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Jewish World Review
Oct. 27, 2006
/ 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5767
A little sewage, a lot of hope
NEW ORLEANS A lot of voters in these parts are frustrated in this election season, big time. They can't find any of the incumbents they most want to see on the November 7 ballot.
"I wish I could get George W. Bush, Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin on the same ballot," says George LeBlanc, as he pauses at stripping moldy Sheetrock from the walls in a house on Canal Boulevard. "I'm a nonpartisan hater. I'd like to vote all three of them out and put them on a cleanup detail."
A year later, a lot has changed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the 500-year storm that leveled everything along a 50-mile stretch of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and broke through levees and seawalls to drown whole neighborhoods of New Orleans. The stench, a noxious brew of saltwater, corpses, dead animals, crude oil, garbage, trash, mold and other things best not to think about, has largely dissolved in the bracing air of brisk blue October days and semi-balmy nights. Many of the streets are clear now of ruined automobiles, enormous mounds of discarded refrigerators, stoves, television sets and assorted other traces of what was once serene domestic life.
Life as it used to be has returned in other ways. The hookers and petty thieves, who gave the city a brief reprieve when they departed for easier pickings elsewhere after the storm, are back, working the streets of the French Quarter and the adjoining Faubourg Marigny, crowded now with hundreds of contractors, tradesmen and migrant workers who have poured into the city for the reconstruction. Dozens of women from Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Detroit and Las Vegas have been arrested in a crackdown "to make the city attractive to conventions." There seems to be some confusion among the cops and the politicians about what traditionally makes "the good times roll" in New Orleans, but everyone appreciated the scarcity of street crime in the months when the street criminals took their talents to Texas and surrounding states. But now they're back as well, and certain precincts of the Big Easy are as mean, hard and difficult as ever.
The good humor peculiar to New Orleans is back, too. Orleanians are eager to tell visitors of the quirks and eccentricities of Katrina. One survivor on Walker Street, just off the lethal 17th Street Canal, tells how a carton of orange juice floated out of her refrigerator, up to the second floor and came to rest, waiting for her when she went into her house after 15 feet of floodwater receded, outside the door of the bedroom of her late husband, "just as I had taken it to him every morning." Another survivor returned to reclaim her week-old Mercury Marquis, which had been submerged for a month in the salty stew, and found a pew from a synagogue two blocks away, resting neatly atop the car. "I think it was telling me to get back to church, so I have."
Everyone has a FEMA story, all bad. So are the stories about the 10,000 infamous FEMA trailers marooned for weeks at an airport in Hope, Ark., waiting for a bureaucrat in Washington to clear them for delivery. Some have arrived now, and with them complaints that they leak, creak and fall apart. "I no longer believe in a place called Hope," says a young woman who has lived in one of them for four months. "If it rains during the night, I wake up on a soggy bed." Another homeowner salvaged only a coffee table from his house, but has furnished his Hope trailer with furniture that floated into his back yard.
The absence of hurricanes in the '06 season now winding down is widely taken as a happy providence, and Katrina has made environmentalists of many Orleanians. There's enthusiasm for rebuilding the wetlands between New Orleans and the Gulf which once provided a barrier where hurricanes lost a lot of their punch before reaching the city. One interesting idea is to pump millions of gallons of treated sewage from New Orleans and adjoining St. Bernard Parish into the eroded coastal marshes, which would transform scrub marsh and open water to the thick growth of cypress.
"It's not raw sewage," John Day, an ecologist at Louisiana State University, tells the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "It's treated, it's disinfected, and it's checked for toxins." All to the good, no doubt, but New Orleans is still toxic to politicians of both parties. And it's not the sewage.
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