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New Orleans: Special Report Part III

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By HARRIETTE BRAINARD

This is the final installment in a three-part series on the recovery of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Harriette Brainard, a reporter for the Addison Independent and former New Orleans resident, visited thee Crescent City during the Jazz Fest and provides this personal status report on the city.

NEW ORLEANS — As I sat down at a table outside one of the only New Orleans bars still open at this late hour, I was full of mixed emotions.

Lost in thought, I was watching the mixed bag of people, who, like myself, had ended the evening on St. Charles Avenue, the main street that runs uptown to downtown with the famous street cars in the middle of the avenue, but which still aren’t running since Hurricane Katrina came ashore nine months ago. I remembered the day I went for a run years before, happening upon my favorite animal — an elephant. Only in New Orleans would you see a large elephant hanging out on a significant lawn, in front of a beautiful house, on the avenue where a party was going on to benefit the zoo.

I was happily relaxed as I went over the pictures and music playing in my mind from the recent days at Jazz Fest this April. I was happy to be a part of what has become known as the Louisiana rebirth. I was also saddened by what I had seen, then eight months after Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floodwaters changed the face of New Orleans forever.

In front of this bar, a van pulled up. A woman got out and turned to help a blind man out of the car. It was late and it struck me that this couple was just coming to the bar at such a late hour to get something to eat and drink. They were in a great mood and shortly were joined by another man who had been sitting at the bar. The woman and I struck up a conversation and they asked me to join them at their table. Others were expecting me, so I reluctantly declined.

JAZZ FEST FAITHFUL

I returned to my thoughts of the weekend. I was thinking about the fact that many of my friends had lost hope in the Jazz Festival this year. From the beginning they chuckled at my belief that the “Saints Will Come Marching In” at the gospel tent and all the ridiculously happy festivalgoers would join the faithful as they marched around the gospel tent belting out the words to that traditional New Orleans song.

My faith in the festival’s fans was renewed as the crowds this year matched those from the year before, and the spirit of those attending surpassed all expectations. More than 100,000 advance tickets were sold once people knew that the Jazz Fest was happening and tickets were available. Many brass bands from New Orleans were coming back to see each other and play together for the first time since the hurricane — a reunion of soul and souls that reflected a sad sweetness to the city’s devastated reality.

During the festival, Bruce Springsteen brought all to tears playing his version of the “Saints,” as well as some traditional New Orleans Jazz, and he also wrote new verses for Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live,” dedicating the verses to the president.

U2’s drummer Larry Mullen Jr. showed up to play with the Dave Mathews Band. Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint played from their new album, including the song “The River In Reverse.”

“But the Jazz Fest’s essence was in the gathering of a 50-woman choir from the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, which sustained $9 million in damage and now holds services for part of its congregation in Houston, part in Baton Rouge and part in New Orleans,” the Times-Picayune observed. “Some choir members had not seen one another since the hurricane.” 

The Mardi Gras Indians miraculously assembled their elaborate hand-sewn, beaded and feathered suits to participate in their traditional Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest appearances, along with the suited, neighborhood, Social Aid and Pleasure clubs that sponsor both parades and funerals.

The food, another religious experience for those who go to Jazz Fest, was a huge undertaking for most as many of New Orleans’ restaurants and factories had been destroyed. Food purveyors had to operate from unfamiliar kitchens to supply the thousands of people who showed up. It was miraculous by all standards.

The festival fairgrounds were extensively damaged. The watermarks were in plain view as you walked around the track. Electricity was still being installed three weeks before the first day, and carpenters were living on the grounds just so they could work round the clock to get the stages done.

Much of Jazz Fest had to be rebuilt from scratch, which holds true for the city itself.

REASONS FOR HOPE

The success of Jazz Fest this year not only redeemed my faith in the people of New Orleans, but I realized I was even more conscious of my relief — a relief that my gut feeling, my faith in the music community and its restorative qualities, was right.

It is not so much that New Orleans would survive, but that the spirit would remain.

“The high points have been easy to define: Mardi Gras, French Quarter Festival, Jazz Fest. The unequivocal success of these events and the community pride they ignited were the surest signs we’ve seen that A) we can indeed be saved and B) we are indeed worth saving,” wrote author Tom Piazza in his book “Why New Orleans Matters.”

And Congressman Rush Holt, D-N.J., who recently participated in an effort by Princeton students to rebuild New Orleans public library system, chimed in with his own assessment of the trials and tribulations New Orleans has faced since the hurricane and the need for continued national attention.

“Survivors have been victimized by not just the hurricane, but by our national response … It is a symbol of the work America needs to do on itself and for itself … If Katrina is a symbol of the callousness of federal response, it has also come to mean the big-heartedness of Americans … a meaningful action that recognizes the individual needs of the people of New Orleans and the communal and community needs of the people of New Orleans.”

Such graciousness and generosity has come from many circles.

George Wein, executive producer of Jazz Fest, talked to me of faith, friendship and miracles. Without the relationships that he and the others had with the various sponsors, Jazz Fest, he said, would never have happened.

“My friends at American Express showed how much they care through their incredible support, and Arthur’s (Pulitzer) assistance in bringing in Shell, and then AIG, was what ultimately saved the Jazz Festival,” Wein told me. “If Shell had not put up the million dollars to pay for all the Louisiana musicians to return and stay in New Orleans, as they had no place to live, this would never have happened … It was a miracle.”

“The Jazz and Heritage festival is secure for the moment,” Wein said, adding that his “hopes and prayers are that the city of New Orleans will have its citizens back and rebuild its neighborhoods, and continue to generate the amazing culture that has become the birthright of New Orleans and Louisiana.”

The first New Orleans Jazz Festival took place in April 1970 with about 350 people attending the event, which showcased the talents of the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington.

Wein has been producing the Jazz Fest since its introduction, which has remained, despite its growth, a true cultural event — to celebrate one of the richest musical heritages in America. The 20th Jazz Fest featured Fats Domino on the poster as it did again this year. Fats Domino was to play to the closing of Jazz Fest this year, but on his return to his devastated hometown for the first time since the evacuation, he was reportedly so shaken that he was not able to appear.

The largest turnout in the festival’s 26-year history was in 2001 when it honored Louis Armstrong and drew 650,000 fans. Many call the New Orleans Jazz Festival the country’s best music festival, bringing together a wider lineup of American musical styles and genres than any other festival in the nation.

“With 12 stages of soul-stirring music — jazz, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, blues, R&B, rock, funk, African, Latin, Caribbean, folk, and much more — the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a singular celebration,” boasts the New Orleans Jazz Fest Foundation.  The festival also showcases great African and Louisiana art and food.

In addition to a great cultural event, the Jazz Fest experience this year was magnified and intensified because the thousands in attendance were so grateful to be there, and acutely aware of the festival’s significance to New Orleans.

“Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys — they just know how to get it done. The vibe was indescribable. So warm, so unassuming, so friendly, so magical, so true, so real,” said one loyal fan in the local daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune. “Thanks, New Orleans, for allowing me to peek in on what you have survived and to share in your joy of living.”

In talking with numerous fans and reading about this festival, what was striking was how people relied on the faith in the human spirit and the healing power of the music.

Chris Rose, the Times-Picayune reporter, asked singer Sherman Washington of the famed Zion Harmonizers, him what was different about this year’s festival.

“It seems like there’s more feelings, like people are putting more of themselves into it,” Washington said. “Seems like the storm brought more seriousness with it, but people are saying: We’re back together again; let’s have us some fun …  I think that regardless of what kind of music, the healing power is inside the feelings of the people.”

Among the dozens of people I talked with — musicians, volunteers, residents, festival officials — all noted the growth of faith and support in their community. The comment I heard most often was that New Orleans was “a city undivided” — undivided in the support all residents have for one another.

The division, however, emerges when the conversation turns to the ongoing federal response to the problems there.

LONG WAY TO GO

There are tremendous problems in store for the residents of New Orleans as they face bureaucratic delay and flood insurance problems.

“Of about 55,000 families who were given long-term housing vouchers, nearly a third are being told that they no longer qualify,” FEMA officials recently said. For the rest, benefits are being cut, they will have to pay utilities and re-qualify for rental assistance every three months, even after year-long vouchers were what FEMA had agreed to provide in order to stabilize evacuees dealing with missing family members, shell-shocked children, strange rashes and red tape.

This lack of federal support comes at a time when one out of every three displaced adults cannot find work. Federal regulations won’t even allow schools and some re-building programs in New Orleans to pay New Orleans residents to work with federal funds.

In St. Bernard parish, residents are returning only to watch their housing complexes being demolished — an entire parish where only a couple houses were left standing. In all, 3,500 structures are being torn down, all but five of the 27,000 residential units were damaged or destroyed, and this in a neighborhood that had prided itself on hard work and home ownership.

RECOVERY

While there is a great deal of recovery going on, it has been at a standstill for some time. Much of New Orleans is in a holding pattern until residents can be assured that it won’t flood the same way again, and that they will be covered by insurance. Such delays have prevented many residents from returning to the city to bolster its population, as well as a crucially depleted workforce.

More than 3,400 private homes are for sale in New Orleans, more than any other time. The unemployment rate of workers still displaced by Katrina jumped to nearly 35 percent compared to a year ago. Although, Mississippi’s labor force is nearly back to its pre-Katrina size, Louisiana’s labor force has shrunk every month since November, and now is 12 percent smaller than before Katrina hit.

The challenge for local and state government is to bring together these different segments of society and the leadership in the different communities, towards a commitment for the future without losing its sense of political and social freedom.

What’s missing in hard currency and materials is being replaced by the only thing people have — faith and hope. The city of New Orleans re-elected Mayor Ray Nagin in the recent elections, and his address was all about faith.

It has become very clear that residents of the Crescent City are going to have to rely pretty heavily on faith in the upcoming months, and if the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is any barometer, the faith among the people of New Orleans may be sufficient to withstand the recovery.

The Jazz Fest experience this year went well beyond everyone who returned to replenish their soul, the success went beyond the money that was made for the people of New Orleans, the success lay in the fact that it gave hope both to the residents of New Orleans and those that love the city, a hope that it could be saved.

A FESTIVAL MOMENT

As for the people from the van who had pulled up alongside the bar I had been sitting at and asked me to join them, I was to have a typical New Orleans experience. Turned out that the blind man was the famed jazz player Henry Butler.

 There had just been an article in the Times–Picayune about his return to his destroyed home and finding his famed piano ruined by the floodwaters. Blind from youth, Butler is a well-known New Orleans pianist and performer. Butler had been out late playing at a club or two, and he and his companion had come for some nourishment.

Butler, by the way, will be joining Irma Thomas, famed New Orleans blues and jazz singer, this coming Sunday at the Burlington (Vt.) Discover Jazz Festival. Although I was able to see Thomas perform in front of thousands at the Jazz Fest, I was not able to see Butler play, and will be looking forward to it this Sunday in Vermont. If ever there was an excuse to hear some good music, now is the time. The Burlington Jazz Fest is going on all week and weekend and some of the proceeds will go to help New Orleans in its recovery.

As the city embarks on what will be a heroic reconstruction period, I still struggle in my attempt to define why people care so much about this city of soul and what it means to many residents who are now displaced.

Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose captured some of that sense when he wrote in his recent book, “1 Dead in the Attic”, that he moved to New Orleans because of a hurricane, and he decided to raise his children there because of the music.

“Today, my kids, they dance,” Rose wrote. “They dig music, and that is the best gift I could ever give them, the best medicine they’ll ever know… In Maryland this fall, where they live in exile, a deejay was playing … and my two sons, Jack and James, started doing the funky butt. No one was moving … I couldn’t have been prouder.”

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