Friday, August 28, 2015

Katrina and me (ten years later)

So much can happen in ten years.

Usually, we mark our decades by the birthdays ending in zero. But ever since August 29, 2005, I have found myself marking the years New Orleans style, as K+. This year marks K+10.

In these ten years, both of my parents have gone home to God, as have four of their siblings; two of my sisters got married; a new niece was born, another niece married and gave birth to two precious children; I gained a niece and a nephew when my sister married their dad. My brothers started their own law firm, and a niece is one of the lawyers there. A Pope retired, and his successor is still full of surprises. I went to Italy (twice!) and lived in England. But through it all, Hurricane Katrina remained my temporal reference point. Everything that happened took place "so many years after Katrina." But for me, it didn't exactly start with the hurricane. It started with Mom and Dad's Golden Anniversary.
Two weeks before the storm; Dad is singing
"Yo te quiero mucho, mucho, mucho..."
It was the first time I ever heard him sing.

The timing of my parent's 50th anniversary meant that my home visit was ending just as an ominously rotating storm was getting teasingly close to the Gulf of Mexico. Even as I got on the plane back to Chicago that Friday, I was telling my parents, "If that thing comes anywhere near New Orleans, please just evacuate!" They smiled indulgently, having never evacuated for a hurricane in their lives. Besides, Monday morning they were heading to Europe: Dad was finally going to show Mom the places where he served in the Army. He had always dreamed of taking his wife to Germany.

By Saturday, New Orleans was in the cross-hairs, but Mom and Dad weren't budging.

Sunday morning I woke up frantic. Why weren't they picking up the phone? I kept getting the answering machine. (At least there was still electricity.) I left a message in a strained and nervous voice: "I sure hope the reason you didn't pick up is because you evacuated!!!" Hours later I got the call. They were in north Louisiana, staying in a cabin my brother's in-laws used as a hunting lodge.

Just about everyone was there: My brother and his family, of course. Mom and Dad (my brother swept by the house at midnight to pick them up; they each had an overnight bag). My sister and her dogs (she even adopted a puppy on Saturday, knowing that the rescue shelters were not going to be evacuating the animals). Another sister and her cats (and dog). A third sister would come later; she was on duty at the only hospital that continued operating through the storm. A niece would be evacuated to Baton Rouge later; she couldn't get off work. A brother took his family to Houston where his teenagers were welcomed to the classes at the Jesuit and Dominican high schools; my brother-in-law brought his two teens to his sister's house in Mississippi (the other two members of the family are the sister and niece who stayed at work).

Little by little, I found out where other family members had ended up. Dad was worried about his widowed sister, but she didn't have a cell phone and no one knew her children's phone numbers. I Googled her eldest son's name and found a lead. When the receptionist at his Michigan workplace asked who was calling, I just said, "His cousin from New Orleans" and got put right through. (Dad was happy to hear that Aunt Shirley was in Houston with her daughter and grandchildren, staying with a son there.) My godmother, an aunt and a whole lot of cousins were staying in a couple of towns over from my parents; a cousin had just set her son up in an apartment for his first semester of college. (These were not the roommates he had anticipated.)

I kept checking Google Earth to see if there were pictures of Mom and Dad's house. Not yet. No way to know. I just kept watching TV (not the best thing), hypnotized by the transformation of a city I had just left days earlier. Biblical passages related to exile became painfully meaningful. I felt as uprooted as my family.  "How can I sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my tongue cleave to my palate!" "There's no place like home" isn't very comforting when you're watching the flood waters spread and don't know if there even is a hometown there anymore.
If you have to either laugh or
cry, choose laughing.

Wretchedly in need of something to do, I stuffed a "care package" for my family with Bibles, rosaries, recipe clippings (there was one for trout meuniere, something Dad had ordered on their first date), a Calvin and Hobbes book. (Filling that box brought me immense relief, but I wish they had brought Calvin back when they came back home!)

After a week at the hospital (sleeping on the floor in halls in between shifts and eating sandwiches and fresh tomatoes from the Salvation Army), my sister drove around to check out the family's dwellings. (A hospital ID got her past the military at the various roadblocks.) Her house, miraculously, was "high and dry," with only the refrigerator and freezer ruined by food that rotted when the power went out. At Mom and Dad's she entered the front door and felt the squishy carpet underfoot. "You got water," she told them by phone. Ditto for two more sisters.  (For a year after, when New Orleanians would encounter someone they hadn't seen since before Katrina, that became the standard greeting: "Did you get water?") One poor neighbor made the mistake of testing the lights in a still-sodden house. The place blew up.

My godmother had three feet of water in her uptown home. But the old house had been built for hurricanes, with an artificial terrace: the living quarters were untouched, but everything in the ground-level "basement" was soaked. Miraculously, her father's memoirs (which she hadn't even known existed) were salvageable, and later published. Another aunt's home was deluged. Six to eight feet of mud and water ruined the one-of-a-kind home designed by her long-since deceased architect husband. Somewhere in the mud was the diamond ring he had given her; in the rush to evacuate, it hadn't occurred to her to get it. (Believe it or not, the ring was found in the muck some months later.)

Mom and Dad's house during the gutting. The fence
had collapsed, too.

By October, Dad couldn't take living in the woods any more. He and Mom moved back home, living on the second floor while the first floor was gutted and renovated. Dad was still working most days, and on coming home would trudge painfully up the stairs hauling bags of ice (they had a tiny dorm-style fridge, too). In January, I went down to help them empty the living room of moldy books and videos, staying at the Daughters of St Paul convent which had suffered some roof damage, but no flooding. I could just walk between the convent and my parents' home. (I had to get a tetanus shot for the nail that went through my shoe on one of those trips.) Dinner was whatever could be prepared in a microwave or between two slices of bread. Eventually the fast-food places began reopening, and the grocery stores started to restock. The house was well-along by July, but the first year of recovery from Katrina ended up being the last year of my Dad's life.

An abandoned house I pass every time I go to visit my godmother.
The dumpster hints that it's finally getting some attention.
I've been to New Orleans every year since Katrina, twice for a painfully extended periods while we kept vigil with Dad (the year after the storm), and then Mom. For the first few years, the city was visibly picking up: every time I went home I saw more blue tarps  replaced by roofs;  lights began going on in different neighborhoods; businesses re-opened. Now the pace has slowed. There are still areas that are blighted or unevenly restored. Housing is still limited and expensive. One neighborhood that I drive through on the way to my godmother's house has beautifully restored shotgun houses next door to collapsing homes with trees growing out of the roof. Many people started fresh elsewhere, bringing unexpected pockets of New Orleans culture to other parts of the country. In Atlanta recently, I met one of those transplants. She loves New Orleans, but has no intention of moving back: she's raising her family in Atlanta now. The need for labor drew in many immigrants, especially Latinos. You don't see them so much any more, but for many years post-Katrina, day laborers could be hired right in front of the home improvement stores. Now these new New Orleanians are settling down and raising families in a city that, for a significant part of its history, was under Spanish dominion. 
The week of the wedding, Dad
kept saying, "No matter 
what happens, go ahead with the
plans. I'll be there one way or the 
other." (The wedding was the 
day after his funeral.)

Hurricane Katrina brought my family a lot of misery, but it did not bring death or permanent loss. In fact, it led to one huge blessing (answering 30+ years of prayer): My sister Jane, required to be on duty in the hospital lab one month after the storm, was living in a trailer in her front yard. The trailer had all kinds of plumbing problems and, being a microbiologist, Jane was not too keen on the organisms that were being incubated in those pipes. The trailer repairman had to make numerous service calls.

His name is Jim. He had come in from Michigan, knowing that there would be work in New Orleans.

They celebrate their 9th wedding anniversary in November.


Anonymous said...

I really appreciated this, Sister, as it filled in all the blanks left by newscasts. There really is no place like home, life persists. The best part was reading about your dad telling them to go ahead with the wedding as he would be there one way or another - this is faith lived. I've often thought about those affected by Katrina, and in fact our city (Calgary, Alberta) flooded in June 2013, a far smaller scale though equally traumatic event for those involved. We had 1 1/2 feet of riverbank left where I live and we were spared. I will keep everyone affected by Katrina in my prayers. -Jean

Anonymous said...

A marvelous narrative, Sister. You brought the tragedy into clear focus. - Paul French