Can New Orleans ever recover?

New Orleans residents are evacuated by boat on Wednesday. Thousands of residents who rode out Hurricane Katrina are now seeking a way out of the besieged city.
New Orleans residents are evacuated by boat on Wednesday. Thousands of residents who rode out Hurricane Katrina are now seeking a way out of the besieged city. Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: NBC News

NEW ORLEANS — Amid the chaotic scenes of evacuation in New Orleans, the inevitable question is: Will the Big Easy ever return to its former glory and its position in the pantheon of great American cities?

From his vantage point on Canal Street in the French Quarter, and speaking on a satellite phone, NBC News Carl Quintanilla describes the scene and discusses prospects for the future.

What is the scene like in downtown New Orleans this morning?
The city is clearly emptying out. Hotels have asked their guests to leave, providing buses in some cases. People who know that the Superdome has buses heading to Houston are heading that way.

It’s very quiet downtown. It’s very dark at night. There has been no moon and it’s strange because you can even see the stars at night in a major metropolitan area, which is a little disconcerting in a way.

Then there are occasionally very angry people coming up to us and asking us for information. Where can I get gas? Where can I get a ride? What’s going on? They haven’t had electricity or phones or water for days and they are understandably upset.  

Can you explain the situation with the looting? Is it still continuing or has there been any stop to that?
The only thing that’s stopping it is that most of the downtown area, where we are, has been pretty well picked over.  The looting was pretty heavy for about 24 hours. But, that was all it took for a lot of these stores to just be emptied.

There was virtually no fear that the cops would arrest them. It happened right in plain view, in broad daylight, in front of police. I think there was a sense that people know that the police are working on a triage basis, that they can’t arrest every thief; and if they could, there is no place to take them.

So it’s a complete breakdown of the law. It hasn’t turned necessarily violent, but it is a complete breakdown of the law.

It sounds like it was pretty much mayhem, is that how you would describe it?  
People might have this sense that there is screaming and rioting and huge throngs of people marching through the street, but its not like that.

It’s very quiet. It’s two or three men sneaking into a building and then, virtually undisturbed, leaving with as much as they can carry.

So, it’s not like we’re in a war zone, necessarily. It’s just that downtown has been hollowed out and once that happens, if you are willing to stay, you can pretty much get away with anything you want. 

What is the security presence like? Have you seen National Guard officers on the street, or is it just local New Orleans police enforcing the rule of law?
I have to be careful, because I only know as far as I can see from where I am here in the French Quarter. So, my current vantage point is only a few hundred yards. The National Guard could be around the corner, and I would never know it.  

But, in the neighborhoods that I’ve gone to — uptown and here in the French Quarter — there is not a heavy National Guard presence. Occasionally you’ll see a camouflaged truck roll through, but that has happened only a few times.

Mostly, it’s been city police in marked cars and in unmarked cars, sort of patrolling the corners. This does not look like a big military operation, it seems like the city is still operating very much on its own.

How are the evacuation efforts going? Does it seem that the city will just continue to clear out?
Yes, that’s the hope. The hope is that, if officials had there way, everyone would just leave and just stay away for weeks and maybe months. The process of draining all this water is unfathomable, you can’t even get your mind around it.

That said, there are still people here who say that they are not leaving. Most of them are poor and they don’t have the money to either buy gas, or go to a hotel, or to go visit family in another city or state.

So what options do they have? They basically have one option: That’s to stay here and basically scrounge for as much food and water as they can, and wait for the city to open again.

Right now, is it hard to imagine the city of New Orleans ever getting back to normal?
I think it’s imaginable. There is still lots of hope for New Orleans. The question is, how long will it take? Could it take years? A lot of people think so.

The deeper question is will it ever have that cultural richness again that it’s famous for — that it’s been famous for hundreds of years for? 

I think that there is a sense that, even after the water is gone, it won’t be what it was. People won’t want to come back to live here.

The dangers of living in a city in a big basin are now too well known. It might have shrunk forever as a city. Its status as one of the great American cities might be seriously impaired forever. 

Part of the fabric and character of the city was based on the fact that there was this known risk of living there and that’s what made it the crazy city that it is. But, now that the danger has borne out, might that change the attitude of bravado that characterized the city?   
This is always a city that’s sort of lived on its mysticism — its voodoo, French, Cajun, crazy lifestyle that you couldn’t find anyplace else in America and that’s why everyone wanted to come here. They always lucked out with every storm, it either veered to the right or veered to the left. But, this one hit hard the way they always knew it could, but never expected it to.

Has there been one particular person you’ve talked to or seen that has sort of summed up the sentiment there over the last few days for you?
Yeah, we were on the highway, on the interstate, watching people walk for miles to catch a bus that they could only hope was going to be there.

There was a young boy, about seven or eight, literally sweating, he had clearly already walked a mile or more. He was carrying his infant brother or sister, it was hard to tell. This little boy was just struggling to carry his own sibling, it gave you a sense of what everyone is going through.

Everyone from children, to the elderly, to parents, they are just in a confusing, impossible situation.