For many New Orleanians, The New York Times' running of local author (and first-ever guest columnist) John Biguenet's Web journal, "Back to New Orleans," must have seemed like a tree falling in the woods. The 15-part, month-long series that began in October was available only online, through the newspaper's new "TimesSelect" subscription service -- at a time when most New Orleanians were preoccupied with trying to survive or simply had no Internet access.
So we were thrilled when Biguenet and The New York Times took us up on our offer to run select excerpts from his series, which explores intellectual, emotional and psychological reflections on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the challenges New Orleanians face in rebuilding.
To read the series in its entirety, you can join "TimesSelect" and visit http://biguenet.page.nytimes.com/b/archives.htm.
The Key on the Back of the Door
Even as New Orleanians marooned on their rooftops awaited rescue while thousands of others crowding the Superdome and the Convention Center sweltered without water in the city's August heat, a national debate flared over whether to call survivors of Hurricane Katrina "refugees" or "evacuees."
A congresswoman, denouncing the use of "refugee" to characterize those who had fled the storm, reminded the nation that "These are American citizens." A businessman complained in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Your use of the term 'refugee' is incorrect and is a direct insult to the people who have suffered."
But as a native New Orleanian who has traveled 2,200 miles since fleeing the city as the hurricane approached, first to my brother's house in Dallas, and then to my daughter's home just outside New York, I find neither "evacuee" nor even "refugee" adequate to express the swells of emotion upon which I have bobbed since watching the New Orleans skyline recede in my rearview mirror as my family and I crossed the agitated waters of Lake Pontchartrain at the outset of this long journey.
For someone whose family has lived in New Orleans since the 18th century, who grew up there speaking the patois into which locals still fall among themselves, who takes his coffee with chicory and his jambalaya with cayenne, only one word encompasses my sense of displacement, loss, and homesickness as we made our way through America this past month: exile.
Though the individuals we have encountered in our travels across the country have been, without exception, unstinting in their kindness, each sympathetic greeting in a new accent, each meal of local specialties prepared to welcome us, each regional custom of hospitality has confirmed not only the open-hearted generosity of our fellow Americans but also that we are strangers among them.
Of course, all travelers eventually recognize that they are the foreigners, but what has transformed our travel from a long family vacation into exile is that we have been forbidden until now to return to our home in one of the devastated neighborhoods of the city.
Drawing on a lifetime of experience with hurricanes, including both Betsy and Camille, we expected to be gone no more than three or four days. What had not occurred to any of us, I think, as we idled in those long lines of automobiles creeping away from the approaching Katrina was that weeks later, our deserted city would still steep in fetid waters. It was inconceivable to us then -- and barely imaginable now -- that our churches and temples would echo none of our voices on the Sabbath, that our office towers would rise unoccupied through the workweek, that silver would not clatter against dinnerware in our restaurants, that whole nights would pass without music insinuating itself into the humid air. Who could have foreseen that a major American city would be ordered emptied of its population?
In fact, what has happened to us is something more than exile. In The Plague, Albert Camus notes the pleasure quarantined men take in the middle of the night imagining their women asleep back home. In the same way, just before dawn, one knows what is likely occurring in the city from which he or she has been exiled and is free to wander its streets again, at least in the memory.
But with New Orleans deserted, how could we take comfort in remembering that as the sun rose, even if we were unable to see it for ourselves, the ragged fleet of shrimp boats would be setting out from Bucktown to scour Lake Pontchartrain until the tide shifted, stragglers from a late party in the Quarter would be spilling powdered sugar from their beignets at the Caf du Monde, farm vegetables would be arriving at French Market stalls, streetcars would be rattling down St. Charles Avenue -- their lightbulbs blinking out at every bump, and regulars would be gathering at the little caf near the race track where I had a coffee with my paper every morning? How could we take comfort in a life no longer lived in a city abandoned to the swamps that surround it?
So no matter what faces us back home, the impulse to return is strong.
When the Moors were driven from Spain to their diaspora throughout North Africa, resettled families hung on the back of their new front doors the keys to their houses in Granada and Cordoba, so unimaginable was the possibility that they might never return. Centuries later, doors all across the Maghreb still clanged with those keys.
As for me, it is true I've stopped carrying in my pocket the key to our house in New Orleans. But I know where it is. And later this week, I intend to try it in the lock on my own front door.
This morning, we will say goodbye to our daughter and son-in-law and head home, 1,300 miles away. We know that our house was flooded for weeks, our garden is dead, and our neighborhood lacks power, water, and a functional sewage system. Not a single stoplight works in our entire area, nor is there a gas station open. But from Wednesday through Friday this week, the police and the military will admit residents during daylight hours to see for themselves what Hurricane Katrina did to their homes. A great deal is behind us, but by the end of the week, we'll have a better sense of how much more is still ahead.
Drinking the Wine Before it Spoils
Hospitality still thrives here, along with the mold. We've been back in New Orleans for only three nights, but we've already been invited to dinner twice. Yesterday after trying to salvage some clothing from our ruined house, we returned to the empty daycare center where we're staying, took startlingly invigorating cold showers (because the building currently has no hot water), and drove to Uptown New Orleans for a dinner party that began at five o'clock. Thanks to its oppressive heat so much of the year, the city has always taken advantage of the cooler hours after dark for its social life; in fact, it's a very late-night town. But the 8:00 p.m. curfew, strictly enforced by police and soldiers armed with automatic weapons, demanded that we eat dinner by daylight.
Happily, our hosts informed us after we had arrived, they had just heard an announcement that the curfew had been postponed until midnight for the weekend and beyond, so we all relaxed for a leisurely evening together.
The drive over to their house had alternated familiar scenes we remembered from before the storm with nearly incomprehensible visions of devastation and transformation. Across from Notre Dame Seminary on Carrollton Avenue, for example, an entire block of stately homes had gone up in flames; a few steel staircases and charred brick chimneys rose out of what had become simply a field of ashes. Then, at the entrance to the street where we were to have dinner, an Israeli security team in black flak vests with Uzis slung over their shoulders, politely asked us for our identification; one of the young men told us how much he had fallen in love with New Orleans, then lifted the barricade and waved us on.
Our friends, two doctors, greeted us just beyond the heap of appliances and household items destroyed in the storm and stacked along their curb. Their twin three-year-old girls waved to us from the porch, then demonstrated that they could still play horse on the swaying branch of the ancient oak in their yard that swooped so low it had rubbed the ground raw beneath it from years of children's games. That was their first question after the hurricane, their mother explained. Had the branch broken?
We had been warned that with the refrigerator wrapped in duct tape out front, the dinner would have to be very simple, just pasta and some roasted peppers. But gathering in the kitchen while waiting for the other two guests to arrive, we were handed glasses of a vintage Pomerol. When I remarked that they'd served us an extraordinary wine for such a simple meal, one of our hosts told us that, with the power off in the house for a month and the temperature outside in the nineties every day, their whole collection of wines had overheated. It would all be vinegar in a few weeks. So they were working their way through the bottles that hadn't been submerged, drinking the oldest vintages first. After what we'd been through since the storm, we were happy to help them with their project.
The other guests arrived, and our hosts opened another old Bordeaux and served a tray of hors d'oeuvres. The new couple explained that they couldn't stay for dinner; they had to deal with their house. Flooded? I asked. No, I was told, it had exploded three days ago when the electricity was restored and a power surge had sparked a gas explosion from a ruptured line. In fact, we could see what was left of it, if we liked. It was only three houses farther down the block, and the faade was still standing. Our hosts added that it had been the oldest house in the neighborhood, having been built over 150 years ago.
Like everyone else we've met who has returned to New Orleans, they were very calm as they recounted the disaster they had experienced. I suppose we're all getting used to it, losing houses.
After the couple had left with our sympathy, the four of us and the twins ate the simple but absolutely delicious meal with another bottle of the Pomerol. Our friends confessed that they have had the same reaction to what's happened as Marsha and I: they feel as if a whole new set of possibilities has opened up for them. They have no intention of slipping back into their old lives without making conscious decisions about what they want their future to be. Their two older sons joined us for dessert, and we opened a bottle of port, toasting that future, whatever it may be, while the twins went around the table, making wishes and blowing out the candles in front of each of us.
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?"
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.
What Have We Learned
It's been two months since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. What have we learned?
First of all, we now know that on August 29, 2005, the region suffered not one but two distinct calamities: a natural disaster that devastated the region and a manmade catastrophe that destroyed much of New Orleans. The flattened communities in Louisiana's St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and on Mississippi's Gulf Coast trace the path of a fierce storm. The destruction inflicted on New Orleans when its levees collapsed, however, was not an act of God but of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote in a front-page story confirming widely reported accounts of levee design flaws, "... the soil analyses of the levee and the ground beneath it show a picture of such weak support that failure of the wall under maximum loads was almost a given for the design that the Army Corps of Engineers chose to use: a single wall of steel sheet pile that was not driven to reach below the bottom of the canal."
Second, we know that although four years have passed since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government is unprepared to respond to an assault on even a relatively small U.S. city. As New Orleanians suffered and died on sweltering rooftops after the incompetence of the corps allowed massive flooding of the city, neither military support nor federal disaster aid arrived for days.
Third, we also know that the failure of the federal government to address the urgent communications needs of police officers, firefighters, and other first responders to such a large-scale disaster is only a single aspect of the more ominous failure since 9/11 to put in place a public communications system that cannot be crippled by knocking out a few centralized hubs. As Clive Thompson noted in this paper on September 18, even employees of the mayor's office were cut off and managed to maintain communication with the outside world only by breaking into an Office Depot and stealing "phones, routers and the store's own computer server."
Fourth, we learned the country needs a national 911 emergency dispatch center to handle sudden crises that incapacitate a region. During the storm and after, a few cell phones continued to work, and Wi-Fi was extremely reliable in areas that had access to it. But with the city's telephone system out -- almost a certainty in a large-scale disaster -- we had no centralized outside phone number or Internet site to report people in need of rescue or any other information that might have been of help to the authorities attempting to respond to the crisis.
Fifth, we have discovered how unprepared the U.S. Postal Service is to deal with a delivery backlog related to a disaster. Despite having rented a P.O. box and filed a change of address form, I was directed to another post office yesterday to pick up my mail from the last two months. When I arrived, I joined a long line of others from flooded neighborhoods who were told the postal system has no idea where our mail is, that it's probably safe somewhere, and that we should try back in a few weeks. As a writer, I depend upon the mail, and I'm sure all the other individuals and businesses that have gone without mail for eight weeks now are facing as many personal and professional problems as I am.
Sixth, we learned that the lack of a national registry of displaced victims made it impossible after the disaster to locate doctors, landlords, colleagues, clients, friends, and family members. More than two weeks after the hurricane hit, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reported that only 552 of 2,430 children separated from their families by Katrina had been reunited with their caregivers.
Seventh, we continue to find that victims of a major disaster need a single Web site that lists all forms of available aid with links to simple application forms. Untold hours have been spent by people in devastated areas trying to piece together instructions on how to access help.
Eighth, we discovered how deeply generous our fellow Americans are -- even if their politicians are not. The reaction of compassionate conservatives may have been typified by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, who, when confronted by the staggering bill to rebuild New Orleans, opined that "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," and the president's mother, who assured the nation that many of us New Orleanians were actually better off in makeshift shelters than we were before the failed levees flooded our homes. But ordinary Americans all across the country opened their hearts (and wallets) to those of us who had been displaced. The last two months have left me enormously proud and grateful to be the countryman of such kind and truly compassionate people.
Ninth, we are learning that when you empty a city of its inhabitants and keep them from reentering for a month, many of them -- perhaps as many as half -- never return.
Tenth, we've come to understand that the difficult part of all this is only just beginning.
(John Biguenet is the acclaimed author of the short-story collection The Torturer's Apprentice, the novel Oyster and the stage drama The Vulgar Soul -- presented earlier this year at Southern Rep. Winner of the O. Henry Award and the Harper's Magazine Writing Award, Biguenet is currently the Robert Hunter Distinguished Professor at Loyola University.)