Recovering my belongings from New Orleans.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 21 2005 6:21 AM

My Year of Hurricanes

A return to moldy New Orleans, and an unexpected death.

(Continued from Page 1)
FEMA workers have begun the long task of clearing debris in our neighborhood
Click on image to enlarge.
FEMA workers have begun the long task of clearing debris in our neighborhood

The next day was ghastly hot, and I was hungover and depressed. But I was also glad to see a number of my old neighbors tending their houses. There was something otherworldly about the scene: people in protective masks, moving in a slow, pensive, almost floating way among the garbage and furniture and rusty appliances. My neighbor Jean had covered her entire yard with soggy clothing (from a distance it looked like the famous crane shot from Gone With the Wind: The wounded multitude on the streets of Atlanta), and I asked her if she really thought she could salvage all of it.

"Probably not," she said. "But it's all inventory. If you want to get full value from your insurance company, you have to inventory at least three times the actual contents of your home." She beckoned me inside. Her house was a lot like mine: the same cypress molding around the doors, the same plaster walls, the same warped and buckling hardwood floors. Many of the houses on our block had been built by the same architect in the late 1930s. Jean pointed to various items of furniture. "See that oak dresser? Solid. Just wipe it off with a little bleach and you're good to go. But see that?" A crumpled table. "No good."

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I also chatted with Kathleen, who'd lived two doors down from me. Almost every stick of furniture she owned was piled willy-nilly on the sidewalk; she was less sanguine than Jean, it seemed, about the relative value of anything soaked in that water.

My neighbor Kathleen says goodbye to her former belongings
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My neighbor Kathleen says goodbye to her former belongings

"My treasure!" she said, flinging her arms apart. For an ironist, though, Kathleen has a tender heart, and her voice grew husky as she told me about certain of our old neighbors. "Remember Betty across the street?" she said. "The cancer patient who'd been given six months to live?" I remembered a wizened but cheerful old woman who used to sit on her screen porch every evening. "She was evacuated to the Astrodome. Luckily, her granddaughter was able to find her and bring her home, but Betty died a couple days later. And Robert? You remember Robert?" She pointed to the next house over. No, I said, I hadn't met Robert in the two months I'd lived there. "Well, Robert was eccentric," said Kathleen. "He's been sort of a hermit since his mother died." Her voice was stopped by a sudden sob; Kathleen and almost every neighbor of ours had lived on the block for many years. "He died," she said finally. "He shot himself. We tried to get him to evacuate, but he wouldn't leave his mother's house. So, anyway somebody called him the day after the storm, and he said he was just fine, no problem, but the next day it flooded and he—I guess he just panicked."

******

In the end—gas mask or no—I decided to leave it closed
Click on image to enlarge.
In the end—gas mask or no—I decided to leave it closed

Packing up my house was a lugubrious business. The place stank, the day kept getting hotter, and I found it hard to breathe with the gas mask my wife had insisted I wear because of toxic sediment and mold. I kept calling her on the cell and asking if she wanted me to salvage this or that item.

"Just leave it," she kept repeating.

A relative of hers who'd worked on flooded houses had told her not to mess with that mold—we had a baby to consider, etc. He even told us to abandon our books, below and above the waterline, because of poisonous spores or something. But I was damned if I'd just toss, say, my 12-volume Heinemann edition of A Dance to the Music of Time. Also, I wondered about our old dining room table and chairs, by far our nicest furniture, a housewarming gift from my mother; the whole set was almost paisley with mold, but I thought I'd try Jean's advice about the bleach. After a few tentative swipes at a chair leg, the thing snapped like a piece of stale toast.

What with books and prints and stuff in the attic, though, I was able to fill my cargo van to the roof; it clattered along for six hours or so and then gave up the ghost somewhere in Tallahassee. For the rest of afternoon I sat in the heat waiting for Enterprise to bring me another van—wishing above all things that I was back in my bleak apartment in Gainesville. Three or four hours later, ecstatically, I was.

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