New Orleans, a.k.a., the “Big Easy,” is in trouble.
My first reserve drill days for 2006 were in New Orleans where my command, the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, is headquartered. When Hurricane Katrina hit that region at the end of August, the Wing headquarters folks had to evacuate. They relocated temporarily at the Naval Air Base Atlanta, Georgia. They returned to New Orleans toward the end of November.
The evening I arrived, I ran into a Red Cross worker, Ed, who has been in the area for a number of weeks, plus he was on the ground right after Katrina hit. He informed me he had also been assigned to help the Red Cross at ground zero immediately after 9-11.
We stood in the lobby and chatted for some time. I asked him about the status of the city, expressing my surprise at the absence of people in the French Quarter. This occurred because I missed a turn on my way to downtown from the airport. I wound up driving through the famous French Quarter at 6:00 pm, a time when the streets are normally jammed with people either hanging out in the bars and jazz joints, or looking for a comfortable restaurant where they might wile away the evening. Instead, what I found were streets that were deserted. And it seemed that practically all the bars and restaurants were closed for business. Trash and refuse from hurricane damage was piled on the streets. This in a city that relies on tourism and conventions for cash flow. One young man working for the Marriott where I was staying told me he was living in one of the rooms in the upper floor of the hotel. Others live 60 to 100 miles away, commuting to work every day.
Ed told me that once you drive out of the immediate downtown there are areas that are completely deserted. So after my first day of military duty, taking advantage of little light left in the day, I headed out toward Saint Bernard Parrish, one of the hardest hit areas. My friend and fellow Navy chaplain, Ben Orchard, came along, taking pictures of what we saw. Sure enough, mile after mile we witnessed homes abandoned, doors standing open, windows broken out, and trash piled high, with many of these dwellings marked for demolition. Businesses, too, were not open. Worse yet, they were gone, leaving no sign that they were coming back. Traffic signals were not working in most cases. We drove by more than one mall where big name stores were no longer open for business. The parking lots were empty – on a Saturday morning!
McDonalds of Golden Arches fame was not spared from this natural disaster either. I counted at least a half-dozen of the fast-food giant’s stores standing in silent testimony to the power of the hurricanes force. The large “M” was the first indication that damage was done. Typically I would see this symbol, recognized around the world, lying on the ground as a twisted strand of metal that is now destined for the junk heap. The bright yellow plastic used to highlight the “M,” was broken out or missing.
As I was checking out of the hotel, I asked the clerk, “What’s going to happen to this city?” He looked at me with baleful eyes and shrugged. He said, “I hope it comes back slowly.” I wanted to be of some encouragement to him, but I don’t think he believed it was going to happen. From what I had seen in and around the city, I don’t see the city coming back either.
So was it a judgment of God (as some have suggested)? Or was it simply a capricious act of nature? I don’t know. But if God was attempting to punish the city for its sin, the heart of that sin would be the French Quarter, a place notorious for all manner of decadent human behavior. Surprisingly, the Quarter probably experienced the least amount of damage of any place. There was some evidence of wind damage, but very little in the way of flooding. But with few people living in the area, the effect is the same. The place might as well be a ghost town.
Ben and I did manage to enjoy a delicious dinner at one of the very few restaurants open, the Palace Café, located on the edge of the French Quarter. I decided to have one of their specialties. It is a pork dish similar to a shepherd’s pie. In the menu’s description of this dish, it listed as the primary ingredient, pork “debris.” I looked up the dictionary definition of debris. Debris is “the remains of anything broken down or destroyed.” How appropriate! Ben and I couldn’t help but see the irony!
This historic city may still be called New Orleans. But it’s looking pretty old.