NEW ORLEANS — I hadn’t been in this city since 2002, three years before Hurricane Katrina swept through and wrought havoc. Though I have several relatives in South Louisiana, most of my experiences here were when I was a young kid. My knowledge of the storm and its aftermath was from afar, from news accounts and my own reporting on refugees who arrived in the Houston area.
But on a long (and cold) weekend trip, my girlfriend and I have been taking in the sights of the French Quarter, Canal Street and the central business district. An enthusiastic casino-goer, she wanted to spend some time in Harrah’s. I’m not a very good gambler, but I am a newspaper geek, so I decided to check out the building of the venerable New Orleans Times-Picayune, which did great reporting during and after Katrina.
I had thought the building would be in the heart of downtown; turns out it’s a bit outside, on the opposite side of Interstate 10, too far and too complicated to walk from Harrah’s. So I decided to take a taxi. I spoke to two cab drivers sitting together in one’s vehicle, and one immediately said he knew the best way. I gratefully climbed into his cab.
Turns out the visit to the Times-Picayune building was rather uneventful — all I got to see was the 1960′s-era edifice’s impressive lobby. But the conversation with my cab driver was well worth the fare.
Samuel, 58, (I’ll leave out his last name) is a friendly, loquacious soul who looks a lot like a bald Nat King Cole. As we set off, I asked him how business was. “Slow,” he said with a laugh. Is it normally slow this time of year, I asked. Not normally, but there’s only one convention in town this weekend, he said. He told me that while the tourism business as a whole has bounced back since the horrible days after Katrina, conventions are still signficantly fewer.
That gave me my chance to ask deeper questions. I asked Samuel if he was a native. He told me he and his family hail from a Mississippi town about 150 miles away. But they came to New Orleans on July 4, 1965, a few months before Hurricane Betsy slammed the city, and four years before Hurricane Camille struck. Samuel knows from hurricanes.
But he said Katrina was different. He’d only been driving a cab for about a year in 2005 when the massive storm hit. He lives with his oldest son in an apartment, which took on four feet of water. He and his son slept outside on the building’s lawn.
While Samuel stayed in the city in the days after Katrina’s waters burst the levee and flooded the city, most of his extended family left. All have since returned but for his brother, who passed away. After about a week, he relocated to the Houston area for about eight weeks.
I asked Samuel to describe those first days. A sad look came into his striking blue eyes as he recalled the desperation felt by the city’s residents who hadn’t been able to leave. As that despair continued, Samuel said, things took on an uglier side.
“You wonder what happens when there’s no government,” he said. “People can get mean.”
Samuel told me that many of the stories about horrendous crimes taking place in the aftermath were overblown, but there were still some things he didn’t like to think about. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that much of the New Orleans Police Department left the city.
Samuel said then-Mayor Ray Nagin didn’t acquit himself well, either in Katrina’s immediate aftermath or later, when he made his infamous “chocolate city” remark. He said Nagin, whom he called “kind of arrogant,” never seemed to get along with the City Council. He told me new Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu, from a powerful Louisiana political family, so far seems to be on a better track.
Besides economically, I asked Samuel if he thought the city has recovered psychologically. Yes, somewhat, he said. People have been returning, rebuilding their homes. Although awful memories remain, New Orleanians have regained their famous spirit, he said.
After we arrived back at the casino, Samuel and I talked for several minutes inside the cab. Would you ever consider leaving, I asked. With a chuckle, he told me no.
“I’ve got things pretty well worked out,” he said. Living with his son and making a good living as a cab driver, life is pretty stress-free, he said. I couldn’t help but admire his winning attitude.
NOTE: Some time after I wrote this post, the relationship referenced came to an end.
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Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.