NOTE: This was written in summer 2006
Sitting in Jackson MS for 3 days, no electric and no knowledge of whether our house was standing was, for me, completely surreal. I spent a lot of time choking back tears. It seemed unimaginable that we were 3 hours from home but didn’t know if we had a home. Then the reports started coming in. New Orleans was flooded, the levees had broke, letting Lake Pontchartrain into the city. CNN kept showing the Ninth Ward, and French Quarter and CBD, but not a word about Uptown. By the third day, Greg and I were joking that our area must be fine, since it wasn’t being shown on CNN. We were getting better info from my sister in New Mexico than on the local radio.
By Thursday, the electric was back on, and we could access the internet. WWL and NOLA.com were our main sources of information. Then, my sister found a post-Katrina satellite image. It did not show our entire house, but the back half it did show was enough to tell us we still had 4 walls and a roof. What we didn’t know was how deep the water rose. The pictures on the television were surreal, horrifying, disturbing. Looters in the open, people dying on the streets, places we knew under water. The pictures of people on I-10 in the CBD, an area I drove every day to work…my heart cried. Images like these shouldn’t be happening in an American city.
Greg and I didn’t sleep or eat much these days. It was just so much to take in. Most of all, we wanted to go home, we didn’t care if we had no electric and no other services, we just wanted to be in our own home. Someone dumped a kitten at the hotel in Jackson…he became our 4th furry family member, and we named him (what else)…Jackson.
We made a day trip from Jackson to my parents home in Mandeville to assess the situation. Their house was in nearly perfect condition, but no electric, of course. We returned to Jackson and stocked up on water, food, a generator and fuel. We were going home…or at least, Greg and I would get as close as we could.
We moved to my parents house in Mandeville 2 weeks after the storm. The very next day, with Greg’s Jefferson Parish work pass, we made our way past the checkpoints and into Orleans. Coming across the Causeway, the city slowly came into view. It was hazy with heat, dust and smoke from the fires around the city. And the helicopters, coming and going…some fighting the fires, others performing rescues. It looked like the old new reels you see of the last days of Saigon…it looked like a war torn city. We rode through Jeff Parish….some damage, trees down, but all in all it looked pretty good. We picked up the River Road into Orleans. It was like night and day from Jeff Parish. The streets were deserted, except for the soldiers and national guard, patrolling with rifles, standing on street corners, protecting what was left. The smell was odd…dry, dusty, rotting…the smell that a cemetery gets on a hot day when the flowers are dying. Other smells, wet, moldy, the smell of decaying flesh. No sound, no birds, just breeze through the trees, dry and stripped of leaves, and the occasional chainsaws cutting up the debris. Our street was covered with branches and leaves, we couldn’t even pull into our driveway. We left the truck in the middle of the street.
The water had gotten up over the bottom step on the porch. We walked around the house. The water marks were half-way up the house pilings. The house seemed intact, with no damage. Our roof was whole, and even the work shed was still standing. Most amazingly, most of the trees were still standing, and those that had fallen in and around our block had missed the houses. We took a deep breath and went inside. Our house was intact, unlooted. The only damage were some water stains on the TV room ceiling…some roof shingles must have lifted and allowed the rain in. I checked the rest of the house, and Greg tackled the refrigerator…he chalked up lots of brownie points for doing that chore!
I walked out on the front porch…a man was just walking down our driveway. He came back up, and I called out to him. This fine, gentle man is Juan Parke, our guardian angel. He stayed for the duration of the storm, performed human and animal rescues, and kept the looters out of our area. Juan was so glad to see people, and have someone to talk to. We gave him some bleach we had at the house, and promised to bring other supplies soon. He needed cat food most of all, for all the neighborhood cats he was caring for.
We drove through our neighborhood a bit as we headed back to Mandeville. It was wrenching to see the empty houses with the searcher’s marks painted on the front. The water line was as high as the roof of the truck in some areas.
We made a few other trips in over the next two weeks, bringing Juan supplies and checking on our house. Hurricane Rita hit the day we were supposed to be allowed home. It was a frustrating additional 15 days before we could return.
We moved home on October 1, the car and truck filled with supplies…generator, gas, water, canned goods, liquor and our 4 cats. There was no electric, and wouldn’t be for another week. We ran the generator at night to power a window air conditioner. The water was running but not safe to drink. I washed dishes in boiled tap water and rinsed in bottled water. With Greg working in Jefferson Parish, I went daily for ice and other supplies. Our first dinner guest was Juan…we grilled wonderful steaks. Dave Houston, curator of the Ogden, who lives across the street, appeared too. He had come back to see to the collection, and was working insane hours. Every time we saw him, we made him come up for a drink and a bite to eat. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
It was so quiet during the day. The occasional worker’s truck would pass by. You would hear and see the helicopters going about their business. The Guard would patrol. It was hot, dry. There was no TV, no newspaper, no “normal” news. Rumors flew….it would be months before we got electricity, the water would not be safe either. No one really knew what was happening. Greg went to work each day, I went with him in the mornings to answer phones, and then would go to the grocery in Jeff Parish, getting fresh food and ice. Once home, I would empty the water from the coolers and restock the ice, boil water and wash the dishes. Meals were simple…grilled meats and quick veggies. Probably the healthiest we ever ate. Lots of water, a glass or two of wine.
We sat on our porch in the evenings, listening to the quiet, able to see stars you can never see in the city. Besides Juan, Miss Theone and her brother on the corner, and Randy, two doors down, were the only others back. We would wave to the military patrols as they made their rounds. It was nice to see them there. I imagine this is what it was like 100+ years ago…sitting on the front porch in warm, humid weather, oil lamps and candles the only source of light, talking with neighbors. It was important to talk, to share, to find a way to laugh. In an odd way, these days were the most fulfilling of any I have spent in New Orleans. Still, though, the feeling was surreal. During the day, the only traffic were the patrols and the relief workers.
It was disheartening to drive by places that were the “high ground” during the flood. Coolers, clothes, boats, all sorts of human detritus left behind when rescue came. I can only imagine living through it…I wish we had stayed.
These were the days that crystallized our love of New Orleans, and our determination to never leave again. Our home has withstood Betsy, the May 1995 flood, and now Katrina. We’ll put a hatchet in the attic before we will leave again. We felt a certain pride that we were home, doing our bit to bring our city back. We equally felt guilt…that we had left at all, that others had lost everything. Now, when I drive through areas much harder hit, I still choke back tears at the waterlines over the roof of my car. Neither of us has been to Lakeview or the Ninth…we don’t want to see. The areas we do see are enough for us.
As a parent of a med student who hails from Wasington state we did not have any experience with huricanes nor did we know anyone who had been in one. I was so relieved/thankful the university got the students out in plenty of time. I was impressed with the communication and was never scared for my child. What a wonderful university you have and a caring community! And how kind and welcoming the Houston medical community was to my son. A horrible tragedy brought out the best in people and it warmed my heart all the way in Washington state!
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org