New Orleans, LA Felix Wong

First off, allow me to clear up some misconceptions that might come to mind when thinking about New Orleans five months after Hurricane Katrina.

“People had all sorts of crazy ideas, like do they need to run with a gas mask, do they need a tetanus shot, do they need to bring their own trailers,” said Bill Burke in an article by the Associated Press.

In my case, before stepping off of a Boeing 737 into the relatively warm, humid Louisiana air, I wondered not only about the air quality but also the water safety. My grand scheme to consume only bottled water before the Mardi Gras Marathon was foiled when I realized that almost no stores were open that sold yuppie water. Despite this, I am happy to report that, no, I haven’t suffered from a terminal bout of giardia or dehydration and, yes, the tap water tastes just fine.

Phone service and internet communication is another story. Seemingly none of the city’s pay phones are working anymore, most of which are still covered with sludge and sewage. Even the hostel I was staying at was receiving all of its calls on a cell phone. Stores—what few of them have reopened—generally only operate on a cash-only basis as their credit card machines are still not working. And good luck finding a functional ATM anywhere but the French Quarter or the Central Business District (sometimes referred to as the American Quarter). These ATMs will impose a $3 service fee for you to access your cash.

In addition, even the restaurants and retailers run by multimillion-dollar corporations—McDonald’s, Burger King, Rite-Aid, to name a few—were strikingly abandoned, boarded up, kaput. On the flip side, the McDonald’s restaurants that were open again in midcity New Orleans are offering starting jobs for $8.50-$9.50 an hour, plus weekly bonuses. Hmmm, tempting.

In contrast to the rest of the city, things in the French Quarter are hot, and I just don’t mean the dancers on Bourbon Street. Actually, the word is the adult-only clubs are doing business at least as well, if not vastly better, than before Katrina, as now there are hoards of National Guardsmen and construction workers who are more than happy to blow some dough to see some hotties. Hey, despite all that, Bourbon Street seemed far less seedy than the strip in Las Vegas, I’ll give it that.

Other businesses in the French Quarter seem to be doing fine as well. The day before the marathon, fellow runner Craig Olsen and I had a delectable cajun lunch on the second floor balcony overlooking Bourbon Street, including a wonderfully spiced jambalaya dish for myself and a crawfish dish for Craig. We also walked through a busy flea market and past a square where jazz was very much alive. The historic St. Louis Cathedral—built when Louisiana was briefly under Spanish control—looked very much spared from the hurricane’s wrath.

Witty T-shirts are sold everywhere. Here is a sampling of them:

  • Katrina, that bitch!
  • Katrina gave me a blow job that I’ll never forget
  • New Orleans: Proud to Swim Home
  • New Orleans: Dark Chocolate, White Chocolate, Milk Chocolate (an allusion to Mayor Nagin’s recent controversial “chocolate city” comments)
  • New Orleans: A Chocolate City with Nuts
  • New Orleans, the City that Republicans Forgot
  • Make Levees, Not War
  • Thanks Katrina, Now I’m Trailer Trash

The marathon course (full report is here) also had its share of witticisms:

  • New Orleans Recovery: A Marathon, Not a Sprint
  • Keep running, FEMA is not coming to help
  • (At a turnaround point) Turn for the Worse

Back at the India House Hostel, I also got to share in some of the New Orleans spirit. My first night there I engaged in a 3-hour, rather intellectual and entertaining game of trivia (as in, pull any random trivia question out of your head) with a doctor, a student from North Carolina, and a construction worker. The last night we all got to see the Pittsburgh Steelers pull some nice gadget plays on the Seattle Seahawks for their fifth Superbowl victory. The “one for the thumb.” At last, a team I really wanted to win, won!

Like the Steelers—who had to dig their way out of a hole towards the end of last year—the Crescent City is on its way back, and the Mardi Gras spirit is alive and kicking. Go see it for yourself; just leave your gas masks and trailers at home.

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While looking for the India House Hostel southeast of midcity New Orleans, I saw just how much in shambles many of the neighborhoods were after Katrina. (February 3, 2006)Along the same street as the hostel were homes boarded up declaring various things such as "Stay out or you will go to jail". (February 3, 2006)In contrast, the India House with its newly-painted siding and flags stood out like a beacon in the neighborhood. (February 6, 2006)Unfortunately, most of the shops and restaurants within a 1-mile radius remained closed with their broken windows and all.This included most McDonald's and Burger Kings.  Also, none of the public pay phones were working yet.The areas closer to the French Quarter were in better shape, but even there, roads were under heavy construction.Along Bourbon St., there were many strip clubs and adult-only venues that (so I hear) have been doing fantastic after Katrina, with all of the National Guardsmen and construction workers in town.Another view of lively Bourbon St.Craig and I had a crawfish and jambalaya rice dish, respectively outside the 2nd floor of a restaurant on Bourbon.The view of a bridge over the Mississippi River along Decatur St.Loading ports along the Mississippi River.The city skyline along the Mississippi.The flea market in the French Quarter.Lots of witty T-shirts: "New Orleans: Proud to swim home,"  "Katrina, you b*tch", etc.All in all, the French Quarter looked good.Tourism is even sort of thriving there.  Tourists can get horse rides through the French Quarter.The St. Louis Cathedral was built under Spanish rule a couple of centuries ago.Elsewhere in the city, the grim realities of the situation sink in.Holy crap!  Check out this Neon.  If there was anyone in it at the time (I don't think there was), he certainly did not survive.  I dislike these morbid sights but the sheer destruction of this vehicle was fascinating.Rubble was everywhere; lots of work to be done.  I wish I had stayed longer to do some volunteer work and help out with the rebuilding efforts.Progress is being made, however, as exemplified by this newly repainted home.  Best of luck to the great city of New Orleans!

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