September 17 – Spc. Fellenzer
New Orleans smells like death. We were here a little over a week ago, and it really didn’t seem too bad. But a week ago, we didn’t drive through the center of town. A week ago we drove to Belle Chasse on the outskirts of New Orleans. A week ago, we didn’t drive through the middle of the destruction.
Yesterday we did.
We were asked to drive back to New Orleans from Lake Charles and do a story on Virginia National Guard units who are working in the city to bring clean water to the Guard troops sent there to provide stability and security in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They are staying at the Naval Support Activity in New Orleans. We drove through the city to get there.
The devastation was unimaginable. We began seeing the signs of destruction and death as we neared the city on Interstate 10. Trash, downed tree branches, boxes, empty bottles and other assorted rubbish littered the highway. Every once in a while we had to swerve to avoid a large piece of debris in the road. Along walls that were once white, we saw grimy streaks indicating where the water level had been, and we marveled at how much of the water had already been drained. We saw boats abandoned by the side of the road. Would anyone bother stealing them?
An airport shuttle stood apparently discarded on the side of the highway, along with other forsaken trash. Its doors were open. We guessed it was stripped of valuable parts, but we didn’t stop to check.
All along the highway, we saw downed advertising billboards, mangled street signs, fallen trees and shattered windows… remnants of shattered lives. A tall hotel to our left still sported a sign advertising $49 per night rooms. My twisted sense of irony wanted to know whether walls were included in the above fee. After all, we could see rooms on four separate floors right under the sign with missing walls… blown out by the hurricane. We could see the beds, wall decorations and other furniture inside and bedding strewn all around the rooms.
It was as if we were dropped smack down in the middle of a post-apocalyptic novel.
As we continued our trek on I-10, Sgt. Staggs pointed to his left. The Superdome -- its roof stripped by the water and high winds -- garbage blowing in the hot wind -- stood gleaming to our left. It was battered and torn, but obviously recognizable, and that made it even more eerie as we drove by. The nearly deserted roads intensified the feeling of unease, as the setting sun shone its light on the desolation.
As our four-vehicle convoy made its way through the streets of New Orleans, the feeling of surreal disbelief continued and worsened. All around us, we saw the remnants of businesses, homes and lives. Red marks on the walls and doors of every building indicated that National Guard units had already searched these structures and determined them to be empty. Each mark bore the date of the search, the National Guard unit clearing the building, the state from which the Soldiers arrived and whether or not anyone was found inside. Most buildings were found to be empty. Every once in a while, the letters “SPCA” indicated some poor animal -- probably a beloved family pet -- was found inside.
National Guard Soldiers patrolled the streets, but there seemed to be very little sign of anyone else. A lonely man rode by on his bicycle and barely paid attention to our convoy. All around us, the signs of destruction drew an obvious picture of a city in complete ruin. Downed store signs… abandoned cars… city busses sitting in the median, mangled, stripped, abandoned… boarded up windows and doors… litter, trash, destruction… and that smell!
I’ve never smelled anything like it. It reminded me of death, decay and decomposition. It was a combination of sewage, rotting animal flesh, the natural disintegration of elements on a city street. I tried not to breathe it in, but it was nearly impossible. So instead I aimed my camera at the destruction, hoping it would tell the story for me.
We spent one night at the Naval Support Activity, and then we had to make our way back through the devastation (could it have been only yesterday?) and to Belle Chasse, where we were to pick up some supplies to take back with us to Lake Charles. Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe it was the oppressive heat and 100 percent humidity. Maybe it was the bright, garish early morning sun… But the destruction and decay seemed a lot worse during the morning hours than it did at dusk the night before. The smell was more pervasive as well. I drove this time, and I directed Sgt. Staggs’ attention to various points of interest as we made our way through town. This time we could see some signs of life. There was a woman walking her dog, a group of men working on a vehicle in front of a nearly-destroyed structure, more civilian vehicles and National Guardsmen as well.
Yes, there were more signs of life than we had seen the evening before, but stifling heat and the bright rays of the sun made the devastation appear even more absolute.
As we drove through New Orleans and on to Belle Chasse, we saw a town in the process of rebuilding. Residents were returning to Belle Chasse, street lights were working, and the streets were filled with civilian traffic. Of course, we could still see the telltale signs of hurricane destruction… fallen trees, shattered windows, damaged signs and store fronts, and smashed vehicles.
But we also saw signs of hope. A handwritten notice by the side of the road welcomed Belle Chasse residents home. And another hand-painted sign in someone’s back yard thanked the troops for their help. It was good to see signs of optimism and faith return to this area. Maybe in time the brash rays of the sun will highlight rebuilding and rejuvenation.
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