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New Orleans – it’s hard to understand the devastation

By December 12, 2005katrina

By way of a strange sort of coincidence I had two friends come to town this past weekend.  My friend Buzz Bruggeman is moving from Orlando to Seattle and decided to drive through New Orleans to get a sense of how things are here.  He arrived Friday and left on Sunday morning.  Philip Greenspun arrived on Sunday and left this morning.  Philip just bought a new Robinson R22 helicopter and was taking it from Los Angeles back to his home in Boston.

Two friends.  One heading West and one heading East.  One arrived by land, and one by air.  I think they both got a sense of the city, but I think that Buzz had a better opportunity to grasp the dire situation. 

Philip arrived at the Lakefront Airport, which is pretty messed up.  But, after he landed, he spent the afternoon surveying things from the air.  He took turns giving me and my friend Vincent a ride in his 2 seater helicopter and it was quite interesting. Seeing things from a helicopter, which can fly low and slow, was a great opportunity to quickly survey large swaths of land.  Obviously there were blue roofs everywhere.  Looking down on the roofs it looked like  Christo had been commissioned to come in and make a bold artistic statement.  Of course, the blue roofs are actually a hasty ‘engineering statement’ of the Army Corps of Engineers.  After the flight tour, I drove Philip through Lakeview –but it was dark and we couldn’t really see things very well.

Buzz, on the other hand, got to drive around in the flooded neighborhoods of Lakeview during the full daylight, including a stop by the 17th Street Canal breach.  In short, the ground view is preferable, but it’s not one that can be described adequately or captured on film.

Before coming to New Orleans, Buzz told me that he felt he had a good sense of the devastation, after all he’d lived through somewhat similar hurricane damage in Florida.  I warned him that New Orleans was different.  Wind damage is one thing; flooding over 80% of a major urban area is another thing altogether.  I told Buzz that, after seeing the effects of the flooding first hand, he’d realize that his prior impressions were inadequate.

When he arrived on Friday night he came straight to my house in the Uptown area.  We had a nice dinner on Magazine St. and then we went to a club by my house that has live music. It was a wonderful first night.  But on Saturday morning I drove him out to Lakeview, and as soon as we encountered the first sign of major flooding the wind came out of his sails.

"Holy shit," he starting muttering.  "Holy fucking shit.  This is bad."

As we continued into the heart of Lakeview he had me stop the car several times so he could take pictures of horrific things, such as the bright orange markings on houses (i.e. the ones that the military spray painted to show if any bodies were found inside).  I drove him past the house that my kids lived in, the one I bought with my now ex-wife.  We bought the house in 1987, the year before our first child was born.  Our first house.  Sigh.

The levee collapse put seven or eight feet of water inside.  Actually, I’m not sure about the precise level of flooding, and it doesn’t matter now.   The water is gone; only the damage remains. The pine trees in front of the house were cut down a couple of weeks ago, so the shade is gone.  There was my old house.  Quiet and alone in the bright sunshine, gutted down to the studs.  I wondered what it would be like if I went inside and stood among the exposed beams (would there be any memories of when my kids were little, or had the gutting destroyed those too?). On the outside of the house you could still see the water line.  We drove away slowly, as though out of respect for something dead.

As the wheels of my car crackled along the gritty uneven roads, we continued looking at houses with mucky broken windows surrounded by dead foliage.  We stopped to take a picture of a muddy battered car with its front end perched up on a six foot fence.  In the midst of this never ending stream of dreariness, we’d occasionally come across a shiny white FEMA trailer parked in the front yard of a gutted home.  Seeing one of those trailers is like walking across an asphalt parking lot and seeing a small crack with a colorful little flower growing there.  I’m having trouble figuring out what feeling that produces? Is it pathos? Admiration?  Or hope? 

I’m not quite sure.  There is just so little certainty here.  Even one’s own feelings are hard to get a handle on.  Anyway…

I could do on, but what’s the point? Why bother to describe this for you?  You aren’t in New Orleans and  you can only imagine what it is like.  And whatever you can imagine is completely inadequate. 

That’s what Buzz said when we ended our tour of Lakeview, as we drove past the 17 Street Canal where water was still streaming out of the breach area –like pretty a mountain brook cutting through a war torn urban lanscape.  "Words simply cannot convey what happened here," Buzz said with a tone of resignation.  "Let’s go home," he concluded.  "I’ve seen enough."

When you live in another city it’s easy to think you understand what it’s like here.  I completely understand, and I’m guilty of the same tendency.  We’ve all somehow come to believe that our high-tech communication tools (TV video, Satellite imagery, weblogs) can give us a fine-tooth sense of how things are in remote places.  But, you know what?  They can’t.

No matter how much television footage I see, and no matter how many eloquent and thought-provoking articles I read, I am pretty sure that I have a completely inadequate sense of what life is like in Iraq.  I’ve never been to Iraq.  I’ve never observed the Iraqi landscape first hand, in that state of innocent wonder that is the primordial way we experience the world that we actually live in.

And, likewise, most of you simply cannot grasp the situation in New Orleans.  You haven’t been here.  But even if you come to the city for a couple of days –and drive through a battered neighborhood or two– that’s only one piece of the puzzle.  To get the complete story you have to actually live here for a while. 

Last Saturday night I was talking to a friend who has been back in the city for a few weeks.  We laughed about "the mail situation."  She said her mom (who lives in the Northeast) told her that she was going to send a Christmas package, but she was going to send it to my friend’s office so she’d get it quicker.  Her mom thought that the mail was being delivered reliably in some places, although not in the residential areas. My friend said "I just had to laugh because no matter how many times I explain what life is like my family and friends just don’t get it. The mail isn’t reliable anywhere." 

It’s one thing to laugh about family members who don’t get it.  But it’s another thing to realize that there are a lot of politicians in Washington who don’t get it either.  What can we do about that?  I don’t know exactly.  Maybe some grassroots group should raise money to pay roundtrip airfare for every member of Congress to come here and see things with their own eyes. I realize, of course, that some Washington politicians have come here already (on one of the several well-orchestrated tours for dignitaries). 

And I think that’s great.  I’m happy that some politicians have seen the situation first hand.  Still, most members of Congress haven’t come to New Orleans.  They’re busy, and they’ve done as much as they can to get a feel for things.  They’ve talked to people, seen a lot of images, and read a lot of wonderful staff reports.  No doubt they feel like they’ve "seen enough."

Frankly, I don’t think any of us have seen enough.  We each see what we choose to see, or what we’re able to see.  And often that is simply not enough.

Update:  Dave Winer and I just talked and he’s coming to New Orleans to check out the situation and to report.  That’s great. Anyone else wanna come?  We need as many people to come down here and see first hand what’s going on.  Maybe if enough ordinary citizens come here then that will prompt more out-of-state politicians to stop by too. 


P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.

4 Comments

  • Tim says:

    Thanks for posting this. You do a good job of describing what cannot be described.

  • Kim & Brian says:

    Brian and I will be down January 15-18. He has a board meeting at NOCCA and I am dying to get back and see things for myself. Although we are up in DC this has been very emotional for us and I just need to be there. We’d love to see you while we’re in town…I know we’ll be getting together with Greg, so hopefully we can all hook up. Thanks for giving us an honest feel of how things are down there; it’s much appreciated. kp

  • Anon says:

    I just finished with my character and fitness committee. They kept asking me why forms they mailed to New Orleans Sept 7 didn’t get returned promptly. I just had to laugh.

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