Friday, August 24, 2007

My First Visit Back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

I made my first trip back to New Orleans five weeks after Hurricane Katrina and the week after Hurricane Rita. It was a clear and beautiful Friday evening. I'll never forget what I saw and how I felt that first drive back through Metairie. I had to take Airline Highway because I-10 was still closed going over Lake Pontachartrain.

As I drove into Metairie it was like a neutron bomb had hit the city. There was debris everywhere, gravel and stuff all over the roads. They had cleared the main roads so people could start returning home. But I saw no other cars. No people. And silence. Ghostly silence. All the roads should have been full of cars. There should have been traffic. But there wasn't any. None of the stop lights worked. I could see a few abandoned boats that must have been used to rescue people trapped on their roofs and the water lines on the buildings and houses where the flood waters had been.

I crossed the river on the Huey P. Long Bridge and took the Westbank Expressway to Algiers. As I drove by Westwego, Harvey, and Gretna I could see wind damage that went from really bad to barely hit as I drove east. Buildings went from being completely blown through with little structure left to partially intact to mostly intact. There were already "blue roofs", blue tarps covering the holes in the roofs, one small sign that a few people had returned.

The Westbank didn't flood like the Eastbank. A lot of the Westbank is actually on ground above sea level. Algiers is one of the highest spots at around 10 feet above sea level. But they are still protected from flooding by the Mississippi River, the Intercoastal Waterway and the Harvey Canal by levees that hold water several feet above sea level for deep shipping channels to move cargo in and out of the Port of New Orleans. You have to walk about 30 feet up the levee to see water that's only a couple of yards below the top. I remember being out walking and watching the ships go by as if they were floating on air. You have to look up to see them. My mother's old neighborhood was right next to the newly upgraded Intercoastal Waterway. It held during the storms and that whole area was spared from flooding.

My mother lived in Algiers and had just come home from Dallas. She evacuated to my sister's house up there. I live in Baton Rouge, and she didn't want to evacuate here because we would be hit by the storm, too. She figured if she had to evacuate, she might as well be somewhere the storm wasn't going. Out of that 5 week period, we had no electricity for about 2 weeks between Katrina and Rita.

Mom looked tired. She had been on the road for 12 hours that day. When I got to her condo shortly before the 6 p.m. curfew, she was sitting at her kitchen table eating a sandwich she'd packed for the trip with an expression I'd never seen on her face before in my 44 years of life. She looked lost and broken. My mom has been through some really tough times in her 72 years, but this had hurt her spirit. She also had a very mild case of pneumonia they found when she went for her physical in Dallas. They required updating vaccinations and a general check-up before coming back. She was being treated for it and had nearly finished her antibiotics. My shots were already up-to-date.

The first thing she asked me when I walked in the door was "Why did I come back here?" I had talked to her several times before she returned and told her I would go to her place, assess the damage, and let her know if she should come back at all. I also volunteered to get her place packed and get a mover to come and get everything for her. But she insisted on coming home. New Orleans had been her home for 28 years and she had close friends, her church and many activities she had participated in after she retired.

She had seen what they put on the news, the videos and pictures, but nothing could prepare you for being immersed in the horror. I was more prepared because of the destruction I'd seen in Baton Rouge. I knew it had to be much worse in New Orleans, but it wasn't the physical destruction that hit me. It was the eerieness and ghostlyness of the atmosphere. I could almost feel lost souls that still held on to their beloved city even though it was their time to go.

And then there was the stench of rotting everything, mostly garbage and refrigerators set out to be picked up. Garbage and refrigerators were piled up on the median all the way up Tulis Dr, the street to get to my mom's neighborhood. The smell got worse in the neighborhood because most people had returned home and cleaned out their houses and put everything down by the street for pick-up. The only problem was there was no garbage pick-up. The National Guard set up a schedule to come at least every other week, but that was nowhere near enough, so the smell continued.

My mom lost her refrigerator, too. It was her only physical loss. After weeks in the heat with no power, a refrigerator can grow some seriously nasty stuff, from mold to flies. There were flies and maggots everywhere. Not regular house-flies, but those little flies that are attracted to anything rotting. Best Buy and Home Depot had reopened for about 6 hours a day, so we went Saturday morning and got in line to buy her a new refrigerator. It was three days before they delivered it, so my mom had to keep her perishables in her ice chest. Winn-Dixie had also opened for 8 hours a day, and they had daily shipments of ice. We bought her enough groceries to last about 3 days and she planned to go grocery shopping as soon as the new refrigerator was installed.

Her microwave fried when we tried to use it, but her neighbor and good friend next door had an extra one and gave it to her. They were in frequent contact, so I wasn't worried leaving her there to go back to Baton Rouge, although he is only about 10 years younger than Mom and not in the best of health.

I flagged the National Guard truck down on one of their regular trips through the neighborhood and asked that they watch to make sure she and her neighbor were out at least once a day walking their dogs. I left them my name and phone number in case they didn't see either of them. I also had their contact information in case I needed someone to go to their doors and check on them. The National Guard was giving out ice and MREs to anyone who wanted them. They insisted I take at least one MRE so I did. I was tired and hungry when I talked to them, and I wasn't going to argue with anyone with a loaded machine gun. I left it for my mom to use for snacks, and surprisingly she ate them.

I drove home to Baton Rouge Sunday night and the despair hit me on the trip home. I started crying and cried for an hour on my drive home. I had been so busy just trying to get my mom settled and get her enough supplies so she would be ok until I could go back the next weekend that I hadn't processed what I had seen, heard, smelled, and most of all, felt.

That first wave of depression passed just in time to meet my ex-husband who was dropping our son back with me. He was ten then, and he knew something was wrong, but didn't say anything until his dad left. Then he asked me what was wrong. And all I said was I was in New Orleans getting Grandma settled and it was really tough seeing everything so broken.

That week I settled into a deep depression that got worse as time went on and I went back to New Orleans a lot of weekends to help my mom get ready to move before the next hurricane season. I went into a state of numbness and just went through the motions of life until mid-February 2006 when the moving van came and got all my mom's things and moved them to her new house in Plano, TX about 15 minutes from my sister's house in Richardson.

By February 2006, I knew that my New Orleans was gone forever. Its people held its culture and diversity, and half of them have never returned home. They started new lives in the cities they were evacuated to all over the country. I call it the New Orleans Diaspora. Those cities have gotten an injection of culture that will enrich them forever, but New Orleans' full culture and spirit may never return to its pre-Katrina era.

I seemed to wonder through my own life aimlessly going through the motions until my psychiatrist got me on a group of medications that work completely. That just happened in about March of this year (2007). I only have some memories of that year. I think I spent the rest of the time unconscious. I know I did a lot of financial damage to myself. I have the bills to prove it. My business floundered as did many. It has finally begun to come back to life. I started tutoring to earn extra money to make ends meet, but the contact with young people and the mental stimulation have been a Godsend, and I will keep doing it even if I don't need the money. They give me hope.

All the signs of deep depression are still around me. My house is still a wreck from that year and I'm getting to everything as quickly as possible, but there is so much to do. Nearly every room is filled with clutter. I would love for the show "Clean Sweep" to come in here, but they would have to do two shows to get my house back in order. I have 7 rooms that need serious cleaning out, plus my garage. I guess that would be more like 3 shows, then.

I'm just now able to recall and write about what I remember. The second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is this coming week on August 29. I'm going to do something to commemorate that day, but I don't know what. It may be spending an hour in quiet prayer and mediation, I might go to church, or it may be getting together with friends to give New Orleans a wake - a drunken party to celebrate life right before a funeral. All I really know is I've been so busy just keepin' on keepin' on that I haven't stepped back to honor what I've been through and what so many of my Louisiana and Mississippi brothers and sisters have suffered.

I haven't been back to the city since my mom moved. I get a very sad feeling whenever anyone mentions going down there. I'm not ready to go back yet. I don't know when I will be ready.

Hurricane Katrina Picture Book
by Jeffrey Morgan

For more pictures, visit This site is also where I found a few pictures that represent some of the things I observed on this first trip.

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