American Academy of Ophthalmology Web Site: www.aao.org
New Orleans: One Year After Katrina
In recent years, New Orleans has been a favorite venue for the Academy’s Annual Meeting. And as the city gets back on its feet, it is keen to roll out the welcome mat for tourists and conventioneers.
Hurricane Katrina devastated dozens of communities along the Gulf Coast, but it was the reports coming out of New Orleans that hit closest to home for many ophthalmologists. They had, after all, been strolling the French Quarter as recently as the Academy’s 2004 Annual Meeting. What would become of the city, its people and their unique culture?
The Academy was quick to pledge its support, with its board of trustees affirming that the 2007 Annual Meeting would take place in New Orleans as scheduled. Large membership organizations like the Academy, with conventions that attract 25,000-plus attendees, can play a key role in fueling the city’s recovery.
And what of that recovery? David Johnson, a resident of New Orleans and occasional writer for EyeNet, provides his personal account of the city, both pre- and post-Katrina. Despite tremendous loss, New Orleanians are determined to defy adversity and laissez les bon temps rouler.
It’s been said that everything loose in the midsection of the United States eventually floats downstream on the Mississippi, eroded topsoil and uprooted people included. This sedimentary flow—part geologic, part sociologic—decelerates as it wends its way southward, overcome by inertia at a great crescent-shaped sweep in the river some 70 miles from where Old Man River retires into the Gulf of Mexico. Here the spillover has resulted in one of the world’s most unusual conurbations, a blending of creative expression from every continent on earth, 300 years in the making, stewed in oppressive humidity, frequently lashed by Mother Nature and built upon the geological equivalent of chocolate pudding.
The Inimitable Culture of Nu’Wallee-ans
America’s melting pot simmers more slowly in South Louisiana, and more spice is added to the mix—Spanish here, African there, a pinch of French and then seasoned even more with Latin and Asian additives. The result has been termed a gumbo population.
When I first moved downriver to New Orleans from the Midwest, with a newly minted college degree in hand, it soon became clear that I needed a postgraduate course in the local lingo. New Orleans—or Nu’Wallee-ans, as the natives called it—had a mother tongue all of its own. Sidewalks were called banquettes. Long, skinny, one-room-wide homes with a second story perched on the rearmost half were known as camelback shotguns. Menus may as well have been foreign dictionaries: crawfish étouffée, catfish courtboullion, muffalettas and jambalaya. If I wanted my shrimp po’boy slathered in mayo and spruced with tomato and lettuce, I had to order the sandwich dressed. And you can forget phonetics when it came to pronouncing such street names as Tchoupitoulas, Picheloup or De Montluzin.
In this effusively expressive environment, a simple hello wouldn’t suffice. Instead, my ears picked up on a quizzical salutation, “Where y’at?,” which was invariably spoken with a nasal inflection popularly associated with Brooklyn. So ubiquitous was this phrase that an entire class of residents became classified as Yats. These were the descendants of Irish, German and Italian immigrants who disembarked in this port city, the very same Old World mix that also settled New York’s blue-collar boroughs, hence the uncanny similarity of the accents.
As a City Evacuates: “Where Y’At”
In the days immediately following August 29, 2005, Where y’at took on an unexpectedly dire tone, a literal question that looped in my mind as I joined multitudes of evacuees from the costliest hurricane ever to befall American soil. By car, plane, commandeered school bus, off-duty fishing boat or helicopter-lowered rescue basket, my neighbors and I—all 500,000 of us—were forced to abandon our homes and take shelter in the embracing arms of a compassionate nation.
“Where y’at?” I wondered of my friends and coworkers, of the clerks who served me cafe au lait before my morning commute, of the jazz musicians who had me dancing in the streets on countless occasions, of the masked riders aboard Mardi Gras floats who joyously had tossed strands of plastic beads into my outstretched hands, of the oyster shuckers at Casamento’s who unhinged one extra lagniappe bivalve for every dozen ordered, of the cashier at Zuppardo’s supermarket who shared her secret to savory red beans in the checkout line, and of the lawn-mowing guy who loudly lamented our NFL team’s last gridiron loss above the whirring blades when he and the neighborhood postman crossed paths.
Saints of another sort came marching into our city as soon as conditions would allow, and slowly but surely our waterlogged neighborhoods were drained and our streets were cleared of debris. Relief volunteers from all walks of life fed, clothed and comforted us.
Of Topography and Adversity
And when we returned home, those of us who had thought our entire city had been built below sea level learned otherwise. In the colonial era, the city’s founding fathers had built on what constituted dry land—it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that swamp drainage allowed low-lying development. Thus the French Quarter was spared flooding, as were the grand mansions of St. Charles Avenue, the cottages of the Irish Channel and the filigreed balconied townhouses downriver in the Creole burgs that skirt the Mississippi. Nearly all of the most celebrated architectural stock that so defines New Orleans in the popular imagination remained dry.
In due time, radio gave way to live music, military field rations were tossed in favor of Creole specialties, and curfews caved in to the irrepressible joie de vivre of a people who have long battled adversity—be it yellow fever, raging fires, invading British troops, Union Army occupation, flash floods or hurricanes—with humor, music, good food and the occasional drink . . . or two . . . or three . . . In post-Katrina New Orleans, fine-dining establishments were short on staff but they were eager to please longtime customers who had been denied their culinary birthright for going on 30-plus days. They served up haute cuisine beneath chandeliers on paper plates with plastic utensils.
As a City Rebuilds: “Where Y’At”
These days, as I wander the streets of the French Quarter, familiarly redolent of jasmine, musty carriageways and roasted coffee, I’m asking “Where y’at?” once again—this time to the out-of-towners who have been scant in our tourist districts since the city cleaned up and put out the welcome mat. Having been hosted by kin and strangers alike for weeks on end in the aftermath of Katrina, we New Orleanians want to reciprocate the hospitality afforded us. New Orleans is eager to share its unique pleasures.
At Café du Monde, sweet snowdrifts coat beignets served hot from the fryers by equally sugar-coated waiters. The bells of St. Louis Cathedral chime the hour and Andrew Jackson keeps watch over his eponymous square astride a bucking horse, frozen in bronze. Polished silver, French Empire furniture and shiny porcelain adorn the windows of Royal Street’s antique emporiums. The calliope atop the steamboat Natchez whistles “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The Convention Center has been cleaned up, the Superdome is getting a new whitewashed roof and streetcar tracks are being refurbished.
But for all the improvements, it’s important not to gloss over the devastation. New Orleans was delivered a crippling, but not a paralyzing blow, and I would encourage a drive-through or an escorted tour of our disaster zone. It is a sobering experience, but one that any visitor should not entirely avoid.
Whenever you meet one of us on your next visit, be sure to ask, “Where y’at?” You will likely get an earful of tales from our collective exile and return to a city that elicits intense civic passion. I can guarantee the conversation won’t be boring.
David Johnson is an editor for Louisiana Cultural Vistas, the journal of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, and an occasional contributor to EyeNet.