A darkened bus slowly rolls along the dimly lit boulevard, eerie in nature but somehow not out of place. We make a New Orleans left around the neutral ground and turn right down that street — you know, that street, the one we’ve seen countless times on the news. This is the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the front lines against an aqueous siege that nearly claimed her in 2005. A close call, but New Orleans survived.
In front of me is a rolling, no undulating, no roller-coaster of a street; or at least I think it is or was a street. My friend who is driving the little urban ecobox navigates through darkness and inhospitable terrain as if it were nothing: just a bump, another crater, a swerve here, and a canyon there. To her it is no big deal, but I clamp onto the door handle quietly hoping we won’t disappear into muck-filled pothole of biblical proportions. As we bob and weave through the Ward, the terrain and surroundings abruptly change. I know what happened here and I don’t need to ask. There are no trees, no homes, no foundations. Street signs are merely pieces of wood tacked to poles and streets nothing more than undulating paths.
I take a moment to look at my friend. At first, she seems the same but as we press on, she transforms. I’ve never seen her like this. She is seeing things beyond my vision and comprehension. My emotions well up and I look away. I try to follow with some shallow babble, but I can’t go with her as I am an outsider who will never be able walk the same path. I look at her eyes again; she’s definitely somewhere else and yet, it seems so familiar. I’ve seen this, but where? Where? Think!
Then it hits me.
I’ve experienced this once before in the eyes of a friend; a friend who returned from years of war. Her eyes, like his, are wide with unmistakable clarity, filled with flames of a rare and unique wisdom, but at the same time dark and cold as carbon steel that replay images no one should ever see. She has become battle-hardened; she, like he, marched through hell.
I look to my left and there it is outlined in the darkness — the barricade, the wall, the levee. For the five years when I called New Orleans home, the levees were an unspoken part of life and largely obscured from view by warehouses, trees, and houses. Not anymore; here in the darkness stands a modern medieval fortress tens of feet above us and outlined by the lights of the Industrial Canal on the other side. I can’t ignore it and it can’t be hidden as the invader made sure to eliminate everything during its lightning march. The sight of the massive structure brings no comfort for it is a foreboding presence that imposes its will on all who cast their eyes upon it. The levee is fate, no, destiny; we have no choice but to accept it. It protects and yet has the ability to destroy. It was before but it did not, nor can it disappear. The levee must exist in order for humanity to survive.
From the shadows, a few grand trees rise from the swelled earth. I can’t tell what they are as there are no streetlights. At each corner stands the remnants of poles and fixtures, but there’s no power along the corridor. Weeds, underbrush, and an abandoned home define the space. She tells me someone died in there; I stare. Then, nestled within the handful of remaining trees are signs of rebirth. Homes are being built and some, which rise above the street on concrete stilts, are finished with lights on — just a few, but there’s a spark of life and signs of rebirth. Like generations before, people and families are returning to this worn and torn plain to being anew. New Orleans, like my friend, is amazingly resilient in light of such trauma and destruction.
As I reflect upon its long history, the resilience is a part of the soul of New Orleans. The city has been reshaped and is defined by afters — after the Spanish, after the French, after the Siege, after Betsy, and now after Katrina.