It is hot and humid and I immediately associate “water” with this city. It’s the humidity in the air of about 98 percent. It’s my skin covered by sweat right after leaving the airport. And it’s what people have in mind when coming to New Orleans – the city that was disastrously flooded after Hurricane Katrina had hit the town with up to 250 kmh on 29th of August 2005.
Driving in a taxi from the airport to the city center one has to take a closer look to find marks Katrina left after the winds and the water had gone. The city looks “normal” at first glance, like other U.S. cities being approached via freeway. The following days I will have learned: life is not normal in New Orleans. And sometimes I am not quite sure it ever will be again.
Moving on I get a glimpse of the New Orleans Superdome, an unsightly building rising in front of the Skyline of the city. That place where 30.000 people had to await help and evacuation for five days, because Federal Government and local authorities couldn’t come to terms on how to react to the Katrina disaster. The roof of the Superdome has been fixed some time ago, a symbol of getting back to normal life?
The taxi waits at a red light and a homeless black man approaches us. He is moving ahead very slowly, trying to coordinate the moves of his legs and arms appropriately. And he is very thin, his belt holding his worn out jeans just around the small belly to at least keep it up. He is too slow, even for New Orleans where life seems to be much slower than in other big U.S. cities. The taxi moves on. The man is left behind.
That’s one of the stories that have to be told about New Orleans and that will be told to everybody who is interested in taking a closer look at the city beyond jazzbars, mardi gras and the touristy French Quarter. The story about people who have been left behind because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, because they lived in a poor neighbourhood (which often incidentally happens to be a black neighbourhood) or one which is not “high and dry”, the phrase that technically describes how people and their homes could have survived the flooding after Hurricane Katrina.
The city is struggling to find its way back to normal life. And a lot of people from everywhere in the USA try to help by volunteering and donating. It will never be “old normality” the people in the city will get back to. It’s a “new normality”, as the people in New Orleans put it, they all try to achieve. And there is a lack of normality even in basic necessaries like a home, a neighbourhood, a narration of one’s own life and family history that concerns mostly poor and black people though Katrina made no difference between race, class, wealth or education of her victims. And this lack of normality was there before the hurricane came. But after it was gone some things became worse.
Stuck in congestion I can read the New Orleans city claim on the trash cans: “New Orleans – tradition in progress.” That’s more than true. Going down the road to the Hotel the taxi has to slow down to walking speed trying to get over a big and deep road whole. That might also be a mark Katrina has left. After having spent several days in town I sometimes catch myself thinking why there hadn’t been such wholes all over the city to swallow all the water that poured into bigger parts of New Orleans after Katrina had hit and save the city from drowning. That would have been a miracle. One of those that never happen. Normality for New Orleans will be a miracle, too. Hopefully that will happen some day.