A City of Survival
New Orleans captured our writer's imagination as a child, revealed its spirit to her as a part-time resident and showed her its strength in its devastation.
The 1930s English brick house I had recently purchased in Cleveland had, contrary to my seller’s assurances, basement water seepage and flooding. Each week, waterproofing companies and structural engineers looked at the mess, shook their heads and wrote terrible estimates.
When a city inspector noted violations as trivial as drinking glass rings on a mantel prior to closing, the real estate agent and I were impressed with the inspector’s thoroughness. The painted basement had looked dry.
But with each August rain came the miserable realization that I had bought an expensive problem. The back basement wall was crumbling, the front wall had leaked enough that everything in storage had to be moved, and we’d had ankle-deep flooding in the laundry room — twice.
Exhausted and frantic, I was surprised when I walked into a relative’s house on Sunday, Aug. 28, and heard the word “hurricane.”
“Hurricane?” I repeated.
Katrina, poised in the Gulf of Mexico, had escalated to a Category 5 with sustained winds of 175 mph. New Orleans, where I had a second home and had been a part-time resident for the past 22 years, was directly in its path and under mandatory evacuation. I had missed the warnings. And now with Katrina upon them, there was no time for calls to wish my friends well.
Even with the extensive news coverage in the next few days, there were few concrete damage estimates. My mind reeled from worries about my basement and its astronomical repair costs to even blacker fears for New Orleans friends I might never see again and trifles over a small iron wall sculpture, purchased at a long-closed shop, that adorned my condo. I tried all the New Orleans numbers I had. Only one rang through to no response.
At home, I was continually reminded of all that might be lost as I passed by my New Orleans box (rescued from the basement) that was filled with pictures, gifts for friends and household items in preparation for my winter return to the city — that now wouldn’t be.
My love affair with the Crescent City began early, around age 6. In the mid-’50s, my favorite aunt visited the city during Mardi Gras and brought back stories about a wonderful place where everyone, it seemed, dressed in costumes and attended days of parades and nights of grand balls.
She regaled me with scenes of black women walking the streets carrying bunches of bananas on their heads, Mardi Gras evenings when no lady appeared in anything less than a gown that brushed the dance floor and a horse-drawn wagon that clip-clopped around the French Quarter selling candy.
I was sure New Orleans was the best place in the United States, and I spent time drawing costumes while day-dreaming about my visit.
At 19, I drove from the Mississippi coast to New Orleans with a school friend. Even with all the years and miles of buildup, the city was enchanting with 18th- and 19th-century houses situated in the midst of palm- and camellia-decked landscapes. I imagined life behind the Quarter’s iron gates, and thought that those who lived there must be the luckiest of people.
I became one of those people in the early 1980s when my husband retired early. We settled on a tiny apartment in an 1820s stucco Creole house with a small courtyard paved with cobblestones. Camellias, gardenias, tropical trees and iron furniture surrounded a stone fountain. Outside the courtyard’s gates, the aroma of restaurants frying fresh oysters filled the afternoon and evening air.
Amble down almost any Quarter block to a restaurant or bar, and you could order inexpensive local food of a quality that made New Orleans gastronomically famous.
As it did for most visitors, the Quarter held my fascination. Where else in the United States could you live in an early 19th-century building and walk a few blocks to your pick of department stores, small shops and restaurants?
Canal Street of the early ’80s was Euclid Avenue of the 1950s, with thousands of stylish shoppers spending the entire day shopping and lunching in the big emporiums.
But as the decade was winding down, the oil glut drove New Orleans into a recession and city officials began aggressively marketing the city for tourism. Locally famous institutions such as Wise Cafeteria began to disappear as sleek new shopping meccas opened. Jax Brewery and Riverwalk, filled with stores carrying nationally familiar merchandise, T-shirt outlets and Asian brass shops, appealed to the new genre of visitors.
“New Orleans is losing all her charms!” bemoaned a friend who had lived in her Quarter Creole house since the 1930s.
I reluctantly agreed and decided to spend some wintertime months in Florida. “Florida is nice, but when I return, there is no sense of my belonging,” responded an artist friend who shows her work in both places.
Indeed, New Orleans people love and celebrate their own — everything from their traditions, food and architecture to their neighborhoods, merchants and street people. (A few years back, the most famous bar in the Quarter, Pat O’Brien’s, even hosted a birthday bash for “Ruthie,” one of the more visible street people.)
Even with Florida’s extra sunshine and warmer weather, I missed New Orleans almost immediately.
In January 2001, I returned to find that street parking in the Quarter had become untenable. So I settled on a place near the river in the Uptown area with its mix of humble houses and architectural masterpieces along St. Charles Avenue, near Audubon Park and Tulane University.
In the Gulf region, hurricanes may be a part of life, but New Orleans’ seeming invincibility in the last four decades had erased the memory of local storm damage. More seemed to be made of the early 20th century fire that destroyed the French Opera House on Bourbon Street than any impending storm threats.
In fact, an entire generation had passed since Camille, the devastating 1969 Mississippi Gulf Coast storm that served as hurricane of reference. Before Camille, the Gulf Coast was a quiet area where New Orleanians spent summer vacations and escaped the dense heat of the city. After Camille, fast food chains gobbled up dirt-cheap land on the beach in Biloxi, casino owners moved in and developers built condos on land that had once held houses and gardens.
Katrina had changed everything once again — not just for New Orleans, but for America too.
By Sunday, Sept. 4, with more basement flooding in Cleveland and no contact with New Orleans, either with friends or anyone who might know the condition of my place, I had entered a zone of relentless angst.
Helpless, I turned to the television for consolation and information, and found it in ABC News’ Cokie Roberts, the daughter of Lindy Boggs, a much-beloved former congresswoman from New Orleans.
(When Boggs was still in Congress, I was part of a military ball committee that lunched in the courtyard and traipsed though Boggs’ beautiful, historic Bourbon Street house, where she continued to live and walk to St. Louis Cathedral at Jackson Square.)
“Are we going to rebuild a city in a bowl?” one of the panelists questioned Roberts on “This Week.”
“Yes! Because that is where it is!” she fired back.
It was the inspiration I needed. “Right on!” I called out at the television. “You tell them, Cokie!”
I hoped there would be more voices of reason and intelligent plans for restructuring the city’s defenses against future storms.
A few days later, I still had made no contact with anyone from New Orleans. I called a Cleveland acquaintance, an upbeat kind of guy who usually knows what is going on, who also has property in New Orleans. His area on Constance Street was dry.
And since I don’t use a computer and the information I gathered from the Internet at the library was inconclusive, he offered to investigate for me. Several days later he reported, “Your area is dry!”
I was thankful, but it was too early to celebrate. Friends were scattered and probably struggling with everything. And dry ground did not indicate whether the place had lost a roof, leaving rooms exposed for the impending arrival of Hurricane Rita.
With the passing of a week and Rita finally off the map, I reached my friend Patty, who was staying temporarily with a relative out West. She’d lost her house and her prized art collection.
For her, the television coverage of the destruction and human suffering was “almost unbearable.” A doctor, she was simultaneously trying to arrange for replacement housing, staff her medical office and return as quickly as possible to care for what was left of her patient load.
After the passing of more weeks, I spoke with friends Brennan, Allison and Joy.
Allison and her husband, Wayne, who live on the city’s West Bank, an area that was mostly spared, found their home survived the flood and wind. But the new strangeness of life was disturbing: “Neighbors are missing, there are lines for everything and the curfew closes everything early,” she offered.
Joy, a costume designer and dance teacher, returned to undamaged property in mid-October. She had managed to meet an artist in Shreveport, La., with whom she rode out the storms. “We painted together every day and did not focus on Katrina.”
Brennan, who is decades younger, knew early on that his house was destroyed. Undaunted, he drove back into the city a week after Katrina anxious to join a relief effort, but was turned away because it was too dangerous for the inexperienced.
He stayed in San Antonio until early October when he returned to his girlfriend’s house and his job with a real estate company.
To me, New Orleans’ relationship with the United States is similar to Italy’s relationship with Europe. Both are exuberant, extravagant places that are often taken lightly. Both are famous for cuisine, music and architectural splendor. Both are destinations their severest critics love to visit.
When I saw the magnificent Spanish Colonial-styled St. Louis Cathedral had come out of the hurricanes virtually unscathed, it was my first assurance that New Orleans was not gone, that she would survive.
I’m anxious to get back to the city I love and be part of her energy again. And I can’t wait to give Patty the little green clock with its artsy flourishes I’ve been saving in my New Orleans box.
12:00 AM EST
November 29, 2005