I arrived in New Orleans with a general curiosity as to what life was going to be like in the Crescent City. I’ve heard stories from friends and neighbors about the crazy night life and the amazing art and music scene, but I knew I had to experience the city firsthand to understand why it’s considered a natural treasure.
And, naturally, anyone traveling there today has to wonder about life Post Katrina. Has the city recovered? Is the damage noticeable? How are the locals recovering?
While driving in from the airport, I searched for visual signs of wreckage. The Super Dome looked fine, so did Canal Street. In the French Quarter it seemed like everything was back to normal — on a surface level, that is — with cabs, restaurants, hotels, tourists, all running and available like in any other city.
A walk down Bourbon Street’s main drag, and it felt like I stepped into Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Fluorescent signs advertise “DRINKS! NUDE! ALL NIGHT!” as people wandered from bar to bar, sipping cocktails and holding each other up so they don’t tip over. Seems like any other night, I thought.
The balconies that overlook the streets, spill over with tropical plants and lounge chairs. Storm shutters protect the locals inside from the street level sins. An open window and I get a glimpse of their world: the antique chairs, the grand chandliers, the Southern decadent lifestyle. The garden parties, the dinner parties, the Mardi Gras festivities.
The more time spent wandering the streets and talking to locals, and the farther I travel away from the French Quarter, the more I noticed what hasn’t been fixed … and those things that probably never will be. The boarded up homes, the leftover FEMA tarps, the water damage, the closed businesses.
“Some things have recovered,” says the young man who works at the hotel where I’m staying. “But it’ll take time before everything’s back to normal.”
Like many of the locals, he shares his story about Katrina with a sense of pride. He explains how he stayed behind with his father to wage the storm and to protect their home. Once the storm passed, he waded through deep waters and commandered a boat. Then the two of them paddled down Canal Street looking for other survivors and observed the wreckage, doing the work local and national officials ignored to do.
Eventually, he says, they got to Interstate 10 and flagged down a school bus that was transporting people to Baton Rouge. They even helped load others onto the bus, including a woman and her 5 children. She caught “the Holy Spirit” once on board, he said, blessing everyone and everything until she couldn’t breathe anymore.
These are the heroes overlooked by the media. The every day man just trying to survive but still willing to take the time to help each other, I think to myself.
This is a New Orleans saint, I realize. And I’m sure, no matter what, he’ll keep marching on!