Saturday, September 07, 2013

Scott Fujita's New Orleans

Sean in Jackson Square, New Orleans, March, 2006.
There's a really nice piece on Fox Sports today from former New Orleans Saints linebacker Scott Fujita about his recruiting visit to New Orleans in March, 2006.

The visit came not quite six months after Hurricane Katrina had pummeled the Crescent City.

Scott's memories are quite evocative.  He spoke of how strange the city looked and how decimated it was.  The only thing is, I have a few different memories.

I, too, was there in March, 2006. My great-niece, Kendall, was being baptized there.

She was born in Texas in October, 2005 - the result of Katrina scattering people out of New Orleans.  Her parents, (her mother is my niece, Laura) were down there in the Navy.  They left their base in Belle Chasse and went to Texas.  Upon their return to Louisiana, they suffered minimal damage, only losing some food and fish, if memory serves.

Personally, I've always been fond of New Orleans.  I first visited it in December, 1975, but a seven-year-old really doesn't "get" NOLA.  My next trip wouldn't be until December, 2003 when I came back to attend the baseball Winter Meetings.  My mom and my niece, Stephanie, came along to see Laura.

Then came Katrina.  Like many, I watched whatever I could on TV.  Then I read.  I listened to streaming radio, mostly of WWL, the big AM news station.  I recognized so many of the places being shown, including the convention center, whose halls I had walked roughly two years earlier.

Laura wanted Kendall to be christened, and we all wanted to be there.  She delayed it until March, when it was hoped that things would be somewhat better.

They were.  Slightly.

Things were good in the French Quarter.  Oh, not great, and let's be clear about that.  But there were places to eat, like the Crescent City Brewhouse, where I had gumbo and jambalaya for dinner on our first night.  Pat O'Brien's was still open to get a Hurricane.  Bourbon Street was, well, Bourbon Street (and, yes, we had Sean with us, but it's fairly tame in the daylight hours).

Cafe Du Monde was cranking out great coffee and beignets.  These were just some small signs that life would go on in The Big Easy.

The casino was open as well, and many hotels and other businesses had returned.  The zoo was also open.  New Orleans, ravaged by a storm, politics and, one might say, the government, was trying to put on a happy face.

The picture I took of Sean, in Jackson Square,  makes New Orleans look pretty good, right?

Now the outlying areas were a pretty different story.  Things were hit and miss, for instance, down LA Route 23 towards where the baptism would be held.  I recall finding a Subway that was open for lunch.  Oakwood Shopping Center, which I stayed next to in 2003, was closed and took a long time to rebuild.  The Riverwalk Mall, near the convention center, was open but eerily empty.  No food tenants were open.  A few stores were.

Just outside, a streetcar line was deserted, but the gate was down and the crossing lights flashed as the bell rang out.  Constantly.

It was like a ghost streetcar was coming by, with Marlon Brando yelling "STELLA!"

(Sorry, cheesy reference)

That was where the devastation hit me the most, because I had spent so much time in the Riverwalk area a few years earlier.  It was sad.

Tolls weren't being collected on the Crescent City Connector (Business Route US 90).  Many downtown traffic lights worked.  But many didn't.

From the air, the blue tarps that were on everyone's houses were abundant.  It was a stark introduction, enough that a passenger on the plane with us made note of it.  I remember getting a rental car - all they had were mini-vans - and it smelled.  But, really, who could possibly complain?

We stayed in the Country Inn and Suites on Magazine Street.  It amazed me, considering the looting and everything else, what fabulous shape this place was in. 

The devastation was apparent though.  The first view of the Louisiana Superdome - which I remembered seeing for the first time in '75 (it had opened only a few months earlier), and then in '03 - was remarkable.  A banner stretched across the front promised the Saints (and the NFL) would be back.  It would, with the Saints beating the Falcons 23-3.

It was a strange trip; that gathering in 2006.  The smells, the sadness, he destruction and yet the smiles and good natures.  Only a mile or so away from the French Quarter is the Lower Ninth Ward, the site of some of the worst Katrina and levee breaches left behind.  Thanks to media coverage and a Spike Lee documentary, we all know just how bad the Ninth Ward was hit.  As I drove Interstate 10, I could see, in the distance, how bad it looked.

I couldn't - I wouldn't - drive into the neighborhood.  The last thing they needed was some nosy New Yorkers.

Other areas were hit very hard.  Lakeview, Metarrie, Plaquemines Parish, Algiers, and so on.  The names became familiar.  So did the faces of the politicians.

It was an ugly time.

Scott Fujita made it his home, despite what he saw.

I haven't been back since.  But I've wanted to go again.

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