New Orleans bus tour takes a drive through devastation

Passengers get firsthand look at destruction wrought by Katrina

February 07, 2006|By ELIZABETH MEHREN | ELIZABETH MEHREN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- They might have been mourners in a hearse, so somber were the passengers in the small bus on Mirabeau Avenue.

Theresa Sandifer shook her head sadly as the bus crawled along. House after ruined house was spray painted with a red "X" and numbers denoting how many people were found there, dead or alive, after Hurricane Katrina.

Sue Stein stifled a gasp at floodwater marks that grazed the roofs of a block of one-story homes.

William Thompson glued his gaze to a trim beige house impaled by an oak tree.

No one spoke until the bus rounded a corner onto St. Bernard Avenue, in the Gentilly area.

The roof of a wood-frame house from the 1960s sat askew, as if it had been picked up and tossed down at all the wrong angles. The chimney was missing; the doors and windows were blown out. A plywood sign carried a message from a family who had left for good.

"Goodbye, N'awlins, We'll Miss You," read Brad Dupuy, the guide on this city's newest bus excursion.

The "devastation tour," as the three-hour outing is popularly known, brings visitors to some of this city's most heavily damaged areas, though it skips the almost obliterated Lower Ninth Ward.

Even in a city that loves to test the limits of tastefulness - a city, after all, that made an industry out of cemetery tours - the idea caused consternation when it was proposed in late December.

A city councilwoman accused the Gray Lines franchise of trying to profit off the miseries wrought by Katrina. Some worried that gawkers snapping photos of shattered homes would turn New Orleans into a theme park of destruction. Others chafed at the tour's brash, formal title: "Hurricane Katrina: America's Worst Catastrophe!"

But many New Orleanians welcomed the prospect of the public seeing firsthand what happened when the city was battered by a Category 4 hurricane, then flooded when manmade levees gave way last August.

Survivors of the storm argued that newspaper pictures and television footage cannot capture the magnitude of a disaster that spread through 141 of the city's 181 square miles.

The city's newspaper, the Times-Picayune, editorialized about the value of expeditions designed to be educational, not morbid or sensational.

"It will keep this storm-ravaged region on the national radar," the paper wrote.

The tour attracts about 300 people per week and has turned out to be a draw for local residents as well. One recent Saturday morning, more than half of the 25 passengers on the bus that left from the French Quarter came from the Gulf Coast and the New Orleans region.

Stein, 55, said she was tied up for weeks cleaning up storm damage at her home in nearby Kenner. But now she wanted a personal look at the city where she grew up, so she could keep tabs on sections of New Orleans that have received little attention. Two friends from Kenner joined her on the tour.

"When I first heard about it, I thought it was exploitive," she said. "Then I got to thinking, so much TV coverage had been focused on just one area, the Ninth Ward. People need to know that this touched all of us, everywhere. They need to know how bad it is, all over this city, not just in any one part."

As the tour got under way, Dupuy, 31, offered a dedication to the "1,000 men, women and children who lost their lives on account of Katrina." He asked everyone to turn off their cell phones and said: "We are not here simply to point and gawk at people who lost their property." And: "We will not be seeing dead bodies on this tour."

On Canal Street, Dupuy gave a quick lesson in how to spot a flood water line - "yellowish-brown horizontal bands" on the buildings. He noted the many boarded-up buildings and businesses still closed, five months after the storm.

"Is this where they had all the looting?" asked Thompson, 59, of Mobile, Ala. In a sad voice, Dupuy said yes.

Past the Orleans Parish prison, where about 6,500 inmates were evacuated during the flooding, the bus crossed through the Mid-City and cemetery districts.

Dupuy issued a warning as the bus entered the once-prosperous Lakeview area: "Brace yourselves, folks, as we are about to enter one of the hardest-hit areas."

Large, luxurious homes had become brick and stucco skeletons. The formerly vibrant neighborhood was a ghost town: no cars, no children, no pets - no sign of life, anywhere.

"That is what is so hard to bear," said Mary E. Carter, 71, who lives near Hartford, Conn. "You look out, and you don't see anyone in these neighborhoods. And it's like that for miles."

Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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