New Orleans, Louisiana
Even before Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana it was one of the feeblest states of the United States. It is stricken with poverty, exploited by big business with little local benefit, and it ranks consistently near the bottom in almost every metric used to judge public wellbeing. Unlike its next door neighbor Mississippi, Louisiana has a trump card. It has New Orleans.
I have visited New Orleans – Nawlins to locals, and I’m not a local - five times in my life, from childhood to whatever stunted form of adulthood I currently enjoy. Each time I visited I found something new to love. Straight away, take everything you know about New Orleans from Girls Gone Wild videos and throw it out with the bad gumbo. Lifting your shirts for beads is fine, but New Orleans is so complexly seedy that to think those bared bosoms and beads have become it most enduring image is a little depressing.
New Orleans is hot and sultry, like a big, gross, beery French kiss all over your body. It is the birthplace of jazz and gumbo. It is surrounded by swamps and plantations and legendary pirates. It has inspired much better writers than yours truly to wax poetic for their entire careers.
It is also home to everything Cajun and the homeland of the Creole people. Creole people can be white, black, or often somewhere in between like a good cup of coffee. Creole people are like everyone else, but they proudly speak some weird French, have funny accents, and they make you gently aware that they enjoy life more than you possibly could.
The French Quarter, the city’s tourist centerpiece, is the exact opposite in almost every way of Florida’s Disney World. Disney sprang up unbidden in the middle of nowhere to offer clean-cut fun for the whole family. The French Quarter is ancient, reveling in its sepulchral creepiness, and its reputation is as organic as the churned bones in one of its above-ground graveyards.
The French Quarter is literally in the midst of some of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods, and doughy travelers in khaki shorts are warned to beware the danger lurking around every corner at night. I never saw any danger in my visits, but the sense of impending doom is real. It’s there in the skulls and voodoo shops and it’s reflected in the broken bottles topping brick walls as ersatz barbed wire.
The French Quarter resembles a post apocalyptic Parisian neighborhood, with decaying balconies and tiny bars where you can hear the distinctive notes of “House of the Rising Sun” or “Beale Street Blues” drifting into the booze-stained bricks of Bourbon Street. Strip clubs, tiny hotels, shrimp shacks, and a convenience store selling bootleg t-shirts can all share a single block with a high-end art gallery and a miniature museum. The money that flows into the French Quarter means attempts have been made to tame it, by government and businesses, but these attempts have rarely succeeded.
Beyond the French Quarter, which survived Hurricane Katrina almost completely intact, the city of New Orleans is still in critical condition. Cleanup efforts are still incomplete as thousands of homeowners struggle to decide whether to repair, rebuild, or vacate, often in the midst of absolute financial ruin. Predatory land buyers have swooped into the poorer neighborhoods in an attempt to oust the owners en masse and create shining and bland developments for the legions of people like me in love with New Orleans, but too afraid to live there.
Those staying behind have endured the hardships with their Cajun black humor intact. In late 2005 and throughout 2006 one of the symbols that New Orleans was taking halting steps forward was the number of graffiti-covered refrigerators showing up on streets. As residents moved back they found their appliances ruined by flooding. By the hundreds, the rusting hulks of dead technology appeared along roadsides. Garbage collection failed to resume in an organized fashion and the numbers of derelict refrigerators continued to grow, threatening some sort of Punky Brewster playtime lesson apocalypse.
The refrigerators became another symbol of the embarrassing breakdown in civilization and residents began to use them as billboards. Some sought to send a message, most just wanted to try to bring a little levity to the nightmare. Refrigerators could be found with elaborate faces or designs or something like “free gumbo inside” written on them to jokingly entice people to endure the stench. Sometimes they were addressed like a package to be mailed to FEMA director Mike Brown or one of many other government officials being partially blamed for the disaster.
These days the fridges are gone from the streets, but some can still be found in the Lower 9th Ward in an industrial area, thousands of them, row after row, like big, dumb, useless monuments to failure.
New Orleans’ modern downtown area was heavily damaged by Katrina, but it was not allowed to fall into the chaos that consumed so much of the city. The downtown’s relative survival is one of the most unusual and creepy anecdotes surrounding Hurricane Katrina. In the days immediately following the Hurricane order throughout most of the city disintegrated. Police were abandoning their posts, sometimes to participate in looting, and rumors of brutal murders (usually untrue) were perpetuated through the media. The National Guard was unable to get a handle on the situation as State and Federal officials continued to dance incompetently around the need for response and the size of the response.
Journalists and locals witnessing this tumultuous situation began to notice something new to find odd: there were guys with automatic rifles driving around in SUVs with no agency shield. It was soon revealed that American mercenary firm Blackwater USA deployed over 150 men to New Orleans to “secure client assets” and provide ground-level security.
The question that remains unanswered to this day is who initially sent them down there. Mercenaries interviewed claimed it was the Department of Homeland Security investing them with the authority of peace keepers. To back up this assertion, many of the mercenaries wore clothing that identified them as Louisiana law enforcement. Blackwater itself claims that it went at the request of clients, but the clients it claims to have been protecting were not employing Blackwater until after their men arrived in town.
Maybe they were just there for the jazz and the gumbo.