By Tony Kornheiser
Monday, September 25, 2006
I arrived in New Orleans on Thursday and have been staying on the edge of the French Quarter, where it's still possible to stroll about and imagine that nothing catastrophic happened here a year ago in August. Then, three reporters and editors from the Times-Picayune took me out for about three hours Friday afternoon, showing me all the neighborhoods that were flooded from the broken levees and the storm surge that followed Hurricane Katrina.
Two of these guys lost their homes in an 11-foot surge and yet here they were, telling me the story of the city so that I could share it on "Monday Night Football." You can drive for miles and miles and see nothing but gutted and broken houses -- even over a year later. On some, you can see the water line. On others, simply nothing remains. In the Lower Ninth Ward, we saw concrete steps that lead to where porches used to be. After nine or 10 of these, it occurs to you that they stand like un-engraved headstones in a graveyard for what formerly was a vibrant neighborhood. They are the only testament that lives once were lived here.
I was told that, out of 180 square miles in the city, 140 were under two or more feet of water and, in many cases, the water did not recede for weeks. It is disorienting to go through an American city and see this. It's nearly incomprehensible to think that, over a year later, so much remains to be done. In America, we're used to seeing the destructive powers of tornadoes and earthquakes and then seeing the areas rise quickly again. There's no point in comparing natural disasters, of course, but, as generous as people have been about helping here, there's still just the overwhelming, humbling feeling that they still have so far to go.
When I told my guides that, instead of a football game, everyone should be focusing on building houses, repatriating people and making sure they could come back here to live, they politely set me straight. They, as people who have spent much of their lives here, told me that this game means a tremendous amount to them. They're proud that the Saints are back and the Superdome -- which, in the days after Katrina, appeared to underline the terrible gulf between black and white, rich and poor -- is once again what it was meant to be, a place for games. The building sends a powerful message of a positive sort -- come here as a tourist. Those areas of town that tourists have come to love are fine. Please come here and spend money.
What you're left with is the notion of how strong the people are who stayed, how committed, how they really do see in the symbolism of this game something very important for the identity of their city and their lives. They may have been deeply wounded, but they and the Superdome are still here.
Tonight, they say, the few hours of diversion that football will bring means the world to them.