Preface

I returned to this unfinished blog article after seeing the empty streets of New Orleans historic French Quarter in TV new reports as the city faces another calamity in the form of the COVID-19 virus along with the rest of the planet.  I had meant to finish this article in the months since my visit to “The Big Easy” however working seven days a week left little leftover free time, at least that’s my excuse to have avoided its completion, but now that circumstance has forced a societal dead stop and my self-imposed isolation it seems an auspicious  time to reflect on past travels while looking forward to many others.

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It’s possible to think of New Orleans without Hurricane Katrina but it the two have become inextricably linked to the point where there’s a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ for visitors like myself who toured the southern city pre-August, 2005 and since. And yes, if all you see now is the cozy confines of the horribly historic French Quarter it would seem there was no catastrophic calamity as this district was spared the worst of the storm’s wrath but just across a civic as well as a racial and socioeconomic boundary Katrina’s scars can still be seen for those who care to look.

In planning my return visit, I wanted to escape the tight tourist bubble that surrounds the genteel Garden District with its antebellum mansions and the raucous alcohol-fueled unreality of Bourbon Street to see more of “The Crescent City” and learn about what really happened when the full force of a category five hurricane bore down on New Orleans.

To get a sense of the city’s low-lying topography this map shows New Orleans precarious position between two bodies of water: Lake Pontchartrain and the mighty Mississippi with canals that run between the two.

Source: Open Street Map, data.nola.gov

The four-hour ride on comfortable cruiser-style bicycles was blessed with beautiful blue skies starts with a leisurely spin through the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods known for their colourful Creole cottages, street murals, local galleries and a wealth of trendy cafes and local restaurants that have flourished post-Katrina.

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photo by author

video by author

The Lower Ninth Ward is cut off from the rest of New Orleans by a shipping channel, the Industrial Canal, which was a five-year project completed in 1923 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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During Hurricane Katrina storm surge forced up the canal caused a catastrophic collapse of the concrete levees in several sections including the spectacular failure of a quarter-mile length sending millions of gallons water and even helpless barges spilling into the ward. Houses were pushed off their foundations by the water which topped 12 feet deep in places, for weeks in some areas. Plaques mark the spot where the levees broke.

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Our tour guide Kathy pointed out the storm’s scars that have been intentionally left as a reminder of Katrina as the search & rescue squads searching for survivors used spray paint to mark buildings with the date, 22 September,  the FL2 code of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) team and a zero indicating the number of casualties.

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Among the Lower Ninth Ward residents rescued from their rooftops in the immediate aftermath was famed singer and New Orleans native Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr.  who’d refused to evacuated as the storm bore down as his wife Rosemary was in poor health. Family and the community feared Domino was among the storm victims as he hadn’t been heard from since before Katrina made landfall however CNN reported his evacuation by Coast Guard helicopter.  “We’ve lost everything” is how he summed up his situation a day after being rescued making his like many families in the ward who escaped with little beyond their lives.

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Seeing the house helps put the height of the flood waters into perspective as all but the roof would’ve been submerged.

Adding insult to injury areas that were cleaning up from the devastating Katrina flooding were inundated again barely a month later when an even more powerful storm, Hurricane Rita, struck the area.

There are scenic stops during the tour including this skyline view of New Orleans and the mighty Mississippi taken from atop a levee.

photo by author

photo by author

Riding through the neighborhood gives ample evidence of how few homes have been rebuilt and how many empty, overgrown and abandoned lots remain.

video by author

One home that remained as a local cultural landmark is the House of Dance and Feathers, a living history museum run by its founder Ronald W. Lewis and dedicated to preserving the real New Orleans street culture.

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I learned about the many social social clubs or “tribes” of  Mardi Gras revelers who parade in elaborate costumes inspired by Native Americans.

The small museum, now temporarily closed to the public, is packed to the rafters with brightly-coloured costumes and intricate beadwork worn in past parades by Mardi Gras Indians.

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Mr. Williams and our tour guide Kathy helped share the important musical and cultural role of  the social clubs that celebrate with parades during the Mardi Gras season. In a booklet the lifelong Lower Ninth Ward resident explains the museum’s role.  ” I want to educate the world about our great culture, how we do this and why we are so successful at it even though the economics say we ain’t supposed to be

Mr. Williams role as educator sadly ended with his passing March 20th,  2020 at age 68 due to the coronavirus or COVID-19 but underlying medical conditions were mentioned during my visit.

The loss of a local luminary would normally call for a large funeral procession complete with bands and dancers draped head-to-toe in the costumes he helped create but local health regulations kept it to a small handful of family and close friends to prevent the virus from spreading. In true New Orleans tradition I’m sure Mr. Williams passing of those of others due to the virus will be marked with a more fitting send off post-COVID-19.

For a cycling Canadian eager to experience the “real New Orleans” Mr. Williams warm welcome during my short visit and taught me much as did the input throughout the ride by Rebirth Bike Tour leader Kathy.

Rebirth is the core of what the bike tour company aims to show visitors as despite Katrina’s deluge destroying a large part of this community it’s centuries old roots run deep and a slow but steady rebirth is well underway.

Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours requires a minimum of  2 participants for the four-hour tour which starts most days at 9:30 AM. Contact the company in advance for reservations