I cannot even begin to describe the damage I witnessed in those three months I was in New Orleans after the storm. I looked through pictures to try to put the images in my head into words, and I was brought to tears again and again as I thumbed through those images. Yet, I am left with a blank on the page in trying to describe what I saw. It really was indescribable.
Wood. Wood was everywhere. I was amazed at the amount of wood that was everywhere. Splintered wood with chipping paint in the bright colors of the houses in the Bywater, chipping in pinks and greens and yellows and reds. Rotting in brown, and turning to black.
Boards. Wooden boards were everywhere. Splintered and scattered and strewn about. Various lengths and sizes lay tossed all over the roads, piling up into a massive mound made of molding and rotting wood. Boards that once created a barrier to the elements for the families inside now left lying in ruin by the force of the storm and the weight of the water.
In the middle of St. Claude, the wood piled so high in points that is was over my head. Mismatched sizes, tossed and strewn at various angles, balancing precariously on one end. Bits of bright paint, speckled throughout the various shades of brown and black. Rotting, molding, discarded wood. No longer suitable to stand, splintered and smashed.
Pieces of white ceiling tiles, turning black from the muds and the mold. Flaky pieces of plaster, crumbling like sand in the dry, but clumping like clay in the wet. Various layers and textures of plaster and ceiling. Pieces of walls scattered throughout, painted in neutral and brights and pastels, fading away to the color of grey outside in the heat and the elements.
Furniture, falling apart from the weight of the wet water. Dressers, rotten and moldy stand outside so many houses, sad and lonely on the streets. Clothes, spotted with black mold, pop out of the dresser drawers, tattered and torn and blowing in the wind. Taffeta, and silk, and cotton, and lace. Jeans and shirts and dresses and hats. Discarded and ruined left homeless on the streets of New Orleans. Sagging boards of chests and tables and dressers and drawers, nearly bucking under the pressure…to conform and become a part of this conglomeration of wood.
And debris. Logs, and sticks, and scattered barks. Rotting leaves, making their way back to the Earth in decay. The Louisiana black mud was still wet, and the ground retained the pungent and putrid smell of death in places. Soft, rich, and fertile Louisiana soil squished around your shoes, green grass burst forth from within the black mud in places less travelled. And footprints sank in the rest.
Houses speckled with black dots of mold, revealing their sagging interior and weakened foundations. The water line stretched from house to house throughout the Bywater and beyond. The line rose higher and higher the deeper you went into the Ninth Ward, until there is no more visible water line…and all you see is destruction.
Cars smashed and tossed and discarded on those streets. The only houses here left crumbling, and it was an eerie quiet. Deserted streets, covered in mud and silt and debris. Wood piled everywhere, scattered remnants of a neighborhood that once stood here. The wind whipped off the river, and in the quiet the sound of a lone hammer rode the Ninth Ward wind. The heavy feeling of death weighed down on the living that had returned to this coffin.
Vehicles lifted to roofs, and houses moved down the street. Toilets abandoned in the middle of the road. Sinks and stoves out in the yards. Toys buried in the mud and debris, left dirty and rotting to never be played with again. A house on the hills near a levee left with all its belongings pushed high against one side by the quick rushing deluge. A refrigerator turned over once floated down a street.
Bright orange spray paint, weird hieroglyphics of Xs, and numbers, and in discernable letters marked the houses from search and rescue…denoting what was dead and what may be living. Notes from the aftermath, scrawled like graffiti for the entire world to see.
Reflections of rainbows in the sun scattered throughout the mud and debris. Remnants of oil and gas, leaving their rainbow patterns glimmering everywhere in the sun. I remembered the way the rainbows floated on top of the water in those days following the storm. Now, these rainbows looked devastated in their fading state of existence.
Windows broken, a million different patterns of glass and shatter emerged. A million different stories they told. Shattered, spewing glass everywhere by the sheer forces of nature. Broken bits and pieces, and broken parts of things once whole, all the remnants shattered under the sheer force of multiple disasters. It was devastating.
Piles of wood, and plaster, and metal, and debris loomed up everywhere. Collapsed houses, and wooden splinters spilling out into the streets. Bright bits of fabric dotted the landscape of destruction. As we got close to the Quarter, I heard hammering and saw fresh lumber on many corners. Buildings on Canal still stood behind boarded up windows. Hotels still housed gaping holes in their hearts, with debris spilling out. Turning down Rampart, I was appalled at the Middle Ground. It was piled with debris…piled so high you could not see the opposite two lanes of traffic. It looked like wood, and cardboard, and tires, and refrigerators, and toilets, and pipes, and metal, and plaster, and buckets, and dressers with clothes spilling out, and couches, and chairs, and tables, and cabinets falling apart…it was a big mountain of ruined and soggy pieces of people’s lives.
Many of the houses had the black markings of mold to show where the waterline had been. I watched as that waterline grew higher and higher the deeper we got into the Bywater.