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New Orleans sinking feeling

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It’s difficult to imagine anything quite as tragic as the destruction of New Orleans, a town with so much history and soul that it has inspired a thousand songs and stories. It’s the kind of city where every night feels like it might be the last night on earth, where anything can and does happen.

It was once a rich trading centre, and ownership was swapped back and forth by the French and Spanish before the French ceded it to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase.

It had its wealthy founders, but once upon a time pirates and slave traders walked the cobblestone streets, and after the U.S. Civil War it became a place of refuge of blacks fleeing the poverty and starvation of the Caribbean for another kind of poverty. It’s a city of Catholic churches, a remnant of the French Creole settlers, but Voodoo and Santoria is still widely practised in its back alleys.

Recently New Orleans has emerged as a cultural destination, and has earned a reputation as a party town where almost anything goes. It’s "Fat Tuesday" Mardi Gras festival is the second biggest in the world, next to Rio de Janeiro, with dozens of parades celebrating all the sins that people would be giving up for Lent.

And for the past three weeks about 80 per cent of that city has been underwater. The French Quarter survived because it was one of the few parts of the city that was above sea level before all the levees were built, but the financial district and dozens of neighbourhoods found themselves up to seven metres underwater when Hurricane Katrina swept through the city and the levees failed.

Thousands are likely dead, mostly the poor, elderly and infirm that did not have the means to evacuate the city. All levels of government failed spectacularly to respond to the potential crisis, before and after the levees broke, and all will have to answer for the death and destruction when the sum of the tragedy is tallied.

My heart goes out to that city.

I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans during my first year of university with three friends, opting to spend our "reading week" boozing and exchanging bead necklaces for glimpses of breasts – I’m not proud of it, but I was 19 years old.

It was a crazy trip – 42 hours straight driving from Halifax with a car we rented under false pretenses (a parent’s credit card that we didn’t have permission to use and the signature of an older friend who was old enough to rent a car but wasn’t coming with us) and we pulled into The Big Easy. We found a motel just blocks away from the French Quarter, got a few beers from a street vendor, and went for some jambalaya and gumbo at a local roadside restaurant.

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