Note: I have pretty much not viewed any “Katrina-5” shows during this last week, except for Spike Lee's excellent post-Katrina documentary “If God Is Willing and the Creek Don't Rise.” I find myself turning the channels pretty quickly if I see any K-5 show come on. I've been doing research on this recovery since October 2005 and I feel pretty confident I know as much if not more than any news agency on the level of recovery taking place in New Orleans today.
Over the past two days, I've been immersed in the planning and execution of one of the best parties we have ever held at our house since we moved here in January 2006. Our Annual Katrina Party was a hit on Saturday, and Susan and I were able to successfully put Katrina to rest, at least for a little while. Next year, I would rather just throw the Huey P. Long birthday party (Huey was born on August 30th) and not another Katrina party....
Note 2: One thing that I am most thankful for are all my friends who helped Susan and I out after the storm. We received cards, phone calls, cash, checks, music cds, clothes for the kids, and a number of other things that we had good use for. I will never forget this. You all are true Saints, and I will return the favor if you ever find yourself in a similar type of predicament.
I returned to New Orleans for the first time after the storm on Tuesday, October 4. It was a bit later than I had anticipated, but it was still a few days earlier than the official re-opening up of the city. My friend JC had already been back since mid-September and he kept many of us from the neighborhood abreast of the status of our houses. I had a “pass” to get into the city if I needed it. I just hoped it would actually work. JC had told us how to get back into the City, and I was using his “map” effeciently.
I was filled with anxiety when I drove down River Road in Jefferson Parish. I knew there would be a military check-point at the Parish border, but when I arrived there the military vehicles were there but there were no personnel at the check-point to stop me. Whew—no need to use the pass here. I proceeded down Oak Street to Carrollton Avenue.
Right off the bat, I noticed the chilling quiet of the city. That, and the fact that everything was grey. The city lacked color. You could hear the dried mud cracking under the weight of the car, and there were debris from trees to electric lines littering the whole ride back to my house. You could see that no one was back yet—I was literally one of the few people driving up Carrollton Avenue to Walmsley.
As I turned onto Walmsley, the level of destruction became more “personal.” Streets I had walked down were significantly damaged. Houses were damaged. I knew the people who lived in these homes. I was still filled with too much anxiety, though, to wonder what had happened to these people and whether they would return to the neighborhood.
As I parked in front of my house, I noticed a few things. My red Escort was in the driveway, but I knew it was destroyed. Miss Lee's car was on the road. Up on the balcony of her house was a white sheet still attached to the rails that I learned later Miss Tony used to flag down helicopters to get her and her son James evacuated out. My house looked like it was listing to the right a bit. The tree in our front yard was gone. The railings on our front porch was gone. And by some miracle, there was a Heineken bottle with cap intact standing upright on the front porch near the door. THAT brought a smile to my face.
When I got out of the car, I was again taken aback by the significant silence in the neighborhood. When I closed the door, the echo of that sound traveled for blocks. The sound of the mud cracking under my feed echoed for blocks. What I didn't hear were the sounds of anything else—no birds, no dogs, no kids, no cars—nothing. No sound at all. I will never forget this. Nor will I forget the smell of mold that permeated everything.
I had to open the door to the house with a shovel since the water had swelled the door tightly shut. Once inside, the smell of mold was overpowering, even with a respirator. Furniture was in disarray, things were in places they weren't supposed to be, books that had been contaminated by the dirty water had turned completely black. Devin's crib was on its side, and all his toys were still soaked and strewn all over the bedroom. Caitlin's room was covered in mold—it seemed the mold liked attaching itself easier on wallpaper than on plaster walls. The water line in the house was at the 3 foot level. The water line on the fence outside was above my head, and we were at least two feet above the ground.
For the next month, I would spend nearly every day cleaning out the house with the help of my friend John. John was an active WWOZ volunteer and lived in the French Quarter, and he had offered not only to help me but to also put me up at his condo for as long as I needed. Without his help, I could not have gotten our refrigerator out the door and onto the curb. And as much as we tried to seal the damn thing shut, it was still able to open up a bit as we lowered it down the front steps and envelope us with that incredible smell that only a half-full refrigerator/freezer can give you after it's been sitting in a house without electricity for two weeks at above 100-degree temperatures.
New Orleans, though, is never a city that is all about work 24-7. No no, that will not do. The nights in New Orleans in October 2005 were magical! Even with a curfew set at midnight, that would later be extended to 2am, and then finally lifted before month's end, many of us found our way back at night to the Quarter, which was the only place in the city with electricity. The only people in the Quarter were New Orleanians back in town to clean up their houses and the many first-responders including the Army. Humvees patrolled the streets and were parked at various intersections such as Esplanade and Decatur Street in the Quarter.
It was the best of times in the worst of times. To be around other New Orleanians was the kind of therapy many of us needed at that time. The Jazz Vipers were playing every night at Angeli's and Decatur. They were the first band organized and playing after the storm. Then the Palm Court opened up on the weekends. The musicians who were back in town were cleaning out their houses too, but they were also able to “relax” with all of us in the evening hours playing their music for us—for our souls. We danced in the streets, we reconnected with old friends, we ate good food once again, and we probably drank too much as usual. And in the morning near sunrise, we would all venture back into our old neighborhoods to continue to work of cleaning out and gutting our houses. Life was grand.
Though I wished I could stay longer, I went back to Tennessee near the end of October to be back with Susan and Devin. I had pretty much cleaned out the house as much as I could, and I was bringing back to Tennessee some of the things that were salvageable. One of the things I was not able to salvage was a box of photos and negatives that were under our bed. I thought I had taken the box of photos with us when we evacuated, but that box was full of bills and receipts. The box under the bed was full of pictures of my two children David and Cece, and they were totally destroyed by the flood waters.
New Orleans is about holidays and celebrations, and though the city was destroyed, residents were still able to celebrate the first Halloween after the storm in as grand a style as could be mustered given the circumstances. I wanted to “be in that number,” but unfortunately we were up in Tennessee, and rural Tennessee at that, and we didn't know anyone who lived in the area we were staying. We took Devin to the local mall where they were giving out treats to kids on Halloween night. It was pitiful, though I am sure Devin didn't notice a thing at all. But it would be the first of many New Orleans holidays that we would miss for the next five years. The culture of New Orleans would gradually work to reemerge after the storm, and it is the culture and lifestyle of New Orleans that made me feel most truly myself.
I had begun to get some bites on the job applications around the country. There was no guarantee that UNO would have a job waiting for me if we returned home, and we didn't have a house to return to yet that was inhabitable. I had to seriously look at the option of moving away at least for the short term in order to get our feet on the ground again. By November I had interviewed at a couple of universities. In late- November, I flew to Killeen, Texas for an interview I had never anticipated to be anything more than a dress-rehearsal for other job interviews at places where I really wanted to “be” if I couldn't be in New Orleans. I was taken in, though, by the small size of the university, it's proximity to Austin, and the “sell” given me by the university's executive director that we all would be building a new university literally from the ground up. I jumped at the potential challenge, and was offered the position on my way back to Tennessee. After a discussion with Susan, I decided to take the job and was given the opportunity to begin in January 2006. By early January, we were on our way to Killeen, Texas to restart our lives.
Five years after the storm, we are still here in Killeen.
To be continued....