Perhaps it was cruel to dress my daughter up in this fluffy bunny costume for Halloween when it was probably about 75 degrees outside last night, but I just couldn't resist. A complete stranger even stopped us on the street to take her picture, declaring her the cutest bunny ever. (And of course, I agreed.) Needless to say, E got plenty of candy and was more than happy to share with Tchoups.
When we came back to New Orleans in December 2005, after three months away, I became one of those people who immersed myself in the misery tour, driving around and around the hardest-hit areas, over and over again, taking pictures of what I saw. I'm sure I wasn't alone in this somewhat weird hobby, as there were usually plenty of other people driving around snapping pictures, a mixture of locals and tourists.
In addition to wanting to save the pictures for posterity, so that someday my grandchildren could pull out the pictures that Grandma took during the great (federal) flood of '05, it was my way of dealing with what had happened--being in places where the landscape looked like I felt made me feel better--kind of like visiting the grave of a loved one, I suppose. Clearing out my own flood-destroyed home made me feel lonely, while being out in the greater community of grief made me feel, at least, like I wasn't alone.
In the process of sorting through the pictures I had taken during the year after Katrina, I noticed a lot of details in the pictures that I hadn't originally seen while focusing on the larger frame. An infant carrier wedged under the chain link fence next to where a house once stood. A wall switch hanging from a plywood stud, the wall long gone. A teddy bear propped up next to a pile of debris.
One thing that really stood out was a chair--a beige, non-descript recliner, that sat beside a destroyed house in the Lower Ninth Ward. The gentleman whose mother lived in the house, as I recall, found her body in it in December of 2005, well after the official search for bodies had taken place. I didn't really think about the chair, sitting at the side of the house, until I had all three pictures I had taken side by side--one in December 2005, one in April 2006 and one in August 2006. And there the chair was, in each of the photos.
Everyone knows that our recovery process is slow and shaky--but it still floors me, knowing that that chair sat there for over a year. I keep trying to find the words to describe how it has made me feel--just one more sad symbol of a city abandoned. Would people in other parts of the country be surprised to know this? Whenever I leave the city, people ask me the inevitable question, "How are things in New Orleans these days?" I want to tell them about the chair, but I don't. I'm not sure they'd understand.
Which picture was taken four months after Katrina? Eight months after? Twelve months after? I'll leave it for you to decide.
Spent today feeling weepy, sad and exposed...dreading what's to come, even though it's not anything, really--it's not as if the actual devastation is going to start again tomorrow. It just feels that way.
Spent the evening on the couch, watching the Katrina anniversary coverage but not really wanting to. It brought it all back, and I sat on my couch and wept. My heart ached for the mothers who were just trying to protect their children. What would I do if I were in a similar situation with Emmeline? It made me sick just thinking about it.
...I spent the last full day in my home. I didn't know it then, that it was the last day.
One year ago today, my husband and I each went to work.
One year ago today, I talked to my dad on the phone--he mentioned that they'd probably have bad weather that weekend, due to a piddly little Category 1 storm, Hurricane Katrina. It had made landfall over Miami the previous day and was forecast to turn around, head back over Florida, and cause minimal problems on the north Florida/south Georgia coast that weekend.
I lie awake at night, willing sleep to come. I try all of the tricks I can think of--counting sheep, counting backwards from 100 to 1, singing songs in my head. Nothing works. The thoughts come, unbidden and unwelcome. I don't want to think. I want to sleep.
I lie awake at night, looking at the clock. I think of how many hours worth of sleep I'll get, if I fall asleep...NOW. It doesn't work. My mind has its own plans, all of which include rehashing the past.
Thoughts come. Thoughts that I don't want. Memories of things that are gone. Memories of things that hit me like a punch in the stomach. I feel sick. I pull my pillow over my head, trying to banish the thoughts, the memories. But they won't leave.
My past is gone but for memories. All of the tangible parts of my past, all of the material things that we hang on to that prove we were there, are gone. They shouldn't matter. Why do they matter so much to me? Why does it hurt so badly to know that I will never again see those parts of me?
A yearbook. A photo. A letter. A memento. A souvenir. They don't matter, I tell myself. But they do matter--at least to me. And sometimes, their loss is palpable.
It's fast approaching, the one-year anniversary. For a while, the date we dreaded was June 1st--the official start of hurricane season. I know many of us felt a bit queasy this spring as that date approached.
And now it's nervous anticipation of the big one, August 29th. At least we no longer have to cringe at the thought of a comedy night and fireworks, ridiculous and fortunately now-abandoned anniversary ideas put forth by our idiot mayor and his staff. Why in the world would anyone want to mark the anniversary of the deaths of over 1,500 people with fireworks? The mind boggles.
We may, however, have to cringe at the coverage we see of ourselves on the national news. The media, surprisingly, got it mostly right during our first post-K Mardi Gras. Let's hope they do the same for the anniversary. But, of course, the cries of Katrina fatigue from uncharitable people in other parts of the country will begin anew....
I don't know how I'll spend August 29th. I already have an aversion to that date anyway, as it was my brother Charles' birthday. He died in 2001, so every August 29th since then has been spent worrying about my parents and thinking about Charles.
This year, we'll all be grieving. Thank god there won't be fireworks.
This article made me cry tonight. It was originally sent to me by my brother-in-law, a New Orleanian at heart (although he's never lived here) and a Jefferson City Buzzard, four days after Katrina. What does that mean that it still makes me cry, almost a year later?
Angels in the cities of the dead. The elbow of death. Love those phrases. Such macabre imagery, and yet so true.
I met the Chicken Man, once. (It'll make more sense after you read the article.) It was in 1997, shortly before Kenny convinced me to move from Bay St. Louis to New Orleans. The Chicken Man was a famous palm-reader in the French Quarter. A dapper old African-American gentleman--if you ran into him in the Quarter, it was pretty much accepted that it was poor form not to let him read your palm. And then tip him generously for the honor, of course. It was my 28th birthday--Kenny and I had dinner at Mr. B's and then were strolling through the Quarter, drinks in hand. And, then, there he was--the infamous Chicken Man. I had never seen him before, but I'd heard the stories from Kenny. The Chicken Man was right up there with Mr. Bingle and Ruthie the Duck Lady--a New Orleans legend. Kenny was very excited--I had to have my palm read, he said, especially since it was my birthday. The Chicken Man was quite impressive--he was wearing a bright red suit, a bright yellow shirt and a matching red fedora with a couple of bright blue feathers in the brim. It was like the greatest hits of the primary colors. I don't remember much about what he actually told me in my palm reading, other than he said that I would experience both great pain and great joy. Standard palm reading fare, but it was true--is true, for all of us.
I know most of my family doesn't get it. Why I want to live here. When they came to visit, pre-Katrina, they saw the trash everywhere. The poverty of the residents. The poverty of the city. The potholes. The crime. The schools. Now, post-K, they see all that, plus the extra-added bonus of a city that's been marinated. The debris. The demolition. The fatigue. The fugue. The fear.
How do I explain to them why I want to live here? How do I explain to myself why I want to live here?
I can’t believe I’ve never noticed it before—this morning on my way to work, driving down Canal Street, I realized that all of the oak trees have flood marks, too. I don’t know why that should surprise me—it doesn’t really. I guess I’ve just been so focused on examining the brown lines on the buildings, imagining how deep in the water I would be, that I’ve neglected to look at the trees. For some reason, it makes me even sadder to realize that even the stately live oaks around the city weren’t spared the always-present reminder of what happened here last August.
I have a somewhat warped sense of humor. Therefore, I think this picture of K and E examining the hole where the fake giraffe's tail used to be is funny. No giraffes were harmed during this photo shoot at the Destin goofy golf.
Just finished reading Chris Rose's book, 1 Dead in Attic, a couple of days ago. It's a compilation of columns he posted in TheTimes-Picayune from the time "The Thing" (his words) happened up through December.
I can't get the title story out of my head. At the time he first published the column, neither Rose nor we, the readers, knew who "1 Dead in Attic" was. He has since discovered that he was an 80-year-old retired longshoreman named Thomas Coleman. He had a can of juice and a bedspread with him in his attic when he died, awaiting rescue.
Just got back from a trip to Atlanta to visit my sister, who’s expecting a baby in early August. I had a good time there, but I find it really difficult these days to talk to people who haven’t been to New Orleans since Katrina and assume we must be completely back to normal by now. When they ask how things are in New Orleans, I’m torn between saying what I know they want to hear—things are slowly improving, we’re managing, blah, blah, blah—and telling them the truth.
Because let’s face it—asking those of us from the Gulf Coast how things are going these days is like asking someone who recently lost a loved one how they’re doing. You ask because it’s the polite thing to do, but you’re inwardly that the person is going to smile and nod and tell you they’re “hanging in there,” or some other such trite nonsense, so you won't feel uncomfortable. You’re hoping that they won’t awkwardly tell you how they’re really doing—that they cry every day, that they can’t sleep at night, that all they can do is concentrate on making it through the day.
"I walked down the street next to a failed levee here the other day and saw house after house that had been pulverized by Hurricane Katrina. Eight months after the storm, and nothing, not a single cinder block, had been touched. An exterior wall of one home had been ripped away, revealing, amid the rubble, a sneaker, some batteries and a cardboard box for an NFL football. A thriving family once lived here, and in the next house, and in the house after that.
But it's old news, this tableau of destruction. Even if a reporter could track down the families on this block and recount each tale of woe, the camera lens would still be too close; it simply could not capture the magnitude of what happened to New Orleans last summer. And if you pull back the camera too far, you get those aerial shots we've all seen so many times, which provide a sense of the hurricane's scale but not of the human misery that each ruined home represents....
...We all have defense mechanisms to shield ourselves against tragedy overload. From the Asian tsunami to the Pakistani earthquake to the latest Midwestern tornadoes, it can be a bit much. Perhaps I believed that New Orleans must be making modest progress because it was comforting to think so, and besides, if it was still a huge, stinking mess, the media would tell us, right?
Ride around the area and you find yourself staring in disbelief. Houses dented and bent and smashed like papier-mâche, many marked with the ubiquitous blue FEMA spray paint, destined for demolition. Massive trees, uprooted and lying in front yards. Cars caked with dirt, trunk lids open, many stripped of tires. And the tires -- piles of old tires everywhere -- and waist-high weeds covering the front yards are silent markers of abandonment."
This has been one of those weeks where I feel like I might have a nervous breakdown at any minute. Sometimes, the stress of living in New Orleans really gets to me. It’s just little things—things that really shouldn't bother me, but when you combine them all together, they do.
I waited in line at the grocery store the other night for 30 minutes—just to buy two items. All 12 lanes were open—a minor miracle in itself—but even 12 lanes wasn’t enough to deal with all of the people using one of the two grocery stores that’s open.
Getting around the city feels impossible—the news keeps saying that the population of New Orleans has been reduced by 80%. If so, who in the hell are all of these people driving around? It takes me longer to get to daycare and then to work in the mornings than it ever did pre-Katrina. And the constant detours don’t help matters—I have to take a different route every day, as there are always one or two roads blocked off by construction crews, tree-trimming crews, demolition crews, etc. I suppose it’s good to see progress being made slowly but surely—but sometimes you just want to be able to take a direct route to work.
I read an article by one of The Times-Picayune’s columnists last week, and it echoed how I feel. An elderly woman who lost everything to Katrina was talking about all of the things that she lost and misses. She said that every time she thought of more things, she would tell herself, “Release them. They’re gone.” That’s how I feel. I miss my stuff. I know that people are right when they tell me to look on the bright side—at least I have my health, my family, my job. And they're right, and I am incredibly grateful. But, at the risk of sounding selfish, sometimes I just want my stuff. I don’t care about the material stuff--furniture, cars, etc. But the sentimental stuff--I want it back.
My heart hurts over Emmeline’s belongings in particular. I think of all of the hours I spent while pregnant--washing and folding tiny baby clothes, decorating, dreaming. And looking forward to the rapidly approaching day when a baby—our baby—would arrive. I was so pleased with how her room turned out—the soft, mossy green color of the furniture, the big cushy rocking chair that my mother had turned over to me, a remnant of my own childhood. The monogrammed blanket. The silver rattle from Mexico. Now everything in the room is covered in mold and rats have taken up residence in E’s crib. Release them, they're gone.
They don’t call it the School of Public Health for nothing. Got into work this morning and the one elevator was out. I thought about going home but then decided to hike up the 18 flights. And then, after being in my office for about 30 minutes, the fire alarm went off. We tromped back down 18 flights of steps, me in my high-heeled boots, only to be told when we got to the bottom that it was a false alarm and we could go back up again. I heard later that rain had leaked into the elevator shafts, causing a fire that put the one working elevator out of commission. So we walked up and down steps all day. Need to go to the dean’s office? A relatively short walk up of only six flights. Going down to the parking garage for a cigarette? That’s 22 flights round trip. By the end of the day, I’d walked up and down a combined total of 112 flights. No wonder I’m tired.
As I told Kenny last night, post-Katrina life feels like a thousand little deaths. The death of life in New Orleans as we knew it. The death of our home. The death of our former city, Bay St. Louis. It was painful going over there yesterday. Everything is gone. The homes of my parents and his mother—still standing, but nothing left to salvage but mud. His grandmother and sister’s homes are completely gone—wiped away by storm surge. The bar where we met? Gone. The house where we lived? Gone. Nick's church and the rectory where he and Mom lived? Gone. The building that I worked in? Still standing, but not looking good. No more Dan B’s. No more Fire Dog. No more municipal pier. No more Peterman’s Grocery. Everything’s gone, reduced to splinters or slabs.
It seems that some people really don’t have a clue that Katrina even happened. I ordered some books from Amazon recently, assuming that they used UPS or a similar service for deliveries. (Almost six months after Katrina, we’re still not allowed to receive packages, magazines or catalogues through the U.S. mail.)
Anyway—about two weeks after I ordered the books from Amazon, I’m wondering where in the hell they are. I called Amazon and was informed that the books had been refused upon delivery and that my account had been credited. I told them I didn’t refuse the books—who, exactly, did? That’s when the customer service rep told me that someone at my office named Katrina had refused delivery. Um, do you mean Hurricane Katrina? Oh yes, she chirpily replied, that must be it.
So in case you were wondering, Amazon uses the U.S. Postal Service to deliver books, and they promptly refused my order. I wonder how much longer we'll have to go before they allow us to have packages or magazines again?