For those cut off, a life primeval

In Reports

NEW ORLEANS – In the basement of a house on Panola Street, Armand Rodriguez’s girlfriend moved the porcelain elephants and glass bells to the top shelf, along with a college textbook called Society: the Basics .

The book says the earth began 5-billion years ago, and for a long time, there was no life at all. Then came plants and animals, and finally people.


“We see that what we call “civilization’ is relatively recent indeed,” the introduction says.


Rodriguez hasn’t read Society: the Basics . He doesn’t need to. Outside his window, Panola Street is a stagnant canal. Big blue dragonflies buzz over the water and magpies cry from the trees. The neighbors are long gone.


“I have been so lonely around here,” says Rodriguez, who has been holed up with his dog since the day after Hurricane Katrina hit.


This isn’t the New Orleans you know. It’s not what you remember.


It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen, though you might have imagined it, or you might have dreamed it. It is an abandoned city, where trees grow through windows, water laps under roof lines and the pavement is giving way to mud. Voices echo down flooded blocks, and fish swim in the streets. Cicadas are the new jazz.


Soldiers patrol the streets in Humvees, and convoys of police speed the wrong way down deserted highways. Helicopters drone overhead, carrying away the living, and along Interstate 10, trucks wait to ferry away the dead.


On Esplanade Avenue just north of the French Quarter, an Army truck rumbles past big old houses with white columns and gracious balconies.


“Attention citizens,” a recorded voice booms. “If you are trapped or in need of medical assistance, please make as much noise as possible and you will be rescued. If you are not injured and are able to walk, please step out on your front porch and tell us you’re okay.”


No one steps out. The truck passes. The street is silent again.


Only a few thousand people remain here, in a city that was home to some half-million two weeks ago. Emptiness has grown so ordinary that in some neighborhoods, the sight of another human being is like an electric shock. Civilization is a memory evoked by the Rite Aids with shattered windows and pried-open metal grates, the blocks of ruined houses, the flooded cemeteries with their moldering caskets and broken angels. At night, the sky is black and thick with stars. There’s a 6 p.m. curfew, and by 9 p.m. it feels like anything could happen.


In a way, it already has.


Never has a modern American city emptied in a few days, leaving behind miles of ruins that are already giving way to the persistent decay of the bayou.


In the 9th Ward, a poor, mainly African-American neighborhood in Orleans Parish, the water is so deep that traffic lights barely clear the surface. At National Linen Service down Louisa Street, graying sheets are knotted around chain-link fences, and the Church of Christ is flooded halfway up its A-frame facade. A Pepsi machine floats by.


These are the archaeological remnants of New Orleans: Here was the city, here were its people. That’s Muhammad Ali on the wall, there’s a living room couch, a rocking horse, a basketball. These were their trophies, their photographs of births and marriages. This was the grocery store where they shopped, the sign still advertising fresh-cut meat and po’ boy sandwiches and money orders. This was the liquor store, called In a Hurry, where they bought beer and cigarettes. There’s the billboard for McDonald’s, a restaurant they liked, and this painted sign is what’s left of their local joint: “Down Home Cookin’ 24 Hours.”


Dogs still live here. A black beagle paddles weakly, trying to reach land in a neighborhood that has lost its boundaries. Pit bullterriers prowl porches, getting skinnier by the day, or perch on the roofs of pickups, growling and whining at passing boats. Sometimes rescuers pick them up, but no one knows which dogs are sick, which ones are dangerous. The large ones can tip a boat, so crews usually leave them behind.


At a school on Louisa Street, police in a boat try to convince a group of holdouts to leave. A man in the school says he still hears shooting at night. People say that armed looters paddle these streets in canoes, though there is little left to steal.


Across the parish in Uptown, the water is slowly receding. Ben Bernard, 62, is the last man on his block, maybe the last one on his street. He has been here the whole time with his dog, a sweet-tempered yellow puppy named Bling-Bling. He says he wouldn’t have survived without her.


“God didn’t make us to live alone,” Bernard says, looking out over the mud and branches piled in the street. “He didn’t make us to live on an island by ourselves.”


His mother built this white frame house on Burdette Street; this is the address on his birth certificate. He’s a retired electrician, but he says he doesn’t need air conditioning or TV. He has a mosquito coil and a couple of cans of Chef Boyardee. He has a cell phone to call his daughter in New York. He has Bling-Bling.


He spends his days talking to the few people who happen by. He sits on the porch, and if the soldiers ask him to leave, he’s polite. After all, he says, they work for him. He’s not a criminal.


He feeds the birds and the cats. At twilight, his street is dead quiet. He sits on the porch with the dog, drinking water mixed with the juice of an aloe plant. He says aloe water can cure anything. A parakeet calls in the trees, and a mockingbird. Bernard listens, shudders.


“Kind of eerie,” he says.


In the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown a dozen blocks from the Mississippi River, the water is iridescent with chemicals. It smells of sewage and rotting garbage, but under all that is the smell of earth, the rich loam of a compost heap. Uptown is a swamp, and somewhere below the water, the mud is alive.


This is where Armand Rodriguez lives, in the pink wooden house on Panola Street with pictures of Ronald Reagan on the kitchen walls and Hunter S. Thompson novels on the shelves. He is 60, wiry and compact, as steady as a ship’s captain. He was born here, and he has lived here since the hurricane on bottled water, canned milk and military meals-ready-to-eat. When soldiers came knocking last week, he didn’t answer the door.


“I didn’t want them to force me to leave,” he says.


He’s a carpenter for the Port of New Orleans, and he has been taking care of things around the house: painting screens, cutting a hole in the bedroom wall to hang the ironing board. He talks to Shemp, a big German shepherd. He tells him what a good boy he is, what a real good boy, and Shemp wags his tail so hard he nearly knocks over the trash can.


The day before Katrina hit, Rodriguez drove with his girlfriend, Cristina Louviere, to Texas. When they came back, a 4-foot alligator crawled across the road right in front of them. This was on Airline Highway in the middle of New Orleans. The water was already rising, and Cristina started to cry. She left soon afterward to stay with family outside the city. Her clothes and photographs are still here, along with her textbooks.


On the timeline inside the front cover of Society: the Basics , Rodriguez has drifted backward. He is somewhere between the invention of the telephone in 1876 and the birth of the light bulb in 1879 – his phone works but he has no electricity. He has a radio that runs about half an hour before he has to wind it up again. He has a small silver .22-caliber pistol, but no bullets. There’s a canoe in the back yard. He’s out of Jack Daniels.


The loneliness is the worst part, and the stench of mold and death. The nights are quiet and hot, but when sleep finds him, it overtakes him completely.


For those cut off, a life primeval.


Vanessa Gezari
Vanessa M. Gezari has reported from four continents for The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The New Republic, Mother Jones, and others. Her book on the war in Afghanistan, The Tender Soldier: A True Story of War and Sacrifice, was published in 2013. A visiting professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City, Vanessa is a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and a three-time Livingston Award finalist. She has received grants from the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism; an International Reporting Project fellowship; and a MacDowell Colony writing residency.

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