A few years ago, we came up with a great idea on how to handle Thanksgiving break with both of our children in college. Instead of bringing them home to stuff them on Thanksgiving Day – and then not see much of them for the rest of the weekend – we decided to rendezvous in a great American city. This year, in a family ballot, we selected New Orleans (previous winners were New York and Chicago).
Rest assured that New Orleans wasn’t chosen out of sympathy for the calamity they suffered from Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the people of New Orleans would never ask for our commiseration, nor do they think they deserve it. They believe that New Orleans is America’s finest city, and I suspect that they pity the rest of us for only getting to visit every once in a while. Where else in American could an open-air restaurant (Cafe Du Monde) be packed 24 hours a day while only serving beignets?
New Orleans always appealed to me because of my interest in Jazz, but I truly fell in love with the place during my first visit there in 1983 for Mardi Gras. There are hundreds of enduring memories, but two stand out. The first was a torrential downpour that occurred while I was driving on a freeway. I found a convenient exit, spotted a movie theater, and pulled my vehicle into their parking lot – only to find that the water level had reached the bottom of the car door. The second was attending a parade in the French Quarter, where the American Bar Association was having a meeting. I’ll never forget the sight of dapperly-dressed attorneys and their spouses diving for the trinkets thrown off the floats from the Krewe.
The last time I was in New Orleans took place with my wife before our children were born, so we decided to hire a guide to give us a full overview of the area – including the French Quarter, the famous Garden District and the 9th Ward, which suffered the worst damage during Katrina. Our guide, 76-year-old Jerry Neff, was a self-described raconteur and a Crescent City native with an accent to prove it. This man had more careers than the French Quarter had bars, including being the catcher in a trapeze act. To state that we received a true taste of New Orleans from Jerry would be an understatement.
Until you enter the 9th Ward, you can’t really grasp the depth of the damage that was done or the magnitude and challenge of the recovery. A local sculpture tells the story of how high the water reached: it is composed of a series of blue circular tubes that start at about two feet high and gradually step up to about twelve feet. Only then do you begin to understand the fear that these people faced. We then looked at the waterway that runs next to the area – and imagined the destructive power of the surging water.