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January 24, 2006

The Lights are Still Out

Roy Meachum

NEW ORLEANS - Bourbon Street Sunday morning looked normal; there were the usual discarded cups that had contained beer and more lethal potables for the crowded promenade the night before.

I had not been there but a very cheerful young man, on his way to work in one of the French Quarter's innumerable cafes and bars, pronounced Saturday as the first really good crowd since Hurricane Katrina's visit brought horrible destruction.

As you know, Lake Ponchartrain's angry waters reached neither the Quarter nor uptown, where the city's elite meet, greet and cohabitate. A woman pushing a shopping cart along Second Street, away from St. Charles Avenue, told me the flood had not even washed the sidewalks in my old neighborhood.

Here and there, blue plastic adorned roofs, in what might be taken as another indication of New Orleans' love for brilliant colors. But on close examination, FEMA's name was monogrammed in stark black.

Katrina's winds were not as forbearing as the lake; they ripped away the fragile, snapped trees and bushes here and there and created general unpleasantness. Nothing serious, you understand.

Uptown's most famous casualty was the storied street car that had continued to churn along St. Charles, looking for all the world like some majestic vessel; its drab paint served to emphasize the abundant flowers and palms along the route.

On my first day, cruising the avenue, I was forced to pull aside for a spectacle I had never seen before: a bus plodded the path of what has been billed as the world's oldest continuous street car line. Will that claim stand?

The problem, dear readers, lay not in New Orleans' uptown's upper reaches but smack downtown, along another boasted venue: the world's widest main drag, even five months after Katrina, is an unholy mess. Canal Street lies g aping, gashed and still dysfunctional in stretches.

Palm trees look like they have been barbered with dull scissors. Great sections of the sidewalk have been ripped into rocks. Construction and utility barriers pop up frequently. Many storefronts are still sealed with plywood.

And only in the very heart of the business district have the traffic lights been fully restored. Temporary Stop signs dot New Orleans like the spots on Pushkin's back; they have no predictable pattern. Attached to whatever's convenient, including portable fencing, they appear unexpectedly. On each drive, I breezed through at least one.

Going out Canal Street, in the direction of the lake, street lights remained dark even in the middle of the night; the traffic medium's large globes glowed but they were never intended to be more than decorative, I assume, since their illumination scarcely reached the roadways.

More than anything else, the eerie darkness (and the French Quarter is not totally exempt) emphasizes the emptiness that lies on the place where I grew up.

This is not to question the young man's comment, supported by the mess along Bourbon Street, but a very balmy winter weather had brought crowds back briefly, but only for the weekend.

By late Sunday afternoon, it was possible to find on-street parking in the French Quarter. Pushkin and I found a spot almost in front of the Café du Monde. We shared beignets through the wrought iron fence while I sipped the real thing, coffee with chicory never tastes better than there where the first cups were poured the year the Yankee Army came to town.

TOMORROW: The City that God Forgot

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The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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