A summery white dress hangs in a second-story room, framed by green shutters on an open window of an empty house, as if someone had planned to wear it, as if someone soon will return to restart a life suspended. Or perhaps not. We may never know. The receding floodwaters along this street in Mid-City also revealed two bodies, face down, arms outstretched, at rest on a park-like median where the grass drowned and then turned to straw in the harsh sun.
Across town in the Lower Ninth Ward, as evidence of Mother Nature's macabre handiwork, four small, crushed houses list against one another, accordion-style, propelled off their foundations by the surge of floodwaters from a levee breach nearby. Dried mud coats everything, evoking comparisons to nuclear fallout. Boats and cars smashed through collapsed homes. Roofs lie about, attached to nothing or broken to bits, as if thrown. Virtually no abode appears habitable here, where the poorest of the city's poor once lived; here where the stench from putrid muck on the streets triggers the gag reflex, the donning of a face mask.
Down in the Fontainebleau area, where watermarks six feet high are visible on some homes, signs of life slowly are returning with the trickle of residents who've gotten in to assess the status of the stuff of their suspended lives.
Neil Peyroux, a decorator who, like many people here, boasts of an ancestral line to the city's 18th-century French, narrates a rapid-fire tour of his ruined Octavia Street home.
"It's so freaky, like everything just floated. . . . I'm going to spray it all down with Clorox. . . . Look at my marble countertops. They were sooo pretty. . . . Water knocked the fridge over. . . . I spent $13,000 this year on my back yard. It was absolutely beautiful. . . . Now it's pretty much a disaster," he says of the house. "But it's a fixable disaster. . . . My whole central-air system will have to be replaced . . . my beautiful new mahogany door I just put in two weeks ago. "
The acute crisis is passing, the last of those stranded are on dry ground, at least those who could be found. But the feeling for many here is of a city in suspension. Residents will return, yes, as the city has announced it will begin allowing them back, in stages, starting Monday. They will clean up, rebuild. Commerce will restart. Lives will resume and perhaps the Big Easy flavor of life here will return -- at least that is what city officials and some residents say.
But in this interregnum, when the city's fate hangs between the past and future, New Orleans is on the brink, trying to shift from devastation to recovery, from trauma to hope.
On Dumaine Street in the French Quarter, Thomas Wolfe, owner of the famed Wolfe's of New Orleans, takes a break from cleaning up at another of his three restaurants, called Peristyle. He lost his stocks of prosciutto and pancetta, his artisan cheeses, not to mention the desserts created by his pastry chef and the meringues that inexplicably exploded in the searing heat. All that is replaceable, once supplies begin flowing to the city again. What he's got his eye on, even more, is the return of the city's spirit.
"The new New Orleans: I think it'll be a boomtown. I'm hoping it'll be a boomtown," he says, sweat dripping down his face in his kitchen turned sauna. "It's just the spirit, just the heart that we have in New Orleans."
Katrina and its floods destroyed much, he says, but "it's hard to shake a culture apart. It's hard to destroy a culture."
And yet, huge portions of the city's population -- especially its poorest -- are gone, among them huge numbers of African Americans whose ancestry gave this city much of its vibe (such as the drummers who congregated in Congo Square near the Quarter), the Mardi Gras revelry, the New Orleans cuisine, music and politics. The life of that part of the city's culture is suspended indeed, dispersed for now to Baton Rouge, Houston and points beyond, though the federal government's pledge of financial assistance for evacuees could prompt a return of those who lost much but want their New Orleans back.
Many here have their minds on those funds, on the new opportunities such an infusion would bring.
Down Dumaine Street, Dewanda Dey and her husband, Steven -- "Quarter rats," as some French Quarter residents call themselves -- have spent many a night brainstorming about how they might rise up with the new New Orleans.
"What else do we have to do at night in the dark, but come up with ideas?" says Dewanda, 38, a hotel worker.
They are among the city's holdouts, those folks who refused to leave. And why should they have? Floodwaters in the Quarter never flowed above the curbs. So they lived on canned tuna, chicken, beans and donated MREs and listened to the news on their battery-powered radio.
"We'll just sit and wait and see what happens," she says.
Although many are looking forward to the city's future, the trauma of the past 2 weeks still underpins the order of life here. Streets, overpasses and highway on- and off-ramps where evacuees had encamped still are clogged with debris, chairs, bins, pieces of luggage, litter, even looted goods -- like the haul of sneakers abandoned on the side of a road.
In many residential areas, downed power lines hang low or lie on the streets, tangled amid fallen live oaks that block passage and are being cut and moved away by military and civilian crews. In some neighborhoods, city buses are randomly parked or stalled on curbs, as if hastily abandoned.
The city's trauma can be charted in the lingering signs of the siege: The Fort Apache sign still hangs from the roof of a police station that, during the flood's first horrid days, came under gunfire again and again.
At the Greyhound bus terminal, which became a makeshift lock-up in the early days after the storm, chain-link fences topped by barbed wire remain wrapped around bus parking bays, but the "cells" in recent days have been mostly empty. (They called the temporary jail Angola South, after Louisiana's infamous Angola prison.)
Peter Crow, 38, a French Quarter poet, says now is "the safest New Orleans has ever been," though he and his friend, Chris Love, 28, a hotel worker, complained about harassment from the city's heavy military presence.
Troops are everywhere -- Army and National Guard -- in the Quarter and throughout the city, often patrolling in groups of four, as if they were in Iraq and manning checkpoints.
Over on Elysian Fields Avenue in the city's Faubourg Marigny section, Terry Norman and his friend Lynne Lyons sit on the balcony of his second-floor apartment and watch the troops drive by. They, like Crow, Love and the Deys, refused to leave. The thought of it seemed just ridiculous. And they had no intention of leaving their pets.
Norman's landlord, Rodney Hoover, owner of the three-columned vintage 1840 townhouse, comes walking down the street with a box of MREs strapped on his back.
"It's my home, since 1718," says Hoover, 62, describing how his family arrived here centuries ago with New Orleans founder Jean-Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur de Bienville. "We started this city."
Shortly, a city bus pulls up, offloading a batch of Oregon National Guardsmen, bearing news of New Orleans's pivot from crisis to recovery.
"We'll be letting people back into the city Monday," a guardsman informs them, "so no reason to evacuate."
Norman has already heard the news on the radio. After the guardsmen leave, he deadpans: "I'll be giving a royal speech from the balcony at 8."
The streets fall quiet at night. A nighttime curfew still remains in effect. But it hardly matters, for this remains a city by and large without its population, a city, for now, suspended.