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Water, water everywhere

By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published December 25, 2005

What remains of the storm itself is a heavy brown line. It cuts across New Orleans where the water stopped. Months later the feeling from Katrina sticks like no other story this year: The hurricane breached our boundaries and exposed our weaknesses, helplessness coming over us like rising water. A year ago we were stronger, richer, safer than we are now.

The brown water gathered up everything unclean from the streets and brought it into homes, into jewelry boxes and picture frames, piano keys and braided hair. Remember how it looked, rising on the television in our living rooms? What must it have felt like lapping at ankles, tugging off shoes?

It gathered things unspoken, tensions unreleased and fears unimagined and heaved them together atop overpasses, parched and stinking, and all we could do for days was look.

What did the water sound like rising to the rafters in a creaky old house? It stopped the music in Treme. It drove the tap dancing boys out of the French Quarter. It chased the maids out of the fancy hotels. It made the police chief cry on television and the mayor curse on the radio. The president flew over and then flew in, again and again, while the things we were sure of came undone.

When the water receded, it left a city empty of children. It exposed things about race and poverty we hadn't wanted to see. The flood left the question of what a home is worth. Can we scrub the stain clean or will we need a bulldozer? Who will be stronger next time, our walls or the water? How long before we believe we are protected again? Four years ago this question was written in tangled steel and now in a murky brown line.

People in New Orleans have been battered more and longer than most anyone else in America because the city is by nature so unliveable, so hot and unforgiving, and so old. Since the Indians told Bienville to build on high ground, people in this city have been scorched and drowned and sickened, and always come back. Fire nearly destroyed the French Quarter in 1788, and the rebuilding brought the Spanish architecture and wrought-iron balconies. Centuries of floods taught the people to bury their dead above ground, in ancient marble cities where someday you will again be able to eat a muffaletta under the oaks. Yellow fever killed about 8,000 in 1853, eight times Katrina. Maybe so much death is what taught the city to live so hard, to play the music so loud, to dance away from the grave.

On Royal Street, a few weeks after the storm, Justice Buras stepped outside his family's grocery store with his saxophone. The neighborhood felt so wrong and so quiet.

Justice is 18, gangly and uneasy. He never would have had the nerve to play in the Quarter before. New Orleans music sounded the way it did because of the people who played it, handing down those stirred-up rhythms through generations. But those people were gone, so Justice sat down and played.

Pretty soon Robin Lightell joined in with a harmonica, so drunk he wobbled. He had no home and nowhere to go, so he danced on one foot and tried to smile. Then Tom Seidell showed up with a bass in his trunk and said, "Is this the band?" He used to play the boarded-up clubs. He said everybody was seeking redemption, especially him.

Justice didn't know many songs, but the pro told him it would be all right. They all followed along the best they could. They played Amazing Grace, again and again, too many times, because it was the only song all of them knew by heart.

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