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New Orleans Jazzfest: Scenes From a Recovery 

Wednesday, May 30 2007

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But despite the carnival atmosphere, the fetid stench of floodwater permeates the air. No, not from Katrina — from yesterday. Bombarded with five inches of rain in two hours, the city’s still-antiquated pumping system suffered a meltdown — causing floods that swamped cars in some areas and covered the fairgrounds in a foot of water. The Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to have installed 34 new pumps, but after buying them from a notoriously unscrupulous manufacturer in a $32 million sweetheart deal, the new pumps proved defective.

For tourists, the flooding is but a minor inconvenience, and Jazz Fest goes on as scheduled, but for locals, it’s yet another terrifying reminder of the eminent threats the city still faces: faulty pumps, structurally unsound levees and rapid coastal erosion.

Savvy New Orleanians note the irony in Shell’s sponsorship of this year’s Jazz Fest. Oil exploration off Louisiana’s coast by that and other gas companies is a primary culprit for the erosion of vital barrier wetlands that protect New Orleans from hurricane storm surges — the kind of surges that top and breach fragile levees.

Even savvier New Orleanians will point out that the year before Katrina, Ed Theriot, then-director of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Louisiana Coastal Area Ecosystem Restoration Study, was relocated from South Louisiana to Iraq to help refurbish the marshes in Iraq thought by many to be the location of the biblical Garden of Eden. Theriot’s ensuing efforts in Iraq drew wide praise. Louisiana, thought by many to be the modern location of Sodom, continues to lose 30 square miles of wetlands a year, an entirely preventable loss.

And so the pumps fail, the levees remain unstable, and the Gulf of Mexico rapidly advances on the city — as if Katrina never happened. None of that matters for the moment, though. In a city whose economic lifeblood is tourism, the party can’t stop — the drinks and the music keep flowing.

Across town at a Bywater bar called Cowpokes, I’m taking a shot of Southern Comfort from within the tight embrace of a strange man’s thighs. Across from me on the dance floor, several men in formfitting jeans and cowboy hats line dance to Justin Timberlake. It’s Cinco de Gayo.

Friend and New Orleans denizen Pete Syverson came up with Cinco de Gayo to see what happens when a bunch of straight people and their gay friends go on a tour of New Orleans’ rowdiest gay bars. The results have thus far exceeded our wildest expectations.

As we crawl from bar to bar, our original group of 15 has grown to include a group of sexually frustrated straight girls, several gay loners and a pack of wife-beater-clad lesbians. To think — some would wish the destruction of this city all over again to stop such camaraderie.

Hurricane Katrina hit the day before one of the city’s biggest parties, Southern Decadence — otherwise known as gay Mardi Gras. After the storm, many prominent Christian evangelists around the country announced that Katrina was sent from God to stop Decadence and to punish the city for its acceptance of homosexuality. They obviously weren’t paying attention — Katrina never hit New Orleans, making a miraculous zero-hour turn east, missing the city. What destroyed New Orleans was the catastrophic failure of its Army Corps of Engineers–constructed levee system — as University of California, Berkeley, professor Robert Bea, who led the National Science Foundation investigation of the levee failures, called it, “the largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.”

With continued support from the city, however, gay culture survived the disaster and is accepting us with open... er... thighs. Now roughly 50 in number, we exit Cowpokes and head to the French Quarter — our motley gay, straight and lesbian alliance dancing through the streets.

As I sleep off my hangover most of Sunday afternoon, six people are shot across the city. No one dies — a minor miracle in a city that has averaged roughly a murder a day since the New Year.

Recovery is a strange thing. Can we know it when we see it? Is it tangible? Is it even worthwhile — a delusional marker we use to mask a lack of progress? After all, what’s recovery without progress? What’s Jazz Fest without pumps to keep it dry? What’s a community without levees capable of protecting it? Why rebuild a city if the government plans on letting it erode into the sea?

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