My Year of Hurricanes
Starting over with $2,000 from FEMA.
This article is part of an ongoing series by Blake Bailey, a New Orleans resident who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Click here to read more of his dispatches.
While I continued working on Cheever at my mother's real-estate office in Norman, Okla., my wife returned to Gainesville, Fla., this week to register at the University of Florida, where she'd successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation only a few months before. The faculty had created an internship position for her when the program at Tulane was obliterated by the hurricane. "As I drove into Gainesville," my wife told me, "I kept looking around for changes. It seemed like I'd been gone a long time, and since things had changed so much for me, I thought Gainesville should have changed, too. Of course, I'd really only been gone three months, so everything looked the same."
All week I was mired in a particularly gloomy stretch of Cheever's journal ("I spend most of my time thinking about sex, alcohol, and how loathsome I am"), though I daresay my wife had the worse part of the bargain. She and our baby, Amelia, were surrounded by exhaustingly kind people. They clustered about asking questions and commiserating; they presented my wife with money they'd collected from people in the department. (My wife used this to reopen our checking account at Bank of America; the rest of our money, such as it is, remains at Hibernia, which has no branches in Oklahoma or Florida.) Our friend Melanie presented my wife with an album of photos she'd ordered from the Kodak Web site, where we'd posted slide shows of the baby for friends and family. Melanie knew we'd lost all our old albums in the flood—almost every photographic trace of our lives so far: our wedding on the Isle of Mull, the move to Florida, the vacations and pets and whatnot along the way. But the history of our child's 15-month life was, thanks to Melanie and Kodak.com, intact. With her friends beaming around her, my wife paged through the album—there was Amelia in New Orleans: her nursery, the porch, the Persian rug—and remembered what a great house we'd had and how happy we'd been there. "Thank you ... thank you," she said, with a fixed grateful smile. Her eyes filled up as her face ached with labial cramp.
There was also the matter of day care. The good news was that we'd found a place that accepted nonambulatory toddlers; the bad news was that, well, it wasn't the same as Kinderhaus Montessori in New Orleans, where Amelia had wagged her arms excitedly every time she laid eyes on her teacher, Miss Allyson. The people at the new place, while nice enough, didn't elicit the same tribute. Perhaps it was only a question of time. For the last few weeks our baby had been carted around a kaleidoscopic moonscape of cities and houses and faces, such that she clung to her mother's shirt front—as if suspended above an abyss—when fellow toddlers tried to offer her toys or foodstuffs during orientation at the day-care center in Gainesville. Like her parents, she wants to go home again.
The incidental errands associated with being disaster victims can come as a welcome distraction. This week, when my wife wasn't smiling bravely for the benefit of kind friends, she was renting a storage facility (to receive some donated furniture until we have an apartment to put it in), reconnecting with our old pediatrician, arranging insurance coverage for our rental car, and replacing necessary items at Wal-Mart. The last is covered by a $965 voucher I got at the Red Cross—i.e., $300 per family member, plus tax or something—in exchange for which I was happy to wait several hours amid screaming infants and bureaucratic palaver. I'm also glad (if hesitantly so) to report that FEMA seems to be making amends, after a fashion. Though it took me almost two days to complete an online application for disaster assistance—this was right after Katrina, when the Web site kept crashing every five minutes or so—it was worth it: So far I've received a standard single-family payment of $2,000 for emergency lodging, and now I'm informed that another $2,358 for rental assistance is on the way. Indeed it may seem as though our cup runneth over, were it not for our lack of flood insurance.
"Of course we weren't advised to get flood insurance," I told an agent from our insurance company, who kept repeating they were happy to cover wind-damage (which was minimal) to our house. "Our mortgage broker told us we were in a 'low-risk' zone. In a neighborhood that flooded six feet! At least! Two months after we moved in! Surely there's some sort of legal remedy, isn't there? I mean isn't there—?"
"Sir, I repeat you should take that up with … "
And so on, round and round. My conversation with Chase Home Finance was even less reassuring. When I ventured, delicately, to suggest that Chase might forgive its debtors who were ruined by Katrina, or perhaps cooperate with FEMA to that effect, my interlocutor became strident, as though I'd borrowed the money from him personally.
"Sir, you owe that money. Chase has given you that money and now you have to pay it back!"
The truth is, I rather enjoyed this conversation next to the ones I find myself having in ordinary social situations. At a wine-tasting party the other night, for instance, everyone was asked to stand and explain who they were. Given my druthers, I'd just as soon skirt the whole hurricane issue—there's only so much mawkish solicitude and amateur punditry one can take—but since I didn't want to seem like a middle-aged guy who was living with his mother on purpose, I mentioned that I was from New Orleans and temporarily homeless, etc. A few minutes later a guy with an Okie accent and haircut en brosse approached me. Diffidently he mentioned the looting in New Orleans, and I agreed it was a shame.
He went on: "I had a dream the other night that God was flushing the toilet."
" … I'm sorry?"
"I told my wife, 'God's flushing the toilet!' Know what I mean? Those people who stayed behind and looted?"
"Well," I said, "I don't think they stayed behind to loot per se …"
"Still, you know, that whole damn city—"
And I began to say that God's toilet had swallowed a lot more than looters, that any number of nice, white, middle-class—blah blah blah—but I let it go. "Let us consider that the soul of man is immortal," I said tipsily, "able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus may we live happily with one another and with God."
This was Cheever's favorite Thanksgiving toast, a paraphrase of Jowett's translation of Plato. It was something we all could agree on, I thought, along with the fact that the Sooners suck this year.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.
Photographs by Blake Bailey.