Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Ghosts of New Orleans

I remember the first time I saw New Orleans, in June of 2001. I was flying in from California to work at a medical trade show at the Ernest J. Morial convention center. The green, lush, humid city was so different from the brown, parched hills I had left behind that I suddenly became homesick for the humid, overgrown, mosquito-infested summers of the upper Midwest, where I grew up. I didn't realize how much I had missed the general fecundity of life near muddy rivers and lakes.

It was my first real business trip, and I was thrilled to travel on someone else's dime. I had bought a travel guidebook, hoping to haul my co-workers out to eat beignets and crawfish and bread pudding with bourbon sauce in the French Quarter. Could we squeeze in a garden tour or a paddleboat ride up the Mississippi or a jazz club or (one co-worker's favorite) a swamp tour that promised alligator spottings, I wondered? No -- I had to work. We slogged onto the shuttle to the convention center each morning, and took turns running the booth where we were selling patient education brochures.

Clearly, New Orleans was poor. The air-conditioned ride from the hotel next to the French Quarter to the enormous convention center was probably walkable, but I doubt the visitor's bureau wanted conventioneers to look closely at the tiny run-down houses, sketchy-looking bars and restaurants, and broken pavement that reminded me of the south side of Chicago. I knew the crime rate was high, too. Still, I loved New Orleans because it was so different from where I lived: the music, the southern accents, the humidity, the alligators, the fried food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I got back, I told my husband that we needed to take a vacation there some day.

Then Katrina hit. I spent a week glued to the television every night, yelling variations on why the doesn't somebody help these people? I held my own infant daughter as I watched parents pass a baby in diapers onto a bus that they couldn't get on themselves to escape the flooded city. The television showed images of bodies floating face-down in the water, of a young woman going into a diabetic seizure after yelling "I don't want to die!" in the convention center where I had been. Each day that people were still stuck in the city, I became more incredulous and horrified.

The memories return to me, unwanted, with Hurricane Gustav currently headed for New Orleans, even though New Orleans is almost fully evacuated now and far better prepared for a hurricane than it was before Katrina. I told my husband Katrina was the worst thing I ever saw on television. There was nothing to do but watch the misery unfold, and watch the places I had been become utterly unrecognizable.

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