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Views of a broken city

By Cathy Frye

This article was published December 15, 2005 at 4:50 p.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE : Democrat-Gazette reporter Cathy Frye recently spent four days in New Orleans, talking with New Orleans residents about ongoing efforts to resurrect the city after Hurricane Katrina. Here are some of her thoughts.

The first twinge of guilt struck when we checked in to the JW Marriott on Canal Street.

My friend and fellow reporter, Amy Upshaw, and I had just arrived in New Orleans to report on how things currently stand in this devastated city.

To get to the hotel, we'd driven down dark, deserted streets, past empty buildings and homes, through unlit intersections, wondering aloud all the while whether this city will ever be able to recover.

We had talked about the people living in cold, dank houses, asking ourselves how they could stand the smell. It assaults you even on the city's outskirts, a pervasive, stubborn odor of must, mildew and something rotting.

Yet there we were, enjoying valet service, the attentions of a bellhop and on our way to a brightly lit, heated room with television, Internet access and room service.

I spent the first night doped up on the painkillers I'd been given to counter a particularly nasty ear infection. I spent the next day whining about my ailment, even as we wandered through neighborhoods where people had lost everything.

Again -- more guilt.

A reporter's task is to collect and then convey information. In doing so, however, we meet a lot of hurting, damaged souls. We are like the bartenders, priests and hairstylists who listen sympathetically, nodding and "mmm-hmming," knowing all the while there's not a damn thing we can do to fix broken human beings who come to us with their sorrows.

Sure, we can tell their stories. And we can hope these stories will move others to do something.

But we can't find a little girl's lost stuffed animals. We can't find the words to comfort a tearful grandmother who lost the house -- and everything in it -- she had lived in for more than 40 years. We can't promise that things will get better -- because as reporters who routinely cover tragic and horrible events, we know that's not always true.

So we murmur, "I'm sorry," and continue to listen.

Somehow, an "I'm sorry" just doesn't seem adequate, not when you're confronted with so much collective loss.

There's a lot of talk about what should be done with New Orleans. Even now, after a week of inspecting the sad remains of this city, after talking to countless residents, I don't know what the "right" thing to do is.

I'm just glad I'm not the one who will make that decision.

Because, you see, there is no pat and happy ending for this city's people. Those who are already home will spend years rebuilding their houses, lives and neighborhoods. And they'll have to rely on memories -- not photograph albums or family heirlooms -- to get them through this painful process.

Those who were forced to settle elsewhere will spend equally long years mourning a loss than can never be replaced, not truly.

So I was relieved, last week, to leave New Orleans, happy to escape the stench and decay. It bothered me, this joy I found in our departure, because this city once harbored some of my happier memories.

I remember visiting the French Quarter for the first time as a child, giggling when my dad tried to cover my eyes as we walked down Bourbon Street. I remember my last trip there, the one I took with my husband, and how we laughed over the eventual realization that our daughter had been conceived during that visit.

Now these memories will be forever clouded by what I last saw as we drove through what is now a stinking and broken city.

Despite this, our assignment was, in a strange way, encouraging. That so many people are willing to camp out in their homes, to live in such uncomfortable conditions, amazed me. To see such resilience is inspiring.

And then there was the laughter that spilled each night from the Banks Street Bar & Grill.

Listening to the merriment, I got the feeling that even if a "New" New Orleans doesn't perfectly resemble the old, gloriously eccentric and colorful one, people here will be able to work with what they get. No, there's not a happy ending anywhere in the near future, maybe not for decades -- yet already, they've adjusted to homes without heat, to taverns without light, to a city without modern conveniences.

I think of Terry Lanatro, and his newly sodded yard and colorful flower bed, his Christmas bows.

And I figure that if he can make something out of nothing, then perhaps this city can one day -- with much hope and perseverance -- do the same.

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