My rural base of operations proved to be untenable—I had no interest in repeating the previous day’s eternal commute—so I was moving camp to Fay and Jeff’s* vacant, unflooded house in the city. But first—incongruously—I was going to their daughter’s second birthday party at the grandmother’s house in River Ridge, the quiet suburb to the far west of the city.
Freshly caffeinated and well-shorn, I zipped through the flickering pines of the North Shore and across the wide open sun of the Causeway. Jefferson Parish was weird—weirdly normal. Certainly there were toppled signs and battered roofs—and the absence of mid-afternoon traffic jams proved that many people had yet to make it home—but compared to the wasteland across the parish line to the east, it looked remarkably like business as usual.
I turned onto the quiet oak-lined street and stopped a few blocks from the river in front of the low-slung brick ranch house. It was full of familiar faces: brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, four generations of family that had convened from their disparate exiles for the occasion. We hugged and talked. I hadn’t been in a large group of fellow New Orleanians since the storm, and it felt wonderful.
Mia ripped open the presents, setting each aside with barely a glance before tearing into the next. Cake was dished up. Kids tore about in a sugar blur. Adults had another drink, commiserating about the plight of the city and the strange fate that had befallen us. Big Joe lamented the deprivations of exile: “Baton Rouge don’t know what osso bucco is. Baton Rouge sucks!”
A family friend—a police officer—stopped in. His shirt read “I protected. I defended. I sacrificed. I stayed through it all. I am NOPD.” He talked of midnight boat-patrols through the pitch-black streets and helicopter flights where the city looked like a lake with rooftops.
Mamere, the ninety-two-year-old great-grandmother asked him, “Maybe you can go by my house and let me know how it is. I haven’t seen it yet. I want to go home.”
“I’ll be happy to, but I’m afraid you got a lot of water in that neighborhood. I don’t think you’ll be getting back there any time soon.”
Her face clouded as she slumped back in her chair, “Aww… I didn’t want to hear that.”
In time, those with homes to go to left. Others drifted off to guest rooms. I hunkered down on the living room floor, making a luxuriant pallet for myself with several of the home’s immense collection of quilts.
In the morning, I packed to go. As I once again filled my precious thermos from the coffee pot, Fay and Jeff discreetly directed me to the pantry. Stacked chest-high were cases of MREs—Meals Ready to Eat—the government-issue non-perishable foodstuffs typically consumed by soldiers in the field but now issued to private citizens across the storm-battered South. And Sandy, Jeff’s mom, had stocked up. (She also had a formidable stack of some strange off-brand generic analog—dubious-looking shrink-wrapped packages of frank and beans, crackers, and other unpalatable imperishables.)
“She can’t eat all these. Take some.”
They had a point. Barring a nuclear apocalypse that rendered the surface of the Earth dead and barren, no one was ever going to eat all of those.
“Okay.” I took two cases.
And then it was on to the city in earnest, to settle into the slow hard work of my house. After a quiet morning drive on streets devoid of commuters and a couple of false starts down barricaded highways, I was waved through the large sand roadblock** by a Guardsman and once again entered the shabby streets of Floodville, USA.
* Jeff, a psychiatrist, snuck back into the city shortly after the storm with the intention of providing mental healthcare to first-responders but quickly found himself giving basic medical care (such as the treatment flood-tainted wounds) from an improvised clinic in the gift shop of the Sheraton with commandeered medical supplies. (He also wound up in regular rotation on CNN in an interview where Anderson Cooper asked him a lot of questions about the gun on his hip.) Fay, like us, bounced around the country with the kids before she and Jeff finally reconvened in River Ridge.
** Later, in a refreshing bit of cheek, someone decorated the dune-like barricade with a folding chair and beach umbrella.