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You already know the story. About five years ago, the world watched most of the city of New Orleans flood, some parts as deep as 15 feet. Despite having faced a serious hurricane only forty years earlier, and despite being fully aware of the inadequacy of the federally-built levees, neither the federal, state or municipal government had a triage plan for the disaster that would ensue. Approximately 1 million people evacuated the city and surrounding areas and approximately 100,000 remained, who were in many cases low-income or elderly. Some took shelter at the Superdome and the Convention Center. Others were trapped in their attics or on their roofs, waiting for days, often in vain, to be rescued. Without clean water or food, or an effective emergency infrastructure, about 1,500 died.
I've been in New Orleans now for just about two and a half months. With my truck I decide to roam the streets of the city, outside of my safe, high country neighborhood uptown. While I am not a huge fan of disaster tourism, I decide that this is a necessary thing to do having recently accepted a gig at a low-income housing development non-profit that addresses many of the issues resulting from the storm of five years ago.
On this unguided tour I do not need to go all the way to the infamous Lower 9th Ward to observe the effects of the largest flood this city has ever seen. Blight and abandonment are apparent just minutes from the pristine French Quarter. Vegetation has taken over roofs, and in other cases, empty beams where roofs once stood. There are houses marked by the telltale graffiti, where the search parties of 2005 documented whether people or pets were found, dead or alive. Yet just next door is another home, almost identical in architecture, but with new siding and fresh paint.
The city is dotted with this phenomenon; abandoned homes sitting side-by-side with historic rehabs, the latter of which is a sign of at least some homeowners' hope that some day things will be normal again.
Eventually, I make my way over to the Lower 9th Ward. The vast majority of the area is a grassy field, with only remnants of a family, a neighborhood, a community. There are few houses remaining for vegetation to take over, so vines cover stop signs instead. A bathtub on a driveway, a wrecked boat in the middle of a street, in a few cases shells of houses that somehow managed to escape the bulldozers that removed the neighboring debris that once stood. I can see empty, cracked foundations, remnants of driveways.
It feels like I am in Pompeii, looking at archeological ruins suggesting that a thriving community once inhabited the empty fields in which I am standing.
But, unlike Pompeii, the Lower 9th Ward is in fact being rebuilt, albeit slowly. In random spots certain streets have risen from the ashes with newly built houses. I make my way over to the neighborhood with the houses funded and financed in large part by Brad Pitt's organization, the Make It Right Foundation. I observe strange-looking eco-efficient houses, some of which were designed by uber-glamourous architects like Morphosis, and some of which have the capacity to float. Many of these houses are elevated on stilts to ward against interior flooding, in turn creating garage space underneath. The houses are bedecked with solar panels and water-efficient landscaping.
Mr. Pitt's organization has been criticized for failing to create affordable housing with its fancy architects, and hard-to-build construction. But it is almost unanimously agreed that Make It Right has managed to accomplish the following: 1) it has brought national attention to the rebuilding efforts, facilitating the fundraising efforts of other non-profit developers in New Orleans; 2) it has lifted the standard of housing development for low-income New Orleanians; and 3) it has made affordable green technologies (such as solar panels) that were formerly cost-prohibitive, in a way that only an organization with copious amounts of unfettered start-up capital can. So, while the cluster of houses do not exactly express the local flavor of traditional architecture, it is well-accepted here that the Make It Right Foundation already has had a positive impact on the process of rebuilding New Orleans.
On my way out of the 9th Ward, by happy accident, I bump into Bayou Bienvenue, which was formerly a luscious swamp, littered with trees and other greenery. Today, it is a blue waterscape sparsely dotted with cypress stumps. Because of the dredging of various canals and waterways for commercial purposes, the trees that once dominated there have died, in effect eradicating a marshy wetland that used to serve as a natural buffer protecting New Orleans from the flooding effects of hurricanes. Bayou Bienvenue now is an experiment, as local groups attempt to repopulate it with the flora and fauna that previously served as one of New Orleans' most effective sentinels.
Back in February of this year, a non-profit group built a wooden observation deck there, and on this day I sit and watch an old-timer perched on a large piece of driftwood. He is fishing for crab with pieces of raw chicken thigh and neck. He jokes that he once tried Popeye's chicken but that the crab complained about the spices. In front of my very eyes he pulls up about eight crab in the span of twenty minutes. Sitting with me are a handful of well-dressed, middle-aged African Americans. They tell me that they are former residents of the Lower 9th Ward, now relocated in Tennessee since the storm. We sit watching and chatting with our crab fisherman friend, as we all enjoy the breeze coming off the water. Despite their obvious differences in class with one another, all chat heartily with their former neighbor, comparing notes of who they knew living in the area before the storm. And, as I listen, I can't help but wonder if the efforts of the local groups will make this landscape green again; if this body of water will ever be able to protect the communities of New Orleans like it once did.
Hope springs eternal here. As I write this entry I think of a conversation I recently had with my new co-worker, a life-long New Orleanian who already has taught me a lot about local culture. "People here celebrate anything, we just look for reasons to celebrate," he explains, as we drive by droves of Saints fans under highway overpasses, hosting tailgate parties at 1:00pm in the afternoon on game day. "Hell, we even celebrate death. Have you ever seen a jazz funeral?" he asks. He is referring to the local tradition of commemorating a death with a full brass band marching with the mourners to the burial site.
I share with him my personal conjecture that New Orleans probably wouldn't have survived, wouldn't have been rebuilt, without such a strong culture. Take away the buildings, wipe them out in a storm; but if you have people who love the intangibles of the culture, of the community, of the city, then the buildings will be rebuilt, and the community will rise again, despite all the environmental, geographical, and meteorological odds against it.