Dear readers of C&EN,
Yes, the weather is beautiful, the Hornets are in first place, and the annual week of debauchery known as Mardi Gras has returned to the French Quarter. But make no mistake, all is not well in New Orleans.
Two Halloweens ago, I came to the Crescent City and volunteered in the recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina. The work--throwing out ruined children’s toys, tearing down family photos with a crowbar, or reading FEMA markings on the front door of someone’s home—was hard to stomach. But helping was something I simply felt I had to do. Just writing about the experience brings back the choking smell and taste of the inside of damaged houses to the back of my throat.
Unfortunately, three years after the storm, not much has changed. Yesterday, I took a tour of the city with Isaiah Warner of LSU, his lovely wife Della, and Father Charles Andrus of Corpus Christi Church in the 7th Ward. As we traversed the damaged streets, I was able to return to places I saw—and worked in—before: Gentilly, Old Gentilly, Lakeview, the Upper 9th Ward, the Lower 9th Ward, and Ponchitrain Park. Swathes of land are sitting untended in these areas; it seems as if you are miles away from civilization rather than in a city. It looks all too familiar.
Aside from the building of the Musicians’ Village in the Upper 9th, progress has dragged its feet like a Jazz Funeral in these areas. Few people have returned, and many homes lay in the same state of decay they were left in following the storm. Sadly, there’s not much reason to think these still-damaged parts of the city will be revived. Southern University at New Orleans, for example, remains mostly shuttered, while across the highway, University of New Orleans students have returned to campus.
Just as astonishing is what I witnessed along the London Street Canal. Near the breech of this particular levee, no more than 10 feet away stood houses—some redone, some in their dilapidated poststorm state, and some works in progress. Children bounded on the street in the shadow of a wall rebuilt to do what it didn’t before: protect nearby citizens. I must say they are braver than I am.
There were a few minor, though positive signs. The refurbishing of Fats Domino’s house in the lower 9th Ward is heartwarming. This time, I did see more people than National Guard members in this part of town, which is also encouraging. And grass is again growing uninhibited around the foundations of swept-away homes in the Lower 9th Ward.
High-traffic tourist areas such as the French Quarter, Canal Street, and the Warehouse and Garden Districts may give the impression that the rebirth of the Crescent City is in full swing, the majority of the city is still struggling to overcome Katrina’s havoc. New Orleans deserves better.
I am proud to work for an organization that is holding a large conference here. This city thrived on tourism, and our presence is helping to bring that back. But we shouldn’t get too caught up in the green and purple celebratory “band-aid” in the part of the city you see on television. This city and history demands it of us.