These are the journals I wrote during my first visit home in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. I’d like to share them with you now.
SOUTH TOWARDS HOME
In my haste to surprise my father, I had forgotten, you see, that I would drive through not one but two hurricane-ravaged states.
It began when I left Houston, and passed the first Port Arthur exit. Small things, insignificant things. Marquees ripped to shreds. Billboards toppled over, or slashed, or just blank, no longer advertising the bankrupt and shut down casinos dotting the Louisiana/Texas border.
It became worse as I approached Beaumont, so much so that I worried I wouldn’t find an open Shell gas station. But I did, and a McDonalds, and I continued onward.
Again, downed power lines and trees, trees, trees as I neared the LA/TX border. Upon reaching Lake Charles, I called Anthony and said, if it looks this bad now, I don’t want to go home.
Turn back, he said.
I can’t, I said. I’m over halfway there.
After Lake Charles, everything was okay. Lafayette, Baton Rouge, little to no traffic, and signs of life. Then nothing as I passed long stretches of bayou, trees, water.
As I neared the last half-mile of the 11-mile bridge, I began to see.
Trees to my right were just toppled over. Huge cypress trees that had probably stood there since Betsy, or even earlier. Trees to my left were all tilted. ALL of them, as if a giant hand just passed over them and bent them over.
When I hit Kenner, I had to choke back tears, and believe me, I’ve never found anything in Kenner worth crying over. Trees crashed into houses, entire building storefronts just GONE, roofs missing, windows blown out, and again, trees, trees, trees.
And it’s been THREE MONTHS, and I was only seeing what I could see along the interstate.
I was on the phone with Anthony when I hit Kenner, and all I could say was Oh God, oh God, over and over again.
More interesting views in Metairie. Dead spots, with no cars on streets, no signs of life off of the interstate. I hit the Metairie/New Orleans border, and I saw the 15-foot water line on the underpass. You know the one. When the guy drove his car into the water, and the cameraman ran out to save him. Yes. There.
Into the city. Metairie Cemetery was heartbreaking. Again, the almost-sob threatened to break out of me, but maybe I’ve cried all of my tears for the city. Or maybe, I just haven’t seen the worst parts yet. Tomorrow night, we’re supposed to go driving, go to Cafe du Monde, see the city. I’ll have my camera and, I expect, my tears will be there, too.
Passing the Superdome was surreal, and I felt like it shouldn’t look repaired. Not after the devastation. But there was traffic on the Crescent City Connection, and insane, dumbass drivers. Some things are still the same, I said to my friend G.
I spent most of the trip on the phone.
Then I hit the Westbank, and there was more life. But things were missing. Stores shut down. Houses just disappeared. Entire apartment complexes leveled, or half-destroyed. I turned the corner, drove down the street, and saw my parents’ house, in person, for the first time since August 27th.
The blue tarp, the “FEMA roof,” as my friend Margot says, was the first thing I noticed. As my father said after he got home, “Remember that hurricane roof we bought? Yeah, not a hurricane roof.” The missing fence was next. The backyard looked so *exposed*, so vulnerable. I lived every second of my life in this house until I went to college. This is my home. And it’s broken.
I rang the doorbell, and my dad opened the door. He looked sick, because he is sick, just came down with a very bad cold. He also looked like he had just woken up from a nap. He stared at me for a second. “What are you doing here?” he asked, sounding, if I may, a bit dumbfounded.
“Surprise!” I said, giving him a smile.
And something like a smile grew on his face as he asked, again, “what are you DOING here?? You’re coming in on Wednesday.”
“I came home early, and Ant’s coming with Harley on Wednesday. You didn’t suspect, did you?”
“No, I didn’t.” He pulled me in for a hug. “It’s good to see you, my favorite daughter.”
And my dad sounded better than he had in weeks, despite his cold.
7 hours on the interstate. 400+ miles. 2/3 a pack of cigarettes. 2 bathroom stops. 1 gas stop. 290 to 610 to 10 and then, the Westbank Expressway, towards Manhattan, south, towards home.
 As I am his only daughter, indeed, his only child, it has become quite the joke between us, some 20 years in the making.
SOUTH TOWARDS HOME: DAY 2
I woke up today, and from the bright sunshine pouring in my window, I thought that it must be about 10 a.m. I smiled, since I haven’t slept that late in quite some time. I jumped out of bed, walked into the kitchen, only to see my mother loading the dishwasher. A quick check at the clock revealed that it was only 7:57 a.m. Ate breakfast, drank coffee, showered, and called my best friend to see if she wanted to meet up. I headed to the PJs Coffeehouse in Algiers, and thus the strangeness of the day began.
I think the thing that shocks me most is the plethora of military roaming the streets. Men and women fully armed walked in the coffeehouse as I ordered my iced mocha. I headed outside with some books and my knitting, and was blasted by the surprising icy wind.
As I waited for M, I overheard the coffeehouse owner complaining about not being able to find a/c repairmen to come and fix his other store, the one about a mile from my parents’ house (the one I was at is a few miles away, as my parents live in Harvey). I mentioned to him that M’s husband was an a/c repairman, and that she was coming to the coffeehouse any minute now. When she did, she got the man’s name and number to give to her husband.
I introduced her to him as my friend. He held out his hand and said, “what’s your name? No one gives names anymore. It’s all just ‘my friend.'” He got both of our names.
So we sat and had coffee, smoked, and tried to figure out where to go for lunch. As we did, people came and went from the coffeehouse. We talked about Katrina. They talked about Katrina. She talked about the damage to her house. They did, too.
That’s the thing that struck me most about today: no one can talk about anything else but the hurricane, or hurricane-related damage, or hurricane-related repairs. The entire city is in shell shock, a city full of survivors, of victims, of stalwart souls soldiering on.
M and I decided on a place called Common Grounds, in Gretna. It’s my parents’ favorite quick bite to eat restaurant; they eat there about 4 times a week, as it is close to both my father’s office and to home. The owners have known my parents for years, as my parents also frequent the other family-run restaurant, Red Palace Chinese on Westbank Expressway.
M and I had no change for meters. We had to get some.
On the way there, we expressed our grievances over those assholes who say things like “let New Orleans just sink into the Gulf and let’s never hear from it again,” or “why waste time rebuilding? No one needs New Orleans anyways,” to which we responded (while in the car, in raised voices, to each other):
“Oh, it’s all great when you want to come and flash your tits for beads, or get drunk, or eat crawfish or go to Mardi Gras or get gas, but the second New Orleans needs you, it’s not worth it???”
We were quite fired up by the time we got inside.
I got some chicken and sausage gumbo and a shrimp poboy. We talked about the hurricane. The people all around us talked about the hurricane. Or about repairs. Or woes.
We left, and visited my mom and aunt at my dad’s office. We talked more about the hurricane, and my aunt told me this story, about her husband’s son’s (from his first marriage) wife’s mother (I know, I know, but it’s that NOLA connection, you see):
The mother, we’ll call her Ann, lived in St. Bernard. She refused to leave, but one of her daughters convinced her to go to her house, which is two-story. She called her daughter at 8 a.m. the morning of the storm, and the water had already risen four feet. The daughter reminded her about the lifejacket, the axe, the water, etc. that she made her keep. The woman, who is in her seventies, went to the attic and chopped her way out.
The water covered the roof by the height of the storm.
This woman, this grandmother, swam from house to house in the neighborhood, trying to find one with a higher roof, one not covered by water. At some point, she cut her arm very deeply, but still, she swam on. She found a house, and got on the roof. She was there until 8 p.m. that night. She said that the only way she kept her sanity was rescuing animals as they swam by.
Then, the snakes came.
She saw them, writhing in the water. So she lay on the roof very, very still, and the snakes climbed all over her, but did not bite her.
A neighbor came by with a boat. He was rescuing people, and he rescued her. She was airlifted to a hospital in Texas, and almost lost her arm because it became so infected from the water.
But she didn’t get bitten by snakes.
This is just one of a thousand stories. There was another one, about another so-many distanced relative who *did* get bitten by snakes, dozens of them, and was in intensive care for a month.
back to my day.
I drove M back to her car in Algiers, and as we drove into the parking lot, we saw a magnetic ribbon on the back of someone’s car. You know the type: the yellow ribbons, the pink ones, etc. etc. Well, this one is purple, green, and gold, and it has a fleur de lis in the middle. I want this ribbon. I need this ribbon. I’ve got the whole family on the lookout for one.
M and I are both in dire need of winter coats. The malls, however, are closed. Oakwood had been looted and torched, and Lakeside isn’t, I think, open. So we went on Manhattan to the Target shopping center, and looked in some of the stores there.
So many *people*, all of them looking for clothes, talking about the storm, about the fact that, like M, everything they own fits in the back of their cars. Like M, they need new coats and clothes because *they don’t have any clothes anymore*. Like M and me, they found no coats at all. Nothing.
I came home, ate dinner with my family, and then mom and I went to Walgreens and Barnes and Noble. More people, more talking about the storm, about repairs. People acting drunk, crazy, just plain strange everywhere we went.
The world has gone mad. Or maybe, just this little corner of it.
I still haven’t seen the city, don’t know what’s happening there, but on the Westbank, I think people are shell shocked because one house will be fine, but the next will be destroyed. One shop is open, but the next is shut down.
The barista at Barnes and Noble mentioned in earshot to me that he was sleeping on an air mattress in someone’s house.
The man on his cell phone today mentioned that he has nothing left.
Everything’s gone topsy turvy.
Or, in the words of Dame Blanche,
“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world.”
Or, as I told my parents tonight,
“I didn’t expect it to be this bad. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. Not this.”
But there is life here. People are living. They’re buying gas and groceries and Christmas decorations. Presents and lunches and dinners. Clothes and coats and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. Everyone smokes now, it seems, even those who probably didn’t smoke before. Everyone’s eating comfort foods–gumbo, poboys, cheesecake. People from New Orleans are buying books about New Orleans.
It’s the little things: that fleur de lis magnet, the I *HEART* NOLA bumper sticker, the quiet corners of the Barnes and Noble, people using blinkers (in NEW ORLEANS), waving after being let in traffic, smiling, asking questions, interjecting themselves into conversations, commiserating with random strangers. There’s a community now, stronger than it ever has been, I think.
I leave you with a story:
M’s parents are staying in Ormond, in a FEMA trailer (all the posh now live in FEMA trailers and have LA purchase cards for groceries, blue FEMA roofs and a detailed price list for their houses and a mental list of every place that’s open within a twenty-mile radius). One night, they were woken up by the St. Charles police, because some kids went through the neighborhood and shot out the windows of twelve cars, including hers.
“Do you want to press charges?” the sheriff asked.
“You’re damn right I want to press charges!” M’s mother said. “And I’m going to buy those kids hazmat suits, march their asses to the city every week for six weeks and make them clean up the city. Then, maybe they’ll learn some respect for people’s personal property, especially for those of us who have nothing left!”
“I completely agree with you,” the sheriff said.
Transmission of stories seems to be one of the only things keeping people going. I may collect them, and give them to y’all as I do.
So there are two stories, for day 2. 3, if you count mine.
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
I think I do.
SOUTH TOWARDS HOME: DAY 3, PART 1
“Are you sure you want to do this?” dad asked.
“I’m sure,” I said. I lifted the camera in my hand. “I’m ready.”
I did wake up late today. 10:00 to be exact. It felt sinful, a dirty little secret I couldn’t tell anyone. I did all the usual morning things–brushed my teeth, made coffee–and then set about to put a pot roast in the slow cooker. Mom’s garlic had gone bad, so I threw on some clothes, drove to the grocery, and got garlic. It was 11:18 by the time the roast was in the slow cooker, and I was already feeling antsy. I’ve always had nervous energy–one of the many reasons I smoke–but it’s been worse since I’ve come home. Part of it is, I’m sure, just the difference of being out of my normal environment and routine. And part of it is a desire to *see*.
I drove to DiMartino’s on Carol Sue. It was open (huzzah!) and I grabbed a roast beef poboy, some potato salad, and headed to my grandmother’s house. Ten tornadoes touched down in Terrytown, and even three months later, I couldn’t believe the destruction. Half-torn down apartment buildings and homes, trash piled up on lawns, and, the most bitter and unnerving sight, “For Sale” signs dotting lawns in every neighborhood.
Saw a billboard today. “UNTOUCHED BY KATRINA: HOMES FOR SALE.” It seems a mantra here, a mark of how your mom ‘n them are doing. Are they untouched by Katrina, too? Or is their home for sale? Or both?
I have cousins who are selling their home in Violet. They had 12 feet of water. Who’s going to buy this home??
Arrived at my grandmother’s house, which escaped damage. In fact, her house seems to be the only one in the family–and perhaps in her neighborhood–that has no real damage at all. Her backyard’s a little messed up, but the house itself withstood everything. Her neighbor next-door was not as fortunate, as their FEMA trailer in the driveway would attest to.
Ate my poboy and talked with my grandmother, about people we know, people I vaguely remember but am distantly related to somehow, somewhere, down some branch on the family tree. We talked inevitably about Katrina, Katrina, Katrina, with a dash of Rita thrown in to the mix.
“It’s a shame what people say about Texas,” she said.
“What do they say about Texas?” I asked, because I hadn’t heard what those nebulous “they” were saying about the Lone Star State.
“That they didn’t do enough. They did plenty. And then, they had Rita to deal with.” She paused while I told her about my view of Rita’s damage from the Interstate. Then, “Have you seen the city yet?”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t, but I think we’re going tonight. Daddy’s going to ride me through so I can see it for myself.”
She shook her head and looked down at her hands. “We went on All Saints’ Day, to the cemetery. Didn’t bring flowers, because we didn’t know if we should, but it was clean as a pin. Someone went in there and fixed it up. We bought flowers, brought them back, and then…” she paused. “We went riding out by the lake.”
“Mom told me it’s bad,” I said.
“That’s not the word for it. I cried.” She looked up at me. “I just cried and cried.”
I would see for myself some hours later, but there is more to the day.
I bid my grandmother goodbye and found that, low and behold, my used bookstore was open on Terry Parkway. See, Anthony and I said that if there was anything we had wanted to buy, besides groceries, over the past few weeks, we should wait until we hit NOLA and give it our money. So I did, and I’m buying. It seems like it’s all I can do, and Lord knows money isn’t that great right now. But $26 at the used bookstore, $8 at Cost Plus World Market, $7 at Barnes and Noble, $7 at the grocery store earlier, and $10 for lunch. It all adds up. It’s something. It makes me feel useful.
I came home, coffee acquired, took a long bath, and then did some work for school. Dad came home early, partly because he’s still sick and partly because I’m in town.
And I asked if he would drive me into the city tonight.
“You sure you want to see this?” my dad asked me. “Believe me, you’re not missing anything.”
“I need to see it,” I said. “It’s not real unless I see it with my own two eyes.”
“Okay, then.” He stood up and grabbed his keys. “Let’s go.”
And at 6:14 p.m., we crossed the Crescent City Connection and headed into the city, and I saw true devastation for the first time in my life.
To be continued, because I need a cigarette before I can write this.
SOUTH TOWARDS HOME: DAY 3, PART 2
Both of my parents grew up in the Irish Channel. My dad moved to Pearl River to live with his brother and sister-in-law after his parents died, and my mother’s family moved to the Westbank in the late fifties when my grandfather got a job as a butcher at the new A&P across the river. Most of my mom’s family lives on the Westbank; my father’s family is scattered around St. Bernard, Slidell, Pearl River, and the Westbank. My parents live on the Westbank of New Orleans, and have for over 30 years.
I say this because there is a division between Westbank and Eastbank; not necessarily from people who live in the city, but from people who live in the suburbs. I’ve lived on the Westbank, and I’ve lived in the city, and while I prefer the city, the Westbank’s not that bad. We’ve got Old Gretna and Old Algiers which, while they don’t have all of the flavor of New Orleans, they still have a turn of the century charm that’s absent from Metairie or Kenner. That is to say, the Westbank doesn’t feel like a suburb to me; it never has.
“I went to see Maw Maw today,” I told my dad as we climbed into the car. “God, Terrytown looks bad.”
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” my dad said.
If you’ve ever taken the bridge from the Westbank to the Eastbank at night, you’ll know how pretty it is. You reach the top of the bridge and the city is spread out to your right, dotted with lights and cheerfulness along the dark curve of the river. When you come down a bit, you pass some beautiful old buildings, the Superdome, the Arena. Then you zoom around the CBD and start heading deeper into the city itself, and beyond, Metairie, then Kenner, then you’re on the interstate to Baton Rouge.
Maybe I didn’t know what to expect because the city is still lit up, still cheerful, nothing all that different from August 27th, before Katrina hit and as I was headed out of town. That part is thriving, and, if not happy, making its way towards life.
Once you come off of the elevated interstate, you pass Carrolton exit, and head towards West End. The further we traveled, the darker it got.
“Here’s where things start getting bad,” my dad said.
Little things at first: half-demolished buildings, an overpass that had been destroyed, and debris, debris, debris. We got off the exit, and pulled into the almost-blackness on Pontchartrain Boulevard.
“Oh my God,” was all I could say.
I don’t know if I can describe it to you and do it justice. I tried to take pictures, but it was too dark for my camera. When I get home, I’ll try to brighten them so you can see. But for now, try to imagine this:
Upon first glance, in the dark, everything looks normal. Homes, beautiful homes, some old, some new, stretching along the street. The street itself is divided by a large neutral ground, one-way traffic on either side. We got off the exit, and the neutral ground was to our left.
“Look,” my mom said. “They’ve started cleaning up the trash.”
They had. Part of the neutral ground was cleared off. But a few blocks down, the trash rose to maybe twenty feet, if not higher, and took up the entire width of the neutral ground. On either side were houses, two stories high, that had been completely covered in water. It was almost pitch-black, because there is no electricity. There are no people. There is no life in this area.
This is a few blocks from the 17th street canal.
In front of the houses, trash and debris and trees, trees, trees. On the houses, cryptic spray-painted symbols designating the house was searched, and how many were dead inside. Doors kicked open and left there, half-hanging on hinges. But the worst, the absolute worst, were the water lines dotting every single house. Water lines, as in plural, as the water receded, and rose again for Rita, and then receded again.
We turned down one of the streets and it was like turning into a war-ravaged zone. Cars smashed and busted, coated in white dust or film because they had sat underwater for so long. Houses gutted, possessions on lawns, and just abandoned. I had never seen something look so lost and abandoned in all of my life, and I don’t think I ever will. It was worse than a ghost town, because even the ghosts had fled.
But just a few short blocks away, there were lights, and people, lots and lots of people as Metairie bustled in and out of restaurants, Blockbusters, the mall. We headed back to the interstate to go through Mid-City.
“And here’s the culprit,” my dad said as we drove over a little bridge.
We rode over the 17th street canal.
Into the city, we passed my great-uncle’s old house, the one that we don’t think can be salvaged, because it, too, had water over the roof. His father built that house with his own hands. Farther along, to see my best friend’s house. She had five feet of water, and lost everything she owned.
Then back on Carrolton down towards my old high school. There are no traffic lights anymore. Just stop signs.
Down Broadway, Maple, Carrolton towards St. Charles. Life again, happy life, loving and laughing and eating dinner or drinking coffee. Magazine Street, Nashville, Jefferson, Octavia. Past my old apartment on Laurel. Any closed stores were due to lack of employees rather than hurricane damage. The city isn’t dead. It’s limping along, but about ready to leap into a jig any day now.
Down Tchoupitoulas trying to find an open PJs. Closed already, as it was after seven. Heading towards the bridge, I refused to look at the Convention Center. Seeing the Superdome was bad enough.
It’s the waiting for a thing, you see, that’s the worst of it. When the waiting’s over and you’ve done the thing you’ve dreaded, things can’t get any worse. I’ve done my dreaded thing. I’ve seen my city. And while I’m heartsore, I’m not broken. Because New Orleans, while wounded and limping and licking its paw, isn’t broken, either. And if she can soldier on, we can, too.