[Original post: December 9, 2005]
We're back in New Orleans, living among the rubble and trailers, driving along streets still lined with junk and debris, passing military vehicles, or trucks laden with ladders and wood. It's a (re)construction zone in which many things are still not working (including numerous stop lights and street lights). The street car track is still a dumping ground, decorated with handmade signs announcing businesses that have opened or moved, or advertising mold removal/building services/electrical inspection.
The first few days back were quite depressing, because we had no electricity, gas or phone service in our place. We've been camping out in the spare room at a friend's house, but after more than three months of relying on the tremendous hospitality and patience of other people, we're eager to get home - like everyone else, pretty much. (And at least we live somewhere that's still standing.) The mood in the city ranges from optimistic to defiant to disbelieving to angry to despairing. People with somewhere to work and somewhere to live, even if those places are new to them or temporary, are trying their best to get back to normal, though it's not clear here what normal is anymore.
There are numerous ironies and irritations to keep us busy: receiving a disconnection notice from MCI, for example, because we haven't paid our bill since the hurricane. We've had no phone service since then, either, but a call to MCI (from somone else's phone) to remind them of this fact was necessary, complete with more than half an hour on hold. We now have a firm commitment - wait for it - that we'll have phone service again by February 28, 2006, at 8 PM. This is good news, because I was hoping to make a call at 9 PM that evening. Thanks, Bell South! Thanks for your stellar customer service, MCI!*
Entergy had also sent us a bill for estimated gas and electricity usage over the last three months. You'd think that this estimate might read ZERO, considering we've had no gas or electricity in this time. But no - it's about $60. It's amazing how much energy you can use when nothing is connected and your neighborhood is in total darkness. So, of course, this meant more time on someone else's phone, calling Entergy to ask them to stop sending bills and start sending trucks. The good news: our gas was turned on this Wednesday, after I agreed to get to the house at 7 am and wait, in the cold and gloom, for someone to show up. He did, at 9 AM (bless him). I've never been so happy to see the burners on the stove light up. And, after more hectoring phone calls and the very welcome intervention of the Entergy gas worker ("Y'all haven't had power since the storm? All they need to do is flick that switch up there"), our electricity returned on Thursday.
Now our house is a little beacon of light in a trashed, still-empty neighborhood. We're moving back today, and hopefully will get a new fridge tomorrow. During the day, workers tear out the insides of houses nearby; at night, the only lights shine from a couple of FEMA trailers parked outside houses and from our little porch. The two schools by us - McMain and Ursuline - are supposed to open in the new year, but until then the only sounds are hammers, drills, and the crash of wood landing on piles in the street. Cartier, our mailman, visits every day. He lost his house, but is rebuilding - he'll be able to move back in the summer. He evacuated to Alabama and then Houston, and right now he's staying with his sister in Algiers.
There's bad news from Tulane. Of course, the local media is fixated on cuts in sports programs rather than the more drastic academic and administrative changes. I still have a job, it seems, and those of us still employed will be allowed back into our offices soon. Somewhere to use the phone, at least.
My six weeks in New Zealand seem very dream-like right now. Just before I left, Hibiscus Coast was optioned by a film company. Or was it? I'm not sure of anything anymore.
*Our gas went off again on Christmas Eve, which meant we couldn't wash or cook. We did not get phone service back until April 2006.
[Original post: October 25, 2005]
We're in Auckland right now (my home town) enjoying the spring weather and, of course, getting the obligatory return-to-Auckland cold.
Tonight is the launch party for Hibiscus Coast (at Starkwhite Gallery, 510 Karangahape Road, in case anyone is passing), so I'm in a state of ridiculous anxiety, mainly about the catering arrangements. The theme is apparently confused pan-Asian, so we have Indian and Japanese food, with Chinese decorations.
We heard from Paul, our landlord in New Orleans, the other day: still no electricity or gas at our place. The neighborhood is very quiet, he says, and it seems few people are trying to move back completely right now. Maple Street Books* is open for business again (TM talked to Rhoda yesterday) but customers are still scarce.
I'm sorry we didn't make it back up to Iowa City before we flew out to New Zealand: we left earlier than planned. We're coming back to the US at the end of November.
The book is doing well here so far, and I have been boring my fellow New Zealanders to death talking about myself in various media outlets. Those of you who know me well will realize what a hardship this is for all concerned.
*Maple Street Books was TM's employer at the time. He ended up going back to New Orleans in late November, a week before I returned, because he needed to start work (and start getting paid) again. Our house was uninhabitable, so he stayed at the empty home of some friends, Richelle and William.
[Original post: October 4, 2005]
I thought those of you who sent Target gift cards might want to know how the money was spent. (Don’t worry: I have not decked myself out in head-to-toe Isaac Mizrahi, accessorized with blue-handled Michael Graves kitchen implements.)
Yesterday we drove to the Garan shelter in Marksville to find out what was needed this week, but the shelter had closed the day before. Shelters are consolidating right now, so the evacuees still living there have been dispatched to nearby faux-metropolis Alexandria. Most are staying in the Riverfront Center, which faces the giant levee of the Red River. This is a conference facility that housed 425 evacuees on Sunday; the number went down on Monday as some people moved out, with another 150 new arrivals expected that night. The Red Cross volunteers told us that as more shelters close, they expect to reach their capacity of 850 pretty soon.
It’s a better environment that Garan – i.e. not a factory – but people are still sleeping in a communal room filled with cots and borrowed belongings. The mealtime schedule, posted on a piece of cardboard, includes a special early breakfast for school children. Most people there look bored, or stunned, or simply exhausted. I’ve felt anxious and grumpy enough this month staying at Slowness. If I had to sleep every night in a huge room full of strangers, using communal bathrooms, told when I can eat, standing in line whenever I need to get diapers or tampons or toilet paper, and checked in and out of the building by the National Guard, I’d be more than miserable. Many of these evacuees will not be able to go home for months. Many have nothing to go home to.
For the Garan shelter, we bought five giant bottles of laundry detergent for use in the sole communal washing machine, and one hundred towels.
For the Alexandria shelter, after talking yesterday to the young Red Cross people at the front desk, we bought: a DVD player, a microwave oven, two basketballs, two footballs, two (Halloween-themed) play balls, two long jump ropes, a pump, ten extension cords, four big packs of AA batteries, five towels and, with the leftover money, two big packs of Halloween candy.
As you can tell by the second shopping list, boredom is a major factor there, especially for kids.
All of these things were appreciated so much at the shelters: everything will be put to good use. The volunteer who took the towels from us was nearly skipping with happiness, because that was a dire need at Garan. I’m really, really grateful to those of you who sent Target cards. Thank you so much.
[Original post: October 2, 2005]
I've been trying to post a picture of our house in New Orleans: if I manage it, eventually, the pile outside is the flood-damaged things we removed from the ground floor, along with our stinking, maggot-infested fridge. The only things we could salvage fit into a small laundry basket. Everything else of economic and sentimental value – from bicycles to washing machine to spare bed to old letters to writing desk to shoes to ironing board to toolbox to Tom’s high school yearbooks – is ruined.
We drove in on Thursday and stayed until Saturday afternoon, staying with Joy and Paul, our landlords. They live in Metairie, the big suburb to the west in Jefferson Parish (where there are functioning stop lights and no curfew). The city is a wreck. Hurricane damage is evident everywhere – trees and power lines down, roofs and walls ripped off, billboards destroyed. Parts of Airline Highway are still impassable. Along Claiborne Avenue, which is a major artery stretching from Carrollton to the CBD and beyond, you can see damage from the hurricane, from looting and vandalism, and from the flood. It looks like Viking hordes have swept through, inflicting as much destruction as possible.
It’s not easy driving around our neighborhood, between the piles of sodden carpet and furniture dumped along the sidewalk and spilling onto the street, the stolen cars left smashed and discarded, and the crews trying to move uprooted trees, branches and other debris from the road.
And then there’s the smell – brackish water, oil, sewage and rotting garbage. We wore masks and got through a box of disposable gloves. The smell and texture of the sludgy mess in our basement is absolutely foul. It’s hard not to gag. It’s hard not to get upset, as well, throwing everything away.
We have no electricity and no phone line (it’s our MCI service picking up messages, for those of you who call and get excited); the water can’t be used for drinking or bathing. Two National Guard vehicles drove by on Saturday when Paul was downstairs, ripping out paneling. The whole city is crawling with uniforms.
Slim Goodies on Magazine Street is serving cheeseburgers and fries on paper plates. In Jefferson Parish, Morning Call is serving beignets and coffee. Target is open, though it’s not accepting food stamps. And down in the Quarter – now a military zone, but with electricity and a jovial atmosphere – Russell got power back and opened up Arcadian Books. (We stopped by to say hello, and on the way out saw Mari Kornhauser, busy making a documentary.)
People are coming in to clean up, but not everyone is staying. New Orleans needs its residents back to help with the clean-up, staff open businesses and persuade more businesses to re-open, but large parts of the city are still not inhabitable. We’re back in Avoyelles Parish now, with the sugar cane and the mosquitoes, trying to forget the smell.
Arcadian Books - blurry but open. The next picture is the back of St Louis Cathedral, facing Royal Street. The storm broke Jesus' hand.
Clean-up had already begun in the Quarter.
Canal Street (below). All the Canal Street streetcars were flooded.
In the CBD:
[Original post: September 27, 2005]
Hurricane Rita has passed and our power and water have returned, along with the infernal heat and another surge of never-say-die love bugs.
We didn't realize how bad the weather would get here in Marksville, possibly because I've never been on the eastern (stronger) side of a hurricane before. On Saturday morning, when the power and water
disappeared, it seemed like we'd all spend the day sitting around, watching the rain, reading and napping. There were various breaks in the rain, too, during which Claude the dog ran around outside, and I sloshed across the garden in Rodney's rain boots to re-fill the birdhouse and collect various blown objects from the sodden grass.
Throughout the morning we had sporadic bursts of wind and driving rain. Sometimes the sky looked bright: birds flew between strands of trees, and pick-ups hissed along the wet Bluetown Road. But then the rain would return with a blast; at times it was almost horizontal. The pond filled to its grassy brim. Rain drumming down on the tin roof was loud enough to drown out conversation. This is an old house, and gusts of wind made it flinch and shiver.
Just after two, Claude - who had been scampering outside - turned up at the laundry door, begging for re-admittance. And then the house really started shaking, the wind a piercing whistle, an onslaught of rain drenching the floor of the screened porch and blowing dirt and insect debris into the house. Wind bent the trees, and rain leaked into the house under windows and doors. The house felt like it was rocking on its foundations, drilled by the wind. Flashing on the front porch, shaken loose, banged incessantly. ("I don't like this at all," I wrote in my notebook.) We were all a little scared.
When the worst of it passed, the garden looked flattened and bedraggled. The bird house I had filled earlier was now six feet higher in the tree (and completely empty). Claude's house was upside down. The swing seat on the front porch, unhooked earlier, had sailed away into the yard.
Through old-fashioned methods of communication (i.e. an old phone that doesn't require electricity), Paige called from storm-free Alabama to tell us a nasty band of weather had just passed over us, with winds up to 75 mph. After a lull of about forty minutes, another band arrived (driving rain, mean wind), and then another more than an hour later. These weren't as bad, although the second brought down the trellis, thick with vines, on the porch.
That night, driving into Marksville to have a shower at Rudy's house and watch the local TV news (he had water and intermittent electricity but no cable), we saw how lucky we were: many people had big trees down. The streets were a mess, with branches everywhere and flooded gullies. Avoyelles Parish had a tornado warning until 9 pm, and funnel clouds were responsible for some of the damage, I think. Water came back late on Saturday night, but it was 48 hours before the power was re-connected. Sunday was hot and unbearable; we slept on the floor and sofa at John Ed's house that night.
The news after Rita seemed to focus on how major urban centers dodged the bullet (and other clichés), but this hurricane devastated southwestern Louisiana. Many small communities - homes and livelihoods - were destroyed. I read an AP report yesterday in The Advocate that the six Louisiana parishes and Texas counties most affected by the hurricane have higher poverty rates than the national average of 9.2%, and none has median family incomes above the national median (of $50,000).
A sadder statistic: however non-affluent they are, they're better off than the 24% of families living below the poverty line in New Orleans, where the median income is only $32,000.
We were nowhere near the center of this hurricane: this was more of a tropical storm here, I guess. But it was frightening at times, and uncomfortable. (Reading by candlelight may sound romantic, but those damn things flicker, and not having a flushable toilet is a rustic delight I can live without - so much for my dreams of triumph on Survivor.) I said on another post that this is as close as I ever want to get to a hurricane. Nature is mean and indiscriminate. If someone tells you that a hurricane is coming and you have to evacuate, GO.
[Original post: September 25, 2005]
This is the house (known as Slowness) where we've been based for much of the last four weeks, since we evacuated for Katrina. It's just off Bluetown Road in Marksville, near an old Confederate fort site. There's been a drought here for some time, and this week temperatures were in the high 90s every day.
Tonight Hurricane Rita is still just offshore, swirling towards the Texas/Louisiana border. The rain has been thundering down on the roof, drowning out talk and music, rinsing away the last of the love bugs. The pond between the house and the studio bubbles like a boiling cauldron.
The dog on the porch (in the picture) is Claude. He's sleeping in the laundry tonight.
This morning we drove to Alexandria, which is crazy with evacuees - the ones from Katrina who've been stranded there for weeks, plus new arrivals from Lafayette and Lake Charles in southern Louisiana. Albertson's, the big supermarket there, was packed with people buying supplies, especially charcoal, water and snacks. (The "Beverage Boulevard" section was particularly popular.) The gas station there had sold out of gas.
Marksville is thirty miles from Alexandria. Motels and shelters are already full of Katrina evacuees. Tonight, the parking lot of the casino here is filled with Rita evacuees camping out in their cars and trucks.
We'd hoped to go back to New Orleans last Wednesday for the day to clean up our house, but re-admission was canceled. Now the levees are leaking again, flooding the Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard's Parish, and even Gentilly. I don't know when we're going to get home.
Last night I dreamed I was standing in the eye of the hurricane, a clear circle of sky above my head, desperately thinking of ways to run with the storm, to keep pace with the still of the eye.
[Original post: September 23, 2005]
The rains of Rita are already pouring down in Cenla, but I wanted to post this picture of one of the local cotton fields, taken this morning before the bad weather moved in, and include this illuminating exchange between me and T. Middy.
TM: I didn't even know they grew cotton in Louisiana.
PJKM: How could you not know that?
TM: I don't know anything. I grew up in America.
[Original post: September 19, 2005]
We're back in central Louisiana (Cenla, as it's known around here) because, really, why spend time in leafy, breezy Iowa City when there are 100-degree days going begging here down in the Deep South? The heat is absolutely ferocious, and the ongoing lack of rain has made everything parched and dusty. Activity is confined to a pestilence of love bugs. Love bugs are not cute: they look like the obese cousins of mosquitoes, and swarm towards any light (especially light-colored houses, where they infiltrate through gaps in the boards and disperse over window panes, white-painted shelves, the fridge, T-shirts, etc). I have personally killed tens of thousands of these insects. Last night, I kept waking up because I imagined them landing on my head and crawling down my top. This morning, I discovered that this was only a slight exaggeration: my bed was crawling with ants. It's like Out of Africa down here, except without the safari suits and European accents.
The picture posted above was taken yesterday, Sunday, at the annual Frog Festival in Rayne, a small town on the Cajun Prairie. We attended not only the frog-jumping contest at that festival, but also the annual Festivals Acadiens in nearby Lafayette, where there were Cajun bands, great food and craft stalls selling everything from accordions to chainsaw-carved wooden fish. Although it was almost too hot to stand up, a number of people were dancing in the dust in front of the stage, including one half-naked man using a stick as a substitute partner. From the stage, it was announced that next year the Festivals Acadiens will be held in October, news that elicited a weary cheer from the baked audience. (The Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in Morgan City, which we attended last year, has been postponed until early next month.)
The main point of this post is to thank everyone in Iowa City and St. Louis, as well as other readers of this blog, for their extremely generous donations to the shelter in Marksville. We returned on Friday with a packed car - books from Aunt Pat, beautiful baby clothes from Holly and Bob (and Lily, who is perhaps unaware that her infant wardrobe has been ransacked), huge amounts of paper goods and baby formula and other necessities from Pat and Mike. These were all delivered to the shelter on Saturday morning - except for the beef jerky, which I gave to the Avoyelles Parish National Guard: they were having a snack drive for local Guardsmen sent to New Orleans.
Today we went to Wal-Mart with the money raised from Paige's art sale on Saturday night and bought toiletries, underwear and more paper goods for the shelter. The woman on the front desk asked us for towels, so tomorrow we'll head into Alexandria to use some of the Target cards people have sent.
On Wednesday, our zip code will be admitted back into the city for clean-up, unless the federal government decides to interfere. Our landlord, Paul, has already seen our place, and thinks that nothing can be salvaged from downstairs. Today we bought lots of heavy-duty cleaning stuff to take in with us. We'll need to take our own water in as well, of course. Our electricity isn't back on yet, unsurprisingly. We have no plans to move home until November at the earliest.
One additional item of interest from the drive north: listening to the radio as we passed through Memphis, I learned that there's been a mini-crime surge there since the hurricane, and, as a result, no plea bargains will be permitted for crimes against evacuees.
[Original post: September 9, 2005]
We’re about to head north for a week, up to St Louis and Iowa City, because it seems extremely unlikely we’ll be permitted back into Orleans Parish within the next seven days. Joy and Paul, our friends and landlords, returned to Jefferson Parish on Wednesday, but when they tried to drive towards our neighborhood, armed soldiers turned them away. We managed to find our place on a satellite picture yesterday: the roof looks fine, and the water doesn’t reach the second floor.
We’ll return to Marksville next Saturday, because Paige is having an art show to raise money for the Garan shelter, and we’re going to help.
Yesterday, we went to the Family Services office and lined up for food stamps. The women working there were extremely efficient and good-tempered, considering the unusual glut of people. The very capable woman in orange directing foot traffic, who might be a former Miss Marksville, told us there are 3500 evacuees in Avoyelles Parish, though I suspect that figure doesn’t include people staying with friends and families who haven’t registered for any disaster relief.
FEMA has been spotted in the Marksville area, she said, but they're not "on the ground" yet. They're looking for a place to set up - a big place, apparently.
Food stamps are a sleek card – a Louisiana Purchase automated debit card, with DISASTER ASSISTANCE printed across the bottom. After filling in a form (name, age, race, income, plus an assessment of how much we’ve spent evacuating and how much we’ve lost), a staff member assigns a monetary value to the card. Ours is $274 for a month. The woman in orange announces to the waiting room that we can’t spend the money on paper goods (like diapers – a number of people are disappointed),alcohol, tobacco, or cleaning products. However, unlike regular food stamps, this card is good for hot food in the deli section of a supermarket.
We drove to Alexandria to see Joy, Paul and family – twelve people in a rented house, including six kids in borrowed school uniforms. Lester arrived; he’s a colonel in the National Guard, and had some stories to tell – of a wall of water on Tuesday morning inundating Jackson Barracks and filling the building in which he was standing with six feet of water in minutes; of taking out his son Robbie’s boat to rescue people in the Ninth Ward – 90 people in three days, the water chest-high and slick with oil, children falling off rooves, people desperate and dehydrated and in shock, calling for friends and family members who could not be found.
The highest part of the Barracks, near the levee, is drained now, but there’s a thick pungent sludge everywhere – oil and excrement and debris, dark and stinky. The whole place smells of death, Lester says. The Ninth Ward and Chalmette will need to be entirely rebuilt. “It’s the worst thing to ever happen to New Orleans in my lifetime.”
It’s a world away from this parish, where the leaves are starting to wither on the cotton bushes and the cotton harvesting machines are moving into position. We’ll miss Marksville while we’re away. More reports to follow.