ESSAY- Disaster tourism: Viewing the misery of others

In the days leading up to Mardi Gras a couple weeks ago, I fielded some strange questions from camera-clutching visitors to the city of New Orleans, where I've lived off and on the for past year-and-a-half.

Though the post-Katrina streets of the French Quarter had grown encouragingly festive and rowdy in anticipation of Fat Tuesday, these queries had nothing to do with how to get to Bourbon Street, where to find the best gumbo, or when to head into the Faubourg Marigny to catch a jazz band.

Rather, the question at the front of many travelers' minds was this: "How do you get to the Lower Ninth Ward?"

Before the devastation of the 2005 hurricane season, the Lower Ninth Ward (which lies well to the east of areas covered by local guidebooks) wouldn't have registered the faintest blip on the New Orleans travel radar. But after the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward suddenly transformed into a tourist attraction.

Visitors were coming to the Big Easy to watch Mardi Gras parades and drink mint juleps, sure– but many people also wanted to see the working-class neighborhood that had become a symbol for human suffering in the dramatic images that filled TV screens after the storm.

On a certain level, of course, seeking to combine a Mardi Gras sojourn with a foray into the flood-wracked streets of the Ninth Ward smacked of voyeurism and vulgarity– kind of like traveling to Dresden to celebrate Octoberfest in 1946. After all, the ruined homes that litter the low-lying neighborhood aren't tourist attractions– they're a sad testament to the pain and loss of the people who lived there.

Still, in an era of global mass media and secondhand experience, a tourist foray into the flood-zone promised something that has become increasingly rare in the travel milieu: an experience that is vividly, irrevocably authentic. Hence, despite the ethical complexities behind such an activity, journeying into to the Lower Ninth Ward carried a tantalizing allure.

I should know. After so many queries from other travelers, I brandished a camera and went there myself.

Crass as this choice might have seemed, it was actually in keeping with a time-honored travel tradition. Indeed, the present-day notion of what defines a tourist attraction might revolve around monuments, culture, and nightlife, but it wasn't so long ago that travelers found interest in the most basic realities of a new place.

In the nineteenth century, tour groups visited factories, schools, prisons, and morgues– and seeking out local disaster and war zones was a natural extension of any itinerary. Thomas Cook started taking British travelers on tours of American Civil War battlefields in 1865; a couple years later, Mark Twain and his cohorts famously toured the war-torn city of Sevastopol (where Twain chided his travel companions for carrying off armfuls of shrapnel as souvenirs).

Over a century later, the same impulse to seek out recent human tragedy results in high tourist demand to see places like Cambodia's "Killing Fields," or the "Ground Zero" area of lower Manhattan. Unlike the monuments built to commemorate them, which sometimes devolve into kitsch (think Civil War statues and social-realist Soviet murals), disaster zones have a rawness that defies anything but a visceral interpretation of what happened there. Free of curators, ticket-takers, and media middlemen, the grim reality of places like the Lower Ninth Ward speaks for itself.

Opting to travel by private car, I arrived to find the Ninth Ward host to an eclectic mix of visitors: disaster volunteers, returned residents, TV crews, and rubberneckers – black and white alike –most of them brandishing video cameras. Much like the Mona Lisa intuitively draws crowds in the Louvre, people seemed to gravitate toward the breach in the Industrial Canal levee, where hundreds of houses had been smashed into rubble by the waters, and a huge brown river barge had come to rest on the nose of a neighborhood school bus.

This part of New Orleans was home to one of the highest rates of black home-ownership in the United States, but the streets are now choked with the muddied detritus of domestic normalcy: weed-whackers, pet food, barbells. A moldy suitcase sat in the middle of an intersection, bearing a copy of "How to Be an Effective Teacher"; a fencepost, stripped of chain link, skewered a couch cushion. Pickup trucks sat upended in living rooms; house roofs sat crumpled on top of minivans. The devastation went on for two-dozen blocks in every direction.

As I walked past the rubble, I was joined by Dennis, a fortyish black man who'd evacuated his Ninth Ward house the night before Katrina hit. Now, six months after evacuating, he was returning for the first time– sightseer in his own neighborhood. When I asked him what he thought of outsiders like me poking around this corner of the city, he shrugged. "It doesn't bother me," he said. "Hopefully, you'll see what happened here, and realize you're at least as lucky as I am."

"Lucky? How so?"

"I lost everything," he said. "But I kept everybody. That's Mardi Gras enough for me."


Travel Tips for Post-Katrina New Orleans

1) Just go.

In a city where 15 percent of all jobs were tied to tourism­ and where tourist revenues paid for 30 percent of the city's operating budget­ visitors are welcome in New Orleans like never before. After six months of hosting soldiers, reporters, and reconstruction contractors, each new traveler is a welcome sign of normalcy in the Big Easy.

2) Revisit the clichés.

Though veteran New Orleans travelers typically shy away from mass draws like Bourbon Street and riverboat cruises, the current lack of French Quarter crowds gives these experiences a whole new perspective. There's no better time to hit a jazz bar, buy voodoo trinkets, or chug a Hurricane.

3) Support the arts.

New Orleans has long been home to one of the most vibrant artistic communities in North America, and all aspects of the arts were hit hard by the disaster. While in town, be sure to hit the galleries and museums, browse the bookstores, and catch some live music or poetry.

4) Dig in.

Few American cities can compete with the distinctiveness of New Orleans cuisine­ and local restaurants have recovered well. During Mardi Gras, I had fabulous meals at places ranging from the historical Napoleon House in the French Quarter, to the upscale Creole fare of the Upperline uptown, to the budget friendly Verti Mart on Royal Street.

If you're curious about the extent of flood and hurricane damage in New Orleans, keep in mind that almost all of the city was affected­ not just the Ninth Ward. Almost any drive out of the French Quarter will yield some perspective on the extent of the damage. Just remember to be respectful in your sightseeing, and avoid damaged neighborhoods at night, since streetlights seldom work and the debris can wreak havoc on car tires. For a more formal approach to aftereffects of Katrina, Gray Line Tours of New Orleans offer bus tours of affected areas.

Rolf Potts is the author of "Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel."