Burned warehouses near the Mississippi River in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood. Photo by David Rae Morris
Burned warehouses near the Mississippi River in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood. Photo by David Rae Morris

Back to New Orleans

by John Biguenet

 

Editor’s Note: On August 28, the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, John Biguenet, a survivor of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and all those since, left New Orleans. It was the first time he left the city to escape a storm. In his journal he recounted his exile and return.

Oct. 4, 2005

Salt

According to the Bible, though she had been commanded not to, Lot’s wife looked back to glimpse the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned into a pillar of salt for her disobedience. But how could she have not looked back? She was a mother who, like all mothers, had spent most of her life checking over her shoulder to see that the children trailing after her were safe. A habit like that dies hard.

Water, not fire, destroyed New Orleans. But my wife and I are still struggling with the same temptation to look back. In the days after Hurricane Katrina struck, having taken refuge at my brother’s house in Dallas, we couldn’t turn the television off. We found it impossible to avert our eyes from the scenes of suffering as our fel­low New Orleanians clambered out of the floodwaters onto rooftops or dry ground. We stared at city landmarks we recognized jutting from water six feet deep around them. We leaned back in disbelief at official estimates of the scope of the catastrophe. And when the television networks began to repeat their reports and video footage, we scoured the Internet for satellite views of the flooding of our neighborhood, Lake Vista, for photographs of our street, for postings on local message boards about whether our house was under water.

The shock from what we learned on the screens of our TV and our computer was deepened by our vivid memo­ries of the city. Every image of devastation was shadowed by how we knew it had looked just a few days before. A television correspondent, for example, led a film crew to her family’s home on Pauger Street. Wrecked by the storm and already furry with mold in spots, the house was unin­habitable. Finding her cousin’s ruined paintings in a back room, the young woman started to weep.

I knew the house. It was on the same street as my grand­mother’s had been, an old shotgun in which my family had ridden out Hurricane Betsy in 1965. In fact, years before that, I had been taken after my birth at the Touro Infirmary to the tiny apartment above my grandparents’ garage there, where we lived for six months while my father, a carpenter, built our first house. One way or another, everything I saw in the aftermath of Katrina was personal.

In those first few days at my brother’s house, the double vision from which we suffered — of the present overlaid on a past continually bleeding through — kept us from seeing the future. Though the image before us on the screen showed our street deep with water, what even more strong­ly asserted itself in our imaginations was the sturdy fence around our yard as if it had not been blown down, the lush garden leading to our door as if it were not submerged, the scent of garlic sauteing in olive oil on the stove as if one of us were home preparing dinner. While we continued to make plans to return to New Orleans, my brother gently suggested that we would be welcome to stay with him in Dallas as long as we needed.

Just as the filthy flood had topped our roses and camel­lias, our azaleas and day lilies, the present eventually swamped the past. For me, it happened the morning that I learned Loyola University, where I teach, had cancelled its fall semester. About the same time, the school where my wife serves as principal of its elementary division made a similar decision. Everything that had happened finally began to — so to speak — sink in. We had neither a home nor jobs to return to, at least for the present.

We began to understand that we ourselves might not turn to salt, but by looking back, we were turning the past into salt for the raw wound of the present. That’s when we stopped watching television and searching the Internet for scraps of information about New Orleans. That’s when we decided to drive north toward our daughter’s home outside New York and whatever future was in store for us.

Oct. 5, 2005

Everything’s on Loan

We didn’t know that we were both mulling the same feelings, but my wife and I admitted to each other a few nights ago that we don’t want to go back to the way we used to live before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Not that our lives were unfulfilling; in fact, Marsha and I found our work deeply satisfying, and our marriage and family life couldn’t have been any happier. But the hurricane, in turning our world upside down, has awakened in us a real­ization that might have slumbered undisturbed for the rest of our lives.

Like others, we were always quick to acknowledge that nothing lasts. We knew things that pleased us would crack and shatter, stray and disappear. Pleasant routines would grow tiresome. Friendships would sometimes fray. And we’re old enough to have lost people whom we loved; we thought we had grasped the lesson of that grief.

So when our house filled with muddy water, we dis­missed as simply stuff, and nothing more, the books we lost, the paintings, the recipes, the sofa we had saved to buy, the old vinyl records collected years ago, the comfortable coats in the hall closet, the furniture we’d chosen piece by piece, the tablecloth Marsha’s grandmother had crocheted us as a wedding gift. It wasn’t easy. Each time another thing we’d lost to the flood occurred to us, we’d flinch inside. But with nearly a thousand New Orleanians dead after the storm, how could we justify much sorrow over mere stuff?

It wasn’t the loss, then, so much as the lesson the loss emphatically taught that made us ask whether we’d simply reconstruct, if we could, the life we used to have before the storm, or whether we’d change, in fundamental ways, the kind of life we’d lead from this point on. If it turned out that our house had to come down after sitting for weeks in four or five feet of water, would we rebuild where it stood in our quiet neighborhood or move into another part of town, perhaps the French Quarter? And if that could change, then why not reconsider the habits of our lives ­— the round of jobs and tasks, films and favorite restaurants — that filled our weeks? I suppose it comes down to a fair­ly simple decision: should we rebuild the life we had or start from scratch.

The one thing of which we are sure is that we want to return to New Orleans. We want to help our schools reopen, help our city rebuild. Beyond that, though, it’s all a question mark.

We know now, in a way we couldn’t have known with­out losing so many of the things we owned, that possession is an illusion. Everything’s on loan. As for security, we know just a few hours of rain and wind can leave your life in shambles. It will be harder from now on to take things for granted because we know that even a city — imagine, a whole city — can be extinguished in a single summer morning. So we have changed. I don’t think I will ever close a door behind me again without wondering: Last time?

We used to live as if our lives drifted on a river that rolled on forever, but now we’ve heard the falls ahead. To us, the roar sounds louder than it did just a few weeks ago. Perhaps that’s why we think it’s finally time to swim against the current.

Oct. 7, 2005

Tracking the Beast Backwards

We were impatient to get on the road. After five weeks staying with relatives, Marsha and I wanted to get home, though we knew our house in New Orleans was probably uninhabitable. Our insurance company had called our daughter’s home in New Jersey to tell us that the two cars we had left behind in our garage when we fled Hurricane Katrina would be declared total losses without an adjusters report required. If an insurance company was willing to payoff a claim without an inspection based simply upon our address, we knew our house had sustained major damage.

We had covered over a thousand miles in two days of driving back to New Orleans when we first noticed them in Alabama, doublewide mobile homes on the interstate trav­eling south with us. There were so many, we lost count as we passed the slower moving trailers, each with a simple sign taped to a rear window: FEMA. They were the first trace of the hurricane we had seen.

In the late afternoon, taking I-59 south out of Meridian, Mississippi, we saw a road sign that pointed the way to New Orleans, and I felt the surge of elation coming home always inspires in me. But almost immediately, we also saw evidence of the storm littering both sides of the highway. About 10 percent of the slender pine trees lining the inter­state were snapped in two 10 or 12 feet up. On the right, the broken trunks had fallen into the forest; on the left, dead treetops fringed the edge of the highway. Every bro­ken tree had toppled toward the west. The battering wind that had decimated the woods had spun out of the east, the counterclockwise wind of an advancing hurricane.

With the light thickening into early evening as we drove farther south, it seemed at first an optical illusion, the bowing toward the falling sun of the trees still standing on either side of the road. By now perhaps a third of the trees were snapped in half, always falling westward. Then, we passed a steel sign crumpled like a wad of green paper beside the interstate: New Orleans 98. We were less than 100 miles from home.

From that point on, we couldn’t read any of the signs along the highway; everyone was doubled over backwards on its steel legs from the wind. Now half the pines were down, their needles rusting on the ground. We felt as if we were following the trail left by some terrible beast back to where its rampage had begun.

With the twin bridges of 1-10 across Lake Pontchartrain both having been smashed by the hurricane, we had to fol­low 1-12 along its northern shore to the 24-mile causeway that crosses the lake into Jefferson Parish, which adjoins New Orleans. This was the same bridge we had been forced to use the day we evacuated because the other routes out of the city were already jammed. That morning we had been nervous, crossing the open water of the chop­py lake that would flood our house two days later after a levee had collapsed. Coming home in the dark across the long bridge, we were too exhausted to be nervous about the uncertain future that awaited us in the unlit city we could barely make out on the south shore.

Up ahead on the interstate into New Orleans, gigantic spotlights seemed to hover over the roadway. As we slowed, we saw a contingent of police manning a check­point barricading the highway. It was after 8 o’clock; the curfew was in effect, and the city was closed for the night. Diverted from the interstate, we followed a back street lit­tered with cracked pieces of sheetrock and shattered branches. Heaps of ruined carpets and mattresses and fur­niture and toys spilled from sidewalks into the gutters. Every house was sprayed with a red X; in each quadrant, a number reported what a search team had found: how many survivors on the right, how many bodies at the bottom.

We had been unable to find an apartment to rent by phone; a FEMA representative told us the nearest available rentals were in Mobile, Alabama. But a friend located a tiny apartment attached to the back of a daycare center that we could use until the end of the month.

We unloaded the car, found a bag of pretzels in the day­care center, and opened a going-away present from our Danish son-in-law, a bottle of Larsen’s brandy (Le Cognac des Vikings, according to the label). Marsha and I sank down on children’s chairs around a table 18 inches high, nibbling pretzels for our dinner and savoring cognac in red plastic cups. In the morning, we would see what the hurri­cane had done to our house.

But after five weeks away, we were nearly home.

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 80s 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. 20, 2005

Hot Water

As it would have been described when I was a child, we are living in reduced circumstances. Marsha and I have moved from our three-bedroom home on the lakefront to a three-room house near the river in uptown New Orleans.

Actually, in the seven weeks or so since Hurricane Katrina came ashore, what we’ve done most of all is move. The day before the storm hit, without a hotel room avail­able anywhere in Louisiana or Mississippi, we drove 600 miles to my brother’s place in Dallas. Then, after a week there, we wedged the two cats beside our son in the back­seat of our VW Beetle and traveled 1,600 miles to our daughter’s home near New York. Finally, two weeks ago, we returned to New Orleans, completing a circuit of rough­ly 3,500 miles. Since our house was uninhabitable after sit­ting flooded for three weeks, Marsha and I moved into the back of a daycare center after our search for a place to rent had turned up nothing. Unfortunately, because of the hurri­cane, the center still has no hot water, so each evening when we returned from the filthy work of hauling our ruined possessions out to the street, we had to take cold showers.

Thanks, though, to a kind real-estate agent with nothing to show us in our price range but who remembered his cousin had half of a shotgun double available, we now have hot water — surrounded by a charming little house. With wooden-bladed fans hanging from fourteen-foot ceilings, low doorknobs, a cozy patio in the back, and a floor-to-ceil­ing window to the front porch with working shutters, it couldn’t be a more traditional New Orleans home.

Our side of the double is small, but the furniture we sal­vaged from our second story doesn’t quite fill the place. We’re using what was my daughter’s high-school desk as the table in our kitchen/dining room. I’m writing this column on the other student desk from our son’s old room. Our bed — after air­ing — was fine. And, of course, we brought all the upstairs bookcases and what artwork survived.

With water still sloshing inside our TV set, we thought about living without television, but Hurricane Wilma, currently churning through the Caribbean, convinced us we needed a TV at least to keep track of the weather; we found one on sale yesterday. My collec­tion of vinyl records and our sound system are gone, but we’ve hooked up our iPod to two small speakers. So at the moment, I’m listening to Aretha Franklin insist that I make her feel like a natural woman.

A friend lent us some pots, and Marsha has developed a meticulous method for cleaning our plates and glasses that weren’t submerged in the floodwater in our kitchen. Friday night, we’ll host our first dinner party here, probably on the patio by candlelight, for a few of the friends who have been feeding us regularly since we returned to New Orleans.

We’ve got music, food, a cool breeze off the river, and hot water at the end of the day. At least this morning, life’s good.

Oct. 24, 2005

Pulp Fiction

I had always thought that when you lose everything, the irreplaceable mementoes of life must be the hardest to part with. And dredged up from the muck left by the receding flood, such things, ruined beyond repair, do wound me ­the spontaneous gift of a beautiful bowl bestowed for no reason one evening by a friend now long dead, the self-por­trait with green teeth by a second-grader now grown into his 20s, the battered music box that served as the first token of a love that has outlasted more than just this most recent disaster. But I could not have guessed that of all the things lost in the flood, my mold-encrusted books would weigh so heavily upon me.

When I kicked open my door the first time we returned to our house after the hurricane, what caught my eye was not the heavy sofa that had floated across the living room to totter upon the stairs, nor even the veil of mold that shrouded every surface. What I fixed upon was the copy of Mary Reilly my friend Valerie Martin had autographed for me that now lay at my feet, its pages black and water­logged. The novel had been shelved at the top of the book­case with other prized volumes by admired writers; I real­ized immediately that sometime during the three weeks my house had remained flooded four feet deep, the bookcase had pitched forward into the water.

So I knew the soggy pile of books sprawled across the floor and discolored by the mold must include the whole set of Janette Turner Hospital’s stories and novels I had been reading my way through this past summer, the collec­tion of poetry John Balaban had insisted I take as a gift at a conference we both attended, the inscribed copy of Helen Scully’s first novel, the volumes by Angela Carter I had found here and there over 20 years, the boxed set of Tolstoy’s diaries I’d requested in place of a fee for a favor I had done a publisher, novels by Tim Gautreaux and Tom Franklin and Steve Stern and Ha Jin, Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Chekhov’s letters, Edith Grossman’s new translation of Don Quixote. Though I was surrounded by tens of thousands of dollars of damage, what pierced my heart was the swollen paperback of The Tain, the Irish epic, which Marsha and I had discovered in a British book­shop on our first trip to Europe 30 years ago.

The ruined books, heavy with water and slippery with mold, clung to one another. It was difficult work, lifting them into a garbage can to haul to the curb, then flinging them, often one by one, onto the common trash hill my neighbors and I have built. In fact, the ribs on my left side are still tender from the effort to finish the job this past weekend.

I keep reminding myself it’s foolish to regret a lost book. All but a few of those I’ve thrown away are probably avail­able in new editions, in a library, in a used-book shop somewhere. And a book is just a temporary transition, after all, between two minds, the writer’s and the reader’s. So what have I lost, really?

But each book had its own story of how it had come to rest on one of my shelves. The Tain and the other volumes we found on that first trip to Europe came home in Marsha’s yellow suitcase, the one we emptied of clothes as we traveled to make more room for books unavailable in those days in the States. The American Merchant Seaman’s Manual had been my father’s. The thin volume of poems by grammar-school students, including the first poem ever published by a promising young versifier named Wystan Hugh Auden, was the very touching gift of an organization I had served that knew of my love for his later poetry. Now nothing but pulp, they have a new story to tell me of how quickly things pass. (And, of course, my own books rotting among the work of so many other writers have their own lesson to teach me about the glory of this world.)

One of the books I lost was The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Her villanelle, “One Art,” repeats a line I’ve learned is true: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

But she insists, over and over again, it’s never really a “dis­aster.” I know she’s right about that, too — though surrounded by my past, corrupting page by page, I find it a difficult truth to accept.

Oct. 27, 2005

Two Cities

When the levees crumbled in New Orleans, the flood that inundated the city and killed hundreds left some neighborhoods untouched and others ruined. As the dry sections have sprung back to life — like the Louisiana irises and other marsh plants that are turning parts of the city green again — the traces of Hurricane Katrina are quickly disappearing. Residents have returned, streets are crowded with traffic, and restaurants are jammed.

But along the lakefront, in the Lower Ninth Ward, and across New Orleans East, a curfew remains in effect from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. Abandoned cars strew the roads. Shattered windows gape unrepaired from walls stained white by the salty flood. Roofs are still pierced with the holes punched out by families trapped in their attics by ris­ing water. Each house continues to announce in blue paint the grim tally of the living and the dead found by rescue teams after the water subsided. And everything is glazed with dust as gray as ash — all the color has been drained from these once vibrant neighborhoods.

So New Orleans has become two cities. The French Quarter, the Garden District, the university section, the business district, the West Bank will soon be as beautiful as ever, throbbing with the intense life we live down here. But the areas devastated by the flooding are another city, a ghost town.

My day swings back and forth between these two places. Now that Marsha and I have found a place to rent in Uptown New Orleans, we spend our mornings and nights amid the bustle of a reborn city. But the rest of the day, we rip sheetrock and insulation from our flooded home as we, quite literally, gut it.

You have to be here to grasp how much New Orleans has accomplished in the two months since defective levees collapsed and drowned the city — and how much remains to be done.

Nov. 1, 2005

Defend New Orleans

Saturday night, Marsha and I attended a Nine Inch Nails tribute concert for relief and emergency workers as part of the Voodoo Music Experience, an annual New Orleans festival. The concert was held on the banks of the Mississippi River in weather that turned crisp after darkness fell. Earlier, as the setting sun silhouetted tankers and con­tainer ships gliding down the river toward the Gulf, we had been entranced by Worms Union, a local punk drum ensemble, one of whose members wore the most commonly ­seen T-shirt at the festival. It featured, just above a musket, a skull emblazoned with a fleur-de-lis; circling the skull and gun was a simple message: “Defend New Orleans.”

If there’s anything left for me to say after my 15 columns and videos this past month about my hometown, it’s to echo that plea: Defend New Orleans.

The city is in jeopardy. At dinner last night, a knowl­edgeable historian and friend, who has been trying to get a fix on the actual population of New Orleans today, told me that the estimate he keeps hearing is 150,000 people during the day and only 50,000 at night. That means, if those num­bers are accurate, the city has a resident population only one-tenth its size before Hurricane Katrina hit two months ago.

Many have compared the tragedy here to the events of 9/11, but as terrible as that day was for America and the families that lost loved ones, it resulted in the closing of a neighborhood in New York and a building in Washington. My son, then a student at Columbia University, was back in class a few days later. The collapse of defective levees here, on the other hand, led to the forced evacuation of an entire city. Our universities will not open again until January. Basic governmental services are still being restored two months later. Much of the population is homeless and either jobless or without salaries. What happened in New Orleans is a catastrophe of so large a scale, it is difficult to comprehend the extent of the upheaval.

As has now been widely documented, all this suffering was engendered by the incompetence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As an engineer on an LSU team researching the collapse of the city’s levees concluded, the levee design the corps chose to use “could never work.” But having lost our houses, cars, jobs, and possessions to a needless flood for which a government agency bears responsibility, we now face an administration ideologically opposed to the use of government to serve the public good. The grandiose promises of reconstruction aid made by President Bush before St. Louis Cathedral in a dramatically lit nighttime speech to the nation turn out to have been nothing more than lies by a weakened politician. It is now expected that what aid we get will be funds redirected from existing poverty programs, and unlike any other fed­eral disaster aid in history, we will be made to pay it all back.

—–

John Biguenet is a native of New Orleans, where his family has lived since the 18th century. His books include The Torturer’s Apprentice: Stories, and Oyster, a novel. His trilogy of plays about Hurricane Katrina — Rising Water, Shotgun, and Mold — all debuted in New Orleans. He is currently the Robert Hunter Distinguished Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. This series of observations originally appeared in Times Select. Excerpted with permission.

For more information, visit the author’s website: www.biguenet.com.

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