Back and forth, St. Louis to New Orleans, and back again. It’s a whole day drive of 700 miles each way, but we skim along the highway, using the time to plan and scheme our personal recovery from Hurricane Katrina. In the month of October alone, I made three trips back to back: once alone, once with Tucker, and once with Spencer. Each time the highway seemed a little bit shorter. Perhaps it was due to increasing familiarity, or perhaps it was the incendiary display of autumn leaves Mother Nature was painting.
Our recent mail has asked for an update of our personal state of affairs. We are glad to oblige, but it is just as important to place our story in the context of the most astonishing natural disaster and its ramifications ever to hit America. Each trip back shows more healing and recovery for all of us; however, it is far and away from the city we have loved since our first trip there in 1975. Let me give you some “snapshots” from various parts of town. These are observations from October 25 through 28, bookended by a day of driving in each direction, first south and then north again up the Mississippi River.
Driving into town in the dark of night, I considered the various ways I could take Spencer, who had not been to New Orleans since our first visit pre-Rita in mid-September. With each of my three successive trips, the skyline of New Orleans showed more and more illumination, although it still was a shadow of its former glow. Metairie seems pretty normal from its I-10 view at night, so we got off at the very end of this suburb and took Veterans Boulevard east, over the 17th Street Canal, into pitch darkness where city street lights normally show the way. No one was on the streets. We opened our car windows to fully experience the eerie stillness, when we were assaulted by a smell of decay and a mountainous shadow on our left. Rising 40 feet high for several city blocks of green space loomed the skeletal remains of trees that had once graced our streets, parks, and neighborhoods. Block after block, mountain after mountain. One large heap had been turned to wood chips. Perched on another mountain were two vehicles, hard at work, processing the debris. Spencer was duly impressed.
As we drove towards City Park, darkness continued to envelope us, even though Hurricane Katrina had visited almost two months ago. We drove down Marconi on the side of City Park, and campfires came into view, surrounded by tents and trailers. Parked for blocks in the neutral ground were hauling trucks of every size, shape, and description. Parallel to the trucks are the campsites of the truckers, as they are mostly from outside of the area. Those drivers who are from New Orleans likely have damaged homes. I was reminded of the camps of Okies in The Grapes of Wrath and the WWI soldiers in their Hoovervilles. A subculture of New Orleans was brewing on the fringes of City Park.
That night we slept in our house, which was hospitable enough but devoid of such amenities as electricity or gas. Since Tucker and I had already stripped and curbed the kitchen a few days earlier, Spencer and I drove to the French Quarter in the morning for a quick breakfast before getting to work. The only thing out of place seemed to be the extreme cleanliness of the Quarter. With limited tourists and transients, the Quarter is not as overtaxed and feels fresher than usual. Many of the curbed refrigerators I had seen the week before had been picked up. In a move typical of the city, the fridges have become signboards around town, advertising plumbers, stating opinions about Tom Benson, cheering on Mayor Nagin, and requesting delivery to Washington, D.C. My favorite refrigerator signage scolded, “I sleep alone. Thanks curfew!” Another interesting group of signage is the big X spray painted on all homes that were checked by the National Guard as they searched for survivors following the storms. Each of the four spaces in the X carries notation in a specific spot: identification of the search team, date, people found, and pets found. Some of the cryptic messages are sad, indicating whether the occupants were alive. One of the pet blocks stated, “One chicken rescued.” Houses like ours that were obviously boarded up did not receive the Guard graffiti unless a search was requested.
We could have immediately returned to our house after breakfast, but I felt that Spencer needed to see some neighborhoods to get a feeling for the context of our decisions. Tucker and I had done this the week before in an unforgettable tour of places that will be many years recovering, as well as some spots well on their way. Everywhere Spencer and I went, the floodwater has receded. What becomes apparent is the flood lines on the buildings, indicating just how high the water rose. Two feet, three feet, six feet, eight feet. The lines rise along the length of a block, pick up across the street, and then they rise even higher. Some houses have several parallel lines, indicating how the water drained some, hesitated, and then drained some more, before hesitating again. Places that have always seemed equal in elevation now show an apparent grade. We noticed how the neutral grounds are higher than the homes, how the homes rise or sink down into their lots, compared to the streets. Before a storm, people often park their cars in the neutral ground (median strip to those of you outside of New Orleans). On Carrollton Avenue blocks filled with cars parked on the neutral ground were totally inundated by the floodwaters. A gray/brown film coats everything that the waters touched, the color coming from the detritus of the lake, as well as whatever it swirled into on its way into the city: fluids from invaded garages, storm leavings from the hurricane, bits of the chemicals we keep under our sinks, the fluids from the cars, rust from yard tools stored under the piers of raised houses. It became a silt-like sludge that coated everything. We were fortunate to have only one centimeter of this material in our kitchen, Tucker’s room, back bath, and the patio. On some street corners, carpets of hardened sludge-mud cracks into stepping stones. Many homeowners remove it by the shovelful from the first-floor of their dwellings. These are the neighborhoods that brought us to tears. While the fallen trees have been removed and the streets are accessible to cars, the homes are quietly devastated. Unlike our neighborhood, which has a quiet hum of repair going on, the homes of middle class citizens a few blocks from Lake Pontchartrain create a ghost town. Water lines are up to the eaves of the roofs, doors and windows are open to facilitate aeration, the whole scene is covered in that gray/brown coating. No one is there. Period. Block after block after block. These are the homes of working people like ourselves. Several of Tucker’s friends live in this area. It is quietly devastated and deserted. We wonder if those houses are salvageable. We did not venture into the lower ninth ward, where the houses were crushed by the water and moved off of their foundations. We really didn’t need to. Emotionally, it was impossible.
For the next two and a half days, we continued gutting our home down to the wall studs. In the process we found evidence of all kinds of animal life: mice, bugs, lizards. With each successive trip to the curb, the house breathed and sighed, its moldering halitosis lessening by the hour. An electrician and plumber came by to give us estimates for the repair, which has been deemed pretty complete because of the floodwaters reaching the workings beneath the piered section of the house. A work crew from down the street came by to look through our discarded belongings, willing and able to try to resurrect a couple of drowned appliances. Overall, though, our pile grew and grew in all three dimensions. Soon it overtook half of the yard next door, crept nearly to our front porch steps, and climbed to ten feet! At the same time, Mr. J across the street had sustained flooding AND extensive roof damage to his own home and his apartment building next door. He had hired a crew to gut both buildings. Their pile was a consistent ten feet high across both lots. Spencer had made friends with the workers there, and they began a friendly rivalry for the biggest heap. In the end, our friend Sam came by with a group of buddies. A couple of them took out Spencer’s workbench, with its water-curled cabinet doors, and they heaved that waterlogged and watersogged bench onto the top of our pile. Spencer crowned his mountain with a Mardi Gras staff made of an eight-foot ginger lily stalk wound with Mardi Gras beads. Mount Marilyn won!
Any story of New Orleans is not complete without mention of food and music. In her current state, New Orleans does not offer either on that all-night basis for which she is known. We were fortunate one night, though, to try Angeli’s on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. Angeli’s is a sandwich stop and bar where we have eaten on Mardi Gras’ past. A crowd spilled from the doorway this particular night, sharing hurricane stories and enjoying the mellow air. We sat at the bar, with Casablanca showing on the wall opposite, no volume. A small group played standards from the 1930s to 1950s: a trumpet player sitting front and center a la Preservation Hall, a guitarist, violinist, and bassist. Each was quite a character, as evidenced by the musical improvisation. With the quiet jazz, the selection of blue collar and faded hippie clientele, the volume-less movie showing on the wall, and subdued lighting, an ambiance unlike any I have experienced pervaded Angeli’s at that moment on that night. People ate informally, flirted, and discussed the resurrection of their blocks. The bartender honked a few notes on a harmonica he took from his pocket and then teasingly commented on how they never invited him to play. At one point, a most unlikely character joined the musicians to sing “Sunny Side of the Street.” With his welder’s hat and his pants belted below his belly, we weren’t sure what to expect, but this fellow sank into the song, gesturing with his arms and ending on one knee as if he was on a Broadway stage. The house erupted in applause. This night touched me deeply, pulling me back through time, to what I imagine the French Quarter and Brasai’s Paris felt like seventy years ago.
Ah! New Orleans. Make no mistake, progress is being made. Many of us have gutted our houses on faith that the flood insurance will provide enough capital to rebuild. There really is no choice when the alternative is allowing the building to continue moldering and mildewing. Many people have not returned for the same reason it was so difficult to leave: lack of cash and transportation. Others have lost jobs or personal businesses. Many have children who have no school to go to yet. Tucker’s school is one of only a handful that will begin classes in January. They have had to become a charter school to avoid the pitfalls of a broken public school system. The city lacks revenue because of drops in spending and the attendant taxes. We are all learning more about the infrastructure of a city than the layman expects to know. Our gardens remain polluted, with bits of greenery starting to show through. Electric and gas service, while improving, are still spotty. Everyone has a story. Unprecedented random acts of kindness power the recovery as neighbors share warm showers, clean beds, and rides. For the tourists strolling Bourbon Street, hurricane drinks in hand, New Orleans is just like it always has been. That is because most tourists don’t venture past the Quarter, where tent cities abound, streetlights remain haphazard, garbage pickup is finally coming once a week, and charities still provide lunches, immunizations, and counseling.
The task is monumental. Repairing our home is a daunting job. But we have a secret weapon: the love and good wishes of all of you, our friends. It is what urges us forward. And in fact, the positive energy sent to New Orleans, where so many people have enjoyed themselves and discovered new parts of themselves, is sustaining us in our recovery. Please keep us in your thoughts.