Three months after Katrina -- a visit to New Orleans

Thursday, December 8, 2005

(Editor's Note: The three-month aniversary of Hurricane Katrina was last Tuesday, Nov. 28. The giant storm inundated vast sections of the city of New Orleans after levees collapsed. An estimated 450,000 people lived in the city on Aug. 28. The population now is estimated at 60,000, and the extent of the destruction is just now becoming fully understood to many.

Sports Editor David McNeal, on a Thanksgiving visit to see family members who live in and around New Orleans, drove through one of the badly damaged areas and wrote this first-person account.)

NEW ORLEANS -- The big four-wheel-drive Durango bumped and rocked slowly over heaps of debris as it crept down a dirty, clogged street, past silent houses with gaping windows and doors, past huge live oaks crushed into homes, past destroyed cars with windows down, still sitting right where they were parked when the 17th Street Levee broke.

The area is Lakeview, an upscale suburb of New Orleans that isn't there any more. Oh yeah, the houses still line the streets, but the streets are dead and so are the hedges, flowers, palm trees and grass that once made this area a garden spot. Now everything except the piles of sheet rock stripped from homes is brown.

When the water from Lake Pontchartrain rushed over the collapsed wall shortly after Hurricane Katrina hammered the town on Aug. 28-29, residents in Lakeview and the poorer Ninth Ward had no time to react -- only time to escape with their lives.

One resident said she looked out and saw water in the street, turned to tell others in the house, but before they could escape, the dirty brown flood was churning through the door.

"We just had time to get upstairs before the first floor filled up," she said.

Cars are still parked in garages, carports and along the streets just where they sat on that 90-degree day. Now they're covered with a white mold that has consumed much of the city, coating houses and everything else, inside and out. The hoods on many cars and trucks are up, due to the pressure of the water as the streets filled up. The vehicles were too heavy to float, so the hood latches gave way as the floodwaters filled the streets, in places as high as roof lines.

Those dingy brown high-water marks can be seen on houses, along with orange or red spray paint. No, it wasn't vandals, but rescue workers in boats, checking to see if anyone was alive inside and leaving evidence of their search.

A circle or "X" was routinely spray painted, with the date, and if anyone was found inside, plus other information. The search was house to house and must have taken a long time, because just the Lakeview area is larger than the city of Berryville.

As we eased from one ruined street to the next, the destruction spread out before us for miles. The waters not only wiped out the classic New Orleans-style two story homes with wrought iron balconies that the area is famous for, it showed no discrimination.

Schools, libraries, churches, day-care centers, homes of the rich and poor were treated alike. Now the broad, tree-lined boulevards with their beautifully landscaped medians are dumping areas for uprooted trees, refrigerators, air conditioners, couches, chairs, kitchen tables, and anything else found in American homes.

And sheet rock.

There is activity in these dead zones, but only from men in white coveralls and face masks who are engaged in the latest business in the Big Easy -- house gutting.

They strip a house or business from the inside out, ripping out sheet rock from walls and ceilings, throwing everything out into huge heaps of debris on the streets.

It will all have to be redone -- if utilities are ever restored. Electric and gas companies are working hard to restore service in areas not damaged this badly, and haven't gotten that done yet.

And even if a person has the money to have his or her house gutted and rebuilt, the plumbing and electrical replaced, and purchase all new furnishings, there is no guarantee most neighbors can do the same thing.

A family having a rebuilt house in this area now would be isolated in an ugly, dead zone, like a desert island.

Businesses -- car lots, malls, shopping centers, and more -- are all empty and boarded up now. There are no customers, even if the stores could be rebuilt and staffed.

But there is hope. Public libraries are being repaired, schools are being gutted and refitted, and some colleges are re-opening in January.

And this week, the New Orleans Zoo, the pride of the community, opened its doors. People flocked in, bringing their children just like in the past.

No, all areas of New Orleans weren't hit as hard as Lakeview and the Ninth Ward. The old, historic areas were built on high ground and survived with minimal damage.

But an unprecedented catastrophe has hit an American city, something similar to the destruction caused by earthquakes and war in other countries that appear nightly on our television screens.

Just this time, it's us.

The people of these devastated areas will need help for years as the hardy and stubborn begin a rebuilding process that is beyond the scope of anything our country has had to deal with before.

Hurricane Katrina may have passed through at the end of August, but three months later the monumental scope of the rebuilding process is just now becoming obvious.

As the big four-wheeler turned yet another corner into another brown and lifeless neighborhood, littered with the debris of human life, I knew I didn't want those of us more fortunate to forget the tragedy here.

You may not be able to drive the streets like I did, but I hope this story helps you feel what I did as this unending catastrophe passed before my eyes on Thanksgiving weekend.

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