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February 17, 2009

Rockin' Rollercoaster

Okay, so obviously our return to New Orleans after an absence of 4 years and 1 hurricane is going to bring with it a mixture of emotions. For selfish reasons I'll admit that I've been trying to keep sight of the good times rather than dwell on the tragedies of the past.

I first set foot in The Crescent City in 2002, but I already knew that I'd fall in love with it. I had an idea of what it would be like, based on books, movies and the music, but I also saw the truth light up in Tim's eyes whenever he spoke of his pilgrimages to Nawlins during the decade before we met.

I still remember the first hurricane to pass close following my first visit. I was absolutely terrified that something bad would happen. Ever since then I put myself on hurricane watch, tracking storms through the Gulf using the National Hurricane Center website.

At the time of our wedding in February 2005, right in the heart of the French Quarter (not even a block away from Bourbon Street) I'd racked up something like 5 of my own pilgrammages, including two Mardi Gras'.

I was so proud that we had got to that point, that our family and friends were there to share it with us. I was also proud to play tour guide for my folks in the town that I'd come to see as a mirror of my soul. In my dreams I hoped that someday Tim and I would retire to New Orleans, buy a house with a back porch or a balcony and that I'd pick away my dotage, bluesing it up for the passers-by.

I still remember vividly the moment that my Dad stopped in the middle of the street, halfway down Royal, put his hand to his head and muttered, "This is crazy. I'm sorry, son, but this place is a disaster waiting to happen. It's not going to be around long!"

It was the day before our wedding and, really, I just blew off the comment. New Orleans had been around for a long time. It was steeped in history. It had survived storms and flooding in the past. It would prevail.

If there's one thing I know about my father, though, is that he's a superb engineer and he knows a hell of a lot about coastal construction, erosion, defences and so on. I already knew that in principal he was right. New Orleans sits in a basin below sea-level and a direct hit from a hurricane of sufficient magnitude to break the levees would flood the entire area. I knew that in principal he was right. I simply didn't want to believe that fate would be so cruel.

It was.

Seven months later, along came Katrina.

I don't even want to go into the emotions that swept in with the hurricane. Even on the other side of the planet the plight of the people caught up in the storm was felt as a sucker-punch to the gut.

For days I watched the drama unfurl. I watched the waters rush then creep in, ever closer to my beloved Vieux Carre. Miraculously, the flooding stopped short of the boundaries of the 'old' town and even left the Garden District broadly untouched.

The toll of the storm in terms of loss and human misery was immense, but I clung to the single ray of hope that New Orleans could come back as long as its precious heart was still beating. In my mind, as long as the French Quarter was there, there was still a chance for recovery.

I still don't know whether New Orleans will come back, and if it does, what form it'll take. A huge part of its soul was in the people, and the people were scattered far and wide. Many... most, even, have not returned.

The Big Easy is still there, and in three days we'll find out how much of her spirit remains intact. As I said, I'm trying to set my sights on the fun side of this trip. The Good Times. This morning, though, I was listening to Susan Tedeschi's new album, "Back To The River", which includes the track "700 Houses". It brought a tear to my eye so I figured I owed it to everyone who loves New Orleans to share the song with them.

Here you go...

Lookin' out my window
What do I see?
700 houses
Scattered in front of me
Silence all around me
Deafening the air
Not a sign of anyone
I just had to stare

What is this madness?
My hopes and dreams are sand
All the signs that led me home
Are scattered to the wind
I'm searching for my friends
And shaking in my skin
Where have all of my Saints gone?
Will they come marching in?

What can be done?
Another storm to overcome
What can be done?
What can be done?
Another storm to overcome

Let's pick up the pieces
From this tragedy
You and I must come to terms
With this reality
I'm lost and I'm looking
My city's washed away
But you know that I'll be back
I'm coming back to stay

What can be done?
Another storm to overcome
What can be done?
What can be done?
Another storm to overcome

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