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It was America, unhinged

The veteran reporter had seen a lot, but nothing could prepare her for New Orleans after Katrina. Emotions could be overwhelming.

September 01, 2007|Ann Simmons | Los Angeles Times

New Orleans

Shortly after arriving in New Orleans in March 2006, I took a wrong turn and headed over a bridge into the city's Lower 9th Ward, which was still largely deserted after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

A knot tightened in my stomach. I had unintentionally broken my self-imposed rule of not traveling into an unfamiliar area late at night.

Suddenly, something darted in front of my car. A small dog, I thought. It turned out to be a rat. Another one followed shortly afterward.

Then I saw him -- someone standing on the sidewalk ahead of me.

My fingers tightened around the steering wheel. Trapped on one side by a levee wall, there was nowhere to go but forward.

I couldn't drive fast for fear of puncturing a tire. What remained of the buckled road was littered with nail-studded wood, glass shards and spikes from the ruins of destroyed homes.

The figure didn't move. Could he be armed?

As I approached, I saw that my potential assailant was some kind of post or stump.

Why was I so nervous?

I stand over 6 feet tall, a strong black woman from London who is not easily intimidated. My career as a journalist had put me on the front line of conflicts in Eritrea and Liberia. I had been roughed up at a rally in the Democratic Republic of Congo for supposedly resembling a Banyamulenge, a member of an ethnic group then embroiled in Congo's civil conflict. I had walked side by side with gun-toting militia members in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and I survived a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad.

I hadn't imagined phantoms there. I knew of the risks and had expected danger.

But this was America, and as a Briton by birth, I had a somewhat idealistic view of America the Great. By now, six months after Katrina, there should have been lights in windows, people strolling the sidewalks, the murmur of voices, music wafting from front porches.

Instead, there was the kind of ominous silence that envelops a city under siege until the crackle of gunfire punctures the peace.

The unnatural silence, the nothingness, scared me.

Over my 14 months covering the rebuilding of New Orleans, the city repeatedly brought to mind images and people I had seen in more desperate parts of the developing world.

It was not unusual for the lights to go out, streets to flood, and water pressure in New Orleans neighborhoods to drop to a trickle when it rained. The problem was prevalent at the so-called luxury apartment where I lived, which also served as the Los Angeles Times bureau in the Mid-City area.

Against the background of the enormous physical destruction, such inconveniences should have seemed minor.

But the repeated small indignities mounted and pushed New Orleanians to the edge. Before the storm, everyone took for granted a consistent supply of electricity and potable water, regular mail service, a local supermarket, a bank, a church, a nearby school, and at least one local restaurant, even if it was a fast-food joint.

For long months after Katrina, most neighborhoods had none of these. Some still don't.

It took several months to find a dry cleaner, so I only wore clothes that could be washed in a machine, or by hand. The nearest Rite Aid pharmacy operated out of a trailer until October 2006.

Only five doctors remained of the 120 estimated to have been in practice in the neighborhood before August 2005. I typically let my illnesses run their course rather than face the hassle of trying to find a doctor, or I sought medical attention on trips back to L.A.

Most New Orleans residents could not do that. They had to, and still have to, make do with subpar healthcare. Before Katrina, there were 11 area hospitals offering emergency services. Today, there are fewer than half that.

The storm also destroyed or financially hurt more than 80% of Orleans Parish's small businesses, among them many black hair salons. Managing the short style that I had before moving to New Orleans was a challenge.

One day, I cornered a policewoman shopping at Wal-Mart who was wearing the same style. She gave me her hairdresser's name, but added that her salon was the only one in the Bywater neighborhood that had reopened, and that it was constantly jammed. Newcomers would probably have to book at least a month in advance, or sit and wait all day. This hardly seemed practical.

I started wearing my hair in extension braids. Andrea Shaw, a colleague and friend from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, referred me to Sarone SunRaa, a veteran of black hair care. She plied her trade from a clean and comfortable room in her home.

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