Saturday, August 29, 2009

Anniversary #4: Katrina's Continuing Legacy

If you will, please indulge me one last Katrina memory on this 4th anniversary of the near-extinction of my adopted home, and I'll do my very best to let her go thereafter. (No irrational promises, you understand!)

This morning, we took Bouie to Bayou St. John, across from City Park, to swim and run. After his swim (which was interrupted by a very rude pit bull mix named, for some unbeknownst reason, "Baby"), we headed down the road for a little fetching and running on the remains of one of the park's golf courses. Even though there is SO much progress in the Park, Mid City and Lakeview, there are still scars everywhere -- and they seem to ache this time of year -- kinda like Harry Potter's scar burned when Voldemort was out and about, I imagine. The little stump, pictured above, was one of the thousands of trees that drowned in the deluge four years ago.

But, I managed to scout out some pretty Spanish-moss-bedecked spots for bridal portraits to be shot in October, so it's getting better every day.

The following was written in August of 2006 to preserve the memory and the emotions:

I am a native of Little Rock where I practiced law, volunteered a lot, sent children to public schools, and taught at UALR. Then, somewhere between 1999 and 2001, I followed my husband’s job to live near the Mississippi River in The City That Care Forgot.

Here in New Orleans I volunteered a lot and sent our youngest child off to LSU. As I made the transition from Razorback Stadium to Tigerland, I also grew a deep appreciation for a genuinely unique city that is populated by fascinating characters and wonderful friends; oozing with an indefinable, nearly tactile, culture; home to inexplicable, spectator-sport politics; and blessed with food that is nothing short of divinely inspired. I found another “home.”

On Saturday, August 27th, 2005, we nailed the shutters closed, performed all those tedious bad-weather tasks that must be done in the oppressive heat, and walked to Copeland’s at the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles Avenue for a late supper and a debate over whether we really needed to evacuate. After all, we had not previously jumped ship to escape a storm since we moved here, and we had done pretty well even though Cindy dinged up our backyard grill and messed with a good number of neighborhood trees in July. I lost the debate. So, nearly a year ago, in the wee hours of August 28th to be specific, my husband and I packed up the two dogs, roughly four days’ clothing, and a few important papers, and crept away from New Orleans, heading north amid heavy traffic in “contraflow” to weather Hurricane Katrina at our son’s home in Little Rock.

Wicked truth be told, even though I resisted evacuating at first, I was secretly a little happy to have an excuse enabling me to spend my August 31st birthday with family and friends in Little Rock. I never dreamed that I would also be able to spend Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day with them.

Upon reaching Little Rock some eight or nine hours later, we were welcomed by friends gathered at our son’s house and the incessant ringing of telephones – people we hadn’t seen in years were calling to check on us from all over the country. Serious head rush! Our children and their friends declared a “Hurricane Party,” so we popped the corks out of several bottles of wine that I had grabbed on the way out the door (Arkansas is dry on Sunday except in certain restaurants), dug into the cooler that I had jam-packed with stuff from the fridge and freezer, grilled a bunch of chicken, ate strawberries, and played board games well into the early morning hours of the 29th. Everyone, that is, except my husband who somehow intuited what was about to happen. We deemed him a grumpy old grouch and played on.

I recall being so relieved when my husband awakened me on the 29th with the news that Katrina had “wobbled,” sparing our adopted city from a direct hit. I also remember the kick-in-the-gut feeling later in the day, glued to cable news coverage, as levees began to fail. And I remember going kind of numb the following days as another and yet another levee failed, inundating eighty percent of the city’s east bank and simmering it for weeks beneath the brutal, relentless sun.

In retrospect, I suppose my husband was justified in being a grouch that first night of our exile.

All the details of those first few days – the horrors unfolding on the television screen, the feelings of impotence and fury at being unable to do anything about it, the uncertainty about the condition of our house and the whereabouts of friends and neighbors, the frustration at being unable to get through to anyone on my 504 cell phone – are seared indelibly into my memory. I visit those places in my mind less frequently these days, but the threat posed last week by Tropical Storm Chris caused a lot of flotsam to float to the surface of my consciousness. Along with a few warm fuzzies.

I remember how Arkansans sprang into action to help untold thousands of unexpected guests. We heard so many heart-warming tales. Churches in tiny delta towns created impromptu shelters in their recreation halls where church members cooked and cooked and put on feeds for strangers that rivaled those to be seen at the very grandest of southern funerals. Good-hearted souls went to help in one shelter at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds and wound up taking entire families home with them to stay for weeks in spare bedrooms. Schools adopted Gulf Coast children and bent over backward to find ways to allow them to engage in whatever extracurricular activities they had enjoyed at home. After recruiting a couple of trucks and drivers willing to donate their rigs and time to transport whatever was gathered, radio stations set up a location at War Memorial Stadium to accept donations of water and bedding. The response was way beyond overwhelming, and what followed became my best memory of The Aftermath.

It began with a call from younger daughter on Wednesday, my birthday, a little before noon. She had been listening to KARN, the local talk-radio station, where she learned of its spontaneous drive to collect water to be sent to the coast. When she arrived to drop off her contributions at the stadium, she saw that they were into the “charitable-site-management” game a little too far over their heads. One kind (and desperate!) young man, one of the afternoon-drive-time producers, asked if there was any way she could stay to volunteer, and she eagerly jumped at the chance to do something, anything, to help.

No, she probably lunged at the chance, afraid it might elude her grasp. Like me, and even though they had moved back to Little Rock from Baton Rouge more than a year earlier, our daughters felt the survivor’s guilt – the why-were-we-spared bewilderment and shame at being comfortable and dry while so many New Orleanians were still trying to escape from their roofs, fighting off dehydration and the fear of dying alone, or watching national news as their homes were swallowed up by floodwaters that simply would not stop spreading.

She made her mark. No less than an hour later, as I stood in line at Walgreen's to purchase my contributions, she called to ask if I could volunteer – they were covered up with all kinds of stuff and needed help unloading and organizing inside War Memorial. By the time I got to the stadium, she had been put in charge of the entire “warehouse” operation and was bustling around like a woman possessed. Scores of people were waiting in line to donate money and everything from food to toiletries to paper products to baby necessities, not just water and bed linens, and she had set up a system in which the donations were sorted and labeled, even sorting clothing by gender, age, and size. In an un-air-conditioned, open-air concrete structure with no hanging racks our youngest had created a General Store!

Older daughter arrived to pitch in after she got off work. Daughter-in-law set up a toy-donation drive at the pre-school where she worked. The hair salon where younger daughter worked part-time set up a collection for the Louisiana SPCA. A local engineer drew up a map for evacuees that detailed the locations of special needs services and shopping areas, while a copy store (managed by a man whose seventeen relatives from the Buras vicinity were staying with him) reproduced hundreds of copies of the map free of charge. And back at the stadium, that handful of volunteers created a mega-store in one afternoon where, for the next two days, evacuees could come to “shop” for both immediate and long-term needs. And donations kept pouring in for days, as did additional volunteers (whose number included many friends that responded to daughters’ pleas).

Churches and other non-profits arranged transportation for evacuees from many of the shelters so they could shop. The location of our site proved to be truly serendipitous for many evacuees – it was no less than two blocks from the Red Cross headquarters in Little Rock and adjacent to the university hospital and a prominent cancer treatment facility. One woman who had dropped her husband off for radiation therapy came by to see what was going on. Her attire and genteel demeanor suggested that she had never needed to accept a hand-out in her whole life, but that day she asked if she could take a light jacket for her teenage son because she never imagined summer evenings could be so cool in Arkansas. We recommended that she take her time to look around, and I visited with her about home as we perused the aisles. She spied a package of “Community Coffee, New Orleans Blend” and shyly asked if she could take it with her, tears welling in her eyes, hesitant to ask because it was the last. When I told her that she was more than welcome to it, the tears spilled over and she babbled that her husband would only drink that particular brand of coffee, and that coffee was one of the few things to settle his stomach after treatment, and that she wanted him not to be so miserable for just a little while. She threw her arms around me, even though I was sweaty, smelly and filthy, and whimpered for a few minutes while I held her. I invited her to bring her son back the next day to see if there was anything else he could use, but they didn’t come. I hope she and her family are home and doing well.

I had a delightful birthday dinner with family and friends at a new-to-me place in the River Market district. Serendipitously again, we learned that our waiter’s sister had evacuated from her relatively new restaurant on Magazine Street and hadn’t been able to find out anything about the neighborhood. I told him about the “what about my neighborhood” message board on and he called her right away to fill her in. (I later found out that their house suffered minor flooding, but the business stayed safe, even escaping looters – I suppose there are many intangible benefits to locating in the block down from a police district headquarters – and that she and her husband are expecting their first child soon. A little Katrina dividend.) The next night at a different restaurant, the waiter treated me to a glass of wine on the house and a little wink of his eye. So many meaningful and unexpected small kindnesses. It was incredible.

My daughters stayed at the stadium late, late at night for those few days, and younger daughter returned early, early in the mornings – not an easy feat for her. We had to leave the stadium by Friday afternoon because high school football loomed, so all the donations were packed up and moved to a shelter site. It felt so comforting to be a part of something positive, something that truly relieved a little bit of the palpable suffering and uncertainty that enveloped us all. And watching my little girls blossom into compassionate women of action before my very eyes was certainly a lagniappe that I relish even today.

Later in September we did it all again, only this time restricting donations to baby items and money, non-perishable food, or water to replenish the seriously depleted Arkansas Food Bank Network. The second time was nearly as successful and better organized than the first, but the frenetic, emotion-driven feeling of that first event had passed. The second time around, we had begrudgingly come to accept that we were in for a long haul, but we still had no idea how very long it would take for us to move home.

Many are still waiting to find out.

August 2006

. . . and many still wait, even today.
P.S. -- Meanwhile, Copeland's on the bustling corner of St. Charles and Napoleon, the site of our pre-exacuation dinner-debate, remains deserted and boarded up as I type.

1 comment:

  1. Very poignant, Moogie. All told Katrina was about as ugly an experience as I have ever witnessed in America in my lifetime. But there were those redeeming moments, the countless instances of spontaneous and unexpected grace, that also illustrate how great this country really is.

    Thanks for this post. And I will NOT complain if you do more like this.