My Katrina Nightmare and How It Ended
In which I spend four years trying to repair andsell my flooded house in New Orleans.
"Well, but really," I said, "I can tell you right now we can hardly afford to spend a cent more, and we're pretty frugal as it is." Silence. Brightly I added, "But just as soon as we get that money from the Road Home Program, we'll be able to rebuild and sell the place and settle our debt in full! In the meantime …"
"In the meantime," said Kimberly, quite as brightly, "why don't you send me that tax return and list of expenditures and we'll just see what we can do!"
What Kimberly could do, it turned out, was arrange a new forbearance plan requiring monthly payments of $500 (rather than $0), in addition to what we were already paying in rent and the rest of it. That was the last we heard from Kimberly for a long time. When, after three months, I tried to renew this plan on the same terms, her voicemail was always, always full. Nor did she return my messages or faxes.
And I so wanted to tell her the good news!—to wit: The Road Home Program had finally awarded us a rebuilding grant in October 2007. During my "closing interview" in New Orleans, I learned that the woman shoving reams of paper under my nose for signature had sent her child to the same magnet school where I myself had taught for seven years. We chatted amiably about that and other things, while I signed and signed and signed.
"Don't you worry about it, baby," she candidly remarked, when I wondered aloud what these many contracts might entail. "Just a bunch of bullshit. Basically they're throwing money out the window."
That was fine with me. By the new year, 2008, our house was almost entirely rebuilt. We were broke again (by a startling coincidence, the total renovation had cost almost exactly the amount of our Road Home grant), but ready to put our house on the market. A slight setback came in the form of an incompetent real-estate agent we'd hired at long-distance: The photo she posted on Realtor.com looked as if it had been taken by a drunk who was in the process of falling down. I said as much, in so many words, and the woman wrote me an incoherently vicious e-mail and quit. Our next agent, Brigitte, was far better: The little brochure she prepared was a model of the genre, and she even arranged for our house to be featured on CNN.com as the representative home for one of 10 "Hot Markets" across the country (rather like calling the colder part of Pluto a hot market, but something of a coup all the same).
Alas, to no avail. Every few weeks Brigitte would call to inform me (with a wistful French accent) that she was showing our house, but nussing yet … would it be agreeable to lower the price? But of course! Within a month we'd lowered it almost 20 percent, well below what we'd paid for it three years ago, but not as low as it would get.
Somewhere in there I got a curious phone call from Kimberly, our old mortgage liaison. At least four months had passed since our latest forbearance plan had expired. She apologized for not getting back to me sooner—things were hectic, etc., and indeed her manager had yet to make a decision on our file and that was pretty much the gist of her message that day.
During a lull (I could hear her riffling idly through paperwork) she said, "So you're a writer? What do you write?"
I told her, then told her a little more. She seemed to have all the time in the world.
"That must be interesting …"
Her voice was pensive, as if she were considering a change of career. At any rate I never heard from Kimberly again. After we moved to Norfolk, I faxed her our change of address and wondered, diffidently, whether her manager had made up his mind … ?
Apparently he had: A month later, in August 2008, we received a letter from the bank's Foreclosure Department: Our case was now in the hands of Cox & Thibodeau (let's call them), a New Orleans law firm, and thus attorney fees and costs would now be added to the total amount due on our mortgage. The next day—a kind of Good Cop/Bad Cop dynamic—we heard from the bank's Homeowner's Assistance Department: "We want to offer you some potential alternatives to foreclosure," the letter announced, and to this purpose we were asked to cough up our most recent pay stub(s), bank statement(s), and to complete an exhaustive questionnaire about the general state of our finances.
This seemed a bit much, so I called my friend Alfred, a lawyer in New Orleans. He said that the bank was casting about for a "treasure map" that would tell them where our assets were located so they could seize same. A man of considerable sweetness and charm, Alfred offered to walk over to the offices of Cox & Thibodeau and chat with the woman assigned to our case.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.
Photograph of daughter by Leila Wylie.