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Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights

Disaster Tourism

So what is New Orleans like three months later? A little dryer, a lot destroyed- what's the plan now?
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported this week that the Thanksgiving holidays brought many people to the breach- the Seventeenth Ave levee breach, that is, snapping photographs of deserted foundations, their phantom houses disappeared. Maybe I am no different, biking around bombed-out areas of New Orleans, unable to take in everything I see. After twenty days here I finally decide to go see some of the most flooded neighborhoods for myself, at the urging of a friend. It isn't as though I haven't seen storm damage- it is omnipresent, ranging from dramatic skeletal homes to pristine but silent streets; but the Ninth ward is its own ghost.
I don't have to go far. The neighborhood I stay in is almost totally deserted and bombed-out but to the north and west it gets worse quickly. We start out following dead-end dirt roads that face out on the railroad yard. The mounds of trash are more mountainous here than anywhere else and the air stinks. I take a picture of a minute brick house, not raised up like the other houses, the doors and windows flung open, the metal curlicued grates hanging askew. The flood line is not visible because it is over the peak of the house. A minute later I back up to photograph another water-beaten home and turn around into the stare of a dead dog's skull. His carcass is stretched out over the top of windshield. The car is covered in a mysterious white film that covers most objects the floodwaters have touched: bikes, frying pans, dolls.
Black mud contours the streets. Swingsets are overturned. Cars are overturned, smashed, rammed through walls. In the housing projects brick walls are split open and flopped down; a huge brick church is buckled and its walls are hanging off. In an area of maybe one hundred blocks that we randomly wander through, we see a few work crews clearing a roadside, some people taking rubble out of houses. There is almost no activity. The whole area is dead.
Maybe these images have already saturated every visual media to the point where the destruction is unreal. After the first few blocks I stopped taking pictures. I needed a panoramic lens. I needed an aerial photo. I needed to drop down into the midst of stomach-jerking neighborhoods and recognize again that they are not gutted by wind and water alone; they are gutted by design. It is no accident that the places destroyed were both the most fragile and resistant, poor and black communities, places that have struggled together for years.
Later we took our tour uptown. The back streets are equally silent, but the homes are beautifully painted and trimmed and the fences are covered in flowering vines. Out on the main drag some businesses have re-opened and there is light traffic. The trip from the Ninth Ward uptown is a classic tale of economic and racial injustice, and it is nothing new or unique to this city. What is shocking is the way that Katrina has stripped the face off, left a bare reminder measured in lives, neighborhoods, histories destroyed. Even the quality of silence in uptown streets is different, a far cry from the silence in the Ninth Ward that follows a last uttered breath.
Not all neighborhoods will return. The Times-Picayune reported on a proposed "bold and daring plan" to centralize the entire rebuilding process through a board appointed by the President, the Governor, the Mayor and City Council, that would have the power to buy and sell properties, restructure mortgages and decide timelines and order for rebuilding to take place. The board would be accountable to a second board appointed by the President, the Governor, the Mayor and City Council. As of now, there is no citywide rebuilding that is evident. It's basically like living in a third world country right now- granted, a higher end third-world country, but it is not sustainable. The only concerted efforts at revitalization are coming from local residents and volunteers who are able to be involved in an arduous and emotionally wearing process. It's a catch-22; the city is difficult to live in, so many people aren't returning, and people who return are those who facilitating recovery. People are scattered across the country and reports of destruction fail to include the life that is returning in less destroyed areas, the people who are pushing back, people I will write about in future articles.
Sometimes I feel like I am on an island here, totally disconnected from the rest of the country. It seems like we don't get a lot of news in and it feels like most news doesn't get out or has been superseded by the next tragedy. I hate to think of where the tsunami victims must be a year later; they are so 2004. I witness destruction here and realize that I am experiencing shock over old news, and the real shock is that so little progress has been made. The shock is that this feels normal to me now when it is really messed up.
I spent a lot of the morning sitting in the sun with a lovely 65-year old woman, Ms. Ella. She told her epic escape from the flood story, pausing to take sip of her Coke and cackle at the memory of a neighbor floating down the street on her loveseat, being pushed by a guy swimming through the water. Her house is relatively unscathed, and moldy or not she's back and staying. She even has some insurance. It's a relief to just soak up sunshine and laugh with her and hear her tell her own story. It's a merging of the messed-up and normal nature of a post disaster city, and I inwardly cheer her on with the crowd on the bridge as she passes through the floodwaters to high ground.

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