Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Orleans

There aren’t many places in the US where I could drive in four states on the same day although perhaps some of you long distance drivers might find many places. But the day before yesterday, I started in Florida, drove through Alabama and Mississippi and into Louisiana. I camped just east of New Orleans in a campground that is still rebuilding its facilities after Katrina.

Yesterday I drove into New Orleans which is much smaller and easier to get around in than I had imagined. In fact, I heard on the news this morning that the population statistics had just been upped to 288,000 by the federal government. Prior to Katrina about 400,000 people lived here.

I took a 2.5 hour, narrated tour of the city that included some of the neighbourhoods that had been ravaged by Katrina. I have found that I can learn much on these tours. Our driver was one of the people who evacuated from the city and he shared his personal stories of what’s involved when one has to leave suddenly not knowing when they could return. His to do list included getting refills on prescriptions, gassing up the car, packing clothing and valuables, making a motel reservation in another state, making sure he had enough cash. All this was done with long lineups as the rest of the city was also doing the same things. His advice included using national drug store chains and banks as they can be accessed from another state. His house was flooded when he returned and he also told us about the trials of getting it rebuilt. It was fascinating to hear this first person account.

Our tour included the lower ninth ward, the hardest hit area. Along with all the vacant lots where there had been houses, there were many devastated but still standing homes. And there some new ones built by musicians such as Harry Connick, jr and by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation.

Our guide told us that many of the still standing but uninhabitable homes have been left as they are because the people couldn’t prove they owned them and therefore weren’t eligible for the government rebuilding funds. Louisiana still operates under the Napoleonic Code of France not British Common Law like most other states. This means, among other things, that when someone dies their “estate” must be probated and inheritance taxes paid. Of course there is a cost to this so most people in poorer neighbourhoods like the ninth ward just don’t file probate. When the parents die, one of the children just moves into the house and lives there. After a couple of generations the paper trail on the home is lost. So many of the people in the ninth ward couldn’t prove ownership and didn’t qualify for government help in rebuilding. It’s a pretty sad situation.

Perhaps the most interesting of the affected neighbourhoods was a 1960s-built neighbourhood of nice brick homes. Except for the brick and larger yards, it could have been my neighbourhood of Lakeview. Here, too, many homes were still vacant but looked like they could be fixed. In this case, though, we were told that most of these people were original owners who had move into their homes when they were new, had raised their families and paid for the homes which cost around $35,000 in the 1960s. These people where now approaching retirement age and their homes were worth about $240,000 before Katrina hit. So their government rebuilding payout was about $240,000. Many people decided just to take the money, leave the house and retire rather than rebuild. Many of these houses will eventually wind up in the city’s hands after they are sold for taxes.

While the Katrina part of the tour touched all of us, the bulk of the tour showcased the rest and best of New Orleans: the garden district, the music district, the French Quarter, the sea front. When the tour was over, I wandered around the French Quarter, poked in some of the shops, had a bite to eat, stopped in an old Cathedral for a quiet prayer. Then I headed back to the campground where I had spent the previous night.

I caught up on some email and bill paying (what did we do before the internet?). My friend Annette called from Calgary to say that she was flying into Albuquerque, New Mexico to meet me on January 28. She’ll travel with me for ten days. How fun!

I will be leaving here shortly and will spend tonight somewhere in Texas.

1 comment:

Angus Stuart said...

Hi Elizabeth

Good to hear from you! Thank you for your reflection on journey vs. trip - I've come across a lot of that, and an implicit or, in some cases, explicit demand for a justification - though of course there's no "just" about it when it comes to heading out in a van - as I am sure you have discovered... I enjoyed your piece on New Orleans and am looking forward to being there myself in a couple of weeks, less in fact. Go well. Angus