Friday, July 9, 2010

Wetlands and the Lower Ninth Ward

It's been a hot two days here in New Orleans, but since we've entered the south it really hasn't been anything but hot. Maybe it's time to give the temperature a rest, particularly since it has apparently been much, much hotter in the Northeast.

Yesterday was my day to plan (Rebecca planned our funtivities today), so I set us up for a day of learning about the fragile ecosystem that is the Louisiana wetlands. But first: we found a Whole Foods market and got sandwiches and new sunblock and some truly delicious watermelon, then we went across the street to Pinkberry and had refreshing and tangy frozen yogurt, which Rebecca has been craving since we left DC. From there we went to the Audubon zoo. Google maps gave us very, very strange directions, so we ended up parking a long way away from the zoo and having an invigorating walk (in the 96 degree swelter) across Audubon park. By the time we got to the zoo, I was dripping in sweat. A few minutes later, I had sweat through my shirt. In all seriousness I don't believe I have ever sweat so much in such a short period of time. So much for not talking about the heat.

At the zoo we saw a whole host of animals desperately trying to stay cool. There was a black bear lounging in the shade beside a claw foot tub full of algae green water. There was a raccoon trying to escape his enclosure. There was a siamak who appeared dead, lounging under a concrete slab on stilts. The only creatures that appeared comfortable at all were the gators, the turtles and the otters. Otters may be the most joyful creatures on this planet. Watching them move makes me smile. Rebecca has decided that turtles and ducks are the cutest creatures on the planet (something to do with their little webbed feet). We may have to get a turtle, a duck (and possibly a penguin) as pets when we finally land in Oregon.

The zoo had a literary angle to it. Flags, fences and other signs presented snippets of poems from some of my favorites: Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, and Mark Doty (who I studied with at Columbia). The poem here (which was yellow on a green fence) stopped me and quite a few other walkers dead in their tracks. You can't really walk too terribly far in this city without being reminded of Katrina, but I find it important to remember that New Orleans has been beaten down by hurricanes for centuries. Katrina was the worst, but not the only beating this city has taken. More about that in a minute.

Two more photographs, both about white animals (and both taken by a white primate named Rebecca): the white rhinoceros and the (extremely rare) white alligator.

From the zoo we went to the IMAX on the river and watched a film called "Hurricane on the Bayou." I suspect that the film was begun as a documentary about the importance and the value of the wetlands surrounding New Orleans. It was centered around this young girl (who was terribly irritating) and how she set about to discover what life was like out in the bayou and about the science of wetlands. And then Katrina hit, and the whole film changed. A few things we learned from the film. The wetlands around New Orleans have been decimated in the last 50 years, mostly because the Army Core of Engineers has contained the Mississippi, keeping it from dumping its spring loads of silt and sediment and building up stores of incredibly rich soil for mangroves and cypresses to dig into. The trees keep the soil in place, and the trees need the soil to survive, so the containment of the river creates this vicious cycle. There's also a series of canals that cut through the wetlands and let salt water creep inland, killing trees and plant life. Some of us might lament the loss of habitat for alligators and gar and all kinds of birds and creepy crawlies, but the fact that stopped me cold was this one: every three miles of wetland kills a storm surge by a foot. Katrina had very little slowing her down on her route towards New Orleans; fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, she would have done a lot of damage, but not nearly as much as she did. (And that's ignoring the colossal failures of the Army Core's levees around Lake Ponchetrain).

We cooled off in the AC at our hotel for a while, then we headed down to Frenchman Street for some jazz, stopping at Snug Harbor to hear the Barry Martyn Trio. Barry Martyn (advertised as a "percussionist," a title which he mocked, saying "I'm a rhythm drummer") and his trio played traditional, old-fashioned jazz. As you can see from the photo, drums, banjo and trumpet make up the entire "orchestra." The trumpeter was a protege of Louis Armstrong; his singing voice was an almost perfect match. They were a classy, classy ensemble who put on a good show, even inviting some audience participation. A famous clarinet player (I'd never heard of him) got up and sang "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans." And a 13 year old army brat sang (well, butchered, really) "The Saints Go Marching In" in honor of her father's 33 birthday. Diamond actually asked Barry if he knew the tune. He replied: "Well, I think we can figure that one out."

Today we woke up earlyish and headed down to the lower ninth ward to see the rebuilding efforts there. A few things I will note, and then I'll rush off to dinner. We drove through quite a few neighborhoods getting to the Lower Ninth ward. And in many of the neighborhoods there were few if any signs of the storm. But as we moved farther "down" (as the river travels), more and more abandoned and boarded buildings appeared. Many of the buildings and houses (and quite a few that are still occupied) still have the spray-painted symbols left by the search and rescue teams adorning their walls.

My overwhelming impression of the lower-ninth ward is this: it's like a giant grassland now, with a few new (and quite gorgeous) houses here and there. The photographs below probably won't convey the full effect--the emptiness--of those neighborhoods, but I hope the photographs of the houses show something of the strangeness and the beauty of what the city is doing, house by house, one lot at time, to rebuild.

If you want to know more about some of the cooler, funkier rebuilding work, check out:

Musician's Village (Habitat for Humanity)
Make It Right NOLA
Katrina +5

1 comment:

  1. Gil- Fascinating- thanks for keeping up your story- I feel like I am traveling too. Cheers- Mom of R.