New Orleans is like a newly grime-free Sistine Chapel. Over 50 members of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists went in search of continuing stories as part of our annual meeting, "New Orleans, We Have Not Forgotten" on June 20-21, 2008.
We saw, heard, tasted and felt the city's resurgence. It's hard to believe its near-death experience was only three years ago when I saw the reclaimed glory of the French Quarter, the bustling boulevard of Canal Street, the Aquarium, the newly opened Insectarium, and so many grand old restaurants once again dishing up fantastic fare.
The music is back and everywhere people are jazzed to see you.
We also toured the near ghost towns of the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, where houses were swept away and over three years later, vegetation cuts through foundation slabs to reclaim acres and acres of former neighborhoods. Yet, the slow but sure rebuilding takes place, house by house, through the kindness of strangers, such as Habitat for Humanity and the St. Bernard Project.
My tears were always just on the surface from talking to strangers who shared their stories, told with a glow of pride and heightened faith from having survived Katrina. When they spoke of gratitude and God, it made me wonder how I could ever complain about anything.
Thousands of people plummeted into a watery hell. The lucky ones were on a bungee cord because they've made their way back. I talked to a double amputee who was all radiant goodwill and double happiness. "Tony" told me that he just wants to lighten the load of others by being an example of happy existence.
"No matter what our physical, we're all working toward being spirit someday, so you might as well start now," he said.
Or the West African cabdriver whose family of five lost everything, but through phone numbers posted on CNN was immediately taken in by a white family in Fort Worth Texas.
"From the minute we met them, we felt like we had known each other for years. They made us so at home," said Isaac Lindsey.
Each morning I ate in the dining room of the glorious Monteleone Hotel, smack dab in the middle of French Quarter, and Kathy was my waitress. She's a Johnny-on-the-spot ray of sunshine, with a way of teasing customers in that sweet, Louisiana kind of way. She called me Miz Suzette.
Kathy had to flee her house when the levees broke. Her dark eyes have that penetrating deep wisdom that comes from living in exile, yearning for home and the triumph of return. Rising from the ashes? More like returning to a city in recovery from being flooded in sewage, sludge, gas, chemicals, corpses and carcasses.
But she was lucky because she had friends to stay with. She didn't have to live in one of those formaldehyde-ridden FEMA trailers.
Songs like "The Long Black Line," sung to us by Spencer Bohren, who played haunting strains on his slide guitar, transported us into the drowning spirit of the time, in ways statistics and cool commentary never could. The title refers to the watermarks left on the city when the floodwaters receded.
What do they need? The tourist industry wants visitors. They want to dispel the image of a flood-ravaged city. New Orleans is like a once terminal cancer patient who has had a miraculous recovery. She's on her feet better than ever and her family welcomes you because she gains strength and healing with every visit.
Volunteer networks, such as Habitat for Humanity or the St. Bernard Project, need help with rebuilding in the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Can you do plumbing? Electrical? How about if your family comes out for a memorable vacation to lift walls and hearts for a day or two? A comfortable "volunteer camp" provides space to stay.
What is the message from everyday folks? A school principal, a tour guide, from folks on the street, a cabdriver - all had similar answers:
Don't forget us.
Tell them we're not lazy.
Tell them we're not freeloaders.
Tell them we all just want to come home.
On the morning of my departure, I ordered a full-blown breakfast and Kathy said to me, "Now Miz Suzette, don't you usually have cereal?"
I said, "Kathy, I'm leaving today, I don't have to put on no fancy dress tonight so this morning I'm treating myself to a Bayou Breakfast!"
So later when she slipped my plate of cheesy grits, smoked sausage, two eggs over easy, grilled tomatoes and two hot country biscuits before me, she looked me straight in the eye and said, "Miz Suzette, you enjoy yourself now because nothing is guaranteed."
And when I rose to leave, Kathy came over. For three days, we had shared some really sweet morning moments and I was surprised when she hugged me goodbye.
But then, why not? Life is too short.