I haven't posted anything so far about Katrina for a number of reasons, the main one being that I've been all too busy. The other is that it's just been too hard to articulate something that's been so difficult in so many ways.
The short version of the story is that I am safe. The longer version is more complicated.
My mother and I escaped on the Saturday before the storm and went to my uncle's home in the deepest, most isolated woodland of Northern Louisiana.
The next few weeks after the storm was one continuous exodus wandering the desert of rural Louisiana, stopping to rest for seven times. Seven times we found ourselves in various accommodating relatives' beds. That was traumatic enough in its own way. No one, of course, was allowed back into the city for weeks while it stewed in sewerage. We returned to my mother's house as soon as we were allowed in by the Military Police. I can't quite remember dates, because the past few months have been a blur. It's like time as I know it stopped on August 28th and has yet to resume.
When we finally got back to my mother's house, we found that about three fourths of her roof had been damaged, and there were two trees down, but she had thankfully escaped flooding. Apparently, there had been a tornado of some sort that had ripped through the neighborhood, wiping out the two apartment buildings at one end of the street and leveling the gas station at the other end.
The biggest hardship in the early months of being back in the metro area was finding doctors. It was nearly impossible. She couldn't walk, so it was a trial getting around the state (7 moves) with a wheel chair. She wasn't able to get to her doctors for a month, and, because of that, there were a lot of problems with her health.
In the first days of being back here, the suburbs of New Orleans were absolutely crazy. Unreal. There were lots of people back, but very few services. The sidewalks of every street in the whole area were lined with miles of month long rotting meat, and mountains of debris were still sitting on the sidewalk. The smell of rotting meat everywhere and the swarms of flies were almost apocalyptic
Even now, there's still mail only every other day. Altogether in the past three months, the electricity has been out at least six or seven weeks. And we've been lucky. In about 80 percent of the city there's *still* no power. The phone service even now is very sporatic.
In the first week back, there were only two groceries open on the Westbank. I went to the grocery a few weeks into being back only to wait for an hour in line just to check out. I'd gone a few days earlier, but it was even worse then. Inside the store here was a literal mob, like something out of the French Revolution. The line to check out snaked throughout the food aisles so that you couldn't navigate the aisle to buy anything. My mother spent the whole time in the bathroom vomiting. The smell of the rotting meat that had been recently removed was still lingering. The store was literally running out of food. The place had been stripped, and this was in the relatively "normal" suburbs, more than a month after the hurricane.
We gave up any hope of purchasing food and simply went home and ate crackers and MREs.
My school, from what I understand, is devastated. It was in New Orleans East.
Ironically, during the riot scene at the grocery, I met up with a parent of a student of mine who is a police officer. He came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder in the grocery. We were both in a sort of daze. He told me that he had gotten permission to go there in New Orleans east to view the area and said that "it was pretty bad" there. Since then I've gone to see myself. There was about 7 feet of water there from what I can tell. The roof, never in good shape...well, you can imagine.
I'm not sure what's going to happen now. But that pretty much sums up the whole city's predicament. No one knows what will happen. Everything is in a state of flux and uncertainty. I don't think the school will ever be able to reopen. Even if they can repair the building, the whole area there is one vast wasteland...countless churches, malls, hotels, stores, restaurants, businesses, houses and houses and more houses, miles and miles of devastation in every direction. Who knows who will be able to live out there. There's so much mold in the air it's not safe for children. There's still no power or water out there.
All I know is that we haven't been paid (and won't ever be....and now I have no health insurance either.) FEMA is a joke. But don't get me started on that. It seems teachers can't get unemployment, so I've been told from several sources. I've tried three times with no success. I'm not up to trying again any time soon.
We did get food stamps, however. The powers that be let you buy all the junk you want: soda, candy and so forth, but for some bizarre reason you can't buy any cleaning supplies of paper products. Who knows why.
A few months ago, I tried applied with a job placement service. They politely requested "letters of recommendation" and my transcripts. Ummm.....I had to tell them, that might be a problem. My transcripts are possibly destroyed...and certainly not available now anyway. I have no way to contact my boss....and possibly never will again....and the references I might have can't be contacted either. These are little things, I know, but even the simplest things in life are so very complicated now.
Most of the teachers in the city have been fired, and there are very few students left, or schools, for that matter, so it's a harsh, simple matter of supply and demand. Lots of unemployed teachers + very few schools or students = very few jobs to go around.
Anyway, back to my own home: sometime in October, I went back there, illegally to see it with my own eyes. A friend of mine who lived near me, had gone back a few days before, so I knew I'd be able to get it. She had gone to find her place destroyed. They're going to have to level the neighborhood and dig 18 inches because of a pesticide spill she tells me.
The last I had read of my neighborhood before I went back had been a plea on the Times Picayune website to rescue two adults and two children from a rooftop...who were "watching the bodies of their neighbors float by."
That's a direct quote....I can remember it verbatim.
I got there to find complete devastation. Just three short months or so ago, my neighborhood was beautiful...azaleas and crepe myrtles and oaks and palms...wild parrots flying about.
When I got back home I found nearly every door had been knocked in by those searching for the dead. My front door was on the floor. It had disintegrated from floating in the sewerage in the front room. The wooden floor had curled up and warped...it was hard to even walk on. Some of the floorboards had floated around like matchsticks. There was still some sort of sludge in the hall. All my shoes had floated out of the closet and were strewn all over the house as had all my books and papers.
The worst of it was the mold. There was a black coating of mold everywhere. It had climbed to the top of the walls. It had been festering in the heat for weeks. That which was not covered by black mold was dusted with film of fine silver mold.
My furniture, the wooden furniture, had just disintegrated. My book cases made of fiberboard had just melted into a big puddle, slumped onto the floor. All of my childhood books....it really is the sentimental stuff that gets to you most, you know.... all the books I had cherished from my childhood...gifts...were a big mass of wet paper and mold. My checks and documents, important papers and files and banking stuff was one big mass of papier mache dipped in sewerage.
I live on the bottom floor of a two story building, but water had even come through the ceiling. Part of the bedroom ceiling was restng in my bed. The kitchen ceiling looked about to collapse too. My computer had been completely underwater. All the paintings that I'd done were destroyed, warped and covered in mold. All my letters and journals and short stories and a novels.....were a mass of pulp.
All of my clothes were still wet and with a half an inch thick coating of mold. I touched a leather coat to find about an eighth of an inch of greenish mold. The smell was sickening. That's true of everything. You can't get rid of it with anything. There was at least six feet of water there.
And, as they say, to add insult to injury, it seems I had been "looted" as well. I don't know if that's really even the appropriate term. I mean, it's not that I had anything there of worth, but I got there to find that others had been there before me. I didn't have anything salvageable to loot except a watch my mother had given to me for Christmas and a bit of other jewelry that belonged to my mother and some liquor. The looting, by the way, is still going on now.
By the 5th, when it was legal to return, I was able to find someone to help me move the little bit that was salvageable. I got back home, however, only to find all my belonging tossed out into the street by my landlord, mixed with everyone else's stuff, buried under plaster and floorboards in a huge mountain of debris. He was already stripping the place. I was horrified. It's a cliche, I know, but just when you think it can't get worse, it does. What hadn't been destroyed by the flood was now destroyed by the throwing out.
I left my neighborhood for the last time watching the most surreal thing. I turned my head instinctively to check for traffic, only to see a line of twenty soldiers in full camouflage, guns at the ready, marching in formation down the formerly idyllic Fountainebleau Ave. It really did look like a war zone.
In good news, the weather is gorgeous right now. It really is very pretty...ironically pretty. It's actually very beautiful, in the few parts of the city now that have escaped the floods, that is.
I see that some of the azaleas have forced into bloom even though it's fall. They have been fooled by the Katrina's stripping off their leaves into thinking it's spring. Maybe, hopefully, they're right.
The Tyranny of Hairdressers - McCall's Magazine, January 1966.