On the Streets

By Boat Through a Water World

Dale Coon and Renee Pastor traveled by powerboat to rescue one of her dogs.
Dale Coon and Renee Pastor traveled by powerboat to rescue one of her dogs. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 5 -- The bad places stink. Musty. Gassy. Spoiled and rotting.

It's the smell of the swamp. And New Orleans is a swamp now, transformed in just eight days from the funkiest of gems into a wild place, a place of black waters, snakes, and spooky, echoing abandonment. Fires burn throughout the city on the surface of oil-slicked water that reaches -- with its spreading algae -- up to the streetlights in some neighborhoods.

There are entire swaths of New Orleans where no one can go without a boat, or hip waders, or foolish courage. But a few go anyway, searching for stranded pets or stranded neighbors, or both. The city -- the worst parts, at least, the deeply flooded east -- is best approached by water.

On the choppy surface of Pontchartrain, the giant lake that poured into the streets with such persisting ferocity, New Orleans looks like a walled medieval city. The huge levees built to keep water out now keep water in.

Edging along the giant lake's shore and poking through myriad canals reveal a netherworld of destruction and vigilantism in some of the city's toughest-to-reach sectors. To the west, a man with a shotgun guarded condominiums at the shredded Orleans Marina. Farther down the shore, a stockbroker slogged through waist-high water, carrying a whimpering pit bull. Way out east, a Catholic-Buddhist-transcendentalist prayed at an altar and took instructions from her long-dead father.

At a boat launch just west of the city, Mike Fitzpatrick wanted what everyone here wanted: a boat ride to get to his guns. He was lucky. He hopped into a little flatboat with a small group of reporters and pointed down the shore toward the smoldering Orleans Marina, where his cache of weapons lay hidden.

The ride took him past the Southern Yacht Club, on the city's western edge. It is charred, a blackened skeleton, overlooking a point pushing into Lake Pontchartrain where New Orleans teenagers would go to make out, using the code words that they were "off to watch the submarine races." Fitzpatrick, a riverboat pilot who people around here call a "Y'at" -- shorthand for the city's signature greeting, "Where y'at?" -- shook his head and grabbed for a ringing cell phone.

"It sunk?" he said to a fellow boat owner, floating past sailboats tossed onto decks and laid out like fallen dominoes. "Was it insured? Ah, good."

Across the marina from Fitzpatrick's place, a 30-foot yacht perched perfectly on top of pilings, 10 feet above the waterline. It was an incredible sight. A storm that treated New Orleans so roughly seemed to lift this boat into the air and then put it down with the most gentle touch -- barely harmed.

Not far away, heavy helicopters ferrying 7,000-pound duffel bags full of sand thundered down to the 17th Street Canal -- the great villain of Hurricane Katrina, with its 500 feet of broken levee that allowed thousands of homes to be engulfed before the gap was closed Monday.

Watching from a nearby bridge, Kenny Crumholt, a resident engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, remembered the first sandbags dropped in days ago, the ones that disappeared beneath the surface, demonstrating the depth of the chasm. "We would drop them and they would sink," Crumholt said. "We were getting aggravated."

Along the canal, the fortunate -- the ones who live on the opposite side of the levee break, the ones whose houses are dry -- have built ladders out of old crates to watch the progress, or lack thereof. "If this would have broke on our side, it would have been all over for us," Sherry Blue said.

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