The late-night bars and jazz clubs are open in the French Quarter, as are the cafes in the elegant Garden District. One year after the worst natural disaster in US history, New Orleans is gamely giving the impression that the good times are rolling again.
But a couple of kilometers to the north or east, the Cajun bravura falls away like a cheap carnival mask, the streets fall quiet and the Crescent City becomes a dead zone.
Hurricane Katrina left behind less than half of New Orleans. The storm killed 1,900 people and scattered the rest. Out of a pre-hurricane population of 450,000, so far just over 200,000 have returned to build their lives, according to independent estimates. The others have either found better options elsewhere or are waiting in trailers for government reconstruction assistance and a development plan that has so far failed to materialize.
“Does it look like they're doing something here?” asked John Washington, looking up and down his street in the Lower Ninth ward, a poor black district in New Orleans east.
As far as the eye could see on the eve of Katrina's anniversary, there were the rotting shells of his neighbors' houses. The summer air hung heavy with the sour taste of mould and decay.
“They got the money. I don't know why they're not turning it loose,” Washington said.
He was one of a handful of returnees trying to go it alone, gutting his family property before it succumbed to rot. He was stacking up salvaged pictures when a framed painting of Jesus fell, shattering the glass and further darkening his mood. He picked it up and flung it back in the house, shards and all.
In the Lower Nine, as the district is known, and the low-lying suburbs on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, streets of crumpled houses and desolate shops have sat abandoned since the flood walls broke when Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Mississippi and Alabama were hit too but they did not lose an entire city and have bounced back quicker.
In some areas of New Orleans the only signs of life are the occasional Humvee full of national guardsmen — summoned in June to help control gang violence — and fluttering placards promising “We tear down houses” or “Houses gutted [US]$1,600 or less.”
The Lower Nine has been the worst hit. Other districts were further below sea level, but none were poorer.
Old wooden “shotgun” houses — long buildings one story high and one room wide — were thrown off the cinder blocks they had been jacked up on (as a futile precaution against flooding), and crushed by the floodwaters that burst through the broken levees on the nearby industrial canal. “Cars were floating by. Houses were floating down the street,” said Washington, who sat out the storm in a room above his stepmother's church, the Queen Esther Spiritual Divine temple, before swimming to safety when the waters began to recede. “I heard people screaming, howling for help.”
Many, perhaps most, of the city's dead came from the Lower Nine. They were the least likely to hear the warnings and many did not have cars to escape in. The bodies were washed away with the floodwaters or left to rot in attics. Their names are recorded in black felt tip on white flags that cover a lawn in the Metairie cemetery a few kilometers away. Nearly half the flags are blank, representing bodies that have yet to be claimed or identified.