Heading into New Orleans on I-49.
I just returned from New Orleans, where I attended my first "premiere" event, for the television show "Thief," which filmed in Shreveport. I got to meet some celebrities whose work I respect - most notably Andre Braugher ("Homicide Life on the Streets") and Clifton Collins, Jr. ("Capote"), and I got my first glimpse of what a premiere is like - photographers, people who are dressed much nicer than I, the constant voice going "Should I go talk to him/her? Should I? Should I?!" It was an unusual experience - I'm genuinely in awe of Clifton Collins' work as Percy in "Capote," a film that is as well-acted as any I have ever seen. My hands were I bit sweaty when I finally mustered up the courage to go and chat with him. But they were all incredibly nice.
The more dizzying experience, however, was seeing New Orleans. I can't really express what the Ninth Ward is like - it looks like an atomic weapon went off. It's incredibly, incredibly unnerving to be sitting at a red light, looking at the building to your right, and realize that the building isn't painted two slightly different colors. That's just how deep the water was. To look out and see one building reduced to rubble is always unnerving to me ("What happened to that building?," my brain says to itself, "Did it collapse?") But to look at a whole block, and every building is like that - your head swims. The writing on the buildings - the weird graffiti/heiroglyphs that the rescuers left as they searched each house - is absolutely, profoundly heartbreaking. Actually, I couldn't tell if it was left by the rescuers in all cases - some things read like:
"916-FWE-Dog in house/2 fish"
Every house had similar writing on it. Some had strange things, I remember one in particular which read "Two cats, pretty nice, won't scratch a stranger." My traveling companion pointed out things like "That overpass was used as a boat launch." Whole blocks were completely destroyed, then we'd drive a block up, uphill, and only the roofs would be damaged. So strange that ten feet meant the difference between complete destruction and a narrow escape. Abandoned/burned cars are everywhere. The rear windows either say "FLOOD" or "NO FLOOD" in white paint.
The downtown section of New Orleans, where we stayed (largely alone in the hotel) is largely in tact but also somewhat empty, to an eery extent. To look around you and see a metropolis - huge bank towers, four star hotels, exclusive restaurants - and perhaps a dozen people on the street - gives one a desperate, frightened feeling. The huge palm trees near Canal Place (outside of the Harrah's) had been plucked out of the ground like carrots. Several lanes of the street were closed and huge, new palm trees (about 60 feet long, all wrapped in plastic like they were bought from a store) were being planted by men operating cranes. I stepped into a corner store to buy gum, and wished I'd had enough cash to buy a shirt that read, in trademark New Orleans vulgarity: "A bitch named Katrina gave me an unforgettable blowjob." That's this city, I thought, in a nutshell: take a tragedy of this profound scale and historic impact, and make it a dirty joke. The daiquiri places were open, but empty. Bartenders stood, staring out at the street with thousand-yard gazes.
I've heard it said that no work id being done in the city, and that did not appear to be true at all. The horizon is dotted with cranes. In the Ninth Ward, we had to navigate carefully due to closed streets. Guys in orange vests and hard hats directed heavy equipment, police re-routed traffic so some flatbed trailers could get through, and a team of guys with weed-eaters (strange that they would prioritize cutting the grass) looked hard at work. I saw several teams of what appeared to be Christian missionaries. We couldn't get near where the levee broke along the edge of the Ninth Ward, there were police cards blocking that street. But I could see the rubble beyond them, as we passed over a bridge.
I took some photos, but not many. I realized pretty quickly that this is not something you can photograph. I also want to recommend that anyone who is interested in knowing more, don't just search for photos on-line, just GO TO NEW ORLEANS. We found a great hotel easily, there were places to eat open, and people seemed nice as ever. It's not as if everything is roped off. We drove around the city for quite some time, and bore firsthand witness to everything from the lots upon lots of empty FEMA trailers, to the plaintive, desperate grafitti, to everything. I feel like it was my duty to see all of that, and I wish that everyone could. I've seen some of the most profoundly sad photos of my life since Katrina hit, but just standing on a corner, looking at an overturned snowcone stand, and as far as the eye can see is rubble, that was the first time I really got an idea of the scale of this whole disaster, and the stakes.