It was my first close up look at Katrina’s serious destruction. A surge of water had ripped through these neighborhoods on the eastern edge of the lake. We wove slowly past expensive new subdivisions now in ruins. The houses that remained were being gutted. Bulldozers heaped their contents in piles as high as the rooftops. Other houses were simply gone. Debris lay in large flattened swirls—like twigs in a dried up puddle. Cars rested upside down. Boats sat in trees.
Eventually we found our way to the old Highway 11 bridge. A line of large trucks, small trucks, vans, and (occasionally) cars stretched to the horizon. We filed into the queue.
There were hardly any “civilians”: it was almost all construction workers, government workers, non-profiteers, insurance adjusters, animal rescue groups, and Christians. The traffic alternated between a slow, walking-paced roll and a dead standstill. At each stop, up and down the line, doors swung open in near unison. Out stepped sunburnt men. Lighters clicked and puffs of smoke wafted up, out over the water. There was no shade and it was blazing hot. We milled about, leaning against the scorching guardrail or chatting with our neighbors. When the line started moving again, doors slammed shut, and we crept forward once more.
As we idled, John and I prepared our story. I had a business. (Business owners were being allowed into the city.) John was my contractor. (Both he and his truck looked the part.) We were going in to secure the property and recover documents. We embellished and tweaked until the story sparkled with the brilliant sheen of plausibility.
At last we reached the other side and approached the roadblock. It swarmed with police: New Orleans cops, New Jersey cops, all kinds of cops. An NOPD officer in a bullet-proof vest and sunglasses leaned over our window.
“What zip code are you going to?”
We were through. Our lengthy preparations were all for naught. The only wrong answer, it seemed, was “We’re here to loot!”
Now we sped along past the swamps, brown and blasted by a storm-driven wall of saltwater. The Wal-Mart man had been right. A deep, earthy funk saturated the air.
Entering the far outposts of New Orleans East, we passed silent auto dealerships with lots full of new cars, all flooded and now turned a strange chalky gray. We passed mile after mile of blasted out apartments and squat vacant suburban homes. A giant sign toppled at a strange angle in the parking lot of a silent mall. There were no people anywhere. It was otherworldly.
The downtown skyline grew larger as we approached the heart of the city. Familiar landmarks flashed past. Everything looked different—not like my pre-storm memories and not like the frantic disjointed clips from the news. Trash littered elevated stretches of highway where people had found refuge weeks earlier above the rising waters. We passed the skyscrapers with their checkerboard missing windows and the Superdome with its strange shredded black roof and jagged holes.
We exited the highway down to South Claiborne. The large billboard that previously proclaimed “THOU SHALT NOT KILL” was now missing a panel. More dead gray cars crammed the neutral ground, parked there—a relative high point—before the storm by their owners in a vain attempt to save them from flooding. Sports boats commandeered for rescue operations sat abandoned by the side of the street. The waterline—a scummy brown streak marking every building*—wavered block by block, tracing the minute fluctuations of the city’s inverted topography, but grew steadily higher as we approached my neighborhood.
It was above head-height as we turned onto my street. The Popeye’s on the corner reeked of rancid chicken. Memorial Hospital loomed a block away.** We navigated around fallen branches, moving slowly past neighbors’ battered houses. And then we were there.
I’d expected to feel glum horror. I actually felt something more like giddy relief (commingled with awe). It was a wretched mess to be sure, but the rank air of home smelled almost sweet after our sad Texan exile. (The glum horror would come later.)
All the plants were dead. A big piece of driftwood—it looked like a railroad tie—lay across the brown grass. The left front steps were missing.*** The tenants’ front window dangled from its hinges, broken open by the animal rescue crew that saved their cat. A subsequent crew had spray-painted “SPCA NO PETS FOUND INSIDE 9-26” in large red letters on the front of the house. Upstairs, the balcony rail lay flat, and the awning dangled in limp shreds. Roofing tiles scattered the ground.
We kicked open the swollen front door and were hit with a blast of deeper, stronger funk—warm and very wet. Donning our respirators, we went in.
I was surprised. I had expected lots of mold, and I wasn’t disappointed. Blue-green spots traced elaborate constellations up the walls. Murky splotches covered everything. Upholstery alternated dabs of fuzzy green and caked-on white. A thick, fuzzy carpet grew on one of the stairs. But I hadn’t expected the jumbled chaos:
|b||green striped armchair||j||piano bench|
|c||small octagonal table||k||turquoise bookcase|
|f||brown armchair||n||oval flip-top table|
|g||small drop-leaf table||o||skinny brown shelves|
The water had simply picked everything up and moved it all every which way. Large pieces of furniture had floated up and drifted around the room, finally coming to rest two weeks later wherever and however the receding waters left them: right-side-up, upside-down, sideways. Some pieces had come unglued and scattered into jigsaw puzzle bits. Our former shabby-Creole-eclectic was looking positively dismal.
And everything was still glistening wet, tightly sealed in the house’s super-saturated air (made worse by September’s ninety-something degree temperatures and ninety-nine percent humidity). Ceiling fans drooped like wilted flowers.
A brown, oily film peeled from the walls below the waist-high water line.
We made a full tour. The kitchen was the worst. The hulking white refrigerator lay prone on the floor surrounded by a slowly drying puddle of brown goo flecked with wriggling maggots. The mold was denser here, covering the ceiling as well. Plywood cabinet doors curled open, splaying into individual sheets like the pages of our swollen books. Pots and pans still held murky floodwater.
Upstairs was strangely normal. With the exception of ceilings stained brown with rainwater, the toxic air, and the sweltering silence, it was almost unchanged, a freeze-frame of our life just as it had been one long month before. The children’s books we’d read that evening still lay on the bedside tables. An empty glass sat where it was left, abandoned in the haste to evacuate.
We continued our survey. On the tenants’ side, the upstairs ceiling had collapsed. Wind had ripped the backyard shed wide open, and its contents lay in a jumbled pile. My flooded truck sat dead in the driveway, multi-colored mold painting the steering wheel like camouflage. A large tree stretched across the neighbors’ yard.
I diligently documented—photographed and videotaped—everything. We opened all the doors and windows to let in the (marginally dryer) exterior air. And then it was time to tackle our most formidable task: the roof. I could see from the attic that the hole was much larger than I’d expected—certainly much larger than the than the little tarp I’d brought—but we decided to give it a go. Some tarp was better than no tarp.
Getting to the roof wasn’t easy. We’d managed to procure a ladder, but it wasn’t tall enough. Finally we hoisted it onto the balcony and wedged it against the eaves in what seemed like a reasonably secure manner. (More precisely, it seemed like it was as secure as it was going to get.) I looked at John. He looked at me. “I’ll go first,” I volunteered. (It was my roof, after all.) “Okay,” he agreed.
I gave the ladder one last shake and started to climb. I’d been on roofs before. No big deal. True, this one was pretty high up—and getting past the jutting overhang was a little dodgy—but I finally scrabbled myself on.
“Oh, shit!” The roof was much steeper and the asbestos tiles were much slicker than I’d expected. The debris-littered driveway below looked very hard and very far away. I splayed flat, tightly grasping two wriggly shingles, desperately hoping they were stronger than they looked. “This is scary!”
Below, John burst into laughter.
I crab-crawled sideways back to the edge (badly shredding my knees) awkwardly swung myself onto the ladder, and scurried to the bottom where I found John grinning broadly:**** “That’s why I let you go first.”
Having stared death in the face enough for one day (and realizing—in what was becoming something of a personal mantra—that I had no idea what I was doing), I moved on to the humbler task of getting our stuff: clothes to augment our meager Austin wardrobes, toys for the girls, various valuables, and—happily—my work boots. (My raggedy Chucks tended to soak up flood-scum.)
In the bathroom, I puzzled over Sarah’s lengthy list of desired toiletries, trying to sort through the nuanced distinctions between the many talcs and hand creams. Finally, feeling irritable and foolish standing there sucking on my respirator in the sweltering heat—like a sweaty, befuddled Darth Vader in some long ago, far away Bed, Bath and Beyond—I scooped the entire contents of the shelves into a garbage bag, flung it over my shoulder, and headed downstairs. Bag ’em all and let Sarah sort ’em out.
We loaded up the truck, slammed the swollen front door closed, and headed back across the lake in the vivid golden setting sun on the now near-empty highway.
* Actually, there wasn’t one water-line. Multiple parallel lines marked gradations where the surface of the water had lingered. But there was always one dominant line where it had stood the longest.
** We’d listened in shock to the reports of Memorial’s hellish conditions in the days after the storm and to the subsequent discovery of more than forty bodies there.
*** I’ve wondered about those steps. I imagine them gradually lifting up, buoyed by the rising waters, breaking free, catching an invisible current, slowly drifting down the block, around the corner, through the city, and coming to rest days later, maybe in somebody else’s yard. Maybe they lost their steps too and just tacked ours onto their house. Maybe it’s just our bad luck that somebody else’s steps didn’t come our way.
**** He later informed me, my aviator sunglasses somehow made the scene particularly hilarious.