On Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, the neon lights are flashing, the booze is flowing, and the demon demolition men of Hurricane Katrina are ogling a showgirl performing in a thong. The Bourbon House is shucking local oysters again, Daiquiri's is churning out its signature alcoholic slushies, and Mardi Gras masks are once again on sale. But drive north toward the hurricane-ravaged housing subdivisions off Lake Pontchartrain and the masks you see aren't made for Carnival. They are industrial-strength respirators, stark and white, the only things capable of stopping a stench that turns the stomach and dredges up bad memories of a night nearly three months ago. Most disasters come and go in a neat arc of calamity, followed by anger at the slow response, then cleanup. But Katrina cut a historic deadly swath across the South, and rebuilding can't start until the cleanup is done. In much of New Orleans, the leafy coverage of live oaks is gone. Lingering in the sky instead is a fine grit that tastes metallic to the tongue. Everyone's life story is out on the curb, soaked and stinky--furniture and clothing, dishes and rotting drywall, even formerly fabulous antiques. Dump trucks come periodically to remove the piles, taking some to a former city park, now a heap of rubbish several football fields long, towering above the head. The smell is sweet, horrific.
They're still finding bodies down here 13 weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit--30 in the past month--raising the death toll to 1,053 in Louisiana. The looters are still working too, brazenly taking their haul in daylight. But at night darkness falls, and it's quiet. "It's spooky out there. There's no life," says cardiologist Pat Breaux, who lives near Pontchartrain with only a handful of neighbors. The destruction, says Breaux, head of the Orleans Parish Medical Society, depresses people. Suicides are up citywide, he says, although no one has a handle on the exact number. Murders, on the other hand, have dropped to almost none.
Mayor Ray Nagin opened up most of the city to returning evacuees last week, but only an estimated 60,000 people are spending the night in New Orleans these days, compared with about half a million before Katrina. The city that care forgot is in the throes of an identity crisis, torn between its shady, bead-tossing past and the sanitized Disneyland future some envision. With no clear direction on whether to raze or rebuild, the 300,000 residents who fled the region are frustrated--and increasingly indecisive--about returning. If they do come back, will there be jobs good enough to stay for? If they do rebuild, will the levees be strong enough to protect them? They can't shake the feeling that somehow they did something wrong just by living where they did. And now the money and the sympathy are drying up. People just don't understand. You have to see it, smell it, put on a white mask and a pair of plastic gloves, and walk into a world where nothing is salvageable, not even the mildewed wedding pictures.