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December 28, 2005

NO-Shima: New Orleans is destroyed. NO-kidding.

Prologue: Saturday night, Aug. 27

Katrina eve — and I with my family am about to spend a nervous last full night in our home. One of our local TV weathermen says if the storm does not turn right by 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, New Orleans will be hit.

On Sunday morning, Mayor Ray Nagin has issued a mandatory evacuation order. I tell my sister, niece and brother we have to be on the road by high noon. At 11 a.m., I lock the front door and get in the car now affectionately dubbed the Rescue Racer, and look at our home for what I hope is not the last time. I watch it recede as we pull away.

***

Post-Katrina New Orleans looks like a 1970s-ear Irwin Allen disaster film. Piles everywhere. Trash, debris, smashed buildings, an economy flattened like road kill.

Forget what you see or hear from the overly upbeat national panic media about the French Quarter, uptown, Algiers across the river. The city of New Orleans is destroyed. It’s the Gulf Coast Hiroshima — or should I say NOshima?

Destroyed. It’s not a word normally uttered over the airwaves. I thought I would write a story about me and my house, but after what I’ve seen, it’s clear the city is the real story.

My family and I have lived with relatives here in Louisville since Katrina. Finally on Nov. 2, two months after Katrina, my brother and l got an SUV and went down to visit our house to see if we could salvage a few things to take back to Kentucky.

The closest hotel we could find was in Meridian, Miss., 3-1/2 hours from New Orleans. FEMA and the other contractors had everything booked all the way to Gonzales, La., about 30 miles past New Orleans going west. That may not seem too far but we’d still have to go further to find anyplace to stay.

The first thing I saw coming into the city was the six-mile-long I-10 Bridge over Lake Ponchartrain, a vital link to the city. It was under repair. Large cranes rose like giant sea monsters — imagine the frantic rebuilding of the Deathstar in “Return Of The Jedi.” Traffic was forced into two lanes to make the trip across the lake. After about 40 minutes we made it into a section of town known as New Orleans East.

Never heard of it? Well, it wasn’t one the panic newscasters’ top stand-up spots, but it’s the beginning of Orleans parish. It was also where a great many of the black middle- to upper-class owned houses, along with a sizeable Vietnamese population.

New Orleans East is now a complete shambles — even the ritzy Eastover section, where well-to-do blacks owned half-million dollar estates. They flooded.

Driving along 1-10, we saw brown dead grass on either side of us, the wrecked houses and stores, empty parking lots with giant broken signs heralding new cars that weren’t there anymore and the occasional emergency distribution center with white tents and small crowds. There was an amazing sight: apartment houses ripped open, as if the Big Bad Wolf huffed, puffed and lost his mind. On our left, a more recent landmark, the nearly new Six Flags Park, was a sad sight, its high roller coasters seeming to beckon would-be riders.

We exited the interstate onto Chef Menteur Highway, which turns into Gentilly Boulevard and takes us to our neighborhood. The dreaded waterline rose and fell, depending on the topography. Although New Orleans sits below sea level, some parts are higher than others. This was evident as we turned off Gentilly and traveled north toward Lake Pontchartrain through an area called Pontchartrain Park.

Never heard of it? Quick history lesson — it was one of the first areas of modern suburban housing that opened for the black middle class after WWII during segregation. As we drove, the stale funk hit our nostrils, and we saw block after block of dead brown grass, trees, shrubbery and ruined houses. The lack of people, particularly children, was strange — there were very few or none at all.

It felt like that old “Twilight Zone” episode where Burgess Meredith was the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust. He finally found time to read all of the books in the bombed out library, but then he drops and breaks his eyeglasses.

The quiet, wordless landscape of a destroyed city.

We returned to Gentilly Boulevard and made our way toward home, passing Dillard University, a historically black school with formerly spacious green lawns. The white two-story buildings sported a new two-tone paint scheme, brown up to the middle of the first floor windows with white finishing it off. We turned onto Orleans Street, which becomes a main thoroughfare called Broad Street from uptown to mid-city. Refrigerators lined the street, but again, no people.

My neighborhood’s fancy restaurant, Pampy’s, had flooded with at least six feet of water. I used to have a satirical political cartoon show on local cable TV, and I had done a piece from Pampy’s the day after George Bush won reelection, to eat crow on the air because I’d predicted a Kerry victory. The eatery stood silently as we passed.

We reached a cross street called Esplande. I wanted to see if one of my papers, The New Orleans Tribune, one of the city’s three black newspapers, which printed my political cartoons, had survived, and sure enough, my publisher, Beverly McKenna, was in front of her office on the stoop. We embraced, and she explained there was a paper ready to go but no one to read it. And the printer had suffered hurricane damage. She had been excited to get back and restart, but after actually seeing the destruction and depopulation, she has suspended publication.

Multiply that by thousands of businesses and, well, what is there to come back to right now?

On our car radio we heard people talking about a new malady, the Katrina cough, and our political leaders (ha ha) begging people to come back. Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin try to sound upbeat, but from my vantage point their words sound like utterances from another planet.

Don’t they know the city is pretty much gone? President Bush was slow on the uptake, but my governor and mayor live in Louisiana. They should know better.

Don’t they know the black middle class — teachers, government workers, businessmen and women — was wiped out?

Not to mention other parts of the city, such as Lakeview, a neighborhood at least eight times larger than the French Quarter that was next to the world famous Seventeenth Street Canal when it collapsed.

We made our way back via Claiborne Avenue, which took us next to the Treme area, one of the first black American communities in the United States. Yes, it too appeared to have flooded up to three, four, six feet.

Continuing down Claiborne, we saw the famous Ernie K Doe “Mother In Law” lounge, which had taken five to six feet of water. The vibrant murals depicting the late Ernie K Doe in various poses and styles seemed to defy the unrelenting depression and bring a dash of needed color to a visually dead landscape, as if to invite passersby in for a drink.

I did see surreal visions of supposed normalcy, like a Rampart Street bus running its regular route to the much-discussed Ninth Ward — where, by the way, most residents owned their homes and were not tobacco road poor. The bus carried no passengers — just another sign of my hometown’s post-apocalypse status.

Finally, we reached my house on Allen Street. We salvaged some legal papers, photographs and home movies. But with so few people and services in the city, it will be a while before we return, a very long while.

I overheard a TV network reporter comment that he could finally get a hot meal in the French Quarter. Who the hell cares? Imagine Anaheim, Calif., smashed to bits but the national panic newscasters saying things are returning to normal because Disneyland is up and running and you can ride Space Mountain.

On the way out through New Orleans East, we stopped at my niece’s childhood home on a street called Glengary, just off I-10. In its suburban prime, the house was nestled in a beautiful black middle class enclave, real Heathcliff Huxtable-like. It was wrecked, to bitterness. The water had risen to the ceiling. There was mold, soggy furniture and windows blown out, all surrounded by brown dead grass and a foul stench, the grotesque monotony of peoples’ furniture, freezers, rugs, TVs and all they couldn’t save piled along the sidewalks, interrupted only by the surprising sight of a Hummer filled with armed military personnel riding by on what were once innocent streets, past the front lawn where my niece used to play.

Imagine mile after mile of this as far as the eye could see, not only in New Orleans but in the neighboring parish of Chalmette, where another largely white bedroom community once thrived. The only thing missing is the tilted ruins of the Statue of Liberty rising on the horizon and Charlton Heston on his knees screaming.

We went back and forth between NO and Meridian for three days. It wasn’t the best homecoming one could have.

This is a cruel snapshot of my town. America needs to understand that nearly an entire city was effectively wiped off the face of the earth. It will take a national effort to fix and improve the levees and rebuild. This is nothing like 9/11, nothing like that at all.

And here’s something you won’t hear on TV, so I’ll say it here: “This is John Slade reporting, from the destroyed city of New Orleans.”
***

Epilogue: Dec. 23, 2005
It’s been almost four months since Katrina, and Louisville has become my home of the hour. I spend the days thinking, writing and drawing to keep my sanity. My family is all right but we do miss home.

I see Mayor Nagin and Gov. Blanco on TV begging us to come home, but too many sections of the city have no power or services. The state of Louisiana has let go of all of the teachers in New Orleans, so there’s a huge chunk of the tax base being told not to return.

Elections scheduled for February are postponed, yet Mardi Gras will go on. What message does that send when my political leaders are begging the nation for help?

Currently, I am in a state of emotional suspended animation, hoping I can stay in my field of cartooning. This is the first professional bite I have had since I arrived.

I do hope to go back to New Orleans in the future, but I just don’t know what kind of New Orleans I’ll go back to. That is the question.