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Rebuilding New Orleans

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Photo: Julian Broad

Some things are exactly how you remember them. The entangled aromas of sweet jasmine and olive trees, cigars and creosote, chicory and burnt sugar and river mud. The air so soft you’re inclined to reach for a spoon. The Garden District mansions, with their porch fans and cut-glass fleurs-de-lis. The candy floss cottages and shotgun houses of the Marigny, an improvisation in clapboard and pastel. And all over, a cityscape overcome by vegetation: drooping banana trees, 20-foot stands of bamboo, live-oak roots bursting through the sidewalks.

The French Quarter remains as Walker Percy described it half a century ago: "The ironwork on the balconies sags like rotten lace…. Through deep sweating carriageways one catches glimpses of courtyards gone to jungle." And after a massive sanitation overhaul, the Quarter is noticeably cleaner nowadays. (This, in what was known as the City That Never Sweeps.) Bourbon Street, like it or loathe it, revels again in skanky, Skynyrd-y skrawnk. Chefs at Acme continue to defy the laws of physics and good sense by drizzling a half-cup of butter into six oyster shells.

You’ll find the same jambalaya at Mother’s, the same cold-brewed iced coffee at Royal Blend, the same Pimm’s Cups at Napoleon House. Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers still blow the roof off Vaughn’s every Thursday, while over at Tipitina’s, Little Freddie King, now 67, still does a convincing chicken dance. Dixie beer—a New Orleans icon since 1907—has finally resurfaced, although it’s now made in Wisconsin. (The company’s red-brick brewery on Tulane Avenue was inundated with floodwater.) The Saints are back in full swing at the Superdome—and if the sight of that building still inspires a certain disquiet, perhaps that will fade with more time.

New Orleans, as you know it, is still very much alive: in the flicker of a gas lamp, the whiff of a crawfish boil, the caterwaul of a trombone. Confine yourself to the tourist playground, from the Quarter to the zoo, and you might never be reminded that something happened here. But ride out to New Orleans East, to Gentilly, to the Lower Ninth Ward, the worst-flooded parts of town, and you find the wreckage, still shocking to behold. In a town with unusually low density to begin with, whole neighborhoods now have only a few residents per block. Walk through Lakeview near the 17th Street Canal—where a levee breach unleashed a 10-foot wall of water from Lake Pont­chartrain—and you’ll pass six boarded-up houses before seeing a single occupied one. Flying into New Orleans, you look down on a curiously colorful cityscape, where hundreds of damaged roofs, still awaiting repair, are covered with bright blue plastic tarps. Only then do you begin to comprehend the scale of the devastation: 230,000 homes destroyed, 1,580 lives lost.

Even in mostly recovered neighborhoods, you’ll notice the persistence of "Katrina tattoos," the X marks spray painted on façades by rescue workers after the storm, noting when the property was searched, by whom, and whether any survivors—or bodies—were found. Most have been painted over, but some are intact, left deliberately as symbols of perseverance. One Marigny resident has even had his cast in iron and mounted by his front door.

Two years on, Katrina still defines the landscape—physically, politically, socially, economically. It’s in the paper every day, a dozen mentions at least. "Katrina lit" fills the bookshops. Time is now measured from that terrible week in 2005: "Before the storm," "During the storm," "Since the storm…." Quotidian exchanges can evolve into harrowing tales of loss or survival; the collective urge to move on from Katrina is outstripped by the need to talk about it. "Before the storm, everyone in New Orleans spoke in fictions," one resident told me. "Now every conversation is a focus group."

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