|Report from New Orleans
November 11, 2005
I arrived in New Orleans Sunday afternoon. The main thing I noticed from the air was the blue roofs everywhere – tarps provided by FEMA for storm damaged roofs.
We spent all day Monday in orientation at the Preservation Resource Center learning about New Orleans’ historic districts, the current recovery situation and mold. Later in the afternoon, we took a driving tour of some of the hardest hit areas.
New Orleans has a dozen or more historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places with 37,000 individual contributing structures. Some are in upscale areas like the Garden District, but many are in struggling neighborhoods.
The good news for preservationists is that the pioneers knew the value of the higher ground. New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods, which date to the city’s founding in 1718, are located along the river on the higher elevations. However, beginning in the mid to late 19th Century, developers found the technology to pump and drain the lower lying areas between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, and the City expanded north. Many of those “new suburbs” are now 100-year old plus historic districts with collections of predominantly modest but exquisitely detailed historic homes that most cities would kill for.
The historic character of these neighborhoods is the glue that holds many of them together and attracts people who are willing to invest and live in areas that are remarkable for their economic and racial diversity. Some have the highest percentage of home ownership in the city.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is working with the local Preservation Resource Center to provide information and resources to flooded historic neighborhoods to discourage the razing of historic buildings and encourage owners to return and reoccupy them as soon as possible after repairing flood damage.
Our team consists of about a half dozen architects and historic preservation experts from around the country, including the states of Colorado, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and California.
On Tuesday, we worked in the Mid-City Historic District, which straddles Canal Street north of the French Quarter. The high water mark was about six feet above ground level, and the extent of the damage to individual structures varied depending on the height of the floor above grade. Most were submerged to about half the height of the first story.
There were no utilities turned on yet, but many owners had gutted the buildings of furnishings, carpets and interior wall finishes such as gypsum board or plaster. FEMA contractors were moving through the neighborhood scooping up and removing great piles of debris heaped along every street. Abandoned cars are everywhere. We handed out information from the Preservation Resource Center and provide expertise for the few individual homeowners who were already back working on their buildings.
On Tuesday night, the power went off about 7:30 PM, so we decided it was time to go out and eat. We found a delightful local eatery named Elizabeth’s down by the levee operating on candlepower. The power was still out when we left the next morning after cold showers.
On Wednesday, we began working in a historic district called Holy Cross in the now infamous Lower Ninth Ward. Holy Cross is the part of the Ninth Ward nearest the river on the highest ground, but it still suffered flood damage because it is adjacent to one of the levee breaks on the Industrial Canal. The water line in Holy Cross was typically about five feet above floor level for the historic homes that sit above crawl spaces. For homes built in the 1940s and 50s on slabs, the water level was up to the roof line.
Other than damage to roofs by wind and to interiors by flood waters, the historic Holy Cross homes were mostly intact and salvageable. The neighborhood was totally deserted except for patrolling police and National Guard. The entire day we saw less than a half dozen homeowners working on their buildings. We left information at all the historic homes and provided consultation to the few homeowners who had returned and were stripping out their homes.
After finishing our work in Holy Cross, We drove north across St. Claude to the 9th Ward area nearest The Industrial Canal levee break to look at the city's worst devastation. It is an area built out predominately in the mid Twentieth Century, has a large percentage of homeowners, and was largely African-American. The entire area is cordoned off with checkpoints patrolled by the National Guard. We talked ourselves onto a bus with a group of previous residents getting their first look. No one was allowed off the bus. There is really nothing left. There is no question that it will be bulldozed; however, what happens next is the subject of heated debate.
Here are some of my impressions of New Orleans.
The “tourist areas’ including the French Quarter suffered little flood damage, although there is wind, water and fire damage. There is no discernable change on Bourbon Street, for example, except that many, many businesses are not yet open. Those that are will take only cash. Restaurants have limited menus, and some are serving on paper plates with plastic utensils. Most of the customers are either locals or from FEMA, the Corps of Engineers or out of town contractors.
The neighborhood where we are staying, The Bywater Historic District, which begins about a dozen blocks east of the French Quarter, has electricity but no gas. Cold showers are the order of the day. Mail service came back only last Friday. About half the residents have moved back. Electrical power is intermittent. The French Quarter and the Central Business District have been pretty well cleaned up, but very few businesses have opened. Most of the hotels are still closed, and we had to drive clear to the Garden District to find a grocery store.
Cops from all over the country, contractors and the National Guard are everywhere. There are no children to be seen.
As you travel north toward Lake Pontchartrain, the city is deserted, and trash is piled high everywhere. It is pure devastation and kind of reminds me of driving through villages in Vietnam after the Tet offensive. The one constant you look for is the high water mark from the flood that can be seen on buildings throughout the city like a continuous bathtub scum ring. On Canal Street just west of the French Quarter, the water mark starts a few blocks north of the river and rises to many feet between Downtown and Lake Pontchartrain.
Perhaps the most enduring feeling is the eerie sensation of whole parts of the city that are totally deserted – blocks and blocks of homes and absolutely nothing moving in any direction. All the front doors of the houses are open, and all the occupants belongings – their whole lives are just strewn along the street.
On a happier note, there is a major conference the next two days to discuss the future of New Orleans. We were all invited to a dinner party last night at a Garden District mansion known as the Jefferson Davis House (where he died). Present were the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the president of the American Planning Association, along with dozens of historic preservation supporters from New Orleans.
Today, we'll be doing more field work in the morning and participating in a workshop for returning homeowners in the afternoon.
I have lots of amazing photos, but I am unable to send large files from my laptop.