Sunday, March 05, 2006

Ground Below Zero (Part 1)

The first thing you notice is the blue roofs.

As your plane descends lower, you realize that they are tarps covering the thousands of buildings damaged in the hurricane. Just 4 months after Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, causing $75 billion dollars in damage and the displacement of 1.5 million people over 90,000 square miles, it’s a region struggling to get back to normal, a state that will never be what it was. And a few days there merely confirms that despite the best positive outlook anyone can muster, the future is very much in doubt for many months and years to come.

Much has been written about what happened on August 29th and the days after, including a flurry of reporting just this week as the commission tasked with reconstituting the city delivered its recommendations. To be sure, pictures have been published and stories told, one more remarkable than the next. Like many, I had watched and read about the disaster and its aftermath. But none of that prepares you to walk into the seventh circle of hell that is the damage zone. What follows is no so much a coherent narrative, but a set of impressions that struck me as I toured the region and spoke to the locals on a recent visit.

When you land at Louie Armstrong airport, you’re struck by the unnatural quiet. You’re likely to be the only plane taxing around the airfield. That’s because the city’s economy was based on the tourist trade, which is gone. No tourists means no planes, and so the airport is a ghost town.

Downtown New Orleans is no different. A minority of office buildings are open, and many have only partial occupancy. So few are walking down the streets. Nighttime is the same, with restaurants and bars slowly opening, but lacking for customers. Even Bourbon Street is quiet, with bands playing to empty rooms. At lunchtime, we were working through, and I suggested that we order some sandwiches to be delivered. “You can order from a few places,” my local contact remarked, “but you’ll have to pick them up yourself. There’s nobody to deliver them.”

From a high floor, the extent of the flooding was pointed out to me, running from horizon to horizon, covering 80% of the city. As overwhelming as it seemed, it was suggested that to truly appreciate the magnitude I go and see the damage for myself. So I asked my local crew to take me. They suggested we meet the next morning at a Starbucks out near the Lake District. We met at a generic strip mall, with stores and shops and restaurants, an area that could have been anywhere save the ubiquitous blue tarps and piles of trash still present at many a curbside. I followed them down the street and crossed a canal. And that’s when I realized that things were different.

As soon as we descended the bridge there was no life. No cars, no stop lights, no sounds. We drove some, then turned into a neighborhood. Block after block after block after block of destroyed homes. It was like the pictures you see of Somalia or Beirut, but the wreckage here was caused not by explosions but by water. Walls torn open, piles of dirt and debris, cars filled with dried mud. In the trailing car I flashed my lights, and pulled along side. “We should pull over and take some pictures,” I said. They looked at me blankly: “We’re not even close to the center.”

Ten more minutes of driving brought us to the area near one of the levee breaks, what one resident called Ground Below Zero. In every direction was utter devastation caused by flood waters sitting in homes for weeks. The disaster relief people say they have seen this before, usually associated with tornado damage in the Midwest. But they're used to seeing 1 block, 2 blocks, 4 blocks of debris. Never miles and miles of total ruin.

Every single home has urban search and rescue markings spray painted on the front. A circle with an “X” through it indicates that a team has been through. The initials of the searcher are in one quadrant of the “X,” the date in another, and a number in the last. In most cases, the number is zero. In others, it’s a integer, signifying the number of bodies that have been found inside. Other notations explain situations that shorthand doesn’t cover: "1 Dog DOA/Broom."

Drive further from the epicenter, and the apparent structural damage seems less. But a stop at the home of an acquaintance reveled that while the walls seemed intact, they were covered with black mold up to an unmistakable water line. Nothing short of removing all of the sheetrock below that point would make it habitable again.

Signs of rebirth are scattered. On random occasional streets, work crews work their way slowly along, picking up trees and utility poles that block the roadway. Some homes have FEMA-supplied trailers parked in front, and every couple of blocks is a Porta Potty. FEMA, by he way, is the new local four-letter “F” word, and is widely known to stand for “Fix Everything My Ass.”

As we headed out of the area we continued past miles of homes showing no signs of life. Likewise the gas stations, restaurants, dry cleaners and movie theaters that make up a neighborhood. It’s a chicken and egg situation: how can the businesses rebuild with no client base… but who would want to live in a war zone with no amenities for miles? Is it any wonder that many of those who moved away are considering not returning.

We headed north out of the Crescent City and up along the Gulf Coast, where the damage was not from levee breaks but from the storm itself. And that trail of tears is where we will pick up
next week.


Marc Wollin of Bedford urges all who can to donate to a Katrina related charity. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inqurier.