/ 29 August 2006

New Orleans visitors find a tale of two cities

Alabama native Sarah Jane Keith (30) stopped on a desolate street of the New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward where porches had teemed with neighbours a year ago, before Hurricane Katrina.

”I stood in the middle of the street and screamed. I cried. Nobody heard me,” she said, across from a house reduced to splinters.

But the night before she had cruised down Bourbon Street, beneath neon daiquiri signs and past barkers for strip shows, jazz and rock bands. ”Things almost looked normal,” she said.

A year since Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, visitors to New Orleans are surprised to find two cities in one. The historic heart of town, such as the French Quarter and the mansions of the Garden District, is pumping with life, but around it vast neighbourhoods are only starting to recover.

Katrina hit land on August 29 2005, and killed about 1 500 across four states according to the National Hurricane Centre, but the brunt of the hurricane missed New Orleans, as is clear from the nearby Mississippi coast, which was flattened and largely still is.

The jazz city was laid low from floods when its levees burst.

Foetid water inundated 80% of the city and sat for weeks, but the historical areas built on the highest ground were relatively unscathed, requiring repairs and paint, but rarely rebuilding.

‘God, that looks better’

”In many areas we go, ‘God, that looks better than it did before.’ There is some cleanup they procrastinated about for years,” said Ernie Hinz, of Hot Springs, Arkansas, strolling through the French Quarter in the week before the first anniversary of Katrina.

He visits the city once a year in late summer with his wife, Vicki, and they felt safe among the brick and wrought iron of the Quarter. The familiar smell of old beer and fish that wafted through Bourbon Street evoked memories, not fear.

”It is hard to say if the stench is worse than it ever has been because it [always] is terrible,” Vicki said.

Shriner conventioneer Lasala Stancil, who was in New Orleans for the first time in his life, said the Quarter looked fine, although he had not seen it before the storm.

”We’re having a ball,” he said.

French Quarter merchants, in fact, say they are suffering because not enough potential visitors realise the heart of the city is fine. Many in storm-damaged areas, by comparison, say Americans think the city is recovering well and have quit paying attention.

Only about 230 000 residents are back in the city of New Orleans, about half the pre-storm population, although some demographers say as much as 80% of the residents of the metropolitan area have returned, squeezing into unflooded housing outside the city proper.

Slow progress

Schools are opening for those back, and residents can measure painfully slow progress in terms of each new house gutted of rotting furniture, each boat pulled off a median, each new sandwich shop opening in a desolate area.

That was not clear to Fred and Pat Smith, two retired Californians looking around the Lower Ninth. Their visit to their daughter in the Uptown area near the Garden District had not prepared them for the storm damage still evident a few blocks from where the Industrial Canal opened up.

Many square blocks have been cleared and lie vacant, but beyond that street after street has houses pulled off foundations, twisted by the elements, full of refuse and showing the dirty line where the flood waters sat.

”I’m absolutely overwhelmed at the destruction. It is unimaginable. Oh my goodness, what is that over there?” asked Fred, pointing to a roof sitting in the branches of a tree.

”You look at it on television or in the newspaper, and it doesn’t even begin to capture the magnitude of it. Not close,” he said.

”That’s right,” agreed Pat, struck by the enormity of it a year after the storm hit. ”I can’t think of enough adjectives to tell you.” – Reuters