Wednesday, November 16, 2011

New Orleans vacation day 4: destruction tour

Mid October can still be pretty hot and muggy in New Orleans, we found out on Day 4.  After three days of gorging, we needed some exercise, so we walked around Audobon Park in the morning before we checked in at the Navy ROTC building on the Tulane University campus.  This whole vacation was planned around Drew's 20-year college reunion, and he had some logistics to discuss with the officers who would be helping put on the tailgate party.  Drew had a bit of nostalgia in his voice when he told me about how the young cadets would do PT in the field house, etc. etc.  I had to hand it to him, he kept the stories interesting and limited the "that wasn't there when I went to school here" bits.

We drove around in his old neighborhood and he pointed out one of the houses he had lived in.  It looked a lot nicer than a place that was robbed 5 times in 1991.

We had lunch at One Restaurant because a local had told us it was his favorite place for fine dining in all of NOLA.  We had a gnocchi appetizer and a BLT and smothered chicken with gravy for our entrees.  The food was very good and the service was top notch, but the atmosphere was a bit stuffy for us.

The restaurant was near the Mississippi River, so we walked atop the levee a short distance to give me a feel for the mightiness.

From this elevation, I could really see how breaks in the levees or even just a lot of rain could cause massive flooding.  We would get a closer look at flood destruction that afternoon as we drove through areas that had been severely damaged by the flooding as a result of levee failure after Hurricane Katrina.

Our Katrina tour started by driving the neighborhoods of West End and Lakeview, trying not to gawk rudely in disbelief.  There were so many homes that were either boarded up, abandoned, or just plain missing, it was shocking.  The Storm was six years ago, yet many homes were only now being gutted, raised onto pilings, or in some other state of repair.  Still others had been started, but the repairs had obviously stopped.

There were nice homes mixed in with what looked like bombed out shells of someone's former life. This one brings back the creepy because there is a silhouette of a man in the left hand window.  

To match our sober tour, the hot sunny weather had abruptly turned very windy, cool, and generally poor for a lakeside stroll, so we stopped only briefly on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to experience one 1000th of what this town might have felt with Katrina bearing down on it.  I've never been in the path of a hurricane, but the wind was blowing that day like it wanted to send lake water right up to the top of the levee again.

We continued our tour of flooded areas through Milneburg and finally to the Lower Ninth Ward. Depending on the area, entire blocks of these neighborhoods were now just empty lots with sad concrete steps that used to lead to the front door but now lead to nowhere.

This 1 minute 20 second video gives you a better sense of the destruction and the number of ruined homes.

I think if I'd seen these areas a year after the Storm, I would likely have been moved to tears by the enormity of the destruction and how the flooding (and the reasons behind it) had wrecked those neighborhoods.  But now, there are signs of progress. The houses that have been redone look to be generally well cared for.  We talked with a young medical resident at a coffee shop in Lakeview and he told us how young professional couples are moving back to the area.  In fact, we later found out Drew's old roommate just bought a lot a few hundred feet from where the London Canal breached and is going to build a new house there, so surely this must be a good thing for New Orleans.  All the same, the neighborhoods are still fractured, and it seems to be taking a long time to rebuild.

After all that bad scene, we needed a strong drink.  Down to Bourbon Street

for New Orleans' famous drink, the Hand Grenade.

It was a sickly sweet version of a fruity daiquiri served with a plastic hand grenade floating in a plastic cup that of course I wanted to take home.  Drew said it took him 10 years to get rid of all the plastic cups he had accumulated from his time in NOLA. I bet I can hoard these for 15.
We hadn't researched a dinner spot and ended up going into Cafe Maspero, which was only so-so for food and atmosphere.  I  read in my guidebook that this building used to be a slave trading post, so how's that for some atmosphere?  I had my first authentic red beans and rice here.

We retired to our cozy hotel on this blustery night, only to be zapped back into the party scene by a text message from Drew's old roommate, John, and his wife Marie at 10:30 PM.  They were down at Cooter Browns and wanted us to come out and have a drink.  Out came that party animal college boy (actually, since Drew was 36 and well out of college when I met him, I don't really know what party-animal Drew was like, but I have heard stories) and down we went to a college bar to close out Day 4 of our NOLA vacation.

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