In the summer of 2006, my future husband and I found ourselves kid-less. They were all at camp: band camp, basketball camp, sailing camp. The idea of adult camp grew into a magnetic force we couldn’t contain. We packed up his new Audi A4 and took her to the open road.
The five hour drive from Houston to New Orleans became four as we blasted our way around road construction and endless lines of eighteen-wheelers. We timed our departure for late morning: avoid rush hour at both ends and arrive on Bourbon Street while the three-for-one beer offers were still good.
I had never been to the French Quarter so my boyfriend decided to show me the sights. We walked from one end to the other; we heard music from Zydeco to Doo-Wop. The Quarter was a pocket of the city that survived Hurricane Katrina less than a year before; the city itself, still reeled from the destruction. The next day, we hopped back in the car to see firsthand the wreckage.
We realized the devastation as we drove through town. Blue plastic tarps covered roofs, plywood covered windows and doors; buildings, dilapidated, left to fend for themselves, lay vacant and abandoned.
We drove through areas where the waterline left marks taller than I, taller than my 6’1” boyfriend. Houses with a giant X spray painted on them indicated the number of bodies found within. Most had 0, some had more. We meandered, slowly, absorbing the damage. Some people were out with shovels and brushes; laying concrete, painting houses. Rebuilding had begun.
In search for the Lower Ninth Ward, the area of New Orleans hardest hit by the flooding, we continued to drive. Hurricane Katrina left its biggest mark on the poorest in the city—stuck, helpless, homeless. The little rebuilding we saw dwindled. Foundations lay empty, evidence that someone’s life had once been there but was now gone. Apartments resembled bombed out buildings in Bagdad or Beirut.
We found what we were looking for as we crept along the pothole riddled streets, and then they found us. In the distance as we drove towards a dead-end street, kids with nowhere to go. They started to gather and walk towards us with sticks and stones. 200 yards, 150 yards, 100 yards, “Back up, turn around, now!”
We left in a hurry, before the gang of twelve or fifteen could reach us. We drove fast, no longer interested in the sights, no longer worried about the bumps in the road. We found Bourbon Street in a hurry, visibly shaken by our almost encounter.
I’ve returned to New Orleans several times since then and have watched it come back to life. But those hardest hit, those left for dead, children, not at summer camp but at a dead-end street, those are the ones etched most into my memory.