Disaster tourism

I sold my house in the French Quarter three weeks before Katrina hit. I just went back to New Orleans to see what I missed.

Published October 14, 2005 1:00PM (EDT)

When Anderson Cooper announced he was leaving New Orleans, I knew it was time for me to come. How could I stay in New York without Anderson's stand-ups from the French Quarter to get me through the night? For the millions who now count ourselves exiles of New Orleans, Cooper's nightly display of outrage on CNN was a balm, a ministration, a prime-time expression of the disaster still ongoing in our hearts: heartache and anger and grief for the people who died, for the beloved city in ruins, the pitiful specter of destroyed lives and homes and businesses, the ruination of hundreds of thousands of people and all of their stuff.

But Anderson Cooper was tired. You could see it in the crinkles around his eyes, the tinny croak at the edge of his silvery voice. Who could blame him for wanting to leave? When he said he was heading back to New York, I knew it was the first sign that the country was ready to begin turning its back on the whole thing, and I just had to get down here. See, I had a house in the French Quarter until three weeks before Katrina, when I sold it. I still feel guilty about selling, even though the house stayed high and dry throughout the flood. I feel like the last guy to get off the Titanic before it sailed into history.

The only hotel taking reservations was a fancy place on Poydras Street that charged three times what I ever would have paid for a room in pre-catastrophic New Orleans. Along with a king-size bed, it offered no potable water, no cable TV, no daily maid service, no room service, all for $300 a night. What a deal! I'll take it! Click!

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Flying in, it seems almost the same great old, super-flat flood plain of a city as before, until we bank sharply and come around the west end of Lake Pontchartrain and I spy the huge traffic jam on Interstate 10 headed in from Baton Rouge. It is the first day Mayor Ray Nagin has invited the citizens of New Orleans to come back for a "look and leave," which means they can spend the day examining the ruins of their houses, as long as they get out before the 8 p.m. curfew. The interstate is clogged for miles with people headed in to see how bad it really is. It seems I will not be quite the lonesome Disaster Tourist I imagined myself when I filled my suitcase with antiseptic spray and distilled water, ramen noodles and granola bars -- the first time in my life I have ever taken food to New Orleans.

As the plane makes its final descent, I see that the cypresses in the swamps below are gray sticks, stripped of their leaves. Many of the houses in Kenner sport blue roofs -- bright, bright blue, the same blue as the blue dog in the paintings of George Rodrigue. These roofless houses have been covered with plastic sheeting, provided by FEMA's "Operation Blue Roof."

Ours is the only plane at the terminal, but otherwise things at the airport seem pretty normal, if slightly neutron-bombish. In the van on the way to the rental car place, I have a good view of vast temporary dumps growing in a field beyond the airport hotels. Giant yellow machines are arranging the debris into new pyramids. I'm reassured by the sight of these big machines at work -- evidence that some form of government has finally sprung into action to begin unbuilding the city.

The nice lady beside me in the van says she thinks her house on Claiborne is OK -- the first floor sits high off the ground and that intersection reportedly got only two or three feet of floodwater. But all three of her sisters live in New Orleans East. Their houses are completely destroyed. They're planning to stay on in Texas, with nothing for them here. "I'll probably go back to Texas, too," she says, "even though my house is probably OK. I like it here, but there's nobody left in New Orleans. It's no fun to be by yourself."

I wish her luck, she wishes me luck. I wish I had a disaster story to share with her.

I rent a car and drive into town, looking for signs of damage. I see some modern office buildings with their mirror-glass skins impressively shredded, but the ugly octagonal tower of the Landmark Hotel in Metairie, the one building in town I would like to see destroyed, seems to be untouched. Nature is not an architecture critic.

When you get downtown you don't have to look for the destruction because it's everywhere. The Superdome's wrecked roof is half-covered with white plastic sheeting, as if someone got tired halfway through the job and gave up. All down Poydras there's junk in the streets, and tall office buildings with half their windows blown out. At the hotel, they hand me a room key and a sheet of warnings, mostly to do with the undrinkable water and the lack of usual hotel services. I carry tiny bottles of complementary bottled water up to the room, put them down on the desk. I unpack, wander into the bathroom, and before I know what I'm doing I have brushed my teeth with the water from the faucet.

Only when I've finished does it dawn on me what I've done. Toxic floodwater? You're soaking in it!

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I try calling several friends, but their cellphones aren't working, so I decide to go have a look around before dark. The first people I want to check on are the sweet old man and his hard-of-hearing wife who ran a television repair shop in the Lower Ninth Ward. I took my TV to them because it was a cheap TV to begin with and their shop was called Dirt Cheap TV Repair. They were never able to fix it, but they were really nice about it.

I drive across the French Quarter, which looks fine and smells better than usual, then out St. Claude Avenue. Past Desire Street the disaster begins. Buildings on both sides of the street are flooded out, bombed out, burned down. A ski boat sits on the neutral ground in the middle of St. Claude. There's a flooded bus abandoned in midturn, cars with their doors open, dead dogs decomposing on the sidewalk.

At the Industrial Canal bridge, the men are wearing dark pants and T-shirts that say "Police." They turn me around politely. Nobody gets into the Lower Ninth without a press pass. I'm just a writer, not press. I make a U-turn. I'm driving around listening to United Radio of New Orleans when I hear that more than 1,000 people died across that bridge in the Lower Ninth and St. Bernard Parish. United Radio is a consortium of local stations that have banded together to broadcast round-the-clock disaster news, information, advice. It's a community-wide therapy session for people without cable, those still without electricity five weeks after the storm, listening in on their transistors, calling in on their cellphones.

Here and there, weird little traffic jams for no reason. Then 30 blocks in a row without another car.

The flooded neighborhoods look bad, but not as bad as they'll look in a couple of months, when all the condemned houses start coming down. Right now they seem to be frozen in place by their waterlines. Many of the houses look OK, but the waterline is high on the wall and they have pink stickers that mean they've been declared uninhabitable. A strange whitish dust coats everything, like a stage set in an apocalypse movie. The cars appear to have been bathed in a caustic solution that has sandblasted their glass. They sit at odd angles here and there on the ground and in the streets, where they came to rest when the floodwaters receded. The poor blown-open houses with their guts spewed out onto the sidewalk! Creole cottages, shotguns, camelbacks, doubles -- block after block, on and on for miles. Some houses are missing their fronts or their sides, some are completely caved in. There's one that looks fine, but then I see the number 5 five spray-painted in the lower-left-hand quadrant, meaning five dead people got pulled out of there.

There's a new New Orleans smell: vomity and moldy and dead, a reek of rotting garbage, occasional notes of putrefying flesh.

The smell makes me feel guilty. I am nothing but a Disaster Tourist with my oldest running shoes on and my camera ready, eagerly searching out the most impressive damage for my snapshots. A fire truck roars by, and another. I pull over to let them pass, and here comes another, and another, on and on until 18 fire trucks have roared past me. And now I can't help myself, now the Disaster Tourist also becomes an Ambulance Chaser, a Fire Gawker, roaring after the firemen in my rented Taurus.

The burning house is in the Gentilly district. It was already ruined before it caught fire, but still it's sad the way the firemen don't even try to put it out. They just play their streams of water on the broken houses on either side, to keep the fire from spreading.

Some folks have been sneaking back into New Orleans to set fire to the remains of their homes because the insurance won't pay for flood damage but will pay for fire. The radio has been warning people not to try it, because the insurance investigators are good and will find you.

On United Radio the talk is about what to do if you have to use unrefrigerated insulin, how to safely enter a demolished house, how to get children to talk about their hurricane dreams, how you have to get in line at 2 o'clock in the morning if you want to get through the Red Cross application line by the end of the next afternoon. A caller asks if it's true that some preachers are claiming God brought the hurricane down upon New Orleans because of its sinful ways, the gays and the Mardi Gras and the drunks and Bourbon Street and all that. If that was actually God's intention, the man says, then God's aim was pretty bad, because Bourbon Street is one of the only places in town that stayed high and dry.

I drive out to City Park, to the lakefront where I used to ride my bike, down Carrollton where many of the old homes were undergoing restoration before the disaster, then up onto the interstate and out for the suburbia of New Orleans East.

Everything is devastation, mile after mile of Wal-Marts and McDonald's and churches, new-car dealer lots, thousands of brand-new ruined cars awaiting the people who will buy them for pennies on the dollar, clean them up and try to pass them off as unflooded cars -- coming soon to a used-car lot near you!

I never thought I would see a wild boar in an advanced state of rot in the active right lane of an interstate highway. Within the space of a mile I see four of them. This strikes me as surreal, and vaguely ironic, because everything in the hurricane zone is so surreal that it seems ironic, and none of it is. What it is is so tragic that you just can't stand to think about it anymore.

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When I get back to the hotel, the lot is full, and I ask the attendant if I can park on the street. He smiles. "You can park anywhere you damn well please."

"I guess nobody's writing tickets, huh?"

He points to the middle of the street, formerly one of New Orleans' busiest thoroughfares. "You can park in the left-turn lane in the middle of Poydras," he says. "It's a new day."

There is something kind of fun about anarchy, if it's the kind of anarchy that includes lots of National Guardsmen riding around in Humvees, turning a blind eye to everything but looting. There's nothing fun about anarchy if there are no National Guardsmen in sight and you're one of the frightened people stranded at the Superdome or the Convention Center or on the I-10 bridges day after day with no food, water or medical attention. Nothing fun about being told that buses are waiting for you on the other side of the Mississippi, walking all the way across that long, high bridge, down the other side, only to discover that the bridge you have crossed has become the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the town on the other side has turned into Selma circa 1965, complete with gun-toting sheriffs shooting into the air and screaming people running for their lives.

But if it's just a matter of parking in the middle of Poydras -- if it's a matter of running every red light in town, even in the neighborhoods where the juice is back on and the red lights are working again -- anarchy can be vaguely exhilarating. The city feels depopulated, except for the Guardsmen and the dump truck drivers and the workers and debris-removal specialists driving around in their huge pickup trucks. All day these men repair infrastructure. At night they head down to Bourbon Street to get drunk and hoot at the strippers at Big Daddy's.

Late that night, sitting at a stoplight beside a Humvee with four Guardsmen from Kentucky, I rev the engine of my Taurus. The driver of the Humvee revs his.

"Don't you know there's a curfew?" the driver says pleasantly.

"Can I run the red light?" is my answer. "That way I'll get home faster."

He grins. "Go ahead. I'm not allowed to shoot you for that." We both put the pedal to the metal and screech through the light. The Humvee easily wins.

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The last angry black man was seen on national television on or about Sept. 5, when the National Guard finally arrived, along with food and water, and buses to evacuate the people trapped at the Superdome and the Convention Center. After that, the only African-Americans allowed on television were cute little homeless kids, sweet little old grandmothers, and Oprah.

The angry black men and women were dispersed to shelters all over the South, far from Anderson Cooper and the TV cameras. America had five straight days of watching angry black people (and the anchors who wept for them), and it was more than anybody could bear. We got them off our screens and out of our homes; we sent in the Guard and packed them off to Texas and Georgia and Oklahoma and Arkansas and places even farther away. Once they were no longer on TV shouting at us, we were free to begin forgetting them, to rationalize for ourselves how thin is the line between civilization as we imagine it to be and civilization as it is practiced in the streets of Mogadishu and New Orleans.

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Should New Orleans be rebuilt? CNN.com readers respond:

New Orleans has always had a European feel to it. Why not enhance this by making it like Venice, Italy? Leave the areas that didn't flood as they are and make the rest like Venice, with canals for roads and houses and properties on concrete "islands."

-- Charmaine, Hattiesburg, Miss.

Let the "bowl" fill in naturally with water and build homes around this new lake. Name the lake appropriately and remake New Orleans from the bottom up.

-- Sherry, Milan, Mich.

Flatten the slums, build staff quarters, give the French Quarter and the surrounding areas to Disney or Harrah's and turn it into a play park for grown-ups.

-- Phil, Houston, Texas

A fire truck full of firemen rolls down Bourbon Street, grinning and waving at the catcalls and wolf whistles they're getting from the gay crowd drinking beers on the sidewalk in front of the Bourbon Pub. The curfew has been extended to midnight starting tonight, so people can go out to dinner. One by one, the restaurants are opening.

Over on St. Louis Street, Gennifer Flowers' most recent ex-husband, Finis Shelnutt, is out on the sidewalk in front of his club, across the street from Antoine's, the most famous old-line restaurant in town. (George W. Bush eats there.) Finis is doling out red beans and rice and cold beer to all who come by, as he has been doing since a couple of days after the storm. His red beans and rice is fiery but excellent, and he refuses to accept a nickel for it.

As the evening wears on, he adds more shakes from his giant Tabasco bottle. By 9 o'clock the dish is too hot to eat, but people are eating it anyway, sweating and cursing and laughing at each other.

My friend Stephanie says the rebirth of the French Quarter began when Shelnutt went to the police around the corner and announced, with all due respect to them and their curfew, that he intended to put a table with a white tablecloth out on his sidewalk. They didn't try to stop him. Now there are five tables filled with people stopping by to eat and drink for free, courtesy of Shelnutt. He has found himself in the good graces of the owners of Antoine's because he helped save the restaurant's priceless wine collection when the back wall of the building collapsed in the storm. Shelnutt has been informed he won't be paying for dinner at Antoine's.

There's a party in the air. Today New Orleans' tap water has been declared potable, fit to shower and brush your teeth in at least, if still perhaps a bit bleachy. Since water is the essential ingredient of ice, and ice is necessary for making cocktails, the joint begins to jump a bit. Over at Bacco, Ralph Brennan's place in the W Hotel, I stand in line with some big-time developers, waiting to eat T-bones off Styrofoam plates with plastic forks and knives. At the bar, city employees anxiously check their Blackberries to see if they are among the newly laid-off; Mayor Nagin just announced that 3,000 city workers, half the workforce, will lose their jobs because the city is broke. How any city can hope to recover from such a calamity with only half its civic employees is an issue he did not address.

There's lots of talk about how the Brennan restaurant family managed to keep all their 400-odd workers employed at full salary throughout the crisis, thanks to Ella Brennan's managerial smarts and good business-interruption insurance. There's some muttering about another more famous, and wealthy, restaurateur who reportedly laid off a lot of people, and hasn't been all that visible since the storm. Perhaps the criticism is unfair, or perhaps it deserves to be kicked up a notch.

Everybody's proud of chef Paul Prudhomme, inventor of the high-end Cajun restaurant, who set up a kitchen at his suburban warehouse and has fed thousands of Guardsmen, police, firefighters and volunteers, free of charge. By late Friday night, Bourbon Street is rocking -- not just with Guardsmen and power-company workers. Actual locals are crawling out of the wreckage, coming out into the night to celebrate the return of their fellow human beings.

In 72 hours the ghost town has taken on the air of a boomtown. Lots of cars on the street, and no place to park. A taxi cruises by, the first I've seen. Drunken people weave down the sidewalk, struggling against the force of gravity. Either the vomity smell has gotten better or I've grown used to it.

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The next day Stephanie and I are driving through Bywater, checking the houses of her friends who are still out of town, so she can call and tell them their places are still OK. I am reading the spray-painted tags left by the rescue crews in their search-and-rescue missions. We pass a door the inhabitant has tagged himself -- with a big pink X and the inscription "9/6. 2 CATS. 1 DRAG QUEEN."

Reconstruction is in the air. It's a word that comes easily to a lot of people now -- without irony. On United Radio, small businessmen are shouting into the microphones, decrying the carpetbaggers who have come down here with their huge no-bid contracts, these guys from Montana or New Jersey or wherever, getting paid $22 an hour when you've got plenty of local guys out of work who would gladly do the job for half the price! You can almost hear the whine of the lumber mill as Scarlett heads out alone in her buggy to take a drive through Shantytown.

We round a corner in the Bywater and suddenly it is all in and on us, around us, wrapping us in hideous arms: a stink so disgusting, so meaty and rank and foul that it can only have come from something that died not very recently.

"Some kind of animal," Stephanie says.

"You hope it's an animal," I say.

We get the car windows up too late. The smell stays in our noses longer than you might think.

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I e-mail my friend Sara, who is coming back tomorrow to her partially flooded house for the first time in five long, hot, electricity-free September weeks.

"It is both better and worse than you think," I warn. "The main thing they say is, if you had a lot of sort of meat-oriented food or fresh food in the fridge, don't open it. Just take it on out to the curb with some tape around it to keep it from coming open. You will see a whole lotta fridges on the corners. Someone is going around marking them all with the words "Voodoo" or "Voodoo 5 Here Today." Perhaps it is an anti-maggot curse. Can't wait to see you."

Sara replies: "Hey honey, my fridge was filled, to the brim, with a huge load I'd just bought at Whole Foods. Almost no meat except for the very worst -- some bacon in the bottom bin. The problem is, I have a vague recollection we had to take the door off the thing to get it in the house. I got duct tape just in case I can't haul it out. But I may have no choice but to clean that sucker."

Somehow I just know: This means I have to help.

Thank God she brings her brother Randy. The next day the three of us go into her house. The room that flooded is bad, not as bad as it could have been. But bad enough. Horrible.

There's mold crawling up all the walls, toxic sludge washed into the corners. All the appliances are ruined, as is a cedar chest full of letters and drawings and a wedding dress and childhood mementos of her son, Isaac.

The kitchen is full of flies. At the foot of the fridge is an awful brown pool. Flies buzz up from the bottom of the fridge, along with some other weird little flying things I've never seen before. I don't want to know what they are.

Randy and I strap duct tape around the refrigerator and crab-walk it over to the door. There's a sickening slosh from inside.

The handles protruding from the front make the fridge too wide to go through the door.

Randy takes a hammer to the handles. All our jostling and wrestling has stirred up the bad things inside. Stuff is leaking out. A bilious greenish-brownish juice, the color of your insides if you have been dead a long time. Pouring out. Get it out of here. We go for the gas masks and poke Vicks VapoRub up our noses. We manhandle it out to the sidewalk with an excess of grunting and cussing and down to the corner, where it now joins the many thousands of abandoned refrigerators lining the streets of New Orleans. Sara is waiting for the "Voodoo" tagger to come by.

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The Lower Ninth Ward is still off limits, and I don't yet know what happened to the couple from Dirt Cheap TV Repair. Their phone just rings and rings. The airline won't let me change my reservation and the hotel needs my room. It's time to go home.

On my way to the airport I drive through Mid-City again. For some reason I'm drawn to these devastated neighborhoods with the sad heaps of rubble and belongings. Piles of Mardi Gras costumes under waterlogged sofas, that kind of thing. Here and there are young couples in gas masks and homemade hazmat gear, staggering out to the curb with another one of those toxic fridges, adding to the pile of formerly treasured belongings that have now become ghastly. They sift through the muck for jewelry, and mostly find there is nothing to save.

When I sold my house and moved out of New Orleans, I left one thing behind -- my baby grand piano, for sale on consignment at a store in Metairie. I checked the address on the satellite picture on Google Earth, and that strip mall looked pretty darned wet to me. Before I go home, I allow myself one selfish errand.

From the looks of the waterline on the glass and on the legs of the pianos, Bitsie Werlein's piano store took on two to three feet of water. My piano is one of those in there coated with the white dust. I wonder if Bitsie's insurance will cover my piano. I know mine won't. Ah well, if I've lost my piano, at least I've lost something. Somehow that idea is satisfying.

I get on the bus from the rental car office to the airport. The driver is a polite gentleman in his 50s, with wire-rimmed glasses and a soft, deep voice.

"How'd you come out in the storm?" I ask. Nobody except the United Radio announcers refers to the storm as "Katrina." It's either "the storm" or "the hurricane," which is locally pronounced HER-uh-kin. Katrina doesn't seem like the name of a killer storm. Can we petition for a retroactive name change? Camille: Now there was a name for a storm.

"Well sir," the driver says, "I got luckier than most. We had part of the roof off, and some water got in. But no floodwater."

"I guess that is lucky."

"Yes sir."

I glance out at the enormous pyramid of debris. In four days the piles have grown to a height of 50 feet, three vast new landfills, each one four or five acres in size. And the demolition has only just begun.

The driver says, "You been over in New Orleans?"

"Yes sir. It's pretty bad."

"How much of the city do you reckon got flooded?" he says.

I think maybe he's joking. Or about to tell me his theory about the levee breaks. But no, he simply has no idea. He lives about 10 miles west of the airport. Hasn't been to New Orleans. Hasn't had electricity in five weeks. Hasn't seen any news. Doesn't know the first thing about Anderson Cooper.

"They say about 60 percent of the city got flooded bad," I tell him. "Maybe a little more."

"Do you mean it?" He looks shocked. "That sure is a whole lot of people."

"Yes it is," I say.

"Where are they all gonna stay?" he says. "If they can't go back to their houses, where will they live?"

I can't believe he doesn't know anything about what the TV keeps calling the most expensive disaster in American history, which took place a few miles from where we are standing.

"I don't know," I say, treading carefully. "I guess they'll live in temporary housing for now. House trailers. Like that."

"Look like the government might help 'em or something," he says.

I say, yeah, you would think so.

"That's why I thought you had a government for," he says. "What airline was that?"

"American," I say.

He stops the van and opens the door. "You have a beautiful day now, sir."

In the airport I see a man with a skinny kid about 10 years old, and I realize he's the first child I've seen in five days. New Orleans is too toxic for children at the moment. But it rains a lot down here. Eventually the rain will wash the city clean, or if not exactly clean, maybe the same kind of dirty as before. The bones of the city are there. Great swaths of it will have to be bulldozed, but even greater swaths of it will not. America can bring New Orleans back to life, but we have to really want to do it, and as I look around this country and the way things are going, I think of Anderson Cooper sleeping comfortably once again in his nice warm bed in New York. And I am not so sure we have the will to stay there and do all the work it will take.

When I land in New York, I call Sara's cell in New Orleans. She picks up on the second ring. I ask what she's doing.

"I'm out in the front yard," she says, "in my lumberjack shirt and my big boots, and I am washing my wedding dress in a great big bowl. I'm gonna hang it up in the tree to let it dry."

Maybe New Orleans will be OK after all.

By Mark Childress

Mark Childress is the author of six novels, including "Crazy in Alabama" and "Gone for Good." Like many people, he uses the "Eudora" e-mail program, which is named for Miss Welty.

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Hurricanes Natural Disasters New Orleans