Dispatch From New Orleans
Ray Nagin is grateful. As he stands outside City Hall this morning to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the mayor thanks, in turn, everyone in America, President Bush, Gov. Blanco, and "my friends in the media." After the mayor rings a bell at 9:38 a.m., the exact anniversary of the first levee breach, an elderly woman walks to the podium to read a poem she's written called "Katrina, Katrina." Among the lines she recites: "The stormy weather brought people together" and "the medical staff was superb."
The vibe in the Lower Ninth Ward an hour later is less cheery. When my friend Jordan and I cross the Claiborne Avenue bridge—the overpass closest to the breach that inundated the neighborhood—the first words we overhear are, "You know Louis died?" The view from the bridge: a gleaming, new concrete levee wall surrounded by what looks like a savannah. The houses that used to be here have been washed away, bulldozed, and overgrown.
At the foot of the bridge is a freshly sodded patch of land—this wasn't here two weeks ago—speckled with a pair of giant flagpoles and benches decorated with Lowe's logos. In the middle stands the city's gray, tombstone-looking monument to the victims of Katrina and Rita.
We follow the trail of TV trucks from the monument to Tennessee Street. Since the houses here are still piles of toothpicks and the cars are still burned out and upside down, Tennessee has become the go-to spot to gather anniversary footage. (And if that's not enough, there's a house sitting on top of a car.) A Fox News blonde stands in what might have been a living room. A reporter in a sport coat stands on the stoop of a house that's now nothing but stoop. We head a few blocks down Tennessee, past the trucks, in search of the house that belonged to Al "Carnival Time" Johnson, a legendary New Orleans musician whose house Jordan was hoping to help rebuild. Without warning, the place has been bulldozed. Johnson's truck is still in the driveway.
When I reach the site of the levee breach, a handful of volunteers is reading names of Katrina victims off sheets of poster board. I walk behind them, up a small incline, and run my right hand across the freshly built, white levee. The soft concrete rubs off on my fingertips.
The big event here this morning is a "second line" from the levee breach to downtown. New Orleans'second line tradition comes from jazz funerals, in which marchers stop their mourning to celebrate, dance, and play music. While this second line's got stiltwalkers and a marching band, the atmosphere here is more angry than celebratory. The marchers carry signs reading "R.I.P. Tyrone Lewis," "Support the Right of Return," and "JUSTICE NOW!"
After spending the morning in the Lower Nine, it's hard to see the anniversary of Katrina as anything but another Tuesday in limbo. There was no plan to rebuild this place on Aug. 28, and there won't be one on Aug. 30. The lack of movement is disheartening, but I haven't lost hope yet. That's because of what I saw last night.
On Monday evening, Miss Antoinette K-Doe rolled out the red carpet for the gala reopening of the legendary Mother-in-Law Lounge. When I visited back in April, the lounge had been completely gutted. Antoinette was living upstairs, but she didn't have gas because the house behind the lounge had caught on fire. Thanks to the help of 250 volunteers, the lounge, which sits in the shadow of the I-10 overpass just past downtown, has been refurbished in only four months. There's cold beer at the bar, red beans and rice in the back, and a live band playing "Mother-In-Law" onstage. For a few hours at least, nobody's angry and nobody's thinking that there aren't enough well-meaning volunteers to fix up the whole city. We're all too busy remembering how to have a good time.