Friday, October 28, 2005

Wind from an Enemy Sky

  • Part 1: A Pilgrimage

  • Part 2: The Journey

  • Part 3: Wind from an Enemy Sky

  • And Floods from an Enemy Sea

    That wasn't what D'Arcy McNickle was talking about in his books, but that's what New Orleans looks like right now.

    For a while, driving on Interstate 12 on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain will decieve you into thinking you're through the worst of the damaged areas. Though you still see downed trees and roofs without shingles, the canopy returns a lush green. The Interstate blacktop is very smooth, and the ride becomes quite peaceful. You can almost imagine the Crescent City across the river, and if the damage here isn't that bad, it can't be that much worse in the City.

    Looks are decieiving. First of all, the North Shore did not escape unscathed by any stretch of the imagination. There is just as much damage here as there is in Mississippi, it is just hidden behind the trees when looking from the interstate. The wind was blowing a different direction here, and may not have been as fierce, having expended itself over the areas of Mississippi I described earlier.

    My father and I turn onto the Causeway, where even on a day as clear as this, you can't see the South Shore and the City. This, one of the longest bridges in the world, looks like it falls right off the end. It is places like these where you understand why Cristobal Colon had to beg the Spanish Crown to fund his expedition to the Indies. One of the results of that journey await us on the other end of this span.

    The Northern Capital of the Carribean, this is New Orleans. Palm trees, spanish moss, ironwork balconies. Gas lamps. Old World streets and American drive thru menus. Jazz and blues. Overpriced artworks. The smell of jasmine and magnolia and the sweet sticky stink of the river. This is my own Shangri La, the place in the world I most want to live; one of the few places in the world where my envy is quelled and I feel at home.

    I have known her as a relative, as so many of my family have come from here. I have known her as a tourist, in the bright lights of Mardi Gras 2000. I have known her as a starry eyed boy of 12 years, walking the streets of the quarter after my Cousin Catherine's rehersal dinner at Antoine's. I have known her as a guest, as my brother and I have visited these streets and stayed in my Aunt's home. The last time I was there in May, I introduced to her two of my best friends. Every visit has written a legend into my life, and the lives of my friends who share those stories with me.

    Crossing the bridge, the first thing you notice is not the smell, but the traffic. I expected something different than sitting on Jefferson Highway, though sometimes what you can see from the road tell stories just as important as those on the ground.

    There is new signage everywhere. Construction crews: Drywall Hangers! Window Installers! Shingles: Slate and Otherwise! Cleanup crews: House Gutting! Carpet Removal! Rebuilding supplies: Plywood! Pipes! Delivered! If the election were held today, and votes were based on only the wireframe signs that dot the sides of highways, House Gutting would win over Various Supplies in a landslide, though Now Open would be the glamour candidate.

    The debris gets to you. It is hard to see what is livable and what is not. Things that aren't moving could go either way. The giant, and that is not an understatement, mounds of refuse are striking. Think of any spring cleaning you've ever done where you just threw out everything. Now imagine the leftovers from the last day in the dorms, and all the trash that is moved outside. Add all that together and then drop a house and two cars on top of it from a height of 20 feet. That's what the piles look like. Thats more or less what the piles are.

    This goes on for miles.

    And miles.

    You learn very quickly to see beyond those piles, so you can get some idea of the damage to structures, vehicles and trees. You look for the waterline. It is best when viewed against a lightly colored house. Even my colorblind eyes can tell that the water in this neighborhood left a bluish tint, in this neighborhood an orange hue. On brick and dark colored houses, that line disappears.

    You start to understand how high the flood was by the debris in the front yard. Refrigerators only: little or no flood here. Refrigerators, other electrical appliances and furniture, little flood, brick house. Appliances, furniture, walls, curtains, toys: the flood was serious, "basement" (in New Orleans this is usually a sunken first floor) or "first floor" (nebulous term based on the architechture of the home, the existence of the aforementioned "basement" or just a raised foundation) were flooded to some extent. There are some cars that are illegally parked, and dirty looking, covered in dust. These were usually inundated.

    Then there are houses with nothing on the curbs. These houses were total losses, and the owners may not be making a return trip.

    On every door or porch, and on the sidewalks in front of many houses there is some sort of sigil left by the fast moving squads of National and Coast Guard units, or perhaps some other government entity. When given the green light, these men (and women) made up for time missed in the confusion of those first days and braved flood waters that were still rising in some places in a mad rush to clear these homes of living people. The sigils, left in spray paint or chalk, kept them from rechecking homes during the hours when double work could cost lives.

    Next to these sigils, usually a few letters with no obvious meaning (with the exception of DB for "Dead Body") are small paragraphs in green spray paint. "Found 2 Cat, 1 Inside 1 Out, Caught, Contact XXX-XXXX for info." These were the Humane Societies and ASPCA's who went house to house bringing people's pets out of the flood. The National Guard was saving lives and could waste no time on pets. But they thanked the animal rescuers, because cats and dogs scream out in the night for rescue just like humans. Anytime something screams, you want to help, and that is the stuff of nightmares. But this was a dual rescue effort, the pros getting out the people, volunteers going in after pets. Heroes one and all.

    "No cat. Tracks. Left food" Is a common paragraph.

    The streetcars aren't running on St Charles. The lines are down, and too many emergency vehicles need places to park. Too many places, people need space to put the things that can't be salvaged. Temporary stop signs have replaced traffic lights, but that seems to be going well. The wind damage is also extreme. Trees down everywhere, branches down everywhere, signs ripped down and turned the wrong way.

    There were many one way street signs in the Garden District. They were mere suggestions then, they are useless now.

    Some of the houses look like they have recieved some sort of indirect machine gun fire, or the slashings of a horror film. These are from the traditional slate shingles on the roofs of New Orleans. Like ninja stars and steak knives they were hurled through the streets of the city. You shudder when you think what those flying blades could do to the skin.

    That is what New Orleans looked like when I got there. We didn't even get out to the East End, Lakeview or the 9th Ward. But my Uncle has been to India, Nepal, and Afganistan in 1978. He watched Kabul as she was shelled by the Communists. He says the east of town is the worst he's ever seen. I'll take his expert word on that.

    But that's not all you see;

    There are people and crews climbing all over houses and businesses. If ants could wear hard hats and masks, and you kicked up their hill, this is what it would look like. Noone rests during daylight. Everyone who has a civilian look about them waves to the Humvees and Police Cruisers on patrol. Those smiles are genuine, as are the smiles back. Though the boys (and girls) don't seem to mind when folks cheer the arrival of utilities and refuse pick up. That just brings good natured laughter.

    I thought, suddenly and as I saw this: this is the reception our boys and girls were promised in Baghdad. I take more pride than I can say in the fact that the South was able to deliver on that promise. Apples and oranges to be sure, but I'll be damned if that wasn't something to see. I'll be damned if that ain't something, in and of itself, to believe in.

    We made a right turn off of St. Charles into Uptown, there was a FEMA station at the corner, and people lined up for Red Cross meals. My Aunt and Uncle live a few short blocks away.

    1 comment:

    patsbrother said...

    In the interest of the exacting precision law school encourages, I submit that you did not know those streets as a starry-eyed twelve-year-old, but as a starry-eyed fourteen-year-old, if starry-eyed were ye. It was summer 1992, the dinner at Antoine's remains the largest rehearsal dinner I have attended, and, if memory serves, that walk down Bourbon Street was the only full-family walk the Armstrongs ever took. What wonders skeezy billboards do weave. What wonders.