The Big Empty

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VACANT: Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish

Last Wednesday night, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco stood in front of her state's lawmakers and vowed to resurrect New Orleans. "To anyone who even suggests that this great city should not be rebuilt," she said, "hear this and hear it well: We will rebuild."

It was not a particularly bold prediction in front of the hometown crowd, but it was undeniably true: New Orleans will rebuild. Before long, the eternally languid river city will turn into the country's largest work site, a city of hardhats and blueprints, booming jackhammers, beeping forklifts, and shouting foremen.

For now, New Orleans remains the stillest, strangest city in America. Police checkpoints keep out gawkers and residents alike, so even in the driest districts, most streets are completely deserted. Driving through the Garden District is like touring the backlot of a disaster movie. Electrical wires dangle, trees tilt, nothing stirs.

But the city is not completely vacant. There are convoys of soldiers, cops, and firefighters. There are reporters from all over the world. There are barflies who never left. These groups tend to huddle together—television crews in their RV's along Canal Street, barflies on Bourbon Street, soldiers in their forward operating bases near the Audubon Zoo and elsewhere.

Outside of the Riverwalk, the deserted tourist promenade on the Mississippi, soldiers in sand-colored t-shirts and camo pants enjoy a organized cook-out lunch under massive tents with red-white-and-blue logos trumpeting "Budweiser Hurricane Katrina Relief." Across the street, workers wearing bright yellow "Scientology Volunteer Minister" t-shirts have their own expansive tent and are offering tetanus shots for rescue workers.

Johnny White's on Bourbon Street, the most famous bar-that-never-closed, is swarming with both flies and customers. On a muggy Sunday afternoon, the fourth anniversary of 9/11, the bar did a steady business with national guardsmen and New York firefighters, who traded smokes and improbably cold Miller Lites for promises of MRE's, ice and mosquito spray. A British news crew looked in vain for locals to interview about this.

Just to the east, the 9th Ward has finally been drained. On Tuesday, National Guardsmen recovered the bodies several 9th Ward children, including a 12-year-old child they found tangled on a fence.

After each street is pumped out, the Louisiana sun bakes the residual sludge until it dries, cracks and turns into a fine dust. Throats tickle, but its unclear whether from this flooddust underfoot or from the cropduster mosquito spray overhead.

Not all progress is as grim. On Monday, business owners were allowed into the central business district to begin plotting their comebacks. Starting Tuesday, a few commercial flights returned to Louis Armstrong International Airport. But the other things are still true: there's almost no power in the city. There are lots of guns, but little peace of mind. And though the streets are deathly quiet, the sights and smells say too much about what happened there. There are landmarks ahead: When the first power station comes online, the first Orleans Parish school opens, the first Saints home game in New Orleans. But this week the city, however uneasy, rests.