New Orleans residents navigate the peaks and valleys of their post-Katrina world.
August 23, 2006
A mound of trash, 12 feet long and 4 feet high, is piled up on the sidewalk — black trash bags, battered blue tarps, an old toilet, rotten boards, a door frame, and broken ceramic tiles. I’m standing in Bru’s living room, looking out the window of his front door at the debris across the street.
“Has that trash been there long?”
“Awhile,” Bru says. “At first they were pretty good about picking it up. It takes ’em a while now. They’ll get to it.”
I met Bru (pronounced “brew”) in the seventh grade. He was a stout warrior on a skateboard, a bantam rooster of a kid who would fight you if provoked and win. He loved Jimi Hendrix and later Albert King. He had a wicked sense of humor and a keen eye for the absurdities of small town life in Pineville. In high school, he wrote and produced his own short film titled Hip to the Scene, where he poked fun at everyone — including himself. Since then, he’s grown a little taller and became a musician. His birth name is Henry Bernard Bruser IV, but everyone, including his parents, has always called him Bru.
It’s been nearly a year since New Orleans’ levees broke. Bru’s 100 year-old double shotgun house only took on an inch of water, but it still left behind a layer of muck and mold that destroyed the wood floors. He moved here in 1998, drawn to the city and its music and bought this house on Hagan Avenue in Mid-City, which he remodeled while waiting tables, delivering sushi, and playing music.
It’s also been nearly a year since my son, Henry, was born. He was born four days after Hurricane Rita ripped through Cameron Parish. Henry was my solace during that month when it seemed like hurricanes were devouring Louisiana. For the last year, I’ve been telling myself that with my responsibilities as a new father and my work here at the paper, I didn’t have the time to go to New Orleans. But that’s only half true.
I didn’t want to see it with my own eyes. But I knew if I was ever going to understand what happened there — and what is or isn’t happening now — I needed to see it for myself.
There are three distinct realities in New Orleans.
In one world, it appears as if nothing ever happened. In the French Quarter, you can order beignets at Café Du Monde, and tourists can still buy overpriced giant Mardi Gras beads in the T-shirt shops. Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove takes the bandstand at clubs like Le Bon Temps Roule on Magazine Street, his sousaphone leading the charge of a young brass band playing to a sweating, dancing crowd of black and white, young and old, locals and tourists. On a Saturday night, down on Rampart Street at Donna’s Bar and Grill, just across the street from the gates of Armstrong Park, you can hear Jamelle Williams and the New Orleans Slick Six jazz band.
The second New Orleans offers peculiar sights that make you realize this isn’t the same city it was before Katrina.
Driving down Carrollton Avenue in Mid-City, some traffic signals flash red and green lights at the same time. Stop signs are propped up on the ground at the intersections. There are more out-of-state license plates than Louisiana plates. There’s a sign at a Burger King that only would be on display in New Orleans — “Yeah. Now Open.”
You don’t have to go far though in any direction to see the third world.
Drive down N. Claiborne deep into the St. Claude neighborhood, and it feels like a ghost town. You can stand at an intersection and look in four different directions, and you won’t see a soul. You might see a couple of campers parked outside the mangled homes. In the yards of gutted houses, the mud and mold have been baking under the sun, and the smell turns your stomach. There’s one home that’s not much different than the others. It’s gutted down to the beams, and the windows and doors are wide open. But there’s a T-shirt tacked to the outside wall with two images — one of a smiling black woman and the other of an infant. In cursive letters, the shirt reads: “Happy Mothers Day Geraldine. We Miss You. 9th Ward.”
Spray-painted Xs with cryptic codes are still branded on every house, a haunting reminder of lives that have been crossed out.
But the floodwaters didn’t seek out only the poor sections of the city. In middle-class and affluent neighborhoods, like Gentilly and Lakeview, the same scene plays out again and again, house after house, block after block, mile after mile. The homes are larger and newer, and some are even being repaired. Most of the houses still have that faint water line circling the structure, indicating where the water sat stagnant for days.
The residents of one Lakeview home painted this message across their house: “Gone to Tennessee … Be back later, Cody & Brittney, Sonny, Gina. Long Live LV.” A yellow sign for a demolition company in their yard reads: “We beat any price.”
Back in Bru’s living room — surrounded by his amplifiers, guitars and piano — we’re drinking beer and talking about how Katrina changed his life. When the mandatory evacuation order was given Sunday, Aug. 28, Bru was in Baton Rouge for a gig and a wedding. He drove north to his parents’ house in Alexandria to ride out the storm.
In Alexandria, he stayed glued to the television. He kept thinking about all of his musical gear he left behind, and he got madder the more he thought about it. “When the s–t really starts hitting the fan on Tuesday night, my dad asked me if there was anyway we could get to my house by boat,” he says. They devised a plan to launch on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain and boat down Bayou St. John to his house, only a block away from the bayou.
“They had FEMA [officials] everywhere, and National Guard cops blocking every road,” Bru says. “If you tried to get close to New Orleans, you would come to roadblocks.” They finally found a rural boat launch outside of Mandeville and were about to launch the boat when his sister called and persuaded his father not to do it. She had seen on the news that people were being shot and boats and cars were being commandeered. “It screwed up my plan,” Bru says. “I was so about it. We had guns. I didn’t give a f–k. This is everything that I have and I worked for. Everything I give a f–k about at all was right here at my house.”
He returned to Alexandria and fumed for two weeks. “I was furious with FEMA and the National Guard. They didn’t let us go in and handle our own s–t and help our people. They couldn’t do it. If they would have just let us handle our business, we would have handled it.”
While he waited at his parents’ house, Bru was interviewed by the Associated Press and asked whether he would return to the city. At the time he don’t have the answer. He had already spent so much time remodeling his house, putting his musical aspirations on hold. He wondered about the extent of the damage and whether he would have to began remodeling again.
About two weeks later, he managed to sneak back into the city through Jefferson Parish. With so many trees down on Jeff Davis, he drove his mother’s Toyota Rav 4 down the neutral ground. Boats were wrecked everywhere. “Hardly anybody had been back in the city at this point,” he says. “There were helicopters everywhere. It was scary. It was just weird. It was like a war zone. Trees were down everywhere. I got back to my house, and I acted fast, because if the cops were to come I was going to be in trouble.” The only person he saw in his neighborhood was a police officer who checked his drivers license to make sure he wasn’t looting his own house.
That’s when he discovered that his house had flooded and that his backyard studio was destroyed, along with some musical instruments in the converted shed and a year’s worth of music he had been writing.
“Everything stunk,” he says. “It smelled like Katrina. There’s no smell like it. They were still kicking down doors, and I wanted to get the things that meant the most to me.” He salvaged some instruments, his photo negatives and prints, and his CD collection. It took him two hours to pack up his belongings. Bru left the city and didn’t return until Nov. 1, when he heard that his neighborhood had electricity. But there was still no gas until mid-December, which made for some cold showers.
Before Katrina, Bru was writing music like a madman. He heard melodies that he had to write down, sometimes waking in the middle of the night to get it out of his head. When he hears those notes now, he ignores them. “I’ve been keeping my chops up and playing every day,” he says, “but I haven’t written one song since Katrina. I don’t want to write any negative s–t. When you lose that many songs you just need to put some time between you and that.” He’s the only member of his band, N’Stankt, still living in the city, but he’s putting together another band. He’s calling it Government Majik.
Bru hasn’t cooked one meal in his kitchen since Katrina. He’s eaten out every day. He estimates that there are maybe five nights he hasn’t been out drinking. “Everybody’s got a drinking problem,” he says. “They’re all working hard and drinking hard.”
In mid-November Bru returned to waiting tables at the popular Uptown eatery Dick and Jenny’s, where business is booming. But conducting any business in New Orleans can be grueling. Widespread staffing shortages make simple things like going to the bank, the hardware store or grocery store take far longer in the post-Katrina Crescent City. “It sucks,” Bru says. “I don’t blame people for not coming back right now because it’s a bitch to get around, and it’s dangerous.”
During the weekend I’m in New Orleans, a man is gunned down in Central City on Saturday night with about 60 people in plain view and only four blocks away from a police station, but no one steps forward with any information on the crime. The Times-Picayune reports that the death of Jeffery Lewis was the sixth murder in New Orleans during the weekend, including four murders in Treme the previous night. Even with the presence of the National Guard, called in a month earlier by Gov. Blanco, the crime rate has returned to pre-Katrina levels.
Despite the return of violence, the inconveniences of everyday life, and a crippled infrastructure, Bru finds hope in the residents returning to the city and trying to piece together their former lives. “I think individuals are doing a lot,” he says. “I think government is doing s–t. It’s all talk and no action. But in the end, you can’t expect anything from the government. You’ve got to do it yourself.”
Bru senses our conversation has bogged down in the realities of post-Katrina New Orleans. He smiles and changes the subject. “Something good has to come of it,” he says. “The Saints got Reggie Bush. It’s all good in the neighborhood, man.”
My sister-in-law’s brother, Sean Jeffries, sits in his apartment off St. Charles Avenue, just blocks from where he works as a banker. He rode out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and is recounting how he managed to make it out of the city.
He stayed behind with his friend, Tim Lawrence, the assistant manager of a French Quarter hotel, to help with 35 tourists who were stranded, unable to get flights out of the city. During the storm, they watched Katrina toss bikes and bricks down the streets. The electricity in the hotel went out at 6 a.m. on Monday morning. By 3 p.m., Sean and some other hotel guests ventured out into the French Quarter and Jackson Square. “It was an absolute disaster,” he says. “There was nobody in the streets. The winds were still blowing around 40 miles an hour. All of the trees in Jackson Square were crashed, the fence was broken, and there were dead pigeons everywhere. We were walking down St. Ann Street toward the river, and around the corner, here comes two drag queens, the first people I saw after the hurricane. One was black and one was white, and they were walking in their heels with beers in their hand. I looked over at everybody and I said, ‘New Orleans has made it. It has survived this storm.’ That really struck me. Those were the first human beings I saw, and I don’t know what the hell they were doing out there.”
Trees were down on Decatur Street. Trash, debris and even a fallen balcony blocked passage on Royal Street. On Canal Street, tourists who had been holed up in their hotels were out in the street, assessing the damage.
“That evening walking through the French Quarter, you couldn’t see a thing,” he says. “It was dark. Five blocks away you might see a flashlight.” Sean went to bed that night in the hotel, without any electricity.
At 8 a.m. the next morning, the hotel manager informed his guests that the floodwaters were rising and that the hotel did not have the provisions for them to stay longer. Their options were the Superdome or the Convention Center. Sean and Tim left the hotel with a group of tourists. They were also carting around their two dogs and a friend’s cat they had rescued.
On one street corner, the group was interviewed by FOX, CBS, ABC and a local television station. “There was media all over the quarter,” Sean says. “We were on the national news. Every channel all over the nation was covering it at this point.”
That’s when they heard from passersby that the Winn-Dixie on Orleans Avenue was giving away food. “When we got to Winn-Dixie it was not what they told us,” Sean says. “It was being looted, but it was very organized. The doors were open. There were all kinds of people, all races, from people with money to poor. The alarm was going off, and the emergency lights were on. The whole store was lit. Everybody had shopping carts, walking up and down the aisles and picking things they needed.” Sean and Tim took Band-Aids, hydrogen peroxide, canned goods, and juice. “Of course when you got to the checkout there was no one there, so we would sit in line and then grab bags like it was an organized grocery store. You just didn’t pay for it. It was people getting what they needed.”
By the time they left the store, the water was knee deep. Helicopters were buzzing overhead. They walked in front of a police station where officers were outside the building. “They knew what was going on,” Sean says, “but it was at this point that I first realized that the city was falling into chaos. I felt it. The mood of the city was changing.”
They ended up at the Hilton on where guests slept that night in the dark and hot lobby of the hotel. One of the tourists in Sean’s group was running low on insulin, and a National Guardsman gave him a ride to a nearby hospital.
The next day, Sean met a hotel employee that he knew who gave Sean and Tim two hotel keys that would serve as tickets for a bus ride out of the city, arranged for by the hotel. A man who wandered into the hotel owned a secure French Quarter apartment, and offered use of it to the group. The group decided that Sean and Tim should use the passes and take their pets with them out of New Orleans.
“The first buses that came to pick us up were confiscated by FEMA when they got to the city,” Sean says. “They were taking buses to rescue people. So we ended up staying an extra 12 hours in the Grand Ballroom of the hotel with our dogs and the cat. It was about 115 degrees, and I was getting sick.” The buses arrived at 4 a.m. on Thursday morning, and they were transported to Baton Rouge. That evening, Sean and Tim saw the group they had left behind interviewed by Brian Williams on NBC’s evening news. The next day, NBC transported the tourists to Baton Rouge.
After getting out of New Orleans, Sean learned that his parents had lost their home in Chalmette but had made it safely to his sister’s house in Hammond.
Two months later, Sean and Tim reunited in Chicago with the tourists. Their reunion was covered by NBC’s Dateline. That’s also when they both got a small tattoo of a hurricane. “That’s the only tattoo on my body,” Sean says. “I never had one before in my life. I’m not a tattoo person, but I said I’ll put that on my body.” Sean’s is on his right arm. Tim’s is on the back of his neck. He wanted the hurricane behind him.
Sean returned to New Orleans two days before Mayor Ray Nagin reopened the city. “It stunk,” Sean says. “It was strange. It was a Twilight Zone experience. It’s hard to talk about that. It was just an absolute disaster area.” He returned to work at the bank. For two weeks he dined with the rest of his neighborhood at Fat Harry’s at the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles avenues. The menu was the same every night — grilled chicken or hamburgers. “We were staring at each other like zombies,” he says. “I was disoriented. I never felt that way in my life. I didn’t know where I was. It was just horrible, but slowly and surely the city has started to come back.”
“I think it’s going to be scarred,” he continues. “I know the landscape of it’s going to change.” He hopes a number of proposed new developments and the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s Road Home grants will help rebuild the city. “That’s a bailout,” he says. “The federal government failed us. This was a man-made event because the levees failed. If the levees wouldn’t have failed we would have been fine. I think the federal government and the Corps of Engineers know that, and we’re taxpayers down here. Look at my parents. They’re 58 years old. They lost everything.”
On Aug. 29, Sean and Tim will reunite with a Scottish couple they befriended during the storm. They plan on having dinner in New Orleans.
I spent a lot of my high school summer days in New Orleans. I met and become friends with Alcena Rogan at church camp; she lived Uptown, a universe away from Pineville. I also became friends with her brothers — Sims and Davis — and their father, Patrick.
I still run into Davis every now and then. He hasn’t changed much since those days when we would sit out on their sleeping porch with the windows open, looking out over the back yard and listening to records of George Clinton, De La Soul and Shakey Jake. Davis spent a decade with the band All That, 13 years as a DJ on WWOZ 90.7 FM, and 10 years teaching music in elementary schools.
He’s living in France now, on an artists residency at Fontevraud Abbey in the village of Fontevraud-l’Abbaye. When I reach him by phone, he wants to be optimistic about New Orleans, but he’s having a hard time doing it. He plans on returning to his home on Gov. Nicholls in Treme, but he’s not ruling out other possibilities either.
“I hate to sound cynical, but there’s a whole lot of business as usual,” he says. “Man, there had been a bomb of poverty and neglect that’s been going off in that city for years, before the bomb of the hurricane. You could have toured the Ninth Ward before the storm, and it was still pretty devastated.”
Davis sees Nagin’s re-election as a sign of more of the same for the city, a sentiment echoed by everyone I talked to that weekend. “There’s some times when a charismatic business man is a good person to run a city,” he says. “This is war time. Call in a politician. We need the brother of the senator to make s–t work. No one has a plan. This is the depressing, frustrating thing. I wish I could say ‘This is the cause, write them a check,’ or ‘This is the guy, follow what he says.’ I don’t see a leader. I don’t see a cause.”
Davis evacuated New Orleans with his father and stepmother and headed to Houston — on a 14-hour drive — where Patrick works and has an apartment. His wife, Lydia Hopkins, is a deacon with St. George’s Episcopal Church. They’re now back in their 100-year-old, two-story house on Lowerline Street. A fluorescent orange X is spray-painted next to their front door. The house sustained little damage from the storm, even though their neighbors’ homes a block away flooded.
Patrick and Lydia returned in October, and Lydia has been running the free meal program at her church. “It’s been a very positive thing,” she says. “But within the last month we’re seeing more and more people who are desperately in need, and all we have is free meals twice a week. We don’t having housing or transportation.”
The New Orleans residents I talk with express the same sentiment — the government is not working, but the individuals are working in spite of it. Patrick says that in order for New Orleans to be rebuilt, there has to be a larger focus on bringing business, industry, and jobs into the city. Otherwise, it’s the same story — high crime, poor education, and poverty.
In her work as a deacon, Lydia has been asked a number of times if Katrina was the result of human sin. “You had better believe it was because of our sinfulness,” she says. “Our sinfulness in not building good levees. Our sinfulness in not providing transportation for the poor. Our sinfulness in having people live in this kind of poverty. That’s the sin. The grace of Katrina — in a horrible way — is that it’s exposed the suffering that already exists in this city, along with the great beauty. I just don’t want to believe that the only way you can have a quirky, vibrant, and culturally astounding city is to have the majority of its population living below the poverty line with horrible education, rampant crime, drugs, and no jobs. These are the ongoing effects of racism, poverty, and poor education. This is the story of every big city in this country. If it can’t be solved here, if we can’t do something to save this city, then what’s going to happen if there’s a disaster in another city, and the veneer is all torn away? Right here, right now is where we can do something about it.”
When I meet up with Bru later, he has Band-Aids taped around four of his fingers just below the knuckle. It’s his first and only tattoo. He says he’s not supposed to take the bandages off, but he does anyway.
Across his fist, in capital letters, outlined in black and filled in with blue ink, is the word “hope.”