with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Two Months After Hurricane Katrina – Into New Orleans

Not knowing the intimate details of the damage left behind from Hurricane Katrina, I assumed I’d seen the worst of it in Ocean Springs. Everyone talks about how bad New Orleans is, but from the little television and Internet coverage I saw before making this journey, buildings were still standing in New Orleans, so this had to be the worst scenes of devastation, right?

I drove through the town of Ocean Springs, right down a main street in the original part of town. Traffic was heavy, so I had time to read all the signs that announced “We’re Open for Business” and “We’re NOT Going Out of Business!” While some of the old brick and wood structures were standing proud, the plague of blue tarp syndrome dotted their roofs. A big banner announcing the Fall Arts Festival happening this past weekend was hung between two oak trees that withstood the 150 plus mile an hour winds with nary a broken branch. Amazing to think that not two or three blocks away, a trash heap represented what remained of five or six homes.

Before leaving the area, I needed some lunch. I’d brought food just in case, but I’d spotted the remnants of a Wendy’s burger joint not far down Highway 90 on my way in, and they were open. Curiousity more than nutrition sent me there for lunch.

Nothing remained of the bright red Wendy’s sign on metal posts high above the building, but the Wendy’s brand marketing of uniform architecture was a tell tale sign that this was indeed a Wendy’s. With all the hard work Wendy’s owner, Dave Thomas, did on behave of adoption, himself being an adopted child, and his work with children, I’m sure that he would be proud of his Wendy’s employees who jumped to work to get the restaurants back up and running fast, even in spite of the devastation to their community. Having met him briefly many years ago, I also know that he would have been right there leading the pack with support, donations, and help for Katrina victims. So I felt I honored his life somewhat by having lunch with him, at least in spirit.

Inside, the place was clean and functioning, and packed with workers. Construction workers, roofers, people of every ethnicity, as well as every clothing style and stink. Whether they’d bathed that morning or ten days ago, some of them needed a bath anyway. But such is the labor to restore a community.

Everyone was chatting and smiling and many of the patrons knew the workers behind the counter. I heard one man say, “You know you’d miss me if I didn’t stop in every day” and a few minutes later, another man told a young girl, “You know I just come in here for your smile.” There was a sense of comradery and fun that was exciting to see.

I got my lunch to go and headed back out on the road. Since the Highway 90 bridge crossing from Ocean Springs to Biloxi was broken in pieces, I was forced to head up to Interstate 10 to continue my journey.

The further I moved away from the shore, the less mass damage I saw, but I still saw damage. Blue tarped roofs everywhere. Trees crushing buildings. Whole walls ripped off like a ragged fingernail. Cars overturned. Trash everywhere. Few other fast food restaurants were open like the Wendy’s, but those that were worked under tarped roofs and within patched walls, accommodating the massive clientel either living in the area or brought to the area for the work of reconstruction and rebuilding.

As I near the highway, I see a mountain of white through the trees. Thinking it was a water park with big white painted slides, I wondered what kind of damage would such a recreational site suffer. After all, the higher the slide, the more fun and terriffying the path down through the water. Water parks dot the Gulf Coast all the way to Florida, offering children and adults a day of fun in the sun and water with a bit of the circus thrown in.

As I got closer, I realized that I wasn’t seeing a water park but a giant mountain of refrigerators. I pulled off the road and drove in closer.

Indeed, there were thousands upon thousands of refridgerators piled so high, the mountain of metal stretched above the tall pine trees. Most of them were white, with the ocassional black or avocado tossed here and there. Here and there I spotted a box freezer, an oven, dish washer, and washer and dryer, but the majority of the mountain slope was made up of refridgerators.

I’d been listening to the United Broadcasters of New Orleans radio show for the past few weeks fairly regularly and they spoke often of the issue of refridgerators. It seems that many stoves, dish washers and other kitchen appliances could withstand the water damage, but not fridge nor freezer. Part of the problem was the issue of containmenation. Two to six weeks is way past the expiration date for most foods, and way past freezer melt for frozen foods. People opened up their fridges and found toxins festering inside. For most, it was easier to throw it away then to bleach them out, and even if you did, the seals and walls were fairly destroyed by the rot. Refridgerators were classified as a bio-hazard.

Any appliance that sat in water for a week or two was way past help. Electrical connections were corroded and rust was in everything.

People were advised to just seal up their fridges with duck tape and drag them out to the street where they would be picked up by an official detail designed by the city to remove them and dispose of them properly. Maybe what I was seeing was one of the disposal sites for New Orleans, or maybe just for the immediately surrounding area.

On the highway, traffic was fairly moderate for the middle of the day. The fog had lifted but the rain storm was still hovering overhead with dark clouds. The area needs rain desperately, having been in a near drought conditions since Hurricane Rita, which is odd because before Hurricane Katrina, we were way over the normal amount of rainfall by almost 8 inches or more in some areas. What a contrast.

The forest and swamps lining Highway 10 showed evidence of the power of Hurricane Katrina and Rita. Trees were down, snapped in two, or pulled out by their roots. Even the numerous tall billboards, usually filled with gambling winners announcing “I won gazillions of dollars at Casino Whatzitzname” or sexy show girls showing leg and tits, or famous country western or jazz singers starring at the local casinos that lined the coastal waters of Mississippi and around New Orleans, hang like twisted toothpicks in the sky, no sign of whatever they were advertising.

Many of the Interstate 10 bridges I crossed, some over swamp lands and others over rivers and bays, narrowed down to one or two lanes in either direction with construction crews working to repair what they could of the damaged highway.

Between ripped apart trees and blue tarped buildings along the highway, every once in a while a white minature town would flash by. These are FEMA trailer camps or construction worker camps set up in vacant lots along the highway. There may be 50 to 300 trailers packed in closely side by side, new gravel roads lain in between the blocks of trailers.

I wanted to pull off into Biloxi and Gulf Port, but the deadline for my arrival in New Orleans was approaching quickly so I decided to hit the rest of the Gulf Coast on the way back later in the week.

Just east of New Orleans, Interstate 10 splits. You have a choice of heading towards New Orleans in a southwestern path on I-10 or you can continue in a straight line towards Baton Rouge on I-12. I took the exit to continue with I-10, following a damaged highway sign.

New Orleans

For those unfamiliar with the layout of New Orleans, let me give you a Reader’s Digest summary.

New Orleans’ nickname is the “Cresent City”. The most popular reason give for the nickname is that is is located along a bend in the Mississippi River, but it also curves around the southern end of Lake Pontchartrain, a vast lake that would pass as a sea elsewhere in the world, so large it would cover half of Rhode Island. Many people may think that the levees that protected the city did so from the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico, but it was the lake that overflowed and broke down the levees and flooded the city. Thus the majority of flood damage is found close to the lake in the north of old downtown New Orleans. The area closer to the Mississippi River is higher ground, which is why the French Quarter, right on the river, actually had little damage from the floods.

New Orleans is a huge city, crossing not only both sides of the Mississippi River, but suburbs stretch all around Lake Pontchartrain. Like many major old cities, New Orleans is a combination of neighborhoods within the downtown area, and outlying towns which are now encompassed within the city boundaries of New Orleans. The city is now divided up into “neighborhoods” known as Parishes. The old downtown city of New Orleans which includes the Garden District, University, French Quarter, and Broad Moor, are within the Orleans Parish. While Tulane and Loyola Universities were fairly spared damage from the floods, the University of New Orleans which sits right on Lake Pontchatrain, didn’t do as well.

Part of the areas worst hit by flooding are St. Bernard Parish and the Nineth Ward, both near or slightly below sea level, and protected only by the levees from the rush of water from the Lake and the River. Other areas around the city were damaged by some flooding, but mostly from a lot of wind damage.

At the last minute, Hurricane Katrina veered to the west of New Orleans, putting the dangerous eastern wall of the hurricane into Mississippi. While there is major wind damage throughout the city and outlying areas, the levees broke a few hours after the hurricane passed.

Damage from Hurricane Katrina is complex. The wind and the rain struck first, filling already high lakes and rivers. The north edge of the hurricane blasted forward, pushing water ahead of it as the storm surge. According to the description in Wikipedia:

Katrina made landfall on August 29 as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 145 mph (235 km/h) with higher gusts, at 6:10 a.m. CDT near Buras-Triumph, Louisiana. Hurricane force winds extended outward 120 statute miles (190 km); pressure was 918 mbar (27.11 inHg) and forward speed 15 mph (10 km/h). Making its way up the eastern Louisiana coastline, most communities in Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish, and Slidell in St. Tammany Parish, were severely damaged by storm surge and the strong winds of the eyewall, which also grazed eastern New Orleans. A few hours later, it made landfall for a third time near the Louisiana/Mississippi border with 125 mph (200 km/h) Category 3 sustained winds. However, because the storm was so large, extreme damaging eyewall winds and the strong northeastern quadrant of the storm, pushing record storm surges onshore, smashed the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast, including towns in Mississippi such as Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Gautier and Pascagoula, and, in Alabama, Bayou La Batre. As Katrina moved inland diagonally over Mississippi, high winds cut a swath of damage that affected almost the entire state.

The damaged area, according to the government, covers over 90,000 square miles. The storm left over 5 million people without power, and the electricity is still being restored after two months of waiting.

In an amazing feat of engineering and determination, flood waters, that were expected to sit in the city for many months, are almost completely drained today, two months later.

Still, with this information in mind, I expected to see massive damage and destruction. When I-10 dropped down to two lanes for the bridge crossing over the east edge of the lake, I wasn’t surprised to see the trailers and construction crews along the bridge working to restore one of the three most important access routes into the city.

Once I crossed the water, signs of damage was everywhere and the blue tarp plague was even here in New Orleans. I drove along I-10 through the city and then doubled back again, cutting off around the Superdome towards Marrero on the south bank of the Mississippi, directly across from downtown New Orleans.

Seeing the distinctive outline of the skyscrapers and Superdome of New Orleans gave me a thrill. Instantly I knew I was approaching New Orleans and I was thrilled to see the skyscrapers standing. From a distance, New Orleans looks like New Orleans has looked for years. And from the vast amount of traffic I encountered, it was business as usually even in the middle of the day.

I took a wrong exit, easy to do in New Orleans with many traffic signs missing or damaged, and flew off the highway right into the parking area behind the Superdome. After seeing the pictures on television and hearing the stories of the evacuees in the Superdome, this is the first thing I encounter in the city. Amazing.

Driving around the white dome and through the historical downtown area, the traffic I’d encountered in huge volumes on the highways, was non-existent here. I saw five people walking around during my 20 minute drive around looking for the onramp to get back on the highway. A few months ago, there would have been hundreds of people out on the streets with cars parked in like sardines everywhere you looked.

I thought “ghost town”, but then realized that it didn’t have the ghost town feel. It wasn’t really empty, just quiet and alone right now. While I had been smelling burn wood, oil and grease, and mold smells, tinged with seafood fish smells, over the past few hours, I only smelled city through my open car windows. I saw no lines of flood waters on the buildings. A few broken windows were boarded up, and a church had a little damage in its steeple, and sure, blue tarp plague had hit the homes around the area, too, but you quickly grow accustomed to their Carribean blue roof tops.

A few small stores were open, but the typical loiterers hanging around outside were absent.

Lonely. That’s what it felt like. Not empty or destroyed, just lonely. Like a city at four in the morning just taking a breath and waiting for the 6AM crews to begin to arrive to wake up the city.

I finally found the onramp and headed across the i-90 bridge towards Marrero, arriving to find my friend parked in a broken down motor home behind a long abandoned shopping mall.

Marrero

The directions were to turn at the McDonalds, which was open for business, and then I’d “see the motor home in the mall parking lot”. What I found were abandoned refrigerators and sewer pipes and construction materials in the parking lot outside a once Belks/Dillards/JC Penny type mall. I twisted through the empty streets through the parking lots, realizing that this mall had been closed long before Hurricane Season two years ago, ending up at a Walmart that had absolutely not a parking spot empty in its parking lot.

I grabbed the cell phone and called Jan and she walked me through the U-turn back towards the empty mall area and around and way in behind where she stood on her Class C motorhome steps, waving, thrilled to have a visitor. I think she would have been happy to see ANYONE, but I’d have to do.

Jan arrived in Mobile about six weeks before, just after Hurricane Katrina slammed into us. She’d worked in the insurance business on and off for a long time, and she needed a change and a job, so she came here literally on a thread. The first day she met up with Leanne, who had also arrived from Texas that day, at their training session at a local hotel in Mobile. Leanne had arrived with her trailer and Jan admitted she had no where to stay and would probably sleep in her car until she found accommodations. Leanne wouldn’t hear of it and, thrilled with the company, told Jan she could stay with her and that she had a spot waiting for them at Shady Acres Campground.

I’d spent the night before spending ages on the phone with Leanne who had terrible problems with her trailer on her way to Mobile, helping her fix her problems as well as find her way. Late into the night she called to say that she wasn’t going to make it before I needed to close the campground office for the night and that she was just going to get as far as the hotel parking lot and take her chances as she had to be at the training meeting at eight in the morning.

When she and Jan arrived the next night, all three of us knew we had found best friends. Almost every night for the two weeks they were here, they’d stop in at the office for a late night cup of tea with me and we’d chat. I’d stop by the trailer and check on them when I could, helping them out with their new computers or just catching up on their training and new claims.

Both were hoping to be assigned claims within a close distance to Mobile, but they both ended up with claims closer to New Orleans. The gas mileage going back and forth was terrible, not to mention the long lines of traffic as thousands of other insurance adjusters drove back and forth. Leanne finally found a campground that had an opening in Albita Springs north of New Orleans and right near her claims. Jan was thrilled because it looked like a 30 minute trip via the Causeway from there to her claims in Marrero.

The first morning, Jan cruised down and got on the Causeway that crossed Lake Pontchartrain and spent three hours in traffic. Knowing she couldn’t go through this again, she found some caring and helpful folks in an emergency catering crew brought in to support an electrical crew that had set up camp at this abandoned mall parking lot. They let her stay in their tents and join in on meals to help her out until she could get back to Texarkana to where her motor home was.

When she returned, she hung out with them for a while but then the owner of the property kicked them out when it was found out that they hadn’t asked permission to stay on the property. A phone company crew had asked permission and had set up shop on the other side of the mall and she buddied up with them in order to still stay in the area.

The workers and security guards took pity on her and again took her under their wing. She had brought her two dogs with her and they helped guard the place during the night, barking at anyone coming close. The day security guard even lent her his hotel room key so she could go shower once in a while since she had no water, electricity, or sewer connections.

Over the weeks, Jan has bravely stayed there alone in her little ancient motor home, working long hours on her claims, heading into Metairie to the Days Inn where Allstate had set up their help center for their adjusters. There, she has access to Internet and other office services to help her process her claims.

I never realized what work these insurance claims take. I heard talk on the radio of people whining about the delays in response from FEMA and the insurance companies, and the stack of paper and forms they have to fill out, but this is minor compared to what the insurance adjusters have to fill out.

They arrive at the home or business to inspect the damage. They take notes, measurements, and make an initial determination. This visit can take 1-4 hours. Then the paperwork begins. All this information and a ton of calculations and adjustments must be made and this paperwork can take 3-5 or sometimes even 8 HOURS per claim. Jan arrived in Marrero with 80 claims almost five weeks ago and she is barely through with 60 of them. She feels lucky if she can finish 3 in a day. And overworked and worn out completely.

I was tired from the drive, so after some fussing around, we sat and just visited late into the evening, running her big noisy generator outside for lights and power, since she didn’t have a battery on the old motor home yet. I told her I’d help her with that in the morning.

The courage she continues to show to live literally on the edge here in the ruin of New Orleans is amazing. Yes, she has the nurturing support of her two dogs, and the friendships of the workers and security guard, but she is really alone out there. Meeting day after day after day with people who are screaming because they have a little roof damage, or still and quiet standing before their totalled home, listening to their woes, problems, and pain, it takes its toll without some friendship and support to take the edge off, so we decided to play it light and easy and spend more time laughing then groaning.

Bourbon Street is Open in New Orleans

The next day was a busy one. We got parts and pieces, including a battery, to fix up her motor home, and I fixed a wonderful shrimp and asparagus lunch for us. Brent had made homemade Reeses Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream for us, but Jan didn’t have a freezer let alone a refridgerator, so we went to a newly opened fresh food and dairy market on the edge of the mall and asked if we could put the melting ice cream in their freezer. They didn’t blink an eye in saying “yes”, the sweethearts. So we were able to have a little ice cream with our lunch and the rest I saved for taking up to Leanne, whom I hoped I would be seeing on my trip back to Mobile.

We hooked up the new deep cycle marine battery and now Jan has lights so she doesn’t have to run the generator in order to read a book. She was thrilled.

Guy steals a Bourbon Street sign and parties down Bourbon Street, New Orleans, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThen we dressed up a bit and headed off to explore Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, a place she had never been in her life.

Parking was amazingly easy and we were able to find a spot down from the tent city along the Riverwalk where FEMA workers had set up shop. While the majority of shops and businesses throughout the French Quarter were still closed, a lot of big restaurants were open as were many shops, sex shops, bars, nightclubs, discos, and galleries along Bourbon Street.

Band plays outside a restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans, photography by Lorelle VanFossenWe had a lovely lobster dinner at a restaurant on River Walk right on the Mississippi River and then walked through Bourbon Street. Walking through the dimly lit narrow streets towards Bourbon Street, a crash stopped us in our tracks with terror, quickly replaced with delight as a street band started up with the sounds of “Basin Street Blues”. We turned away from our destination of Bourbon Street towards the banging and clashing music.

People watch the Jazz Band playing outside a restaurant, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenIn front of a busy restaurant, the band played bright and loud. The restaurant was packed with people, visible through the glass doors. They were laughing and clapping in time with the band outside their door.

The leader wore an oversized black suit with tall hat, draped with Mardi Gras beads and frills. He danced in the street while the band played under the porch of the restaurant on the sidewalk, cheered on by a man in a white suit in a wheel chair and other bystanders.

NY Cops and friends dance in the streets near Bourbon Street to a local band, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenSome burly looking men in t-shirts with guns strapped to their hips came walking out of the night, attracted by the noise. When the street light illuminated their broad chests, we read “New York Police” and breathed a sigh of relief. Two of the men started dancing in the street with the dolled up leader before I could get my camera out, and people were clapping and cheering them on.

It was joyous and a dark remininscence of times gone by so recently.

We watched the fun through several songs but were chased off by cigar smokers, so we headed back on our route towards Bourbon Street, hoping to find more merriment there.

Bourbon Street horse patrols, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenWhile we did find merriment, it was a sad, depressing form of joy. Yes, Bourbon Street is back in business. Pubs, nightclubs, and the lot are open for businesses, all cleaned up and anxious for customers. Unfortunately, we saw only local and national cops, FEMA workers, and adjusters, almost all men, either walking for the sake of walking somewhere well lit, or carrying a beer and well on their way to passing out for the night early. A few people were dancing and listening to music, but the cheer and fun of Bourbon Street just wasn’t there.

And yes, there was security. The police were everywhere, both imports and locals. We had to step aside at one point as two New Orleans police officers on horse patrol passed down Bourbon Street.

Military on Bourbon Street after Hurricane Katrina, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenThere were also National Guard or Army folks around Bourbon Street. Whether they were there to provide security or one of the many guarding elsewhere along the coast and just on Bourbon Street for some drinks and fun, I don’t know, but they blended in with the rest of the hippy, transient, punk, grunge, and business folk wandering down the famous street in the French Quarter.

We talked to some shop owners and they all said the same thing. If tourists and money doesn’t come in the door soon, even though they have worked their asses off to get their businesses open and ready to welcome everyone back to exciting New Orleans, they can’t last when the only customers around are FEMA and insurance folks. They are cheap and stingy, and tired, so tourist spending and partying isn’t high on their agenda.

It is so hard for them. Driven with a compelling force to return to normality, they are back but the rest of the people aren’t there.

T-shirts in New Orleans take advantage of Hurricane Katrina jokes, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenStill, some creative folks are trying to take advantage of the cliental they have, so t-shirts shouting Katrina propoganda were everywhere. “Katrina gave me a blow job I’ll never forget.” “FEMA – Federal Employees Missing in Action”.

We walked up and down the length of Bourbon Street, buying souveniers and silly things for friends and family back home, astounding shop owners with the fact that I was the only tourist they’d seen since the Hurricane. They were thrilled and I was thrilled at the deep discounts in prices for the tourist crap I was buying.

Bourbon Street shops with balcony decorated for Mardi Gras, New Orleans, photography by Lorelle VanFossenI had taken allergy medicine for the past few days to brace myself for the exposure to cigarette smoke on Bourbon Street, and we encountered a ton. Little shops that used to feature cheap cigarettes had turned into cigar houses and the smell of cigar smoke and tobacco along Bourbon Street was overwhelming and disgusting. It smelled like sewer and farts. The allergy medicine prevents the horrible allergic reactions, but it also takes a huge toll on my body. I felt like I had a hang over by the time we got back to the motor home and I was really sick feeling most of the next morning, so we were quiet and it gave Jan a chance to finish up more claims while I napped and read my book, being lazy for the first time in…several years? I can’t remember when I laid in bed and read and did basically nothing. Years!

I felt better at lunch time, so I fixed another magical shrimp lunch and then we headed down south of New Orleans to inspect what damage we could find down there.

One Comment

  • Jan Wade
    Posted June 27, 2009 at 20:13 | Permalink

    Haven’t read this in awhile, and it was really refreshing to remember our experiences together. Thanks again Lorelle.

One Trackback

  • […] You couldn’t drive into any subdivision without seeing blue tarps on roofs and whole household’s items piled in huge mountains on front lawns. New Orleans was a mess, no doubt, but after seeing the nuclear war zone remains of Mississippi, in many ways, I still think New Orleans got off lightly. Still, most of the water damaged homes left rotting in the heat and humidity will have to be plowed down. For some, they tell me that at least there is something to bulldoze in New Orleans. There isn’t much left in parts of Mississippi. To each their own pain and suffering. […]

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