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The Big Easy gets harder

A writer returns to find too much changed and too much the same

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When I was still a pup more so than now at least my car broke down in New Orleans and I stayed for a year with Thanksgiving marking my arrival and sending me off. The Big Easy has that effect on people. It welcomes everyone with open arms, and seduces with warm nights that turn into sunrises before your blinking eyes can adjust.

In 2005, when Katrina hit, there was a huge outpouring of support for victims. People were shocked at how unprepared the local and state agencies were to respond, then collectively disgusted at the governmental inaction. The appropriate fear-mongering on TV followed. Eventually public interest waned.

Katrina now doesn't garner the same guttural response that it used to nor the financial contributions. The bridge collapse in Minneapolis returned attention to ailing infrastructure nationwide, but it also taxed the country's attention span for human-caused/natural disaster.

The extraordinary aspect of the New Orleans calamity is that it's still happening. Insults to the city that greets death with jazz are seemingly unending.

I found my way back to New Orleans recently, this time in a van with a heavily inked Katrina refugee named Finney and his dog Ruca. For all three of us, it was our first time back since the hurricane. We drove at night to avoid the heat, and finally arrived around 3 in the morning from Austin. We headed from I-10 to a service industry bar in the Quarter. The place is open 24 hours, every day, but on account of its clientele, it's most alive between 3 and 10 in the morning, and by 11, the next wave of alcoholics are getting a jump on the day with a Bloody Mary or tumbler of bourbon. If you're not careful, one of them will buy you a drink, and the night's escapades will be erased from memory, only to start all over again.

My biggest fear about returning was that I would turn up and find nothing I could call familiar, my friends evacuated, and my favorite bars boarded up. The horror stories about dead bodies being left on the streets for days and the standing water have become much less shocking, more like bad memories as the city continues to pick up the pieces. But the dirty water line that still clings to walls in Mid-City and the soaring murder rate there's one every other day on average are constant reminders that the city hasn't yet healed.

Finney, Ruca, and myself sleepily pushed through the swinging doors and stepped from the cobblestone street to the cobblestone floor of the bar. My bag didn't have time to hit the floor before my old neighbor greeted me with a shot of whiskey and a dose of hot New Orleans gossip. Everything was just the same as we left it: sweltering, filthy, and buzzing at least on first glance.

Rumored horror stories told of uprooted giant oak canopies in Uptown and in the Garden District, of whole neighborhoods gone, and of a city deserted, save a few Red Cross volunteers.

In reality, winds from the category five hurricane took out a few trees down St. Charles Avenue along with the streetcar lines that still aren't up but otherwise the historically well-to-do neighborhood is intact, even immaculate by New Orleans standards.

The Ninth Ward, infamous by now, didn't fare so well.

I felt too guilty to talk when I visited the Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit (and poorest) areas of the city. No one wants to be a tourist to someone else's misery, but morbid curiosity or a civic duty to mourn something that I'm not attached to also brings taxis and mule-drawn carriages into an area they would have never come to before the storm.

The Ninth Ward is a neutered parody of itself now, the set of Hollywood movies and a memento mori, but not dangerous or lively anymore. Cement front porches mark property lines like tombstones where entire blocks have been leveled. FEMA trailer parks have sprouted on empty blocks among the chest-high weeds, poor imposters of the old neighborhoods. Luckier families gather on the porches of their sagging homes, with FEMA trailers parked in the driveway. It's heartbreaking, and there's no easy solution.

It's not surprising that one of the poorest neighborhoods was taken out or that it hasn't been rebuilt. There are plenty of conspiracy theories about why the levees failed, none so outlandish as to be dismissed outright. It's true that if the levee didn't break on the canal, it might have broken on the river, flooding Uptown and the beautiful mansions. But really, the levees were just inadequate. Negligence could be considered domestic terrorism itself.

When help finally arrived for New Orleans in the form of money and travel trailers as temporary housing, apologies were issued for failures to respond on every government level, but each public display of humility seemed to bring another scandal.

The FEMA trailers are now the source of more than 500 lawsuits in Louisiana, apparently because they contained dangerous levels of formaldehyde. Several residents complained of respiratory problems, and the agency started testing for the substance and moving people to new trailers.

Then, Louisiana released a plan to rebuild levees that can resist a category three storm.

It's laughable, so that's what New Orleanians do.

Contributor Kylie Mendonca can be reached at kmendonca@newtimesslo.com.

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