Dennis Persica: In wake of tragedy, a city rises

Tour buses still roll down my street. Occasionally, I’ll look out my front window and see one or two of the big vehicles pulled up snug against the curb.

Presumably, everyone inside is looking toward the levee and someone is telling them that they’re eyeing one of the spots where the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. There’s not much to see there, really. The concrete floodwall looks fine; the levee itself looks the way a levee is supposed to.

Nothing to see here. Literally nothing.

The five lots that back up to the levee right there are empty. The people who used to have homes there fled the oncoming storm in August 2005 and returned afterward only to gather what they could from their muddy, shredded houses. Eventually the homes were gone, too.

Next to that patch is a formerly vacant lot that has been fenced in and attached to the neighboring property through the Lot Next Door program. The combination has the air of a lonely farmstead on the prairie, since the three lots on the other side of it are vacant, too.

Besides the tour buses, groups of college students pop up from time to time. Sometimes there’s enough of them to require a small bus. They’ll walk up the levee, then over to the Robert E. Lee Boulevard bridge over the London Avenue Canal. From there, they’ll look at where the levee broke from the perspective of the canal’s side of the breach.

I don’t know if these are engineering students, or political science students, or history students. All three disciplines make sense when it comes to studying one of the greatest public works disasters in American life.

The Corps of Engineers has repaired the levee where it broke, and has piled up rocks on the canal side of the floodwall to bolster the repairs. Now they’re trying to replicate that a few hundred feet further south. They’ve cordoned off part of the levee, and big tractor-trailers carrying sheet pilings and other materials often clank down my street to get to the work area.

That’s not the only work going on around here. Construction on a new home seems to start up every day now. These new structures aren’t going up in the empty lots closest to the break, but elsewhere in my neighborhood. Pilings pop up like mushrooms where there was only grass a day or so before. Soon, the skeleton of a new home starts to take shape there, the fresh lumber framing its future profile.

At one house not far from mine, the crew gets started at first light. If you want to wake up around 7 a.m., the sound of the workers sawing and hammering can be your alarm. If you like to get up later, well, you’re out of luck until this house is finished.

Real estate agents say property around here is in big demand. I suppose people must have confidence in the massive, expensive improvements to the flood-protection system to be sinking money into homes. But three weeks into a new hurricane season, it’s hard not to think of what can go wrong that we might not have dreamed of — Robert Burns’ best-laid schemes of mice and men; Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.

Slowly, despite the doubts, a community is coming back together, with new faces filling in the holes left by the people who didn’t return after the flood.

Slowly, this ancient city — which has endured fires and epidemics, other storms and other floods — is rising again.

Dennis Persica’s email address is dpersica@theadvocate.com.