New Orleans Notebook: Disaster Tourism

| Tue May 18, 2010 11:50 AM EDT

People wanna know what New Orleans looks like now, after all that drama back in 2005. People who aren't here have been asking me; people who are here pay anywhere from $35 to $65 for a Katrina tour. It's a good question, an important question, obviously, but I have a hard time answering it because I've looked at it for so long.

Last weekend, though, one of my friends who'd never been here before came through town, and my host offered to take her on a personal disaster drive. So I asked her. And her response, with its surprise and sadness and ambivalence about Brad Pitt, is a good one. And this verbal tour is free!

I imagined things would be rebuilt a bit more since it's been five years. I imagined we'd drive through some of the harder-hit hoods and that that's where the aftermath would be the most intense. I imagined I'd notice that those were the poorer neighborhoods and that that'd be it. Well, it wasn't what I expected at all.

I was completely blown away. I knew the 9th Ward would look pretty rough, as that's all anyone ever talked about, but I wasn't anticipating a war zone. And no exaggeration—that's what it looks like. I remember after the storm people saying that the area mirrored Hiroshima. With the darkness, torn-up roads, and majority overgrown, empty plots, it still really does. As we drove around, it was so hard to imagine that at one point there had been so much life there. The only sign of life has been imported—Brad Pitt's "Make It Right"  green, storm-resistant homes. The Lower 9th Ward lost 4,000 houses. Pitt promises to build 150 of these energy-efficient ones by December of this year. Around these few houses—there are 50 or so so far—the roads are paved and the lights in the houses are on. But you move a block away from Pitt's project and it's a ghost town.

But everywhere you drive—save a few of the areas, like Uptown—has Katrina's footprint all over it; throughout the city, you see flood lines and abandoned houses with National Guard and SPCA graffiti about who checked the house and how many dead cats were inside. Lots of houses that families have moved back into still have that big graffitied X on them. And the dichotomy in the middle-class neighborhoods like Northwest Carrollton and Hollygrove was outstanding. If three house plots sit in a row, one is abandoned and empty (you can see right through it to the backyard); one is just grass (maybe with partially built concrete stilts hastily abandoned after a family started rebuilding and realized that they couldn't go through it again); and the third is brand new—a home refreshed with FEMA money. I was stunned by how quickly I became numb to the ubiquity of the flood lines and graffiti and caved-in homes.

Toward the end of our two-hour survey, my host told us that for a long time, he took long and winding routes around the city to avoid as much of the damage as possible, and that this was the first time he'd driven through some of these neighborhoods without crying. It took him two years to finish restoring his own house, which took water to the ceiling on the first floor, where I'm staying.

His resilience inspires in me extreme awe and unease. I, for example, don't have any real furniture in my apartment in San Francisco, where I've lived for years. I have only junk furniture, furniture people were getting rid of, because the United States Geological Survey says the Bay Area's next great big quake will happen by 2020, and the only way I can weather the panic of having again established a life perched on the edge of certain geographical doom is by accepting that everything I own will soon be destroyed and therefore not owning anything. I almost bought a dress recently because it was so pretty, but then I didn't buy it because it was so pretty, because I didn't want the responsibility of a nice thing that will be buried in the rubble.

I disclosed this coping mechanism to David Corn once at a MoJo function, over garlic fries and cocktails. He'd asked me if I planned to buy a house in San Francisco, and I was explaining why even if I ever had the money, I could never support the purchase emotionally. He listened leaning back in his chair, with his arms crossed over his chest. When I finished, his eyes developed a fascinated but alarmed sparkle and he leaned forward a little to exclaim, "You're completely nuts!"

Or a pussy. I have a friend here who bought a house a couple of years ago. He told me the news over the phone one day, describing the street, the floor plan, the patio he plans for the back. "Congratulations!" I said. "So...You said it's near City Park?"

He knew exactly what I was asking him. "It's below the flood line," he said. "If New Orleans floods, the house will flood." But, he added, "If another hurricane comes soon, the city will be ruined, and our life here will be ruined anyway. If the hurricane doesn't come for years, that'll be the drag." By which he meant that if the house floods now, when it's new enough, they'll get over it and move on. The real bummer would be if the house flooded later, once they'd had time to get attached to it and settle into it and would have less time to rebuild their lives elsewhere. That probably sounds nuts, too. I admit I can get annoyingly earnest and sentimental when it comes to this city, so I'm biased, but to me it seems defiantly brave.