to New Orleans
‘It is hard for me to imagine it ever alive again,’
Tom Andre ’98 says of his neighborhood
On Sept. 20, my mom and I went home to New Orleans for the first
time since Katrina hit. Here is the story:
We had no trouble getting into the city, even though the local
radio, which has been consolidated into one station, announced
that the National Guard was turning people back. I have
to say it was pretty much what we expected, but what we expected
was pretty bad.
Uptown, near my mom’s house, debris – mostly dead
brown tree branches – lined every single street. Power
lines hung in the middle of the street. You quickly became used
to seeing downed trees and major, but mostly reparable, damage
to houses. No traffic lights were operating. There
were almost no cars on the streets. Most vehicles were military,
construction (from all over the country) or “semi-official,”
i.e., regular or rental vehicles with company stickers on the
sides. One vehicle, with a family inside, even had a poster
board taped to the windshield with “Animal Rescue”
written on it – probably a ruse to get past the National
We saw the Rite Aid at Carrollton and Oak, with the forklift
used to break in still stuck in the door. There was a line
of Humvees and troop transport vehicles in Audubon Park.
One thing was clear at this point: At least in Uptown New Orleans,
there needs to be very little “rebuilding” beyond
the cleanup, minor repairs, and a few cosmetic changes.
The streetcar tracks will take a while to clear, downed telephone
poles and power lines will have to be repaired, and that will
take a while. The volume of debris to be moved out of the
city will be enormous.
Mom’s house was absolutely fine, save for a few tiles
blown off the roof and some pipe damage. There was no mildew or
mold, except on a box of blueberries left out. The water
ran and the toilets flushed, but there was no power.
We drove downtown along St. Charles Avenue, and it was
more of the same. There were several signs discouraging looting,
some of them amusing. A cop stopped in front of us to take a picture.
Overall, it seems that there was relatively little structural
damage. All over the central business district, there are
work crews pumping water and making repairs. Poydras Street
is now lined with stop signs.
Driving into my neighborhood, you could see a brown water line
on every single structure. All plant life below the line was dead
and brown – grass, bushes, fallen leaves, gardens, etc.
The metal water meters in the grass in front of my house had rusted.
People talk about the smell. Stepping out of the car in
front of my house is where I first noticed it. It was more
distinct than it was overwhelming. It wasn’t horrible, just
generally unpleasant, maybe something like rotting citrus fruit.
My car, still in front of my house, had turned white with decay
and debris. Before the storm, it had needed several minor repairs,
and now I was thankful that in my laziness I never got around
to them. The trunk was open, and all of its contents had been
taken or floated away. All I really missed was the tennis racquet
in the trunk. One of the tires had collapsed. The wheels were
rusted. Mud and tree branches hung from the side mirrors. The
doors still opened, which let me get the papers (those that were
salvageable). There was a small puddle of water in the back
From reports and photographs, I knew that there had been about
two feet of water in the house. So over the last few weeks
I had been wondering what objects in my house had been more than
two feet off the floor, and hoping I could save them. I
had trouble opening my door, at first because I thought it had
swollen shut from the water. After pounding it a few times,
I realized that something inside the house had pushed up against
it – as it turned out, a blue paper recycling bin and my
This is what my house looked like inside, with two feet of water:
brown stains up to two feet on the walls. A foot above that, a
line of green, brown, and black splotches of mold. Everything
but the heavy furniture (and even some of that) was out of place.
The refrigerator had floated and was knocked over, as was the
microwave that was on top of it. Drawers were swollen shut
and their bottoms collapsed. A thin film of slippery gray
silt coated the floor and everything that had been on the floor.
One small dresser had floated from one room to another and been
deposited on its side. Imagine that scene, thousands of times
Before evacuating, my “preparation” consisted of
putting most of my photographs on top of my dresser, “just
in case.” They survived just fine.
There was no sign of life at all on my street. No movement
from any house. No cats, or squirrels, or birds. My neighbor
had said he would ride out the storm, and he had kindly boarded
up one window of my house and sealed the screen door. I
have no idea where he is right now.
I am much more sentimental about the loss of my city than the
loss of my stuff. Looking back, it seems so easy to be gung
ho about rebuilding the city. Standing in the middle of my street,
brown debris baking in the sun in every direction, I didn’t
see destruction, but the death of the neighborhood. It is
hard for me to imagine it ever alive again. It is hard
for me to imagine anyone going back. There was nothing
at all to return to but empty structures that now house only memories.
It’s a vicious circle: If a critical mass does not return
to a neighborhood, no one will, and that will be the case in many
parts of the city.
On the Entergy Web site, there is no timetable for restoring
power to my zip code (and several others) despite the fact that
it’s easily accessible. No one will say it yet, but
the reason is clear: It may be bulldozed.
In the news you see interviews with hardy New Orleanians still
living in their homes, patiently awaiting the power, cooking out
on the porch every night and still managing to find some open
bar. It’s a quaint thought, and it’s comforting to
think of New Orleans that way. But outside of the central
business district and some parts of Uptown, all I saw was emptiness.
It’s not charming – quite the contrary.
Maybe I will become more optimistic as the city repopulates.
I know the smell will go away eventually, and some grass is already
regrowing in patches, so I’m optimistic about that. I will
go back to New Orleans, but I don’t think I could ever live
in my neighborhood again. Unless I have greatly overestimated
my own resilience, if I won’t go back to my home that was
underwater, few people will.
Finally, I should be clear that I’m one of the lucky ones.
I am fine, healthy, and have an amazing support network of friends
throughout the country and the world. Almost everything
I lost was replaceable. Unlike the history of the city, and the
lives of many of its citizens, the history of my life will not
be written in terms of Before Katrina and After Katrina.
Tom Andre ’98 produces a New Orleans-themed festival
in Brazil called “Jambalaya!” He is also the
director of a newly formed organization called the Institute of
Culture in the Americas, which aims to help New Orleans cultural
organizations form strategic partnerships with others throughout
the Americas. The institute is amending its mission to also address
questions of race, culture, and poverty and how they are related,
Andre says, “with a particular eye on places like Brazil,
which like New Orleans boasts an incredibly rich culture constructed
mostly by poor people.”