On Aug. 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, I wrote a story titled “Mourning My New Orleans.” Until a few minutes ago, I hadn’t looked at it since. It’s not fun to remember how I was feeling back then, and my writing that day was a lot more emotionally open than my usual stuff—I dreaded re-reading it for the same reason you’d dread looking back at a love letter written in the throes of a relationship that later went horribly wrong. As I finally read the story again, one passage stuck out: “I’m grateful that my parents and grandparents and aunt and uncles and cousins got out in time, but I’m worried about what they’ll go back to once the water recedes and the fallen oaks get cleared.” What I felt right after the levees broke is what I’m still feeling right now.
In a lot of ways, the New Orleans I mourned that day is still around. On Wednesday, the first day of my fifth visit since the storm, I ate a fantastic fried oyster po’ boy. Later that night, I walked past Molly’s at the Market in the French Quarter, one of the spots my friend Jordan made sure to say goodbye to when he drove out of town two days before the storm. Molly’s is still open and serving drinks, looking exactly the same. And the Superdome isn’t a rotten potato anymore. The roof’s been patched, and there’s a giant banner on the side shilling for the Saints’ home opener against the Falcons on Monday Night Football.
Banners have become the essential post-Katrina decorative flourish. Uptown, where my parents live, is bedecked with signs announcing, essentially, “We’re here, we’re open, get used to it.” When I came to the city a week after the storm hit, one of the first spots I drove past was the Rite Aid on Carrollton and Oak, where looters had pried open the metal door with a small forklift. The forklift and the crumpled door sat in the same place for months, but now a banner flaps over the entryway proclaiming it safe to buy toiletries. Mission Accomplished.
Maybe it’s because it’s a gloomy, oppressively humid day, but these signs proclaiming progress don’t feel like signs of progress. It’s absurd that, a year after Katrina, it’s a point of pride if a business has just now reopened. As I drive toward Lake Pontchartrain, the streets look like they were battered by a hurricane two weeks ago. It’s just finished storming, and the water is pooling around the Sheetrock and tree branches that are still piled up on the side of the road. The banners change. Angelo Brocato, the Italian dessert shop that’s been around for 100 years, vows that it will open again soon. The flooded-out Thrift City makes no such promise—the giant sign that stands sentry over the store is missing most of its 10 block letters. A few miles away, around where I went to high school, there are no banners at all.
A friend from school asks me to take photos of his parents’ now-abandoned house. On the way over, I see a blue van that belongs to a company called Stuart Services. It’s decorated with the image of a musclebound, lightning-bolt-wielding dude standing in front of a bunch of downtown landmarks: St. Louis Cathedral, the Superdome. Lightning Guy, it says, is “committed to rebuild New Orleans.” We’re in Lakeview, though, and this neighborhood is still waiting for its Superman. A year ago, I rode through here on a rescue boat. Today, I’m standing in the middle of a wide residential street looking for photo ops. After five minutes, I haven’t seen any people and no cars have driven by. All there is here are a couple of FEMA trailers up on blocks. There were more signs of life back when the neighborhood was a ship channel.
In that story a few days after the storm, I wrote that I felt guilty about the canonical New Orleans things—eating at Galatoire’s, visiting the Cabildo—that I’d never done and might never get a chance to do. It turns out that I’ve still got a chance to mark those things off my list. I also worried that my parents and grandparents and extended family wouldn’t go back to the city. In fact, they all have. What I hadn’t considered is that coming back isn’t the finish line.
One of my cousins has decided to move to Colorado, and another is moving to Georgia. With no rebuilding plan in place, no strategy for overhauling the levee system, and no faith that the local or national government will change any of that any time soon, I’m afraid that this is the beginning of my family’s slow trickle out of the city. A lot’s changed in the last year, but I’m still preoccupied by the same question: “Our family has lived here for a century. Where will we go now?”