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At an impasse inside a disaster

Times Staff Writer

If you have a tendency to drive the wrong way on one-way streets, park in the middle of the road or blow through intersections controlled by signals, then you might fit into the disorder and chaos of New Orleans in recent weeks.

The emergency workers and remaining residents here have faced countless challenges to their health and safety in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Dealing with a dysfunctional highway system is a relatively minor issue.

But anybody used to the systematic order of an American city’s road network is left dumbstruck driving through this historic city in the weeks after the Aug. 29 hurricane and the flood that followed.

One hint of trouble might have been the dead alligator I saw on the interstate while approaching the city two weeks after the storm. Only a few miles from downtown, the interstate abruptly and without warning plunged into the murky brown floodwaters of Katrina.

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Despite the back and forth of residents, first returning and now fleeing Hurricane Rita, traffic remains relatively light. Streets empty for a 6 p.m. curfew each evening. Streetlights are out, and a drive down historic St. Charles Avenue at night is an eerie excursion into the desolation of a remarkably beautiful neighborhood. There are no pedestrians. No lights. No cars.

St. Charles is on high ground, not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. A trip across town away from the riverbanks means trial-and-error searches for dry routes. A topographic map would help as much as a roadmap, because many of the city streets below sea level are still flooded.

Tree limbs, abandoned cars, downed power lines, even entire homes are blocking roadways that are not under water. Three weeks after the storm, police are so busy with emergency duties and roads remain in such disorder that normal traffic laws have been suspended.

Imagine driving on a virtually deserted stretch of I-10 through a city when you see a police convoy coming straight at you, occupying both lanes on your side of the freeway. You have to quickly dodge to the shoulder.

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But it’s not just the police who have this privilege. If you need to go the wrong way on a one-way street, the police won’t stop you -- they are too busy with more important things. Need to park downtown? No problem. You can park anywhere you want.

Most of this city’s traffic signals are still without power. If they do have power, most drivers ignore them. The only legal limitations on getting around might be Army checkpoints. The soldiers’ exact authority is a bit murky, but they aren’t there to issue traffic tickets.

There are countless downed electrical lines. Tree limbs cover almost every square foot of wooded neighborhoods, and streets are covered with pulverized wood and leaves.

When Katrina struck, many car owners tried to park away from trees, knowing the hurricane would topple limbs that could destroy their vehicles. As a result, cars are parked all over town on medians and in the middle of streets. In other cases, cars were blown over or pushed around by floodwaters.

Getting gasoline is nearly impossible. Sometimes, people drive far out to the north or west of town to get a tank. A few stations are open around town, but finding them is like going on a scavenger hunt.

In the days before Katrina struck New Orleans, the difference between getting stuck in the flood and getting out was a full tank of gas in a good car and the sound logic of residents who decided not to battle the hurricane.

Now, tens of thousands of cars are under water, completely destroyed. It is an almost negligible concern compared to the loss of life and destruction of homes. But for many lower-income residents -- New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation -- a car is their most valuable asset. Many of those who survived the storm will not have the money to replace their cars.

The response to Katrina has sent an influx of heavy vehicles into the city. Convoys of construction trucks, heavy earthmovers and emergency vehicles are streaming in.

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I have seen convoys of two dozen heavy electric utility trucks from Illinois, flatbed big rigs carrying dozens of pumps from Missouri and police cars from as far away as California and New York.

It is an awesome display of this nation’s economic might that such resources can be mustered for the disaster. It is unfortunate, of course, that it didn’t happen faster.

Given the vast destruction to this city’s roadways, it could be years before things are back to “normal” -- if that is even possible. The lessons of this event should not be lost on Southern Californians. In the weeks after a massive earthquake, it is likely many of the same problems would affect the road system and car owners of our region.

Ralph Vartabedian can be reached at ralph.vartabedian@

latimes.com.


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