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Memoir: Hard living in the Big Easy

In "The House on First Street," journalist Julia Reed tells the story of her New Orleans home before and after Hurricane Katrina. In this excerpt, she writes about why New Orleanians have a particular penchant for dangerous situations.
/ Source: TODAY books

Journalist Julia Reed, a contributing editor at Vogue and Newsweek, went to New Orleans in 1991 to cover the re-election of former (and currently incarcerated) Gov. Edwin Edwards. Seduced by the city’s sauntering pace, its rich flavors and exotic atmosphere, she was never entirely able to leave again. After almost 15 years of living like a vagabond on her reporter’s schedule, she got married and bought a house in the historic Garden District. Four weeks after she moved in, Hurricane Katrina struck. In “The House on First Street,” she writes about her frontlineencounters in Katrina’s aftermath,showcasing theout-of-townerswho came to pitch in and the locals, especially therestaurateurs,who got things back up and running in the absence of leadership. In this excerpt, she writes about why New Orleanians have a particular penchant for dangerous situations.

Like many people in New Orleans, I had not paid a whole lot of attention to the increasing likelihood that Katrina was heading our way. I was, as usual, far more focused on the house: There was the refreshing fact that my new team of outside painters, the hilarious Joe Wallis and his right-hand man, Freddy, was doing an excellent job, and the enduring fact that Eddie’s team was not. (On the Friday before Katrina’s arrival, his outdoor guys had laid the stones for the front walk — but at the wrong elevation, a fitting, for them, swan song, which meant it was no longer possible to open the front gate.)

Also, we had already been through one hurricane (Cindy, who arrived in early July was upgraded from a tropical storm to a hurricane after the fact), and evacuated for another — but only as far as the downtown Marriott. Even before we checked in, it was clear that Dennis would bypass New Orleans and bear down on Pensacola instead, but we had paid in advance (the rule during hurricane season) and I was eager to try out the hotel’s heavily promoted new down bedding. It did not disappoint — our weekend on Canal Street was the closest thing to a holiday we’d had since the renovation began.

As pleasant as that particular “evacuation” turned out to be, I remember thinking: There is no way this city can keep beating these odds. Just one season earlier, the Florida Panhandle and the Alabama coast had been pounded with no less than four catastrophic storms — Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne — and now Dennis was dealing another blow. In the years since I’d first arrived in New Orleans, we had dodged the bulk of Andrew’s heavy artillery, and Opal and Georges had missed us altogether. Since then, the warmer waters in the Gulf had made hurricanes not just more plentiful but a lot more powerful. My father, a successful but prudent gambler, had warned me long ago that the house always wins. In this case the house was nature and there was no way our luck could hold.

As moments of clarity go, it was a brief one. It had taken me more than twenty years to decide to commit to a city — the daily imagining of its destruction (not to mention the destruction of a house into which we’d just sunk pretty much everything we’d ever had) was hardly a recipe for sanity. For years the nightmare scenario of “the big one,” a Category 4 or 5 storm barreling straight up the Mississippi from the Gulf, had been played out in series after series in the newspaper and on television, with lurid graphics showing the “bowl” that is New Orleans completely awash in floodwater and petrochemicals — “a massive tomb,” they’d always say, containing dead by the tens of thousands. Most of us watched with a half-­wary eye and went on about our business, having already made the necessary bargain that living in New Orleans requires: the decision that the city’s ample charms outweighed the peril. And anyway, what could we do about it?

Certainly no one at any level of government was doing much. Over the years, millions had been squandered on disaster models and, most recently, on a simulated Category 5 hurricane named Pam, but at the start of every season, the only truly serious discussion involved the evacuation traffic flow plan that, invariably, had been botched the year before. Politicians could get impassioned about the traffic because voters got extremely impassioned about being stuck in it. It’s a whole lot harder to summon outrage about something that hasn’t happened yet, so basic stuff, like coming up with the means to evacuate those unable to leave on their own (almost 80,000 households in pre-­Katrina New Orleans were without a car) was never addressed. Nor did anyone bother to check the only structures that lay between us and certain inundation — the levees and floodwalls — even though residents whose homes backed up to the 17th Street Canal (and which, therefore, are no longer in existence) had been reporting standing water in their backyards for more than a year.

On a national level, three months prior to Katrina, the United States House and Senate, including every single one of Louisiana’s representatives, had signed off on an obscene highway bill whose 6,000-­plus pork projects cost $24 billion — more than enough to pay for both the wetlands restoration and Category 5 levees needed to protect New Orleans and its port, the country’s leading gateway for coffee, rubber, and imported steel.

The port, and much of the rest of the commerce vital to the area — and to the nation — is, of course, directly dependent on the same water that puts us at risk. (Louisiana’s wetlands produce 25 percent of the nation’s oil and gas, and a billion pounds of seafood annually, hence the seemingly contradictory, and slightly scary, moniker of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival that takes place in Morgan City every year.) The Mississippi pushes 300,000 cubic feet of water past the city every second, Lake Pontchartrain is so wide it is crossed by the longest overwater bridge in the world, and the Gulf of Mexico lies just 100 miles below us. We’re surrounded, which is the reason Bienville’s engineer was so adamant that he move New Orleans, as well as the reason that Bienville refused to budge.

But the Gulf, the river, and the lake are hardly our only source of hydration. Roy Blount says he thinks the reason New Orleanians traditionally have taken “the threat of inundation so lightly” is not merely denial, it is that the city is “so moist as a rule.” He has a point — the humidity is so dense it is often hard to differentiate between the air and the water; it rains so much and the drainage is so bad that there are mini-­flash floods all the time (during one of them, the car I was driving floated into a canal and I was forced to save myself by swimming out the window).

Not only are we more or less constantly saturated, we have always had a more intimate relationship with death than the residents of any other place in the country, a fact which engenders a certain amount of fatalism. In 1853, six years after our house was built, 8,000 people died in one of the yellow fever epidemics that were a constant throughout the century; as late as 1914 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague. Graves lie above ground in gleaming white “cities of the dead” because the water table is so high that bodies buried below ground would simply pop back up.

The coroner, Frank Minyard, who is also a jazz trumpeter, attributes our abysmal life expectancy rates to our “killer lifestyle,” and it’s true that we are home to the fattest people in the country, we’ve had highest cancer rates since the 1930s, and we drink — a lot. Legendary restaurateur Ella Brennan says we drink so much because we start so early: “Drinking a Ramos Fizz or a Sazerac with breakfast is considered normal behavior.”

Not only is liquor available twenty-­four hours a day, seven days a week in barrooms (pre-Katrina there were 1,500), restaurants, grocery stores, and pharmacies, it is also conveniently obtained from drive —through daiquiri shop windows, thanks to an exemption in the state open container law that makes it okay to drink and drive as long as the alcoholic beverage is frozen.

I take Minyard’s point — there’s no question that sucking down a 32-­ounce White Russian daiquiri while barreling down I-10 can be construed as a killer lifestyle choice — but we are also cursed with killers of a more straightforward kind, the ones who carry guns. And, unlike other cities, where violent crime and gang activity goes on out of sight of much of the populace, New Orleans is fluid in more ways than one — “nice” neighborhoods abut “bad” ones throughout the city, so that even the occupants of the grandest of houses are not immune to the sounds of gunshots in the night, or indeed, to the sight of a dead body dumped on the curb.

All this has contributed to something of a survivor’s mentality. When the city fathers printed up a batch of bumper stickers bearing the message “New Orleans: Proud to Call It Home,” another batch appeared within days: “New Orleans: Proud to Call It Hell.” There is a sort of perverse pride the natives take in living in a place that “the big one” may well hit one day, as well as an ingrained rebel defiance. (When the occupying Union troops of General Benjamin “Beast” Butler arrived in New Orleans in 1862, the ladies of the city responded by spitting on them and dousing passing soldiers with buckets of sewage from their balconies.)

Seven years before Katrina, when the likelihood of Georges led the mayor to open up the Superdome as a shelter for the first time, the paper carried photographs of patrons in Magazine Street bars wearing hardhats, and the first commodity to run out at my neighborhood grocery store was not water or even batteries, but vermouth. McGee, who had holed up in her French Quarter apartment with a stranded Australian sailor and a case of bourbon, kept calling me in New York to tell me I was missing all the fun. By the time Katrina reared her monstrous head, John was fifty-­six years old and had lived in New Orleans for most of his life, but he had never once evacuated for a storm.

Excerpted from “The House on First Street” by Julia Reed. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.