Greetings from a ghostly town, where every day is Halloween. Regardless of whatever’s cropped up in your local media, be it the White Sox victory, political indictments, or more news from Iraq, I am here to report that the Katrina aftermath is still a huge story, huge as the piles of trash we drive by on every block.
Bob, myself, and both dogs returned to New Orleans a week ago Monday around dusk. As we drove past the Orleans Parish line, we began to smell the wreckage: dank sweetness of rotting garbage with an acrid note of mold. We journeyed on to find a new, silent world inhabited by salt-crusted cars and gaggles of abandoned refrigerators huddled curbside. Hard for me not to fixate on the refrigerators, symbols of how well humanity has adapted to care for itself; now defunct, the fridge panels are often crusted with maggots, gagged shut with duct tape. Some are spraypainted with “LOVE” or “LEVEE BOARD VICTIM.” Ours reads: “GOODBYE CRUEL WORLD.” I’ve begun collecting magnets from abandoned refrigerators—a way to keep a small part of old New Orleans. (Don’t worry, Mom, I’m using gloves when collecting junk.)
Our house is okay, although I didn’t have the courage to enter until Day Two of our return. The yard was strewn with branches from our live oak and a good foot-deep carpet of leaves. Almost all of our plants were dead, fried by the salt water of the flood. My garden is also completely dead, although our garden guy says the water here wasn’t too bad and we should be okay to plant again. The contents of our shed were strewn about around Bob’s Mustang, but she doesn’t look as bad as we’d feared. He had the Mustang insured for $12 grand, so its restoration will be one more project for the pile. Our back fence was blown down, which is happy news for the dogs, who got a good taste of freedom from staying on Mom and Dad’s farm.
Truth be told, being back in New Orleans isn’t much different from being on the farm. It’s quiet with odd smells. There are too many chores for the day to hold. People are constantly trying to feed us—a local church does a daily free lunch, and downtown there are people cooking at a park from 7 to 7. And with so few people back and so many fences down, the doggies can run through our neighborhood almost as freely as they used to on the farm. We don’t need to lock the front door. (The FBI website recently ranked New Orleans as the safest Metropolitan area in the US right now.) We’ve been out in the “fields” harvesting, except instead of vegetables, we’ve been gathering junk from the curbsides. Since many people aren’t returning, their landlords have hired workers to throw all their stuff out on the street. Bob’s sister Lisette is valiantly trying to furnish her apartments with the treasures she’s found in the trash. We have a new 40’s style stove and two tables, not to mention all my new fridge magnets.
Although the trash-hunting has been fun, it’s been difficult to be home. When we first returned, we had no electricity, gas, or phone service. We’re still without gas and phone, and rumor has it that we might not have gas until February, although other rumors say we should have it in two weeks. Who can say! For our first week back, we were staying at Lisette and Joe’s “compound,” as their house has four apartments. Our friends Michael and Chad were flooded, so the six of us were staying there. We had the attic apartment, but now that their tenant got her furniture, (by waking us up at 2:30 am, screaming like a banshee!) we’re back at home. We’re still showering, laundering, and cooking at the compound, though, and I guess we will be indefinitely. Nothing in our neighborhood, save for two bars, is open, so we have to go to other parts of town to get groceries or use the internet. Good thing that we’re used to moving at a slow pace.
When we first returned, we got to experience the very odd sensation to be in familiar surroundings so completely changed. I’ve done much gasping this week, to turn a usual corner and find a collapsed house or a missing wall. The menacing, shit-brown water line runs around the city—only a few feet in some places, up to the rooftops in others. Stores are empty. Most of the stoplights are down. Many homes are still boarded up as if waiting for the next hurricane. They’ve also been marked with the ubiquitous flame-orange X with its cryptic writing that describes who searched the place and what they found. In the worse neighborhoods, we often see 1 Dog or 2 cats DOA. We have gone to some of the worst-hit areas, including the spot in Lakeview where the 17th Street Canal was breached. Houses there were swept off their piers and ended up across the street. I’m sure the residents there consider themselves to have nothing, but there’s a lot there—lumber and bricks and garbage engulfed in the sandbars of silt. Also there are signs for class action lawsuits and gutting services and mold remediation and on and on. Then you can go to the other side of the levee to Jefferson Parish and life continues as normal, so after a good morning of gawking, you can get a bite to eat. Book your tickets now!
There are some signs of life. During the day, we can hear work crews going; this morning I was awakened by their loud music. Our neighborhood coffee shop isn’t officially open but has been serving free coffee while the owners work to restore one of my favorite parts of home. Just today the post office is able to deliver mail to our area, although you have to sign up for home delivery. One couple who just moved to the neighborhood, having lost their previous home, had a baby at their house last Thursday. The power went out a half-hour before their baby was born, so they had no hot water for the delivery. But their baby, a little girl they named Nia Nola, is a ten-pound beauty. Her mother is worried about becoming isolated, so I’ve already taken it upon myself to visit as often as possible.
As well, I found that one neighbor family had abandoned their dog in their ravaged yard. The first day I went to feed him, he was under another house. I put out a Tupperware container of food, which he grabbed and dumped out under the house. When I reached for the empty container, he grabbed that and tossed it farther underneath. So Grabby has become one of my new projects. Not only has he begun to let me pet him, he will now play, not only with me, but with Maggy and Pyro. He’s got really interesting markings, looks like a chow crossed with a hyena, and is only about 40 pounds. Needless to say, I want to adopt him, but Bob thinks that two dogs (and three chickens!) are enough. My plan is to put up flyers and get him a good home, unless Bob relents….
All the chickens are back in town, but they’re staying at the compound until we can get our yard in order. Because of all the garbage around, flies are in abundance, so the chickens will be eating well for awhile. (Yes, chickens love flies. And worms. And fruit. And spaghetti!) No eggs yet, but they should be coming any day now.
So we try to look at the bright side. Not only are we finding cool junk, but we have a chance to renovate. Everyone is so friendly, especially now that many of the fences are down. I’ve met more of my neighbors in the past week than I had in the year I’ve lived in this neighborhood. There are lots of jobs available and it feels like the future is ripe with opportunities. Being back, I know that quitting my job to write full-time was the right decision, although now my biggest challenge is focusing in one direction, as there are so many directions to go. As well, because FEMA declared our zip code to be a “high impact area,” I should be getting more money from them for up to a year. Viva America!
Which reminds me: Bob and I went to the Red Cross to get financial assistance and each received $330.00. The RC worker told us that the money wasn’t a loan, but “a gift from the American people.” So my fellow Americans, especially you who sent in checks, thank you from the bottom of my heart. You only have to look at our pictures to see that this disaster is a real one.
Now that I’ve got the big “we made it home OK” email done, I will try to write individual notes as much as I can. As I’ve said, I have to make a trip somewhere to use the computer, so please be patient. It’s a slow, slow world down here.