My husband Ben and I attended the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual conference in New Orleans, LA this past weekend. Our mission: to absorb and re-tell the story of NOLA first hand, 3 years post-hurricanes Katrina-Rita, the relentless destroyers of the greater NOLA region on Monday August 29, 2005.
The banners hanging in the airport and around town say “we’re jazzed you’re here”, and so am I.
Conference headliners included Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu; NOLA Mayor C. Ray Nagin; Entergy Corporation’s CEO; Chalmette High principal Wayne Warner who lead St. Bernard Parish rescue efforts; Habitat for Humanity New Orleans Area communications director Aleis Tusa; the Times-Picayune Pulitzer-Prize winning storm coverage team; among other experts in mental health and wetlands recovery. The city hierarchy explained their views with PowerPoint and slide shows of the situation then, and now. Each informative and pertinent presentation focused my mind and whole being on the storm story origins and conclusions.
But for me, NOLA’s dramatic surrealistic story came alive through personal submersion into the lower 9th and St. Bernard parishes, her music, and engaging French Quarter shop keepers. Like the drama mask wearing both a smile and tears, this city lives that duality today every minute.
The story lives through Spenser Boren, a local beloved musician who sang to us about community cohesiveness. Boren wrote “The Long Black Line”, a song dedicated to the watermark left behind on buildings after the toxic snake-and-debris filled water stood still for two weeks, at 8 – 15 feet high. Look over your head at that point above you. It’s really deep.
Boren sang that the waters fast-rolled through dwellings creating the apocalyptic chaos we witnessed on TV and newspapers and the Web. Water pushed on street after street mile after mile in just fifteen minutes. The long black line represents sacrifice, pride of place, and community courage. When visiting the parishes later first hand, on a bus the waters would have covered over, I looked for the line and found it. I cried. I felt overpowered by the suffocation. Most owners chose to preserve the line as their badge of camaraderie and survival, like soldiers often do. Buy the .99 cent song at New Orleans’s Musician Relief Fund at http://www.nomrf.org/catalog/item/4783777/4846517.htm.
The story lives through a father and son selling home-made hip-hop CD’s on the corner of Canal and Royal streets. “Listen to number 13” father says, while I dig for an uber-reasonable $5 bill. “Don’t forget to hear number 13”. “How can I forget that, number 13?” I say with a grin. Song #13 is “Shine Yo Light” by Jimmi Clever on the CD “In the Streets Vol. 1”, by Street Beat Productions, 2007, hosted by DJ Mathematiks. It recounts his tour through depression and despair following The Storm, and his rebound. Find out more at www.myspace.com/mathematicswutang.
The story lives through a wedding party second-line with a brass band swinging into Jackson Square on a warm, post-drizzle Saturday evening. Passers-by wave and take pictures; the groom drips Mardi Gras beads around children’s necks. Female guests wear festive white feather masks, and the groom and groomsmen wear white tails. Ben, I and other admirers join the frivolity, love, revelry and humanness of someone’s lucky extra-ordinary day. We skip off for Café Du Monde, a beignet and café au lait.
NOLA tells me her stories through shop keepers’ eyes. “It’s Saturday, it’s 4:30 pm, I’ve not had a single sale all day”, said Dianne Harris of Zogwald’s at 429 Royal St. The tiki and Hawaiian surf motif and sultans of Arabia lamps catch my eye, and we’re welcomed in as long – lost friends by Dianne Harris and Zogwald, her eleven year old grey standard poodle. She’s a former Australian living in the Quarter. I love her theme, circa 1950, post-WWII. Island aura and Danish Modern decorate our Fayetteville, AR home, recalling tranquil and kinky Americana.
I have my treasures, yet so many in NOLA no longer do. After “The Storm”, as the locals call it since “Katrina” is like Voldemort “he who shall not be named”, business is slower and plods along. I feel the emptiness of the streets, the missing souls in the heart of her most famous attraction. I’ve been in NOLA twice before, elbowed my way along the busy French Quarter streets awash with tourists. Recovery and rebuilding are happening, “we’re coming back” they repeat.
Ben and I venture to Oonkas Boonkas at 330 Chartes to meet Matt Harris, Dianne’s husband. Sifting through more tiki’s and sultans, I find my long-searched for goal: a deep blue shiny mermaid cocktail glass by Orchids of Hawaii. For sale? No, sorry, Matt’s looking for another to sell as a pair. This one came from Brimfield, MA recently. No sale that day with them, but we chat on about their post-storm life and visions for their future. Matt’s cheery, hopeful and sees better times ahead. Call them at (504) 525-4999.
I wander the Quarter alone Sunday morning, post-conference. Bourbon St. is bubbly, not with ale, but with street soap suds washing the debris off from the night before. It’s sunny and warm and folks are out pre-or post-brunch. I’m searching for a spiritual reminder, to serve as a talisman, a touch stone to recall what I’ve felt and learned this weekend. A piece to honor 2,000 lost human lives. Lost homes; lost pets and aquatic life; lost neighborhoods and churches and temples, and torahs, and health clinics and hospitals, and Wal-Mart stores, and school busses, and grocery stores, and wedding photo albums, and screw drivers, and year books, and CD collections, and toy trucks. A reminder of the resilience of our human heart.
Pulled by my intuitive force into NAGHI’s at 800 Royal St., I meet Emily Adams, not yet knowing her real persona. Interviewed and awarded by Kingfish Magazine a Steel Magnolia, “one of the top 12 business women in New Orleans”, she’s an interior decorator, antique store worker, and woman of soul. She’s helped rebuild client homes. We chat a bit, the common street question being, “where are you from?” She knows her stuff; I locate my talisman, and we quickly reach a fair price. Emily’s polite and in-tune demeanor breaks open further when I explain our conference and goals.
“We’re writing about NOLA so people don’t forget”. That sentence breaks Emily’s tears spilt unashamed. Her friend is running a health and living goods clinic in St. Bernard Parish who’s not getting operating funds and needs more household goods. As she wraps my ornamental sterling silver yad, she passionately writes her name and her friend’s name and phone numbers onto a business card. “Call Irai, his story must be told”. Find him at St. Bernard Community Center (504) 617-2580. Reach Emily at (985) 515-7677 or http://www.emilyadamsinteriordesign.com.
The yad is perfect for me, with its well-used worn-down filigree imperfection, a pointing finger to keep in my tiniest bag to read sacred text from my unsoddened sacred textbooks. But, to whom does the finger point? To me or to you? Does it point to those living in the ghost towns of the parishes submerged by the storm? Or to the volunteers and good Samaritans and bodhisattvas and angels donating their lives, a few hours or days at a time, to rebuild the city? Or to the tourists and visitors helping by spending one dollar or hundreds at a time? Or to the wealthy who are buying up property to rebuild, such as Brad Pitt and Donald Trump? Or to the allegedly corrupt city and state politicians and FEMA officials who wonder where all the national aid went? Or to the Six Flags group for buying Jazz Land theme park, collecting rebuild insurance money, then escaping town leaving its barren roller coaster rides to rot? Or to George W. Bush for appearing to forget? Yes, I feel it points to all of these.
I’ve learned this from NOLA, back from the brink of wind and water near-obliteration: the bands still play, yet a second-line is necessary and welcomed more than ever now. Follow the band to NOLA, the local folks are jazzed when you come back.
For parents with youngsters: want your kids to see a 3rd world, war-torn country without a passport? Visit NOLA and drive through the lower 9th ward and St. Bernard Parish waste lands. Half of the population is missing: some died, most moved away. See homes and stores razed to their foundations. See bare cement, or weeds, grow where folks once lived and breathed and had their being. Standing homes are vacant, burnt out, windows broken, roofs collapsed. Street after street, and mile after mile. See the sticks-n-bricks.
Beside The Long Black Line, the watermark left on walls from long-standing filthy water, the guardsmen left marks on searched homes. They spray painted a large X, noting the search date at the top, the guard troop numbers at the left and right, and number found dead at the bottom. You want to see zeros there, but that isn’t always the case. Total devastation is only fifteen hours away by car (from Fayetteville, AR). Go, see and feel another world, then return to your first world comforts a changed person. It’s good for your soul.
Question to the conference members: Should the conference been taught upside down? If we’d visited the destroyed parishes first; heard the heroic tale of the battle to survive by Chalmette High principal Wayne Warner, seen his flattened bare cement slab 3-bedroom foundation and his new tenement FEMA city trailer row home first; watched the DVD by Warner’s students recounting the horrors in their neighborhoods before we heard the city hierarchy explain the mess; would we have asked deeper more probing questions of the Lt. governor, city mayor, and other authorities? Had the education programs been reversed, our anger and outrage, disbelief and disgust, empathetic rage toward the stagnating rebuild could have been unleashed in person to those supposedly in-the-know. Not to be hostile, as we are professionals with a dose of healthy scholarly detachment (although I believe the mayor’s entourage were likely packin’ just in case), but a clearer laser beam focus might have been unleashed. If you “follow the money” truths will be outed.