Katrina’s Heart of Darkness: A Vermonter Describes The Devastated Ninth Ward, New Orleans
By David Van Deusen
New Orleans, LA -On the morning of Thursday, September 8th, I prepared to depart from Johnny White’s tavern in the French Quarter, to venture into the devastated Ninth Ward. Before Katrina this was one of the poorest sections of the city. When the levies ruptured, the area was submerged under many feet of water. The Ninth Ward was also the location of much alleged shootings. Thousands of Superdome refugees came from this neighborhood.
I asked a bar patron, James La Lon, 62, for directions to the Ward. He told me to head three miles past Esplanade –away from the Quarter. “You can’t miss it.” In addition to directions I also was given a warning to be careful. He claimed to have been shot at a dozen times while driving through three days before.
Myself and a local, Ride Hamilton, 29, a volunteer first aid provider of Cheyenne decent, board my small red pick-up truck and head north. I met this man an hour before at the bar. Ride, six feet tall with long black hair, wore a blue “Sioux City” fire department shirt he bought in a thrift store. He found that the uniform helped avoid hassles with the local police. I was equipped with a press pass.
As we drove away from Johnny White’s it became eerily apparent that we were the only vehicle on the streets. In this sea of destruction traffic laws no longer applied. We took a one-way street the wrong way for a mile past Esplanade.
As we drew closer to the ward, we began to see large “x”s spray painted on the sides of every house. In each quadrant of the X were written letters and numbers. In the top it read “9-6.” To the left, “TX-1.” To the right, “NE.” At the bottom, “1.” We correctly guessed that these symbols we the record of a search conducted by the military or other government agencies. The top obviously represented the date of the search. The left, the unit who conducted it. The right was a code for the type of contamination found within. The bottom number told the grim tale of how many bodies were found. Again, these were on every house.
A mile past Esplanade we saw the first other vehicles. Two military trucks rolled past. In the back we could see the sullen faces of haggard evacuees. Nobody bothered to wave. We continued.
The deeper into the neighborhood we got, the more debris littered the deserted streets. “Fuck Bush. Them Bitches Flood Us,” was written in black spray paint across a battered brick wall.
Heading up Rampart Street we passed a tire garage. A wirery Black man sat out in front. The sign said “open.” He, along with the two taverns operating in the French Quarter, represent the last outposts of commerce in this former city.
Soon we approach a small bridge crossing a canal into the Ninth Ward. A gate sits across our path. Four National Guard troops stand watch with loaded M-16s. We approach. I get out of the truck and present my press pass. They open the gate and let us in. Immediately the flooding begins.
The road we drive on, North Rampart is sometimes dry, sometimes six inches underwater. The side streets to our left are under too much water to traverse. The water is black and smells like rotting meat.
On the corner of St. Clair and Deslonde the water deepens. The wreckage from the flood and winds is like nothing I have ever seen. Sides of houses and roofs have been ripped clean off. The tops of abandoned trucks are caked with mud.
We drive a half-mile further and still we have seen no signs of the living. The tightly packed houses are left alone. Here, a number of homes are yet to have an ‘X’ to keep them company. The scene makes me think I’m in some kind of evil Venice that has been bombed and left for dead.
The flooding worsens. To my left I see a boat that has been placed on top of a four-foot fence. Trees are up-rooted and strewn across the road.
Breaking the strange silence two empty military trucks pass heading deeper into the Ward. Do they expect to find survivors?
Down a side street, still underwater, I see empty school busses. I assume they never brought people out.
We turn right down Gordon Street. We must drive carefully not to be ensnared by fallen power lines. The letters “DEA-OK” are painted on a cement wall. Arrows point in both directions. A few blocks away we can make out five military personnel on a front porch. They are battering down a door. We assume they are looking for the dead and injured. We drive through the black putrid waters in their direction.
When we reach them I get out and ask, “have you been finding anyone?”
A soldier replies, “No. Just dead bodies.”
“Are you going to start clearing out the dead bodies?”
The soldier answers, “No.”
He gives me a cold look. The conversation is over.
In silence we head back up to Rampart, then south out of the Ninth Ward. It will be many years before this community can count the ghosts which walk these wrecked streets. It will be generations before they can be exorcised from the collective memories of the living.
*David Van Deusen is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Loal 1981. He recently spent five days in the New Orleans area. He is a resident of Moretown, Vermont.