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Epistulae Ciceronis
A Perfectly Squiffy Jag

The Ninth Ward

01.01.06 Sunday
11:01 pm - The Ninth Ward Previous Entry Share Next Entry
When Hurricane Katrina hit, Katie and I were in Belize. While almost all of the news stations down there were covering the disaster, we didn't get much exposure to it since we were traveling; most of our news came third hand through people we talked to while in towns. Driving into New Orleans everything seemed pretty much back-to-normal; it has been, after all, four months. We got off Highway 10, drove down Canal Street and hid out in the French Quarter for a couple days; as previously posted, the only real evidence of the hurricane was the FEMA-booked hotels and limited workforce.

Today, we were supposed to drive to Base Saint Louis. According to a few people we talked to, New Orleans received news coverage due to how big of a city it was, but Bay Saint Louis was where the real damage was. We got a late start, though, and weren't sure we wanted to take the two hour round trip back to Mississippi and so decided to check out the Ninth Ward first. Apparently, the Ninth Ward is where much of the flooding damage was the worst (as far as New Orleans is concerned); as such we were expecting water damage but not significant wind damage or structural impact.

Driving toward the Ninth Ward, we stopped and took a dozen or so photos of beautiful old houses with boarded up windows, piles of garbage out front and water marks on the side. As we entered the Ninth Ward, we found more damage: collapsed decks, roofs without shingles, garbage all over the street. The area was completely empty of human life outside of the occasional army vehicle or police car. It was pretty humbling to see how a neighborhood could be transformed into a ghost town overnight.

As we approached the bank where the levy broke, however, I realized that the previous hundred photos I'd taken didn't even come close to representing or capturing the damage. Even after that, the hundred or so photos I took of the real damage don't really do it justice. After the thirtieth splintered house or the fifteenth upside down car you stop taking photos; it's the same image, the same story. What the photos don't capture, though, is the scale. After a while Katie and I just drove down the streets, mile after mile, unable to reconcile what we saw with what we knew it once to be. In many ways, I found the initial impressions more difficult to witness: when you see a house with a broken window and a hole in the roof you can relate; when you stand in front of a horizon full of broken two-by-fours, bricks and twisted metal, though, it just feels like a movie -- the set for some post-apocalyptic thriller. It reminds me of Stalin's quote regarding tragedies vs. statistics.

I remember hearing on NPR a couple months ago about teams going in to rescue animals. The report made me angry, to an extent; with so many humans dead, injured or displaced it seemed like animals should be the last of the worries; not to be completely heartless, but from a pragmatic perspective we had better use for volunteer labor in the aftermath of the storm. Driving through the streets of the Ninth Ward, however, I came to respect those efforts. When you see the damage, when you think of how hard it would be to come "home" to find everything you own completely demolished, it would mean so much to know that your dog or cat, at least, is alive and well.

I still don't know if the weight of what we saw today has really sunk in. It's just too hard to personalize it. Initially, I felt a bit guilty going in with my camera; I knew that I was essentially just gawking, sort of a train-wreck fascination. After spending a day amongst the ruins, though, I realized that you can't fully exploit that sort of situation; the very act of witnessing it changes your perspective and demands a level of sympathy I wouldn't have thought myself capable of. The whole thing is just awful.


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comments
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goldfischegirl [02.01.06::09:17]
I want to see photos, please oh please.
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tyrven [02.01.06::06:46]
I'll probably work on a batch today, depending on whether or not I start with my New Years photos. Worst case, I'll finish them on the airplane coming home on the fifth. The main challenge with these pictures is trying to isolate them down to twenty or so that are representative.
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thaumata [02.01.06::09:30]
this was a beautiful entry. thank you for taking the time to share.
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getlocalgirl [02.01.06::05:08]
Wow. Yes, there's nothing like standing in the middle of devastation to really feel the impact and breadth of it.
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tyrven [02.01.06::06:54]
In some ways it feels really familiar because it's imagery we've seen on the screen before. In that way, logically, it's easy to subconsciously categorize it with those images and dismiss its impact. There is almost an unspoken voice in the back of your head saying "it's just a movie". I think that is one of the sources of denial during the cycle of loss. I don't think it had any real impact until I stepped out of the car, stood in one place and turned a full 360-degrees; before that, the framing of the car windows and the environmental isolation keeps it safely tucked away as a movie image.
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thetathrees [02.01.06::07:52]
Thank you for this entry. I appreciate that you addressed the subject matter without your usual humorous tongue-in-cheekiness or cynicism (which I usually enjoy). It made the writing that much stronger.
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tyrven [02.01.06::08:42]
Thank you. I think it's situations like this which are precisely why I am so cynical about most topics. People treat relatively fickle opinions as religious dogma and lose sight of the bigger picture. I think a lot of people are so desperate for something to live for, some purpose or identity, that they latch onto ridiculous zealotry and take it way too seriously. I think if people got off their soapbox and went out and experienced the world they'd have a more balanced perspective of the things that really impact our lives.

Of course, that's spoken like a borderline ideologue; I may have the right to defend my boundaries but who am I to say what other people "should" do? I mean, people reap what they sow.
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thingstouchme [02.01.06::08:03]
I think the town you're talking about in Mississippi is Bay St. Louis.

My aunt lived in Gulfport and lost her home but the thing that she said that really impressed me about her was "all we lost were possessions. everything that's important still remains."
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tyrven [02.01.06::08:32]
Yes, that's the town :). I had only heard it spoken thusfar and it sounded like "base"; that's funny.

I think what would be harder than losing your home and belongings would be losing the sense of community, as everyone is displaced. Well, and of course a lot of people lost family members.

Personally, I think if I lost my house the first thing I'd be worried about would be my two cats. And after that there are a few family heirlooms with notable sentimental value. Outside of those things, however, everything I own is pretty much commodities that have no significant emotional value and thus are easy to replace.
thaddeusquay [02.01.06::10:09]
I view "ownership" of replaceable items simply as rentals, with the calculation of the actual cost merely delayed until the item is either replaced or no longer needed.

For instance, when I buy a pair of pants, I might pay $30, but I don't consider those pants to be actually owned by me. Let's say that, for whatever reason, I replace them with a new pair in 6 months. At that point, I think of the prior pants as having cost me $5 per month to rent.
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thingstouchme [02.01.06::11:59]
well I just thought it was cool that they could say this, considering that they are both almost in their 80's, so they had alot more to lose possession-wise than say I would. For instance, my uncle was a sculptor and all of his creations were in their house.

but on the other hand, I suppose when you've lived that long you bounce back more easily, and look at life differently.

surprisingly I didn't think about how they'd lost their community. that one is tough.
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pistolette_la [03.01.06::01:20]
Hello, I'm from NOLA, i used to work in broadcast news there.

The mississippi coast got very little attention because they didn't waste time whining at cameras and screaming "save me" - they were too busy saving themselves. I just left New Orleans 3 weeks ago after living there my whole life. Most of the people I know are happier with the situation there now because there is no crime anymore, and everyone has a job.

I'd be careful about the photo shoots down there. People are reeeealy touchy. One of my neighbors beat up two insurance adjusters for giggling and taking "tourist" photos of each other on a crashed boat on his lawn. Anyway, I took a bunch of photos before I moved, but I made sure no one was around when I did. I was also armed :-)
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