Saints 'Conscience' Tours Battered Hometown

We pass damaged St. Raphael School in the Gentilly section of town. We pass rows and rows of those all-too-familiar white, FEMA-supplied trailers. The temporary housing trailers are as much a part of the city's landscape as the Mississippi River these days. At the Historic New Orleans Collection store in the Quarter, you can even buy Christmas cards that feature the trailers on the front.

PODS storage containers dot the front yards of some houses. Rows of trailers sit next to the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. "They do a great job," McAllister says of the church volunteers.

A Habitat for Humanity sign is pointed down a street. Cars line up at an intersection; no electricity, so no stoplights. Small children play in front of their X'd-out house.

The piles of rubble grow taller and the number of blue roof tarps grow more numerous as we near New Orleans' version of ground zero, the Lower Ninth Ward.

"That's when your jaw is going to drop," McAllister says. "We're revisiting Aug. 29 of 2005. Nothing, literally nothing, has been done to about 95 percent of the area."

We cross one of the three bridges that span the Industrial Canal, drive a few hundred yards and soon find ourselves in the middle of hell.

"Yep, this is the Lower Ninth Ward," he says.

Whatever photos you've seen of the destruction of what the locals call "The Lower Nine," they don't do it justice. Whatever video you've watched on your nightly news doesn't convey the desolation. There were people here once. And houses. And lives. Now there is virtually nothing left.

A house somehow sits at a 45-degree angle, its nose buried deep into the ground. Useless power lines are draped along potholed streets. A thick light pole rests on the concave roof of a rusted car. The hull of a small boat lies half overturned in someone's front yard. From December 2005: A house is positioned in the middle of the road, moved off its foundation by Hurricane Katrina.

"You could say the storm literally hit yesterday," McAllister says as he tries to avoid the deepest potholes. "And to think that water did this not a nuclear bomb or a bomb, but water."

Jumpsuit-attired members of a demolition crew wave as we drive past the skeleton of a brick house. A tour bus arrives, and out spill several women with digital cameras. "They bring them in from the airport," McAllister says.

It's time to head back. We drive back over the bridge, past the camouflaged Humvees used by the military police, past the twisted metal of a gas station roof, past the wooden planks that serve as walkways into a row of shotgun houses. And we're 10 minutes from downtown.

At city's edge, on South Claiborne Street, McAllister pulls the SUV over to the side. A highway overpass, at least four stories high, runs alongside the Grand Palace Hotel. McAllister stood on that overpass with Red Cross workers and National Guardsmen a few days after the storm hit. They were watching the water move down Canal Street when a man opened his window on the eighth or ninth floor of the hotel.

"I'll never forget it," he says. "He was just sitting there, and he wanted to know if we had that day's paper and any fresh water on us. We told him the National Guard would come get him, but he wasn't trying to leave. He said, 'Nah, the power will be back on soon. This will basically blow over.'"

The Superdome soon appears on our left. We can see it from the same road where McAllister and the Red Cross crew passed animal corpses and deserted cars.

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