Saturday, January 06, 2007

Good Morning, America, How are ya?

Don't you know me I'm your native son? I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans. . . . .

New Year's Eve in New Orleans, those lyrics sung by Arlo Guthrie to an overcrowded Decatur Street block at the bottom of Jackson Square had people singing and crying in the fog. Good ol' Arlo was only 20 yards from the spot in which the President stood to give his post-Katrina speech. Arlo was better.

It was a really foggy New Year's Eve here, both literally and figuratively. People just seemed a little bit jumbled, and not from drinking.

David came home from work and we decided to go out. We were trying to meet some friends, but they had a head start and we never caught up. We had dinner at one of our favorite cheap restaurants on Decatur, Fiorellas. We were so glad to see it reopen. It had only been open three days and they have a lot of the same staff, including the cooks from the old day shift. We were glad because we've noticed that some of the restaurants definitely have different cooks. Food is still good, but not the same. But then what is around here.

We walked from there down to Oswald's Speakeasy just to see what was going on there. Many of the bars on lower Decatur were planning on giving out free champagne at midnight when the Baby dropped the Gumbo pot, (I'll explain that later!) and Oswald's was on the list. Neither of us likes champagne, but we like the ambience of Oswald's. The bar was nearly empty so we talked, then a couple other patrons came over and there was a discussion about politics that was fun and relatively sedate given the topic. One of the guys had moved here after Katrina, can't remember from where, but said he was staying. It was good to hear someone say they were coming here rather than going somewhere else.

We left there and walked toward Jackson Square. It was a warm night and the fog was really drippy thick. We looked up at the Jax Building to see if they had the Baby up there. Rather than a ball like in NYC, New Orleans has this giant baby that stands on the corner of the old Jax Beer Brewery building that has been converted into shops and condos. It's a beautiful building and the Baby, all lit up, just makes ya smile. At midnight as the countdown begins, he drops the gumbo pot and then the air is full of shrieks and beads. People stand on balconies along Decatur and throw the beads to the folks in the street. We were there last year and there was no way to even walk through the crowd, it was more like being inside a wave without a surfboard. This year it was much, much less crowded. We would rather have been complaining about it being too crowded than not crowded enough, but even though the numbers were fewer it was encouraging as many of them were actual, real live tourists.

We could hear the music as we walked toward the foot of Jackson Square and knew that Arlo Guthrie was going to play that night as well as many other bands of different types. We got there just as Arlo's set began. People were having a great time, then he sang St. James Infirmary Blues and people went wild. After he finished he said that that song and the following one were for this wonderful city and he launched into Good Morning America. The New Orleanians in the crowd were hollering and everyone was singing along. (At the foot of Jackson Square is Decatur Street and right across the street is a large open amphitheatre of sorts, pre-Katrina it was usually filled with tourists watching various street performers. New Year's Eve it was full of people watching the music, so there were faces singing along all the way up to the Moonwalk level at the top of the amphitheatre steps.) Some people were crying, many were thrusting their fists in the air for every chorus. The sound of everyone singing got louder and louder as the song went on. It was really wonderful.

We left when the next band came on. They were very good. I can't remember their names, but we had decided to keep going. So we headed toward Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street looked more normal than it has in months. It didn't look like New Year's Eve Bourbon Street, more like a slow Wednesday night before the storm, but there were actually people from one side to the other pretty steady. And there were even people on balconies throwing beads. Hand Grenade containers and beads in the gutters looked normal. A few alcohol casualties sitting dazed on the curbs. Again, very encouraging. The businesses on Bourbon need for the street to look like that more often. They are struggling to stay afloat. Shops and clubs are all having trouble staying in business. There definitely is music, but we haven't heard any zydeco that wasn't a recording played over a shop's speaker system in months. Jazz still comes out of Fritzels, Al Carson is still playing at the Funky Pirate so a good blues riff will knock you in the head on that block, other clubs have music of course, and the New Orleans Levee Board (yup, that's really their name), arguably the best R&B band in the city is still playing at the Rock. We had decided that we wouldn't be out late but that we'd stop in the Rock, say hi to the owner and the band who are friends of ours, and then go home. As of this minute, I don't know if the Rock is going to be open this weekend. They might have to shut their doors.

This is happening to businesses left and right. I've heard estimates of 1.5 to 4.5 million tourist dollars per day have been lost since the storm. For a city that relies on tourist dollars for a hefty part of their economic base, this is catastrophic. The first cruise ship since the storm came into Port this week, with more to come. That will help a lot. We hope they keep them coming. New Orleans was the second largest cruise port in the US and was planning on expanding their capabilities before the storm.

Today is Twelfth Night. This is the traditional opening of Carnival season. We hope that the tourist industry blankets the airways with "Come to New Orleans" ads, and that the 20,000 new hotel rooms scheduled to open this month, will be ready.

There is still so much to do here, but flipping the calendar over helped the overall mood a bit. I don't know if we can sustain the optimism as a City. We try to maintain it on a day by day basis. It's the only way or we'd be overwhelmed. The "plans" for rebuilding are a mish mash with nothing definitive coming out of City Hall. The health care system is a mess. Only 1 of 4 doctors returned so far and only 2 of 9 hospitals are open. The Charity Hospital system, one of the largest medical facilities for indigent care, is gone, possibly never to be reopened. We have no Level One trauma facility at this time. I giggle every time I see an ad for the various testing facilities touting their latest MRI or CAT scan equipment and saying "We're open!" I'm not sure who's sending anyone there. The insurance companies are still holding up payments or just out and out denying payment. Signs have sprung up all over the city posted by attorneys who are specializing in insurance problems. The federal help is still not what it should be. There are still no real answers about accountability of the Army Corps of Engrs and the levees they built. Nor are there any real answers regarding a new levee system. Fifty percent of the parishes of Louisiana have nixed providing sites for FEMA trailers, should they actually arrive. I saw a couple of them. I know they exist. I understand that people are afraid that the FEMA sites will become permanent fixtures as they have in some parts of Florida, but I'm still ashamed of them for not putting themselves in the displaced citizens' shoes.

The list goes on and on. So much to do, a logistical and economic nightmare for everyone.

We are hoping that those who have hung in there, like the business owners on Bourbon Street, will be able to hang on a little longer. We are hoping that those people who are determined to come home, will in fact be able to.

We are hoping that the New Year is wonderful for all of you.

Love and Light,
Bec and David

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