On the eve of national title game, New Orleans remains very much a tale of two cities Print
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Saturday, 05 January 2008 10:04
NCAAF Headline News

 NEW ORLEANS (AP) -They're here by the thousands, and easy enough to spot. Dressed in school colors they stay in nice hotels, eat in fine restaurants, and wait anxiously for the time when their team plays for the national college football championship.
A few miles away, Cynthia Punch and her cat, Lucy, sit even more anxiously in a tiny trailer surrounded by hundreds of others just like it. A small television sits on her stove, the toilet is finally working again, and she managed to make it through the recent cold snap even though she had no gas for her heater.
In 11 days she'll be homeless again, a prospect that should frighten her more than it does.
``I can sleep under any bridge,'' she said. ``Lucy's my biggest thing. You just can't go anywhere with a cat. But she's survived storms and evacuations and gone through everything. I'm not putting her through any more.''
Lucy and her owner won't be anywhere near the rebuilt Superdome Monday night when Ohio State and LSU play in a game that will determine the national title.
The famed restaurants and bars of the French Quarter frequented by free-spending alumni of the two teams might as well be on another planet for the 57-year-old, who gets by on a $700 a month disability check that is enough to feed both her and her cat.
She's not counting the months, but there's been 28 of them since Katrina unleashed devastation on this city so unimaginable that even the people who came to fix it were overwhelmed.
Now, many of the people who come to party and play have returned, but much of the city is still gone and may never be back.
Punch is being kicked out of the FEMA trailer she occupies in Chalmette, but hers is just one of thousands of sorry tales that the well-heeled in town for a football game will never hear. You can find them simply by walking down any street in neighborhoods around the city, from the devastated Lower 9th Ward to the better off but equally devastated area of New Orleans East.
By now the country is mostly numb to them because there are so many tragic stories and they have been told so often. America has largely moved on, and the images of despair and tragedy that were once seared into the nation's conscience have faded away with time.
For sports writers here for the title game - staying in a hotel just across the street from where refrigerated trucks held Katrina's dead - the focus is the massive Superdome, the bustling tourist areas, and the game that will cap the college football season.
Same goes for the fans who come from Ohio or neighboring Baton Rouge and talk excitedly not about how the city can come back but whether their team has the best defense.
It's more personal for me because I was in the Superdome a few days after Katrina hit, and just after it was emptied of some 25,000 to 30,000 refugees who withstood unimaginable conditions while waiting for the flood waters to recede. Three of New Orleans' finest who kept an eye on the survivors took me on a flashlight tour of the dome, which reeked of human misery and was littered with the remnants of a desperate few days.
That's all changed and on Monday night the nation will see a gleaming and pristine stadium rebuilt at a cost of $193 million, something that seemed impossible when I was standing in the excrement-filled luxury suite of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. The dome is not only a rare success story, but a beacon of hope and a center of community pride for a city that needs it so badly.
Just around the corner, though, a tent city of the homeless sprawls out under the elevated interstate and, if the couches and other furniture are any indication, they are there to stay.
Across a nearby bridge lies ruins of the Lower 9th Ward, broken only by almost comical pink fabric stretched along a few blocks where actor Brad Pitt is leading a project to build 150 new homes complete with solar power for the displaced poor.
Indeed, there are signs of progress, from a street of rebuilt homes near where the 17th Street Canal let loose, to the lone modular house that sticks out in startling contrast to the squalor that surrounds it on Lizardi Street near Pitt's planned project.
There, Clara Washington lives with her grandchildren in a tidy home with a late model SUV in the driveway out front.
``We survived,'' said Washington, one of the few in her neighborhood who left before the storm hit. ``I refused not to come back. I was raised in this area and I was happy.''
Washington's neighbors, though, won't be coming back. Neither will residents who scattered to different parts of the state and to Texas and have no intention of coming back.
Around the city, entire neighborhoods still stand in ruins, thousands remain in cramped FEMA trailers, and one-third of the pre-Katrina population of about 455,000 has fled. It's impossible to describe the magnitude of the devastation, and it seems even more impossible that much of it will ever be rebuilt.
But on Bourbon Street they party like nothing ever happened, and the wellheeled alumni sip drinks while standing in line to get in the most popular restaurants.
Three bowl games within a month - the New Orleans Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Monday night's Bowl Championship Series - will pump an estimated $500 million into the area's economy and tourism officials talk about the positive image TV viewers will get of the city when they tune in for the games and see how good things are.
One of the players hopes that is true, because he has a personal stake in it all. LSU defensive tackle Marlon Favorite is not only from a New Orleans suburb but plays for a university barely 100 miles away.
``Slowly but surely you see this city progressing. People are getting better jobs and communities are rebuilding, building better housing,'' Favorite said. ``I really hope some good comes out of this. We're an in-state team, it's going to draw even more attention, so, anything to help out the city of New Orleans.''
Compared to the days following the horrendous flood, things are better in parts of the city, though looking at the crumbling infrastructure and the crumbling houses it's hard to see just where the billions of dollars in aid has gone. The most common feature of almost every neighborhood are still the grim markings painted on the front of nearly every home where rescuers indicated whether there were bodies or dead animals inside.
``Two dogs and one male,'' read one.
Some 1,400 people died in the New Orleans area in Katrina, many in the homes where they had lived all their lives.
Most remain faceless, if not nameless, but a few are still remembered where they died.
On a street in the Lower 9th Ward where a few vacated homes lean precariously toward the ground, there's a granite memorial with an American flag flying above in tribute to 74-year-old Joyce Green and her 3-year-old great-granddaughter, Shanai Green.
Robert Green Sr. watched his granddaughter float to her death while the family of seven clung to the roof a neighbor's house during the height of the flooding. His mother died on the roof from exposure before the rest of the family was rescued.
He was determined to honor them. He's just as determined to rebuild.
``I know the neighborhood has a future,'' he said. ``It will come back.''
I remembered one of the dead from my last trip to New Orleans, where I had been in the city only a few hours before coming across the body of a woman covered with a sheet held in place by bricks scavenged from a damaged building across the street. The city was in ruins, but someone still had the decency to cover the woman with a makeshift memorial and a sheet spray painted with the message:
``Here lies Vera. God help us all.''
Vera's identity was a mystery until a colleague and I went on a porch-to-porch search before finding her common-law husband about five blocks away. She turned out to be 66-year-old Elvira Smith, killed when hit by a speeding car while trying to get groceries in the frantic aftermath of the hurricane.
The bodies have long since been cleaned up, of course, and the Garden District near where Vera was found seems to be thriving. Unlike 80 percent of the city, it and the French Quarter were spared major flooding and most tourists visiting the city for the game won't go past its bustling restaurants, busy bars and quaint shops.
They won't see the other New Orleans, where Habitat For Humanity volunteers swarm to rebuild one house on an otherwise devastated street, or where new houses built on 10-foot pilings tower over neighboring homes that are just as likely to be boarded up as not.
They won't see a neighborhood in working-class Chalmette where progress is marked by fancy new wood-and-glass doors on some homes or Christmas decorations marking the only inhabited home on one block.
And they surely won't see Cynthia Punch and her cat, who have tried to remain as invisible as possible in a FEMA trailer that once belonged to her son and where she has technically been a squatter for the last year- and-a-half. It sits in a parking lot next to the boarded-up St. Bernard cultural center crowded together with hundreds of other trailers just like it.
ring place that had survived Katrina intact.
Punch would like to go back to the apartment where she survived 14-foot flood waters before being airlifted out a few days after the hurricane, but the place has been rebuilt and the rent has more than doubled to $675.
She has family in North Carolina and might go there because then the cat would have a home. But she hasn't made up her mind because she can't bring herself to face the reality she might have to leave the area where she was born and spent almost all her life.
``I came from poor and I know poor,'' she said. ``I had a wonderful life. I didn't have to ask nobody for nothing.''
Now she might have to, if only for the sake of Lucy, her cat.
``I thought I was going to come back and be a part of a neighborhood, and now for the first time in my life I don't have an address,'' she said. ``I don't feel sorry for myself. I just feel very confused.''
----
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org
 

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