It was just after midnight when the lights went out on Frenchmen Street. Outside, a thunderstorm raged through the streets of New Orleans; inside, at Café Marigny, waiters calmly loaded tables with candles, and people went on eating. The band had already quit for the night, but it occurred to me that the old-time jazz trio — one man on clarinet, another whose fingers blurred across the piano, and a guitarist playing a flawless 1927 parlor instrument — could have gone on playing. They were entirely acoustic.
I was having dinner with seven women, five of them New Orleans residents, all of whom I’d just met that day or the day before at Jazz Fest. They shook their heads in disgust.
“The electricity goes out all the time now,” one of them said. “We can’t even handle a thunderstorm.”
The week before, she went on to explain, heavy rains knocked out six of the pumps that move water from the 17th Street Canal to Lake Pontchartrain.
With Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest occurring on schedule, New Orleans looks to at least some of the world to be handily on its way to recovery. Newspaper photographs show President Bush raising roofs into the sun with smiling volunteers from Habitat for Humanity; in the central business district, bright banners with corporate logos boast of an energetic effort to put the city right. But if you drive east down Claiborne Avenue along the I-10 freeway, watching out the window as the moderately battered parts of New Orleans deteriorate into blue-tarped roofs and debris-littered yards, you are reminded that most of this city still lies in ruins. Under the construction cranes that tower over the Industrial Canal, signs appear on trees asking for witnesses who saw the levees break. At the edge of the 9th Ward, a lone house remains among shambles of foundations where other houses once stood. Wind and water had lifted the house up and dropped it on top of a car. (“A car,” I think. “Why wasn’t it driven out?”) Family photos, coffee mugs, a quilt, a television, spill out of the sides of the house. It has become a draw for tourists. As I stare and snap a picture, I see a woman in shorts and Tevas, who had been recording the wreckage on video, fall to her knees, cross herself and begin to cry.
But even far up on the high ground near the Mississippi River, you get the sense that nothing will ever work as it used to, that New Orleans has been condemned to occupy 10 or 20 square blocks, like a museum of a washed-away world, where tourists can still form lines around the block for beignets at a Café du Monde manned by people who commute from miles inland. Fewer than half of the city’s residents have returned, many live in trailers, and basic services have yet to be restored.
“We can hardly even get mail,” said one of my new friends, Dee, a woman who lives Uptown and appraises antiques. “It gets delivered maybe once or twice a week, but people send you packages all the time that never arrive.”
There is one thing, however, that has not changed about New Orleans: The people who live here still look you in the eye and say hello. That, and you can still light up a cigarette at the table in a restaurant.
I met Dee, a tiny woman with a broad smile and a loud laugh, because she offered me a cold beer while we watched music in a packed crowd under the hot sun. She told me how she’d come from New Jersey to study at LSU as a teenager in the late 1960s, when white Louisiana still booed the black football players as they ran onto the field. “They weren’t ready for the future,” she said. An hour or so into our conversation, the man standing in front of us suddenly keeled over, his body stiff and shaking. We helped to lower him to the ground, then ran for paramedics. As it turned out, the man had only suffered a mild seizure, and he recovered just as the medics loaded him onto the gurney. But the drama had made Dee and me friends.
“I’m sure glad he didn’t die,” she said.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Buzz kill.”
We laughed and toasted with our Miller Lites, and before she left, she handed over her phone number and insisted we meet for dinner.
The next night at Café Marigny with Dee and her friends, as lightning flashed and the rain blew sideways, I remembered what I’d read just before I came here — that the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, had determined unequivocally that last year’s hurricanes indicated a changing climate. This year promised not five, but seven severe storms in the Gulf.
With hurricane season a month away, I asked Dee what the people who’d returned to the city thought about the report.
“I think they’re in denial,” she said, laughing and lighting up an after-dinner cigarette. “That’s thinking too far ahead.”