Happy Easter Sunday and welcome back to the second of a three part series describing my many years of attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Thanks for the comments and feedback on the first installment, if you missed it or just plain forgot what I wrote last week like I sometimes do, click here for a refresher! After all it’s day 32 of sheltering in place or stay at home orders but whose counting. These days I sometimes forget what the date or day of the week it is, not that it matters too much when everything is so discombobulated. On a bright note, my Traveling Partner celebrated her birthday this past week. We had a virtual party by way of Zoom with family, friends and neighbors attending, it was a grand time. Here’s a photo that I took on her birthday in 2007 in Salzburg, Austria. It seemed the authorities knew it was her birthday and had a big fireworks display in her honor!
Now back to the subject at hand. Here’s the middle part of the story I wrote about JazzFest for my memoir class earlier this year.
Everything changed on August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina and its storm surge inundated most of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It took until February 2006 for the management company to decide if JazzFest was or wasn’t going happen that year. After Katrina, the Fair Grounds was under several feet of water for weeks, many of the hotels and restaurant were either just reopening after suffering damage or didn’t have staff, and a lot of the local musicians had skedaddled for Atlanta or Houston and hadn’t returned. Then Jimmy Buffett said he would perform if it was on, and it was! However, this time our Jazz Fest group had doubts about the availability of rooms, questioning if the restaurants we liked were going to be open, and if we could get a decent fare into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Everyone bailed, but me. I did some on line research and talked with a friend who lives on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain then decided the trip was doable. Sure I had to fly into the Gulfport, Mississippi airport and rent a car for the 80-mile ride over to New Orleans, but it was worth the effort. The hotel we usually stayed at was open and had rooms available with the warning that the first floor was still being repaired.
As I drove west from Gulfport along I-10 towards New Orleans, the damage was visible with lots of downed trees, buildings ruined by wind and water, businesses closed, and a look of desolation even 8 months after the hurricane. It reinforced in me the power of Mother Nature to cause such widespread damage yet over time repair itself with little intervention by humans. As I approached the outskirts of East New Orleans, the wreckage I saw made me even sadder. This is an area where a lot of economically challenged people lived, the houses were mostly empty, and many apartment buildings had curtains blowing through broken windows. When I arrived at the hotel, I learned that the first floor had flooded during the storm. While it was usable and under repair, it smelled musty, a smell that would be all too prominent as I made my way around the city over the next few days. After checking in, I walked around the neighborhood and saw a lot of those infamous white FEMA trailers parked outside homes being refurbished. I walked past what was once a large car dealership now shuttered and empty with its sign hanging catawampus, swaying in the wind. Near the hotel, one of my favorite restaurants, Don’s Seafood Hut, remarkably was open but with limited hours and limited menu, only 10 items, no substitutions. The local branch of the Cafe du Monde was open and serving cafe au lait, chicory coffee, and the delicious beignets loaded with powered sugar.
The previous years, our group took the same route from the hotel to the Fair Grounds; down Veterans Boulevard, over the levee into Lakeview, left on West End Boulevard, right on Harrison, through City Park, right on St. Bernard, under I-610, and finally to Gentilly Boulevard close to the Fair Grounds where we needed to find a place to park. This year, I drove it alone, stopping to take photos of what I saw. During the near continuous media coverage of the aftermath of Katrina, the video clip of the levee breach at Lakeview with the massive amounts of Lake Pontchartrain water pouring in was so disturbing to me because it was such a beautiful, pleasant community. I was not prepared for what I saw as I drove slowly through the nearly empty streets. All the nice, middle class homes were empty shells, I only saw two that were rebuilt and occupied. Most of the front doors were wide open, the furniture gone, and a big X spray painted on the front of the house placed there by search teams. Each quadrant of the X contained a code; the top was the date search; the left the search team ID number; the right any special information such as gas off, etc.; and the bottom was how many people were in the house, if any. A was number alive and D was number of dead. Almost all of the homes in Lakeview had a 0 painted in the bottom quadrant, as nearly all the former residents were someplace else. The damage to the very large City Park was immense; trees were down, the golf course beyond repair, and stagnant water still standing these many months later. It had a brownish, dead look. As I turned onto St. Bernard Avenue, I noticed that the notorious St. Bernard Project once home to over 6000 of the poorest families in New Orleans was completely abandoned. At the junction of St. Bernard and I-610, hundreds of water-damaged cars were waiting to be hauled away and crushed.
After finding some parking near the Fair Grounds, I walked around the neighborhood and saw a thin black line on most of the houses, approximately 6 feet off the ground. This was the high point of the floodwaters; the line came from a mixture of dirt, debris and the floating slick of oil. And there were a few X’s on houses that indicated people were found deceased in the home. There were houses that were partially collapsed and some were even still occupied, the residents likely not having any other place to go. I wondered what happened to all the people, would they come back, would their lives ever return to normal? It was a sad start to the Fest.
Once I entered the grounds and felt the vibe and intensity, I left those thoughts behind for the next eight hours. Since I was solo, I set up my chair next to what looked be a nice, friendly group of people. They were New Orleans natives out to have a good time after all they’d been through the past several months. They told me that they appreciated that people made the effort to come back to New Orleans and Jazz Fest because that will help reestablish the city as a place to experience and have a good time. The one thing I like about the natives is that they live for today, the past is past, the future is unknown, but today we can have fun and enjoy life. It’s a refreshing break from the go-go culture that is so prevalent in many parts of American society. I did see Jimmy Buffett that year, he and the Coral Reefer Band put on a rocking good show. I wasn’t a real big fan prior to seeing him live but now Channel 24 Margaritaville is the number one preset on my Sirius XM radio. While I missed the camaraderie of Phil, Jerry, Donna, Theo and Willie, I enjoyed Jazz Fest just as much.
Meanwhile in downtown New Orleans around the French Quarter, Jackson Square and the Mississippi waterfront things looked back to normal.
One morning at the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis in Jackson Square, the city was honoring the police and firefighters. The fourth photo is of a Fire Department chaplain listening to confessions.
The waterfront was busy with cargo ships hauling goods to the ports for export and bringing in import items. The tourist boats were plying their trade from the New Orleans docks up and down the River.
For the drive back to Gulfport, I skipped I-10 and took the highway right on the Gulf through the coastal towns of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, and Pass Christian. Anderson Cooper reported live from this area for a few weeks in the aftermath of the storm and I wanted to see it for myself. In some places, the severe damage extended a mile or more back from the beach, with most everything gone. There were cement slabs where houses, churches, and businesses once stood, washed out to sea or demolished. What did remain was beyond repair. Even the waterfront casinos in Biloxi were closed waiting for customers to return. What I did see was hope and resilience, it was going to take awhile but things would come back even stronger than before.
Join me next week for the final installment in this series, Nineteen Going on Twenty.
This week I lost a friend to the dreaded Covid-19, singer/song writer John Prine. Like most of you I didn’t know John personally but I knew his songs and those songs seemed to know me, at least they spoke to me in a language I could understand. Since he was hospitalized in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, I played one or more of his songs everyday wishing him a speedy recovery. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Since his death, I’ve played even more of his songs, some I’d never heard before. I’ve read many of the tributes written by fellow performers and plain old fans like me. Jason Wilbur, John’s long time guitarist summed up the attraction to Prine’s work in three lines: “Humor and sadness, joy and sorrow, innocence and experience.” I looked forward to seeing him again in person at this year’s JazzFest originally scheduled for late April and early May, now rescheduled for the fall. Here’s a link to one of his song’s off his most recent album Tree of Forgiveness, “When I get to Heaven.” I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Rest in Peace John!
Until then, dream of happy travels!