My Year of Hurricanes
A trip to the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
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.
Last week I went back to New Orleans for the third time in a month—this time to meet with my insurance adjuster. With every visit, the city seems a bit more recovered: more people back, more businesses open, more debris cleared. Still, there are signs that all is not well, to put it mildly, and the overall impression is that of a fallen world. On Canal Street I saw an otherwise normal-looking man taking a piss in broad daylight; he didn't seem drunk; people passed him without a jot of dismay.
My adjuster, Danny Wells, was scheduled to inspect my house at 7:30 in the morning, the first of many inspections that day. Tomorrow he'd be leaving for West Palm Beach to get started on Hurricane Wilma. I was running late because I'd stopped en route at a Shell station in Metairie to buy coffee. The place was jammed with rowdy Hispanic recovery workers. Sandwiches were microwaved five at a time then hurled across the store trailing steam; the cash register receded into the distance as workers cut in front of me to join their chuckling buddies. By the time I departed, my coffee was cold and my banana had ripened a bit.
At my house I found Danny Wells picking his way through the debris in my backyard, taking mysterious measurements.
"So," I greeted him, "are you going to give me lots and lots of money?"
He chuckled uneasily. "Well, you know, we're checking for wind damage here," he said. He was a wizened man in his late 50s who looked as though he'd seen his share of the world's pain. "You met with your flood adjuster yet?" he asked.
I told him I had no flood insurance, and he began shaking his head. I added that—according to the Washington Post—less than 1 percent of homeowners nationwide have flood insurance where it isn't required. The goddamn FEMA maps, I went on, were outrageously inaccurate, and besides, the government has known for decades that the whole levee system …
"It's a shame," he sighed, and consulted his clipboard. "OK, here's what we got so far. This part of your house will have to be re-sided. Been on the roof and found a few shingles missing, plus a left-front patch needs to be replaced." He peered at his clipboard as if hoping to find more. "I can get you $500 for debris removal." He looked again, but that was it. "Want to go inside now?"
Inside he took photos and sighed from time to time. Finally he sighed deeper than ever and said, "Is that a new fridge?"
We looked at my brand-new Sears refrigerator, which appeared to be sweating maggots.
"Yes," I said.
"A tree fell on your roof and cut a power line," he said, making a note of it, "and I'll say that's what broke your fridge. Otherwise"—he indicated the moldy walls, the buckled hardwood floors, the sodden furniture, everything—"I'm afraid it's all flood-related, you know?"
In need of perspective, I thought I'd take the Gray Line bus tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, next to the Industrial Canal, where flooding had been the worst. The idea behind the tour was to give former residents a chance to say goodbye and come to terms with their loss. (Closure was a word I heard again and again that day.) The National Guard was blocking residents who tried to return on their own because it was too dangerous: Houses that were still standing might collapse at any moment, and bodies were still being pulled out of the rubble (another corpse had been found the day before). Also, they worried that people who were psychologically unprepared, and alone, might commit suicide.
Though I'd spent most of my adult life in New Orleans, I'd never knowingly set foot in the Ninth Ward—pretty much terra incognita to middle-class white folks. I knew it was somewhere along the canal, but that was about it. Finally I stopped to ask for directions from two black women who stood chatting outside a sagging clapboard house.
"Well, this here's the Ninth Ward," said the younger of the two—the older woman's daughter, it turned out. She explained that the Lower Ninth was on the other side of the canal, by way of the St. Claude Bridge. Her name was Sheila Jackson and her mother's was Johnnye; they, too, had just met with an insurance adjuster, and they invited me to have a look inside their house. The walls were mottled like rinds of rotten gorgonzola. "And look here," said Johnnye Jackson, her voice muffled by a gas mask. "Just bought this fridge." It was a big expensive chromium model—much nicer than mine—lying flat on its back, covered with silt. We went back outside.
"I grew up in the Lower Ninth," the daughter told me. "It was a great place to be a child—like your whole block was an extended family. Real sense of community. But that's just gone now … Mm!"
Where would they go next?
"Thinking about Boston," she said, and laughed. "What about Boston, Mama?"
"Long as it ain't here, baby."
Bus tours of the Lower Ninth began in the parking lot of a church on the west side of the canal. The buses left at intervals of a half-hour or so, and each contained two counselors from the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the odd Salvation Army volunteer. Most of the passengers were elderly and tended to gaze out the windows in a sort of brave, impassive way. Our driver was a brassy blonde named Shirley Rolko who kept up a steady, blasting patter over the PA: "You feel like laughing or crying or screaming you should just let it go, folks! … Nothing I have ever seen, folks, prepared me for this. The West Bank is bad, but this is horrible … You see something and want me to stop, just yell STOP!"
Shirley wasn't overselling it; it was horrible all right. The larger brick houses along the main thoroughfare, Caffin Avenue, were relatively intact ("R.I.P. Fats You will be missed" somebody had spray-painted across the candy-colored compound of Fats Domino—who's alive and well and plans to rebuild), but once the bus turned onto a side street, there was a low collective groan.
Frankly, I'd rather avoid any heavy figures of speech (It looked like the end of the world), so a few details will have to suffice. Mostly there was the rubble, and caught high among the power lines and branches of dead trees was a lot of random detritus: bits of furniture, toys, tires, garbage, and dead animals. Cars and large appliances were smashed on top of collapsed houses, as if flung there by giant angry babies. A few houses had remained intact by submitting to the water and simply floating away, and now they rested pell-mell in the middle of streets, athwart other houses or mounds of debris. Everywhere the ground was caked in a foul, sun-cracked mud, like the desiccated bed of some prehistoric ocean. Bloated flies swarmed lazily around the bus.
An old woman yelled "Stop!" on the corner of Derbigny and Lizardi. The bus pulled over, and the trailing police car stopped, too. The woman got off and hobbled down Lizardi with the help of an HHS counselor. Her husband stood watching her go; he was nodding slightly, but his face was a blank.
"Is this where you lived?" I asked him.
The man explained that he and his wife had both grown up in the neighborhood, though for many years they'd lived in Gentilly (not far from my own house). They'd evacuated to Pritchard, Ala. His name was Cephus Peavy, which he patiently spelled for me.
"May I ask why your wife wanted to stop here?"
"You may," he said. "That's where my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and niece lived." He closed his eyes and pointed. "They passed away there."
A few minutes later his wife came back. She could barely walk now; some other passengers huddled around her. After a few minutes she was lifted sobbing onto the bus, and her husband, who'd stood off to the side with his arms folded, followed with a meditative look.
At first I'd thought Shirley Rolko's braying patter was a bit much, but I began to feel grateful for it. "Anybody want a Sno-Cone?" she boomed, as we passed an upended Sno-Cone stand. "Look at the ho-ho! Look at Santa! He looks lonely there … " A forlorn plastic Santa reclined in the mud. "You gotta laugh or cry, folks," she'd say, whenever she suspected one of her quips was in doubtful taste. "You gotta laugh or cry. You folks are looking at one of the greatest disasters in history! And you survived! You folks are all survivors."
It was a heartening thought, and everybody hugged her when they got off the bus some three hours later. I did, too. This experience, finally, had felt like closure.
Next: Miracles at Gainesville.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.