Letters from New Orleans
In the aftermath of Katrina, an evacuated landscape architect returns
to his native New Orleans. As he tells Landscape Architecture, coming back
has been even harder than leaving.
By Lake Douglas
October 20, 2005
New Orleanians gauge the success of Mardi Gras by the volume of
trash picked up afterward, the logic being that the more trash collected,
the more participants enjoyed the festivities. Using that measure,
Hurricane Katrina was an unqualified success because it produced
an unimaginable volume (estimates are in the millions of cubic yards)
of trash. First-time Mardi Gras visitors often acknowledge the experience
“changed their lives,” and while we can certainly say that Katrina
has done the same for those who live here, that’s where similarities
between the two end. And unlike on Ash Wednesday, the day after
Carnival when the city wakes up with a collective hangover and resumes
its routine, it will be a long, long time before we return to “pre-K”
normal around here.
While most Americans could see what was going on in New Orleans in early September
on TV, those who had evacuated prior to the hurricane’s landfall, like me,
didn’t know the extent of damage, despair, and destruction until days (even
weeks) later. We didn’t have regular access to TV or newspapers, and even
when we did, we couldn’t bear to look. But as bad as those images were, living
it is worse. Now that access is restored to all parts of the city and residents
are returning, many are in a state of extended shock and overwhelming grief,
not only for personal losses but for community loss as well.
Words cannot adequately describe the experiences of the past eight weeks. The
only word I could find for my first post-K visit into the city in mid-September
was “surreal.” Where water had receded—and in many places it had not—there
was a thick, gray sludge covering everything. (We now know that about 80 percent
of the metropolitan area was flooded; estimates of floodwater approach 40
billion gallons.) Waterline strata marked everything and indicated where,
over several days, floodwaters reached and surged, then receded. Trees were
snapped off and overturned, often taking adjacent sidewalks and structures
with them into streets and houses. High-rise buildings had walls of windows
blown out, not unlike images of Oklahoma City after the terrorist bombing.
Small motorboats lay abandoned in odd places—on interstates, on top of houses,
in the middle of streets. Cars, blanketed in veils of chalky residue, were
tossed about as if they were toys scattered by a child’s tantrum. A thick,
indescribable odor hung over the city like an invisible fog. Neighborhoods
were abandoned, and one shared bonds of empathy with other humans one encountered,
even if faces were strained and vacant. But for the occasional whir of helicopters,
the city was quiet and eerily dead, with no noises of birds, car alarms, sirens,
music, or air conditioners.
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