Saturday, February 18, 7:30 a.m. —“The Good. The Bad. And the Ugly.” Sure, it’s a classic Clint Eastwood flick, but in my case I tell people I have covered Katrina in reverse order: the ugly, the bad, and the good. Including the hurricane itself and its catastrophic misery, this is my fifth trip to New Orleans. In the six months since the storm, I have probably logged about two months here, two months I will never forget.
I have seen the desperate wade through a chest-high stew of water, in the searing late summer heat, with squealing infants on their backs. I have seen guns brandished by people who were not members of the law — they certainly weren't protecting their property or defending their lives in that empty Ryder truck — and with that assault rifle pointed our way. And I have seen men and women with badges, aimlessly walking through a night of absolute darkness, with supermarket carts full of their few salvageable possessions. Then, there was the bedraggled middle-aged man, whose face I will never forget, who took an empty jug, dipped it into the ornamental pond outside a hotel, and parted his lips as he brought to his mouth that jug filled with the dark filth of a liquid that had survived the same hurricane he did. We stopped the inevitable.
Ravaged homes. A city of about a half million people (at one time), emptied out except for the military, media, government employees, and charity organizations. Hurricane Rita. Torrents of water return. The city, like its nighttime skyline, is dark, unnoticeable, lifeless. It was imagery that is utterly incongruous to what New Orleans used to represent.
As time has passed, I’ve seen more good, more life, more humanity. Smiles have returned, for some. There is hope, for some. This weekend, there is a palpable sense of optimism as the official Mardi Gras celebration kicks off in earnest. But, lest you mistake the partying for a city back on its feet, clearly this city still limps, punched too many times. But like an old boxer, there is fight and feistiness in this place, a boundless will to return to days of glory.
Of all the images indelibly seared into my soul, I want to share with you something I think captures the sadness of this story, and underscores the struggle ahead for New Orleans. When I saw it, my insides twisted and a lump rose in my throat.
As the city started to evacuate, many had to make agonizing choices of what they could take with them and what must remain behind. In the case of one elderly, infirmed man, his motorized scooter — his lifeline to mobility — had to stay. I just happened to be behind him, outside the bellman closet when he said goodbye to that scooter. The bellman promised that the hotel would watch over the scooter, that it would stay put. As distressing a moment as it was to see this man part with his scooter, I can’t truly capture my feelings as I returned to this closet, half a year later, only to see that very scooter. It hadn’t moved an inch. I was too pained to ask what had happened to its owner. Did anyone know where he was? What had happened to him? My immediate reaction was to take a picture to share with you, then walk out the door.
Over the next two weeks, I hope to be able to share with you my thoughts about the “New” New Orleans. If you have questions, please feel free to e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.