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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

John Biguenet,Back to New Orleans: October 13 and 16

Oct. 13, 2005
So Where Do We Begin?

Marsha and I slog through the waterlogged books in my study, still damp two weeks after the flood receded from our house. All the free-standing bookcases collapsed at some point, spilling even the volumes I thought might have survived on the highest shelves into the slimy floodwater that filled our downstairs for three weeks. Some of the books, now sprawled open on the floor and blooming with orange-and-yellow mold, give the appearance of tropical flowers crowding our steps in an overgrown garden. And other mold, sometimes brown, sometimes red, has spiraled up the walls, covering much of the room in a delicate, poisonous vine whose tendrils reach almost to the ceiling in spots.

“So where do we begin?” Marsha asks through the heavy mask she is wearing, sounding like a petite Darth Vader. We want to salvage as much as we can before the mold spreads further.

“How about the kitchen?” I wheeze through my mask.

But the kitchen is, in its own way, worse than the study. At first we think it’s just a skim of mud on the pots we find still neatly stacked in a swollen cabinet we manage to force open. But when we squat to look more closely before we touch them — not easy in the knee-high rubber boots and protective jumpsuits my wife wisely insists that we wear — we see that the veil of scum on our pans and kettles is actually quite delicate. Up close, it looks like dirty cotton stuck to a wound, fine gray strands of it puffing up over the copper and cast iron, sheathing our cookware in darkening clouds of mold.

Marsha has talked to her mother’s stepson, an oceanographer who frequently works in Venice advising on that city’s problems with floods, about whether we can use things that have been submerged. So we already know about the overnight baths of bleach needed to kill just the biological contaminants and the much more complex problem of contamination of household items by floodwater fouled with industrial pollutants and motor oil and mercury from automobile switches and gasoline — not to mention all the poisonous cleaning agents stored under our sink that leached into the kitchen floodwater.

She closes the cabinet door as far as it will shut. “Let’s look upstairs,” she suggests.

We clamber up the bottom steps carefully. Two have cracked, and another has swollen and bellied in an angle difficult to climb in our rubber boots. At the top of the stairs, we strip off our boots and gloves and jumpsuits, leaving our masks on only until we can close a bedroom door on the stench of the mold rising up from the first floor. We crank open all the windows and stand before the billowing curtains for a moment. It’s still in the 80’s here every day, and we are slick with sweat from the protective clothing we wore downstairs over our jeans and T-shirts.

It is all exactly as we left it the Sunday morning we hurriedly fled New Orleans — except that, with the masks off, we suddenly realize everything upstairs, too, smells like mold. It’s nothing like the overpowering reek in my study and the kitchen. In fact, it takes a moment to recognize the dusty, rotting odor for what it is. Every single thing up here will have to be cleaned, Marsha decides. I open our closet and riffle my pants hanging in a row. Somehow, the scent of mold has insinuated itself into every fold.

Marsha slumps down on our bed, its blanket thick with the same smell. She shakes her head. Neither of us expected that the upstairs would be a problem, too.

This time, I’m the one to ask, “So where do we begin?”

Oct. 16, 2005
How They Died

How did they die, the hundreds of people who drowned here? I couldn’t figure it out, at first.

It wasn’t the hurricane itself that flooded New Orleans; we’ve survived more rain than that in the past without a fatality. And you can see from the high-water mark on the levees that Lake Pontchartrain didn’t come over the top of them. So it wasn’t Katrina, passing over the city, that killed most of those who died.

Ask people down here what happened, and you get the same answer from everyone: we all would have been home and back at work two days after the storm if the levees hadn’t collapsed. But how could defective levees have killed so many? I’m thinking about this tonight because of two conversations I had earlier today.

Dragging a ruined chair from my house out to the common trash heap on my street, I saw an elderly neighbor, a small and genteel woman whose house suffered even more damage than ours. A blue tarp is lashed across part of her roof, and her attic is exposed at one corner. During the last week, she’s overseen the gutting of her first floor; moldy furniture from the parlor airs in her yard. When I greeted her, she introduced me to her daughter, visiting from out of town.

In response to the daughter's sympathetic comments about what we’d been through, I offered the stock response everyone seems to use these days. Yes, it’s bad, but others lost more than we did. Gesturing to include my neighbor, I added, "At least we’re all alive."

The woman sighed. “Actually, my first husband is still missing,” she told me. “That’s one reason I’m down here. Our children have to give DNA samples.”

My hand was still on the chair I had hauled out into the street. I realized I was squeezing its discolored back. I know what to say to comfort people who express their dismay over what I have lost, but I still have no idea what words to offer those I meet who have lost more than just their property. I stammered how sorry I was, how I hoped it would turn out all right. She nodded.

Then a few hours later, I got my first haircut since the hurricane hit. Marsha and I go to the same stylist, an old friend, so we had waited to get our hair cut until we were back in town. We thought, like everyone else who works here, she might need the business. I mentioned the conversation I had had with my neighbor’s daughter.

Our friend told us one of her customers, just having returned to town, had been in a few days earlier very upset. On the way over, the woman had stopped by a small house she rented out to see how it had fared in the storm. When she pulled up in front of it, she saw the spray-painted red X that rescue teams left on every flooded home they searched. To the right was a zero with a slash through it: no survivors found. But at the bottom was a one: they had discovered a body there. Her tenant, an older woman, must have decided to try to ride out the storm, she surmised. The landlady was so distressed, she had already decided to sell the house. She couldn’t possibly keep it, knowing what had happened there, she had explained.

But how fast did the water come up, to kill so many? I wondered aloud.

In answer, our friend told us the story of how another customer, who lived not far from us, in Lakeview, had survived. After the hurricane had passed without much damage to the neighborhood, the woman and her husband decided to walk their dog during a break in the weather that afternoon. Because communications were out across the city, they did not know that the levees were collapsing. As they strolled down their street, they looked up and saw water rushing toward them. They picked up the dog and ran for their house. The water caught them as they got inside, so they crawled up into the attic. The water kept rising.

Managing to force their way out through the roof, they and their dog spent the rest of the day and that night clinging to their rooftop, the water lapping at the gutters. The next day, they caught the attention of a man in a small skiff out rescuing whomever he could find. When he objected to taking the dog, the woman refused to leave the roof. As they argued, the boater somehow slipped and fell into the water. His hipboots filled and dragged him under. The couple managed to save him, and in return he took them — along with the dog — to a dry interstate cloverleaf, where they waited for a bus to bring them to a shelter.

They lived near the 17th Street Canal, where a 200-foot section of the levee had given way, so the water reached them in daylight. If the flood had hit them in the dark while they slept, I realized as our friend repeated their story, they wouldn’t have stood a chance.

So I imagine that’s how they died, many of the drowned, trapped in a dark house or in a pitch-black attic, if they made it that far, as water rushed in from failed levees our government could not find the funds to strengthen.


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