While Steve holds down the business fort in San Diego, my daughter and I are on the final day of our death march in New Orleans. We call it the death march, because if we had simply spent the week walking in a straight line, we would be back in San Diego by now.
I have been accused of writing a real estate blog here (on occasion, anyway), but today I am thinking about real estate in a different way. Having spent four days in this great city, my first trip, I am beginning to see the plight of New Orleans like that of a grieving widow. The initial tragedy brings much attention, with the attendant throng of supportive visitors bearing food, prayers and well-wishes. As time passes, though, the crowds return home to their own lives and routines, and the widow is left alone to pick up the pieces, with her personal pain all but forgotten by those who attended the initial memorial services.
The tourist destinations are intact; if one had missed the Katrina memo, nothing would seem out of place with the exception (I am told) that Bourbon Street was a lot more crowded two years ago. I have no basis for comparison. What is not okay are the neighborhoods, the places where the people running the hotels and the tour buses and the frozen Daiquiri machines lived, where the musicians playing the jazz clubs returned home each early morning. It has been nearly two years, and with so much to accomplish, normalcy is a very distant point on the horizon.
How long have the residents been displaced? This long:
This is the sign on a gas station which, over two years later, remains closed in St. Bernard Parish. Or in the 9th Ward. I’m really not sure, because the devastation looks about the same from one neighborhood to the next. Their former hospital is now a MASH unit. The sewer systems are still being pumped manually, and the buildings which formerly housed the services, like the homes, remain abandoned testaments to the devastation. The water marks are still visible on the homes, some just one or two feet above the ground, others above the doors on the first and even the second stories. How high the water rose, and sat, we learned really doesn’t matter. The water sat at these levels for three to five weeks, and a mere six-inch prolonged salt water bath in this climate is enough to render an entire structure uninhabitable. It puts our San Diego mold inspections in perspective.
Here is a home near one of the levee breaches, and you can see the refrigerator still on the roof. By the way, the owners didn’t put it there.
In a “Let them eat cake” moment, one man on our tour asked the driver, whose home is tagged for demolition tomorrow, “Why would you want to come back?” Because it is home. Floods wreak havoc on bricks and mortar, but it takes much more than standing brackish water to break the human spirit.
We learned about the oil spills. This same tour guide opened her safe deposit box to find it full of the black gold and everything inside unsalvageable. Today I am embarrassed that I didn’t grasp the full depth of the loss. You really can’t unless you live it.
As my daughter and I sat reflecting on what we had seen last night, on all of the people we had met who remained without homes but were still finding a way to carry on, the magnitude began to sink in. “I bet this put the real estate community out of business,” she said. And a lot of other people, sadly. Many of the hotels have skeleton crews — a combination of fewer tourists and fewer residents to man the front desks. Too many victims of the “x’s” on the front stoops.
The top of the “x” is the date of reentry, and reentry of the homes we saw generally occurred a month or more after Katrina. Katrina hit New Orleans on August 26, 2005, and the date on this home reads September 30th. The left side of the “x” refers to the National Guard group responsible for this particular neighborhood, with the number on the right referring to how many people were found when they finally came through.
Housing bubbles, a mortgage crisis, contingency periods, and even gas prices start to seem trivial after a week in the Big Easy. They aren’t of course, but all things are relative. Eighty-percent of this city was under water, and it was the eighty-percent where the people lived. The one theme repeated this week was the sincere gratitude expressed by the residents and business owners in New Orleans for our simply being here. They reminded us that the return of tourism is critical to the recovery effort.
Drew Carey may have sent us here on our first trip, but we will be back. We found a wonderful, vibrant city with a deep and rich culture. And, I really do like gumbo!