Irene’s mother

Six years and a week after Katrina, New Orleans is still bustin’ open with music and oysters and muffalettas and floats and masks and slang and cocktails and friendliness. At night the street corners spill over with virtuosic brass bands. In the “right” parts of town, you’d never know anything had changed. Just like always, the French quarter looks like this:

Just outside the Quarter, Treme is recovering and looking proud:

But the Ninth Ward, where the levees broke (or were weakened to ensure they broke, say the locals, to spare that same French Quarter that fuels the city’s economy), still looks in most places like this.

The guy who drove me through these streets, who used to live there, said that these were all closely packed blocks of houses, with yards butting up against each other—blocks and blocks of this bustling populated suburb. Now most blocks have two or three houses on them, those that were salvageable or spared, with huge weedy lots in between where their neighbors’ houses used to be. I saw more rabbits than residents.

Some houses have been cleared by their owners (most of whom still own the land but haven’t been able to rebuild)—often all that’s left is a porch:

And sometimes the owners haven’t even had the resources—financial or perhaps emotional?—to clear away what’s left of their homes.

Speaking of spraypaint, many houses still bear the spraypainted instructions from FEMA, and sometimes to FEMA, about what–or who–is salvageable. This garage door was actually in a museum exhibit, which explains the inappropriately pretty backdrop for such a brutal memo:

New homes are beginning to be built on some of the vacant lots—like the houses that still stand, they’re about six or seven lots apart from each other, as if they’re big estates on acres of land instead of lonely islands in the middle of a wiped-out neighborhood. They were funded by some sort of grant that provided modernized dwellings, sustainable and up on stilts in hopes that they’ll withstand the next inevitable flood. I was unable to find out whether these are the ones Brad Pitt commissioned and funded, but they do look much more LA than NOLA.

I’m not gonna be the one to critique how out of place or “inauthentic” these houses look when they’re giving these residents somewhere to be after that trauma, maybe even somewhere nicer. Do they feel “at home” there? How can they, even if they grew up on that street or they love their new digs, when almost all of their former neighbors’ homes–and maybe the neighbors too–are washed away, collapsed, disappeared?

Waterstains were visible on buildings everywhere that hadn’t been repainted–you could see where the color turned dark and bubbled in a line all the way around the buildings. Many businesses had been rebuilt or had painted over those scars, but no one’s ready to pretend they’ve moved on completely, so they had indicators to show how high the water had risen, like this one:

Now look–look UP–at where that little plaque sits on the wall behind my friend.

The waterline plaques are just a hint of the survivors’ pride that infuses so many conversations. They’ve got STORIES. Everywhere we went, the locals would tell us what it was like to run from the storm. Not the hurricane, not Katrina. Just “The Stawm.” They’re not sick of talking about it. “We all piled in the car and it took us fourteen hours to get to Houston.” “My whole family used to live in this neighborhood, but now their houses are all gone.” “We salvaged the bar from the restaurant and built the rest back ourselves.” “Used to be lots more homeless here, but we figure most of’em died.” “My family got the last room at the Best Western and they charged us double. Twenty-one of us crammed into that room–and we stayed there for three weeks.” And those are just the stories tame enough to share with a stranger without crying.

I can’t end with a platitude about the resilience of the city, the way their music uplifts them, that unquenchable NOLA spirit. It’s too sickening. People are living their lives and their lives are changed. I just wanted to show you what I saw.

9 responses to “Irene’s mother”

  1. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Huh, that style of house must be a new thing. I saw them all over South Austin a year ago, at least I think they were the same.

    The spray-painted instructions are heart-breaking.

  2. lane says:

    those are amazing pre fabs. maybe LA to your eye, i hope the residence like em. i love em.

  3. lane says:

    look at the wrought iron railing on #2. nice.

  4. swells says:

    I know–isn’t that such a great hybrid between eco-modern and old French Quarter?

  5. lane says:

    and thanks for putting this up. it was really interesting. sorry we missed you at trails, it was fun.

  6. J-Man says:

    These are such great pictures – I visited New Orleans many times before the flood, but not yet after. I think I’m a little afraid of what I’ll see, so thank you for showing us the good and the bad. That water line is unfathomable (no pun intended).

  7. LP says:

    Wow – this is amazing. Thanks for sharing, both stories and photos.

  8. Rachel says:

    Ditto here. My first and only trip to New Orleans was in the spring of 2004. I cried and cried when Katrina came. These photos are amazing. Thank you.

  9. Fawcett says:

    Steph!!! I was finally reading this on my phone this afternoon. really excellent editing. that cool plaque photo, then, holy shit, the “look up” photo, and i’m scrolling and scrolling and then finally there’s the floor. Damn that was some deep water. Thanks for shocking me a bit. Great narration. And photo log. And I happen to love those new homes going up. You make me want to revisit there real soon. I’ve never done Mardis Gras. Come be our 2012 tour guide!