The past few days, worker-boy obligations have dragged me back and forth to every far-flung corner of the Greater New Orleans Metro Area and beyond. This has been, by and large, a pain in the ass, but at least I'm 100% up to date on how our raggedy, little city is coming along. And I'll tell you, it's at a funny place right now, neither one thing nor the other, an ambiguous grey zone between crisis and normalcy. I find it hard to wrap my head around it.
Time was when the distinctions between high and dry, semi-flooded, and no-mans land were glaringly obvious. You could immediately see (and smell) the difference, but time has gradually blurred and muddled things. It's occasionally difficult to tell what's the result of the storm and what's just plain-old New Orleans blight. The high and dry areas, with the exception of a few obstinately malfunctioning traffic lights, look a lot like normal. That's old news. As for the rest, well, the dirty bath ring that marked our city has faded (it's not gone, but you have to look harder). Grass has grown back. Formerly silent neighborhoods are now scattered with FEMA trailers, still a fraction of the original population, but something. A few quick to recover businesses are up and running, serving the armies of contractors who now make their livings here.
And we're changing, the people who look at this everyday. It's harder and harder to remember what it looked like before the storm. I find myself recalibrating to this new existence and now think nothing of driving past miles of gutted houses where the front windows flash straight through to the back. The thousands of flooded cars stashed under the highways seem like they've always been there. The everpresent sound of nail guns punching through shingles, the endless patrols of clean-up crews, the constantly appearing and disappearing mounds of drywall, lathe, and roofing tiles, they seem like a permanent fixture of the landscape. I can't quite imagine a time when they'll all be gone.
None of us can predict exactly where this all will end. I believe some neighborhoods will come back as strong or stronger than ever. I fear others, despite the best efforts of returning residents, will slowly atrophy and die. The city is not destroyed, but it is permanently and radically changed. And it will be years before we can gauge the exact scope and nature of those changes.