Nobody yet knows exactly how much damage has been done to New Orleans. It will be months or more before the true dimensions of the disaster can be fully calculated. But there is one thing we already do know with absolute certainty: the value of this region to American culture.
This is the place where Louis Armstrong first blew his horn (in the honky-tonks of the French Quarter, miraculously one of the few neighborhoods to survive the storm more or less intact). The place where writers like William Faulkner (and Anne Rice and Sherwood Anderson and Walker Percy) learned to tell their stories. The place where so many artists and entertainers and especially musicians, like Little Richard, the Neville Brothers, Wynton Marsalis, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., Fats Domino, and even Elvis himself found so much inspiration.
''New Orleans for musicians is like Israel,'' says singer-songwriter Shannon McNally. ''It's a sacred land, a psychological and spiritual center. It's the base of American culture, of rock & roll, of jazz, of all our music, of what we consider cool. In New Orleans, you see America close to the bone. It's hot and it's poor. It's all the things that beautiful music comes from.''
It's still all of those things or will be again, in six months or six years but Hurricane Katrina has made it something else, as well. It's now a stricken city, victim of one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history. For the time being, at any rate, New Orleans is a bit like Blanche DuBois, the most famous character ever created by the town's most famous playwright dependent, as she declared in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, on the kindness of strangers.
Not to mention friends. ''I was going to go down there next week and look for locations,'' says The Big Easy star Dennis Quaid, who now has to rethink where to film the movie he'll be directing about the life of swing-fiddle musician Spade Cooley. ''I'd still like to do it there, now more than ever because they're going to need business. People are going to need jobs.''
Katrina, it turns out, scuttled plans of lots of filmmakers. Lately more and more of them had been flocking to Louisiana, lured by tax breaks and abundant local talent, turning the place into a sort of Gulf Coast Hollywood. Andrew Davis was preparing to shoot a Kevin Costner movie there called The Guardian; the film, ironically about Coast Guard rescue swimmers, will relocate to Shreveport, La. Another crew was in New Orleans making a Michael Keaton movie called The Last Time just before the hurricane hit. ''We've shot five films [there] in the last two years,'' reports Element Films president Adam Rosenfelt. ''At first we made a little horror movie, but we were starting to make bigger films there. So was everyone else.''
Rosenfelt and his crew evacuated before the hurricane hit he'll be making the rest of this film back in Los Angeles but not everyone had an easy time getting out. Fats Domino disappeared for a bit after heavy flooding in the 9th Ward forced him from his home. But then the 77-year-old R&B legend turned up in a newspaper photo showing him being lifted into a rescue boat. Rap star Master P, at last report, was still searching for at least three of his relatives missing since the storm. Lucy Lawless, in New Orleans shooting a TV movie called Vampire Bats, couldn't find a flight out, so she and one of the show's producers tried driving to safety. They made it to Baton Rouge. ''They spent two nights without power or water in a friend of a friend's house,'' reports Vampire's executive producer Frank von Zerneck. ''Then they finally managed to get to Texas and back to L.A. I talked to Lucy an hour ago. She's fine.''