Pelicans never blink. At least they never seemed to as they sat perched on a post protruding from the water outside of Bruning’s Restaurant at West End.
In West End’s glory days New Orleanians would stand in long restaurant lines, especially when Catholics could not eat meat on Fridays. The devout would do do their penance over a platter of boiled Lake Pontchartrain blue-tip crabs or stuffed flounder served with fries, invariably over a bed of toast.
At the opposite end of West End from the restaurants, separated by a seldom used park, was the opulent Southern Yacht Club, a white structure as grand as its name. The second-floor dining room was a getaway for the club’s members, who could look out the picture windows at sailboats making their way past the breakwater that opened into the lake. The circular roadway that paralleled the area was lined by boathouses and yacht slips that were far too big to be contained in any building.
The original Bruning’s restaurant was built in 1874 over the water but was whacked badly by Hurricane Georges in 1998. The restaurant had been operating from a smaller facility nearby, but the site of the fallen former restaurant, bobtailed by the storm and still missing windows, was a reminder of what a hurricane can do,
A nearby footbridge crossed the 17th Street Canal to Bucktown, a shrimping village minus the village, but lined with small shrimp boats bobbing in the canal. The only residents along the Bucktown road lived in the Bruning mansion, a grandiose white wooden home with a large wraparound porch and an upstairs dormer designed for gazing at the lake. Capt. Bruning, the founder of the restaurant on the other side of the bridge, built the house in the early 20th century, where it stood sturdily through tides and storms. In the movie “The Big Easy” the home achieved a measure of immortality as the site of a Cajun fais-do-do where the cast danced on the lawn to the beat of a porch band.
At the far end of the street stood Sid-Mar’s, a seafood joint with a screened porch that, if your timing was right, faced the sunset. The back of the property once had crab boxes where the Lake Pontchartrain blues could be watched during their seasonal ritual of shedding their hard shells. The act would make them ripe to become that evening’s servings of soft-shell crabs.
Bucktown’s lifeline was the 17th Street Canal, a man-made stream used to allow the flow of drain water from Uptown New Orleans into the lake. The canal also formed the border between New Orleans and Metairie. Pelicans return to the lake in August and September, so it would have been normal on the Saturday afternoon of Aug. 27, 2005, for a Bruning’s diner eyeing a catfish platter to have also stared at a big bird outside eyeing a passing mullet. For the moment, at least, man and nature were at peace.
Then the world changed.
Although it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, restaurants were closed on Aug. 28. There were pelicans in the neighborhood but not people. As they glided, the pouched birds could see the nearby roads, now cluttered with traffic. The humans were all leaving town.
Monday, Aug. 29. The Lakefront was no place for pelicans either. Winds were getting intense.
By late in the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 30, New Orleanians, by then dispersed throughout the region, could see televised scenes of the wind-damaged city as taken from a helicopter. Trees were down. So were power lines. But then there was something else in the distance – smoke. The helicopter raced toward West End. There below, the Southern Yacht Club, a victim of collapsed gas lines, was burning helplessly to the ground. With seawater near the building having been tossed to the shore, firefighters could not reach the building.
By midnight that Tuesday, Katrina’s worst damage seemed to have been done mostly by wind and, in some areas, storm surge. Then came horrible news. The 17th Street Canal, the usually docile waterway, had broken on the Orleans Parish side. Lake Pontchartrain was pouring into the city. New Orleans was flooding.
None of the buildings of West End or Bucktown could withstand Katrina. Having defied hurricanes all during their existence, this was the knockout blow. And now the storm’s backlash was turning part of the city into a lake.
Within 24 hours the canal had become the center of the news universe. Its break would sink New Orleans, and that would impact the stability of the national economy and the prices of coffee and gasoline throughout the world. The president of the United States even flew in to witness the levee’s break.
Other canal breaks would flood the 9th Ward and the neighboring parish of St. Bernard, but what happened near West End was totally unexpected.
No one could imagine that Lake Pontchartrain could have such geopolitical importance. Neither did the pelicans. They just thought it was a good source for fish.
Now they dined alone.