But, other than an unusually high number of "office space for lease" signs, there were few indications of Hurricane Katrina's magnitude until the Louisiana Superdome came into view. The building is still missing patches of its roof and the black lining underneath shows, as it did in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.
In the historic French Quarter, some restaurants and shops have yet to reopen, while others have closed for good. I was disappointed as well to see that Gennifer Flowers' piano bar has become an Irish pub. Even the shuttered businesses in the Quarter mask the magnitude of the storm. The effects of the storm are still visible, but it is evident that life is returning, at least in this part of the city.
On Saturday, I took another cab ride, this time into the now famous Ninth Ward, where I saw considerably more damage. Some homes and businesses are destroyed. Others are badly damaged, Most are unoccupied.
But even this does not provide a real sense of the damage Katrina wrought.
It wasn't until I crossed an overpass into the Lower Ninth Ward that I began to sense what happened when the hurricane hit on Aug. 29. Block after block after block, I saw nothing but total devastation.
Off the main thoroughfares, the streets of close-in blocks were clear of debris, but there was no sign that anything had happened since the waters receded. All of the homes -- from the nice brick houses that were the pride of many working-class families to the classic Southern "shotgun" houses -- were devastated. Many front doors were left wide open and there were heaps of debris inside and out, pretty much the way the waters left them. It was clear, though, that the occupants, or others, had come in search of salvageable items.
A typical residential block had at least five abandoned cars, many upside down or sideways. I saw a late model car that appeared to be in good shape, if not for the fact that it sat atop another car. There also was a mattress in a tree and a boat that had landed on a front porch.
We drove perhaps 10 blocks without seeing signs of recovery. We then turned right and went another seven or eight blocks, and again saw no signs of recovery until we got within a block or so of a main street.
It doesn't take long to realize that something is missing. In purely residential neighborhoods, there are no signs of life -- no people, no dogs or cats, not even birds. I had noticed the night before in the French Quarter that the
pigeons looked skinny, anemic and very possibly sick.
The ecological impact of the hurricane and the affects of the toxic substances that might have contaminated the soil, ground water and food supplies really hit me at that moment.
If a tactical nuclear warhead had gone off eight months ago rendering the area uninhabitable for years, it would look exactly the way it did this weekend, except there would be debris in the streets.
It was astonishing to me that all this happened eight-and-a-half months ago, but it looks like it occurred just a week or two ago. It was one of the most sickening and depressing things I have ever seen -- a significant part of a major
American city totally destroyed, and after eight-and-a-half months, very few signs of recovery in the worst-hit areas.
I wouldn't be surprised if this had happened in a third-world country, but I was speechless to see it in our country and in my home state. I wonder if the recovery might take as long if this tragedy had happened in Alaska or West
Virginia. Unfortunately, Louisiana does not have senators like Ted Stevens or Robert Byrd to solve its problems.
There is never a good time to have a natural disaster, particularly the worst one in modern American history. But this hit Louisiana at a time when its often all-powerful congressional delegation is younger, with relatively little
seniority. What clout they do have is concentrated in committees that have little primary jurisdiction over spending and disaster relief.
My cab driver said that while he and his two sisters returned to New Orleans, the rest of the family likely would not be coming back. He wistfully predicted that in 10 years, the city might return to something approaching normalcy, but it seemed more like wishful thinking than an actual forecast.
Bourbon Street is still as loud, garish and -- if you are into that kind of thing -- fun as ever. The restaurants that have reopened are still the envy of any other city in America.
But if you leave that corridor between the airport, the central business district and the French Quarter, you are in for as sickening and depressing a sight as you are ever likely to have in this country and a sense of outrage about how little has been done to rebuild.
The essay reproduced above is by Charlie Cook, a political writer who specializes in Congressional elections. I've been reading him for over a decade, and I can't remember him ever writing about anything other than electoral politics. I have to believe him when he says that the scenes of devastation he saw in New Orleans were "the most sickening and depressing things I have ever seen," because I can't imagine anything less inspiring him to write a column as politics-free as this one.