Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Thanksgiving Day 1: Disaster Tourism

As soon as the Katrina mess settled down and everyone had time to think about it, my mother decided she wanted to have Thanksgiving at her house. Being on the North Shore, my folks weren't as effected as all the family members who had had to evacuate from New Orleans. There was the back corner of the house that had to be rebuilt and other work done, but the decision was made ... and I was glad. I've felt bad about not getting down to Louisiana in the wake of the storm — not that there is much I could have really done to help, but still the yen is there to help or, at least, to be there.

In planning the trip, Evelin and I looked over the options and decided to make the haul out to IAD for the direct flight instead of spending less time on the road and more time in the air/airports. We also decided to have Celeste make her first trip sans a seat of her own. It's about a 2- to 212-hour trip, and we thought Celeste could handle that.

Of course, the other part of it meant we needed to leave the house around 5:15 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. flight. Originally, I thought we could leave a little later, maybe closer to 6:00 a.m., but 1) I am generally paranoid about not leaving enough time to catch a plane; 2) the pre-trip press reports were making it sound like the airport parking lots were already filling up; and 3) when I tried to check in online the night before, I discovered that something was wrong and I needed to talk to a person at the airline counter.

We ended up making good time to the airport, parked in the Blue Lot, instead of the holiday overflow lot, and never really found out what the problem was. At first, it seemed that it was because I had Celeste linked to my ticket as an in-lap infant, then they said it was because my credit card had only my initials on it instead of my full first name, then they said I should always travel using my full first name (this despite having been chastised once before when work booked a ticket for me as "Carter Ross" when my frequent flyer card is assigned to "T. Carter Ross" — or as the airline computers always read it "Tcarter Ross" ...).

There were several other babes in arms on the flight and things generally went well. Celeste managed a short (40 minutes or so) nap and only got a little antsy towards the end of the flight. Since I was sitting in the middle seat as we came down, it was hard to figure out the approach we were making into New Orleans. From the air, the biggest evidence of Katrina was all the blue tarps on roofs, but the tree canopy seemed thinner ... not that so many trees were down (although they were), but that the ones that were there were quite bare.

My folks met us on the ground and we headed off to visit my grandmother. She's been back in New Orleans since early November, and was doing well despite things being far from normal — lots of traffic signals were out, houses obviously empty, Red Cross relief centers very visible, millions of signs offering tree removal, house cleaning, sheetrock hanging, car buying, etc. We had a good little visit, and Celeste was very obliging in showing off some of her skillz with sign language and animal sounds.

After the visit, we headed off on a quick tour of some of neighborhoods and up past Tulane through Fontainebleau and Mid City to Lakeview and West End, near where the 17th Street Canal breeched. Bits of the city looked like they were coming back to life with lots of signs of construction and work going on, but, as we got closer and closer to Lake Pontchartrain, the higher the waterlines on the houses got and the more abandoned places looked. There was still some traffic and work going on, but a lot less. In West End, we could see where the neutral ground was still being used to store storm debris, mostly fallen trees and branches, and where it was being ground up for disposal. Some of the mulch piles (not to mention debris piles) were at least two storeys high.

Heading back through the swamp, there were further signs of damage — some houses/houseboats that were knocked over, broken trees, generally thinner canopies — but the bigger shock was when we turned on to my parents' street. I'm not sure how many of the water oaks were gone, but more were missing than remained. Several tall stumps were still in place, having been drafted as emergency electrical/telephone poles, but others were just gone. I think it was the first time I'd ever really seen the front of our next-door neighbor's house.

During the whole trip, I kept finding myself looking up across the backyard or in other directions, wondering what looked different: I'd check with my dad or mom to make sure my memory wasn't faulty, but almost every time it was because one or more big trees and their canopies were no longer blocking the sky.

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