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Going home to New Orleans

Journeying to a city out of time

By Todd Leopold
CNN

Editor's Note: Todd Leopold, CNN.com's Entertainment section producer, grew up in New Orleans. He recently returned to the city with his mother and brother, and wrote this story after inspecting the damage to his mother's home.

Algiers
An Algiers business group welcomes residents back to the Westbank.

SPECIAL REPORT

• Rebuilding: Vital signs
• Gallery: Landmarks over time
• Storm & Flood: Making history
• I-Report: Share your photos

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Nesbitt was alive, and that was very good news.

My brother Erik discovered him in the backyard, of course, just where he always was: on the patio, underneath a chair, lying in the shade. A gutter had collapsed, the overhang was bent, siding was missing, one tree was leaning against the side of the house and another was shorn of half its limbs, but Nesbitt, a 13-year-old cat with a triumphantly bushy tail, didn't seem much worse for the wear.

Especially considering he'd survived a hurricane and three weeks on his own.

The house was fine, too, besides that mostly superficial damage. We were fairly sure it hadn't flooded -- the neighborhood is on fairly high ground, on the Westbank near the river -- but we'd come down with a tarp, rubber gloves, vinegar, baking soda, duct tape, masking tape, paper towels, toilet paper, two cases of water, a flashlight, insect repellent, breathing masks, cheesecloth, trash bags and a shovel, prepared to sweep out muck and bury contaminated clothes in the backyard. Just in case.

But besides the refrigerator and the kitchen's water-warped hardwood floor -- a result of sudden refrigerator defrosting -- the interior was OK. It smelled musty, like a cabin reopened after being closed down for the season, but not moldy or toxic.

The refrigerator, though, had to go. It was filled with larvae and bugs and exploded, rotten eggs. It was old -- it hadn't refrigerated well for years -- and it wasn't worth saving. Erik and I wrapped it in duct tape and rolled it out to the curb, to join the many discarded refrigerators we'd seen driving into the city.

Decontamination

We had left Atlanta, Georgia, at 5 a.m., three weeks after the storm hit.

The impact of Katrina was still inescapable as we drove south. The force of the storm had snapped entire swaths of trees in two. Highway signs were bent over backwards like a line of limbo dancers. Prematurely dead pine needles littered the shoulder. In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, we saw a convoy of military vehicles at a gas station, a group of church workers at a McDonald's, and a truck labeled "FEMA: Do Not Delay."

Slidell, Louisiana, was a nightmare of shuttered businesses and shattered houses. The streets were piled high with debris and chest-high waterlines were clearly visible on intact structures. Eden Isles, a resort community built on a marsh just south of town, was completely devastated, its houses waterlogged or collapsed, most bearing the spray-painted fluorescent "X" of search crews.

We rode on.

It took us more than an hour to cross the U.S. 11 bridge. A checkpoint was at the other end, and soldiers were inspecting documents and -- despite alleged permission for people in certain ZIP codes to enter Orleans Parish -- waving most people away from I-10. My press pass got me through.

story.clot.jpg
A clot of debris tangled in power lines above U.S. 11 in Slidell, Louisiana.

I-10 in New Orleans East was nearly deserted. A number of exits had been blocked off, and water was still visible through the barricades. The right lanes of the highway were covered with dried muck. The neighborhoods beyond -- off Read Boulevard, Crowder Boulevard, Morrison Road, places where some of my high school friends lived once upon a time -- appeared to be a total loss.

The highway continued, past Elysian Fields Avenue, a gateway to the lakefront that was still partially under water; past Esplanade Avenue, the eastern border of the French Quarter; past once-flooded Charity Hospital and the peeled-back roof of the Superdome and broken windows of the skyline, on to the bridge now called the Crescent City Connection, to the Westbank.

There was a Walgreens open and a few cars driving around, but nobody out running, nobody walking their dogs. Our Lady of Holy Cross College, where my mother teaches, had been converted into a staging area thick with military and emergency vehicles; the fire station next door was a decontamination center. Inside, two workers in hazmat gear washed down a truck.

Sadness

I had expected to be angry when I arrived in New Orleans. Three weeks of anxiety and disgust, and a lifetime of bittersweet memories, will do that.

But all I could be was sad.

We moved from New York to New Orleans in August 1972. I was 7 years old. New York, to a 7-year-old, was skyscrapers and commuter trains and newness and excitement. New Orleans' tallest office building was an unremarkable black-and-white slab. There were no commuter trains, just a streetcar that smelled like a smoldering grease fire and took forever to creep uptown.

story.starbucks.jpg
A boarded-up Starbucks along New Orleans' Magazine Street.

The view of the city from the bridge -- particularly the view of Coliseum Street, where a bridge approach rose up from the lower Garden District -- was one of peeling paint and rot.

The streets were rutted with potholes and often made out of seashells and cheap asphalt. The public schools were mediocre at best. (Now they're abominable; Orleans Parish has one of the highest rates of private school enrollment in the country.) I went to high school in an 1854 courthouse that had been hastily, and apparently reluctantly, converted to educational use in the late 1950s.

And then there were the politicians, about whom the less said the better. The mayors appeared ineffectual against the poverty, the entrenched old rich, the oil barons (who generally preferred Houston). One governor was a crook; he would be elected four times, the last time against a former Klan leader (the bumper sticker read, "Vote for the crook, it's important").

Even as a boy, I knew all about the corruption, the decay, the lack of forward motion in a sleepy city that seemed to awaken only for parties. New Orleans was proud of these things.

And yet ... I went to high school in an 1854 courthouse. That was an irreplaceable experience. (Classrooms were subdivided courtrooms and offices, and there was no gymnasium; a mile run was five times around the block.) The city's prewar architecture, though sometimes unkempt, is one of the grandest collections in the world. (Magazine Street alone is a walk of wonder.)

And its spirit, its love of music, food and hedonistic pursuit, is unique in the world. Tell people you're from New Orleans and their eyes light up.

Yet, for all its distinction, I couldn't wait to leave. I wasn't alone; I know many people who have pursued their lives away from New Orleans. That fact only made me sadder when I came back.

Empty

We stayed overnight and left early Tuesday morning, cat in tow.

Life, for those who stayed, was going to be a struggle. Monday evening my mother and I went out to find dinner; we ended up at a grocery store in Jefferson Parish, several miles away. The store stocked few perishables beyond milk and eggs and no frozen foods, but the lines were long and gave off a scent of mild anxiety, as if nobody knew how long it would be until their next grocery run.

On the way back, New Orleans police were letting people back into the parish ahead of the 6 p.m. curfew. We made it without argument, thanks to the press pass golden ticket. Some of my mother's neighbors, who ran late, were turned back and had to sneak in on side streets.

We took Magazine and the river road out of town. Some traffic lights worked. Some didn't. Some businesses were hammered, and some houses bore the telltale fluorescent "X" of a flooded area. The streets were empty, emptier than a Sunday morning, emptier than the morning after Mardi Gras.

We found our way to Causeway Boulevard and up to I-10, a now infamous interchange where flooded-out residents were left stranded, and headed away.

My mother plans to return, at least for intervals, after the Jewish High Holy Days. Whether she'll return for good is anyone's guess. Many people she knows have decided they won't.

She'd stayed there after my father's death, tied to her friends and her work and her neighborhood but not so much to the city itself.

I think about my father, his grave a block off Elysian Fields -- dedicated volunteer, active Kiwanian, curmudgeonly patriot -- and wonder: Did all his work, and the work of countless other good people, go for naught? If you place a drop of pure distilled water in a brownfield of toxic gumbo, does it make a difference?

After I left, finally, I would tell people to visit, definitely visit. Stay for a week. Stay for two weeks. But living there could be hard, because it could be too easy.

So when I ponder if New Orleans will come back, I don't know. The old New Orleans, "the city that care forgot," had stopped working. It was an old spinster wearing faded finery, a one-time goodtime girl who hadn't kept up with the times, preferring people remember her the way she was.

But, again, I don't know. It's amazing what you can do with a little spirit and determination.

After all, even a cat has nine lives.

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