- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Rodney Lamkey Jr., a photographer for The Times, has spent nearly a year chronicling the devastation of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. These vignettes, some of which have appeared on this paper’s Web site, offer with his reflections a glimpse of the reclamation and rebuilding of the region.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 24

VIOLET, La. — “Demolish Me.” It’s spray-painted on the side of a mobile home here, one of an endless stream of homes rotting amid the piles of debris baking in the hot sun. It’s about 90 degrees today, and the flies are making use of the rubble.

A friend told me cars are still perched in trees down here in St. Bernard Parish, so I came to see.

Indeed, a car is in the trees not far from the town of Meraux, off East Judge Perez Highway, across an open field. Was it blown into the trees? Did it float there and come to a rest? There’s nobody around who has the answer, nearly nine months after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to this land.

In the Lower 9th Ward, progress is as slow as the politics. Houses sit on top of cars, water pipes spew water into the dirt and power lines dangle, tangled like spaghetti.

Soon in the muddy puddles of filthy water, the nemesis of summer will be here in large numbers — mosquitoes. And, as the locals say, “It ain’t gonna be pretty.”

What does it feel like to drive for miles and miles looking at complete and utter destruction? It’s in front of you, it’s out the side windows, and in the rearview mirrors. Passing by abandoned refrigerators sitting on the curb, it even seeps into the car like the smell of death. As you go on and on, soon it seems normal.

It’s like standing on the edge of the world. Keep your footing and hold on tight. Otherwise, you might just slip over the edge, falling, crashing and disappearing into the rubble and sadness.

Saturday, May 27

NEW ORLEANS — Along St. Charles Avenue, the streetcar tracks are partially hidden by grass and dirt. Majestic oak trees drape their branches over the road, a canopy of beautiful green leaves and dark wood.

Early-morning sun shines through on the joggers as they run between the tracks, their clothes darkening from sweat in the thick air.

They run past huge, beautiful old houses with ornate woodwork and wraparound porches, some flying purple flags with a golden fleur de lis, the city’s unofficial symbol. Hanging above them on the streetcar power lines are Mardi Gras beads and old shoes — small things of the past that remind you of today.

On Decatur Street, at Cafe Du Monde, in the cool shadows in the corner along the old white wall, the waiters sit in chairs, lined up next to each other, their bow ties and crisp white shirts neatly pressed, their paper hats sitting neatly on their heads. The small round tables are arranged with napkin holders and sugar dispensers.

Navigating past tables of tourists and early-rising locals, they get up to carry trays of cafe au lait and beignets — fried dough piled high with powdered sugar.

Out on the sidewalk, a man plays the trumpet as a horse and carriage pass by and tourists take pictures of Jackson Square with small cameras.

Off in the distance, there are the sounds of hammers and saws. Birds chirp during morning cups of coffee with the paper. A man and a woman stroll past with a baby and a dog.

The blue tarps still cover missing roofs, and front yards are still crowded with Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, but life moves forward on these quiet streets, steady and slow and sure. Life moves forward.

Friday, June 9

NEW ORLEANS — In the Hollygrove neighborhood, above the sagging telephone poles, broken fences and the blue tarps on the roofs, the moon is looking down on the Little League games being played here, across the street from houses with their matching FEMA trailers.

During Katrina, this field was under several feet of floodwater. But life, like the flow of the great Mississippi River, moves on.

It’s Wednesday evening and people cram the roadsides looking for a parking space to deliver their youngsters to the game. Wearing their jerseys with numbers, knickers and cleats, many already caked with the dirt of previous games, the players, boys and girls, haul their bags around with the bats and gloves slung over their shoulders.

Some stand in line at the concession stand, where you can buy a hot dog — or a plate of jambalaya. This is baseball, New Orleans style.

The homes around the field — ratty, beaten down, and broken — are like lost souls, marked as dead by the waterlines still visible high up on the walls.

Under a blue-and-magenta-painted sky, full of soft clouds and airplane trails, the dust suddenly flies at second base. A steal! Now another, arms and legs pumping, flying and sliding across home. The crowd erupts: People jump from their seats on the old wooden-plank benches, reaching for the heavens, their high-pitched yells piercing the silence of the dead neighborhood.

Smoke drifts from the grill. Frozen hamburgers are tossed onto the fire here at the Carrollton Boosters Little League fields.

As she watches son Alex play his position at third, Cecile Tebo says, “Life goes on, you know? It just has to.”

Tuesday, June 13

NEW ORLEANS — It’s late as the “mayor” of Vincennes Place rakes the nails, rocks and other debris from his bumpy street in the Broadmoor neighborhood. The yellow streetlight above casts his shadow across the potholed pavement. The street is quiet and empty, save the scraping sound of the rake.

Alone, raking, sweeping and washing the sidewalks with hose and water, he makes his way, picking up the trash in front of houses left behind by neighbors who live somewhere else now.

He’s got enough to do with rebuilding his own house — he had almost four feet of water inside after Katrina — but this is where pride comes in. Making the best of what you have left. Making it possible to exist in an insane situation.

He’s Bill Schultz, 64, former principal cellist for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

On Vincennes Place, they call him the mayor. They call his neighbor Cecile Tebo “the City Council.” There’s lots of clout on Vincennes.

People such as Bill and Cecile and her family are reasons why this city still shines, why New Orleans is so special. They don’t give in. They don’t give up. They roll up their sleeves and reach out to help.

I asked Bill why he spends so much time out here cleaning up the streets, hunched over picking up nails, so that others won’t get flat tires. “Seeing the looks on neighbors’ faces when they come home,” he says.

Bill was the first on his street to move back in: Nov. 15, 2005. Inspecting the damage, it “just didn’t seem like my place at all,” he said. The front door was stuck solid. He had to kick in the back door.

It seemed hopeless at first, but “the more I stayed, the more I salvaged,” he said, pointing to an old rocking chair that his mother nursed him in as a baby.

He remembers FEMA inspecting the home two days later, but his FEMA camper didn’t show up for two months. Even then, they would not give him the keys because he didn’t have electrical or plumbing hookups.

The Cavalier model FEMA trailer that Bill has been living in has problems of its own: formaldehyde.

In a May 18, 2006, article, the Sun Herald in Gulfport, Miss., reported on a study that uncovered dangerous levels of the chemical formaldehyde in 30 of 32 trailers tested in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Bill says he smells the chemical when he turns on the air conditioning. But the mayor of Vincennes Place isn’t going to let it slow him down.

Following the lead of their unofficial mayor, Broadmoor rebuilds.

Residents repair their homes. Good, strong coffee in hand, they read the morning paper on the porch. In the evenings, they stroll along the freshly swept sidewalks. And always — always — they keep a watchful eye on the Gulf.

Sunday, June 25

NEW ORLEANS — She’s flipping sausages and eggs over easy in the oppressive heat of the Clover Grill at the corner of Bourbon and Dumaine.

Hips moving slightly, lips smiling, Tyshiaka Hayes dances in between the counter and grill to a Michael Jackson song booming from the wall speakers.

“That’s my music! M.J.,” she says raising her hands to the ceiling, laughing between duties at the grill.

This is a place where they cook their burgers under hub caps, where the sweat soaks your body through to the shirt and runs down the small of your back, and you grab extra napkins while you spin slightly on the red vinyl stool, making eye contact and having conversations with people you hardly know, but who never seem like strangers.

This is a place with soul. It’s a place where local musicians and state troopers alike come in for breakfast here in the French Quarter.

Driving down Canal Street in the late afternoon, the sound of a drum cymbal crashes, followed by the crisp shot of the snare — it makes you jump, yet you are not scared.

There they were, at the corner of Canal and Bourbon Street. Youths. High school in age, jamming on the shady side of the sidewalk, the side everyone walks on to escape the heat.

Sean Roberts wears a towel on his head as he screams on the trumpet, his fingers moving on the valves with grace and speed, his cheeks like softballs; the others are playing like it was their last day on earth.

About a dozen teens, friends from two jazz bands, the To Be Continued Brass Band and the Truth, inspire a man in dreadlocks to jump and spin in midair in the middle of Bourbon, and for tourists to reach into their pockets to offer cash and brief words of praise.

Louisiana state troopers, in their neat blue uniforms with tidy yellow stripping and handsome hats, pause to catch a glimpse.

In his father’s arms, T. Torregano Jr., 1, is swaying to the beat, as the band plays on, here on the corner.

Monday, June 26

NEW ORLEANS — Nearly 10 months after Katrina, many of the people who once lived here are still gone, the ruins of what were once their homes baking in the hot Louisiana sun.

It doesn’t matter what neighborhood: Lower 9th, New Orleans East, Lakeview or Broadmoor. Each is scarred with the neon-colored rescue codes spray-painted on the doors, windows, cars and tossed-out refrigerators.

Some are faded and illegible, marking the story behind the paint as a mystery. Did the people make it out? Were they able to save their dogs? Where are they now?

The codes, painted inside a big “X,” are meant to impart quick information: the upper quadrant identifies the date; on the left, the agency or group doing the search; the right is for pets; the bottom is for the number of bodies.

The codes are meant to quantify the city’s death and destruction, but today someone had spray-painted a bit more optimistic message on a house at the corner of Polk Street and Canal Boulevard: “1 Live.”

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