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New Orleans' ground zero - 10 years after Katrina
Posted on: Tuesday, January 19, 2016 Category: Cities
Preservation Hall, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, is a lowlit capsule of whirring ceiling fans and crumbling walls - cosily monochrome save for the Exit signs in red neon. At the front (there is no stage) Shannon Powell, 'the King of Treme', and the Preservation All Stars are serving jazz as hooch - neat blasts of Panama Rag and Mood Indigo that go straight to my head.

'Joy' is the single word I scrawl in my notebook - and it sums up the spirit of the city they call the Big Easy, where jazz was born and evenings in are unknown. Beyond the vibrating walls of this no-frills trad jazz venue on St Peter St it is business as it has always been in one of the most effervescent neighbourhoods in the world - Oysters Rockefeller are slipping down in Antoine's on St Louis St and pavement combos of astonishing variety and talent are turning tourists into marionettes on Royal. On this buzzing evening it's hard to believe that ten years ago a catastrophic weather event known as Hurricane Katrina blew through the city; that New Orleans, in the phrase of the Louisiana novelist, James Lee Burke, 'was a song that went under the waves'.

The music is soaring again in New Orleans. Tourist numbers are back to pre-2005 levels. But to understand what happened when the music stopped, and Katrina called the tune, I am taking a journey east. The following morning I cycle from the Quarter in the company of my guide for the day, Nick Fox, across a no-man's-land of railway tracks, as far as the city's defining feature, the Mississippi River, which slides gulfwards with apparent serenity ('Underneath it's like a thousand freight trains going by,' says Fox). We push our bikes up the grassy slope of the levee embanking the river and reach a frontier: the St Claude Ave Bridge.

'People hear horror stories about the Lower Ninth,' says Fox, referring to the neighbourhood we're about to enter. 'Then they come here and say, 'Wow, what a beautiful spot!'' The 100-year-old bascule bridge, with its massive cement block counterweight at the eastern end, crosses a waterway known as the Industrial Canal. On the west side, where we've come from, is the New Orleans that features on tourist maps; not just the French Quarter but Treme (pronounced Tra-may, made famous by the HBO TV series of the same name), Marigny, Downtown, the Garden District and all the other revelatory places that make this one of the great world cities; on the east is a neighbourhood that features on no maps I have come cross - the Lower Ninth Ward, a grid of streets scarcely two miles square that is regarded by people who have never been there as a place of deprivation and disorder ('Lower' does not refer to elevation but simply means 'downriver from the canal').

Between 4am and 5am on August 29, 2005 floodwater surged down the Industrial Canal and smashed through its flood walls, engulfing practically the entire neighbourhood and killing dozens (precise figures are not known). 'A lot of folks are looking at TV and saying, 'Is this America?'' wrote one newspaper columnist as images of makeshift lifeboats and rooftop rescues flashed across the world. Since then this predominantly African American community has had to put up with its perceived victimhood even as it has rebuilt from the soggy ground up. Bus companies even started taking tours down here, whisking tourists from the comfort zone of the French Quarter on what you might call disaster safaris. 'Drive past an actual levee that 'breached' and see the resulting devastation,' is the sales pitch for one tour that still runs.

'People would go down in these tinted-window buses, snapping photographs out the window like they were at the zoo,' says Nick Fox as we wheel our bikes across the old bridge then ride south along the levee on the other side. 'Obviously everyone in the neighbourhood found that very offensive...' So offensive that in 2010 a New Orleans tour guide and musician called Reecy Pontiff decided to set up her own operation, the Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tour, to the direct benefit of the community (10 per cent of the cost of each tour is donated to a local charity). 'She put it together to give people a different perspective because she felt that the neighbourhood had been terribly misrepresented in the national media,' says Fox, a 36-year-old writer who has been one of the guides on the bike tour since he moved into the Lower Ninth Ward himself in 2011.

The story that unfolds on Fox's pedal-powered history lesson is about neglect on the part of the outside world and the 'self-sufficiency' of the people, both before and after Katrina - folks taking care of themselves because no one else would. The area's first settled population, in the 19th century, were European immigrants and free blacks who were definitively self-sufficient, growing crops, raising livestock and fishing in the river and surrounding swamps.

People still fish and there's still a bucolic air to the area immediately below the river levee, made all the more incongruous by the view westward to the skyscrapers of New Orleans' Central Business District just four miles away. Fox invites me into his 'own little slice of heaven' and under a blue April sky sketched with mare's tail clouds we freewheel down the grassy levee to the wooden shotgun house he shares with a friend.

In the yard at the back there's a chicken coop, a fire pit and a stage where bands play. Inside hangs a detailed map of New Orleans on which Fox traces the progress of the storm surge on that fateful early morning - along a manmade shipping channel called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). The devastation wrought by Katrina across New Orleans was not entirely an Act of God - for decades before 2005 the wetlands buffering the city had been disastrously degraded by industrial incursions such as the MRGO. Katrina was just waiting to happen.

In this south-west corner of the Lower Ninth she keeps to the shadows these days. Continuing our tour we cycle past a house daubed with an orange X left by 'first responders' searching for victims in the aftermath of the hurricane (the '0' in the lower quadrant of the X indicates there were no dead bodies found in this house). Otherwise the impression is of orderly streets of rebuilt villas shaded with porches and palm trees - not to mention two century-old glass-and-gingerbread houses built in the style of a pilot house on a Mississippi steamboat.

Fox points out that prior to Katrina the Lower Ninth had a high proportion of owner-occupiers (many of them, tragically, under-insured when Katrina struck). 'People get upset when it's called a poor neighbourhood,' he says. 'It's working class, not poor. There are no cars up on blocks.' The point is echoed by a local resident, Ronald W Lewis, whom we visit by arrangement. 'The media dealt in misinformation from Day One,' he says. 'They called it the poor, poor neighbourhood of the Lower Ninth Ward.' If any individual can be said to embody the true spirit of the Lower Ninth it is this former union organiser and transit authority worker who was born here in 1951 and lived through not just Katrina but Hurricane Betsy in 1965. 'Katrina was much worse,' he says. 'The house I grew up in was destroyed by Katrina. Got washed away.'

As did the project to which he had dedicated his life since retiring in 2002. The House of Dance and Feathers was a museum in the yard of his home in Tupelo St built by Lewis to celebrate 'Mardi Gras Indians' and the world of New Orleans' African American carnivals. He has rebuilt the museum with the help of volunteers and since Katrina there's been a resurgence of the Mardi Gras Indians tradition. 'You know what makes the bicycle tour a success? Because it's intimate,' he says after decrying tourists who come to 'gawk' on buses. 'People get a clear understanding of what happened here and what we need now.'

What the people of the Lower Ninth need now becomes progressively clearer as we continue north and east. The houses thin out. Block after block has been reclaimed by weeds and brush. The homes that once stood here were splintered to nothing. There are few shops, little public transport; some new facilities but not enough. The initiative that gets most attention is the zone of 100-plus new houses (all soothing colours and stylish angles) built by Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation. But there's a long way to go. At least 14,000 people lived in the Lower Ninth pre-Katrina. The figure now is not much more than 3,000.

The Lower Ninth's northern boundary is formed by the Bayou Bienvenue Wetland Triangle. Fifty years ago it was a freshwater cypress swamp that offered natural protection against floodwater surges. Now, thanks to all the unregulated industrial development along the Mississippi Delta, it's been reduced to a brackish lake, studded with the stumps of dead trees. By the water's edge an old guy named Walter reminisces about the days before Hurricane Betsy when he hunted raccoons here: 'We used to catch 'em live from the trees. Swing 'em over our heads, straight in the sack. It was a beautiful swamp'.

It may be again for a project is underway to restore the bayou (cypress saplings have already been planted). And that's how it feels in the Lower Ninth itself, a decade after near-extinction. 'It took as hard a hit as any neighbourhood in this country ever has and it's still fighting its way back - oftentimes with very little help,' says Nick Fox as we pedal abreast down Tennessee St, between empty blocks and Brad Pitt's fancy new-builds.

That night on the edge of the French Quarter (which was barely affected by Katrina's floodwaters) I find another music venue that blows me away - Snug Harbor on Frenchmen St where Delfeayo Marsalis (virtuoso trombonist and brother of Branford and Wynton) and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra play a bewitching set of Dixieland jazz. Chatting afterwards Marsalis talks of 'the soul and joy of the African tradition' of black music that has helped the city's stricken communities get back on their feet since 2005. But he acknowledges that New Orleans has changed: 'It's like when you lose your innocence. The covers were pulled off.' I am left with a haunting memory of Marsalis playing What a Wonderful World (a song forever associated with New Orleans' most famous son, Louis Armstrong) on the trombone. There is so much joy in his playing, but there is sadness too.

Published in the Daily Telegraph on August 22, 2015

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