Friday, October 23, 2009

Katrina Stories

While I was in New Orleans last week, I was able to visit a bit with family, like my cousin Donna. Donna is a few years older than I am and has lived in the New Orleans area her entire life. The summer after Katrina (2006), she told me how fortunate she and her husband had been with the flooding. “We only had six inches,” she said. Dramatic pause. “On the second floor.” And then she laughed.

The line and the laugh epitomize Hurricane Katrina for me.

She lived in “the parish,” which for native New Orleanians means only one thing – St. Bernard Parish, the low-lying area below the eastern half of New Orleans and adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward of the city. More than 90 percent of St. Bernard flooded. The levees channeling the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet disintegrated from the tidal surge; the levee break in the Industrial Canal that flooded the Lower Ninth also brought water into St. Bernard.

My cousin lived in the little town of Meraux. Several of her married children lived not far away. As the storm approach, her children left early. Donna and her husband stayed until Sunday morning, and then decided to leave. They picked up our then-86-year-old aunt from her house in the Lower Ninth and went to my then-82-year-old mother’s house in the western suburb of Metairie. The two elderly sisters decided they wanted to stay. After all, they had ridden out Hurricane Betsy in 1965, hadn’t they? And Camille in 1968?

You can’t imagine my reaction when I heard my mother and aunt had decided to ride out the storm. Well, maybe you can.

Donna and her husband drove on to Baton Rouge to stay with her sister. Almost 20 people were in the house, and it turned out they stayed there for several days. With no electricity, because Baton Rouge lost power for a time as well.

Five weeks after Katrina, my cousin was allowed back into St. Bernard for a short visit. The town of Meraux had not only been flooded; an oil refinery not far away had also leaked, spreading a fine sheen of crude oil everywhere, including inside the flooded homes. Water, muck, mold and crude oil.

By this time, Donna’s company (and her job) had moved temporarily to Houston. She was given a furnished apartment, with utilities and phone included, and a long weekend twice a month. She and her husband would drive to Baton Rouge on Friday night, stay with her sister, and then drive down to St. Bernard early Saturday morning. With two huge tubs of water and bleach. And all the necessities for cleaning muck, mold and crude oil, to try to salvage what could be salvaged.

This went on for months.

Donna found her china cabinet moved several feet by the water but upright and intact. All of her dishes and her collection of Depression glass were intact, if covered in yuck. That’s what the tubs of water and bleach were for. Her furniture and appliances were a total loss. Refrigerators could be replaced. The album of her wedding photos could not. Most of their important papers had been hurriedly yanked out of filing cabinets and pitched into plastic trash bags, and thrown in the car when they fled the storm.

She had six hand-decorated eggs sitting on her sideboard when the storm struck. She found one in an upstairs bathroom, and a second one underneath the ruined living room sofa. Both intact and unbroken. The other four had disappeared.

They decided to gut the house. During the times they weren’t there, migrants moved in. One night, a neighbor who had been cleaning her own house called Donna. “Your house is on fire,” she said. “It’s on fire.” It was. Someone left a smoldering cigarette in a mattress. It took the insurance company four months to complete the investigation, because Donna’s husband is a retired firefighter. “You know how to put them out,” she said, “you know how to start them.” Donna and her husband had just arrived in Baton Rouge when they got the call.

One of the worst parts of the storm, she says, was the bureaucracy. FEMA. The insurance company (“Was the flooding caused by rising water or was the water driven by the wind?”). The local parish authorities. Her retired husband lived on the phone, fighting bureaucracy. Donna and her husband fought. A lot of other people, emotionally destroyed by the storm and its aftermath, gave up.

Then there was the FEMA trailer. Their trailer was located in Mississippi; Donna was not going to live in front of the ruined shell of her house. The trailer sweated condensation. Donna got sick. But she refused to give up or give in. My cousin is a fighter.

Eventually, Donna and her husband moved into a new house across Lake Ponchartrain. They’re finished with St. Bernard. They stay in touch with friends from the old neighborhood, and they still own the vacant lot where their house stood. But they have to keep it mowed to four inches or less, or be fined $125 a day, the parish says.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by Katrina. Donna is only one of those stories.


Maureen said...

Thank you for sharing Donna's story, Glynn. Every story such as Donna's that is told keeps real what has been and remains the larger story of The Forgotten of New Orleans. Nature's will is Her own. That of our government is something else, and I continue to be ashamed at our government's response to those who lost everything when Katrina hit. Every loss in New Orleans is our loss, too.

Anonymous said...

yes. one of the many stories. thank you for telling it.

Linda said...

Thank you so much for visiting my little blog and for your kind comment Glynn.
What a story! I'm glad to know they are finally resettled. It had to have been a heartbreaking time.

Maureen said...

Your posts on NO, Orion mag's post, and a couple of others on the city inspired a long poem-writing session this afternoon. I'm going to hold the poem out a while; I think it will meet the "remember" test for the upcoming Blog Carnival.

L.L. Barkat said...

I feel quiet in the face of this...