No electricity, no running water.
Soldiers with weapons drawn patrol the streets in groups of four and see devastation in every direction. Fearful citizens seek reliable information, food, medical care, hope.
Stragglers guard their homes from behind broken windows. The stench is unbearable. Military helicopters circle overhead. Authorities search for bodies and looters.
War-torn third-world country?
It’s New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Three weeks later, the flood waters slowly recede, leaving mud and reality. Authorities fight over jurisdiction, emergency funding and logistics, while more citizens leave or die. As the bumbling, disorganized Federal, State and Local Governments dig through policy, procedure and protocol, real people dig through mud, mold and the soggy remains of damaged lives. Youth groups, church groups, retired doctors and caring college students from across the country work side by side with heartbroken-but-stubborn local lifers in the heat and humidity, sorting the destroyed belongings from the salvageable.
Days and weeks become months and years of cleaning, mold remediation, tearing down, rebuilding, heartache, red tape and uncertainty.
Three and a half years later, New Orleans is still a broken city. Laissez les bon temp roulette is still the mindset and the locals that tourists see put on a smiling face. Visit at a time other than Mardi Gras or Jazzfest and you’ll get a better taste of the bitter reality.
Drive in from the east instead of taking the airport shuttle from the west for a real view of where the city is and is not on the road to recovery. Mile after mile of vacant lots might sway you to the side of the debate that New Orleans isn’t worth saving.
Then stop and talk to the people who call New Orleans home and you might understand the validity of the argument that says their brand of unique is an indispensable piece of the American mosaic.