Tuesday, August 29, 2006




I'd like to take this opportunity to note all the help we got as far as donations and money and such. My boss in Atlanta had contacted me after the storm and he and his church asked us what sort of help they could provide and they came through in a big way with various donations. It was amazing the level of generosity that was on display on a daily basis. Other co-workers of mine (and my wife's) donated money and goods to us in an effort to help out however they could. I had never seen that sort of thing before and it still puts in a lump firmly in my throat when I think about it. Tough times can really bring out the best in people.
Around the time that Lisa, Ryne and Shelby had returned home, I got another call from my boss, Kelly. Kelly had offered to drive his RV down to New Orleans and park in front of my parents' house for as long as they needed it. Keep in mind that this was quite some time before Kenner would become a FEMA trailer city as plans were still being put in place at that time. And the fact that he would drive well over 1000 miles (round trip) to do that was an incredible display of generosity. So Kelly hopped in his RV, towing his daughter's Saturn behind him so he could bet back and left Atlanta for Daphne. The trip took about six to seven hours.
It was decided that I would travel with Kelly and set up the RV and begin a little demolition before my parents would travel back. Kelly and I left on Thursday and my parents arrived on Saturday. Upon Kelly's arrival, I hopped in my truck and Kelly followed me on an uncertain trip to New Orleans. I say uncertain because there are only three main paths for getting into the town, Interstate 10 from the east, Interstate 10 from the west and the Causeway Bridge over Lake Ponchartrain. I-10 from the east was closed for the forseeable future because the twin span bridges that connect Slidell with New Orleans east had been severely damaged by the storm. Entire sections were missing and it would be some time before repairs were affected. The Causeway across Lake Ponchartrain was also closed for the time being. So, the only way to enter was from the west, which means we had to go above the lake on I-12 and then down I-55. Unfortunately, I-10 was closed about a mile east of where I-55 connects with it, so we had to travel through LaPlace and take backroads to get into Kenner. Keep in mind that we're doing most of this travel while speeding along about an average speed of 25 mph because of traffic.

When we got to Kenner, it was a ghost town. It was eerily quiet. As I had mentioned before, it looked like a war zone. No cars were driving by, the parking lots of the various stores were empty. All the grass on all the lawns was either dead or completely overgrown. On my parents' street, there were a couple of residents who had either rode out the storm or arrived earlier then we had. There were piles of debris that had started to form in front of their homes as they attempted begin the rebuilding process. Soon enough most houses would not even be visible from the streets as residents began removing EVERYTHING from the houses. Walls of debris flanked both sides of many street, sometimes making it difficult to find one's house.
The trees that had been obstructing most of the main roads had been cleared so getting to my parents' house wasn't a problem. It took a little while to situate the RV and we had arrived too late to make it to the local Home Depot to purchase the necessary equipment to hook up power from the house to the RV, so we started up the generator and used that for the night. We walked through the house after we had set up the RV and we were shocked to find that it was actually worse than my brother had described it. By this time, there had been no air conditioning running for almost three weeks so it was sweltering in there. The humidity and temperature had provided the ideal environment for various molds to flourish. In some areas, mold was visible four to five feet up a wall. Flies were abundant because of all the trash around the house. With every step you were reminded that the carpet was still totally soaked, which only added the humidity and subsequent mold issues. All the furniture in the house was a total loss. The sofas and chairs and beds were wet and moldy. My mother's table, that she had inherited from her mother had basically collapsed due to water damage. A family hutch had also all but disintegrated in the inhospitable environment. My mother kept family photo albums in a coffee table in the living room and they were all but destroyed as well. These photo albums chronicled about 70 years worth of family history and I knew their destruction would be particularly hard for my mom to take.
In the garage, my mom's now totalled car was sitting there. Water had screwed it up so badly that I couldn't even put it into neutral to back it out of the garage. It was like the house - wet and moldy. Due to the fact that the house leans from front to back, the garage was still holding about four inches of water.
Since power had been restored, I immediately turned on the air conditioner in an effort to get the temperature down in the house. I worked around the car and the water in the garage in order to dig out a couple of card tables so that I could start taking some stuff out of the house and drying them a little. I didn't hold out a whole lot of hope from the photo albums, but I took them out of the house and put them on the card tables and hoped that they might be salvagable if there were allowed to dry.
The next day Kelly and I got the power hooked up from the house, ran the proper sewage lines and he gave me a crash course on the care and feeding of his RV. Honestly, it was an amazing RV. Very spacious, a decent sized bathroom, comfortable sleeping arrangements. Considering that it would be my parents' home and only space of refuge from the nightmare outside the door for the next two months, it performed admirably. My mom was able to salvage a few framed photos from the house and she had them placed around the RV in an effort to make it seem more like a home. Honestly, my folks were better off than many other families along the street. A few lived in their gutted houses and at least one couple actually lived in their car until the FEMA trailers started coming in.
So with the RV all ready, Kelly headed back to Atlanta and I was on my own until my parents arrived the next day. Determined not to have them see the house as I had seen it, I began to do as much as I could to begin the demolition. I began by getting a spray pump and some bleach so that I could kill as much of the mold as I could. I understood that this method would inevitably put mold particles in the air so I wore as respirator as well as jeans and steel toed boots to protect against any cuts and scrapes that might occur. As I worked tearing out the soaked carpet, I was beginning to realize that the house was almost a total loss. Assuming that the some entity wouldn't make them tear the whole thing down and start from scratch, I at least figured that all the walls had to come out. I struggled on my own trying to get stuff out; moving the furniture and debris that I could manage out to the front lawn beyond the RV. With the heat and the humidity and the wearing masks and jeans; well, it was stiflingly hot work. I hadn't gotten nearly as much done as I hoped when my parents arrived the next day. My mom was understandable upset, but I think she had been steeling herself for this so she got through it alright.
The next few days were a blur for me. The three of us worked continuously as we first cleared out all of the furniture and carpet. We then started tackling the drywall, though I don't believe much got done during those first few days. I returned home to Daphne for the rest of the week, then headed back to Kenner to continue the demolition the next weekend. It was backbreaking work getting everything out of the house. We were given some assistance on that front as a roving church group from North Carolina offered to help remove items and cabinetry and drywall. Accepting the kindness of complete strangers still took some getting used to, but we kept them hydrated as they busted their collective asses helping us out. Over the coming weeks, the house that I had grew up in and lived in for eighteen years had been gutted down to the two by four studs. With everything out, we took the opportunity to remodel a little bit here and there, giving my parents a larger bedroom, altering the kitchen layout a bit and making the two bathrooms larger than they originally were. With this step complete, the task of rebuilding was at hand.
FEMA money, insurance and other federal aid had begun to trickle at this point so at least we had the funds to pay for rebuilding. As de facto general contractor on the rebuilding project, it was my job to procure all necessary materials, including driving from Alabama to pick up enough drywall in Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi and bringing it to Kenner. No drywall was available in Kenner unless one were to arrive at the local Home Depot at 6am or so, and then wait in line for about three hours. The wait times in Gulfport and Biloxi were not as bad, but the entire process, from travel time to picking up materiel made the trip take about five hours, twice as long as it would normally take. By this time, one lane of the twin spans connecting Slidell to New Orleans East had reopened so, though the traffic could get nasty at times, it did cut the travel time down somewhat.
Driving through the different areas to and from my parents' house was always heartbreaking. New Orleans East to this day still looks almost as bad as it did the first few months. Major damage had hit the numerous high rise buildings that line I-10 through New Orleans and Metairie (which is between Kenner and New Orleans). Everything just looked dirty and grey and there was still an eery quiet that enveloped some areas at times. We were able to get hooked up with an electrician who did most of the electrical work before we started on the drywall work. Since all the plugs in the house had been submerged underwater, they had to all be replaced. And since the house was built in the early 70's, the electrical layout was in major need of updating, so I designed the electrical plan and the electricians did a great job of implementing it. Once that was all done, we moved onto the biggest project, drywall. We handled the labor ourselves and various members of the family pitched in. The process took about three months of weekends to complete. By this point, it was mid-November and Kelly really needed his RV back, so my parents were able to buy a new bed and they set it up in their partially finished house. There was no flooring, just the original concrete slab. At least the walls were up at this point so that now a person could actually use the bathroom without being visible to everyone who happened to be in the house. Little by little over the coming months a new benchmark would be accomplished. New carpeting would be installed. New tile in the kitchen or bathroom. New paint on the walls. New furniture was purchased and delivered. Kichen cabinets would be installed. (There was only one source of water in the house for many months - the bathtub. Since we had to tear out the cabinets and vanities, there were no sinks, so every water-based need had to be met in the bathtub. Try washing dishes in a bathtub - not good times. But, like most things, we learned to deal with it. When we finally got the kitchen countertops and sink installed around May, it was a banner day!)
By mid-December, I had consciously pulled back from being as hands-on as I had been. The work was seriously taking a toll on me, both the labor aspect and the psychological toll as well. It killed me everytime I had to travel back to the town that I had grown up in and see it in its current state. Since most of the major manual labor was completed after the drywall and electrical, I knew that much of the coming work was doable by my folks. I'm still making trips back about every three to four weeks to help out when I can. This weekend, I'll be going back for the Labor Day weekend and it looks like all that's really left is some finish moulding along the bottom of the walls that needs to get completed, but after that, I'd say we're about done. I think some painting needs to get finished on the doors, but my mom is unhappily tackling that task.
As for the others, Liz and Bryan's house is on about the same trajectory as far as completion goes. I don't think they're as far along as Mom, but they're close. Jamie's parents suffered only light flooding; so light, that they didn't even notice any damage upon their return a month after evacuating. Brian and Lisa's house was essentially untouched; a little flooding as well, but nothing serious. Laurie's (Jamie's oldest sister) apartment near uptown fared well as much of that area of New Orleans is on higher ground, so she made out alright. If nothing else, Gracie got to spend about a month with her grandparents and aunts and cousins and her language skills greatly improved during that time because of the constant interaction. By October everyone had gone back to their lives, and I think Gracie was a little lonely for a while. All in all, it's been a tough year.
Nearly all of my family lives somewhere in the New Orleans and gulf coast area. My uncle's house was totally wiped out by storm surge in Waveland, Mississippi. One of my closest friends growing up has never been back and is currently living in Memphis. Another friend, whom I met in college, left New Orleans for good as well and is currently gainfully employed in Houston. One of my mom's closest friends totally lost her house. She lived in the Lakeview area right where the some levees broke and her house sat for weeks under 10 feet of water. These are just some of the stories of people I know.
Growing up as a kid in New Orleans, we always got excited about a hurricane because we'd get out of school and we might have to evacuate, which was always an adventure. Now, as an adult, I spend six months of the year with a pit in my stomach as we go through another hurricane season. While there are signs that New Orleans is slowly recovering, there's still such a long way to go. Though my parents' house is almost complete, there are other houses along the street that have barely been touched. If it took us a year of concerted effort to get finished, I can only imagine how long before the other houses on our street in our little corner of the area are completed. I sometimes wonder when things will just get back to normal, but things can never get back to the way they used to be. Too much has changed. Too many lives have been destroyed. Katrina left a huge gaping wound across the entire city and I don't know if we as a larger community have the requisite tools and abilites to ever make things right again.

1 comment:

microdot said...

No, I don't believe New Orleans will ever be "normal" again. It will never be the same city because it will not be allowed to be the same city. If you look at it with eyes wide open, you see the naked fist of racism in America today.
That was a great tale, all three parts, a real chunk of your life! Thanks for writing it.