Saturday, May 01, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: (Not So) Bright Lights, (Not So) Big City

The air in Fay and Jeff’s house was hot and stale—little black flies buzzed in the kitchen—but it was largely unscathed. I set up my nomadic squatter camp: the big jug of potable water, my muck-gear, the coffee stash, the peanut butter, and the cases of MREs. The air conditioning kicked into life. The shower was hot. Life was alright.

The unflooded neighborhood looked something like it had before. But a fractured branch dangled ominously over the front porch. The corner traffic light rested on the ground. And it was ghostly quiet. Friday afternoon felt like a hushed Sunday morning. I saw other people from time to time, but it was rare (and felt like an apocalypse or zombie movie when, after the crisis has passed, the handful of survivors stagger blinkingly into the bright new morning to behold the hushed, brutalized world around them).

I quickly settled into some approximation of a workaday routine: making the short commute from my squatter camp to “the house”, putting in a full day of de-mucking, and returning each afternoon. The drive, though a mere five minutes, traversed worlds: from the exploding green of the relative high ground; to the flood’s edge along St. Charles; to the brown lawns of the shallow waters; and then further, where block by block the waters rose, up the steps, onto porches; and then into the heart of Floodville, the deep stench, the ghost town of dead festering houses.
And in between the slow de-mucking, wrangling with carnie roofers, visits with mold-gods, and treks to the Westbank for more supplies and potable water, I found moments to travel around the city, checking on the houses of friends and family, making staticky cell phone reports (I had the pleasure of telling a friend his house had been spared by inches), gradually learning the neighborhood by neighborhood fluctuations of the all-important water-line, seeing who was doing what where, and making the first feeble attempts to take stock of the massive calamity that had befallen our city.

Beyond the obvious ravages of wind and water were other marks of the city’s strange fate. In the absence of the human hand, fueled by the hot tropical fervor of late summer, any greenery that hadn’t been killed by the floodwaters surged forward with unfettered vigor. Weeds sprang violently up through the sidewalks. The formerly kempt grass of the levees now stood knee-high like a country field.

Many street signs were missing. But a bounty of strange new signs had sprung up in the storm’s wake: hastily printed advertisements for an array of disaster-related services (gutting, roofing, mold-remediation…); hand-painted scraps of plywood announcing food handouts or the rare newly reopened business; bristling warnings on the sides of buildings from bunkered down hold-outs in the chaotic days after the storm, “LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT”; desperate pleas scrawled on the street for helicopters, “WE NEED WATER AND FOOD, SICK BABY”; cryptic symbols spray-painted on the fronts of houses by rescue crews; and weird diatribes from cooped up loners. (One proclaimed the onset of “MARTIAN LAW”.)

The law, though terrestrial, was abundant; New Orleans was a city under occupation. From the early anarchic days after the storm, the pendulum had swung to the other extreme, and now the ratio of people enforcing the laws to private citizens who might theoretically break the laws was staggering. A dizzying array of entities maintained the peace: NOPD, other police on loan from far-flung jurisdictions across the nation, and an alphabet soup of federal agencies (not to mention the scary Blackwater guys providing security at the Love Boat** and several other facilities). But the dominant presence was the National Guard. A nearby Catholic high school had been commandeered as a temporary headquarters. Camouflaged vehicles packed the parking lot. Patrolling Humvees crammed with guardsmen in full combat gear rumbled up and down the narrow streets.

But despite the massive police and military presence, despite the sundown curfew and other martial precautions, the place still had a curiously lawless feel. Looting, pillaging, or going anywhere at night were prohibited, but everything else, it seemed, was fair game. New Orleans was now a frontier town, and no one had time for the more nuanced refinements of civilization.
Certainly, conventional traffic laws went out the window. And with good reason:
  1. Traffic lights didn’t work.
  2. Fallen branches and flood detritus still littered backstreets, making linear navigation impossible.
  3. Many laws, intended for a fully populated city, simply lost relevance with so few people around.
So one way streets, stop signs, and other vehicular mores fell by the wayside.

They were replaced by remarkable politeness. A sort of small town civility took over.*** Large intersections, where traffic lights blinked meaninglessly or lay dead on the ground, turned into strictly observed four-way stops with (most) drivers diligently and graciously adhering to the protocols. Drivers on the debris-choked backstreets patiently waited for others to pass, giving them the country-style two-fingers-off-the-wheel-wave as they went by.

And at night, the cars disappeared. Seven o’clock felt like midnight. Only the Humvees remained, breaking the silence with their occasional distant rumbling. Where I stayed, lights shone down on the empty streets. Beyond that, in Floodville, supreme darkness reigned, covering everything like an impenetrable blanket.

* Potable water was a major issue (everyone lugged around their personal supply) and a major topic of conversation: Where
could you drink the tap water? Was it safe to shower? How do you pronounce “potable”?

** The “Love Boat”, as many called it, was the cruise ship docked on the Mississippi River to provide temporary housing for police and other first responders. From what I heard, it was less than lovely.

*** New Orleans has always felt smaller and politer than most cities. But those days were beyond the norm. I suppose with only a few thousand people in the city limits, you had to be careful who you were rude to. You would probably see them again.


  1. I spent a month in New Orleans, in January '08. I never picked up a hammer--all I did was listen to people. I fell in love with your city, and I'd go back now if I could.

    Thank you for telling your stories.

  2. Thanks for listening.