I brought Aunt Rita back to the New Orleans train station yesterday for her trip back home. We arrived about 9:30, plenty early for an 11:55 departure. We said our goodbyes, then I left for home.
I had the day off but Winnie had to work, so I didn’t have any big plans for the day. I decided to take the long slow way back, picking up highway 90 (Chef Menteur Highway) just outside the French Quarter so I could see more of the city and coastal Mississippi. I’ve taken this drive in the past, but not since Katrina swept through.
What I saw was heartbreaking. Driving through the New Orleans suburbs I would travel several blocks seeing nothing but abandoned buildings, wrecked, overgrown with weeds and plants. Then I’d spot an occupied building, neat, carefully trimmed lawn, well cared for. Then more blocks of abandoned buildings. On one block I saw a school opened with neat playgrounds right across the street from an abandoned Adult Health Center.
Further east, south of the Jazz land Theme Park, things didn’t look any better. A commercial office building where I had once interviewed for a job was abandoned, the parking lot overgrown with weeds. Most of the small strip malls and light industrial buildings were abandoned. Most of the occupied buildings still needed major repairs.
Further east, approaching Lake Pontchartrain, I spotted boats of all sizes from small fiberglass pleasure craft to large steel-hulled shrimping boats beached along the road, abandoned. Many of the commercial shipyards, servicing the commercial fishing boats, looked operational but there were wrecked boats and damaged buildings all over.
Past Lake Pontchartrain the road runs between numerous bayous with elevated houses and boat marinas once lining the road. Here I saw an occasional house being rebuilt, an occasional new home going up, but many, many houses still wrecked. I saw many lots where only the pilings of a former house still existed, sometimes with a FEMA trailer on the lot. There were many boat launches full of parked trucks with empty boat trailers, and people out on the bayous fishing. But of the dozens of small marinas lining the road, I did not notice any that appeared operational.
Still further east, crossing the Pearl River, I spotted several of the Fish Camps lining the river here wrecked, apparently abandoned. One large fish camp was up in trees on the river bank. These fish camps were the quirky hangouts for “Louisiana River Rats” that always provided great character for the Honeywell Swamp tours. I’ve been on that tour twice now and loved this stretch of river for the lively waterfront communities. Now they looked dead.
Past the Pearl River I crossed into Mississippi. This was where Katrina actually made landfall with a 30 foot surge. Here, highway 90 is several miles inland from the beaches. Yet, along the highway here were more wrecked, abandoned buildings.
I crossed into Waveland and turned down the road heading to the beach. This beach area from Waveland to Bay St. Louis used to be a favorite of mine. The beaches on the south side of the road are miles of clean white sand and lots of parking locations with paved bike and walking paths. There used to be all types of houses on the north side ranging from quirky little beach shacks to elaborate mansions.
Now, all those homes were gone. There was an occasional FEMA trailer on a lot next to a foundation or set of pilings. The beaches were nearly abandoned (on Labor day) with signs warning people to stay out of the water due to submerged debris. I spotted an occasional jogger, a person sitting on the sand, a couple walking along the beach. Otherwise I saw no one on the beaches. On a “normal” Labor day these beaches would be packed with the warm shallow waters full of swimmers. This once pleasant beachfront community felt dead.
Then I came to Bay St. Louis. I had to turn off the beach road and drive north through the residential areas because the beach road here was gone. The three lane paved road along here was completely washed away with some road crews seemingly working on repairs. The neighborhoods several blocks back from the beach was more ruins, some houses occupied and repaired, many still gutted.
This is the neighborhood of Congressman Gene Taylor (D, MS), and several houses had his campaign signs on front lawns. I stayed on a road heading north, heading away from the beachfront. As I left the beachfront area more houses appeared occupied but in various stages of repair. I thought about parking and walking around, but I couldn’t. I felt like an intruder here, and even a year after the storm just could not bring myself to play storm-tourist. Even driving through here felt wrong.
Then I found myself back on highway 90 going east, coming out at the eastern end of Bay St. Louis. But I could only go a very short distance as the Bay St. Louis – Long Beach Highway 90 bridge is still gone. So I turned around and went back five miles west then north to the I-10 connection in Waveland.
I could have gone back down to Pass Christian from I-10, but by now I was too heartbroken to take any more. I drove the rest of the way home on I-10.