those that occurred after 9/11.
And so, despite the slow rebirth and the ongoing painful signs of neglect, there simmers a cooperative spirit in New Orleans, where acts of everyday heroism shine through the devastation and loss. These seem to be part of the deeper story of a city that has a long, long way to go, but might just make it, with or without our help.
Neal Thompson is a veteran journalist who has worked for the Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, and St. Petersburg Times, and whose magazine stories have appeared in Outside, Esquire, Backpacker, Men's Health, and The Washington Post Magazine. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books, Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard, America's First Spaceman and Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels and the Birth of NASCAR. Thompson and his family live in the mountains outside Asheville, North Carolina.
Visit his website at www.nealthompson.com.