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There are lots of ways a tree can die, and around New Orleans, perhaps the most verdant of all American cities, you can find a spectacular array of arboreal casualties a year after Hurricane Katrina. Ancient oaks with wind-shorn limbs, the jagged wounds just now starting to heal over. Fragrant magnolias bent in the storm whose delicate white blossoms will never reawaken. Sturdy copses of pines lurching against one another, like drunk co-eds staggering down Bourbon Street at first light. But saddest of all are the trees that don’t know they’re already dead. They often stand ramrod straight, a patchwork of hopeful green and encroaching brown, the slow poison of the salt water they drowned in a year ago working its way up through their limbs.
See also: A Q&A with former head of FEMA James Lee Witt
I live in one of New Orleans’ green patches, the part of the city — the lucky fifth — close by the river that kept its head above water. As I write this, looking over a canopy of historic oaks toward the flickering skyline of downtown, the thick scent of night-blooming jasmine flowing through an open window, it is possible to pretend that the city is as it was. A little decrepit, sure, a faded grande dame, but one with ample charms remaining to beguile first-time visitors and jaded locals alike. But if I listen closely, I know the city is not well. Absent is the merry nocturnal clanging of the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar, and there is only dead air where formerly the forlorn sound of ship horns on the river used to punctuate the dark. Those were twin lullabies for all who grew up in this part of the city. But the streetcar lines are still down a year after the storm, and the port has yet to regain most of its former traffic. About eight blocks north from where I live, just on the other side of St. Charles Avenue, you start to enter the flood zone, the boundary marked by a black line stained onto buildings by the receding waters. The line stretches for miles through the city and is such an omnipresent artifact of the storm that it inspired local blues musician Spencer Bohren to memorialize it in a song, “The Long Black Line.” Everywhere you look Everywhere you go You read it like a book It’s the only way to know How high the water got August 29 That hurricane last summer Left a long black line Sometimes it’s to your ankles Sometimes to your knees Sometimes it’s to your chest or head Or up above the eaves Water laced with poison God knows, of every kind You don’t want to know What’s in the long black line. When you step out into the flood zone, the experience is not unlike stepping off the side of a movie set (or into one). The change is so rapid it tends to induce a kind of vertigo. Block after block remains empty — familiar life landmarks that somehow look decades abandoned after one year untended in the subtropics. Drugstores where you stole comics as a kid. Front porches where you made out on muggy summer nights. Houses of forgotten fourth-grade friends, smashed and bearing the fluorescent spray-paint tag of death upon them that is itself beginning to fade. Among these ruins, of course, some urban prospectors have returned. The lucky ones have their FEMA trailers parked on the curb in front of their battered homes. Others are roughing it inside the damaged structures, often without power. Incongruously, some homes in even the most damaged neighborhoods are fully restored.
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When I went to visit my grandparents’ old place in a modest neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain, it was like visiting a ghost town. Not even the birds sang, and surreal giant sunflowers grew in the remnants of small lawns that I remember always being so tidy they would have done the greenskeeper at Augusta National proud. Then, in one of the worst-hit blocks, I came upon a single pristine home that appeared as if the last coat of varnish had been applied an hour before my arrival. In the driveway, bordering a neighbor’s destroyed house, sat a shiny new Jaguar. This polyglot pattern is entirely in keeping with the plan adopted by the city for rebuilding, which is to say as yet there is no plan. Instead the mayor has invited each of 49 flooded neighborhoods to submit its own redevelopment plans, which will then be combined into a central master plan that will serve as a blueprint for the new New Orleans. Remarkably, the process is behind schedule. Meanwhile, billions in federal aid that Congress approved last December sit idle while the Bush administration, in one of its periodic bouts of federalism, declines to take a strong hand in directing the recovery process. If anyone held out hope that the president still might make good on the call to action he made during a moonlight speech from the city’s historic Jackson Square after the storm, that hope was put to rest during his swing through the region last week to mark the storm’s anniversary. In speeches, President George W. Bush pledged to “stand by” the city during its recovery, but, of course, standing by is just what the government has been doing for the past year. What is needed is for the feds to jump in and unstick an increasingly bogged-down recovery process. After all, Washington’s picking up most of the bill, so it should do more to set the agenda. But there was no sign of such a shift in Bush’s remarks last week. The blighted state of New Orleans (population less than half of pre-storm levels; two-thirds of its hospitals still shuttered; thousands of small businesses still closed) was thoroughly hashed over during last week’s anniversary blitz. But to me, the most notable change in the city is to the people in it. While New Orleans always had its problems, the populace somehow maintained a kind of natural buoyancy that came in handy in a city seemingly forever perched on the edge of some catastrophe. “Let the good times roll” was a tired marketing clich�, whatever language it was recited in, but it did capture some of the citizenry’s refusal to let the cares of this world weigh them down. Now their faces seems to sag under the weight. At one time, the appearance of a tropical storm like the inconsequential Ernesto last week was cause to flip to the sports page or, at worst, fish out the blender from the bottom cabinet. Last week it touched off a minor panic while still a thousand miles away. Even in the often moving commemorations of Katrina, there was a note of something as alien as pickled herring to the old New Orleans: self-pity. The enormity of the task ahead and a sense of what may not ever be done are sinking in now. Outside the empty political rhetoric, everyone knows New Orleans can’t be what it was; that much is clear a year after the storm. But with time, there is still hope that New Orleanians can be.


Douglas McCollam is a former senior editor at Legal Times who moved back to his hometown of New Orleans earlier this year.

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