My Katrina Nightmare and How It Ended
In which I spend four years trying to repair andsell my flooded house in New Orleans.
After his house was destroyed by the hurricane, Blake Bailey chronicled his life as a Katrina evacuee in" My Year of Hurricanes," a series of articles that ran in Slate in 2005 and 2006. Blake wrote about how he lost his house, found his cat, petitioned FEMA for money, returned to New Orleans, left New Orleans, and ultimately—almost miraculously—found a new home in Florida. We asked Blake to catch us up on how Katrina has shaped his last five years.
In the summer of 2008 my family and I moved from Gainesville, Fla., to Norfolk, Va., where my wife had been hired as a pain-management psychologist at the naval hospital in nearby Portsmouth. We rented an old Colonial in a nice neighborhood near the Lafayette River, though we were eager to become homeowners again, pending the sale of our flooded, gutted, and finally renovated house in New Orleans (more about that in a moment). Suffice to say, after many sorrows, we did manage to sell the latter—at a considerable loss—whereupon we began looking for a place to buy in Norfolk. Time passed, but once we'd narrowed our search down to two houses—dream houses really, both near the water and well within our price range—we called the mortgage company and asked a nice woman to get us prequalified. She called us back the same day. She seemed sheepish.
"I don't think this is gonna happen," she said.
"But why not? You said our credit—"
"Your credit's fine. Well, I mean, your wife's credit is fine and yours is sort of OK … " (Creditwise, my name had been more closely associated with the Katrina fiasco, hence "OK.") "But the problem, see, is that short-sale you guys did last year."
This was vexing. I said, in effect, that we were damn lucky to sell the place at all; that our neighborhood in New Orleans—Gentilly, about a mile from Lake Pontchartrain—had been a virtual moonscape after Katrina; that it had taken us almost four years (etc.) …
"I'm sorry," the woman sighed. She'd been clicking around on her computer during my spiel, making sure she hadn't missed anything. "But you can't get a mortgage for two years after a short-sale. I just don't see any exceptions. Not even for, you know, Katrina victims."
So the affordable dream houses in Norfolk would have to wait. Still, there are worse things than renting. Just over five years ago, my wife (then in her doctoral program at the University of Florida) had been assigned to Tulane for a one-year internship. Because my mother-in-law lived in New Orleans at the time, and because we needed help with our 1-year-old daughter, we decided to buy a house rather than rent. Bad idea! We got to live there for all of two months before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Having evacuated to a friend's house in Oxford, Miss., we were about to return the next morning when we heard that the levees had been breached. On the Internet we found a photograph of a street sign near our house in Gentilly, just poking out of the turbid floodwaters.
In the months ahead we learned the fates of our former neighbors: The dotty old woman two houses down (who used to curse me obscurely when I'd cross her lawn walking my dog) had died a few weeks after the storm; ditto the (nicer, more lucid) woman across the street whose cancer, hitherto in remission, had metastasized during her exile in Houston. As for the eccentric bachelor next door to her: He'd refused to abandon the house of his beloved late mother, and had shot himself once the water began to rise.
We were comparatively fortunate. After a refugee odyssey among friends and relations in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, my wife had resumed her internship back in Gainesville, where we lived in various rentals, including a big Victorian that belonged to a poet-critic whose nominal rent had been paid for the duration of our eight-month stay by a nice man in California, James Kennedy, who'd read my Slate pieces and thought it the least he could do after we'd declined his first offer to give us a house in a subdivision he was building in Mandeville, La. Our daughter, meanwhile, had begun to gain weight and color after dropping to the bottom five-percentile on the growth chart a month or two after evacuation.
But I was never quite at ease in Gainesville. Riding my bicycle of an evening around the Duck Pond (the nice old neighborhood where we lived in the poet's house), I found myself envying everyone who lived there and wasn't me. I was reminded of all the nice houses I'd be tempted to buy if I didn't already have a 30-year mortgage on a gutted house in New Orleans. Every three months I had to send a lengthy fax to a large national bank explaining that we were still waiting to hear from the so-called Road Home Program (also known as the "Road Homeless" or "Road to Nowhere"), the federal fund set up to distribute $7.5 billion in rebuilding grants to homeowners affected by Katrina. We'd applied in October 2006, and five months later our online application was still dormant ("no action taken"). We were hardly alone: At the time only a few hundred applicants out of roughly 100,000 had received funds, and trying to get a Road Home employee on the phone was akin to seeking the innermost sanctum of Kafka's Castle.
For the first 20 months after Katrina, our mortgage lender had been relatively lenient. I dealt with a woman named Doris, who repeatedly extended our three-month forbearance plans while the interest, escrow, and late charges abstractly mounted. When our latest plan expired, however, at the end of March 2007, we learned that we would henceforth be dealing with one Kimberly, whose heart I sought to wring with an especially lengthy and (I thought) poignant fax: I told her of the cruel aloofness of the Road Home Program, and attached clippings to that effect. I told her that two building contractors had despaired of us, and that a third had begun to adopt a kind of bitter, cynical tone. I told her I was a freelance writer struggling to finish a long book (amid these many woes), the better to collect the balance of my royalty advance, while my wife was a post-doctoral associate with a negligible salary. And so on.
Kimberly gave me a call. With a kind of chilly, unassailable politeness, she asked a few questions (the substance of which suggested a cursory reading, at best, of my painstaking fax), then asked me to send her a copy of my latest tax return along with an itemized list of monthly expenditures—this to determine what we could reasonably afford to pay on our mortgage.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.
Photograph of daughter by Leila Wylie.