Report From New Orleans
November 5, 2005 - Two Months After Katrina

479 Wrecked billboards are the first sign of the damage, on the way to New Orleans. CLUI photoApproaching The City

THE DEBRIS IN THE MEDIAN intensifies in the approach to New Orleans from the east on Interstate 10. The billboards along the rural interstate hang like effigies, their empty frames bent and contorted in the direction of the wind. Some are collapsed all the way, dead ads, next to the road, like felled redwoods made of tubular steel. All the high pole signs of the gas stations and fast foods along the freeway are blown empty of their plastic faces. The freeway is genericized. You have to guess the brand of business by the shape of the frame – as if it matters. They are mostly still closed anyways.

Truck-hauled-in trashand mud and treesare being bulldozed into mountains of waste, behind the suburbs’ broken shopping plazas. The parking lots are full of debris, the car dealerships full of dirty cars in uneven rows.

The I-10 causeway across Lake Pontchartrain is down to one lane in each direction, because the westbound bridge is all broken up. Soon after the hurricane, they used parts of the westbound bridge to repair the eastbound bridge. Above, cranes are dangling swinging pilings, lowering them into place for the hammers to pound them into the muck. Then there is a pause in the view, as the road makes a sort of landfall, running on its roadbed through the Bayou Sauvage, with its curtain of low scrub that lines the road - the big empty before the Big Easy.

Interstate 10 flies through the city, a platform providing a transitory overlook through the wreckage. During the flood, the elevated freeway served as an emergency exit for the low down city. The onramps and offramps became the beachhead, destinations for countless boat trips by rescuers ferrying stranded survivors, and refugees, some paddling their way out of the rotten soup in emptied refrigerators.

480 Abandoned boats are clustered at the onramps to the freeway. CLUI photoDowntown

The streets are active with cars and pedestrians, though many businesses remain shuttered, including the big Harrah’s casino across from the “World Trade Center.” Plywood covers the damaged windows of many glass office towers and hotels in the central business district. The Superdome, once a superlative architectural and engineering landmark and the pride of the city, is now a hollow hulk, associated mostly with the squalor it held during the great human tragedy of the flood.

Like the city’s downtown, the adjacent French Quarter was also spared from the flood, and is active again, though a bit haggard. Many of the buildings are tagged as unusable due to roof damage and rot, and many of the stores and bars are still closed. The smell of rotten carpets flows out of stairwells, and taped up refrigerators are out on the street, waiting to be picked up.

481 The “bathtub ring” indicating the water level runs across much of town. CLUI photoMoving away from these points of high ground, the floodwater level becomes clear: a brown stain with a yellowy brown water surface line emerges on vertical surfaces as the ground level falls, an even, horizontal bathtub scum line drawn on the walls and fences. It runs throughout the portions of the city that were under water like a great unifying relic, a ghost of the water that was there. The line runs along the walls of above-ground graveyards, along the concrete upslope of overpasses, along the bases of light poles, through trailers in driveways, along the interior walls of homes and businesses, and through countless ruined parked cars. Just about every building where this line is above the doorway’s threshold is abandoned and foetid. Tens of thousands of them. The line reaches higher and higher up the walls as the city’s streets sink lower and lower below sea level, until it leaves the roofs of the buildings that were once fully submerged, mud caked on their shingles.

482 Cars piled up to form a wall blocking street access to St. Bernard Parish. CLUI photoSt. Bernard Parish

St. Bernard Parish, just east of the city, is one of the worst hit areas. It is a police-controlled zone of ruin. Cars have been piled up to block road access, restricting entry to check points. Piles of trashed furnishings are mounded outside every house, and every house is wrecked, front doors open, refrigerators, now biohazards, out on the street for pickup. A few garbage trucks roam the muddied debris strewn streets, but their efforts seem futile in this landscape of reeking garbage and rot. Strip malls, fast food restaurants, Home Depot, Staples, all rotten inside. Humvees with armed soldiers driving all over.

483 The interior of a flood-ravaged McDonalds in St. Bernard Parish. CLUI photoA Walmart Supercenter parking lot is a relief center, powered by generators, full of insurance company catastrophe team RVs with satellite hookups. Nearby, a yard outside the port adminstration area is now a military base and law enforcement center called Camp Premier, named, it seems, after the party rental company that is supplying the tents and other temporary furnishings.

Into the breach: The industrial canal breach in St. Bernard parish flooded the lower 9th Ward. Visitors are not permitted in the area near the breach, unless they had homes there or are insurance adjusters. Inside this zone visitors are driven to their destination in vans, and are not allowed outside. Two months later, they are still finding the dead amongst the ruins.

484 The Industrial Canal breach, showing the peeled-back sheet piling of the levee wall that failed, and the wreckage of the Lower 9th Ward in St. Bernard Parish beyond. CLUI photo