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Guenter Bischof: Impressions Upon Returning to New Orleans

This is an excerpt from a long letter Mr. Bischoff circulated to friends on Oct. 5 after venturing into New Orleans. Mr. Bischof is a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, whose campus is still closed. He recently started teaching New Orleans area “DP” students at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

I visited New Orleans today. Like Northern France after World War I, Hurricane “Katrina” left a virtual “waste land” (T.S. Elliot) in many parts of town. I dreaded the trip but finally went to the Lakefront campus of the University of New Orleans and drove around town, not exactly knowing what to expect. I knew it would be emotional, tear at the heartstrings, like New Orleans always does with its strangely attractive traits.

I drove in at 6 am and into an impressive dawn. It was busy over the Huey P. Long Bridge. Lots of people going into Jefferson Parish, fewer to New Orleans, where all district (except the Lower 9 th Ward) were opened up today at last. I expected a ton of people to come into Lakeview, on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, since it was the first “official” day when residents were allowed in. Obviously many had been coming in before, ignoring the rules as many ignore the curfew that is still on.

Coming out to Robert E. Lee the august Hellenic Cultural Center has some roof damage. As you drive down Robert E. Lee you again see the discolored water marks on houses everywhere. The Shell Station down by Paris Ave. almost entirely torn up. PJ’s, where many of us got our hit of caffeine before teaching classes in the morning, boarded up. The entire mall area looks desolate. The Lake Terrace Apartments, where most of our Austrian students lived, featured the water mark discoloration at least 6 feet high. Those Austrian students want to come back and clear out their belongings left behind. One wonders what will still be salvageable? Before 8 am there were workers getting ready in their white space suits and with masks to go in for a day’s hard work. The owner Thomas Favrot wrote in an e-mail that he will rebuild. How long will that take? Soon enough for next year’s students who might want to come?

I walk up to CenterAustria. The flyer is still on the door announcing that Lorenz Mikoletzky, the director of the Austrian State Archives in Vienna, will give a talk on Thursday September 1 -- three days after “Katrina.” “Herr Hofrat” obviously never made it to town. The “Welcome Visitors” board is untouched. It’s dark in the building since the UNO campus still has no electricity yet. I fumble around with my key. The lock does not work. I get nervous. Somebody helps me into CenterAustria. And then the shock of disbelief. The CenterAustria offices are in the exact pre-Katrina state! No damage, no mold, no visible signs of moisture, other than with the open boxes of no longer crisp “Soletti” and “Manner Schnitten” on the table. My CenterAustria office is fine (and so is my History Department office) – the books rest peacefully in their cases and so do all my teaching materials. Next to family and kin and neighbors, those are the precious things of life a scholar most dreads to loose. After the first dire reports from the city and UNO, I was sure that I lost it all. And now, unbelievably, everything is still there. Do I deserve such luck when the SUNO colleagues might have lost all? Gertraud’s quarters look as busy as ever. Our seminar room in its relative state of disorder. But all the pictures and art works from our visiting Innsbruck artists are still hanging on the wall – undamaged and undisturbed. I grab some teaching materials (lecture notes and overheads) I need for my courses in Baton Rouge and a box of AYA program brochures and leave. There are so many people at work on the UNO campus that the projection of opening up in January 2006 for the spring term seems a realistic one. Once electricity is restored progress will even be swifter in the clean up effort.

It’s mid-morning and I decide to drive through town to get a sense of how the neighborhoods are faring. The old Navy housing next to campus looks awfully battered. Many trees down, some structures and roofs too and debris everywhere. Driving down Elysian Fields is just as sobering. Watermarks everywhere now 6 to 8 feet high on houses. The neutral ground full of litter and debris, brown grass and more abandoned cars; a boat dropped on it by the flood. Hardly any people around – it’s as if the denizens of this neighborhood, which got the full fury of the flood after the London Ave. Canal breach, dread to reclaim their houses. The marks left by the search teams on every house are a reminder of the challenging job search crews from all over the country had been doing over some weeks in their house to house searches. Some tree crews working in the neighborhood. Dump trucks around picking up the debris dropped on sidewalks and the tree branches. Brother Martin High School has a ten-foot high mountain of trash (desks, tables etc) all along its Elysian Fields sidewalk, which will make up hundreds of truck loads. The entrails of the ground floor of an entire school spilled out into the street. Gentilly was probably the hardest hit neighborhood I drove through. I can only imagine what Dillard University looks like after the flood and two buildings burnt down (their students will relocate to the Tulane campus in January until it’s rebuilt). Enormous amount of trash off Elysian Fields under the I-10 overpass. Obviously the refuse of those poor souls who were saved from the nearby 9 th ward by boats and helicopters and dropped off I-10 for further rescue from the flooded city.

I drive out of the city on River Road. The closer you get to Jefferson Parish, the more activity on the streets. Clearly, Jefferson Parish is much further along in its recovery efforts than Orleans, particularly the parts that were not flooded. Now during noontime, Jefferson Ave. looks as busy as ever, with the numerous construction trucks on their way to the next house to be repaired or rebuilt. Schools started again in Jefferson Parish this week; they have been open in St. Tammany on the Northshore for a couple of weeks. Clearly New Orleans’ comeback will come from these suburbs on the periphery, where people can sleep at night and come and work in the city during the day. Across the Huey Long Bridge and on Hwy. 90 West an unending parade of huge dump trucks carry the city’s debris out to the landfills in Jefferson and St. Charles parish (Orleans parish alone is estimated to have 40 million cubic yards of trash lined up for removal, which will take more than a year). Many of the trucks are rickety and parts of the load blow off on the highway. “Mosca’s” restaurant with its famous oyster dishes and sauces, seems to have taken some roof damage too. For the locals, the comeback of places such as “Mosca’s” will be the yardstick of the “real New Orleans’” reemergence from Katrina’s vicious floods and plagues. If the great poet T.S. Elliot was invoked at the beginning, in the end we must hope with the great Southern novelist William Faulkner that we will not only endure, but prevail.