I've told several people online and offline that if I didn't have to return to work in a specified time I'd just take off driving with no specific plan. For various reasons I wound up in Texas with a week of vacation left, my car and no plans, so I took off driving. (Told you!)
I've been curious about New Orleans, so I headed there first. My impressions are brief and anecdotal and probably wrong in some cases. Also, this is shortly after the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras. I assume that figures into the equation even though I don't know how. I've been to New Orleans a couple of times before, but I wouldn't say I'm familiar with it.
I arrived around sunset on Thursday. I-10 was jam-packed full of traffic. There were signs of bits of debris visible from the freeway; I assume some of it was hurricane-related from the looks of it, but it also isn't out of character for a city that doesn't keep itself very clean. (Like Philadelphia or Detroit.) Some buildings had cosmetic damage, and there were many blue roofs on smaller buildings...I assume they were tarp-covered, but I couldn't look closely while in traffic.
I wanted to look around, but it was getting dark, so I headed straight for Harrah's casino in the French Quarter. The downtown/French Quarter area looked very busy on the street level with lots of folk about. Many retail places were closed, but many appeared to be open.
I spent 3 hours donating to Harrah's Katrina relief fund. For a Thursday evening I thought they were reasonably busy, but the minimum stakes were higher than I expected. I played the Hold 'Em table game with a "minimum" of $10, but you had to have $30 on the table before having a chance to win. I moved on to the $15 minimum craps tables. I'm not sure why I couldn't find more reasonable minimums.
I left Harrah's around midnight wanting to check out the Boomtown casino (I heard it and another were open) and find a motel. I found a very different New Orleans after dark. Traffic was very light and there were no pedestrians to be seen almost anywhere. I had trouble finding the street and so drove around a fair bit SW of downtown. I got hungry and stopped at an IHOP, but the door was chained even though it was lit up and had a "now hiring" sign. I began to notice that many retail places were lit up but obviously closed upon a second glance. Many businesses were blacked out, too.
By the time I got to Boomtown I realized I'd find no motels nearby as it was an industrial/port part of town. I was too tired to go in and play, but judging by the parking lot they were pretty busy for a Thursday night...probably busier than Harrah's.
I found a couple of open motels SW of New Orleans, but they had "no vacancy" signs and no apparent open office (but a lot of cars...no, work trucks, especially BellSouth trucks...indicating guests). I found several closed motels, too.
I had a Motel 6 directory and headed NE of New Orleans looking for a couple of them up there (and presumably other cheap hotels). This is where New Orleans got really creepy for me as there was virtually NO traffic on I-10 (about 1am), and *everything* NE of New Orleans was blacked out. I passed what looked like apartment buildings or condos completely blacked out with no cars around. I took an exit to look at my map and figure out where along I-10 I was. I was well past where the motels should be...they must've been blacked out. Where I exited was a damaged, dark and closed gas station (saw many of those) and what looked like small probably commercial/industrial buildings and perhaps even some housing down the street. In the darkness I saw some piles of debris by the street. No light, no people, no vehicles. At the freeway intersection were many, *many* signs stuck in the grass (like "vote for..." signs or "lose weight" signs) advertising cleanup and construction services. I never considered driving into the blacked out areas. I knew that if anybody was back there they would be desperate.
My original thought was to explore New Orleans during the day, but at this point I was sufficiently creeped out that I wanted to leave. New Orleans isn't ready IMO for casual visitors. I should say that there are some high-rise hotels downtown; I didn't check out whether they are open; I assumed that if they were it would cost more than I care to pay. If someone wanted to stay downtown and not go out at night except to the casino New Orleans might be doable, but that's not the way I travel.
Slidell is the next town NE of New Orleans. I got there and found all the motels full of construction and phone trucks and with "no vacancy" signs at the office. There's a TA truck stop there, and I started fueling with my credit card at the pump. There were trucks at the truck pumps, and the building was lit up and presumably open. There was a guy in a TA uniform looking a bit homeless sitting out front of TA on some luggage. He struck up a conversation with me as I headed in to use the restroom...the store and restaurant were closed and unstaffed. He was trying to tell me a story and complain about TA and said he was working there, but I got the distinct impression he's only hoping to get paid for showing up and nobody is staffing the place at all. I cut the conversation short and left because I could see it was leading up to a plea for money.
I drove to the other side of the freeway to Waffle House...lit up with "Now Hiring" in the window, but closed. I notice a lot of places in and around N.O. were "now hiring" but closed. I wonder if they are actually wanting to hire now or if the signs are leftover from before Mardi Gras...maybe they wanted to open for the festival but couldn't find help?
The next town north (Picayune, MS; by this time I knew I had to get away from the coast to find a motel) again had motels full of reconstruction worker types but at least had an open Waffle House. The waitress said she had no family to evacuate to, and the shelters wouldn't take pets so she stayed in her trailer home with her dogs during Katrina. This town was far north enough that the dangers were the tornadoes spawned by the storm, and her mobile home was picked up two feet and dropped doing damage, but I'm not sure how much.
I continued north along I-59 town by town checking for motels. I drove all over the relatively-large Hattiesburg, MS...everything was full. Well, there was one place I stopped that had one room, but I arrived at the same time as another vehicle with a couple and possibly kids. I was sort of there first, but I held the door for him so he got to the counter first. That's fine as I can easily nap in the car if I can't find a place. The motels in Hattiesburg had staffed offices, though, and I asked if they were full because of N.O. reconstruction. More than one said partially, but there was also a military deployment (from Minnesota out of Hattiesburg, MS??) and the military was filling up the hotels. I haven't been in the military, so that doesn't make a bit of sense to me, but there you are.
By now it was somewhere around 4:30am or 5am. I had passed police several times in Hattiesburg and figured I'd get found and bothered if I tried to park and sleep in town. I decided to nap with the truckers, but the next rest stop was 30 minutes N. I had little choice, so I went there and napped a few hours.
I'm fascinated by all the "Now Hiring" signs I saw. This is shortly after Mardi Gras, so I'm wondering if lots of places tried to hire and open just for that. I saw a Harrah's billboard that made me think Harrah's might have been closed up until Mardi Gras, but I'm not sure.
From my anecdotal trip observations my impression is that New Orleans is populated by temporary workers rebuilding the infrastructure, and a *lot* of work remains to be done. There seems to be a shortage of service work (restaurants, hotel/motel, entertainment), and that makes sense to me as we're talking about jobs paying in the neighborhood of $10/hour, and those types of people probably aren't the first to recover and repopulate the area. Besides, why move back to N.O. for a $10/hour job when you can get one in any city in the U.S.? I have a suspicion this is going to be a big problem for N.O. reconstruction. The service work is performed by lower-income people, and they were all evacuated and their homes damaged or destroyed. I suspect reconstruction will be centered around higher-income properties, but who will want to move back if the Wendy's, Best Buys and theaters aren't open because nobody is around to work there?
All the traffic I saw during sunset must've been through traffic and everyone getting the heck away from the scary parts of town after work. I suppose the people I saw downtown were just milling about after work, because they weren't there after dark.
The rest of my trip was much more enjoyable. Alabama and Eastern Tenessee are beautiful. Places I wouldn't have given a second thought before--Birmingham, Chattanooga and Knoxville--are places I'd like to go back to again. I rounded out the trip by donating more money to another casino (Argosy) in Lawrenceburg, IN that had $10 craps tables but no $5 tables at 1am Monday morning. Go figure. I lost money so fast there that I left an hour later and decided to finish the drive home (Indianapolis) and be lazy here for a the remaining 2 days of vacation. I've driven roughly 2500 miles in the past 10 days! I wish I had more free time like that.
This post is a December 18, 2011 republication of my March 20, 2006 post at Early Retirement Forum.