New Orleans (updated)

The American Library Association Conference was the first to be held in New Orleans since Katrina. Everywhere we went people thanked us for being there, for spending our money at their hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and shops, for riding in their cabs and dancing in their clubs. For the first few days that was the most frequent sign of what Katrina had wrought: intense gratitude that 18 thousand librarians (and hangers on such as, you know, writers and other publishing types) were in town.

The French quarter is on higher ground and largely looks like nothing happened. Gorgeous wrought iron lace work terraces (looking not unlike Sydney ones) line the narrow streets, and the restaurants and cafes and bars all seem to be open even if they are festooned with Help Wanted signs. It was easy to stroll around in the delicious heat and imagine taking a writing holiday there, spending four or six weeks writing every day in one of those gorgeous terraces, going out every night to gorge on the fabulous creole cooking, and get to know the place the place better; it was hard to keep in mind that this was the city that had been completely devastated last year.

I didn’t recognise the first sign of devestation I’d seen: when we flew in we were treated to a lovely view of the city, dotted with lots of bright blue, which I later learned was FEMA-supplied canvas.

The driver who picked us up and took us to our hotel was living in a FEMA trailer parked in front of his slowly being rebuilt house. The driver who picked us up on our way back home took us on an impromptu tour of a tiny part of the devestated parts of town. He told us 80% of the city is still waiting to be repaired (over the five days I heard estimates running from 60% to 85%). All the houses had clearly visible high water marks almost three metres above the ground and on each house someone had leaned out from a boat to make an X and mark how many dead people and animals were found inside. There were no cars parked outside, no people walking along the foot paths. It was a ghost town.

The same driver told us that the official death toll for the Convention Centre was 1. He had a firemen friend who’d seen a room inside the Centre piled high with what he reckoned was at least 150 bodies.

After 9/11 the newspapers round the world (or at least in Australia and the US of A) carried the death toll in their pages which was updated every day for weeks and weeks after the attack. I saw no equivalent after Katrina.

Why is there so little coverage of the fact that around 1,000 people are still unaccounted for? Or of the long, slow recovery? The local New Orleans paper, The Times Picayune, has stories every single day. The New York Times has had one in the last month or so. It was about the huge increase in the suicide rate in New Orleans. [Update: this is not true the Times has run lots of articles.]

Reading about New Orleans from New York City I honestly though I’d be visiting a city well on its way to recovery. A city being rebuilt. That’s not what I found there. [Update: this just shows that I’m a careless reader of the Times.]

If you can visit, do. If you can’t how about donating a book here which will help some of the devestated libraries in the area.

P.S. Yes, Cecil, I will be posting an account of the actual conference, too. Short version: twas a blast and Margo Lanagan is awesome beyond words.

Update: Monica Edinger points out in the comments that a simple search of the New York Times archive would’ve shown me that I was being not only unfair to the Times but completely wrong. That’s what I get for writing what felt true without checking. Always check your facts, folks!

7 comments

  1. cecil on #

    I am very glad that you posted this account, too. For it is interesting and important.

  2. marrije on #

    it’s a shame and a disgrace that the situation in new orleans is still so bad, months and months after the hurricane.

    i guess we hear a little bit more about it here in the netherlands, where we have a special interest in dikes and sea levels and such: newspapers still regularly report on all the badness going on. but still, reading your report makes me sad and angry all over again. and happy for projects like dewey donation system.

  3. Monica Edinger on #

    I’m so glad you are posting about New Orleans, but I have to say I think you are a bit unfair about the NY Times in this regard (because I could grip about that paper too in other areas:). But I read the print edition daily and they’ve had almost daily articles on New Orleans so I’m puzzled by your statement that the only article they had in a month was on the suicides. That isn’t so! Thinking perhaps I was imagining them (although it is the only newspaper I read), I did a search at their site and there have been many, many articles, not just one last a month. I think they’ve been doing a good job keeping New Orleans in the news.

    I too am just back from ALA and wrote a long post to child_lit about my experiencing touring the devastated areas with a friend from there (whose home was destroyed).

    Monica

  4. Rebecca on #

    i’ve never been to new orleans. i really wish i had gotten the chance before katrina messed it up. i’d never been to the wtc before sep. 11 either. every now and then, when the subject comes up, i find myself regretting that i was never able to see these places before something changed them forever.

  5. orangedragonfly on #

    i know what you mean, rebecca. my husband and i were visiting friends in mandeville, la two days before katrina hit (directly across the causeway from new orleans, on the north side of lake ponchetrain). the actual day katrina hit we had planned to spend all day in new orleans, mostly because i’d never been there before.

    anyway, as soon as it looked like katrina might turn we packed ourselves and our friends up and headed up to our house (in kentucky) where they stayed with us for awhile. it was a tense and scary time, watching the events unfold with our friends who might see images of friends or neighbors, or their house with a tree through the roof, on the televisoin. (thankfully, there was no major damage or injury in their neighborhood, as they live on *slightly* higher ground..)

    in the aftermath, i’m glad to have friends down there because i hear firsthand accounts of what’s going on. i’m hoping to make it down there later this summer or autumn. i hope i can handle it.

    (sorry to go on so much. thanks for telling us about your experiences, justine. we need to be reminded what’s happening.)

  6. Justine on #

    Cecil: Ta!

    Marrije: *Cough*. Apparently we hear tonnes about it too and I’ve been living with my head in a bucket. I plead way too much travel and onerous deadlines.

    Monica: Mea culpa! See my update and thanks so much for calling me on my mistakes. See also the lame excuse offered to Marrije.

    Rebecca: I feel the same way. Scott’s been talking about us doing a writing holiday there for ages. Other than NYC it’s his favourite city in the US. We’ll still do that, but I sure wonder what it used to be like.

    Orangedragonfly: Don’t apologise, we need to hear all these stories! Thanks for sharing.

    Overall, I left feeling optimistic. So many of the New Orleanians I met are working so hard to revive their city and volunteers are coming from all over the country to help too. There are way too many people who love NOLA for it to be allowed to die. Me and Scott are definitely going back.

  7. Liz B. on #

    As my first trip to New Orleans, it’s hard to judge, but the people were so welcoming; and also wanted to know, what did people think? Did they think it was safe to visit? Did they know how bad it still was?

    While I had read & watched coverage at the time, having been there I want to go back and reread it because having seen the places I will be able to put it in better context. Oh, that’s where so and so happened, etc.

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