Terry Marotta: Mother New Orleans still recovering
Last week I was in a city that somehow feels like the mother of us all, and maybe she really is that since history teaches that all life springs from a rivermouth.
Last week I was in New Orleans for the Katrina-based conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
I had been with her for Mardi Gras 2000 when we all thought the good times would last forever -- and why wouldn’t we? The millennium had turned and the systems didn’t crash; the dot.com bubble was still a fat shiny orb; and when it came to planes being purposely flown into buildings, well, even our designated worrier, the president, lost no sleep over a scenario that improbable.
Back then, the people partied in the streets.
The good news is that, in the French Quarter anyway, they are partying still these 34 months after the storm came and the levees failed and the sun shone hot on a city 80 percent under water; shone, too, on St. Bernard Parish just to the east, where virtually every business, home and institution was flooded.
There, proper plumbing was not restored until February of this year. There, the principal of Chalmette High School still lives in a trailer in the school parking lot, as does much of his faculty.
His house is a bare slab, bulldozed. “It looks so small,” he said sadly as we drove by it.
But his neighborhood looks better than those in the Lower Ninth Ward, famous in all our minds for the images it gave us of a population left to swelter and sometimes die in attics and on roofs as the choppers passed by, day after sweltering day.
Both places are still virtual ghost towns. The wild grasses covering the sidewalks haunt the visitor’s thoughts, as do the shells of homes left behind by a people in exile without the means to return.
Yet New Orleans enchants us still.
She seems so old. She seems so new.
The palm trees doing the Hula on Canal Street really are new since Katrina.
And the streetcars really are old.
The streetcars are in fact the very ones put to use in the 1800s. They are open at the windows and have wooden seats on which her people sit high, looking jauntily accessible; looking for all the world like the little round-headed guys that small children nestle into the seats of their Fisher Price buses.
She is a place so civic-minded a cop asked me if he could help me with anything; so warm that a tiny elderly Creole lady crossing the street against the light beckoned me with a wink and a nod to do the same.
Her mayor addressed us and took our questions, as did the state’s lieutenant governor, the head of America’s Wetland and the CEO of Entergy, the giant utility. A panel of mental-health experts explained the lingering sense of trauma still experienced by her citizens because in a way “everyone here is mentally ill now,” which is what Times-Picayune’s Chris Rose wrote after this disaster.
So, yes, we saw pain, but we also saw joy.
I personally saw so much warmth and simple humanity that all I can think to say is if she’s looking for more of her children to lend a hand, then she should count me in.
Write to Terry at email@example.com or c/o Ravenscroft Press, PO Box 270, Winchester, MA 01890. To see Times-Picayune photographer Ted Jackson’s stunning slideshow of Katrina’s aftermath and read more on this subject, Google “Terry Marotta” and the phrase “Eyes in My Eyes,” or scroll down at www.terrymarotta.wordpress.com until you see the picture of the abandoned community college and the weed-entangled house.