I love New Orleans. I love the food, the architecture, the history, and even the climate. I love the easy pace of life that’s forced upon you there by the heavy atmosphere, and the mood of the residents, who never seem to be in much a rush to go anywhere. I walk differently in New Orleans, slower and with a relaxed saunter. I even find myself adopting that soft, warm, Louisiana drawl that seems to have no use for half the letters of the alphabet. There’s a good reason the city is known as the Big Easy, and I love it.
I hadn’t been to New Orleans since before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 or last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and I wanted to go back to see how much of the city I loved had physically and psychologically survived.
I’ll admit I was nervous to go, afraid that the city had gone, and also wasn’t sure at what point it was appropriate to be a tourist in a place that had seen such devastation. This year I decided it was time.
I’m happy to report that the Big Easy was just as I’d remembered it and the message from its people is, “We’re still here. Y’all come on back.”
While we were there, we took a Katrina Tour, again not sure where the lines between genuine historical interest and opportunistic tourism blurred together, but I’m very glad we did. We traveled through the Lower Ninth ward, one of the areas most heavily hit by the flooding. It was truly shocking to see how many houses were boarded up, their doors still showing the painted marks left by the National Guard search and rescue teams as they logged their findings. It was also shocking to see just how many house were gone. I mean, just gone. Nothing left but the outline of the foundations and, in some cases, a set of concrete front steps.
Our guide pointed out a street sign, about 14 feet above the ground, that still showed a brown horizontal mark where the muddy water had reached. I think that was the most shocking thing of all for me, to see that and realize that everything around me, including myself would have been completely submerged.
But amid all this devastation were many signs of hope. Many homes had been repaired and repainted, and local businesses have opened their doors again. We traveled through a neighborhood that has been completely rebuilt through a foundation started by Brad Pitt. All the homes were designed by renowned architects and built to prepare for the chance of flooding again. That area of the city stands about ten feet below sea level, so at some point, it will flood again, although hopefully never with such devastating consequences.
The most optimistic sign of recovery I saw was a vegetable garden, neatly planted in someone’s front yard. For me, that garden was a statement of determination and permanence.
So, if New Orleans is on your list of places to visit, but you’ve been hesitating, go back. The city needs tourism and, just as it’s always done, it’s ready to make you feel welcome. Oh, and if you go, have a soft-shell crab Po’ Boy and a Mint Julep for me, would you?