Monday, September 26, 2005

New Orleans is a ghost town

I'm back at work in New Orleans (technically, Jefferson Parish - which is a big difference), but that means even less access to the internet at times when I can post. When I go home to Algiers, there's electricity, but no land line phones and no cable, and that means no internet. There's not much open except for a couple of grocery stores and gas stations. Even those close early so workers can get home before the sundown curfew.

Here's a post that's now more than a week old, predating even Hurricane Rita:

This past weekend, I had an opportunity to really drive around New Orleans on my own a little – to take in the impact of what I was seeing in a more thoughtful way that last weekend.

The city is a ghost town, or more accurately, a police-state ghost town where the inhabitants are eerily missing, replaced by a militia monitoring the movements of its own members.

It looks like an atomic bomb went off in New Orleans. Cars are strewn around in random ways straddling curbs, on the neutral grounds, some upside down. Skiffs, canoes, pirogues and even small cruisers were beached. Everything once covered in flood waters is now covered in an ash-brown dried mud. Anything that was once green, is now dead and dessicated, coated in that same ash-brown dried mud.

In areas where significant flooding occurred (even Uptown), cars and houses are striped with grime along their sides - green and brown and ash in color, like dirty rings in a bathtub, or the great strata of millennia at the Grand Canyon, each set of rings telling a story of catastrophic loss. But the rings are everywhere. Across the expanse of entire neighborhoods, the trail of rings can be followed, from one house to the next, from one car to the next, across a fence or a tree or a row of bushes.

I drove into my neighborhood down Jefferson from Claiborne Avenue. A week ago, this area remained flooded with black water and was impassable. Now, everything was bone dry. A barricade on Jefferson Avenue forced me to duck into a side street. Then I continued down Joseph Street. Garbage lined both sides of the street where, obviously, lots of other people like myself had found a way into the city, their destroyed furnishings piled into high mounds on the street. There was litter scattered on the ground everywhere along with downed wires and dead tree limbs.

At each house, as I moved down the street, I looked to see where the water line was. I knocked on almost every one of these doors in the last election cycle as the captain of my precinct for the Kerry campaign. I tried to remember the faces that came to open particular doors, the doors to houses that were cuter than others, or the doors to houses whose yards had been given a little extra attention.

The water line was like a death sentence. For those whose houses were built on slabs or which were only raised marginally on short piers, every furnishing would be found destroyed, and many family heirlooms or irreplaceable objects of sentimental value. And this is just Uptown, which was spared the worst flooding.

I drove just past my house to park in a small clearing of debris in the street. My body’s danger mechanisms kicked in as I stepped out onto the street. A felt a thin film of sweat develop, and my heart started to beat faster. The air was humid and filled with that smell of rotting swamp even though the ground was completely dry now.

I moved quickly to inspect again the condition of the house, mostly to make sure that no looters had broken in - I didn’t want any surprises going into the house. No boards were removed from the windows at the front of the house. Accessing the back of the house was inconvenient, so I didn’t check windows back there.

The pie tins I left full of cat food and water for a stray beagle I saw the last time were empty and blown off of the porch. There was no longer a puddle in the street to jump over. The jar of pickled jalapenos was still in the sidewalk, as was the tire which had floated into the driveway along with the siding and all the other trash.

The front door opened easier than last time. The air inside the house was stale and filled with the putrefaction still emanating from the vacated but still rancid smelling refrigerator. Even though the possessions inside were familiar, my absence made them seem more remote, almost as though this wasn’t really my house.

It was still daylight outside, turning to dusk, but because the windows remained boarded up, the inside of the house was pitch black. All the visible light inside the house came from the small windows in the kitchen and bathroom at the back of the house. I forgot to bring a flashlight on this visit. I couldn’t have seen if anyone was lurking in the shadows. Given the edginess of the situation, I was thinking of getting out as fast as I could.

I peered briefly into the office, but couldn’t see well enough to reclaim any possessions there. The bedroom closet was worse. Minimally, I decided to get the coffee maker and coffee filters. Stepping through the narrow passage of the galley kitchen, I walked into a long spider web. I love spiders from a distance, conceptually, as predators capable of creating fascinating traps of spun spider silk for other less desirable creatures. I hate them when I come into close contact with them. I stepped back to peel the web off of my face and legs, then tried again to make my way to get the coffee maker and filters. With these in hand, I quickly made my way to the front door. There, I listened for any noise outside of passersby or cars, peering through the peephole as I did. When it seemed safe to go outside, I emerged from that cave that was once home, feeling somewhat odd that, if anyone should see me, I should be reclaiming nothing more than a coffee maker. This I placed on the front seat of the pickup. Then looked around once more at the house.

The neighbors asked me to turn off their power supply if I could get to their back yard. It was getting dark, the curfew was about to begin, and I was getting very anxious that I might be seen by a looter. There hasn’t been much about looting in the press anymore, but every once in a while, someone has a story to tell about being shot at or carjacked. Criminals have nothing to lose. What’s the worst that could happen to them? That they’d be caught? They don’t care about that.

It was then that I noticed, on the side of the house, the chicken wire that blocked entry to the underside of the house was bent inward to form a hole large enough for a person to pass through. I considered for a moment if the hole could have been caused by some natural phenomena – like the force of water – almost trying to convince myself that there was no reason to look under the house. Then I wondered why someone would want to crawl under the house. It’s a damp, muddy mess. I can only imagine that someone was looking for something there, or was living there, or crawled through to the fenced-in back yard like the time when a burglar broke into the shed.

Not one to let fear overcome curiosity, I cautiously approached the fence. With all the dried leaves and other debris in the driveway, there was no way to make a quiet approach. Anyone who may have been there would have heard me go into the house long before, and then moving toward the opening. Stooping down about five feet away from the hole, looking under the house, I couldn’t discern anything more than the shadows of the broad piers against the light from the far side and back of the house. It then seemed like a stupid idea to be trying something like that without a flashlight, and possibly, a gun as well. I couldn’t see anyone else, but they could have easily see me. It reminded me of the wise advice I heard an official say about avoiding dangerous situations – it’s not what you can see that you should worry about, it’s the other people who can see you that you should worry about. Then I was startled by the crackling of leaves behind me. I spun around low and fast to see who was behind me. Nothing. Just a pile of dead leaves rustling in the breeze. In the dead silence of this abandoned city, every sound was amplified.

That was enough. I resigned myself to the more rationale idea of returning in the full light of day, with a flashlight, and possibly a gun. I counted the blessing of having a coffee maker, got back into the pickup, and headed for the relative certainty and security of my in-laws’ house in Algiers.


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