You might think that after spending two weeks on a wonderful tour of the area last year, we might have had enough of New Orleans tours. But there is something special about this city and its unique history and culture that makes us feel like we have only scratched the surface. When Hurricane Katrina came close to destroying the city, there were those who said that it was not worth rebuilding a city that is located five feet below sea level in a bowl and I must admit that I could see the merit in that opinion at the time. But it is clear that this place is too special to give up and people are continuing to work hard to bring it back to its former condition and repair the levees so that they will not fail again. We must remember that New Orleans is 120 miles from the gulf and the flooding was caused when Lake Ponchartrain overflowed its banks and the levees along the shipping canal broke in multiple places. Our guide today took us to one of the levees that did not fail and pointed out that those that did were mostly in poor neighborhoods. Go figure.
We met the tour in a park on the edge of the French Quarter and rode around nearby neighborhoods, pausing every so often to learn more the city and its people. The homes here have such a unique look. WHen our guide said that he thinks of New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city it made so much sense. With the brightly colored homes and the casual, fun-loving approach to life, the city has more in common with the places we just cruised to than the rest of the country to the north.
This makes sense historically. This city was founded by the French and a vibrant, important port long before the British colonies amounted to anything. After this Louisiana Purchase as Americans tried to join the French residents, they were met with hostility and the French continued to follow their own laws and customs until they we outnumbered by Anglos five to one. Some of these customs seem strange to us. New Orleans mothers arranged for their sons to have long term relationships with African American women when they reached puberty. The mothers bought homes for these women and paid them a monthly salary for the rest of their lives. Any mulatto children born of these relationships were entitled to inherit 30% of the estate. This lead to an African American community that had wealth, education and power that far exceeded their cousins in other southern states.Since most young French women were sent to Paris for a refined education, this plan avoided a lot of fooling around with the riff raff that remained in town and might have venereal diseases.
And of course, it's impossible to be here and not talk about Katrina. We are camped along the shores of the lake and many of the homes and businesses around us look like new construction and they are. But when we drive through neighborhoods, we see everything from empty lots where homes used to be to dilapidated houses to houses being rebuilt to lovely homes. Some rebuilt houses sit high on stilts and some sit right on the ground. Our guide said that there is no building code in this regard. Organized coherent government is definitely a weak spot here, but the decision was made that if the levees were built strong enough to withstand the next major storm, it did not matter how high the houses are off the ground. He also said that all the houses are insured by the government, because conventional insurance companies will not insure homes here. But that left me wondering if another Katrina occurred, how could the government cover all that loss?