The best fried shrimp po' boys in the New Orleans area are found at a little place called "Check In, Check Out" in Slidell. The original location is a former gas station/convenience store that made such intensely overstuffed, exquisitely flavorful sandwiches that it was transformed into a grubby diner, although the Rude Pundit's always just picked up his po' boy and returned to wherever he was staying, munching on the sweet and salty shrimp as he drove away.
Referring to the Check In, Check Out in the present tense is a bit overly optimistic today, for Slidell sits across Lake Ponchartrain, northeast of New Orleans, and it was in the path of the eyewall of Hurricane Katrina. Little is known about what's happened to Slidell, a small city of over 30,000 people, because, if Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans is correct, it is now underwater. Parts of the main bridge that connected Slidell to New Orleans, known as the Twin Span on I-10, are gone. The approaches from the northwest, from Hammond and Covington, are lakes.
For years, the citizens of Slidell argued about the destruction of the wetlands that provided at least some protection from the massive lake. Save Our Wetlands, an environmental organization in Louisiana, even filed lawsuits to prevent development that would destroy the wetlands, specifically citing the protection from hurricane tidal surges as a primary concern. Of course, by 2004, it was far, far too little, far, far too late, and the development that had occurred since the 1960s, with the draining of wetlands for highways and homes, with the bypassing of environmental impact studies before the Army Corps of Engineers permitted the construction of a huge addition to Slidell in the 1970s, had eaten away far too much of that buffer zone. There's no telling if the wetlands, left alone or restored, would have helped Slidell yesterday, but there's a good chance the complete devastation that appears to have occurred might have been mitigated. But greed will always will out. It will always will out. And shortsightedness mixed with greed mixed with a government that feels it must always kneel at the altar of business is a combination that's gonna screw people over again and again.
The St. Tammany Parish forum at WWL-TV is a catalog of frustration, confusion, and horrors-some which will prove to be true, some which are just rumor. A gas station exploded. Homes are under ten feet of water. The entire top floor of the Days Inn is gone, just gone. The water tower has collapsed. Eight feet of water in the hospital. You can't tell, they say, where the lake ends and the town begins. There's waist deep (or deeper) water all the way to Old Spanish Trail, which happens to be where the Check In, Check Out is.
Slidell has never been one of the Rude Pundit's favorite towns - it's got way too much of a generic suburb feeling, and, hell, the French Quarter and Uptown are just thirty minutes away. But he has a lot of memories of it, going all the way back to July 4, 1976, when the family was out in the swimming pool of a Holiday Inn at nightfall and we could see the fireworks celebrating the Bicentennial while floating on our backs. We stayed in Slidell because it was significantly cheaper than staying in New Orleans, and probably for some vaguely racist feeling of the Rude parents that it was safer.
The Rude Pundit never lived there, but he knows a lot of people in that damn town, and he knows they got out. But he's also pretty damn sure that their homes are wrecks or are gone. He's pretty sure that alligators are swimming in the streets of the subdivisions (and that ain't hyperbole - there's a lot of friggin' alligators there), that a plague of snakes has come out of its isolation in the dessicated swamps. But its the water, the omnipresent water, that we would shake our heads about whenever a hurricane came near.
And as the levees break or are topped in New Orleans, bringing god knows what else to the city, there will be time to rake over the coals those responsible for the callous disregard of environmental degradation, those who neglected to understand that "homeland security" means making sure that people in the homeland are secure. For now, gird yer loins. The nightmare's just starting.
If anyone gets any news about Slidell or St. Tammany Parish, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.