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Post-Katrina NOLA Tour, New Orleans, LA,  May 11-15, 2006

When our friend and housemate Jennifer Brunet was forced to leave Seattle and return to New Orleans in January to finish her masters thesis in architecture at Tulane (that's TOO-lane) University, Lindsay and I promised her we would come down in the spring for her graduation. That's just what happened for five days in May, our first trip back to the Big Easy since Katrina.

Recent images of the rebirth of the city of New Orleans, showing the usual Mardi Gras celebrations in the French Quarter and glossing over the grittier aspects of urban reconstruction, had filled the airwaves in the past few months, but we wanted to see for ourselves what was going on outside the Quarter.

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There is no such thing as skiing here. Many people here have never seen snow,  there are no hills, only bayou . . . water, grass, gators, birds . . . when I describe backcountry skiing to someone, they shake their head in disbelief. The swamp starts just a few miles from the center of New Orleans.

Driving into the city gave us a preview - we tried to call our regular cab driver, Cliff, but he didn't answer his cell phone. Hard to blame him for leaving town if there weren't any tourists for 6 months, I guess - whole neighborhoods were without power, heaps of rotting car carcasses were piled under the freeway, and half of the Superdome roof was peeled back like a big black tomato. A sign on the side of the dome announced that the Saints were returning in September.

We found our hotel on the edge of the Quarter on Chartres Street (that's Char-ter), right next to the Don Juan (Girls! Girls!) strip club. A little sleazy on the outside, perhaps, but the room was actually quite charming, located a few steps from the pool and complete with original brick walls, a full bar counter with blender, and six ashtrays. We were ready to party.

The French Quarter was unusually clean; a foot of water and a thorough scrubbing by FEMA had disposed of the decades (maybe longer) old layer of filth, grease and bodily fluids that had made our stomachs turn only a year and a half ago. Lindsay took advantage of the "new look" sidewalks to wear sandals on the way to NOLA, Emeril's newest restaurant in New Orleans. Even NOLA, one of the city's hippest and liveliest eateries, seemed subdued - only a couple of the ebullient service staff we had been impressed with in 2004 were still in evidence, they no longer leapt up and offered you their arm when you stood to go to the restroom, and even the flavors didn't seem to jump off the plate the way they once did.

Friday morning we hit the streets early and headed straight to Mother's (above row, far left) for a dose of eggs, grits, biscuits with jam, and their special BBQ ham. Two people with good appetites could safely split one of these breakfasts, but consumption is the rule in New Orleans, and hey, they need the business, right? The next morning, we had the classic "light" New Orleans breakfast, strong black coffee and plates of beignets (deep fried dough smothered with powdered sugar) at Café du Monde.

The bus ride to the afternoon festivities at Tulane was a trip. We had been invited to the "Wave Goodbye" party for all the graduating students, both undergrad and graduate, and decided to take the St. Charles Streetcar to the event. Since the streetcars are virtually all out of commission at the moment, buses supplied by FEMA had been procured from other cities, the names on the sides quickly painted over, and pressed into service in New Orleans. Our particular bus was in a dubious state of repair, and standing room only - when the bus stopped dead in the middle of busy St. Charles, derisive hoots went up from the passengers ". . . alright, another gift from FEMA!" Needless to say, you'd be hard pressed to find a George W. Bush supporter in this town.

The Wave Goodbye party was something behold - thousands of graduating students and their kin wandered over most of the inner campus, Charmaine Neville and her band cranked out the tunes, and Cajun specialties like crawfish pie, gumbo, red beans and rice were in ample supply, along with standards like hamburgers, Coke, and strawberry shortcake.

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On the way back, Jason's sister Susan drove us back to the hotel along South Claiborne Avenue, through the heart of one of the city's lower income neighborhoods and one that had seen heavy flooding. As we cruised Claiborne and Martin Luther King Boulevard, the deserted storefronts and broken windows stood in stark contrast to the polished and stately splendor of the Garden District or even the raunchy earthiness of the French Quarter. Even the once bustling Popeye's Fried Chicken outlet, formerly the busiest one in the city, and the block-long Winn-Dixie were shuttered and still.

The next day, when Susan picked us up to attend the commencement proper, we drove up through Lakeview and the Lake Ponchartrain marina rather than going directly to Tulane, and it was a real eye-opener. In Lakeview, a nice, middle class neighborhood full of solid brick homes, blocks upon blocks of residences remained empty, with no sign of rebuilding or human presence. Yellow marks on the walls of the light-colored buildings were a reminder of the floodwaters' high point, most reaching up at least 5 or 6 feet from street level.

We were told by several locals that even the homeowners who had received insurance settlements were hesitant to rebuild, fearful that the government would condemn whole neighborhoods and bulldoze them after they had started to repair their houses. A headline in the Times Picayune blared "Gates Not Ready by June 1st" - a reference to the levy gates meant to keep water out of the city, not our own Bill Gates.  Sweet. Hurricane season starts in less than a month!

The marina was even worse. Every structure bordering the lake had been bludgeoned by either the winds or the water, boats had been tossed blocks away from their moorings, and several well-known restaurants had been wiped off the face of the earth.

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Jennifer's graduation was held in a small auditorium for just the graduate students in architecture and urban renewal, a group of about 50. It was relatively short and entertaining as commencements go - Jennifer received a commendation for her thesis, everyone seemed to know most everyone else, and the dean and professors made inside jokes about their favorite students. Jason and Jennifer took us and the family to the ACME Oyster House in Metairie afterward, where we loaded up on catfish, oysters, and hush puppies, all washed down with locally brewed Ibeda Amber.

Sunday we walked around the Quarter before breakfast and found a quiet hotel that offered a breakfast buffet complete with FRESH FRUIT, plain yogurt, granola and no deep fried food. A reprieve, just when I was beginning to feel my cholesterol starting to spike irretrievably!

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The plan for the afternoon? More eating, of course. Jennifer picked us up and we headed over the bridge to the West Bank (west of what is a good question, it's actually south of the Lake, south-southeast of the French Quarter) to Susan's house in Gretna. The agenda: Crawfish boil.

If you haven't attended one, a crawfish boil is the Louisiana equivalent of a salmon bake. Huge quantities of small crustaceans are dumped in a pot of boiling water, spices and hot sauce. Seven or eight minutes at a full boil, then turn off the flame and let them simmer for 15 minutes . . . dump them on monster fourteen inch plastic platters, add corn on the cob, boiled potatoes, a bowl of gumbo or two and plenty of beer, and you got a party. Don't even think about trying to be neat - I thought ahead and wore a red shirt - you snap the tails off, suck the meat out while squishing the shell, then dip your finger into the head to scoop out the delicious yellow fatty stuff inside. Jason, the sushi lover, commented that it tasted like uni, and he was right. I looked like kind of a wimp because I only ate about 15 of the critters, but after the side dishes, cake and watermelon, it turned out to be plenty.

We got up early to leave on Monday, and eased our return to reality by stopping off at Starbucks in the Sheraton before grabbing a cab to the airport. Double americano with lots of room . . .

The Big Easy. There's nothing like it in this country, probably not in this world. They have a long way to go, and regardless of what you see on TV or hear from the president, not that much is being done. As our Haitian cabbie Charles Luckman mumbled almost to himself as we floated down I-10, "there's lots of people here still going through Hell . . . "

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