A visit to New Orleans: The city is there

Thursday, June 15, 2006

By Bonnie Stepenoff

New Orleans still exists. Sometimes, in places far away from the city, you hear people say we should not rebuild it. There is a big problem with this statement: The city is there -- rebuilding itself. About 40 percent of its people left after the storm and have not yet returned, which means that 60 percent have already come back.

One of them, wearing a T-shirt that said "Be a New New Orleanian," told me proudly that 77 new restaurants have opened since Hurricane Katrina.

A lot of stories are told on T-shirts. In the doorway of a shop on Bourbon Street, I saw one with the slogan: "Make levees, not war." This one really made me think. Americans recently entered into a war with brash expressions of confidence, which turned out to be overconfidence. In stark contrast, their reactions to the hurricane and flood in New Orleans have been cautious, even defeatist.

Some people have said that nature just has to take its course, that humans have no control over it. They said this because a manmade levee failed, as though they knew it would be impossible to build a better levee.

How did they arrive at this conclusion? Human enterprises very often fail, but humans can also learn from their mistakes. Nature has given them that ability.

There are hard realities we have to face. A year after the disaster, with another hurricane season starting, trucks are still hauling small white FEMA trailers into the battered city for temporary housing. There are many boarded up windows, leaky roofs, businesses that are closed, empty houses, caved-in fences and unkempt yards. I saw big bungalows reduced to skeletons of joists and beams, charming houses tilted and shifted off their foundations, neighborhoods completely dark at 8 o'clock in the evening.

On Canal Street, streetcars run between rows of palm trees that seemed to be held upright with guy wires. There are dirt piles and construction sites everywhere. On St. Charles Avenue, the streetcars have not yet resumed service.

The French Quarter and its landmarks are intact. Preservation Hall, Antoine's, the Court of Two Sisters and Pat O'Brien's are all there. A man with a shiner will sell you a hurricane in a foam cup. Touts will try to lure you into strip clubs. Horse-drawn carriages still offer tourists a slow ride through streets still graced with wrought-iron balconies. But there are not many tourists. A few valiant revelers let the good times roll, wear gaudy masks and take each other's picture, but the steady stream of partyers has slowed to a trickle. Conventions have been canceled.

I asked a businessman if he thought the tourists would come back.

He was sure they would. There is a Realtors' convention scheduled for the fall, he said.

"We just have to get through the hurricane season," he told me. "And we will."

Dr. Bonnie Stepenoff, a historic preservation professor at Southeast Missouri State University, is visiting New Orleans.

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