"Why is this our problem?"
I say this to Cindy. My family and I have been in her home in Carencro, La., about 150 miles west of New Orleans, for a month now.
I say this to her when she brings up the matter of the various children in our evacuee household, trying to plan out the next day and just who was going to care for whom. I say this to her on the night of my 42nd birthday, a few hours after my wife, Tami, received the news that she's a top candidate for a job in another city. A job that might mean that we've already spent our last night together in New Orleans, the Friday before the storm.
I say this to Cindy just a day after she watched my own kids, comforted them in our absence so my wife and I could take our first trip into the city.
I say this after a month of living on FEMA allowances and on checks from family and friends, including the most recent gift -- an envelope with one hundred dollars from a retired couple who taught me in high school. "Dear Mike: Just a note to let you know we are thinking of you."
I say this and I regret it. More discussions and apologies will come later. Right now, it's late at night, when I usually start to dwell on the losses.
The news isn't about the losses anymore. It's all about the rebuild, about the new New Orleans. The unclaimed dead are still lying unrecognized in a makeshift morgue, but we're now talking about Mardi Gras and conventions and Super Bowls. Mayor Ray Nagin says he's tired of hearing helicopters, he wants to hear jazz. It's a necessary step forward. A city needs a timetable. The owners of my newspaper, Gambit Weekly, are talking about the comeback. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu announced a four-point plan titled "Rebirth: Restoring the Soul of America." It has to be this way. Things are stepping up.
The new New Orleans. No-bid contracts are passed around like casino chips while the streets outside are barely cleared of branches and bodies. My city of parades and poverty is about to see billions pass through it. Conservative city fathers now talk like social utopians, poised to re-engineer new schools and housing for all. Furniture stores are stocking new refrigerators. You have to start somewhere, right? There's going to be money in these streets. Halliburton stock is climbing.
For some -- even those who have lived for generations in New Orleans -- there's no going back. At the Cajundome in Lafayette, La., which has been turned into a shelter for New Orleans evacuees, I watched CNN with a 74-year-old woman who looked at the reports of the toxic gumbo that covered the city and uttered one word: "Horrendous." Everyone she knows is from New Orleans. "My people are all on the same boat," she told me. "I have to find me another boat."
Less than half the people in Houston shelters say they're going back, according to a Washington Post poll. A friend was standing in a Houston food stamp line, talking to a man who'd lived in our city's housing projects. He wasn't going back. "Death City," he called it.
Whenever we talk about going back to live, we always add a disclaimer: as long as it's not poison. As long as somebody besides George Bush's Environmental Protection Agency or the state of Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality shows us that it is safe for our children. That future headlines won't be about a mysterious Katrina Cough.
Wilma Subra is a New Iberia, La., chemist, a longtime environmental activist, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. "They're letting the people go in those residential areas where the air is bad," she told Lafayette's Independent Weekly. "This is a political response to people desperate to go in."
The Society of Environmental Journalists sued to make the EPA release information about just what chemicals are leaking out. The agency's preliminary report that some sediments may be contaminated with bacteria and fuel oil is not reassuring.
Yet on Sept. 15, Nagin announced the opening of New Orleans, zip code by zip code. There could be 180,000 of us heading into town to retrieve carloads of what we'd left behind. Even President George W. Bush warned that the environment was too risky.
Tami and I talk about it. We decide to go in and beat the rush.
The journey east on Interstate 10 is an eerily familiar drive through the suburbs. The first destroyed thing we see is a self-storage unit. It is blown apart, the exterior walls ripped off. Loose clothes, chairs, old TVs, bags of Mardi Gras beads -- it all cascades out of the units, twice-rejected.
The roads are fine and smooth. In some sections of town, it looks as if people are having yard sales. We drive closer and realize it is all broken furniture and heirlooms, hauled out and abandoned. It's hard to put all this together in your mind, what's ruined and what's fine. The city is misshapen.
The checkpoints are real checkpoints, with heavily armed guards, barricades, and mounds of dirt and gravel. But we had rehearsed our lines: Tami is a doctor. She wants to retrieve her medical equipment. That and her medical license are enough to get us waved through, we'd heard. Once in, we'd be free to conduct other missions.
We pass quickly through the recommended Metairie Road checkpoint. It's Mid-City. New Orleans. All roads open before us. We feel adrift, like tourists.
"Where do you want to go?" Tami asks.
"I don't know. City Park?"
It's a favorite spot. Each December, two million lights are hung from branches for the annual Celebration in the Oaks. It's where our kids learned to talk to Santa. In the Carousel Gardens amusement park, we'd ride the ladybug roller coaster as it wove though a canopy of ancient tree limbs.
We heard about oaks uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. Even heard stories about alligators and packs of coyotes running loose in the park. We thought we'd start there anyway. But the road to City Park goes past Delgado College. There, two large semi-trucks advertise Animal Planet. People mill about, leading dogs on leashes. It's the pet rescuers. We change our plans.
"We have a friend with a cat," I tell the National Guardsman who stops us. Our friend had left before anyone knew there'd be a full-scale evacuation, and she was sure the cat was dead by now. I kept thinking he wasn't. I didn't know what we'd do about this, until we saw the Animal Planet trucks.
The Guardsman takes me across the parking lot. Some people are sitting on folding chairs, eating sandwiches. I tell them about the cat. They recite a drill: get the address. Fill out a form. Get a number. The cat enters the system. Our friend can go to the town of Gonzales to retrieve the animal.
A new city of efficiency, this occupied New Orleans.
We drive on, checking off our planned stops. A gray dust covers Mid-City. It is fine like ash; the neighborhoods seem scorched, with a smell like an old marina.
Turning onto Bienville, we pass the Lindy Boggs Medical Center, where we gag from a smell that we don't attempt to identify. We speed up to reach the offices of Gambit Weekly, where I've served as editor for seven years. Three cars are in a nearby parking lot. Somebody else must be here. When we pull up next to the cars, we see they are covered with ash; back windows are blown out.
On the outside of the building is a brown line like a dirty bathtub ring, indicating that the office took in about two feet of water. We let ourselves in through the front door and slip through the dark hall. Mold is everywhere. It's splattered across the walls like splotches of dried blood after a mob hit. The air is thick with it.
Stepping through the offices without a flashlight, wearing shorts and sandals, we try not to touch the walls, try not to wipe out. This is not the way it should be done. I grab grocery bags and go to my office to fill them with pictures from my walls. The framed, autographed 45s of a zydeco king. The children's first drawings. The mold had crept up behind the pictures. Another day, and they'd be covered in it.
After about 10 minutes, Tami and I are both getting headaches. We're also starting to panic a little, for no real reason. I rifle through my desk, grab my business cards. I pull down framed pictures from co-workers' walls, enough to fill the car. Our heads are pounding. The place is really scaring us. I go back to my office one more time to grab a Harvey Pekar bobblehead off the shelf, and we take off.
We drive through our old neighborhood, where we'd lived the previous year. This section of town is called Broadmoor, but the nickname is Floodmore, because it's known to be at the bottom of the bowl. We knew it had been hit hard -- we heard that an old neighbor escaped by paddling a kiddy pool to a suburban shopping mall. We drive through the fallen branches, looking at our friends' wasted homes. You don't hear about Floodmore, but it's as bad as the Lower Ninth Ward, as Lakeview. I think about our old neighbor's garden, how he'd be out there every day with his silly straw hat.
A woman wearing a tank top and rainbow-striped boots moves furniture to the curb. Her cat had been living on rooftops and fences. She couldn't coax it back to her. Now, it's missing.
A few blocks away, we pull up to the apartment where our friend left her cat. I decide to try the door. It's open. I look nervously up the street. I'd been told -- seriously -- that even white guys in wire-rimmed glasses and sandals can get roughed up for looting.
My old protections might not work anymore.
It's clear and we go in. Tami and I make our way to the upstairs apartment. We push open a screen window and climb onto the porch roof. Tami looks inside. An orange cat is walking around the living room. Tami calls out the way she always talks to kitties, in a high-pitched voice: "Hellooo! Hellooo!"
We remove some glass windowpanes and crawl in. The cat dashes to the back bedroom. There's an empty animal carrier and some food; we'd brought in a gallon of water. I start to open a can of tuna. The cat scoots from under the bed to a closet. I watch Tami, who's unofficially put herself in charge of this mission. She reaches into the closet, still talking in her high-pitched voice.
Then I hear a snarling sound unlike anything I've ever heard before. There's a flurry of orange fur.
"Shit!" Tami shouts. "That was stupid!"
Our day in New Orleans. It's different now. We stop home and grab some clothes. Our kids had written out a list of what they wanted: Spiderman pillow, stuffed dolphin. But Tami can't carry anything. Her arm is starting to swell around the two puncture marks where the cat sank its teeth. We barely comment on how the house isn't touched by the storm.
We are driving through the checkpoints of occupied New Orleans, seeking antibiotics. Ochsner Hospital's drug store is closed -- a nurse directs us to a store in Metairie. Then we stop back at Animal Planet. A completely different crew is there. Nobody knows anything about Gonzales; there are no forms to fill out. As I try to explain the system to a woman dressed in khaki, she sees Tami's arm. She stares directly at me. "You take care of each other," she says. She stares a moment longer. Then she lifts a walkie-talkie to her mouth. "We have an incident," she says. She sends Tami to the back of the college.
We're now walking through a large Oregon National Guard unit, past rows of cots covered in Playboy magazines, between flats of Gatorade. A medic named Mark is positioned at a table in a hallway; he dresses the wound and gives Tami stronger antibiotics. We hear about people who are needing surgery after these cat bites.
We have to leave the cat behind with extra food and water. By now, it's past the 6 p.m. curfew. The checkpoint guards start to question us more diligently. The line about picking up medical equipment seems to have expired. One guard tells us that we better just say that Tami is returning from active doctor work. As he gives us this advice, she is sitting next to me in ash-covered shorts and a T-shirt, elevating a bandaged arm. Somehow we make it out.
When I was waiting for Tami at Ochsner, I witnessed a little scene around the waiting-room television. Members of a volunteer search-and-rescue team from Missouri were watching the local news. Mayor Nagin was talking about his invitation to 180,000 New Orleanians to return to the city. As Nagin talked, one uniformed man buried his head in his hands. I know why. He was thinking about this city being filled with 180,000 people like me.
The talk is of the rebuild -- but we're just now taking our first inventories, measuring what's gone.
Late one night, the door opens. My friend Keith is here to spend the night, en route from New Orleans to Houston. He'd been to his family home in New Orleans East, where his father has been living alone. Keith and his brothers all moved out long ago; Keith's mom died of cancer. The house is now among those that will be leveled to the ground, one of the 60,000 that Nagin says are beyond repair.
Keith is cradling a shallow, plastic container. Floating in a solution of vinegar and water are the only items he'd salvaged -- his mother's wedding gloves, and a lace handkerchief that she had inherited from her mother. He spends the night at the sink, gently rubbing out tiny spots of mold. He goes to sleep and is gone before I awake.
Mayor Nagin has to delay re-opening the city. Federal officials are telling him to slow down -- and then Hurricane Rita appears. As those rains start to fall in Lafayette, I stop by a shelter at Progressive Baptist Church. Inside, everyone is busy, getting ready for the likely loss of electricity. A church member is chopping hard-boiled eggs; she'll be putting chicken salad on ice.
Currently, about 150 people from the New Orleans area are here. The newest arrivals are set up in cots in the fellowship hall, where a large-screen TV carries the news of Rita, with live images of water flowing back into the Lower Ninth Ward.
Shannon Jordan is here with her family. Her mom had purchased the family home in 1965, following Hurricane Betsy. It's on Choctaw Street in the Lower Nine. The water is past your head. Her brother is a civil sheriff and he's in New Orleans, but he can't get to Choctaw.
The extended family is here at Progressive Baptist, including kids ranging from 6 years old on up to Shannon's son, who's a senior in high school and is now working his first job ever, at McDonald's. Shannon's brother, Quentrell, moves in and out of the conversation. He tells me that the kids are looking at the adults to make sure they're strong. There are some chairs set up under a tree outside. That's where the adults go when they're not feeling so strong. "We'll sit in the mornings; we'll sit there late at night," Quentrell says.
We talk about home. The family has a Mardi Gras tradition of taking their cars to where Galvez meets Canal street. They form a little square with the cars and set up a grill inside. They wear their Mardi Gras shirts and top hats and sunglasses, and they wait there for the Zulu parade.
The kids are all living in different neighborhoods, but every Sunday they return to the home in the Lower Nine. Shannon and Quentrell's mom cooks for everyone. The little pot she uses never runs empty. When they were growing up in that house, they'd put powder on the floor and slide around in their stockinged feet. "That was the home everyone was drawn to," Shannon says.
There are photos and dolls in that house she'd love to see again. A brown salt-and-pepper shaker set that her brother gave her mom. The brother died a few years back.
The family has a new rule: They don't let anyone be alone. Shannon keeps her mom especially busy. They drive her son to the McDonald's job together, just to take the ride. Her mom is 72 years old. The house is paid for. "She'll say, 'Oh, I have a home down there. Oh, I don't have it any more,'" Shannon says.
The cars that form the family square at Mardi Gras are now all parked outside this church shelter. The waters are back in the Ninth Ward, but Shannon says she hasn't told her mom yet. She predicts they'll all go back to live in New Orleans. If they'd seen the dead bodies, maybe they wouldn't. But right now, they're planning to return. Shannon is a reservationist at the Windsor Court Hotel; she still has a job.
Talking to her, I start to feel more hopeful for the new New Orleans.
"My mother's pretty subdued now," Shannon says. "When she goes in and sees, that's when the emotions will come. So I'm going to just take her in with me. We're going to build from there."