Sunday, September 18, New Orleans—The smell in the dry parts of New Orleans is surprisingly bearable. It has hardly rained for three weeks now, so what you get is sour, pungent, with some petroleum, brackish with a tang of dead fish from the lake water, and even a hint of sweetness. That comes from the head-high piles of dead oak and pine and sycamore branches lining the sides of the streets, all turning burnt orange in the sun. This is the second day that business owners with permits are meant to be let in to Uptown, the Central Business District, and other non-flooded parts of the city.
National Guard checkpoints are flagging down each car, but by all accounts, people aren’t rushing back in droves. Interstate 10, the main route from the west, is open now and traffic is surprisingly light. The devastation has been capricious. One self-storage place close to the Causeway exit had its roof and walls peeled off, so people’s sports equipment and old lamps are hanging out for all to see.
Downtown is passably busy. The venerable Irish pub Molly’s at the Market is open and a place called Mojo’s up the block is frying up hamburgers, a smell that cuts pleasantly through the stronger stink here. A few hotels are operating too. Down by the Convention Center, the outside has been swept absolutely clean, but inside, nothing was touched; there are still chairs scattered everywhere, trash and piles of personal belongings. I read that the figures in the wax museum melted; maybe this will be the city’s new house of horrors.
I’ve returned with my parents to their house to clean up the fallen branches, try to patch up our roof and board up a broken window. At first, the residential streets of Uptown look absolutely deserted except for tree trucks, power trucks and Humvees. After awhile, humbler signs of life become apparent. The houses where people have returned, one of every three or four, have driveways cleared and refrigerators set out on the curb. For those who escaped major flood damage, the fridge is the hardest chore of all. Our neighbor found maggots in his.
Soon, I stumble on a neighbor who says he’s back for good. He’s clearing away branches as we talk over the rattle of a big generator on his front porch. “I don’t mind the heat. On the contrary, I enjoy it,” he says, clad in a long-sleeve denim shirt and work gloves and with sweat beading his upper lip. He has a working gas stove and a jacuzzi full of clean water. He’s just waiting for the PJ’s coffeehouse on Maple Street to open so he can get a cup of good coffee. “I put a sign on their door, saying, ‘Please Open.’ ”
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the lack of potable water is the Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen’s biggest concern with Mayor Ray Nagin’s proposed timetable for opening up the city, which would have had the French Quarter open by September 26. According to Jimmy, a repairman I run into on Magazine Street, they have another problem. “The cops are not happy with the idea of bringing people back in here,” he says. “It’s not safe at night.” He says that after the 6 p.m. curfew “you hear pop-pop-pop every night.”
Jimmy is doing some work at the Slim Goodies diner, one of the only businesses open on Magazine Street or, really, anywhere Uptown. The proprietor, Kappa Horn, and her sister Mary, who has the store next door, are staying with their mom on the West Bank and have been busy the past two days serving blueberry pancakes and roast beef sandwiches to the electricians, cops and the National Guard. “I said, let’s go back, everyone will be here,” Kappa Horn says, indicating the street with a sweep of her hand. “No one’s here.”
Indeed, that seems to be the story. Without power, without water, without schools, without a solid timetable for getting any of these things, it’s hard for many New Orleanians to think about returning to even the least damaged parts of the city just yet. People are hesitating at the brink, knowing that the hardest part—the rebuilding—is just beginning.