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New Orleans does not look as bad as you think—it's worse

Correspondent's Fi

Story and pictures by Sam Lubell

New Orleans November 10-12, 2005

I'm in New Orleans for the Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference, a gathering organized by the AIA, the American Planning Association, and other organizations to discuss the state's development in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. More than 650 participants share their perspective on topics such as building new levees, developing mixed-income communities, and saving historic properties. The discussion, which takes place at the Marriott on Canal Street, in the Central Business District, is good, but after a few hours, I decide it's time to get out and see what we're talking about.

The scene outside couldn't be more different than the grand ballrooms and seasoned lecturers at the conference. Throughout the city, there is an empty, crippling stillness. Much of the place in mid-November, almost three months after Hurricane Katrina, still feels frozen in time, like Pompeii. Tree limbs still litter the sidewalks as if the storm had just occurred. Some homes are decimated, but most are still standing and look fine from the outside, except for some broken windows. But inside, they're a wreck; possessions are completely gone or are scattered like junk.

The best measure one gets of a home's fate is the height of the orange-tinted waterline on its facade. The line sometimes reaches below the windows, and in other cases sits below the eaves. The longer the water sat at that level, the darker the streak is. Sometimes, I can see the line eas ing upward, like marks parents make on a wall to track their child's growth. Whether many homes will be saved has not been determined, so the buildings sit in an uneasy limbo. And while they stand, they're lifeless without occupants. There is virtually no one in two thirds of New Orleans. I realize I'm a tourist looking at what was once a great city.

The only activity is the work of those clearing junk from houses. Trucks and forklifts are hauling mattresses, family albums, lamps, trees, and whatever else into gargantuan piles. Along Canal Boulevard, which has become a giant garbage dump, piles reach up to 30 feet high, with front-loaders working on top. Inside, homes are either gutted— owners got to them before the mold took its destructive toll—or smell like an old bathroom. Most homes are marked with yellow and red Xs and numbers, signifying, I've been told, either that the house must be demolished, or that its fate is in question, or that it is salvageable. In some cases, the marks remain from just after the storms, signaling that the residence has been checked for bodies.

Driving east on St. Claude Avenue in the Lower 9th Ward, one first has the illusion that things aren't so bad. But inside any house or business, the sense of destruction is overwhelming. At an old burger joint, the flies and the intense, unbearable

Story and pictures by Sam Lubell

Orange waterlines are sometimes the only clue to the devastation inside homes and buildings. Canal Boulevard, near City Park, has been turned into a giant trash dump.

Correspondent's File

YYePG Proudly Presi smell of rotting food dominate. Many of these buildings will be knocked down. Poorer owners don't have flood insurance and could never afford to renovate their homes. The fate of those owned by wealthier landlords is also in doubt. It seems unlikely that some of these neighborhoods can be saved. I can't help thinking what this destruction would mean. Just as an empty home is lifeless, this city without its architecture would be soulless, heartless, without an identity.

There are so many beautiful shotgun homes here, covered with bright yellows, purples, greens— raised cottages with intricate wood and masonry work. Gorgeous Victorian mansions are marked with the same yellow and red Xs, the same orange waterlines. Early reports had said that only the poor were affected, but these sad markers also show up in wealthy Lakeview, near Lake Pontchartrain, in Mid-City, and in Gentilly.

Near the 17th Street Canal, in the city's northwest, the devastation caused by the hurricane is more obvious. A real storm came here! More garbage, scattered in every direction; imploded homes; cars somehow thrown through front doorways. City Park is brown, not its usual green. Trees with roots the size of people have been ripped from the ground.

Driving on Canal Street that night, I see that electricity has returned, but National Guard Humvees and police cars line most intersections for safety. Areas just outside here are pitch dark, and 8:30 at night might as well be 2:30 in the morning. I lose track of where I am while driving with a friend west toward Rock N' Bowl, a newly reopened nightspot in Mid-City. People at the bowling alley, where the few working lights, run via generator, tend to flicker, tell me to pray for them.

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Views near the 19th Street Canal, in the city's northwest, resemble a bomb's aftermath (top). Elsewhere, a home is being gutted and repaired (bottom).

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