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.
Our first post-Katrina Christmas was a time to reflect on rather mixed blessings. On the one hand, we were moving out of our ghastly, beige-walled Windmeadows apartment into a lovely old Victorian house in the most idyllic neighborhood in Gainesville, Fla., the result of an extraordinary turn of events reported in my last column. On the other hand, well, we were moving again—the fifth time since becoming refugees, if you count every major stop along the way, and the sixth time if you count our (hellish) move to New Orleans only two months before the storm. Our toddler daughter, Amelia, suffers the most. Even our bleak cells at Windmeadows had begun to seem like home to her after seven weeks or so, and as the furniture vanished around her—again—she became more and more frantic. "Isn't this nice?" we kept asking her at the Victorian house, but by then she was in no mood to appreciate the book-lined walls and antique furniture (obscured to her, in any case, by a mass of unopened boxes). She clung to her mother and whimpered. Two days later, just as she was starting to settle down a bit, we piled into a car and drove off to the airport for our Christmas vacation. When Amelia saw a baggage handler wrapping her car seat in plastic, she let out a howl that widened every eye within a 50-yard radius.
We spent the holidays mostly at my mother's house in Norman, Okla., though my wife and daughter also drove to Fayetteville, Ark., to visit my father-in-law and his wife, Debby, for a couple of days. Amelia didn't seem to remember any of these good people since it's been almost a quarter of her lifetime since she saw them last (shortly after the hurricane). She greeted them with a sort of wary, furrowed look, ducking into her mother's bosom, but eventually she warmed up amid the cooing and coaxing and whatnot. She had no problem, however, recognizing our dog and cat—fellow refugees who now live with my mother in the country. Both were Amelia's best companions before her world was turned upside down, and besides, they have far more distinctive markings than her grandparents. Babbling ecstatically and wagging her arms, Amelia pursued the animals all over my mother's house: The cat cringed and hid; the dog submitted to the odd pat before slinking away with a nervous sigh. To them, no doubt, our daughter represents a dangerous past.
The day after we returned to Gainesville—Dec. 29—I drove nine hours, alone, to New Orleans. The main reason for the trip was an old tradition: Every year since graduating from Tulane, no matter where in the world we happen to find ourselves, my friend Les and I have met in New Orleans around the New Year. Les and his wife, Lee, have lived abroad for many years (presently in the Netherlands) and hadn't visited the city since the hurricane. That night, when I met them at the Carousel Bar in the French Quarter, they seemed subdued.
"This city is toast," Les said as we settled onto our stools.
He and Lee had spent much of the day at an old Uptown haunt, the Mayfair Bar, where they'd encountered a self-proclaimed mold specialist. This man was a dire pessimist. In terrifying detail he described how lethal mold spores luxuriate in the mucus membrane for five years or so, then you get sick and die. Anybody who had entered a moldy house without a certain kind of gas mask—not the $40 kind, but the $60 kind—was doomed. Mark my words, the man had said: Within five years, the population of New Orleans will be decimated by killer mold.
"But Les," I said. "I spent days in my moldy house without any kind of gas mask at all. I mean, it was too damn hot to wear a gas mask."
He and Lee looked at each other.
"You're doomed," said Les.
Lee nodded. "According to this guy anyway."