200,000 homes destroyed; 80,000 businesses lost.
At first, it's not so bad. FEMA trailers sit outside homes in Lakeview and Gentile, where folks are living while they rebuild.
But too soon you see that this is the exception, not the rule. More common are the homes that look just as they did after the storm. You can still see the holes in the roofs where people busted through the attic to get out. Waterlines are visible on the outside of the house, as high as the second floor. The symbols are still on the door -- hope there's a zero in the lower quadrant, because that means the searchers found no dead bodies.
New Orleans East is a ghost town. Entire malls sit empty. When you find an open gas station, you remember where it is, because there isn't another one for miles. Empty houses are everywhere – mansions, middle class bungalows, shotgun style homes. Downtown and the French Quarter seem normal; it's anything but normal outside downtown. It's ravaged and broken and huge.
The symbols, the signs, still there. No one dead here, a cat found alive, a dog DOA. Debris everywhere. Streets still pockmarked with mud. Lots that are completely overgrown, nature taking back her land.
And yet, there are signs of rebuilding in some neighborhoods. In Lakeview, there are some homes that are pristine, cleaned up, put back together, landscaped, lovely. But many of the ones that have been rebuilt? For sale. These homes are few and far between; spots of hope amid the destruction.
In the Lower 9th, you see empty lot after empty lot after empty lot – bulldozed homes, completely gone, nothing left but a slab and some steps, quickly being reclaimed by weeds.
We went inside a gutted house, now for sale. It's easy to tell what the rooms were – that must have the kitchen, see the water hookup and the disposal on the floor? There's the master bedroom; can't you visualize the closets? And there's the bathroom. Oh my God, it's filthy, of course. The tub is full of rank mud and bits of porcelain and other detritrus.
Mold is growing on the studs. The water was up to the top of the walls, eight feet of water from Lake Ponchartrain; it poured in when the levee was breached.
I can't believe it. I thought I was ready for it. I wasn't, even though I was warned. Schools are just beginning to open. One neighborhood just got sewer service back. Charity Hospital is still closed; there are no doctors or nurses to staff it. Electricians? There are 35 master electricians in the whole city. All through the devastated areas are signs for businesses that specialize in gutting houses, bulldozing properties, cleaning.
It will take a very long time. A very very long time.