Blind World Magazine

Signs of change in post-Katrina New Orleans don't have to be seen to be experienced.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006.
By Chris Bynum,
Staff writer,
Times Picayune - New Orleans,LA,USA.

Pat Ward has a keen perception of how his city has changed since the storm. He is not distracted by what he sees or does not see.

"It's sunnier here than it used to be," says Ward, 59, diligently moving his cane like an antenna, picking up any signals in front of him on the sidewalk leading to Prytania Street. "I don't know if it's because there are fewer trees, or if the trees are not as full."

A man with sight may talk about the post-Katrina changes in New Orleans, but Ward walks the changes daily. He is a man who is legally blind. The term is low-vision; Ward's right eye is completely void of vision, and he has 5 percent sight in his left eye, leaving him able to detect only shapes, in black and white. His trusty white cane is his path finder. But his other four senses tell him that, even though his neighborhood escaped the wrath of the storm, his city is not exactly the way he left it.

Above the path Ward walks on Prytania, the giant limbs on sycamores and oaks have been cut back from the street. The August sun bears down on sidewalks that were shaded before Katrina.

Ward moves his cane from side to side as smoothly as a planchette across a Ouija board, allowing the pointer to indicate that his path is clear. The tip of his cane bumps a blue bucket.

"The guy who lives there told me about the bucket. Said he put it there so I wouldn't step into the hole," says Ward, who grew accustomed after the storm to finding new pedestrian routes each day to avoid construction sites, debris piles, flying roof tiles from roofers at work and broken sidewalks.

The first time Ward saw New Orleans was during Mardi Gras in 1981. He was a man with sight then. Four years later he would be diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that can lead to blindness. Now the image of "a bright sunny day where the sun dapples through the trees on colorful costumes" is in his mind's eye. It is a colorful visual memory, just like the black-and-white image of a saxophone player in the darkness of night who had situated himself between two French Quarter buildings to take advantage of the acoustics.

Those are his visual memories, but now Ward's New Orleans is all about taste, smell, sound and touch. Ward seems to think the city has much to offer in those four areas. He reads her well.

"There are more houses for sale," says Ward, who didn't get his real estate news from a tabloid or a Web site, but from his footsteps. "The grass grows up in the middle of the sidewalks, and the bushes grow out over the sidewalks when people are not living in their homes and working in their yards on weekends."

Ward never viewed the rising waters from Katrina or saw the rows of rooftops looking as though they were floating on the water's surface. He never saw the storm's aftermath of damaged homes and broken levees.

The day Ward evacuated with friends, he had tuned into television coverage like everyone else. "I 'saw' it on TV," he said in the same lingo as a sighted person. "They sounded scared."

The "theys" were Bob Breck and Mayor Ray Nagin. Ward had grown accustomed to the sound and inflection of Breck's voice, and he had heard the mayor's sound bites, listening regularly to nightly news. He could hear urgency in the voices that had become familiar to him.

Ward knew it was in his best interest to evacuate the city that had called to him more than once.

After that first Mardi Gras experience in 1981, Ward was so taken with the city that he went back to his hometown of Chicago, sold everything and returned to live in New Orleans for the next three years. In 1984, he returned again to Chicago. But when he discovered the following year that he would be losing his sight, Ward decided New Orleans was the place he wanted to call home.

"I decided that as a blind man, I would rather be riding the streetcar than the el train," says Ward, who had worked various jobs from industrial engineer to cabdriver to restaurant kitchen cleaner to freelance cartoonist.

When he could no longer see a city to enjoy its charms, Ward gravitated toward the uniqueness of New Orleans to fill the visual void.

It was the silence that first caught Ward's attention when he returned after Katrina -- specifically the absence of the sound of streetcars.

"If you live Uptown, the sound of streetcars going up and down St. Charles is background noise," says Ward, who missed not only hearing them, but also riding them downtown to his place of business in the CBD.

Before the storm, he ran a concession stand in a bank building on Baronne Street. The building had flooded, and many tenants had moved out. The bank reopened, but the amount of traffic could not support a concession. Ward's concession business, like many jobs, had provided social interaction for him.

"I came to realize that my cash register was a prop to my daily improv," says Ward, whose humor is one of his survival skills in a city that has both tested him and embraced him. Ward would learn that the man who had given him the concession business years earlier had died in his Lakefront home when he chose not to evacuate for Katrina.

Losing his business and his routine did not deter Ward from returning to his home, which stood undamaged in the storm.

"I could have stayed in Chicago, but I wanted to come back here. I have friends here and an independent life here," he says. "Of course, August made me think it's time to move. It always does."

When he returned in mid-October from Chicago, where he took refuge after detours to western Louisiana and Houston, Ward was struck not only by the absence of familiar sounds, but by the presence of new sounds.

"I kept hearing this flapping when there was a breeze. Then I figured out the noise was the flapping of blue roofs," Ward says.

His regular walks to the Bluebird Café on Prytania Street and the Lighthouse for the Blind on State Street are reminders that the city still faces more change, and that there is an ebb and flow to post-Katrina life.

He detects the sounds of progress, the hum of hammers and saws all around him.

"The construction crews have more salsa music these days. They have added salsa to our gumbo," Ward says.

He also hears more ambulances. "Perhaps it's just because Touro is busier than it's ever been," he says.

Ward has not seen the flood lines, but he knows where the water pooled. "I could tell which streets in my neighborhood had flooded and which had stayed dry. There was a coating on the surface of the areas that flooded," he says.

He remembers back in October when something as simple as toast had to be taken off the menu at the Bluebird, when eggs had to be ordered scrambled. On a recent visit, the waiter tells him, "This is your lucky day. We have potato salad and chicken salad." The pecan pie, because the café owner who made it has been so busy, just reappeared on the menu a week before.

"But the Bluebird always had silverware and real plates," says Ward, who on more than one occasion right after the storm navigated new routes to his favorite places because he couldn't hear the traffic above the sound of construction noise and was unable to cross the street.

There are some things he misses now that he no longer takes his 6 a.m. walk to the St. Charles Avenue streetcar tracks to travel downtown to work.

"Like the smell of ligustrum. I miss the smells along that walk I used to take to work," Ward says.

But he has made the necessary adjustments so that New Orleans still feels like home to him. He admits that he used to ruminate about what life might bring, long before Katrina.

"Yes, I used to worry until I heard that it is better to wonder," Ward says, repeating an inspirational phrase he had heard at one of the AA meetings he attends as a recovering alcoholic.

"My life here is just fine."

Staff writer Chris Bynum can be reached at or (504) 826-3458.

End of article.

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