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A city in recovery

First-hand impressions from ground in New Orleans

Posted: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:06PM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:10PM
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I spent eight days in New Orleans, reporting on sports in that city two years after Hurricane Katrina. It wasn't the first time I'd mopped up on a big story.

I'd inspected other urban aftermaths of note. One was Sarajevo two years after the end of the siege of the Nineties. You could see evidence of death and destruction everywhere, but it was at least evenly distributed, as were the signs of returning life. In New Orleans, by contrast, the floodwaters entirely spared some precincts, like the French Quarter and much of Uptown, while great swaths of the city were destroyed, and remain abandoned even today.

My other post-disaster experience was in Manhattan, where I lived at the time of the September 11 attacks. By the two-year anniversary, New Yorkers had moved on to debating the details of the memorial and Rudy Giuliani's presidential ambitions. On the other hand, Katrina's scope -- and the number of people touched by its where-to-begin despair -- dwarfed 9/11's.

I suppose a lesson here is that man-made tragedies can be man-fixed -- and that those Mother Nature visits upon us are harder to get a handle on.

To be sure, there is progress in New Orleans: I paid two visits to the city in July, and during my first, the traffic lights in the Lower Ninth Ward didn't work. When I came back two weeks later, they were up and running.

But there isn't nearly as much improvement as there should be. Walking alone through the shell of Alfred Lawless High in the Lower Ninth, I discovered a mausoleum of adolescence. The bulletin board in the library still has lettering that reads ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE. Random, rank basketball jerseys and football helmets are strewn about locker room and outside the gym. The overhead light attached to the ceiling of a breezeway features a rainbow of colors: pinks and blues and greens.

Odd, I thought to myself -- and then it hit me: For two weeks after the levee breach in the Industrial Canal, Katrina bathed the entire school in floodwater. I was looking at the Technicolor result of water trapped in that light fixture for nearly two years: mold, suckled on moisture, tropical heat and close quarters.

And some people say there's no life in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Memories of the people who shared tales of their city abide with me. On visits to New Orleans for Final Fours, I'd kept to the biosphere of the Hyatt and Superdome and New Orleans Center shopping mall, except for brief cab rides to and from one restaurant or another. Thanks to a couple of stalwarts from the Times-Picayune, David Meeks and Jeff Duncan, I got much more meaningful bearings, perhaps because, after Katrina hit, David and Jeff did Pulitzer-quality work under the most extreme circumstances.

Thanks to Doug and Denise Thornton -- he manages the Superdome; she runs Beacon of Hope, a nonprofit that is helping to bring back neighborhoods one at a time -- I understood how the storm shattered lives even at the top of the city's sports food chain, and even in the most affluent sections of town.

Again and again, I felt the practiced distance between interviewer and interviewee disappear, as New Orleanians gave in to a deep desire to share that they've been through. Jim Miller, the athletic director at the University of New Orleans, is still waiting for the roof of his basketball arena to get fixed. You'd be correct in assuming he'd love to find someone to blame. Yet, he says, the disaster was of such epic scale that "there really are no villains. I've just learned to be patient. My wife tells me I don't raise my voice with our kids the way I used to."

People in my business are supposed to keep an emotional distance from our story subjects. But a sojourn in New Orleans will put a different frame around that article of faith.

Hearing of the dream of two Dillard grads, Ron Gearing and Walter Tillman, to build a stadium on the campus of their alma mater to serve as a beacon for at-risk high-school kids, it occurred to me that where the reeds come thinnest, they're likely to be grasped at most desperately.

I had to ask Rita Benson LeBlanc, the granddaughter of Saints owner Tom Benson and the team's executive vice-president, what she thought of Gearing and Tillman's ambitious proposal. "If that idea ever gets traction, we'd be very interested in helping," said LeBlanc, who likes to point out that St. Rita is the patron saint of lost causes. "There's no such thing as the impossible in New Orleans right now. All of us who live here have had to figure out how to reinvent our way of life, and we just feed off one another's energy."

What I love most about the city -- and what, I believe, argues most eloquently for its preservation, regardless of the cost -- is the devotion to it of the people who live there. Its music is a cultural treasure. Its food is too. There are precious few Arby's in New Orleans because no one wants anything but the debris po' boy at Mother's on Poydras Street. Dunkin' Donuts hardly stands a chance because a beignet at Café du Monde cannot be improved upon. And the daily newspaper is not dying in New Orleans, where per capita readership of the local paper is higher than in any other city in the country, because neighbors have a common sense of investment in their town.

Sorry, USA Today. Love your multicolored weather map, but ever since I got back from New Orleans, it reminds me of mold.

Besides, it's the weather page of the Times-Picayune -- and the fate it foretells -- that America should care about most.