BootsnAll Travel Network

New Orleans

Gulfport 2

After all the images on TV, the numerous articles in the papers and magazines, and the interviews with survivors of Hurricane Katrina, I wasn’t so sure about making a visit to New Orleans. I arose and left Houston, TX by 8am last Thursday. It was a sleepy drive and only a hearty breakfast of biscuits, sausage, bacon, toast, eggs and grits at the Cracker Barrel perked me up (maybe it was just the grease). The day was warm, sunny, just a few clouds in the blue sky.

Taking the Interstate to the outskirts of the city limits, the tale-tell signs were sublte, yet noticeable. Houses and buildings close to the freeway were draped with blue tarps and wrapped with Tyvek material. I took the exit to Canal Street, which if you follow it for about 4-5 miles, you’ll eventually get to the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, all near the banks of the Mississippi River. I wish the computer I am using now had the ability to upload the pictures I took, but here’s what I saw:

* Canal Street is very wide, with at least 2 lanes in each direction, and in the middle of the street runs the famous St. Charles Street car. This middle section is grassy with some trees and stops along the route. The streetcar would not be running today, and I doubt anytime close to the near future.

* Canal Street is a very major street, a central arterial to the French Quarter. Yet on this Thursday afternoon, it was absent of any other traffic. Just me and a few other cars. Working cars, that is. Cause on the street curbs and down the neighborhood side streets, there are a few cars all right. But something is not right. It’s that they are inoperable and abandoned. Many have dried mud caked to their frames.

* I slowly crept along Canal Street and looked down the side streets. Side streets that once displayed rows of habitable houses, now cast an eerie silence of emptiness and abandondment. All around the sidewalks, curbsides and streets lie debris–wood, garbage, fallen tree branches, furnishings, etc. etc.

* It is strange to see businesses shuttered in plywood — everything from gas stations, McDonald’s, restaurants, convenience stores, Rite Aid, Wallgreens and other businesses small and large.

* There are signs EVERYWHERE. Especially on the patchy green middle section of the street car line. It’s those little lawn signs you’d see during an election year. But instead of signs to vote for somebody, you see signs for:
– mold removal
– gutting
– flooring
– sheet rock removal
– drywall
– mold remediation
– fencing
– roofing
– exterminators
– electrical contractors
– painting
– remodeling
– disaster relief
– construction
– remodeling
– restoration
– “We Buy Houses”

* The houses themselves are mostly in shambles. Yellow spraypaint marks some homes – I don’t know what the symbols come to designate, I can only imagine. Some people have put “For Sale” signs on their homes.

* Canal Street, right up until the French Quarter, has no operating traffic signals. Just temporary stop signs attached to those folding construction markers. 4 ways stops at major intersections. Those businesses that are open, have homemade signs created of cardboard and black marker pens announcing “We are open.” But I would reckon that it would be difficult to remain open and in business when you have no customers. Therein lies the problem.

* My hosts for my stay stated that New Orleans has 500,000 residents, and the metro region over 1,200,000. Now, 3 months after the hurricane, that figure is around 60,000. I can’t argue there, not with what I’ve seen or more accurately, what I haven’t seen.

* The businesses that are open seem desperate for workers. “Hiring Now” signs are just about on every business that is open. Most of the help needed is for service workers, from small retail stores to fast food outlets, bars and restaurants.

* Major hotels in the French Quarter are closed up. These include the Days Inn and the mega-big Harrah’s Hotel and Casino and other chains. Fancy stores like Saks Fifth Avenue are out, as are many in the Riverwalk Mall. Just emptiness. One upscale mall, the Canal Place Shopping Center, had some sort of “Reopening Announcement” that lured in office workers and other people with free egg nog, cookies, apple cider, music and more. Apparently the stores were not open yet, it was just some way to drum up anticipation for when the stores finally do reopen.

**** Just in: a story that appeared in this morning’s USA Today that describes this reopening as well as other New Orleans rebuilding:

It’s worth a quick read, at the very least. ****

* The French Quarter is pretty darn BIG. I thought it was a small section of New Orleans, maybe like Portland’s Old Town district or maybe like the Pearl. Actually, the French Quarter consists of 80 blocks is an official National Historic District. There’s a lot of really cool architecture with buildings featuring balconies and rows of shops, restaurants, bars and more.

* The French Quarter did sustain damage, but not as extensive as some of the neighborhoods and homes that you may have seen on TV. Bourbon Street nightlife attracted a good number of tourists, and there are still plenty of clubs advertising the 3 for 1 and 2 for 1 drinks with their banners and signs. Music booms out from the clubs, and partygoers with beads still attempt some wild fun. Mounted police on horses march up the street, with barricades set up to divert traffic from the pedestrian-only area.

* My hosts, Sean and Alison, introduced me to their friend Jack. Because Sean and Alison just lost power to their home the previous night, they would not be able to accomodate me as per my Couchsurfing request. But Jack had hosted others before, and I was able to crash at his place, which was very convenient because it was pretty much in the French Quarter. We ended up going to a cool club “One Eye Jack” for drinks and some 80’s retro dancing.

* Leaving New Orleans, I tried to take a scenic tour along the coastline to Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi. However, a major bridge linking the two states was out and I was detoured back to the Interstate. I was able to drive the stretch for a good 10 miles, and what I saw was even more devastation and ghostly neighborhoods of empty and shuttered buildings. In one section, the road paralled the busy interstate above. Directly underneath the overpass highway were car graveyards. For at least 8 cityblocks there were rows and rows of vehicles that were towed to this final resting place. Cars and trucks with mud, shattered glass, stolen rims and no owners. All just sitting there like in a junk yard.

* I was able to make it into Gulfport. A coastal highway connects Gulfport with Biloxi, but I was only able to get as far as
Gulfport because the rest of the highway was closed. I spent a lot of time in one Gulfport neighborhood just in shock at all the destruction. Trees were uprooted and houses were smashed like some giant had stepped on them. Whole neighborhoods were literally just turned into nothing but debris. A sign for Outback Steakhouse and a Waffle House were all that remained in what was once a very busy section of tourist-road dining.

Despite all the destruction and emptiness I’ve described, there are signs of recovery. There are construction trucks, bobcats, bulldozers, dumptrucks and more in many neighborhoods. Workers in orange jackets are cleaning up, restoring, rebuilding. Tourists are coming back, hotels and other businesses are opening up. One homeowner in Gulfport was pounding nails into a windowframe intent on living in his home again. It’s going to take a long time though. My short visit to New Orleans and Gulfport was a real eye opener, especially given the fact that these once thriving communities are now just former shells of lives that have moved on and may likely not ever return to a place people once called ‘home.’ How can you run a business if you have no customers?


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