Gail Williams and Steve Shapiro: tourists in New Orleans after Katrina

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Story telling session with Gail Williams, Steve Shapiro, Wendy Walsh, Alan Tabor, Leslie Harder, Scott Weaver, Victor and Marilyn Ichioka on 7/24/2016

Transcript, lightly edited:

Gail Williams: After going down to New Orleans many times, when Katrina was approaching New Orleans, we just started watching it and realizing what might happen.  And then we saw the aftermath on television; it was just so unspeakable and tragic and horrible.  And so, for a time we were just a little bit numb about it. It was just haunting. Then we figured out at some point that WWOZ Radio had come back on the internet out of New Jersey. It was in exile in New Jersey and playing some of the collection of music that someone had gotten out of there. So we just started listening all the time. Couple of months went by.

We were planning to go on a camping trip to Death Valley to just kind of really get away from everywhere.  And just be back with a tent on a dirt road somewhere and look at stars and be quiet. Because we had full-time jobs that were pretty busy at the time. Right before that they started to broadcast, all of a sudden from the French Quarter again. They found an office that had not been flooded and they had moved in. And they said that they had a long way to go but were hoping the city's gonna get back on its feet. Then we listened to that for a week or so and then they said, "This city needs tourists! We are ready for tourists."...and we said, uh...

Steve Shapiro: They said, particularly this one guy that said, "People keep calling us and ask us, What can we do to help!? What can we do to help?" Well, the answer is come down here. We need people to start going down to our restaurants, going to our clubs, so that we can start hiring people back -- and there are jobs -- and businesses get going." I thought, well that's a pretty easy way to help. [Laughing!] 

Leslie: That's sort of a win-win. 

Wendy: I think we'd qualify.

Steve: That's more fun than writing a check.

Gail: There are these more difficult kinds of volunteer tourism: we never really got around to them!  But this was like, oh, volunteer to go hang out and eat New Orleans food and listen to music? Not so bad.

But we still, were all ready to go camping. It was a stressful time. We had been picturing how nice it would be to be quiet and outdoors.


So we figured out how to take two weeks and we spent one week camping in the backroads of Death Valley.  And then we packed up our car, got out our New Orleans clothes, drove to the Las Vegas airport, changed our clothes, got on a plane and went to New Orleans!

So it was like this complete two-part vacation that was as completely different as you could possibly imagine. From like just being dry and that sort of clean feeling of just seeing the horizon all around you and blue sky.  And then flying into New Orleans and arriving at this airport that was still water-stained and moldy. And there are troops and uniforms everywhere. We're like, wow! [Lots of simultaneous inaudible talking].

So we'd booked a hotel -- there were only a few hotels open and we booked this hotel -- and we got there.  And it's this white building with columns in the front and this grand staircase. And it was all decorated with Christmas decorations on the inside. It was like this glorious, fancy, really southern-looking little hotel, downtown. And you know, it was quite cheap. So we are thinking, wow, this is really crazy -- we got like this ridiculous bargain on this fancy hotel.  And it turned out that most of the hotel's rooms were paid for by FEMA and that people in them were living there as refugees. They're back to work, but they don't know where to live and they're living in this super fancy hotel. There were only a few tourists.  And they're trying to keep up the look of it to pretend it was this luxury hotel.

Steve: Actually a lot of the rooms were hotel workers who were living there -- people who were actually working in the hotel. And in there were also FEMA workers who were in town to help with the rescue efforts and everything. So it was an odd group of people to be there. It wasn't your normal tourists.  But it was also really interesting because we got a lot of first-hand stories from people who were like right at ground zero through this whole thing, who were essentially involved from several different perspectives. Just by going home every night and waking up every morning in this hotel and just being around it was really interesting -- conversations about the stuff we'd been seeing on TV for the last 4 months.

Gail: And we found out right away that there were no streets -- yet -- where the street lights had been restored all the way from the river to the lake. And so at night with the rental car -- the water had been drained out of everywhere -- but if you wanted to drive out in the dark, you would just plunge into this blackness. And you'd be driving down the streets -- the lines on the streets were totally gone from the time it was flooded and there were these old decrepit hulks of cars along some of the sides of the streets that were still completely rusting and hideous and covered with dust -- or dry mud or something -- so that they were not reflective.

It was tough just driving out there. We'd heard just before we got down [to New Orleans] that Rock and Bowl's original location had reopened because it was a two-storeyed building, it was down in the sort of mid-town sort of swampy area that was really flooded high. But it was the second story. So the bottom story was all boarded up but they had opened the upstairs. We were driving along -- there was no electricity, there was nobody living there. It was all just dead and forgotten. And then here's this little beam of light out there and it was really just like being in Death Valley and driving up to some tiny town, really. "Oh my God there is a light, that must be a town." So you get there and it's Rock n' Bowl! They got a generator! [Al - it was like Anders Osborne or...] Yeah! It's crazy stuff going on! It was like, yeah! People were there!  

Everywhere we went -- whether it was out there or to dinner -- we would see these people greeting each other for the first time since the flood. A lot of them had only been back in town for a week. So it was all, like, people recognizing each other, running up and hugging each other and so forth. And so we felt a little strange about that, but again and again, people told us that they were happy we were there. Two things really stood out in that regard. We were thinking we'd kinda like to go out to where the most damage and destruction was -- along the canal and over in the 9th Ward.  And we felt, it doesn't seem that appropriate and they're like, "No! You gotta get out there with your camera, you got to tell people. Our biggest problem right now is that people are gonna forget what happened to this city and you gotta just go, take your camera. We want you to be witnesses." So we did. It was astonishingly strange.

Steve: The other thing about that night going to Rock n' Bowl is that was so weird, was that we drove down the main drag, the name I can't remember now, into Mid-City to Rock n' Bowl.  And after we got out from the quarter and we got onto this main drag and all of a sudden we just descended into, as you said earlier, pitch black. It was the eeriest thing I'd ever seen. It was just absolutely pitch black and you can make out like silhouettes of buildings and everything but there was just this post-apocalypse thing. It was just unbelievable. And we, we were a little early for Rock n' Bowl so we kept going and we went down to River Bend because we knew that, I think it was, Dante's restaurant was open and we were gonna eat down there...and that part of the city was functioning. The restaurant was open, they had electricity and they were just phenomenally excited to see us as tourists! They were just...really.  I mean I've never.... There were just five or six instances in this week where people treated us like returning heroes!

You know, normally you'd go out of your way when you're traveling to not look like a tourist. You'd like to just slither in and be mistaken for belonging there and you know we were just trying to do that and people would go, "Are you tourists?" [Scott: You know the camera gave it away.] When we walked into the restaurant and they'd go, "Thank you for coming!"  This is great and we had a nice dinner and it felt like being in New Orleans again. It felt normal. And then we went out and plunged back into that dark part of Mid City and there was no parking in that parking lot --the shopping center that Rock n' Bowl was in -- which was the first time that had ever happened to us. So we started driving down these side roads. It was pitch black! [Gail: Every house was boarded up.] I'd never felt scared before but this was really unnerving. And there were cars with mud-lines like up to the window. They'd been flooded. They were drowned cars that were still there that when you got out you could see mud-line up to the windows. And we found a parking space and walked back and went into Rock n' Bowl. And I remember when we came out like 2 or 3 or 4 hours later, whatever it was, I was afraid to walk to the car!

Gail: It was really scary.

Steve: I was afraid because there was nobody out on the road and there were...

Marilyn: The fear was just primal? It wasn't about snakes or people?

Steve: No, it was not snakes. It was about people. There were people who had come back and -- there were reports all around of crime and things like that. And there was nobody around. You know, if you were knocked out unconscious, you could be there for a month before -- you know.  It was that was the kind of feeling... We actually got a group of people who all happened to have been parked along that way. We all kind of agreed to walk up the street together and watch each other to the cars. I'd never felt like that anywhere in New Orleans. Never before. And this night was the only time during the whole week I was scared.

Alan: Did you go to WWOZ and tell them how you ended up there?

Gail: We did go to WWOZ.

Steve: No not on that trip. That was when we met Max.

Gail: Was that later?

Steve: Yea. That was the next trip. That was the season when Treme came on. He took us to WWOZ.

Gail: We walked over to the west bank -- we took the ferry over, rather -- and we walked around and we're just looking at blue tarps and walking up on the big berm on the side there and we're looking down and see all these houses in all kinds of stages of getting ready to do some reconstruction and this woman with a dog, she just comes out of her house and she's like waving at us. We're kind of waving back and she's yelling, "Are you guys tourists?" We're like "no... yeaaah." And she's like, "Could you come down, I want to shake your hands." On the one hand, you know when we're in pitch darkness in completely abandoned, flooded crazy place...we sort of thought maybe because we were tourists we could easily be victims because that's part of tourism everywhere, you know. But wow, there were those moments, it was just one of those satisfying things. And yeah, it's like the only time when we've really done like "charity tourism" and yet we didn't have to build anything! [Laughing] So that's pretty much our New Orleans' post-Katrina story.

Steve: We went to the New Year's eve concert at Snug Harbor. That was kind of like a thing we've done when we were down there around Christmas time was they do New Year's eve at Snug Harbor and Astral Project was playing. (It's on Frenchman's one of the clubs on Frenchman...there's like 7 or 8 different clubs along that short stretch of Frenchman Street from the Quarter up to Esplanade.)

Gail: And it's a sit-and-listen club with like more sedate sort of...  [Steve: Not like DBA or...] Not like a dance club, sort of like a different vibe.

Steve: It's sort of like Yoshi's. It's more like Yoshi's. It's like a listening room.

Victor: Except when George Clinton plays Yoshi's. (Laughter)

Steve: So we were just like randomly grouped at round tables and there was this other couple at our table. You know, they were a little bit older than we were, very well dressed and everything. We struck up a conversation. So it turns out they were native New Orleans people that had now come back. He was in the oil business and he was a multimillionaire. And I know this cause he said so no fewer than six times. So the first few times I didn't believe him. But when he kept going, I must have let on that now I believed him cause he then stopped saying it. So, he is a multimillionaire. And he was talking about all the hope they had that New Orleans would come back cleaner. [Voices: Whoa! / Is that code?] About how major corporations are going to come back and buy in. "You know this is going to do great things hopefully for the economy. This is going to really change things for us. We are very hopeful."  

And you know, we were sitting and thinking, "Errr, OK when will the show start?"

Gail: That was really intense.

Steve: Turn down the lights. I don't wanna get into this conversation! But he was also the one who tipped us off to the devastation in one of the richest areas of New Orleans: The Lake Front District, which is a place I'd never gone in all the time I was in New Orleans. There is no reason to go to this district unless you live there or know someone. So he told us. He said, "it's right on the canal that burst -- the first one to breach -- this is one of the heaviest damaged parts of the city. You've got to go out to believe it." And he said, "And please do go out there." He was one with the ones who said we need people to document what's going on. So the next morning we drove out there and that's where we saw some of the most dramatic damages. Like giant houses, like really big houses and we saw cars up trees. Like dramatic stuff. Like you look at this and you go, " Holy crap!" This is like a science fiction movie. Where Godzilla just came by and kicked....


Alan: How long after the flood was this?

Gail: Like four months.

Steve: Like four months. Yeah, the storm was August 29th, I think, and we were there in December. And so there were still cars up trees and just utter complete... This whole thing, a rich people's neighborhood completely trashed.

Gail: There was this one house in the middle of all this devastation that people had already come back and they had money. So this house is like all fixed up, new roof, all decorated for Christmas, the power is on there. And it's like, here is this fancy suburban luxury home and then next to it in all directions everything is still just covered with plywood and there's trees all over and there's trash. It was like "Nope we're doing this right away", and we're like, that is weird!  

Al: "We're general contractors. We just did it!"

Gail: And there was this...

...there was a house with this ironic angry sign, I don't know what it said, but they had all these all dolls and things.  Put little Christmasy things that were all stained and horribly damaged and all, arranged around it like this little shrine.  

[See above. The sign we didn't remember as we talked. -Gail]

Victor: Were there musicians playing in...?

Steve: Yeah. Yup. Some of the musicians had come back already. Some. Some.

Leslie: The following year they really got a lot of return, right?

Steve: Well the next year was Jazz Fest which was the most remarkable Jazz Fest on record.  Which we weren't at -- but I think we went back to Jazz Fest the year after that. At least I did. That's when I went down with Yaeger. And heard all the stories about last year's Jazz Fest. Catch told us that it was just the most remarkable thing ever in that all these artists came and it was just heartfelt and it just went on and it was just one of the greatest.

But the other thing -- and I don't know if it was this guy at dinner or whether it was some other guy there -- that really started me thinking more about what can happen and how, you know, the capitalist system can turn things on its head. [Scott: Disaster capitalism.] Yeah. We were talking to someone and again, I don't remember whether it was this guy or not. I think it was someone else. But he was talking about getting in touch with people.  He had some -- not total -- damage on his house. But he had some damage. And so he brought in contractors. It was hard, because it was hard to find people to do work. The laborers couldn't live there -- they had nowhere to stay.  So it was hard to find people to come back and help rebuild. And he found somebody. He said, "So I figured that while I have people out there, I'd get them to do all of this stuff that I really think should be done, and could be done, and that I've always wanted to do on my house!"

[Voices: Oh God! Wow!]

So now I'm thinking, there are people here who can't live. They can't find people to do mold remediation or to, you know, put a door on their house. Or fix their roof. And here's this guy with all of his money who is now going to use up all of this labor to do his dream house, in the middle of this. And I just thought, "Fuck you! You know? Put your doors on and wait a year and let your city rebuild itself and then do your dream house." Oh I just, I couldn't believe that. He didn't flinch. He never even thought about it. It never even occurred to him that there was some effect -- from him exercising his privilege -- on other people who, you know, were just trying to figure out how in the world -- or if in the world -- they were ever going to be able to live in, you know, where they live, grew up.

Gail: So that’s the story of the vacation.

Alan: That's a wrap.

Steve: So, is that a story?

Alan: Yeah, that's a story.

Alan: Let's see if it actually kept recording....looks like it!

Steve: I have it memorized so we can... [Laughing].

Alan: OK take 2... [Laughing].

Pictures by Gail Williams, 2008

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