Recently I visited New Orleans for the first time. I couch-surfed with Chuck, whom I had met a few weeks prior during his visit to Wisconsin. Chuck lives in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The levee that runs near his house broke in the hurricane, flooding the entire neighborhood and killing hundreds. To add insult to injury, a 200-foot barge busted through the hole in the levee and flattened several houses.
Eight and a half years after “the storm,” as Katrina is colloquially referred, the Lower Ninth still bears its scars of destruction. Every house that survived the storm has since been abandoned, torn down or gutted and remodeled. Many lots remain empty. The rebuilt levee reminds residents and visitors alike of what happened, and what might happen again.
The neighborhood does appear to be coming back, albeit slowly. Make It Right, founded by Brad Pitt, has been building new, energy-efficient homes for people who lived in the Lower Ninth before the storm. Young people from around the country have chosen to move to the neighborhood, attracted by low property values and the opportunity to rebuild the community. It's one of those places that will look completely different in ten years, hopefully for the better.
My visit was an interesting one from the moment I arrived. First, Chuck took me to the “red house,” where there is a tree house held together by ropes and chains. An old antenna serves as an initial ladder and eventually leads to a gondola hanging like a bird cage. The tree house is constantly getting new additions, one of the latest of which is a series of cables suspended high above the ground, connecting it to a second tree. The structure feels a bit like the City Museum in St. Louis, but on a smaller scale and far more dangerous. If this tree house were built in just about any other American city, it would be shut down immediately. But in New Orleans, it's all part of the fun.
Chuck also took me for a tour of the French Quarter on his pedicab (bicycle taxi). He's a local hero, having pulled a guy out of a burning car on New Year's Eve. He's also quite the story teller, and his job is constantly giving him new material. This city, with its grittiness and laissez-faire attitude, seems perfect for him.
I didn't spend much time in New Orleans' touristy areas such as Bourbon Street, and I only went to one museum. But New Orleans was a nonstop ride from the moment Chuck picked me up at the airport until I almost missed my bus out of town because of a bridge under construction and a train crawling through the heart of the city. I came away with only a tiny understanding of New Orleans, but I was happy to have gotten a glimpse at such a fascinating place.