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.
"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.
Stacy (for that was her name) ate at her desk while Alfred sat opposite, describing our long ordeal and begging her to be a little patient. When he was done, she said (chewing, not looking up), "Everyone's got a sob story, I guess."
Adversity teaches one that no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse. On Sept. 1, Hurricane Gustav hit New Orleans and ripped a hole in our recently repaired garage roof. That meant another $4,000 for a house that might soon be taken out of our hands—or so I learned two weeks later, when a "THIRD PARTY NOTICE OF SEIZURE" was posted on our door (I was copied by mail), informing the curious that a sheriff's sale had been tentatively scheduled for Nov. 20. A veritable blizzard of faxes on my part resulted, a few days later, in what I was firmly told would be my final three-month forbearance plan ($521.33 per month).
Exactly four days later—on Oct. 3, 2008, to be exact—I got a call from Brigitte: A cash offer had been made on our house! Wonderful news … though I detected a kind of Edith Piaf-y tristesse in her voice. I asked how much, and she told me.
"Wow," I said. "Wow. That's really low. Are you sure we should take it?"
She was quite, quite sure. Home prices were in freefall. The lowball offer was actually $2,000 above the current median sale price for houses on our street.
My friend Alfred relayed the news via certified letter to Stacy at Cox & Thibodeau. After a suitably contemptuous interval, she replied that the amount in question was less than 80 percent of the total current payoff figure, which now included $7,319 in legal fees ("a totally bullshit figure," said Alfred). Nevertheless she would confer with her client and get back to us.
A few weeks passed. Finally I called the bank's Homeowner's Assistance Department, whose representative informed me, at length, that a person named Chris was now "handling our file" and would be getting in touch. Meanwhile she suggested I contact the Foreclosure Department (the various departments didn't communicate with one another, but rather gave contradictory information and often affected to deplore each other's methods), and thus I learned that the lawyer Stacy had never bothered to convey our short-sale offer. Given that her fees were accruing daily, it was hardly in her interest to seek a speedy resolution.
The next three months may be summarized as follows: Our latest file-handler, Chris, never did get back to me, ignoring my almost daily faxes (did he even exist at all? if so, I curse him); our potential buyers, an elderly couple, signed monthly extensions on their offer, but strongly hinted they were backing out if the matter wasn't settled by the end of January 2009; the title lawyer who was handling our sale, a pugnacious chain-smoker named Lynne, spent untold hours trying to light a fire under our bank's collectively dead ass with a series of hectoring phone calls, andfinally managed to get our file into the hands of a "closer"—a nervous Asian woman named Tina who spoke spotty English and claimed to have several files in front of ours on her work queue. By then I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, watching the hourglass as Aunt Em's face morphs horribly into the Wicked Witch of the West's.
Our red-letter day was Jan. 14, when I was invited to appear on NPR's Talk of the Nation with Neal Conan. The theme of the program was "What It's Like To Lose Everything" (my fellow guest was a Madoff victim), and toward the end of the program I mentioned that a certain large national bank had been sitting on their hands for more than three months while our potential buyers had cooled their heels, and never mind all the ghastliness we'd gone through already. Neal replied that I could return to his program anytime if I wanted to name names on the air. I thanked him, and afterward sent a fax to Chris, Tina, et al., repeating Neal's offer and providing a link to the episode in question.
The short-sale was completed on Jan. 31, 2009.
Our dream houses in Norfolk have long since been sold, though I occasionally stop by on my bicycle and imagine living in one or the other, or rather in a house very like one or the other. Then, with a newfound lightness of being—only five months to go!—I pedal away to our perfectly adequate rental near the Lafayette River.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.
Photograph of daughter by Leila Wylie.