Thursday, December 29, 2005


After four and a half weeks in New Orleans, I think I've normalized life in a disaster zone. Your expectations change and adjust and then what seemed bizarre a month ago is just the way things are now.

I guess I'm not surprised. I live on the U.S./Mexico border and have worked in the Mexican state of Baja California as a journalist. I long ago learned to take off one pair of glasses and put on another pair when crossing from San Diego to Tijuana -- to fully let go of one set of expectations and assumptions and embrace another. By comparing Tijuana only to itself and to Mexico, I eventually came to experience the city as a local, and allowed it to unfold before me and show me its many unique charms.

So, after more than a month in New Orleans, my brain thinks it's normal for MPs in Humvees to drive past the house, normal to walk out on the front porch and snag free food from a passing Red Cross truck, normal to have Meals Ready-to-Eat on the kitchen counter, normal for the power to go out when it rains, normal to be overjoyed and thankful when a FedEx package arrives as promised, normal for utility companies to claim they have no record of your previous inquiry or the inquiry before that, and normal for 80% of the city to be destroyed, dark and empty of people. After you drive through the Dead Zone enough times, your brain just expects it to be that way and you almost fail to notice.

Normal to see signs saying, "WE'RE BACK!!!" or "WE'RE OPEN!!!" Normal to drive to the suburbs to buy anything. Normal for everything to close at 6 p.m. because there aren't enough employees. Normal for curbs and sidewalks to be stacked high with really interesting garbage -- like computers, sofas, refridgerators, beds, entire trees.

I'll likely be going back and forth between California and New Orleans for a while. I'll just need to do what I do when I cross into Tijuana -- flip the switch from group of assumptions #1 to group of assumptions #2.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward

We finally worked up the courage to venture into New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward, a huge area of destruction and devastation caused by tidal-wave-like waters from a broken levee. All you had to do was point the camera in any direction and click the shutter. There was no need to frame the shot or seek out particularly dramatic angles. The whole area was obliterated. We didn't stay long because our sinuses shut down completely.

It's been more than 100 days since the hurricane and the cataclysmic flooding, and this city is still a major -- and majorly dysfunctional -- disaster area. It seems like some government entity or other should somehow be doing more.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Meanwhile, in the French Quarter

Even as 80 percent of New Orleans remains unpopulated, wiped out by the flooding, life in the French Quarter sometimes feels completely normal. As Times-Picayune writer Jim Amoss put it, "New Orleans has become two cities -- an enclave of survivors clustered along the Mississippi River's crescent and a vast and sprawling shadow city where the water stood, devoid of power and people."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Beads and bars

Saturday night we took a walk down Bourbon Street, the heart of the tourist sector of the French Quarter -- which is in the 20-ish percent of the city that wasn't wiped out by the floods. Apart from the Humvees and MPs and all the New York State Police officers, it seemed sorta normal. There were a lot of people out and about. We figured they were not so much tourists as contractors working here for the time being. Many businesses were open, and women were standing on balconies throwing beads to drunk males.

We also stopped into four gay bars -- which is our quota for about two years. There were 40 or so people in Rawhide 2010, 60 or so in Good Friends Bar and Cafe Lafitte In Exile, and 75 or so in The Phoenix. Some people we spoke to during our crawl figure that gay men -- who often don't have kids -- have been some of the first to return to New Orleans en masse. (The schools haven't reopened yet.)

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Dead Zone

Today we journeyed into New Orleans' huge Dead Zone -- the 70-80 percent of the city that was wiped out by flooding. I hadn't thought much about what most of the city would look like. "Apocalyptic" is the right word. The media has not done a good job of showing us that most of New Orleans remains wiped out three months after the hurricane and the massive flooding.