The U.S.S. Iwo Jima (a Navy vessel based in my hometown area) is docked at the riverfront, so I figure it would be worth checking with the Navy boys to see if I can get a quick helo flight over the city to photograph and sketch the flooded areas for the city hall guys as a departing gesture. I park near the water and walk down past the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. So this where all the major league mayhem took place - people beaten, raped and murdered, bodies lying everywhere, children molested and so on (which, as at the Superdome, turned out to be untrue). My eye catches a spent shell casing lying on the ground, evidence of wilder days before. It appears to be from a large-caliber rifle, possibly a 308, definitely not a military M-16. A disgruntled local, I figure, who hopefully missed his intended target. Nearing the entrance to the ship further down, I approach the sentries and state my business. They advise me that the "ship is secure" and ask me to come back in half an hour. It then strikes me that the president must be on board, since there are no hotels that are operating in the city. I walk down about a hundred feet, turn around and sure enough, here comes the president's caravan rolling off pier side. I wait for it to pass, then walk back, clear the check point and am escorted on board. Walking up a ramp several decks, we then pass through a series of confusing hatches and passageways until we are in the ship's command and control center. I couldn't find my way out of here if you put a gun to my head. Multi-colored computer screens abound as I am greeted by the technicians manning the machinery. Surprised to hear we all live in the same city, they graciously give me a brief tour of their hardware and my eye catches one screen that displays the weather for the entire eastern half of the country. Every weather system that may have even the slightest impact on the gulf coast is on a brilliantly lit color display panel. Very high-tech stuff. I ponder for a moment where the remnants of this once mighty storm might be...in Europe probably. My officer escort advises me that they can give me an aerial tour at 1230 hours. Unfortunately, I have to pass, as the flight I have booked is at 1600...from Jackson, MS. He then mentions that he has taken a series of aerial shots from an earlier flight and shows them to me on another computer screen. They are truly great photos of those first few days, including the levee breaks (and attempted patches by choppers); boats and planes pushed inland near the coast by the rising tidal surge; fires burning above the waterline from natural gas breaks, so he burns them to CD for me and I'm on my way.
I check my watch and figure that if my flight leaves Jackson in seven hours, there should be enough time to take one last tour of the city and snap a few dozen pictures off. I scour several neighborhoods to capture the worst of what the storm dished out. Driving down one four lane boulevard, I come across large boats lying in the street, several hearses abandoned in the road or up on the median (couldn't figure that one out - theft I guess, or maybe cruising the local streets for new clientele until their fuel was exhausted), a lazy-boy chair sitting upright in the grassy median, leg-rest extended, with a shoe several feet away, as if the occupant of the chair had made themselves comfortable in the open air, until conditions dictated that they get up and run for their lives, right out of their shoes, in a flight for life. Everything about this storm is odd and out of kilter.
In some ways, it reminded me of stark, unforgettable scenes of oddities at the Trade Center - a car with all the windows gone, not even a piece of glass inside the car or out - a chief's car with a street sign impaled into the sidewall of a steel-belted radial - a ladder truck with the engine compartment that once housed a huge diesel engine crushed down to the height of a milk crate - a tiller ladder, with the tiller, turntable and aerial completely sheared-off, yet the apparatus remains upright - massive girders from the Trade Center impaled in the side of the World Financial Center 20 floors up, across a six-lane major thoroughfare from where they came - a hood peeled up and almost completely off a car, but TOWARDS the collapse zone! These same bizarre scenes lie before me once again. Looking to my right at one intersection and seeing every tree on the entire block (large and small) blown over into the roadway, completely blocking it, then turning my head to the left and seeing no signs of damage whatsoever all the way into the distance. I take one shot of a funeral home sign (probably shy a few hearses) with the sign reading "Prearranged Funeral Plans - Funeral Services/Cremation/Limousines"...I think I know where their limos are...and the high water mark from the flood quite evident, up at about the four-foot level. Driving back towards the interstate, I think about the murder and mayhem that took place on these very streets only days earlier and then I just happen to look up at a billboard right in front of me, with the phrase in bold, black letters - "Thou Shalt Not Kill". Mmmm.
Leaving the downtown area, I stop for a moment to study the map and figure that I can hop on I-10 and head straight west out of the city. Knowing the east-bound section is destroyed, I feel comfortable going the opposite direction towards Baton Rouge, then up to Jackson for my plane ride home. Rather than bothering having to cross the street, I just drive up the exit ramp onto a deserted freeway and accelerate smoothly up to about 70, stealing quick glances to each side of the road at the remarkable devastation that envelops the city. Collapsed buildings, crushed cars, boats high and dry in the middle of streets, housing developments as far as I can see completely under water, every street, driveway, intersection, parking lot - flooded. Then I pass a huge graveyard, with more mausoleums than I can possibly count. However, contrary to media reports, there are no bodies or skeletons floating out of their graves that I can see. The interstate carves a line right through the middle of it. It is the rather sizeable Greenwood and Metarie Cemetaries. A large statue, of what appears to be a Civil War monument, sits off to my left. I recall another scene from Easy Rider where Peter and Dennis and two women do some "acid" and wander around this same graveyard in a psychedelic stupor after experiencing Mardi Gras, as well as a scene from a James Bond movie filmed at this location - Live and Let Die. If nothing else, this place has gobs of character.