New Orleansis a divided city. With Mardi Gras around the corner, the tourist centre, the historic French Quarter, is vibrant, awake. Bars blast jazz and jukebox rock. Revellers stride purposely between them and shamble around inside. It’s 1pm and many visitors are toasted. Art galleries do a brisk business in window shoppers. A horse drawn carriage carries a beaming white couple holding balloons. But cross over to where regular life goes on in this city, just five or six blocks away, and the picture is bleak.
At best, even 17 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the residential neighbourhoods nearest the French Quarter could be described as “slowly recovering.” One in three houses appears deserted, one in five is boarded up. Graffiti on the walls st
ill record the hieroglyphics of the initial search after the storm when rescue teams sought survivors. Every house has a watermark, about chest high.
Further out many neighbourhoods remain completely abandoned. Driving east for 10 minutes finds wasteland comparable to the no-man’s land of a bombsite. Houses lie askew, their insides gutted, mouldy. Some are a pile of wood and weeds. In the Ninth Ward district, the walls, where they still stand, are scarred. In some spots only brick foundations hang on to the plot.
The effect of time after the storm has not completely destroyed a Polaroid lying under stones on one front porch. The picture shows a young black child, holding a basketball, standing on his front porch. Mile upon mile of the devastation, interrupted only by deserted roads and a cordoned-off militarised zone, stretches the length of the district. Things have improved in the last year but these improvement amount to the bulldozing of entire blocks. Over 10,000 homes still need to be gutted, reports the city.
In many of these areas outside the French Quarter, even the recovering ones, the most noticeable thing is the lack of people. Businesses on main thoroughfares lie empty, whole blocks silent.
On some streets residents cluster around the one or two inhabitable homes. On porches extended families and their friends watch the day go by. Over a quarter of a million people were scattered by Katrina. As they build new lives across the United States , New Orleanscontinues to suffer for lack of bodies.
Robin Cates, 24, living in the dilapidated remains of the oldest black neighbourhood in the country, survived the storm. She held-up above a bar in the French Quarter for a week as looters took control in the flooded streets below. Now, with the knowledge that the city is far from recovery, Cates is still shocked with her treatment after a road accident on New Year’s Eve. She was knocked off her scooter by a drunk driver in a stolen truck, and waited in ER for 6 hours with a broken arm and a shattered leg before being offered painkillers and some water.
“I knew it was bad,” she says. “But only when you need something in this city do you realise the infrastructure, the people, are still missing. There were only three staff working the emergency room in the main downtown hospital on New Year’s Eve. There should have been five or six times that number, but they don’t have the people.”
Staff shortages are common especially in departments essential for the city’s continued survival. The only industry enjoying a slow resurgence is tourism. It’s the city’s number one employer, a fact not missed by City Hall. It generated $5 billion in annual visitor spending before the storm, a major cut of which floats the city’s operating budget.
The Metropolitan Convention and Visitors bureau estimates the revenue since the storm has cut this number in half. As such the bureau is currently unveiling an aggressive marketing campaign to bring back doubtful visitors.
“The key is to make people understand that culture exists in New Orleans in a way that it never has before,” says Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation. “We have to create a brand that will reflect the eternal nature of the people who live here.”
Tom Downs, author of Lonely Planet’s new 2007 guide, agrees: “Tourism is so important for the economy; we all have to be optimistic that New Orleans will bounce back.”
The tourist’s experience in New Orleans these days, however, can be unsettling. Sam Allen, 25, visiting from Washington, DC, says, “I was expecting damaged and abandoned buildings in the residential areas, but I’m struck by how even the main commercial streets of the city was effected. It seems half of the businesses go going after Kartina. Even the major national franchises are empty.”
Seven months after the storm tourist buses already cruised around the Ninth Ward. Back then eager voyeurs snapped photos from their air-conditioned seats, occasionally stepping out for closer shots. The buses are still rolling in 2007, now a regular feature alongside other popular days out, like the swamp tour.
The big, brash downtown hotels host an array of exciting brochures for tourists, including the Ninth Ward service and the swamp tour. A concierge at the Intercontinental Hotel, who asked not to be named, has a glib reply for questions about the recovery effort: “Storm, what storm?” And amid biting daily life of this shattered city at the beginning of the year, the local Times-Picayne screams bloody murder.
The first six days of 2007 saw seven murders. Normally it’s black on black crime, mainly in the deserted neighbourhoods and boarded up estates. More often though it’s crossing over to the wealthier districts. In January residents marched on the city, demanding a tougher approach, chanting “Enough!”
In Gambit Weekly, Louisiana’s largest weekly newspaper, the letters pages are full of fear and wonder at the price of remaining in the city. The people who survived the storm are now wondering whether to stay is foolish. One writes, “Nowhere in this city feels safe anymore. It used to be that tourists were told not to go off the beaten track. Now it seems tourists are rightly told to go, well nowhere.”
The ripple effect of the post-Katrina diaspora includes a vicious rise in gang crime, as new residents around the country fight turf wars between themselves and their new neighbours. Last year 379 murders were committed in Houston , Texas ; a 12 year high. Houston ’s mayor cites the influx of almost 150,000 hurricane evacuees as the main reason.
The issue of recovery has practically vanished from the White House’s public agenda. Although the storm’s impact on the Gulf Coast amounted to the greatest natural disaster in the nation’s history, it was not mentioned in President Bush’s recent State of the Union address before Congress.
Some residents like Meryt Harding, 52, a British artist based in New Orleans , think this is less than adequate. “It’s outrageous that he didn’t mention us. Bush spends millions and millions on the war each week. Send some of that down here. We need it. There are no community centres, no job centres, schools and hospitals are empty. Even if people did come back there’s nothing to come back to.”
Everyday Harding says she hears new stories of people struggling to get by. “Everyone feels abandoned. Progress is so slow, so frustrating.”
With all this on the city’s plate, it’s now festival season. Time for a party; it’s New Orleans after all. Next week will find Mardi Gras celebrations around the world, from Rio to Venice . After a lacklustre carnival last year promoters hope this Mardi Gras season, which New Orleans is arguably most famous for, will be a step back in the right direction.
Wizened, whisky drinking men and women are dusting off their peacock costumes and fluorescent floats are brought from their resting places, into the sun. Fat Tuesday is coming. Despite all the tribulations of rebuilding a city, if you believe the marketing campaign, New Orleans will rise again.