Monday morning I woke up ready to embrace my role as a tourist in New Orleans. I took the dogs for a quick walk through the neighborhood behind my hotel. We may have run into a homeless man with needle marks in his arm, but he just smiled hello and walked past us.
I’d narrowed down which tours looked the best out of the hotel’s selection. Monday afternoon I was on a 3 hour City Tour of New Orleans. Between the heat and the humidity, it was a relief to be on a bus tour! My hotel was too far away for the tour company to pick me up, so I agreed to be picked up from a different La Quinta downtown. I drove down through the business district, parked, and then convinced a restaurant to make me a grilled chicken sandwich to-go in 10 minutes.
Touring by yourself can feel awkward at times. Most people are in a group, or at least with their significant other. When I sat down on the bus, other people would glance at my empty seat considering whether to take it, but then assuming that I must be waiting for someone. So I got to enjoy my front window seat all by myself!
I’ve been on some pretty awful bus tours in my life, but this tour and guide were awesome. You could tell that he was proud of his city, enjoyed talking about the history of it, but at the same time wasn’t afraid to joke around.
The first thing he pointed out were the decorative mini-cable cars around the city. Many cities have a similar concept, in Buffalo, NY there are Buffalo statues; in Pittsburgh there are different dinosaurs around the city. It’s a way to give local artists a showcase and create revenue as different businesses or charities sponsor each statue. The weird thing about New Orleans cable cars is that they look more like miniature coffins. With all the voodoo lore, I thought this would be quite fitting as well.
I loved driving through the Garden District, where many of New Orleans million dollar homes were. Almost all of the homes in that area have extensive ironwork, from fences to patios to elaborate railings. No house wants to look exactly like their neighbor, and our guide was quick to point out what detail one home would change so that it could look inspired by (but not quite the same). It wasn’t just the clearly wealthy homes that I loved though–even the smaller homes or apartments gave me this feeling of legend and mystery. Huge Live Oak trees towered over the streets and over the homes, and dark ivy was everywhere. It was all very eerie, but in a beautiful way. Our guide pointed out on of the more over-the-top mansions that used to belong to Nicholas Cage, before he got into that financial trouble and had to sell off several of his homes.
We stopped at New Orleans cemetery 3 and did a small walking tour through some of the graves. The city cemeteries are tourist destinations by themselves, and many companies offer tours specifically for them (some of them at night! Scaryy). I learned about family graves, where there is essentially a top layer of the most recent family members and then a “dead space” where the crushed up bones of the not so recent members are kept. Did they really have to name it “dead space?” For some of the family graves, you could tell that different generations had added onto the site, perhaps a new marble roof or granite trim. Any graves not kept up by a family are left alone until they crack enough where someone could reach inside the tomb. Then the city steps in and tries to track down any relatives to the family. If after 10 years no one responds, they knock down the grave and move any bones to the back of the cemetery. A new family may then buy the site and begin building. I also learned that Jazz Funerals cost a lot of money and have to be planned way in advance of one’s own death.
A quick bathroom break at the beautiful and large New Orleans City Gardens gave me an idea for how I could incorporate the doggies on some of my touring for the following day. While completing my payment for the tour, the guide told me that there was an actual dog park within the gardens!
Throughout the tour, our guide had been throwing in comments about Hurricane Katrina, pointing out damage on buildings or explaining what had happened to their economy. I really appreciated that he did not turn his explanations into a political commentary, nor did he share his opinion on things like why it took so long for help to arrive. By sticking to the facts and really focusing on what the people of New Orleans experienced (and how that depended on which part of the city they were in) I walked away feeling like I finally understood what took place in 2005.
The first thing to know is that the flooding had nothing to do with the levees. Most of New Orleans is below sea level (another thing I did not know), and the city protects itself from storms and changing water levels through a series of canals, lakes and levees. The storm brought in so much water that in several places, the thick canal walls broke, sending huge waves of water into the city. As water kept pouring in, it kept flowing out of the canals and sending it to the same parts of the city. There were several intersections where our guide would point out the left side having several feet of water, while the right side was fine. Some streets I could see with my own eyes that it was at a downward or upward slope. Interestingly, it is widely known there that the Garden District is above sea level, and is generally free from flooding.
Another element to the damage caused by Katrina is that before the flooding began, all communication had been cut off. Cell phone and radio towers were damaged or knocked over already, so when the real problems began, there was no way to effectively get information out or warn the people. Eventually our tour made it’s way to the 9th Ward area, where the most severe damage occurred. One of the most chilling things I learned on the tour was the manner in which many of the bodies were found. When they saw the water rising, many families went up into their attics to get to higher ground. When the National Guard arrived to help search for bodies, they found entire families in their attics, trapped as the flood waters rose above their roofs with no way to get out.
As we drove through the 9th Ward, I could not even begin to imagine what these families had been through–both those who came back to New Orleans and those who were unable to afford to come back, unable to rebuild, or simply unable to afford the now skyrocketing insurance prices. Our guide said it took over a year before schools and hospitals were up and running, and their business district was simply closed.
A significant part of the New Orleans population has not returned, but looking around the business district and that main tourist areas, you might not even realize that such a disaster had happened. In other areas, it is very clear that there is still much to rebuild.
After the tour, I was overwhelmed with trying to absorb everything I had learned. I am really intrigued by New Orleans– the history, the landscape, and how a city that is below sea level can keep afloat in this economy no matter how many times it has to rebuild. If I were to get into any of the 3 graduate schools I’ll be applying to in Louisiana, I would be thrilled to live there!
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana