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Archive for Sunday, August 27, 2006

Sadness sometimes overwhelms survivors in New Orleans

August 27, 2006

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Editor's note: This is the first of a four-part series written by Leonard Pitts Jr. in connection with his visit to New Orleans, one year after Hurricane Katrina.

One year later, the airport is open again. One year later, it's hard to find parking at a mall in Metairie. One year later, standing in certain parts of town, you might convince yourself that what happened one year ago didn't.

But move a few blocks over. One year later, there are brown lines on the houses in the middle-class Lakeview neighborhood.

Watermarks.

Some people have scrubbed them off. "I don't mind the watermarks," Anne Freedman tells me. I nod. Brown badges of courage. Or just endurance.

Freedman, a 60-year-old social worker, is ferrying me about this city in fulfillment of a request she made by e-mail: "I would like to ask you to come and visit New Orleans. : A small group of people from Cleveland who came to help a family whose father committed suicide a few weeks ago sat in my living room last night and said their lives would never be the same after seeing what they have seen in the last few days. They said that people back home are tired of the story and don't understand why New Orleans isn't 'fixed' yet. : They cried in my living room over decaf and pie and promised to bear witness for my city. Will you come?"

So here I am and here we are, bearing witness. I mention that I was here right after Katrina, visited Waveland and Biloxi where the destruction beggared words. Couldn't see much of New Orleans because I didn't have a boat.

"They got hit by Katrina," says Freedman. "We got hit by the Army Corps of Engineers."

We drive by a construction site where the Corps has been working to repair one of the levees that failed and flooded the city. The feds have promised to restore it to its pre-Katrina strength. This, Freedman says, is hardly reassuring.

Such bitterness seems an apt response to a drive down the ghost streets of Lakeview. Block after block, mile after mile of empty. Of destroyed. Of gone. "These houses were filled with people," she says. "They worked, they played soccer, they went to church : where did they go? These were loved houses."

It begins to rain. Heavy, biblical rain. The city, says Freedman, lacks the infrastructure to manage its own upkeep. So people do it themselves. She knows a man who takes his weed trimmer to the park every Saturday. Such things, she says, make her proud to be of this town. We pass a man mowing a lawn in the rain.

The storied Lower Ninth Ward is as filled with empty as Lakeview. But the houses are smaller, the damage more complete.

Here, a home shoved off its foundation by water, there a roof sagging under the weight of a tree, here aluminum shutters hanging like tattered rags, there a set of stairs climbing to nowhere. One year later, the vegetation is wild and nature is overtaking the asphalt, the detritus of interrupted lives litters the streets, traffic lights are dark.

I ask Freedman what it is that outsiders say about New Orleans that galls her most. Freedman, who worked as a reporter in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the '70s, says, "Having been part of the media, I have quite a fondness for the media : of old. But the new media, the Fox News media, has described New Orleans as criminal, illiterate, unwilling to work, not worth saving."

It's a lie that makes her angry. People here, she says, sometimes feel less like an American city than an American colony. "We're different, no doubt about it. But the world already has Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Chicago. The world needs New Orleans."

What's it like living here now, I ask? She says, "Oy." Then she describes how some days you wake up energized by the challenge, inspired by your fellow citizens, ready to do it, ready to bring the city back singlehanded(ly.)

And then some days, days like today, the rain washes down on a maimed city, you travel through broken places you love and you see what has happened to them, what didn't have to happen.

": and it's just so damn sad."

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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