We left New Orleans today and made it to Pensacola, where we will spend tomorrow working on a story that has nothing to do with Hurricane Katrina or the recovery in New Orleans.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s strange to drive a few hours and be a world away from the suffering and devastation in New Orleans. ThatĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s something about covering hurricanes IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll never get used to. One minute youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘re navigating debris-filled roads in a community without power, water or street lights. About 100 miles away, life couldnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t be more normal.
In New Orleans, Katrina was always the topic of conversation, whether it was in a bar, restaurant or even in the lobby of a French Quarter hotel.
The reality is that two weeks in New Orleans barely gives anyone more than a cursory look at the devastation in the area. And as residents face the grueling reality of living for years among uncertainty and reconstruction, we always knew we could go home.
I have not told you everything about our trip to New Orleans.
There were a few incidents we kept secret until they careened to their final conclusion. So far weĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve been lucky, so I feel obliged to share them.
There was a brief but terrifying moment when our hotel lost our rented minivan. It was funny until the third time the valet, who IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d dealt with each day for a week, returned, sans van, and said: Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Are you sure itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s a black Chrysler?Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Yes,Ă˘â‚¬Âť I insisted. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Same one I had yesterday and the day before.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Luckily the van reappeared and I was spared the awful prospect of making a call back to Tribune headquarters to explain how a perfectly good, $20,000 minivan vanished in the Big Easy.
See, I got into a small bit of trouble four months ago when we covered the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There was, letĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s just call it an episode, that I am no longer allowed to discuss that involved a downed power line and the liberation of an air conditioning unit from the roof of our rental RV.
So losing a minivan would get me a one-way ticket to a weekly newspaper in North Dakota.
Fortunately, photographer Kathy Moore provided the best mishap of the trip Ă˘â‚¬â€ś so far.
Moore is a maniac about making sure her computer and camera gear are locked in a hotel safe when sheĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s not working. The logistics of neatly stuffing several thousand dollars of gear in the tiny safe takes no less than two hours (a few minutes, really). Whenever I suggested that maybe the safe was a waste of time, she got a crazy, wild-eyed look. Moore, who seems to think the entire city of New Orleans was waiting to nab her gear, would say things like: Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d rather keep my jobĂ˘â‚¬Âť or Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d rather not have that talk with by boss,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Secretly, she relished the idea of buying lots of shiny new gear on the company dime.
So it was with great delight that Moore informed me after lunch one day that the safe would not open. She typed in her code, the machine groaned, but remained locked. She tried the code again. Nothing. She tried it several more times. Nothing. So there I was happily working on my laptop, drinking in the irony that my computer was safe while MooreĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s gear was in vaulted limbo.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Better call security,Ă˘â‚¬Âť I said without looking up from my laptop. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I need to get going.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
I smiled privately when the security guys failed to open the safe using their little hand held computer.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Blasting capsĂ˘â‚¬Âť I recommended, the best solution I could remember from 1980s television action shows. These guys looked up for blasting caps.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“It might come to that,Ă˘â‚¬Âť one joked, causing Moore great unease.
Instead, they retrieved a massive drill and went to work on the door of the safe.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Ever break anything when youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘re doing this?Ă˘â‚¬Âť I asked, hopeful.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Not yetĂ˘â‚¬Âť he said, pushing hard on the drill.
The first hole didnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t open the safe like they had thought.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“That usually does it,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“ThatĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s strange.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
Moore looked concerned, and started planning the call to her boss.
The guys drilled another hole, and that time, success.
Moore made sure the gear was unharmed while the guys attached a new door, with another finicky code system.
The next day Moore locked her gear in the safe again.
My hope was restored.
New Orleans might never be the same, but French Quarter businesses are trying to convince the world that the food and fun are back.
Photographer Kathy Moore and I spent New Years Eve night walking the streets of a festive French Quarter that looked about like it did before Hurricane Katrina.
Bars and restaurants that were closed since the storm rushed to reopen for the cityĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s famous New Years Eve celebration.
Live jazz and blues thumped from bars, whooping throngs threw beads from balconies and a fair amount of revelers spent their closing moments of consciousness slumped against one of the many historic buildings along Bourbon Street.
In all, it was a pretty normal New Years celebration in that corner of the Big Easy.
But neighborhoods a few miles away were still without power and tens of thousands of families still have no home to return to. Hundreds of FEMA trailer sit in yards of storm-ravaged homes awaiting utility hookups. Some residents who have returned are still without their families, often in far off cities where their children are enrolled in school.
While a corner of New Orleans glowed like a far off star, a few miles away June Lacour went to bed early in a slightly damaged duplex a couple blocks from her home destroyed by flood.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“We didnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t have anything to celebrate,Ă˘â‚¬Âť she said. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Maybe this year will be better.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
New Orleans is getting a little more like the carefree city it was before Hurricane Katrina.
Granted, itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s still a little strange to see armed National Guard members patrolling the famously festive Bourbon Street. And one afternoon this week, New Orleans police officers shot and killed a man brandishing a knife, prompting concerns from community leaders that cops might be a little quick on the trigger.
But Pat Rowan, 53, makes the case that things might be getting a little easier in the Big Easy.
Rowan moved to New Orleans three weeks ago from the eternally chilly city of Duluth, Minn. (Full discloser: I used to work there.)
Rowan was walking down Bourbon Street this week when he came across one of the New Orleans Police DepartmentĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
A fan of both beer and Harleys, he thought it would be fun to get a picture on the impressive craft while holding a beer. He told the nearby officer of his scheme, but the officer had a better idea. The officer fired up the motorcycle and told Rowan to drive it across the street (sans beer), turn around and drive toward the camera-wielding officer.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“I couldnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t believe he let me do that,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Rowan said Friday night.
DonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t believe him? RowanĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s got a picture to prove it.
New Orleans is such a small town these days.
Officials report there about 70,000 people living in the Big Easy, but most are clustered in the few, livable neighborhoods with power and other utilities. Like New Orleans in the 1800s, downtown and the French Quarter are the epicenter of the cityĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s activity and commerce.
That probably explains why we keep running into the same people.
We ran into Eileen and Frank OĂ˘â‚¬â„˘Sullivan twice, once around breakfast time at a restaurant near Jackson Square. That night we ran into the St. Petersburg couple again at a little Cajun place on the other side of the same square. (We secretly suspected our executive editor hired them to tail us to make sure we werenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t eating too extravagantly or drinking to excess.)
On Thursday, we spent the morning with Isabelle Cossart, who is running disaster tours of the hardest hit areas of the city. We were joined on the tour by some journalists from Germany now based in Washington, D.C.
Frankly, we barely spoke on the tour.
That night we ran into our German cohorts at TujagueĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s restaurant in an area of the French Quarter we hadnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t explored. (Our executive editor is getting craftier, I thought).
We had a spirited chat for 20 minutes about stories we had done in the city and about life in Florida, a major destination for German tourists.
New Orleans has about a quarter of the population it did before the storm and now we regularly bump into people weĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve met or even interviewed before.
With so few restaurants open, itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s easy to become regulars. WeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve gotten lunch to-go several times from Desire, a wonderful little Cajun restaurant a block from the hotel.
The waitress now knows I am crazy about their shrimp Po-Boy, with plenty of catsup for the fries.
New Orleans is like that now.
This is the not the Bourbon Street late-night revelers will remember.
Photographer Kathy Moore and I worked late last night and wound up on Bourbon Street around 10:20 p.m. looking for dinner. Our only option was a slice of pizza from a little daiquiri bar that seemed bigger on drink specials than food selection. I wasnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t surprised all the restaurants were closed. The crippling labor shortage is felt every night as normally nocturnal restaurants begin closing around 8 p.m.
But Bourbon Street was dead, even less rowdy than Christmas night.
Sure there was some light-weight drunken revelry, and the sign of a passed out 20-something propped up on a payphone should give hope to partiers planning a visit to the Big Easy.
But the mounted police looked bored, as did the clusters of tough-looking police officers with little to do except chat, laugh and talk on cellular phones.
Perhaps the most eerie sight was all the National Guard members patrolling the streets in camouflage clothing, walking slowly passed music clubs and bars, keeping over-partied revelers off the payphones.
Soon after midnight, jazz bands like Ryan Burrage and His Rhythmakers finished up as many of the revelers had already gone home.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“WeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll see you tomorrow night,Ă˘â‚¬Âť banjo player Barry Foulon said to the final six people left in FritzelĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s European Jazz Bar.
Outside FritzelĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s, a few final revelers made their way home, past an Army Humvee parked across from a glittery, neon strip club.
Restaurants in New Orleans are hurting as badly for staff as they are for customers.
Many of the cityĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s hospitality employees still havenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t returned since being evacuated, so restaurants are left hiring people with little or no experience.
Some restaurant owners traveled an hour away to Baton Rouge to lure wait staff and cooks to the Big Easy.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s nearly impossible to go into a restaurant without hearing staffers complain about being short of cooks or wait staff.
Many waiters are working double shifts as much out of necessity as the extra money.
Popular restaurants are forced to close early simply because they lack the staff to be open much past 8 p.m. A few restaurants are open with a limited menu, and some finer restaurants reopened with paper table clothes rather than cloth.
Of course, the few people who are in the city appear eager to cut some slack for restaurants and their staff.
ThatĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s certainly true for Eileen and Frank OĂ˘â‚¬â„˘Sullivan.
The St. Petersburg couple decided to spend about a week in New Orleans to help the local economy.
Despite the devastation, they are having a blast.
If thereĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s a touristy thing to do, theyĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve either done it, or itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s on the agenda. There will hardly be a restaurant they havenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t tried by the time they leave.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“We came to spend money,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Eileen said this morning, while eating breakfast at RiverĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Edge restaurant next to Jackson Square.
I read about every news story I could find coming out of New Orleans in the weeks leading up to the trip.
I looked at countless photos and saw numerous television reports from the area.
Nothing came close to conveying the devastation and bizarrely baron landscape we experienced driving around the Lower 9th Ward and other ravaged areas on Christmas day. We drove for hours, combing neighborhoods, often going an entire hour without seeing another moving car. The only cars we did see were filled with gawkers, usually nicely dressed for the holiday and driving around in sports sedans or SUVs taking pictures of each other next to debris.
We met a law enforcement officer flown in from Seattle parked under what had been the largest levee breach to ensure gawking didn’t turn into looting. He’d been in New Orleans three weeks and still had trouble getting his mind around the devastation.
“From here, you can drive 30 miles and it’s all the same thing,” he told us.
We decided to take him up on the challenge, driving a main thoroughfare into the bayou. We made it 22 miles before the road washed out into some bayou river.
Countless neighborhoods seemed stuck in some grim, freeze-frame since the waters rose and receded. A few FEMA trailers sat in yards, but many neighborhoods were entirely vacated.
We saw just three businesses that appeared to be open, a strip club, a bar and a beauty salon. Only the strip club and the bar were open Christmas.
We drove back to our hotel in the French Quarter, the only area in the city we’ve found with an even remote sense of normalcy, and marveled at the strange contrast between the destruction we had seen and the boozy merriment on Bourbon Street.
Christmas Eve on Bourbon Street was kind of a strange experience.
A few bars were open, many offering three-for-one drink specials, and a few had live music. One bar had a band doing a searing rendition of Lynyrd SkynyrdĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Gimme Three Steps,Ă˘â‚¬Âť for no one except a couple bartenders.
Several strip clubs were open, as were a few restaurants—but little else.
As the evening drew late, the only reasonable restaurant we could find was Tony MoranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s, an Italian restaurant on the first floor of the historic Old Absinthe House in the heart of the French Quarter.
The only people in the French Quarter these days are storm-rattled residents seeking a decent meal and perhaps a few hours away from their new rag-tag lives.
At dinner we met the Rev. Gregory Pembo, pastor at Vieux Carre Assembly, eating at the table next to us. He struck up a conversation with us that lasted the entire meal.
He was a wine dealer who left the business when he said God told him to start a ministry in the French Quarter. HeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s been at it roughly 10 years, and before Katrina, had about 40 people regularly attending Sunday services. Now heĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s down to a few parishioners each Sunday.
A lifelong New Orleans resident, he relished the chance to start a ministry in a city he adores.
He and his wife lived by one of the levies (that eventually failed), so when Katrina hit they evacuated to North Carolina for six weeks. They returned to find their home destroyed, his motherĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s home destroyed, and his tiny church water logged.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“It got me in every corner of my life,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said.
Pembo talked at great length about the loss, but more about his desire for his beloved city to rebuild. A huge sports fan, he dreams of the city hosting another Super Bowl, among his favorite memories.
At this moment, he is conducting his Christmas service at the church. He peppered the French Quarter with hand-written leaflets announcing the service. He hoped to get a few more parishioners than normal.
Good luck, Reverend Pembo. Hope you get your Super Bowl.
There seems to be a misconception about this trip among people back in Tampa.
My editors seem to think the trip would digress into drunken revelry the moment we hit New Orleans.
I got the sense last night they were surprised we could speak cogently on the phone, or that our stories and images would be at all usable.
My editor last night singed off our phone conversation by saying, “Don’t have too much fun.”
She seemed stunned when I said we’d been working too hard and too many hours to literally have more than a couple beers.
That said, is it my fault that most of the only hotels and restaurants that are fully functional are glitzy French Quarter landmarks?
I think not.
Our money people should just be darn glad rooms are going much less than they did before the storm. Beer, of course, is about the same price.
To be sure, the French Quarter is running at less than a quarter of the mojo it had before the storm. Normally late-night restaurants that should be overflowing with people are empty at 8 p.m. and often close early. Last night we were turned away from a Creole cafe I enjoyed a few years ago, the owner or explaining they are running with a tiny percent of the usual staff. He invited us back for breakfast.
Most stores remain closed, though it appears those shirt shops you find everywhere from New Orleans to Key west were among the first to reopen.
If a quarter of the French Quarter is sputtering back to life, the rest of New Orleans is running at a tiny fraction of that.
The city warrants much more exploration, which photographer Kathy Moore and I will do in coming days.
But first we are off to spend the morning at Arnaud’s, perhaps the most storied restaurant in New Orleans.
We arrived in New Orleans last night. It just seems wrong to be able to navigate a vehicle easily though the French Quarter. In the past, I could barely navigate myself through the French Quarter. A few restaurants are open with a fraction of their normal staff, as are a few of the touristy bars you could easily find in Ybor City. We saw a great T-shirt that said (as I recall): I survived Katrina and all I got was a lousy Cadillac and a plasma screen TV.
Best moment so far: A Zydeco band sent up in a parking space outside a French Quarter restaurant. It felt, for a moment, like old New Orleans. But only for a moment.
Heading back to Bay St. Louis for the morning….
WeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘re sitting on the outskirts of Kiln, Miss., next to about a dozen FEMA trailers tucked next to a gas station.
People are pulling up for gas, a few of them in cars still clearly damaged from the storm.
Photographer Kathy Moore and I spent the morning touring a neighborhood near the water in Bay St. Louis where Katrina scrubbed every home entirely clean from its foundation. Homes on pilings were plucked free and are gone. Damaged cars, boats and debris litter every yard.
A few people still live there, mostly in FEMA trailers pulled onto the foundation where their home once stood. Neighbors joke that most people decorate trees with Christmas lights this time of the year, but their trees are still covered with thousands of plastic bags, clothing and other debris from the storm.
Many towns around the nation have a huge Christmas tree in a park or in City Hall.
In Bay St. Louis, a beautifully decorated Christmas tree is strapped to a concrete barrier that prevents motorists from driving on the remains of a storm-ruined bridge to Pass Christian.
After the storm, the area where the tree now stands was a bizarre little oasis of cell phone reception. Beleaguered storm victims heard about it almost immediately, and during the day the flocked there to call loved ones and friends.
Even today, thereĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s something sort of magical about the place.
Nothing was open the last time we were in Gulfport, Miss.
Much was destroyed and the rest was without power, phone and water.
Survival beat out commerce for most people.
Now there are lights, phone and water, ingredients that allow businesses to sputter back to life.
Local restaurants have been slower to return amid the quick revival of ChiliĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s, TGI FridayĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s and other chain restaurants where itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s common to wait an hour to get seated, even on a weekday.
But local businesses are returning. The few advertisements on various hip-hop, classic rock and country radio stations are from local companies reminding listeners to buy locally to aid the area’s recovery from the storm.
Car dealerships are returning with new inventory, as did an Asian restaurant on Highway 49 that was slammed tonight.
Tomorrow, we head to Bay St. Louis, Miss., to see a family that weathered KatrinaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s rising storm surge in the rafters of the Waffles Plus Motel.
ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s amazing how little changed in Gulfport, Miss., over the last four months since Katrina came ashore.
The remains of once-stately homes along sit practically untouched along Highway 90, the ribbon of road that traces the Gulf of Mexico.
Some home sites have been cleared, but there is still so much devastation that it feels like the storm came through last week.
Trees are still littered with clothes and plastic bags 20 feet up. The Grand Casino looks untouched since the storm hit, though it appears scrap metal recyclers have scoured the area of anything they can sell for a few bucks.
Battered personal watercraft sit along the road way, cars are upside down or stuck in three feet of mucky soil. Leisure boats are in yards and a few truck bodies poke from the sea.
Some people have moved trailers on to the foundation where their homes once stood.
People spray painted their addresses on remaining concrete walls, or sidewalks, or driveways.
A few businesses in downtown Gulfport are open Ă˘â‚¬â€ś like a flower store Ă˘â‚¬â€ś but most are closed and show little sign of resurrection from the current owner. One business with no windows or a door had a for-rent sign in the window.
Real or not, it was funny. So was the site of a personal watercraft sitting in the yard of what probably was the site of a stately antebellum home. A stuffed animal sat on the watercraft, as if it had been driving.
Hurricane Katrina spawned Camp Hope.
Weeks after Katrina made landfall, a small band of workers from around the nation came to the Gulf Coast in search of steady work, decent housing and high wages.
Instead, they found sporadic work, disappointing wages and no rental housing.
So they converged on a small piece of land in Long Beach, Miss., behind a small gas station with cheap coffee and a small selection of fried appetizers and pizza. They named it Camp Hope. They erected their weathered tents on the land after officials kicked them off a nearby golf course.
Donald C. Bishop is the self-appointed mayor of the two-acre tent city filled with contractors and scrap metal collectors.
By day, Bishop said he is paid $100 an hour to cut up and remove downed trees in the most dangerous and precarious situations, like propped against homes or in remote forests.
At night, he pokes around Camp Hope making sure residents arenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t getting too drunk and unruly or starting bon fires in poor locations that fill the camp with smoke. HeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s promised other camp dwellers that heĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d get a Christmas tree before the holiday. A tree made of beer cans Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“wonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t do,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said.
Nearly everyone in the camp complained about wages being a fraction of what they were promised when they came from New York, Texas or Florida.
Bishop is used to it. HeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s traveled the nation making money off storm recovery efforts since Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“ThereĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s always plenty of work, but not enough pay,Ă˘â‚¬Âť he said.
Some of the workers who canĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t get regular employment began collecting aluminum and other metals and selling it at the local recycling facility. Bishop collects the scrap during slow times in the tree business.
Recycling would seem like a gold mine in Katrina’s path, except local officials only allow scrap collectors within certain distances of private property and some public land. Often the rules are sketchy, or the collectors are willing to push the laws in lucrative, scap-filled areas.
Many collectors said they have been arrested for looting, but most were never charged.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“With me, they dropped the charges immediately,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Bishop said.