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New Orleans now a dream where nothing makes sense

NEW ORLEANS—At dawn, on a rooftop 11 stories up, you could think it never happened.

The engine rumbling below is a garbage man making his rounds. You can almost imagine him balancing a cup of coffee and smiling about something his wife said last night.

The windows in the big Shell building across the street—across all downtown, for that matter—are dark and the streets are empty. But of course they are. It's early. The city's asleep.

Except it can't yet wake from its dreaming. And these days are like a weird dream in this all-but abandoned, flooded-out city. Everyone here and in nearby towns says that.

"It's so strange," said the real estate broker from Plaquemines Parish, now deputized as a law officer, driving slowly down a flooded road. "I recognize everything, but nothing's where it's supposed to be. I'm all turned around. I don't know where I am."

Nobody does. The street signs in New Orleans are gone, or turned sideways, and many people drive the wrong way on I-10. Some people still drive the right way, but it is harder day-by-day to remember which way that was.

Do not bother stopping to ask directions from the soldiers bivouacked inside the New Orleans Board of Tourism. They will tell you—with fine military bearing and utmost courtesy—that they have no idea where they are. "No, sir. We're from Oklahoma."

Nobody knows what day it is, but everyone asks, "How long have you been here?" Since the newspapers in corner stands still worriedly announce Katrina's imminent arrival, and nobody can remember when the storm actually hit, that date is the point when all time starts. Thus, the correct way to answer the above question is "Day of," or "two nights after" the storm hit, and so on.

Certain basic laws of physics appear to have been suspended. What are those 9,000-ton trawlers doing on the road's center median? How could that ice chest be balanced so perfectly in that tree?

And that body that appeared on the Danziger Bridge one day: somebody's son, then a thing with its mouth and eyes open, then finally, one afternoon, gone. Only blood-black paste was left. He must have been taken, but by whom, and where? The police said they had no time to take care of bodies, and nowhere to put them.

Last week, when getting around New Orleans meant boating or wading through a hellish Venice, there were Hieronymus Boschian tales of children raped and murdered in the Superdome, occasional sightings of the dorsal fin of a Great White shark escaped from the Audubon Aquarium.

The rumors are less fantastical now, though just as likely to be untrue: Perhaps armed Mexican troops really are patrolling the streets here, and FEMA will pay any able-bodied adult $100 an hour to pick up corpses.

Currency has uncertain value in this city. No stores are open, so it is not good for much. But you can use it to buy beer from the three bars that are open in the French Quarter, or gas for your generator at $6 a gallon from the man who is hauling it in from somewhere out of town.

You do not need it for food or water: There are small mountains of supplies downtown, guarded but free for the asking. Salvation Army trucks give hot meals to everyone. The Sheraton hosts a nightly open bar.

Journalists are here in multitudes. The city is empty yet Canal Street is gridlocked, because of the TV trucks. The citizens of the French Quarter cannot safely leave their homes, for fear of roving news crews seeking the "color" element for their nightly segments.

There is color in abundance, perhaps because so many of the people who remain here seem eager, even relieved to talk.

One afternoon an old man living in a shotgun shack off Chef Menteur Highway, in deserted New Orleans East, talked 15 minutes about the mud in his house and how it came in and got on his clothes and how he has been scrubbing to no avail, because there is too much mud.

On another day a Plaquemines fisherman began to cry without warning: "The night after the storm I heard every animal," he said. "Cats, dogs, coyotes, crying and moaning. They sounded like babies but they wasn't babies. But there was nothing we could do. We couldn't see anything."

He seemed to get lost, back there, weeping about his drowned pet raccoon and showing with his arms how he used to bottle-feed him.

All these things—images and tales shocking, bizarre and absurd—have become iconic, powerfully charged with many meanings because it is difficult or impossible to comprehend the scope of what has occurred. They are inadequate but we are compelled to remember them and tell them, the way a person, waking from a strange dream, is compelled to describe what he has seen.

Only these dreams are really there.

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(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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