Bob and Frances Miller of Rancho Mirage, Calif., have traveled to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at least a dozen times in their 44 years of marriage and they were happy to be back as the gates opened Friday, but they weren’t prepared for what they saw on the way.
“It was almost empty. The streets were empty. Usually you see people walking to the festival,” said Frances Miller, sporting a big hat and fanny pack.
The Fair Grounds Race Course, annual home to the festival, was flooded last summer by several feet of water from Hurricane Katrina, as were the neighborhoods around it. While the festival site was all spruced up for the two-weekend festival, Katrina’s devastation remained evident all around it.
“I didn’t expect it to be quite this bad,” Frances Miller said, remembering the spray-painted “X” marks — made by authorities searching for survivors and bodies — still emblazoned on many homes. “A lot of the houses are empty, and there’s still piles of garbage all over.”
Inside the gates it was shaping up as a typically festive Jazz Fest, with thousands pouring in to hear the music and taste the catfish po’ boys, Natchitoches meat pies, jambalaya, alligator sauce picante or other Louisiana delicacies.
As singer Anders Osborne opened the Acura Stage Friday morning, music-lovers claimed their spots with blankets and chairs. Many marked their spots with tall poles bedecked with flags or stuffed chickens or women’s panties or similarly frivolous markers waving in the breeze.
Hundreds lined up early for this year’s limited edition Jazz Fest poster — James Michalopoulos’ blue-hued likeness of a young, wide-smiling Fats Domino hunched over a grand piano on a French Quarter street.
But for many there were moments of melancholy.
“Everybody is dealing with something,” said Rodney Ory of nearby Marrero, wearing a large straw hat and anticipating the taste of his traditional Jazz Fest meal — a soft-shell crab po’ boy. “This is an opportunity to bring friends together and have a good time again.”
With him was Randy Bush, Ory’s friend of 16 years whose home in Bay St. Louis, Miss., was wiped out by Katrina’s 20-foot tidal surge. That surge also wiped out any hope for a normal summer of friends and family visiting for boat rides and water skiing.
Jazz Fest, Bush said, may be one of the few warm-weather traditions he and his friends are able to keep.
“We’re not going to have the same kind of summer,” he said.