The Big Uneasy

Watching New Orleans drown from afar

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Doug Deuchler

All last week people kept phoning with what were essentially condolence calls. You know, the kind of contact you make when somebody's loved one dies. Friends would extend their sympathy, telling us how sorry they were for our loss.

No person we knew passed away, of course. But with New Orleans enduring a catastrophe of biblical proportions, one of the worst national disasters in our nation's history, it was as if we'd lost a dear old friend.

You see, my wife and I are big-time New Orleans enthusiasts. We have no family living anywhere in the region. Yet we've always felt a deep, special kinship with the place. We're certain we must have lived in the Crescent City in some earlier life. So nearly every year we head on down to visit The Big Easy. Back home in Oak Park we even have a red "French Quarter" dining room that's chock full of vintage Louisiana memorabilia. There we dish up gumbo and jambalaya or red beans and rice while we subject our guests to nonstop jazz, blues, and zydeco music.

We are certainly not alone in our fondness for New Orleans. Nearly everyone who ever visited that unique city ended up seduced by its vitality and its colorful eccentricities. The people there have always been especially warm and genuine. Their attitude, from the beginning, seems to have been "laissez le bon temps rouler"?#34;-"let the good times roll." New Orleans' decadence and joie de vivre have long been legendary commodities. No matter how many Walgreens, Applebees, Gaps or Starbucks opened up, no one could ever accuse New Orleans of becoming Every Town, U.S.A.

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But despite the beauty of its courtyards and architecture, the soulful jazz, and the mouth-watering food, few who fell in love with New Orleans could ever be blind to its widespread poverty. The long taxi ride from the airport to the French Quarter always made it quite clear you were now entering the northernmost banana republic. And most of us were also well aware that this soulful yet vulnerable city situated below sea level was living on borrowed time. Yet folks always shrugged it off with comments like "God watches over drunks and fools and The Big Easy." So if it didn't scare them, why should it make us nervous?

It's been painful and emotionally wrenching to watch the harrowing news footage of the disaster. Rescue boats bypass floating corpses to pluck hundreds of families from rooftops. Scenes of people being herded like animals look more like they were shot in Somalia, not the U.S.A. A major urban area is now totally demolished.

"I never dreamed I'd ever have to be evacuated from anywhere," says Oak Parker Lynda Fitzgerald. "My husband Terry and I were in New Orleans enjoying its beauty and ambience. We go nearly every year, we love it so. On Thursday, when Katrina was over by Florida, it was still only a Category 1 storm. But very quickly things hit the fan. The hurricane gathered strength with shocking speed. The airlines cancelled flights, simply abandoning all of us in New Orleans. This was because they just didn't want to fly empty planes down there. We had to make a claim for reimbursement within 24 hours, which was impossible, of course. I was so angry about it that it kept me from being more frightened than I might have been. The trains stopped running. Greyhound closed. Cabs, if you could get one, were charging $100 per person just to go to the airport."

"By Saturday night," Fitzgerald says, "Bourbon Street was empty. That was scary and surreal. Buildings were being boarded up. Hotels were allowing people to stay in their ballrooms but clearly none of the hotel managers knew what they themselves were going to do. I'm so glad we got out. Had we stayed in that ballroom we would have ended up in the Superdome anyway."

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Eventually Lynda Fitzgerald and her husband, Terry Donner, hitched a ride to the airport where they managed to obtain one of the last rental cars in the city. "It was a small car, which was actually lucky for us, as it got great gas mileage. There was no gas anywhere. We shared the car with two Brits who'd been touring America. So they had a months' worth of luggage. But somehow we squeezed in and took off. There were long back-ups on the roads. It took us nearly three hours to go the first 40 miles. But the evacuation kept crawling forward. Cars that broke down or ran out of gas were pushed off the road."

"We literally came within minutes of being stuck there but we escaped the storm," Fitzgerald says. "Yet it's still a nightmare to me that this has happened in the wonderful city we love so much."

Many of our community members were terrified knowing loved ones in the New Orleans area were endangered yet there was no way of getting in touch with anyone.

Cynthia Bruenlin's daughter Rachel is a teacher of creative writing in a New Orleans high school. She and her fiancée live in a rehabbed home in the 7th Ward. Breunlin says, "They loved living in that neighborhood. She called Saturday night in total panic when the hurricane was on the way. Luckily they were able to evacuate to Houston. But now they don't know what's happened to their house.

Of course, they'll hate losing their possessions. He's a musician so he had wonderful guitars. And Rachel's a writer with journals going back to her childhood. But more than anything tangible, the loss of community is especially painful. Everyone they know there is now so scattered. Will they ever see their neighbors again? Will they even be able to grieve together with their friends and fellow community members?"

Louise Varnes says,"My daughter Elaine has been living in New Orleans for 15 years. She evacuated to Lafayette, Louisiana, in an SUV with three friends, two dogs, and a bunny. The car crawled very slowly?#34;it took over 8 hours to go a distance about as far as from here to Milwaukee. Yet they made it out safely. Elaine is now staying with the mother of a friend. But she's already talking about going back to New Orleans to help rebuild."

Many anxious people had family members who were students in the region hit by the coastal disaster. Jackie and Bill Levy's youngest daughter, Claire, goes to Loyola in New Orleans. Jackie says, "We are so blessed. Claire managed to escape in a car with three of her friends. We had a few hours of intense anxiety, of course. But they made it out before the hurricane struck. The human tragedy is on such an enormous scale it's impossible to grasp. The entire thing was predictable, so the total lack of preparedness is shocking. Now there needs to be some long-term commitment to helping the survivors."

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People who once had next to nothing now literally have nothing. Many endured days of nightmarish suffering and loss. So I feel pretty sheepish sitting here safe and clean, whining about losing my favorite get-away playground. Yet there is a lot all of us can do to help. Keep watching these pages. There will be a local "hurricane relief" variety show coming up soon, for one thing.

There are numerous charities and funds. Wonder Works Children's Museum is taking toy and book donations for the kids who lost everything. Downtown Oak Park's October Fest, September 16-18, will feature fund-raising for the Red Cross efforts on the Gulf Coast. Give generously, please.

The Crescent City may have gone through a life and death struggle. Many of the traumatized survivors are now saying they'll never go back. But New Orleans is a state of mind. A flood can't wipe it out. Somehow it will get its magic back, even if it takes years. Slowly, gradually, The Big Easy will recover.

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