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Katrina's Rising Toll

Damage More Than Skin Deep

In a city as iconic as New Orleans, the destruction could alter the very sense of place. But for now, 'people just want to survive.'

August 31, 2005|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — For generations, the oak trees have shaded St. Charles Avenue, their hefty boughs forming a canopy over the street, occasionally interlocking like fingers clasped in prayer. Today, they are splintered and toppled, the Mardi Gras beads thrown into their branches last winter still clinging, inches from the ground.

To the north, people who lived rough lives -- soldiers killed in the Civil War, firefighters killed on the job, children taken by yellow fever -- have long rested peacefully in above-ground vaults. Today, in Metairie on the west side of New Orleans, at one of the largest "cities of the dead," floodwater is coursing through the graves, and no one knows what, or whom, will be swept out.

New Orleans is one of the nation's most iconic cities, and after the calculable costs of Hurricane Katrina are tallied, after they count the casualties and the destroyed houses, it will be time for a different kind of accounting. Some of the places and pieces that make this city irreplaceable will have to be replaced.

"This is a special place. It sounds funny, but there are a lot of mornings when I walk outside and look around and think, 'I am lucky to live here,' " said Sylvia Atkins, 42, who was born and raised in the working-class neighborhood of Gentilly. "We'll miss that. I still feel lucky. But it's going to be a while before I do that."

Atkins was "blessed financially" 15 years ago when she received an inheritance and her contracting business took off. So she packed up her two kids and left Gentilly for the Garden District, one of the most cherished pockets of historic mansions in the South.

"It's the perfect place to raise kids," Atkins said. "And it smells good too. They don't call it the Garden District for nothing."

Today, Atkins will wake up for the third morning on the floor of a storm shelter. The Garden District, though it fared better than many parts of New Orleans, largely because it is one of the highest points in the low-lying city, is deserted and suffering.

At one stately manse, a towering pecan tree had crashed through a second-floor balcony, smashing into the parlor upstairs.

One woman said she walked into her backyard after the storm and saw a four-story building behind her fence that she had never seen before -- that's how many trees she lost. The ground is littered with shingles, power lines, tree limbs.

Though damage assessments have barely begun, it appears that a host of iconic places in New Orleans were heavily damaged.

The city is one of America's top restaurant towns. That industry will suffer. Half the turquoise-and-white facade of famed Commander's Palace, in the Garden District, is gone. So is one wall of Antoine's, which might as well have copyrighted oysters Rockefeller. The restaurant is now an open-air establishment, its dining room visible from the street.

At Jackson Square, a park in the heart of the French Quarter, a block from the Mississippi River, two oak trees that long shaded tourists, artists, street performers and activists toppled, taking out an iron fence and small pieces of a statue of Jesus outside St. Louis Cathedral. (The nearby Cafe du Monde, home of the smoky chicory coffee served everywhere in New Orleans, did not appear to suffer extensive damage.)

Many of the city's oldest neighborhoods, including the Bywater and the 9th Ward on the east side, were lost under the floods.

On famous Burgundy Street, a building that once housed slaves collapsed.

At one of the historic above-ground cemeteries here, a lot in the Garden District known as Lafayette No. 1, uprooted magnolia trees destroyed part of a 200-year-old wall believed to contain human remains.

The stately U.S. Mint in the French Quarter, once seized by the Confederate army, is missing part of its roof. No one knows what has become of the artifacts inside.

With a stiff upper lip, some residents won't allow themselves to think about the intangible costs of the storm, not when thousands of people are still unaccounted for, not when the water is still rising.

"People just want to survive," said Ed Freytag, 46, a mosquito and termite control official with the city. "People are worried about their families. They are worried about looting. They are trying to figure out how they are going to rebuild. The rest will have to wait."

But Jacob A. Wagner, an urban planning professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said New Orleans' very sense of place could be shaken once the collapsed buildings were swept up and the insurance assessors gone. Wagner wrote his 2004 dissertation on how memory in New Orleans is linked to landmarks and historic structures.

"That's how people get their sense of place, and as far as cities in the United States go, New Orleans is certainly one of the more original and distinctive cities," Wagner said.

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