Finding closure in New Orleans.

Finding closure in New Orleans.

Finding closure in New Orleans.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 4 2005 5:12 AM

My Year of Hurricanes

A trip to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

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"Yes," I said.

"A tree fell on your roof and cut a power line," he said, making a note of it, "and I'll say that's what broke your fridge. Otherwise"—he indicated the moldy walls, the buckled hardwood floors, the sodden furniture, everything—"I'm afraid it's all flood-related, you know?"

A passenger on the Gray Line Tour surveys her old neighborhood. Click image to expand.
A passenger on the Gray Line Tour surveys her old neighborhood

In need of perspective, I thought I'd take the Gray Line bus tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, next to the Industrial Canal, where flooding had been the worst. The idea behind the tour was to give former residents a chance to say goodbye and come to terms with their loss. (Closure was a word I heard again and again that day.) The National Guard was blocking residents who tried to return on their own because it was too dangerous: Houses that were still standing might collapse at any moment, and bodies were still being pulled out of the rubble (another corpse had been found the day before). Also, they worried that people who were psychologically unprepared, and alone, might commit suicide.

Though I'd spent most of my adult life in New Orleans, I'd never knowingly set foot in the Ninth Ward—pretty much terra incognita to middle-class white folks. I knew it was somewhere along the canal, but that was about it. Finally I stopped to ask for directions from two black women who stood chatting outside a sagging clapboard house.

"Well, this here's the Ninth Ward," said the younger of the two—the older woman's daughter, it turned out. She explained that the Lower Ninth was on the other side of the canal, by way of the St. Claude Bridge. Her name was Sheila Jackson and her mother's was Johnnye; they, too, had just met with an insurance adjuster, and they invited me to have a look inside their house. The walls were mottled like rinds of rotten gorgonzola. "And look here," said Johnnye Jackson, her voice muffled by a gas mask. "Just bought this fridge." It was a big expensive chromium model—much nicer than mine—lying flat on its back, covered with silt. We went back outside.

Johnnye Jackson says goodbye to her home in the Ninth Ward. Click image to expand.
Johnnye Jackson says goodbye to her home in the Ninth Ward.

"I grew up in the Lower Ninth," the daughter told me. "It was a great place to be a child—like your whole block was an extended family. Real sense of community. But that's just gone now … Mm!"

Where would they go next?

"Thinking about Boston," she said, and laughed. "What about Boston, Mama?"

"Long as it ain't here, baby."

Bus tours of the Lower Ninth began in the parking lot of a church on the west side of the canal. The buses left at intervals of a half-hour or so, and each contained two counselors from the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the odd Salvation Army volunteer. Most of the passengers were elderly and tended to gaze out the windows in a sort of brave, impassive way. Our driver was a brassy blonde named Shirley Rolko who kept up a steady, blasting patter over the PA: "You feel like laughing or crying or screaming you should just let it go, folks! … Nothing I have ever seen, folks, prepared me for this. The West Bank is bad, but this is horrible … You see something and want me to stop, just yell STOP!"

Fats Domino’s compound in the Lower Ninth Ward. Click image to expand.
Fats Domino's compound in the Lower Ninth Ward

Shirley wasn't overselling it; it was horrible all right. The larger brick houses along the main thoroughfare, Caffin Avenue, were relatively intact ("R.I.P. Fats You will be missed" somebody had spray-painted across the candy-colored compound of Fats Domino—who's alive and well and plans to rebuild), but once the bus turned onto a side street, there was a low collective groan.