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The New Normal

By Mary Schmich
October 20, 2006

Go visit New Orleans.

To be a tourist there now is to be a pioneer, as I learned during a trip with a friend last weekend. The city is hollowed and shredded, ragged and sad. It's worse than you think.

But go.

You'll be enraged, or at least shocked. More than a year after Hurricane Katrina ripped through, and it's still this bad?

Go anyway. Go to see how bad it is and, even now, how beautiful.

"This is the new normal," said a woman we met one night in a restaurant in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. I'd asked what most tourists ask: How long before New Orleans returns to normal?

The old normal? Never, she said. The old normal was marked by frustration and incompetence. She laughed the classic New Orleans rueful laugh. In the new normal, she said, there are fresh varieties of frustration and incompetence.

In the new normal, signs hang everywhere: For Sale. Now Hiring. We Gut Houses. We'll Be Back. Got Mold?

The new normal is a place of construction crews, jackhammers and buzz saws, but far from enough. For rich and poor, repair is a way of life.

"There is no rest," said a man I met in a used bookstore in the French Quarter. He was living in a FEMA trailer next to his house, which he was fixing whenever he could find material and time.

In the new normal, conventioneers again swarm through the lobbies of Canal Street's chain hotels, enough to keep a fair number of good restaurants and voodoo tours in business. Bourbon Street smells like it always has, a mix of booze and bleach.

When the New Orleans Saints play at the Superdome, as they did last weekend against the Philadelphia Eagles, sports fans surge in to buy Mardi Gras beads and drink hurricanes.

Even the psychics in Jackson Square made a few bucks, reading the future of the Saints, who won. In the new normal, their win was more than a victory. It was hope.

A lot of French Quarter businesses are still closed, but many galleries and boutiques sit bravely open. The new normal is lonely sales clerks who sit waiting for the return of the tourists who will buy all those gilded 18th Century chairs and garnet earrings and feather masks.

And the new normal is a notable number of Range Rovers.

"FEMA money," a taxi driver snorted.

In the new normal, the newspaper is filled daily with post-Katrina stories. Gas pipes corroded by the flood's salt water. Fraudulent contractors. Warning: The Army Corps of Engineers will cease collecting storm-related debris at the end of the year so gut those houses now.

"We need a dictator," said the receptionist at my hotel, a slice of the old normal, in an 1830s building with a banana tree rustling in the brick courtyard.

A leader was needed, he said, to decree: Let's get this done. Here's how. Now. Or else.

In the meantime, he noted, the Quarter still gets postal service only twice a week. First-class only.

"I miss junk mail," he said.

In the new normal, tourists share at least a little in the sadness. They're less eager to tour plantations. They want to see Katrina's path.

"It just goes on and on," said the woman from Spokane on the popular Hurricane Katrina tour I took. We drove for miles, dismayed, neighborhood after neighborhood of empty houses, refrigerators still on roofs, unlit stoplights dangling.

"You'd never know from TV how much of it there is," said the guy from Utah. "You just can't know until you see it."

Does it matter if we see it? I think it does.

So go. Among the many things New Orleans needs is the rest of us to come visit, spend some money if we have it.

Flowers still cascade over iron balconies in the French Quarter. From Uptown (try Lilette's) to the Quarter (Irene's Cuisine), the food is terrific. The air is sweet. And the people still call strangers "hon" as if they mean it.

Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune

ht / hotspringer

October 25, 2006 in Nola Stuff | Permalink


I know it had only been a year but a lot has happened in this year. The city was completly devasted. And yes it is dysfunctional now but it's living and it's breathing. It's not on life support, it's simply still recovering. If 80% of a human being was damaged it would take quite a bit of physical therapy to improve it as well. And a year later he or she would probably still be recovering.

There are times I become really disgusted with New Orleans and there are others that I am quite proud of it. I think everybody is expecting the recovery to be occuring faster but I'm not sure if that is even possible possible. To paraphrase a monkey, we need to "stay the course."

My parent's neighborhood in Florida was destroyed in Ivan the year before and its not back yet either. Give us a chance.

I agree that tourists need to some back to New Orleans but not to go on Katrina Tours but to talk to the people here and see what's really going on. I just don't trust the magnitude of our destruction to a person willing to take a tour bus to a disaster area and gawk at the poor people's ruined lives, no matter how educational the tour touts itself as being.

Granted, our leaders aren't leading. But hey, that's not how my votes went. We have to deal with the cards we are dealt, I hate to say. The leaders need to be US. Everybody you know. I built my own street sign and others in my neighborhood did the same. We all need to build street signs, literally and metaphorically.

and hey, the other day I was riding down Canal and I saw a crazy man with an umbrella hat singing the gospel in front of Canal Place and I thought, with time, we were going to be alright.

Posted by: Varg | Oct 25, 2006 4:39:30 PM

Yeah, you right.

It's going to take time. The area's charm is still here. I went out of town last week and - after landing at MSY - I smiled when I heard someone in the airport say to another "how you doin' baby?". I knew I was home. In the land of the "new normal".


Posted by: judyb | Oct 26, 2006 11:55:47 AM

Great article. Thanks for posting it.

I think the Katrina tours are great. Most of the visitors I've had since the storm wanted to go see the devastation. My husband and I had issues at first, then we took our first visitor to the Ninth Ward for starters. Just watching his face made us change our minds. He went home and told people what he'd seen, that the scope of it can't possibly be realized by seeing pictures on a TV set, no matter how big the screen is. He was screaming appalled at what he saw, hollering about incompetence as he got back into my car. The next visitor who wanted to go see the rest of the city, wasn't hollering at all, just sat there speechless with tears in his eyes.

I think it's important. It's like sending NOLA scouts out all over the country. Next time they're at a party hearing someone say we're okay here, they'll be the ones who will speak for us. They'll say they had a great time, great restaurants, great bars, French Quarter was a blast. The music was awesome (the visitors don't know what a musical deficit there is here compared to "before"). Then they'll tell the people they're with about what they saw, a year later.

We need those ambassadors. They don't live here so they can't be accused of whining or trying to get money from FEMA that they don't deserve. They won't be pegged as criminals. They didn't ever vote for Dollar Bill. They don't have that baggage, but they will have the facts and the photos of what they saw.

I'm lucky. Most of my friends have big mouths.

Thanks again, Blake.

Posted by: slate | Oct 27, 2006 12:22:11 PM

be a new orleanian, wherever you are.

Posted by: humidhaney | Oct 27, 2006 12:24:35 PM

Awesome Op/Ed. It's right on target. I have to say I am torn about the "storm tourism" as well. Even driving around when I was there, I felt like a voyeur in the weirdest way. But looking at the damage informs you, yes. It gets you pissed off. Hopefully, the anger will inspire you to do something, and discuss this plight with those less informed who don't think rebuilding is an option. I have consistently described the current state of New Orleans to those that ask as a national disgrace, an example of abject failure of leadership on every level. I might have said the same thing had I not been there twice since storm, but I know I couldn't have said it as passionately or as credibly had I not.

Sadly, the state of New Orleans is a symptom of how badly the United States is being governed. All citizens should view this as a cautionary tale about how their cities would be treated if a mega-disaster came knocking; it won't be any better for them.

Posted by: Julie | Oct 28, 2006 2:50:30 PM

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