While a blimp hovers not too far in the distance, circling over tens of thousands of Super Bowl revelers, Christopher Weaver looks around at the neighborhood where he was born and raised and almost died.
He loves this place, probably more now than he did back in 2005, before Hurricane Katrina tried to wash it all away.
But it’s not much to look at, that’s for sure.
“You can see it for yourself,” Weaver moaned to a reporter, staring Friday at all the vacant lots, overrun with weeds that are taller than he is, at all the abandoned shells of former homes, many of them still marked with the spray-painted “X” that became the grim symbol of a great American city nearly wiped off the map.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he went on. “It sucks here. Just look across the street. Nothing. Look over there. Nothing.”
In many ways, New Orleans has come back stronger than ever since Katrina. The restaurant scene is thriving. The hotels are packed. The Superdome has received a glamorous makeover. The French Quarter rocks into the wee hours night after night.
But, as the Big Easy prepares to host the party-slash-national holiday it does like no other, Super Bowl Sunday, it’s worth remembering that life has not yet returned to normal for everyone here.
Not even close.
“It’s like a tale of two cities,” said Mike Miller, who works with the homeless group Unity of Greater New Orleans. “It’s hard to believe that seven years later, it still looks like this.”
Just a short ride from the French Quarter, in historic neighborhoods such as Treme and the Ninth Ward, it’s not hard to find a virtual time capsule from the days when Katrina roared ashore. On block after block, there are structures that look pretty much the same as they did after the water receded.
There are the telltale markings that show just how high it climbed when the levees cracked — 3 feet on this crumbling house, 5 feet on those remains of a shopping mall, 7 feet on that ghostly apartment complex. Those Xs still mark the date many of them were searched, who did the searching and how many bodies, if any, were found inside.
Where kids once played and neighbors used to hang out together, now all that remains could easily pass for a former war zone.
“It’s just hard to believe that every abandoned house, every abandoned apartment, represents a family that never came back,” Miller said, shaking his head.
Even after all these years, it all looks so familiar to anyone who remembers those horrific images of people clinging to rooftops and huddled on bridges, waiting desperately for help to arrive.
“You can still see,” said Travers Kurr, also with Unity of Greater New Orleans, pointing toward the roof of a boarded-up house, “where people busted out of their attics so they could be rescued.”
Weaver was one of those who barely got out alive.
When Katrina struck, he was looking out a window toward the levee about a block away, the one that was supposed to keep him safe. Instead, he watched it tear apart right before his eyes — and the water come rushing through.
He tried to escape the conventional way, but the pressure from winds howling at well over 100 mph prevented him from opening the door. He busted a window and climbed out, only to get pinned against the wall of his house by the rapidly rising waters. Finally, he went under, sure he was going to die. He held his breath and remembered what his grandmother told him, to always pray to God to forgive his sins.
“Suddenly, something shot me away from that house,” Weaver said, convinced beyond any doubt that he’s still alive today only because of a higher power.
A neighbor pulled him to safety using a strand of Christmas lights. After 2½ days on a rooftop, they were finally rescued. Weaver still has a nasty scar of his right leg from a cut he got while being tossed about in the turbulent waters.
Despite the unthinkable carnage in the Lower Ninth Ward, Weaver never had any doubt he would return and rebuild, even if it’s now clear that so many of his former neighbors and fellow survivors won’t be following his lead.
“I was born and raised right here,” he said. “If Katrina comes back again, I’m still not leaving.”
Miller estimates there are more than 10,000 — and maybe as many as 15,000 — abandoned structures in the New Orleans metro area. Many of them have been commandeered by the city’s large homeless population, who slip away in the light of day but leave behind evidence of their existence — dirty clothes scattered about, a bedroll where they slept, empty cans and plastic foam containers from what passed for a meal.
As he drives around the areas that won’t be found in any tourism brochures, another member of his team, New Orleans native Clarence White, rattles off what used to be here, what used to be there.
“That was a popular bar room over there,” White said, turning to his left. “There used to be a drug store over there,” he said, shifting his gaze to the right.
The NFL, as it now does in all Super Bowl cities, has set aside Saturday as a day of service, in which volunteers will take part in the renovation of five local playgrounds and their surrounding communities. That gesture will surely be more poignant in New Orleans than any other place where the championship game is held.
But Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, a native of nearby St. Rose, is keenly aware that it will take far more than a few hours to get this city — this entire city — back on its feet.
“When I get home, I drive around the city, go to some of my old spots, just hang out with people,” he said. “You see the city is rebuilding, but we’ve still got a long way to go. It’s just different, man. You have so many people that were lost. The spirit was kind of broken for a second. But New Orleans people, we’ve been through a lot. We love our city, man. We love to have a good time. We love for people to come have a great time with us.”
Even amid the lingering devastation, there are hopeful signs of progress. In the Lower Ninth Ward, for instance, construction workers were on the scene Friday at several odd-shaped, energy-efficient homes going up with funding from a group led by actor Brad Pitt.
“I appreciate everything he’s doing,” Weaver said, though he quickly added that the remnants of Katrina are far, far more prevalent in this part of New Orleans.
Through all the hardship, Weaver doesn’t seem the least bit bitter about his plight. He’s proud the Super Bowl has returned to his hometown for the first time since Katrina, and he’ll be pulling hard for the Ravens to beat the San Francisco 49ers. This being New Orleans, the occasion will be marked with adult beverages and plenty of food — gumbo, red beans and rice, a big pot of crawfish.
But, for all those Super Bowl revelers who might think everything has returned to normal in the Big Easy, Weaver has this message:
“Come on over here where I’m at.”
It’s not far away at all.
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