Tuesday, April 8, 2008

New Orleans Now

I just returned from my first visit to New Orleans — a beautiful and complex city — and yes, still there despite the destruction caused by hurricane Katrina.

You could easily visit New Orleans today and not see that anything was amiss. The revelry continues in the French Quarter day and night. The music clubs are open and there are more restaurants in the city now than there were before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. The food is exceptional. At Bacco's in the French Quarter I had some crawfish ravioli that I yearn for right now. The food at the Royal Sonesta hotel redefined what hotel food can be. In fact, I can't remember a bad meal anywhere during the few days of my visit.

Plus there is music everywhere, literally from birth to death when jazz bands accompany the deceased to their final resting place. And art in museums and galleries. And horse-drawn carriage rides along the Esplanade where tall houses with wrought-iron balconies are elegant and mysterious. And small, charming houses in the Marigny, where many artists live. And mansions in the Garden District, shaded by live oak trees. And steamships on the Mississippi River.

Yes. It's there. Still there — but this is a city with a broken heart. When Katrina struck, thousands of people lost their homes and everything they owned. Around 1,400 people were killed immediately; others died in the aftermath of heart attacks, stress-related illnesses, hunger, dehydration, suicide and violence. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated and many have still not returned.

Those areas of New Orleans that are below sea level have not recovered, almost two-and-a-half years later.

"Lakeview is the neighborhood furthest along," said James O'Byrne, features editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "When people visit, we take them there first and they think that's the worst they're going to see. Then we take them to the Upper 9th Ward, the Lower 9th, Gentilly, St. Bernard Parish."

Mr. O'Byrne, who had nine years left on his mortgage, lost his home. "If you didn't have the assets to absorb that blow, there was no way to get back," he said.

In the 17th Street Canal neighborhood, I met a registered nurse named Kathy Singleton whose story was typical. Because of Katrina, she and her husband lost their jobs. They fled to Baton Rouge, where they lived in one room for four months with their two teenage daughters and five pets. The hurricane left eight feet of water in their house, which was underinsured and the insurance companies are still refusing to pay more than a token amount for the damage. "They say the damage was caused by wind and rain, not by flooding," Ms. Singleton said. The family has used their entire retirement savings to rebuild.

Some money has been available from the federal government under a program called "The Road Home," but the aid has been slow to arrive, modest, and it has been taxed. Many homeowners had to fight for grants, which were at first denied or set too low, with the award decision only reversed after a lengthy and costly appeal.

Much of the rebuilding in the devastated areas has been the work of volunteers and organizations like Habitat for Humanity. In fact, there's a new word in New Orleans: voluntourism — referring to people who visit the city to help as well as to sightsee.

Whatever your reasons for going to New Orleans, it's a city worth your time. And even if you don't want to pick up a hammer and paintbrush, you can feel good knowing that spending your money as a tourist will help the city come back.