Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The blues are tinged with gold

As part of NSNC's visit to New Orleans, we columnists were taken on a bus tour of the lower ninth ward and St. Bernard parish, where the worst of Hurricane Katrina's flooding hit. We saw block after block of abandoned homes, some with holes in the roof where people hacked their way out of flooding attics, some still spray-painted with notes from rescuers telling how many, and what kind, of dead pets were inside. In some cases, how many people, as well.

We visited Chalmette High School, where the principal talked about the Monday almost three years ago when the floodwaters came, and filled the school's main hallway you see below to the ceiling within 20 minutes.

You know those outdoor walkways high schools have? The ones with roofs over them to keep the rain off you between classes? The day Katrina hit, the tops of those were used as docks here. Principal Warner took us up the stairs to a set of second-floor windows through which they pulled people that day, off those walkway roofs after they arrived in boats from being rescued around the neighborhood. Hundreds of people survived on the second floor of the school on half a cup of water twice a day and a bowl of Fruit Loops for almost a week before they could be rescued from the flood zone.

I will go into more detail in my regular column next week, but suffice to say our visit was a study in contrasts. A half-hour drive away, back in New Orleans proper, with thousands of tourists enjoying the mostly-sunny summer day, there was little evidence that the town had ever known anything but bliss. I thought this sculpture and mural were particularly pretty. Click to enlarge it.

As befitted the dignity of our particular group of journalists, Friday night, a band paraded our group down Bienville Avenue as we played along with kazoos and waxpaper-covered combs. We stopped traffic. The saints totally marched in. We ended up at the Aquarium of the Americas, where the band continued to play us right inside and through all the exhibits to our dinner destination. I wondered what the sharks thought of the blazing jazz. The otters seemed to love it. They dived and twirled. The penguins looked a little confused. In fact, a curator brought out a penguin for us to pet before dinner. So my weekend varied wildly from seeing acres of empty, sagging homes to rubbing penguins. (This last inspired all manner of "penguin rubber" jokes which I can't repeat here).