Anita McClendon spent a Mardi Gras day tossing soggy bibles out of Holy Cross parish in New Orleans. “It just feels wrong,” says McClendon, a 48-year old Oakland, California social worker who’s spent the past five months in clean-up efforts.
In New Orleans, getting on with your life means getting used to the daily insults of the clean-up process. Six months after Katrina, the nervy adrenaline of a capsized city has given way to the cold sweats of a town that can’t seem to pat itself dry.
“It doesn’t look that much better than it did five months ago,” says Bridget Francis. Like many of the people in for Mardi Gras, she’s neither disaster tourist or Bourbon street reveler, but a displaced resident of East New Orleans. Her teenaged sons are thriving in the Atlanta schools but her neighbors give her a chilly reception. “They say I don’t talk right, that I talk like an African.”
“They’re homesick,” says the Reverend Willie Walker. “They want a taste of New Orleans.” Walker is a ridiculously well-connected pastor, whose high water rescue efforts are being profiled in a forthcoming book by Tulane professor Doug Brinkley, author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. In my 48 hours in the Crescent City, the Reverend will whisk me from services at his Noah’s Ark Church in low-income, high crime Carrollton to a parade after-party at Brinkley’s Tulane University neighborhood house where the guests include Josh Hartnett (Mardi Gras grand marshall) and Spike Lee, who’s busy shooting an HBO documentary, When the Levee Broke.
Celebrity culture in New Orleans is a rare, imported bird. It’s unclear what connections brought Hartnett to New Orleans. Spike Lee appeared genuinely at home, making more scratches than I do in his reporter’s notebook. He’s no Willie Nelson, though. A two-story model of the red-headed stranger appeared at Sunday night’s Mardi Gras parade.
Walker puts me up at his mom’s house in the West Bank. It’s the sort of middle-of-the road neighborhood that escapes the notice of TV cameras looking for racialized poverty or mardi-gras revelry. Plucky homeowners live out of FEMA trailers parked in their front yard, giving them a place to live as they gut out their living rooms. Kids shoot hoops next to neat piles of exploded couches and shredded cabinets. Inside the home I stayed in, black tarp hangs like gauze over the void where the fireplace sluiced storm water and refrigerators rotted from the inside.
“You just padlock the refrigerator and throw it out,” says Anita. Or as the script on a roadside Frigidaire pictured in the Times-Picayune read, “You don’t want to open this, imagine baby diapers and rotting bass.”
The West Bank neighborhood is also multiracial, a fact of New Orleans life lost in translation in the brouhaha over Mayor Ray Nagin’s chocolate city comment.
“There’s going to be so many Mexicans in this place that it’s going to be called Nuevo Orleans,” Jose Alfredo Cevallos tells me. In town from Houston, Cevallos, 51, runs a flooring company. He’s got a Tejano twang, ostrich-skin boots you won’t forget, and a Texas-sized ego. “I’ve made $10,000 profit between Tuesday and Sunday last week.”
Vicente Bernardino is a self-described Mexican storm chaser. He lives with several other Mexican construction workers next to St. Paul American Methodist Episcopal and its decapitated steeple, point down, thrusted into the earth.
“I always liked to follow the storms,” says Vicente Bernardino, a 25-year old construction foreman from Michoacan, “but also from Ohio.” He’s chased construction work for Florida hurricanes but prefers New Orleans. “They treat me right here.” In a not atypical stay, he and his friends lived in tents in a Wal-Mart parking lot before finding a flooded house in the Carrollton neighborhood. At the end of most workdays, he says, he rubs cold creams and rubbing alcohol to treat the skin rashes picked-up from his house-gutting jobs.
Nice work if you can get it. There’s just one catch.
“They’re not getting paid,” said Cevallos. “There’s 300 of them waiting for work in the Home Depot parking lots and the contractors don’t pay them what they earn.”
But on this weekend before Fat Tuesday, residents returning to neighborhoods that are neither solidly middle-class or tourist destinations, have to finally consider whether its worth pulling up stakes altogether. There’s talk aplenty about Katrina posing a land grab for poor neighborhoods—but paying mortgage on a flooded house in New Orleans and living on FEMA dollars in surrounding cities is untenable.
Patrick Quinn, whose Decatur Properties owns dozens of local hotels, put it more bluntly, “What we’re losing are some neighborhoods but tourists don’t go to that area anyway.” He adds that FEMA is expected to release a floodplain map of the city that will have widespread implications in confirming what neighborhoods are “worth” rebuilding.
But there’s another city map, that anyone who was around for the flood has internalized. When I ask the Reverend Walker for the names of the neighborhoods, he’s more interested in describing streets so inundated, his boat crew had to duck their head under power lines. “There’s a feeling now that if you all had was one foot of water, you’re OK,” said McClendon.
On Wednesday, March 1, the cruise ships that have housed police, EMT workers and other first responders are set to close. “You have a lot of police officers coming off the boats, there’s a lot of anxiety,” said Wondell Smith, a New Orleans police officer.
My first night here, we dumped ten pounds of cooked crawdads on an unread copy of the Times-Picayune. “There’s nothing in there that’s right anyway,” said Reverend Walker, tongue in cheek. There’s a palpable sense, that like the UNICEF billboard on Highway 10 asking for Tsunami Relief donations, the official version of events do not correspond with reality.
“I can’t come back, it seems like it’s doomed,” said Francis, who rented in East New Orleans and fled by car before the levees broke.
There are talks that a single drug store is filling thousands of prescriptions for anti-depressants daily. There are rumors that the levies were blown up on purpose, that snipers snuffed out untold numbers of New Orleans residents. I write to neither deny nor confirm them, nor to add the rumor-mongering, only to report that these stories are talked about in the light of day.
Like any city that’s cheated death or been cheated by it, the sense of humor tends toward morbid. McClendon told me she had seen a neighborhood parade where the float featured two models of larger-than-life women, arms raised and wrestling. The black woman had on a shirt that said Katrina, and the white woman, Rita.
There is also the unintentionally humorous. The signs offering mobile notary publics. The omnipresent billboards, lit it up in fluorescent shades of mardi gras purple and green, that advertise both an RV show and Gun Show coming soon to the Convention Center.
As I finish this piece at a Starbucks on Magazine street in the upscale (and upwardly elevated) Uptown neighborhood, its possible to look around and see people and streets that look like they haven’t been ravaged by a hurricane. It’s only a trick I can pull as carpetbagging visitor. For the returnees, once you’ve seen your city underwater, it’s almost impossible to picture it dry. As the Reverend Walker put it, “We can reminisce but what we got right now is something we can’t come back to.”
A semi-anonymous poster named ajoe on the Times-Picayune website (a sort of multi-featured blog for the flood’s diaspora) put up the only question worth asking about New Orleans these days.
“Will neighbors come back in sufficient numbers to restore the vitality—and affordable level of city services—that were known before the storm? Or will the revival be scattershot, with only a small percentage of households returning amid vast stretches of abandonment and blight?”