Days 75-78 New Orleans – The Big Easy after Katrina

Evening of Sunday, October 19 (Allan)

Arriving in New Orleans after a long drive was the beginning of a strange experience for me because of my prior trips to New Orleans. I had actually been to New Orleans on three prior occasions, the first of which was in the early 1970s for a single day at a business meeting and has largely faded from memory. The second was at a business conference in the late 1990s which was really quite pleasurable but which I attended without Muriel. The third and clearly the most traumatic was a visit in April of 2004, just six months after Hurricane Katrina. I served as a volunteer on a recovery consulting team. I spent a week in the city, accomplished very little other than to be traumatized by what I saw. At that time I concluded that the problems created by Katrina were almost insurmountable, not because of the damage of the Hurricane but because of the gross failure of both the political and physical infrastructure of New Orleans that Katrina revealed. It was therefore with some trepidation that I came back to the city but I knew I wanted Muriel to see it and to visit the bayous and swamps around it which are alive with interesting wildlife.

We arrived almost to dark and after checking in to a hotel asked for a nearby inexpensive restaurant and made our first of several forays into the French Quarter. Our hotel was about three blocks away. We walked down Bourbon Street and were almost overwhelmed by the noise and color and raucousness. Clearly, New Orleans had fully recovered in this part of the French Quarter. We were bombarded with sensations ranging from strip clubs to jazz joints to restaurants and souvenir shops of all sorts. We went to a fairly plain restaurant in which we had had our first of several forays into New Orleans cooking including gumbo, jambalaya, dirty rice, crawfish, shrimps and other items.

Monday, October 20 (Allan)

As we have done in many cities in the past, we elected to take a bus tour of the city as a starter to a three day visit. In this instance, we consciously chose a tour labeled City and Katrina Tour since it not only covered several interesting parts of the city but also went out to the areas damaged by Katrina.

While we saw many charming areas, some of which were photographed and labeled below, the most traumatic but interesting part of the trip was to visit the Ninth Ward which was the most heavily damaged area. -s

SOME SCENES OUTSIDE THE NINTH WARD (The third shot is for movie-stage fans)

The contrast between this and my prior visit in 2004 was very dramatic in the sense that all the debris have been cleaned up. There were many occupied houses but they were still only a small minority of the total number of houses. What was particularly depressing, however, was the fact that the vast majority of houses were still unoccupied and still showed major damage from Katrina, as is also shown in the photos below.

SCENES OF KATRINA – A House Unrepaired, Where a House Was,  A  Cityscape Contrast

All in all, the comments by our tour guide and our visual experience suggested that my initial impression that New Orleans was a dysfunctional city remained largely correct. The repairs to the city had been physical and only in some cases quite recent. For example, only within the last year has the aquarium opened and all of the major hospitals in downtown New Orleans remained closed. One of the Catholic orders has in fact created a rather large urgent care facility to attend to the poor who are injured or ill. This facility opened about two weeks ago.

It is manifest that except for the real work done by the Corps of Engineers in repairing the dikes and levies, much of the infrastructure repair has yet to be accomplished.

At the same time, the high ground that was not terribly flooded by the hurricane—know locally as “the sliver by the river” which consists of most of the Garden District, the French Quarter, the City Center and a few other areas has now been largely restored and remains vital and quite beautiful.

After our tour, Muriel was exhausted and we basically rested for the afternoon and went out for dinner to a restaurant on Bourbon Street called the Red Fish. I mentioned this because we did in fact had red fish at Red Fish Café as well as had some crawfish delicacies and were thoroughly enjoying the cuisine of New Orleans. Amazingly the restaurant was even noisier than Bourbon Street.

Tuesday, October 21 (Allan)

We spent of much of the morning walking around. We walked through the French Quarter all the way to Jackson Square which is the central park of the French Quarter, then to the shore of the Mississippi River.

New Orleans French Quarter is amazingly photogenic with many beautiful houses, streetscapes and the heavily photographed but still quite remarkable Jackson Square which is kind of the hub or downtown of the French Quarter. In the center of the square is a statue of President Andrew Jackson. It was erected in honor of his commanding the U.S. troops that saved New Orleans from British attack.

Some of what we saw can be seen in the photos below.

One interesting side light was the fact that Muriel was sufficiently taken with the flowers and plantings hanging from the wrought iron balconies that she thought we might want to do that on the balcony of our deck at our condo in Malibu. I totally endorse this not only because I like the look but because it will create more space on the deck which is now heavily occupied by potted plants.

We had coffee at Café du Monde which is the original prototype of Starbucks of all time. Since we were going on swamp tour in the afternoon we elected to have beignets with our coffee and skip lunch.

Our swamp tour was remarkable as much for the fact that we drove to it on our own without stress or incident than for the tour itself. After really stressful navigations of Boston, New York and DC, we were able to drive easily to the suburb of Westwego for a swamp tour.

We saw again many alligators and some lovely birds, some of which are shown below. Unlike our experience in South Carolina, these alligators were truly in the wild and it was more gratifying to see them on logs in the swamp than on platforms in local pond-like areas as we had on the earlier plantation tour

The pilot/narrator was a local Cajun who was less of a naturalist than he thought he was. When he saw a family of Common Moorhens swimming in the bayou, he told us they were Purple Gallinules and how fond he was of eating them. (This was a minor gaffe probably meaningful only to our birdwatcher readers, but we thought he should have been able to properly identify one of his favorite foods.) The trip was fun but not inspiring. We saw many egrets and herons, but few other birds. The only songbirds were crows. At the birding festival on Jekyll Island, we heard birders from coastal Georgia remarking about the many unusual birds they had been seeing in their yards, apparently because this year’s hurricanes Gustav and Ike had moved them from the Gulf Coast. We assume these hurricanes were the cause of the dearth of songbirds in the bayou.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect was his commentary on the ongoing and modestly recovering small scale shrimping and fishing in his community. He actually checked some of his lines on the trip. This trip highlighted the damage wreaked by Katrina but also the resilience of the natural environment and the Cajun community that lives and works within it.

SCENES FROM OUR SWAMP TOUR

That evening, at the recommendation of the sales lady in a shop at which we bought some costume jewelry, we ate at a locally popular restaurant called Muriel’s. Muriel had never eaten at a restaurant called Muriel’s and I am sure we had never seen one. In this instance, we did ask about the origin of the name Muriel’s. After several inquiries, we finally found out that the silent money partner who financed the restaurant some eight years ago had at one point in his life a woman of whom he was deeply fond named Muriel and he named the restaurant after her. More information was requested but not available, although the hostess gave us a copy of the menu and a write up of the restaurant’s mischievous ghosts.

We saved and have reproduced below a copy of the menu proving that there really was a Muriel’s restaurant.

By the way, the food at Muriel’s was quite good. We walked there in the dark and my navigation left something to be desired because we were walking on a street to the north of the one that Muriel’s was on and we overshot by several blocks. We were aided by a local artist type (I infer that from the fact that he was carrying a painting) who saw us trying to puzzle out our map under a street light and gave us excellent directions.

All in all, it was a thoroughly delightful day with beautiful weather in two very different parts of the city.

Wednesday, October 22 (Allan)

On this occasion, we spent the day visiting the Aquarium and later walking around the city. The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (named after the Audubon Nature Institute, which is a nature preservation association in New Orleans) is a remarkably good instructional aquarium.

I had recalled a prior visit very fondly with a sense of discovery and wonder at the interior recreation of outdoor habitats. It was destroyed by Katrina, although its staff managed to save its penguins and other creatures. On this occasion, the aquarium had just reopened about eight months ago and clearly had reopened somewhat “on the cheap”.

While the educational and child oriented exhibits were superb, the quality of finish was still a little bedraggled in some spaces. The dining facilities were limited to say the least. I could not find anything I wanted to eat and Muriel had a grilled chicken sandwich which she assures me was somewhat better than well flavored cardboard. It is clear that the aquarium is still on its way back, Muriel got many pointers about how to explain things to children in her nature walks.

We also took a few photos including a close up of a very genial looking manta ray

.

We also visited the IMAX theater where we saw a wonderful but alarming and saddening production entitled “Hurricane on the Bayou”. It included some beautiful footage of the wetlands and the bayous as well as key message on loss of wetlands and their importance. In a hurricane, every three miles of intervening wetlands lowers the storm surge by one foot. When you apply that formula to the thousands of wetlands removed by reclamation and channeling, you begin to see how Katrina could wreak such havoc. We acquired the DVD of the film and hope to show it to our Audubon and RCD friends.

Following our visit, we walked back to the hotel and ate at another gourmet restaurant near Jackson Square that evening.

In retrospect, New Orleans was a delightful city to visit, holding aside the very real issues raised in my mind by Katrina. Muriel was also somewhat shocked by the remaining damage. My sense of New Orleans as a city still trying to find itself at the core levels of redevelopment and strategic planning did not change even from my visit four years earlier.

The Big Easy remains a wonderful place for a tourist in an uncertain city in terms of its viability for the full range of its citizens.

Muriel’s New Orleans Comments

It’s no wonder that so many people want to remain in or return to New Orleans! It is so charming, beautiful, artistic, diverse and tolerant. There is a great sense of fun and joy, with an undercurrent of poverty, danger and decay. But it seems so vulnerable to repeat destruction on the scale of Katrina’s.

Maybe the traffic situation is revealing of New Orleans today. There is much less traffic than you would expect in such a dense city, probably because many people have not returned. Certainly the tourists are a small fraction of what the many hotels can handle. Except for a few drivers of muscle cars, drivers are polite. Pedestrians ignore the traffic signals and often step in front of moving traffic. Drivers stop politely for them, probably because they realize they would kill someone otherwise.

Even in downtown and other areas above the flooding, many buildings were badly damaged. For example we saw a skyscraper whose top stories had been blown off and are still missing. Some of the damaged buildings are being repaired now, five years after Katrina. Others continue to rot away. In the low-lying 9th Ward, there is so much desolation, but significant rebuilding. Does it make any sense to rebuild here where future flooding seems so inevitable? Probably not, but how can people not rebuild?

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1 Response to “Days 75-78 New Orleans – The Big Easy after Katrina”


  1. 1 Lynne November 25, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Allan – Just to draw your attention to a ‘typo’ on your blog of October 19th – “The third and clearly the most traumatic was a visit in April of 2004, just six months after Hurricane Katrina”
    Change 2004 to 2006 (Katrina was August 2005)

    I have enjoyed your blog so much! Congratulations to you both on completing the trip safely and on producing such an amazing journal of
    impressions and photos. I am going to persuade Bob to do this with me one day.
    regards
    Lynne


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