Life After the Storms (2005 & 2006)

Everyone has a story about Hurricane Katrina. “The water was angry, “ said my neighbor, Miss Sue. “My daughter said it struck her house like a raging bull.” The daughter was saved when her son tied an extension cord around her waist and swam ahead of her, towing her through the flood waters for nine hours. Although she did reach safety eventually, Miss Sue’s daughter had nightmares for weeks, reliving the moment when the water slammed into her house. Finally, Miss Sue suggested that her daughter go back to the flooded house in New Orleans East. “Why should I do that?” asked the daughter. “To heal,” said Miss Sue. “Go back there and relive it when you’re awake so you can put this thing behind you and move on.” “You get some weird ideas Momma,” said the daughter. But she did it anyway, three or four times, and came back laughing and talking from her last visit. She hasn’t had nightmares since. This is something Miss Sue told me the other morning as I stood outside in my bathrobe taking out the trash.

Then there is the lady from St. Bernard Parish who walks a stiff legged, gray muzzled pug past our house several times a day. This little creature, whose name is Mojo or Mo for short, was swept away by the storm surge and lived two weeks in an abandoned house, until he was rescued and shipped to Wisconsin. Months later his owners found him through an online search service, and back he came to New Orleans. The lady’s husband spends the day on the porch, smoking, while she walks Mojo around and around the block. Both husband and wife were forced to climb onto their roof to escape the flood, which inundated their home in a matter of minutes.

My husband had his own adventure: he came back to New Orleans a week after Katrina when the place was crawling with imported sheriffs authorized to pull people out of their homes and ship them out of town. Blackhawk helicopters ran recurring grid patterns over neighborhood roofs, their spotlights swiveling, looking for people who had the temerity to be at home. In this dystopian atmosphere, through circumstances I haven’t figured out how to relate without sounding more glib than I really feel, my husband shattered his heel. Hospitals, surgery, and a crazed nurse were in his immediate future.

Stories abound. The perspective to understand them, much less feel their impact, is slow in coming. But sometimes just getting the narrative down is a good first step.

Men Swarm New Orleans (November 2005)

Men are roaring down my street in their V-8 pickup trucks, taking larger than usual ganders at my doings. That’s permitted in these off the rails times, everyone is checking out who and what is going on. No white shirted, pink palmed attorneys drive by. Or if they do, they appear disoriented, eager to get away. The sedan driving sorts have mostly evacuated and hired another male species to come in, clomp through their houses, and set things to rights. These new men control the streets, with balled up fast food wrappers rattling in their truck beds, Zippo lighters sliding on their dashboards, and vehicles bearing signs of the needs they can fulfill: heating, cooling, water, shelter from water.

Men and trucks, men and ladders, a swirl of men and their missions passes my porch from dawn to dusk. Like bees collecting pollen, their acts are purposeful, unambiguous. And like bees, they appear preoccupied by the sheer number of properties left to pollinate. They raise a palm as they pass on their migrations, beepers buzzing, eyes roaming.

Unaccompanied women are infrequent now, particularly those perched high on ladders whacking banana trees with machetes. I am up there trimming away branches in preparation for the arrival of the cable man, who is supposed to thread the wire through the tree and hook my Internet service back up. My husband and daughter are 800 miles away, in a well paved beach town where tanned retirees pick cigarette butts off their lawns.

The roofers pull up, going the wrong way on my trash strewn, one way street. “We weren’t going to stop, but we saw you out here…just kidding.” They aren’t kidding and we all know it. They don’t particularly want this job, but there I was perched in the tree waiting for them with a large knife in my hand. I wear my tightest jeans, for reasons that have nothing to do with logic, but that seem perfectly appropriate to the times. Roofers are prized in this town right now. I need them to stop, and if a visual gives them additional incentive, so be it. I do not wonder whether the middle aged display I’m proffering could be a deterrent. My lizard brain is in control.

Adam is the short, portly member of the team; a business card identifies him as the sales manager. His paunch is low down and loose, his hands soft. The other man, Chris, is of the tool savvy gene pool. Taller than the usual New Orleans stock, surprisingly bright eyes decked by black lashes, close cropped light brown hair that looks downy, almost like a chemo patient’s. Chris takes over immediately, looking down at me, “Why do you want a corrugated sheet metal roof?” I hear a Texas twang that matches the insignia on his shirt sleeve from the Dallas Country Club. The man is from points west, coming in to make some money a few days a week. Not a good feature in a contractor.

We go back and forth, narrowing the options and maintaining eye contact. “On your phone message you said you had nothing but a tarp between yourself and the elements.” That’s true. The front half of my roof is gone. It rained in my house during Hurricane Rita. And now I need the right man to stop and make my house a home again. Chris goes to get a ladder so he can measure the roof and give me an estimate. He slings the ladder over his shoulder and heads off. I enjoy the capable look of his upper body, but notice that the looseness of his brown pants around the thigh resembles that of a man without steady meals at home. He’s working hard these days. For some reason, I think of a homeless person.

Meanwhile Adam works the local angle. He lives nearby on a swank street and uses my first name a lot, but the conversation goes nowhere. We both know he is not the operative agent here. His kind will come back and run things when the physical world has been restored. For now, he’s groping for traction.

Measurements finished, the two men disappear into the truck for a while to figure out how much to put on the job. In the meantime some acquaintances walk up and stand, arms folded, on the sidewalk. Two women, both large. They look uninterested in the men’s comings and goings but are squarely planted, legs spread wide and arms crossed on their chests, as if they plan to stay out there with me indefinitely. One of them asks for a tour of my roofless, now sodden house. I tell her I can’t, that I have to stay and talk to these guys a minute.

Chris lopes back and gives me the scrawled estimate. Adam remains sequestered in the truck, his sales job apparently over. “He didn’t write this right, but here’s what it means. If you want us to come do the job, we’ll rewrite it.” We go over the figures, then it’s time for them to leave. I shake Chris’s hand. It engulfs mine—an asphalt like texture, with a few calluses thrown in. The hand feels right, but I don’t think he is the one. More eye contact, another handshake just to make sure, and they are off in their truck, scouting, or resting from scouting, either one.

I won’t use this estimate, and my roof remains open to the sky, but I enjoyed their visit. This town is crying for rebirth. We need all the fertility agents we can get.

Cleaning Up (November 2005)

A man named Robert mopped my floor today. Portly, with green eyes and a quiet manner, less glib than his partner, Charles. They had chipped the moldy drywall away like sculptors, gently, with hardly a thump. But as the debris fell, dust exploded everywhere, no surface left untouched. In its total coverage the dust was a dry version of the flood waters that had inundated less fortunate homes.

Robert cleaned up after Charles went off to run errands at lunchtime. “We’ll neaten it up for you,” he said, when I expressed dismay about the dust. An hour later, I saw the kitchen floor, wet, if not gleaming. “We hate to leave you with all this mess,” he said. I got the feeling he was discomfited by the astronomical rate they could command in these post-Katrina times. After the storm peeled off the roof, our ceilings had partially collapsed, and we had needed help to clear away the remains. Over the phone the day before Robert had assured me that they would use tarps to protect my things. All I had to do was remove my breakable “whatnots” near the walls, and they would take care of the rest. I had envisioned yards of muslin swaddling my furniture, as in Victorian homes closed for the summer. In fact, the men arrived at 8AM the next morning with two stiff, folded up pieces of plastic under their arms. Not enough to prevent dust from seeping into every teacup and floorboard ridge. It would take me days to clean up.

When I handed him a check and we were talking on the steps, Robert looked at me with eyes bright as the sea. “Are you satisfied with the job we did?” he asked. A complicated question. They had overcharged, but every other contractor in New Orleans was doing the same. Their anti-dust measures had been more ceremonial than effective, but what did I expect? Debris and its aftermath—it was the order of the day. Earlier that week, Robert and Charles had demolished the interior of a flooded house with sledgehammers, and they would likely do the same tomorrow. Having a functioning homestead to wring my hands over made me one of the lucky ones. Yet out of sympathy for my comparatively minor plight, Robert had swabbed down the floor and scrubbed the sink with a sponge. “I’m satisfied,” I said.

He told me that he had sold his home in New Orleans East a year before the storm and moved to Prairieville. His old neighborhood is now a flooded wasteland, and he is high and dry in the suburbs of Baton Rouge. “After the hurricane I had 26 people living with me, including Charles and other family members. That’s how I started doing demolition. It isn’t normally my line of work.” Before I could ask what he had done before the storm, Charles returned, reminding me that I’d be doing a lot of dusting, and counseling me to “take it just one room at a time.”

“Do you have a mop I could use?” I asked. From the trash pile across the street, Charles grabbed the mop Robert had used earlier on the kitchen floor. Its dangling threads were black. “Just soak it in some bleach. It was new this morning,” Charles said.

Later that night, the kitchen floor was again clumped with mud. I tried the mop, found it unwieldy, and decided to scrub on hands and knees. As I worked my way across the room, I saw the swirl marks from Robert’s mop. They were there against the cabinet corner and underneath the kitchen table. He had left ridges of dirt backed up against the hard surfaces, just as someone doing a semi-serious cleaning would do. I hated to expunge his signature, remnants of a particular moment of courtesy. But after looking at them for a minute, I erased the marks with my wet towel.

The Survivors (December 2005)

The women were in line ahead of me. Two of them—one plump, one razor thin—were sporting severely pointy boots, layered hair. The third woman, already placing her purchases on the conveyor belt, was dressed in black and orange. They were talking in loud voices about their need for landscaping. It was three months after Hurricane Katrina, and I was at Langenstein’s, a small, Uptown grocery store. Space is tight there, and high volume conversations carry.

“Oh it’s been awful,” the plump boot wearer cried. “Everything died. We came home and it was so depressing, everything so dried out.” The black and orange woman chimed in. “Well my garden died from three feet of flooding, not lack of water.” “Oh, we had flooding too” the plump one replied. “Yes, “ said black and orange, “but I had three feet in the yard AND the house.” The one upmanship killed the conversational flow, and the two boot wearers turned to each other. “The gardeners are at the house now,” declared the plump woman. “Every day I come home and there’s something new to see.” The thin one nodded and smiled and the boot wearers waved to black and orange as she wheeled her cart out the door.

Their conversation would have been typical for the venue pre-storm, but both the content and volume of their exchange felt shocking so soon after Hurricane Katrina. After all, the flood that put an end to their sago palms Uptown killed over a thousand people and destroyed countless homes in other parts of the city. Oblivious rich people—an old cliché with a new edge in post-Katrina New Orleans.

For there’s a reformist spirit in the air, a sense that the hurricanes have presented our city with an unusually stark choice: change now or wither, not elegantly, in the langorous spiral of decay that we are famous for, but suddenly and for good. From this perspective, the Langenstein’s shoppers exhibited a cultural blindness endemic among the well heeled in New Orleans—a willful myopia towards the poverty of their fellow citizens that must to be excised if the city is to survive. It’s an ancient exhortation, relevant to every community, particularly those whose disparities have been exposed as violently as ours have.

In many ways New Orleanians are rising to the occasion. Volunteer cleanup crews throng to flooded neighborhoods, rich mavens lobby the legislature for political reform, musicians play concerts in the halls of newly opened schools, senior citizens crowd orientation sessions for new poll commissioners. Locals everywhere are abandoning complacent cocoons in order to replenish civic life. For all the fumbling of our public figures, this spontaneous outpouring from citizens creates hope that we could, possibly, begin moving in the right direction together.

In tandem with this wave of fellow feeling, a vocabulary has sprung up among survivors when talking about the storm’s effects. Gratitude is obligatory, as is the downplaying of current inconveniences. I’ve heard it more times than I can count: “Yes the roof caved in and we have no heat, but we have a house to come home to, and that’s what counts.” A stigma has attached itself to unqualified expressions of self-pity, and the need for compunction increases in proportion to the speaker’s good fortune. As one mansion dwelling acquaintance murmured when I asked how he had fared after the storm, “We did very well, I’m embarrassed to speak of it; really it’s awful what people have been going through.” The social contract requires such humility, given that so many suffered while a few, many of them wealthy, remained relatively unscathed.

And yet, a moratorium on Katrina related whining would be silly. So when is it acceptable to wear your woes on your sleeve? Is it OK to vent deep in your own territory, where you can feel fairly sure that everyone in the vicinity has suffered about the same number of blows? Perhaps that is what the boot wearers had assumed during their conversation at Langenstein’s. And if they hadn’t made this assumption? If they had simply complained without considering who could be listening, so what? Yes, they had violated the new code of conversational conduct. But there was also something reassuring about the women’s self-centered homemaking, that sturdy human impulse to refeather the nest as soon as the sky stops falling.

After enjoying my outrage for a while, I stopped begrudging the women their landscapers and allowed that their absorption in reclaiming sullied territory was a survivor’s privilege. A privilege, moreover, that I was claiming myself, standing there in line at Langenstein’s with triple cream brie and crackers in my basket. Buying a Christmas treat, rebuilding a sense of prosperity—my splurge felt like an important step toward normal life, certainly nothing to be furtive about. I had lamented my washed out front garden too. The flood covered it with two feet of water, and then drained away leaving only muck behind. Now the ground was layered with construction debris and roofing materials. Gardeners would not be showing up to restore my yard to health, but I shared the women’s longing for greenness and order.

The flood waters did not sweep through uniformly. Some lives were lost or horribly buffeted, others were socked with multiple aggravations but no major tragedy, and a fortunate few were left with problems no more serious than the placement of shrubs. Those of us with lives intact may embrace the gift with various degrees of public spiritedness, but embrace it we must. Next time we could be the ones with water to the rooftops. In the meantime, we survivors are called to ardor—for picking up trash, reforming city hall, or, if that is where true passion lies—planting flowers along an already manicured sidewalk.

Musée des Beaux Arts - W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood.
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Sealing the House (February 2006)

Roofs were on everyone’s mind last winter. Without that outer skeleton of domestic protection, we found, life is underlain with surprisingly deep unease. But there were thousands of roofs that had to be repaired in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and only a handful of roofers to do the job. The outsized demand and undersized supply created a bottleneck around everyone's primordial need for shelter. Five months after Katrina the strain was showing. Our home's attic rafters were bathing in daily doses of sun and rain, and my husband and I were desperate to wall ourselves off from the elements.

Most people I talked to dealt with their frustration by uttering the same phrase: “It’s not rocket science.” Unhandy types said it to reassure themselves that the Spanish-speaking men on their housetops, who had showed up that morning in an unmarked flatbed, couldn’t be screwing anything up too badly. My husband said it because he knew exactly how to put a roof on our house, but couldn’t do it with the foot injury he sustained after the storm. For one reason or another, roofing represented a skill that seemed just out of reach, yet absolutely essential.

Another principle everyone agreed on was that the roofers themselves were an odd bunch. One roofer, Toney, worked on our house for a few days when I was still living out of town. According to my husband and other witnesses, he was amazingly skilled and could carry a full piece of 5/8” plywood, even in the wind, carefully placing it on the steep pitch of our roof. He was assiduous too, screwing down each decking sheet in the tightest possible configuration.

My husband had to meet him halfway on a few minor points. Toney had trouble getting started before noon, and a Chihuahua accompanied him to our house each day. To keep Toney focused once he arrived, my husband would provide lunch. Toney insisted that his sandwiches be embellished, either with the pepper sauce he found in our refrigerator, or with balsamic vinegar. He made a speech one day about his need for vinegar that our neighbor two doors down found hilarious, which was an odd snobbism on our neighbor’s part, given that he himself has pointed preferences about food. In exchange for these small accommodations, Toney provided us with half a solidly buttressed crown to our homestead. We would have indulged many a whim for that service.

However, Toney bugged out one day leaving his tool belt behind, and we never saw him again. Rumor had it that there was a woman involved. Or maybe there was so much work that he could afford to abandon jobs in mid-stream. “Oh yes” people said when I told them what had happened, “Roofers are like that. You’re the third person who has told me the story about a tool belt left behind.” How did everyone know so much about roofers all of a sudden? Did acute need somehow give us a window into their souls? Or was our lack of control giving rise to all kinds of stereotypical nonsense? When I asked a few craftsmen about the stereotype, they affirmed it, saying, “Roofers are not high concept people.” When I asked them why, they said, “What they do, you know, it’s not rocket science.”

But it did seem like science to me. There were decking and shingles, soffets and fascia, weatherboards and drip edge that all had to be installed correctly in order to thwart the dreaded “water trap” effect. Water had been our foe since the storm, and I respected its ability to infiltrate seemingly impregnable areas. I dreaded the inexorable puddling, the vain attempts at covering holes with plastic sheeting only to see trickles of rain sliding down the wall. Taming the power of dripping water seemed as high concept as anything else—high concept, and unlike many pursuits in that category—of immediate importance.

A few weeks later we hired a roofing friend of a friend named Angel, and he appeared one Saturday with his crew. Angel and his cohorts spent the day and finished up the decking, even if they did not employ the meticulous standards we were used to. In fact, at one point, someone put a foot through my kitchen ceiling. That night before leaving, sitting in his white pickup with a check in his hand, Angel assured me he would fix the hole. I’m sure he believed it too, for a few minutes.

After the decking was installed, there was a hiatus of about a month while we looked for a roofer to put on the shingles. Angel had not distinguished himself in our eyes, and we were in the market for someone new. In a moment of intuitive certainty, my husband decided that he was simply going to wait for the right person to knock on our door. The very irrationality of this approach, given that every living soul for miles needed a competent roofer, was somehow reassuring. And a roofer did indeed knock on our door one day—a roofer who knew his business, insisted on best practices, and charged a reasonable rate.

Donnie also talked in a fluid, north Florida twang that got right by me unless I paid attention. Even then I usually missed two words in five. He pointed out all kinds of ways to improve on our jerry-rigged structure and seemed excited about eliminating every water trap he could find. He carried around a bright red half-gallon mug emblazoned with the words “Race Trac.” When he wasn’t drinking Coke out of his mug, he was smoking. Although his face was lined like a man of 70, he was only 47, my husband’s age, and they got along from the start.

Donnie worked with his wife Rose. She had blond hair and hazel eyes with spiky black lashes. She drove the couple’s red truck and got on the roof with Donnie to help things along. Her lines of shingles tended to meander, and the nail gun went off at slow intervals when she was in charge of it, but she was a reassuring presence nonetheless.

Donnie and Rose were up on the roof doing a torchdown when I went out in the backyard with my daughter one afternoon. They were unrolling cylinders of rubber onto the flat part of our roof and sealing it with a blowtorch. The work went well, although at one point my husband called for me to get the hose as a fire had broken out. There was a moment of unease, but no harm done in the end. As proof of restored tranquility, a few empty Cheetos bags drifted down into the yard from above.

When work was through for the day, Donnie appeared with treats in hand. He brandished three lollipops, which my daughter was thrilled with, and then brought out a bag of candied orange slices. He pulled out a pocketknife and cut open the bag, talking all the while. He explained about the proper gloves to wear if you are going to be picking lemons all day (leather with a sock lining; the lemon thorns make you bleed, but the sock lining keeps the blood from soaking through), how to trap bats (use a cage that lets them fly out of their lairs but not back in) and why sofa cushions were good to sit on when working on a steep roof (they don’t slip). Meanwhile, I was wondering if I was going to let my three year old eat the fluorescent orange quasi-fruit he was offering. Of course I was. I had one too. It was strangely delicious. More like an orange than I would have given it credit for.

For the rest of the week, Donnie and Rose were atop our house. By coincidence, it turned out that Rose was the mother of Toney, the condiment loving roofer who had gone AWOL. Toney was embarrassed about having left, didn’t want to face my husband, but needed his tool belt back. He asked his mother to get it for him. My husband discussed it with Rose one day up on the newly torch downed roof. At first, he was resistant. “No way. I’m not giving the belt back until Toney comes and gets it himself. A man doesn’t ask his mother to clean up his messes.” Rose looked anguished, Don was noncommittal but smiling, and looking up at them from down on the ground, I wondered why they were suddenly so quiet. Later that night, my husband told me he had relented and given the belt to Rose after all. “I’m principled,” he said, “but I’m not a hard ass.”

Finally, one Sunday night the job was done. Donnie and Rose were heading to Texas to see their grandchildren and had worked past nightfall to finish. I came home and found Rose waiting in the truck, and my husband and Don up on the porch roof working by electric light. “We’re almost done, come up and put in the last shingle!” they called down. So I climbed the ladder in my high-heeled boots and crawled over to them. Don handed me a shingle well smeared with black Mule Hide tar cement. I mashed the shingle down and it was over. Our roof was sealed. Overhead the stars were bright, a slight wind blew, and the air was crisp. It felt good to be standing on top of my house, embracing the outdoors for the first time in a long while, reasonably sure in my heart it could not reach me once I went inside and shut the door.