You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.
We started bright and early Monday morning in New Orleans with muffins, croissants and drinks from our hotel coffee shop. Outside the front door of The Roosevelt (Waldorf Astoria) is a gorgeous Jesuit Catholic Church. Our tour bus, well--tour van--was running late so Michael and Joey took a quick peak inside this gorgeous building.
We quickly found out why our tour was running late when the 'Tours by Isabelle' van pulled up and out jumped the tour guide, Rose, and a small film crew. This week is the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and there is a whole lot going on. This particular film crew was from German public broadcasting and a German videographer, newscaster and sound guy would all be joining us and the other 8 passengers in the van on our Post Katrina Tour of New Orleans. It was a bit of a tight squeeze. We like the Tours by Isabelle Tour company because the tours are small and personal (I have been on Isabelle's tours before). However, taking a tour with a film crew and a camera stuck in your face half the time was not what I had bargained for. It turned out okay in the end because Rose was a pretty wonderful tour guide and it was a 14 passenger van after all. Joey had his camera, but did not take any pictures of the devastation. To be honest, we were so engrossed in the shock of it all, that none of us thought about taking photos.
We started with a brief tour of the French Quarter, Garden District and waterfront area near the Convention Center. Rose outlined the areas and how much water each area received both from rain water from the storm and also water from the broken levee system. She told us about the "Sliver on the River" an area which received only rain water and therefore much less flooding and included the area closest to the Mississippi River near downtown. The French Quarter was included in this area and therefore the French Quarter looks much the same as it did the last time I visited... pre-Katrina. Unfortunately some shops and restaurants were not able to reopen because so many people lived outside the French Quarter and were displaced from their homes. Many of those people have not returned to live in New Orleans even five years later, and probably never will. I know it sounds ironic that the area closest to the Mississippi was the least affected, however, once you see how New Orleans is situated, with waterways all around and the whole place basically built on a swamp, it becomes much more obvious. The Levees along the river did not break.
Rose drove us out of the French Quarter and our first stop was the gorgeous New Orleans City Park where we took a short break. The park lost over 1000 trees and was flooded with anywhere from one to ten feet of water for up to four weeks post Katrina. The oak trees that survived, with their ferns and spanish moss, are so beautiful and peaceful and magnificent. All over the city she talked of people that had come to New Orleans after Katrina to help. Six German Engineers and Restoration Artists arrived to restore the old wooden Carousel in the Children's portion of the Park. It is a beautiful carousel, but it makes you wonder why it was so important to restore a carousel when there are still people FIVE years later that cannot live in their homes.
Then the real "tour" began. Rose drove us to neighborhoods that included large waterfront estates where many families have not returned to live in their homes. I am going to keep saying this because it is just incredible. It is five YEARS post Katrina this week. Five YEARS. Apparently it took a minimum of two YEARS in most areas just to get the power, water and sewer systems back in place. Rose told us a story of her Brother and Sister-in-law who tried to return to their house just a few months after the storm. He is a contractor and so therefore could do the work himself. They brought their house back up to living standards about a year and a half post storm and then one morning they woke up to a flooded house full of sewer water and they had to start all over again. There is also the issue that even if families are back in their homes, most facilities are gone. For the most part, there are no grocery stores or gas stations or hospitals, or schools in these areas. The hospital system is unbelievable. There are countless hospitals that have not reopened. Some must be completely rebuilt. The average wait time in an emergency room in the area is 20 hours. This fact alone is one of the reasons many many people have not returned to New Orleans. They have moved away and started new lives in other cities and even other states. Houses in these middle class to affluent neighborhood are standing empty, many of which are uninhabitable.
Our tour included a drive through St. Bernard Parish. Rose was a school teacher in this Parish for 36 years. Her house was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. She drove us by her property. There is no house there, only grass. As a matter of fact, there are just a handful of houses on the whole street. They are all new. Rose and her husband evacuated before Katrina. Most people were allowed to return to their homes 3 weeks post Katrina to assess the damage. It took 3 weeks just to pump out all the water in the area. To add insult to injury, Rose was not able to return to her house for 7 weeks because there had been an oil spill in her neighborhood and it required an additional 4 weeks clean up. Because of the oil spill, they did not qualify for a FEMA trailer and her house and EVERYTHING in it had to be hauled away as rubbish. They lost everything. Rose and her husband now live 66 miles away in Mississippi. She drives into New Orleans just to give these tours. Only 50% of the residents of St. Bernard Parish have returned.
We drove through the lower 9th ward, which sustained the most severe damage of all as these neighborhoods were very close to one broken levee and in the middle of two broken levees--so water was literally rushing at their houses from two sides. These neighborhoods were starkly different from the houses we had driven by earlier in the tour... mainly because there were still houses to see in the earlier Parishes. In the lower 9th ward, the houses are gone. Many homes were completely demolished instantly by the 35mph rushing waters. The water rose from 3 inches (from the actual Hurricane which bypassed New Orleans) to 15 feet (in some areas) in a matter of minutes. Of the people whose houses were not instantly destroyed and who could break through their roofs, many were stranded there for 5-10 days.
It took three to six weeks before they could get all water drained from flooded areas. It took two years to get basic facilities (power, water, sewer) up and running in many areas. Thousands of people have never returned to their homes. What a travesty of human error in one of the most beautiful and unique cities in our country. It makes me sad.