Our New Orleans trip

Loyal Wisdom readers who also read the wife”s not-often-enough updated site may have seen her complete report of our trip, so I”ll spare you all a re-hash of the play-by-play. But some Wisdom is definitely due.

Our swing through Waveland was not planned, so we weren”t really prepared for what we saw. That may have been a good thing. There”s a railroad that runs through Waveland, and things south of there are generally considered to be “the beach”. As the wife said (my line, actually) north of the tracks, it looked like a hurricane hit. South of the tracks, it looked like a nuclear bomb went off.

We didn”t take pictures, partly out of respect, partly out of shock, but TCL”s uncle – who used to be a full-time Waveland resident – took a number of shots south of the tracks a few days after the storm and an amazing shot during the storm at the hotel where he and others rode it out.

This is Coleman Avenue, which is Waveland”s little commercial area near the beach, looking out toward the gulf:

Yes, there used to be buildings on both sides of the street here. The surge was so big it crumpled everything south of the tracks, pushing debris north and leaving only foundations and mangled trees behind.

Estimates put the surge at somewhere around 25 – 35 feet high, but I think that may be a low estimate. Take a look at this shot taken from the second floor of the hotel where a lot of Wavelanders rode out Katrina:

Obviously, this looks bad. But you might expect this kind of scene during a hurricane at the beach, right? But consider the location of this shot. Thanks to the magic of Google Earth, here”s a perspective on location:

The “Site of Photo” placemark in the upper left corner is where this picture was taken. This is 1.7 miles from the beach. The water there ultimately came into the second-floor rooms, which means nearly two miles inland there was at least 10 feet of gulf surge. Everything between the hotel and the beach was underwater; and that was the best-case scenario. Most everything south of the tracks is simply gone.

From what I understand, this is the case all the way across the Mississippi coast.

Mississippi got totally shit-hammered by a major, major hurricane. The level of destruction is really severe, but hurricanes are familiar forces. To one degree or another, we know this is what happens when a hurricane hits.

But things are different in New Orleans. In Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, the catastrophe was very hurricane-like – a big surge just washed over those areas – but the levee breaks in New Orleans itself were as much an engineering / construction failure as a natural disaster. This becomes most clear in Lakeview, where the homes still stand, but the neighborhoods are destroyed.

Take a look at this shot I took last Friday on Louque Place in Lakeview. Except for the complete emptyness and the one home where the owner has started ripping out the mold-filled walls, things look fairly normal:

But in reality, this street got about five feet of water after the 17th Street levee break. And for now, it and the rest of Lakeview – and Mid-City and a lot of New Orleans north of the CBD – is dead.

When you look closer, you see the water lines:

The home of one of our friends” friends showed an amazing record of the flood. This house was searched three times after the flood and as the water receded. Note the three sets of search marks (the first is kind of hard to see on the second-story window):

Across New Orleans, there are thousands of homes that took on water and became a breeding ground for the most disgusting mold you can imagine. In some ways, coming home to nothing but a concrete slab in Waveland might be preferable to coming home to a mold-filled Lakeview house that had three feet of water inside.

If Katrina simply took your home away, you”re not faced with the endless series of questions and choices – is the home a total loss? do we tear it down or just gut it? do we rebuild or take the insurance settlement and try to sell the lot? would anybody want to buy the lot? how long would be it before we could get a contractor to work on our house? how much will lumber cost? if we rebuild, do we move back or try to sell it? if we move back, will our neighborhood be mostly abandoned houses, or will others come back? – that countless New Orleanians now face.

After we salvaged what we could – the grand sum of which fit inside our Santa Fe and the trunk of a Ford Focus – from our friends” house, they led us on the saddest tour of all time.

We drove through Lakeview, pausing at the homes of their friends; their children”s schools and other places that made this place their home. Nothing we saw was undamaged.

The tour was prompted by a specific task – to take pictures of the house of friends who are still holed up in Houston and hadn”t been able to learn much about their home”s fate. These folks have kids the ages of our friends” children, plus a new baby.

Somehow, I”m doing this family a favor by helping them see that the water line on their house is just below the roof line – about eight feet high.

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