The good news: Cafe du Monde is intact and on dry ground and, from afar, more lovely than ever. St. Louis Cathedral is standing and stately. Jackson Square is grassy and . . .
That's about it for the good news.
The rest of this once grand city is a wreck. The surest and safest way to see it seems to be from this helicopter about 200 feet in the air, away from the muck that coats the streets, the emergency crews that need a clear, gawker-free zone and whatever evil may still be lurking in the city famous for pirates and voodoo.
The air is smoky. And alive with flying machines -- military helicopters airlift huge sandbags to another tested-to-the-limit levee, a Red Cross helicopter cruises the rooftops looking for those who need evacuating or rescuing. News crews use helicopters to see the city now; so do government officials and TV personalities like Montel Williams, who took a six-hour tour Wednesday.
All is water. There's murky black water in the churches and schools. It covers basketball courts, where goals still stand. And baseball fields where backstops and bleachers rise up. Was that a swimming pool, where those two blue lifeguard chairs face each other? It's all a pool and who knows what swims there now.
A pump finally gushes water over the repaired levee back into the17th Street Canal. Many of the city's pumps look like obsolete machines in a hydraulics museum. Boats perch in treetops and on rooftops. There are so many cars and pickups barely showing. That one lost its top; no, it's a convertible. The owner didn't even take the time to raise it.
A classic black wrought-iron fence in a courtyard neither holds the water in nor holds it back. In New Orleans now, the water pretty much goes where it wants.
A gas line must be broken because a medium-size fire burns in gurgling waters. Not far from the Edward Hebert military compound, where some streets are dry, a large house blazes like crazy. Firefighters try valiantly to put out the flames. Other homes in the neighborhood east of downtown are threatened because the weak stream of water from the hose has little effect. This world ends in water and fire.
The much-abused Superdome looks like a forgotten spacecraft, abandoned on a liquid planet. The only people in the streets are the first responders. Military personnel stand on a few roofs and watch with binoculars or ride in trucks that roll slowly where they can. But gone are the throngs, the Bourbon Street barkers and the Garden District dowagers. The kids in City Park and the students at Tulane. They are now the Lost Tribe of New Orleans, sent out from the sinking city to find new homes and wander the Earth.
Yes, there is a stench. Yes, millionaires lost fancy homes and boats and poor people lost everything they had. Yes, it looks like a scene from an apocalyptic flick -- "Waterworld." Or "Mad Max Beyond the Superdome."
But from the sky, through the smoke, you can still recognize the rough outline of the city loved by the world. You can still see the French Quarter, Riverwalk and the patio of Cafe du Monde, and you can even imagine sitting there in the balmy breezes and drinking chicory-flavored coffee and breakfasting on beignets someday. But they won't taste the same.