They’re throwing Mardi Gras beads again, so many strands, they’re landing in tree branches and getting snagged on the trellised balconies of the French Quarter.
They’re adorning the arms of Spanish statues. Tourists are wearing them, but these days so are contractors and the National Guard. It’s hard to walk on Bourbon Street without stepping on them. You’re likely to crunch them underfoot, long necklaces of plastic pearls brightening the asphalt.
At the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter, Pat O’Brien’s is once again serving its syrupy, yet potent Hurricane cocktail. At Tropical Isle, you can get an equally potent Hand Grenade in a tall, plastic go-cup.
But walk to the end of Bourbon Street, take a left on Esplanade Avenue, a right on Rampart Street and head east. At first, the debris comes in bits: A small pile of siding. A rusted box spring. One taped-up refrigerator. At first, you find them in neat piles, in the front yard or outside on the curb.
There’s still a semblance of order. But keep going. It gets worse.
You pass an elegant sofa, the kind you might imagine a grand dame reclining in, sipping her mint julep. It is lodged in the middle of an intersection. A few miles farther, the innards of rotting houses spill out on both sides of the road.
Six months have passed since Katrina ravaged this city. For a half a year, its people have counted the dead (officially, 1,080 in Louisiana and 231 in Mississippi) and struggled mightily to keep their city among the living.
A slimmed-down Mardi Gras is testament to their success; a tour of the devastation that remains is testament to how far they have to go.
Hurricane Katrina created an estimated 60.3 million cubic yards of debris in Louisiana, 25 times as much as the ruins of the World Trade Center and enough to fill the Superdome more than 13 times. Of that, only 32 million cubic yards, or a bit more than half, has been removed.
Meanwhile, there are just under 2,000 people listed as missing. Some are not missing at all; they turned up, but their families never notified authorities. Hundreds of others, though, were very likely washed into the Gulf of Mexico or swept into Lake Pontchartrain or alligator-infested swamps, according to Dr. Louis Cataldie, Louisiana’s medical examiner. Still more may be buried in the rubble.
At a hurricane morgue near Baton Rouge, 86 bodies remain unidentified. State officials are trying to reach relatives for another 74 who’ve been identified but have no place to go.
Mayor Ray Nagin says a comparison to New York City should be a favorable one. “Let me remind you that after 9/11 in New York, it took them six to eight months to get out of the fog of what happened to them. And to date, there’s still a big hole in the ground. So when I look at everything that’s going on, I think we’re right on schedule,” he said.
Indeed, in the French Quarter and on St. Charles Avenue, on Magazine Street and in the plantation-style mansions of Uptown, life has moved on, though protective blue tarps that serve as roofs for many are a constant reminder of the work left to be done.
In the Quarter, uber chef Paul Prudhomme is blackening his signature redfish again. Bourbon House is shucking oysters, and Antoine’s, the 166-year-old dining icon, is dishing up plates of Pompano Pontchartrain with slices of tart lemon.
Yet even here, Katrina has left her mark. All three restaurants are short-handed. Antoine’s, which lost its $200,000 wine collection in the storm, is shifting its wine list away from French staples, embracing New World wines instead.
And look closely at the brass band playing outside Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen: The golden sheen on the tuba is gone, lost in the deluge at the musician’s house.
But in the flood zone, the destruction is not so subtle. Leave the French Quarter on Rampart and head east, toward the devastated Ninth and Lower Ninth wards and East New Orleans.
All around are the carcasses of flooded houses. Katrina laid waste to more than 215,000 homes. Many are abandoned, their doors wide open.
Only an estimated 189,000 of the city’s roughly 500,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned. For now, the city is overwhelmingly whiter and more affluent than it was before.
Affordable housing is scarce, and FEMA has only filled 48,158 of the 90,000 trailer requests it’s received from displaced families in Louisiana, leaving many to wait out their existence in places like Atlanta, Houston and Little Rock. With only 20 of 128 public schools now open, parents who can’t afford to send their children to private schools have no choice but to live elsewhere.
Children who have returned must wade through wreckage to get to school. “You never really get used to it,” said 18-year-old Mark Buchert, a senior at Brother Martin, an all-boys Catholic high school in the devastated Gentilly neighborhood.
The destruction gets worse. Keep driving as Rampart turns into St. Claude Avenue and you’ll go six miles before you pass a working traffic light. Broken signals swing from their poles like men hanging from gallows. Others blink red. Elsewhere, they lie on their side in intersections, blinking yellow.
Even with a diminished population, traffic at rush-hour is heavy. Many people living elsewhere temporarily return to the city each day to work at their jobs or to work on their homes, so the main arteries in and out of town are clogged. Add to the mix the large trucks used for the cleanup, and a commute from suburban New Orleans to the central business district that took 10 minutes before the storm can take 45 minutes now.
At night, the darkness is pervasive. Six months after the storm made landfall Aug. 29, a little over a third of the structures in the city have electricity. Even fewer have hot water or cooking gas.
Past the Industrial Canal, even farther east, is the cement slab upon which Carolyn Berryhill’s house used to sit. In the field of rubble,all that remains of her neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward, the 60-year-old “Miss Carolyn” recognizes the pieces of her house by their signature green color.
One piece of her home landed at the base of a nearby pecan tree, the same tree whose branches cradled Berryhill for 12 hours after a gush of water, the result of a broken levee, rushed into her parlor and blew apart her home like a bomb. She somehow floated to the tree and waved madly at rescuers in helicopters until they finally saw her and plucked her to safety.
In what used to be Berryhill’s backyard, an unchipped porcelain plate is half-filled with a meal of mud. The earth is still spongy, as if it hasn’t fully swallowed the storm’s waters. In it, a golden doorknob is embedded as if it’s about to open a door to the underworld. “A lot of people, they talk about coming back and rebuild,” she said. “Rebuild what? What can you rebuild out of this? What can you salvage out of this?”
A half block away, she finds what she thinks might be her stove.
On a parallel street, 71-year-old Gloria Jordan warns that if you walk much farther, “you’ll see things I pray to God you never see again.”
It’s a street where three people drowned in their attics, including a 12-year-old girl. Their bodies were found months later. “I have no appetite. It’s hard to eat these days,” says Jordan, frail like a leaf.
She joins her husband, Clarence, on what used to be their porch, now nothing but a concrete foundation. Jordan’s eyes gladden as she remembers how each morning she used to sip her coffee in a rocking chair and look out across her small garden of flowers. She wishes she could remember their names.
For now, she and Clarence are living with their daughter in White Castle, 73 miles west of New Orleans.
“Baby, I had a beautiful home,” said Jordan, who owned her house for 49 years. “It’s hard when you lived on your own for so many years and just like you pop your finger, or in the twinkling of an eye, you’re homeless.”
Her property is exactly the way the hurricane left it: Her husband’s suits were blown into a neighbor’s yard, still on hangers. His truck is on its side. Still waiting for her insurance check, she hasn’t even started clearing the debris.
Those who are rebuilding are largely the ones who can front the costs of repairs.
Contractor Darren Schmolke returned alone to his destroyed home after losing his wife in a car wreck during their evacuation to Florida. National Guard troops had roped off the posh Lakeview neighborhood where he raised his family.
Each time they chased him away, he would pretend to leave, walking instead around the block and returning through the back door. He worked nonstop to reassemble his house, a two-story colossus in granite, marble and brick. His neighborhood, where homes had water up to their roofs, is one of many that are now in limbo, waiting for government officials to determine whether residents can rebuild.
“After I lost my wife, I couldn’t sit around and wait,” Schmolke said. “I had to do something to get some control back over my life.”
Businesses that are rebuilding are running into another problem: a shortage of workers.
“Help Wanted” and “Now Hiring” signs are everywhere. They’re in the windows of unpretentious delis as well as cultural landmarks like Cafe du Monde, the 144-year-old institution that for generations has served New Orleanians its iconic beignets.
Call any New Orleans Domino’s and before you can order a pizza, you’ll first be asked to listen to a 20-second message recruiting new drivers.
“The problem is more basic than ‘where are the people?’ The problem is the people don’t have anywhere to live,” said Loren Scott, a professor emeritus of economics at Louisiana State University.
Corporations are housing workers in barge dorms, cruise ships, warehouses and converted train cars. Those that can afford to do so are buying trailers for their employees, as Paul Prudhomme did for everyone from his chief operating officer to his line cooks.
Susan Rudolph, a waitress at Cafe du Monde, slept in her truck when she first returned to the city – her husband in the driver’s seat, she in the passenger seat, and all they own packed tightly behind them.
Now, she begins her day at dawn inside her FEMA-funded motel room, scouring the classifieds for an affordable apartment. With one-bedrooms going for $1,500 and with landlords asking for first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit, getting into an apartment is a $4,500 investment – a tall order for someone waiting tables.
After a morning spent looking, she puts on a brave face and her white Cafe du Monde cap and smiles sweetly as she serves the hot-and-sticky beignets to chattering visitors.
“New Orleans has always been a tourist area, so we smile like clowns,” Rudolph said. “I hope one day there won’t be one tear in our eye.”
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