[StBernard] A taxi ride through hell

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Jan 7 23:29:36 EST 2008

A taxi ride through hell
CAB RIDE FROM HELL | Forget the game and focus on a still-devastated city

January 7, 2008
BY JAY MARIOTTI Sun-Times Columnist
NEW ORLEANS -- I've just heard Les Miles, the LSU coach, declare with his
warmest public-relations smile, ``It appears to me that New Orleans is a
very live and thriving city. We've really enjoyed being here.'' No doubt you
have, Les. The two teams are staying in luxury hotels. Their buses are
accompanied by sirens and police escorts, like royalty. They're playing in a
game with a collective $34 million payout. Their fans are wearing beads,
drinking Hurricanes and making noise all night.

When Miles is finished talking, on the eve of the Bowl Championship Series
title game, he is whisked off in an official sport-utiity vehicle. I decide
to launch a much different and humble journey, beginning right across the
street in front of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where not 2 1/2
years ago, victims of Hurricane Katrina were being placed in freezers. It's
the building where the mad and frightened rush of evacuees reached 20,000,
where reports of rape and murder terrified America in the initial hours
following the storm, where corpses lay on the floor while FEMA boss Michael
Brown claimed not to have a clue.

> Click to enlarge image It doesn't take long to find evidence of the

despair that continues to engulf New Orleans.

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This is where my tour starts, my post-Katrina reality tour.

It's hard to care much about a football game when you're staring at a symbol
of this nation's worst natural disaster. It will be harder tonight, when
Ohio State and LSU play in the restored Louisiana Superdome, the ultimate
image of this massacre. We tend to think New Orleans is on a recovery path,
but if so, it's moving at a sad, almost indiscernable pace. God knows,
they're trying to create life from death, with three bowl games and next
month's NBA All-Star Game giving an ever-slight bump to the economy. But has
the sports crowd given any thought to the ruin that begins only blocks from
Bourbon Street and spreads for miles? Do these people know that the horror
and despair haven't ended, that abandoned areas are lined with rubble, that
a large homeless population lives in tent villages like the one not far from
the Dome? Do they know the city has lost nearly one-half of its population
since Katrina and that few are returning? Do they know the murder rate,
largely related to gangs and drugs, is by far the country's highest and now
averages 71 killings per 100,000 residents? Do they know that FEMA trailers
are still packed with the stranded?

Do they know? Do they care? And when they all go home Tuesday morning, won't
New Orleans remain a city in devastation?

I hail a cab. The driver's name is Poury. I don't ask him for a ride to the
French Quarter or Garden District, home of the famous Manning quarterbacking
family. Unlike most tourists, I want Katrina Hell: the Lower Ninth Ward,
Gentilly, Lakeview, farther out in Arabi and Chalmette. I've found the right
guide, too.

Before Katrina, he ran a restaurant. Now, he prays for tourism and wonders
why he's still here. ``There's no health-care system. There's no school
system,'' Poury says. ``I feel like I'm in another country, a third-world
country. I don't feel like I'm still living in the United States of America.
I'm not in the New Orleans I know.'' He tells me he broke his arm recently
but was turned away at the hospital, where he was told to travel to Baton
Rouge, Hammond or Jackson, Miss.

We head down Poydras Street and turn near the Superdome, once considered an
architectural marvel and now, somehow, an icon of hope and survivalism. But
only a few blocks away is Central City in the Third Ward, one of the most
blighted areas, rife with drugs and violence. For years, the family of Ohio
State defensive tackle Nader Abdallah owned the LaSalle Market there -- also
called ``Hulio's'' -- but it was blown out by the floods and subsequent
looting, forcing his parents and siblings to move out of town. Last week,
Abdallah joined his father and brother in a visit to their old store. They
were shocked to see it had burned down days earlier. ``It's a ghost town.
You stand there and feel like crying,'' Abdallah said at Media Day. ``Before
the storm, it was crazy how many people hung out there. Now, everybody's
gone and everything's gone.''

Poury, my driver in United Cab No. 167, can tell you a thousand stories like
it. We drive east on St. Claude Avenue, and very quickly, the edge of the
rollicking French Quarter turns bleak. There are gutted houses, boarded-up
storefronts, churches reduced to vacant lots. Some kids toss around a
football, but two are literally fighting and throwing punches. ``This part
isn't as bad,'' Poury says.

Now we cross a suspension bridge, waiting 15 minutes for a barge to pass on
the river. On the other side is the Ninth Ward, where the first thing you
notice are the markings on almost every home, each with an ``X'' accompanied
by numbers and letters. Many say ``DEA.'' This was how rescuers communicated
after finding those who survived -- or did not. ``That means maybe there was
a dead animal inside, or a dead corpse,'' Poury says. The sense of hopeless
abandonment is most evident here, a neighborhood where Brad Pitt and
Angelina Jolie are trying to build homes. But for all the attempts to
reconstruct New Orleans -- including a project launched by native sons Harry
Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, and a Habitat for Humanity initiative
that involves 1,100 homes built by more than 70,000 volunteers -- it will
take years to make a dent.

The next stop is Arabi, a working-class area filled with more trailers, more
rubble and more FOR SALE signs in front of houses that haven't been occupied
since 2005. ``You can see how people have left here. Why would they come
back? What do they come back to?'' Poury says. ``How do they live? The
grocery stores close down, and they have to travel five or six miles to get
groceries.'' From his rear-view mirror hangs a picture of his young
daughter, who still goes to school in the area.

``My wife doesn't want her to leave here and leave her friends,'' he says.
``But with the schools the way they are, how much longer can you do that?''

Minutes later, we are parked alongside Palm Avenue, watching black smoke
pour from an apartment building that has caught fire in Chalmette, an
unincorporated community in St. Bernard Parish. Several others are gawking
with us, just staring at the flames, wondering what possibly can happen
next. Up the road is a billboard -- ``NO BLACKS'' -- which warns people
about the evils of housing discrimination. On what once was a busy shopping
highway, major brand names -- from Wal-Mart to H&R Block to Radio Shack --
have shut down stores.

Poury asks if I want to see more. I say I do not. We return to the central
business district in silence, where he drops me off near my own comfortable
hotel. I give him $60 and thank him for the most numbing ride of my life.

And I wish every football fan in town would do the same.

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