Katrina Firsthand: First look at devastated city was sobering, haunting _lowres

Amanda Cho (left), Brenda Cho

Sisters Brenda and Amanda Cho got together in a StoryCorps booth in New York City on Jan. 16, 2006, to talk about how New Orleans, their hometown, had changed over the previous few months. Because they did not live in New Orleans at the time, they did not have direct experience of Katrina. But Amanda Cho, 23, talked about what it was like to return to their childhood neighborhood in Lakeview, an experience that left her worried the city would never recover. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Brenda Cho: I wanted to talk with you about New Orleans. We haven’t had a chance to talk about it until now that it’s three or four months after Katrina.

Amanda Cho: I had the hardest time believing what had happened. It totally consumed me, seeing it on TV. So I had to go back to believe it. I went back Christmas Eve. I remember I was really scared but really anxious to see it. Because Mom was telling us stories that I couldn’t believe: how New Orleans was deserted and it was black at night and there was nobody around.

I saw enough to realize a lot had changed. Lights were out. It was just quiet. There was this really eerie silence, something about the houses that they were hollow and the winds blew right through them. This was in Lakeview going down Canal Boulevard. I went home, and our house wasn’t flooded at all, which was such a blessing. It wasn’t until the next day that I really saw things.

I went with our other sisters. We went to see one of the breaches by our house, the 17th Street Canal near Bucktown. Just seeing it up close and personal wasn’t as traumatic because it hadn’t looked like much had happened. It looked like a hurricane came and nothing was fixed. There were no doors on any houses; all the windows were all shot out. There were watermarks (on houses) everywhere, unbelievably high. There were houses that were shifted from foundations.

There was one house that had literally lost a corner and half of two walls. It was just a jagged brick outline. Like a doll house — you could look right into it. You could see where a picture was hanging on a wall. You could see where they kept the dishes. It was like nature had exposed more than anyone wanted to see of everyone’s personal lives.

BC: I recently read people are still talking about not just the sewage and the chemicals, but I wondered if you smelled anything at all.

AC: Mom talked about a smell that permeated everything. She said there was an overwhelming stench. But when I went there, I didn’t smell anything at all.

BC: When you went back to our neighborhood, you didn’t see anybody else around, did you?

AC: No. Every parking lot had become parking spots for trucks and trailers and demolition crews. The only cars you saw were the ones that were flooded and abandoned on the road, sometimes in the middle of the street. Just dust-covered junks of metal. Sometimes the doors would be left open. It was like a crime scene. It was totally a wasteland.

BC: Did you see piles of refrigerators or any trash?

AC: I don’t know if the word “trash” can justify what those piles were. It wasn’t even trash. There were no bags. It was what humans and machines could carry — you just dumped it in a pile in front of your house. Piles of wood and timber and maybe you could make out a fridge, maybe you could make out carpeting. Just heaps of I don’t know what. It’s half the size of a house, half height that came from a house. Everything was just completely gutted. What was inside that wasn’t part of the foundation was in front on the lawn — well, what used to be a lawn.

BC: It seems like there’s no plan.

AC: I couldn’t believe it still looks like that. There are sections of Robert E. Lee and West End (boulevards) where at that corner there was a light post that was knocked over. And nobody looked at it twice. And it just stayed there.

BC: So people are basically used to this; it almost became part of their life.

AC: It’s like they’re living around the hurricane now. I have a friend, Emile, who is from Connecticut. He has never been to New Orleans. I emailed him last night and told him it was like New Orleans is holding its breath, waiting for help. And in that wait, it just passed away because it couldn’t wait anymore. That’s totally what it felt like. Just this overwhelming sadness of isolation and being ignored.

BC: New Orleans always had that Gothic quality to it, a very open attitude toward mortality. Voodoo and jazz funerals that sort of celebrate death in some way. Do you think you were able to be optimistic, too? Did you get a sense from being there that people still had hope?

AC: Before I went home, I had a really hard time believing that New Orleans could recover. And that devastated me. I love this city so much. I was born and raised there. I lived there all my life until I went to college. I remember thinking, “There’s no hope. There’s no way it’s going to survive. It’s going to become the new Venice, essentially a tourist town that just sells beads and trinkets.”

Going home, we went to the East, Chalmette. That was the worst I had ever seen. I took photos. I felt bad at first for taking photos. I wasn’t gawking. I had to take photos to believe it for myself because memory fades. It was so unbelievable.

BC: Was it because our hometown looks like this now?

AC: I just can’t believe this could happen. And it happened. And I’m seeing it. That was also where another breach happened. There were no houses. You knew there were houses, but you couldn’t see a house. You saw cars, you saw wheels, you saw parts of fridges, you saw kids’ toys, you saw clothes, you saw wires, you saw tubs, you saw roofs with no houses. I’m not kidding; there was a roof with no house. Where does the house go? To see the power of water is overwhelming. You realize nature is so beyond what any of us could ever do.

But I remember there were houses shifted from foundations. There was a car under a house. How did that happen? I remember seeing those, and there were no neighborhoods, just blocks and stretches of these piles and piles. It went on forever. You couldn’t believe it. I remember we left that neighborhood; we had stayed there for about an hour just driving around. We were totally quiet. We couldn’t say anything. I hadn’t gotten emotional yet until we were driving away. We were looking at all the storefronts. Just to see commercial buildings like Burger King and Payless with busted windows. Or a Popeyes with no doors and it was dark inside.

We were driving away. There was this one house, if you could even call it a house. Totally destroyed. Totally uninhabitable. But spray-painted on the side in the orange spray paint they had used to mark the quantity of living, they had sprayed on a whole wall: “We’re coming back.” In bold, capital letters. That’s when I really realized that the spirit of New Orleans cannot be smothered. That’s when I cried.

You knew no one was there. But you felt them. You knew they were attached. And they will always be attached. Regardless of what happened, it was their home; it was their life.

BC: What is it about New Orleans that makes it home for you?

AC: My roots are in New Orleans. Not so much genetically. But the roots of my life. My childhood. The food, the smell, what we would do for fun. I know not every kid in this country used to have their own Mardi Gras parade in their driveway and have their sisters pull them in a wagon and catch their beads at the same time.

Having hurricanes. We never, ever left our house for hurricanes. We always managed to wait through them. We didn’t experience (the full force of) Betsy or Georges. We would get a couple of days off of school. The kids would have a keg party on the levees.

At any opportunity, New Orleans will party. But it’s not a party like “MTV Spring Break.” It’s more like having a good time with other people from New Orleans. That’s one thing I love about New Orleanians. I will meet someone from a bar who is from New Orleans. And instantly, there is a bond. There’s a love of life we share that you don’t find anywhere else with other people.

BC: Do you think Mardi Gras should be able to go on and we should even celebrate?

AC: I think we should celebrate. Mardi Gras isn’t something we decide. It’s rooted in history. It starts with the Twelfth Night. To just ruin history, you don’t do that. Maybe you party less or something. But you don’t mess with tradition like that. I don’t know how the city is going to react. But I’m constantly surprised by New Orleanians. I think it will be great, but maybe not great as it has been.

BC: That’s true. We have to keep these traditions alive because no other cities have them. Louisiana has one of the most native-born populations. Do you think you’ll ever go back to live there?

AC: I always said I’ll never live there. I love New York. New York and New Orleans are the top one. They share; they hold hands. I always said I’ll have a house in New York and a house in New Orleans. On Esplanade by the Quarter. I could never live there, though.

BC: In some ways, it’s becoming a city we never knew. All these changes. If you went back to raise your kids there, it would be a lot different.

AC: That’s part of nature, though. Nothing is ever going to be the same. I’m going to tell my kids I didn’t grow up with the Internet or a cellphone. But it’s something we have to accept and apply to the environment of whatever current time we’re going to be in. As far as not knowing the city, I don’t believe that. What you know is proof enough that it still exists. I know if I went to The Saint off Frenchmen in 20 years and it’s a veterinary hospital, it will still be the same city to me.

BC: We should put through the structural changes that are needed, beautifying the city again, making it welcome.

AC: Removing the dust of Katrina is important.

BC: So we should really put our efforts to build new homes, new lawns, new residents.

AC: I don’t know about new residents. It should be the old residents. It’s not so much having a person living there; it’s having that old person back that is important to me. But if you extinguish that faith in that person, you can’t get them back. And you’ve lost a spirit, which affects the general spirit of the city.

Amanda Cho is now the creative director of L’Oréal Paris and lives in Brooklyn, New York.