In search of memories amid Katrina’s mess
“A majority of those polled said they still harbor feelings of depression, sadness, anger and stress more than a month after the hurricane hit.”
CNN-USA Today poll, October 13, 2005
NEW ORLEANS, LA. Oct. 21, 2005
Rebuilding. Resurrecting. Reopening. The words become an incantation. Repeated in headlines, newscasts and bars by people who used to pray. The words grate on my ear. I just came from my flooded house.
I am stuck on remembering.
For 40 days, I tried to imagine our house filled with water. In my mind’s eye, I opened the door and walked in. Past my grandmother’s player piano. Past the deerskin papoose made by a Ute matriarch. She gave it to me after I wrote about her family; their story was in a bound volume, in a modest stack of books I’d published, left on a low shelf.
For 40 days, I convinced myself that floating in salt water might not harm the tight-grained oak of the library table I used as a desk. I expected to find the cast-iron skillet I had used to make our first batch of Louisiana crab cakes. So, too, the champagne crystal we’d used to toast our good luck in finding a rental house four blocks from Lake Pontchartrain.
We moved to New Orleans on August 1. We fled on August 27, to Montgomery, Ala., with our dogs, laptops, clothes for a weekend, and the unspoken fear that if Katrina struck, it would find our weak spot: the 30-day waiting period for flood insurance. The hurricane hit on August 29.
Weeks later, after the insurance company rejected our claim for total loss, we applied for disaster relief. FEMA asked us to remember what we owned. The two cars were easy, and the computers, scanners, printers. But how many books? No way could I list the hundred-odd volumes in my civil rights library, or my 50-some sailing books. It took a month before I remembered the bathroom scale, and it took cooler weather in Montgomery to recall the leather bomber jacket from Argentina.
Forty days after the flood, we returned, wearing rubber boots and air masks. The outside of our house looked like a Baghdad bunker, dead and ash-colored. My partner, Trish, wept at the sight. The National Guard had kicked in our door, found zero dead or alive, and left behind a big, orange “X” and a handout: “We have made every attempt not to disturb your personal items.” We took it as gallows humor.
I had hoped to find things we could salvage. But instead we walked into a crypt, a half-rotted ex-life, black in color, acrid in odor, swampy wet, a foul brew of book pulp, splintered wood, wallboard, lamps, sopped pillows, swollen floorboards and rusted trunks.
The walls were covered in mold. And the jumble—what you’d expect from a bomb—made walking difficult in the slime.
At first, I couldn’t identify anything. Then I saw Grandma’s piano. I had planned to pass it on to my daughter, Amy. But it lay on its back like a corpse, legs straight out, guts exposed, rusting and delaminating. “Oh, God,” I groaned. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” We crunched across our stuff—CDs, picture frames, the champagne goblets. Something in the water had dissolved every photo and negative. The papoose was unbearably stained. I picked it up and put it down, again and again, and finally decided to leave it. It felt like deleting a chapter from a book.
One tug on my writing desk, and the oak pulled apart. Every bookshelf had fallen face down and spilled its volumes. Every table and chair was upside down. The frying pan had disappeared along with so much else that we just gave up looking.
Finding nothing of value, we rooted for keepsakes. Amy’s wooden rocking horse, stained but together, was a blip of joy. I put it in the pickup that now contained our worldly goods. Digging for my transatlantic sailing chart, I found a locket containing a dried green shamrock, a gift from an Irish playmate that I kept on my desk. It felt like a gold coin.
I found a distorted cassette, the tape curled, the label gone, of Amy at age 3 singing her ABCs. I found books inscribed by my mother on my eighth Christmas, and retrieved after her funeral in July. They were swollen, the covers mush, her greeting, “To Jim, Christmas 1952,” erased.
Over the six hours we spent in the house, I kept coming back to the piano. I felt so responsible, dragging it below sea level and leaving it to drown. Before I left I stripped a handful of ebony keys to give to the other grandkids.
The heartache was not in the stuff we reported to FEMA, the objects we could replace at Best Buy. No, the real loss was the stuff of scrapbooks, each scrap a key to a memory.
One night, later, I remembered a photo I had on the wall of my first airplane solo. It was side by side with another, taken years later, of a ride with the Thunderbirds. Oh, I was proud of that. The next night, I remembered a tiny black-and-white print of my father holding me when I was a newborn.
There is no backup for that data. They were the hard copy. There is no space on FEMA forms for heirlooms having only sentimental value.
I realize now I kept those scraps because they were the blueprints of my life. Without them, who would remember Grandma’s gatherings around the piano, when she played a kazoo made from a comb and waxed paper; or Dad’s strong arms; or Amy’s voice when she was 3? Without them, who would remember me?
It was me rotting in that muck. And I was only one small piece of flotsam in a sea of loss. I had no roots in New Orleans; I didn’t even know my neighbors. We had no family graves or generations in one ward.
If my little loss felt so bad, calculate the psychic darkness dissolving with the diaspora.
FEMA warned that its relief could not make me whole. What would? Without my worthless, priceless scraps, I can’t remember.
MADISON, WI. June 19, 2014
It is raining today, and our house is dry. The garden out front is filled with runoff from last night’s storm, with new flower blossoms and happy frogs. Across town there are dozens of families who hate this rain. It is dripping on their beds through rafters exposed when their roofs flew away with the tornado.
Trish and I don’t fear the rain any more, but I run downstairs every time to check for water that might be rising around half a dozen boxes of stuff still stained from that summer when we did. Checking for leaks is ritual now, a tic, really, that, try as we might, reveals what it means to have gone through Katrina. It’s not PTSD, exactly, but rather like a lens with an astigmatism. We see the world differently, slightly askew.
A month ago, we went camping along the Mississippi. The river was in flood stage, the campsite under water. But there were cabins on stilts that we could reach with our kayaks. So we piled our stuff and paddled out and spent three days high and dry, surrounded by a river that ran through the woods and under our cots. It was quirky and kind of romantic. Not once did we suffer flashbacks.
When we got home we found the house just as we’d left it, the power on, the books strewn, the computers ready, the bed made, the piano—my mother’s—upright and nearly in tune, pictures, paintings, and hot water running where it belonged, in the shower. A house ready to resume our lives. Unburned. Unflooded. What a miracle.
To look in our house you’d never know we’d once lost everything. Three months after Katrina, George Bush let us run through a furniture store like kids at Christmas at FAO Schwarz and pick out $5,000 worth of stuff. We got a big couch, a table for six, a leather lounge chair that tilts back for naps, and a bed with a carved headboard that a friend calls, “The Princess Pea Bed.” There are books everywhere. Our closets are full. We have enough spoons to feed refugees, and two new champagne flutes that we keep in their baby-blue Tiffany box.
We’ve tried not to define our lives by it. But in large and small ways Katrina and loss are never far away. We got married on a boat, quite certain that life together would not again reach Category Five, but if it did, we had a life preserver. Trish is getting her PhD in environmental studies. I work for a wetland and a food pantry. Twice a month we write $170 in checks to the Small Business Administration for 30-year loans we received to cover our losses.
Every so often we go looking for a book or a family photo and suddenly realize where we left it. Under my desk are five hard drives. In my closet is a waterproof, fireproof, locked box with important papers, including too much insurance. It’s surprising how small “important” is.
When Trish lights a candle, I blow it out. When we leave the house, she checks the stove. Every time we come home and round our corner, we’re afraid. Having lost everything we know it can happen.
Last night we fell asleep in our Princess Pea bed to the sound of lightning and wind and pouring rain, comforted by dry shelter, and knowing that, in this storm, we were going to be okay.
JIM CARRIER learned how to write aurally, for radio, the old fashioned way — at the end of a brutal red pen wielded by the late Steve Young of CBS and CNN. The craft led him up mountains, across the Atlantic and through ten books and assignments for The New York Times, National Geographic and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Photo credit: Valerie Downes