Since I've been in New Orleans, I've spent half my time reporting and half worrying about my family. My parents and grandparents left town a few days before Katrina came through. They're safe in Houston now but have no idea what happened to their houses. Hours spent decoding before-and-after satellite images reassure us that the family homesteads are still standing, but the grainy photos don't tell us if they took on any water or got battered by falling oak trees.
My parents live in Uptown New Orleans, a few blocks east of the terminus of the Carrollton * Ave. streetcar line. On my first day in town, I tried to drive home by going north on Carrollton but had to turn around when the water started rising five blocks south of our house. A day later, my dad drove from Houston to meet me at the place my uncle just rented in Baton Rouge. We set out for New Orleans the next morning with two pairs of wading boots in the back of the car.
While I'm focused on making my way to the house I grew up in, my dad's most concerned about getting into his office to find a patient's medical charts and the credentialing documentshe'll need to secure temporary work as a surgeon out of state. Some New Orleanians returning to the city have bypassed the mandatory evacuation by paying off-duty cops to escort them across the parish line. My dad, though, can get in because doctors are a special caste; the cops and National Guardsmen who man the checkpoints on I-10 and at the parish line wave through anyone wearing scrubs. In the middle of the drive, my dad tells me it feels good to get up at dawn and put on his scrub shirt and scrub pants—that for the first time in a while it feels like the day has a purpose. He hasn't gone this long without working for 25 years.
There's no flooding around Touro Infirmary, and we make our way to the hospital without any problem. The gate at the parking attendant's station is nothing but a splintered nub—someone probably smashed right through it, just like in the movies. The garage's third level, where patients were airlifted out by helicopter in the days after the storm, is a freeze frame of harried evacuation. Rolling beds, IV stands, and moldy hospital food lie haphazardly between the parked cars. Choppers still use the parking garage roof for takeoffs and landings; the sound of rotors spinning fills the spaces where people should be.
The office is hot and musty but completely intact. My dad lifts his diplomas off the wall and dumps them in a garbage bag; I grab family photos out of their frames and make a pile on his desk. On the way out the door, he stops and takes a white coat from the hall closet. In the dark, airless stairwell, we run into a doctor with what looks like a miner's headlamp strapped to his forehead.
With the hospital checked off our list, we drive down St. Charles Avenue toward the house. My dad is heartened by the condition of Uptown. It's obvious that a hurricane's been through here, but the streets are getting cleared, and the houses look OK. And after a few weeks of hard work, he says, Touro could probably be up and running again—the problem is that there won't be any patients. Later that afternoon, he stops by East Jefferson General Hospital. Doctors have been told to report to work here; four surgeons pace the halls, waiting for something to do.
We turn toward the lake on Carrollton and look in on friends' and relatives' houses, all pretty much fine except for gutter and fence damage from severed tree limbs. The brick church where my mother holds her pre-school reading program looks unaffected, too—her sign is still screwed to the fence, but we can't go inside because the door has been barricaded by a giant pile of branches.
At the spot where rising water stopped me a few days earlier, the ground is dirty but dry. The pumps must be working. In two days, the water has receded 10 or 12 blocks. My dad asks if I'm getting nervous, because he sure is. Guys in Humvees pick up the big branches blocking the middle of our street; we drive down the path that's been cleared for us.
The house looks pretty much how I remember it, except for the boards and branches piled on the brick walk. The green shutter door opens with the same creak. On the ground below the mail slot, there are 15 new registrations for my mom's now-canceled program. The downstairs looks immaculate. We don't dare open the refrigerator to ruin the illusion that everything looks—and smells—exactly the same.
My dad goes upstairs later in the afternoon and finds a broken window in my sister's old room. The ceiling is also falling down. The storm blew bunches of tiles off our slate roof, allowing water to fall into the house unimpeded and collect on the attic floor. There's water damage on the ceiling of my old bedroom, too.
Early the next morning, we drive back from Baton Rouge to do what we can about the roof. Somehow, the water has gone up since the day before. Carrollton and Claiborne Avenue, a corner that had been dry, has once again become part of the municipal pool. We can still get to the house, though, if only by driving on the wrong side of the street.
We scour the garage for tools and come up with a staple gun with no staples, a battery-powered screwdriver with no bits, some hammers and nails, and a box of garbage bags. Sunlight squeezes into the attic from toaster-sized holes in the roof. Since we don't have a ladder big enough to get us on top of the house, we nail the garbage bags to the attic's interior support beams. After a few minutes, we give up and just lay the bags on the spots where natural light touches the floor.
We carry out boxes of photos, my sister's letters, my dad's CD cases, everyone's birth certificates. My dad slings three winter coats over his arm, just in case they're still not back home when the weather gets cold.
Next stop: my grandparents' house, the house my dad grew up in. Actual next stop: standing water. There's no way to drive to their place on S. Jeff Davis Parkway, and there's no way to wade there either. The water's still too high in every direction, and there are no dinghies or choppers around to commandeer.
On the way out of town, we scoot unimpeded through the streets we used to take to work, to school, to the airport. On Claiborne, a bored soldier plays golf in the middle of the street with a club fashioned from a stray piece of wood. We make it all the way back to Houston for an exiles' dinner at my grandparents' temporary apartment. There's brisket in the oven, and the LSU football game's on TV. My grandmother's black-and-white photos, the giant plush turtle I used to sit on, and everything else they own are still in a dark, empty house. Maybe it's all wet and maybe it's not, but everything feels far away.