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.
This week I finally went back to New Orleans, roughly the midpoint of my journey from Norman, Okla., to Gainesville, Fla., where I was to be reunited with my family after almost a three-week separation. I missed my wife and daughter so keenly that I could scarcely watch a cute baby on TV, say, or a couple kissing—much less a couple kissing before turning to beam at their cute baby—without my eyes smarting with bourbon-scented tears. It was time to go.
My mother-in-law, Chris, a fellow evacuee, was also in New Orleans packing up her house; she'd asked me to bring some tranquilizers for her cat, who'd turned up sleek and purring a month or so after the hurricane. (Apparently it had come and gone through a broken window, decimating the local rodent population.) Also, of course, I needed to inspect my own house—take pictures for insurance purposes and determine which of our possessions were salvageable—so I could return later with a suitable rental truck. My friend Alfred, who'd visited my house the week before, suggested I forget about the truck and bring a little red wagon instead.
Approaching New Orleans from the west, you drive over a long stretch of Lake Pontchartrain before I-10 curves abruptly into the town of Kenner, near the airport. This time I had the sense of crossing a threshold into another dimension. As my mother-in-law put it, "It's as if you've been gone 20 years, as if the whole city has been deserted since then." Most of the big ugly signs along the Interstate (ECONO-LODGE) are skeletal now, the plastic blasted away, and roofs tend to be stripped or sagging or covered with tarps. The debris is ubiquitous.
In New Orleans I took the St. Bernard exit, which was blocked by a Humvee and two National Guardsmen. This was a badly flooded part of the city, and though the water had been mostly pumped away, the area was still officially off-limits. The guardsmen waved along a pickup in front of me but seemed to pause at the sight of my 1998 Suzuki Esteem, which a friend in Dallas had called a typical "refugee car"—bulging with a lot of sad crap, caked in grime, and driven by a vacant-eyed person who looked like one of the Joads fleeing the Dust Bowl. For the guardsmen I mustered a jaunty grin and groped for my letter from Slate ("Blake Bailey is a journalist … "), but when I looked up they were laughing and talking again.
The footage you see on CNN doesn't really prepare you for an eye-level view of the city, to say nothing of its cheesy toxic stench. To avoid a deep rut of oily water at the bottom of the exit ramp, I reversed course and took the long way to my mother-in-law's place in Mid City. I saw many things. The St. Bernard housing project looked like the ruins of an Aztec slum. Most of the shrubbery, everywhere, was dead, as were many of the old live oaks and palm trees; City Park looked vaguely prehistoric. Abandoned cars, scattered by the thousands along medians and sidewalks, were the same scummy underwater gray.
"It's like a neutron bomb hit it," said my mother-in-law's boyfriend, Jim, as we sat amid the leafy silence of Chris' old neighborhood. Our meeting was brief; there wasn't much to say that couldn't be said in other, less baleful, circumstances. I gave Chris the cat tranquilizers, and she gave me a few Hefty bags full of salvaged toys for her granddaughter. Then we hugged and said goodbye, whereupon I drove to my former home in the suburb of Gentilly.
To see one's house after it's been hit by a Category 4 hurricane, then steeped in poisonous floodwaters, is to reflect on the vanity of all earthly striving. There—dead as a doornail and buried in waist-high debris—is the lawn you lovingly mowed two days before the storm. There is the kitchen you cleaned on alternate mornings, the hardwood floor you polished on your hands and knees, the furniture you assembled yourself, the Persian rug you couldn't really afford—all of it rancid and moldy and buckled and reeking. I tiptoed around the waterlogged books, wincing at the camera's viewfinder and breathing through my mouth. Finally I grabbed my old Pooh Bear off a high chair in the nursery (where I imagined him surveying the rising flood with a kind of hopeful stoicism) and, departing, cast a backward glance at my Saturn SL1 in the driveway. Its trunk had popped open in what appeared to be a last frantic gasp.
Nostalgic, I drove Uptown ("Remember there's a 6:00 curfew, sir," said a nice guardsman on Metairie Road) to visit some haunts of my youth. At the SAE house—I was an SAE at Tulane, oddly enough—a nice young man named Burke Stough, who was cleaning out his room, agreed to show me around. The basement was flooded.
"Is this from the hurricane," I asked, "or Cane Cutters?"
" 'Cane Cutters,' sir?"
He called me sir. I told him Cane Cutters was an annual party for which we flooded the basement, on purpose, so we could caper around in rubber boats and whatnot. He'd never heard of it. Sic transit, I thought, and asked him where he was going to school these days.
"I was driving back from Hot Springs after the hurricane," he explained, "and ran into this big gas line outside Tallulah, Louisiana. I was on my way to LSU, but I decided then and there just to drive on over to Dallas and go to SMU instead. They don't mind as long as I pay tuition at Tulane." The whole fraternity, in fact, was scattered all over the map now—Cornell, UVA, Chapel Hill, as far west as Washington state. Would they ever return? Burke wasn't sure.
I also stopped at the famous Commander's Palace restaurant, where my curiosity was piqued by a swarm of men wearing jumpsuits and gas masks. One of them fetched the sous chef, Tom Robey, who told me they were cleaning out the walk-in refrigerators that day—"they" being a company that specialized in toxic-waste removal, and not him and his fellow cooks, thank God.
"There was $30,000 worth of meat in there when we evacuated," he said. "So, you can imagine."
But I couldn't really. How to describe the smell? It was a distillation of everything New Orleans, an almost material creature, a Blob. The dining rooms were immaculate—all the tables set with silver and napkins—but I didn't see how they'd ever get rid of that smell. On the other hand, Tom Robey seemed rather used to it already, which led me to wonder what else one could get used to. He thought the restaurant would reopen sometime early next year.
The last leg of my journey was harrowing. The twin-span bridge heading east had collapsed into the lake, and traffic was squeezed into a single lane of Highway 11. After a long crawl over high, darkening water, one found great heaps of debris where the town of Slidell used to be—miles of road like a parted sea that might come crashing down at any moment. Nor was I-10 any relief. Except for the odd patch of generator light, the bobbing rubies of the cars around you, the whole Gulf Coast was almost pitch-black. Motels, with or without power, were booked solid from Louisiana to Florida. Somewhere around Mobile, Ala., I managed to buy a maximum $20 of premium fuel—about 6 gallons—which got me as far as a Comfort Inn in Pensacola, Fla., that had, at last, a single available suite.
The next day I was reunited with my wife and daughter. In my absence the baby had learned to pull herself up to a standing position, and this she demonstrated amid the clutter of our borrowed apartment. Also she said "bye" and "fish." For the moment, New Orleans seemed a lifetime away.