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."
"But … I feel fine."
My friend Les lit a cigarette and splayed his hand ("five years") then tactfully changed the subject. The Carousel Bar rotated, creaking, while we sat chatting.
Later we met our friends Alfred and Melissa at Arnaud's, one of the few posh restaurants to reopen in the Quarter. Melissa is friends with the owner and had to pull strings (we thought) to get us a reservation on short notice around the New Year, but in fact the place wasn't very crowded. At some point Melissa's friend, the owner, came to our table and recounted how he'd evacuated three days after the storm with Melissa's dog, Flambeau, in tow. (I gather the dog had been left at Arnaud's because Melissa's family had evacuated by plane, but frankly I was pretty drunk by then and the details are vague.) The owner said he'd planned to ride out the hurricane at the restaurant, dog and all, but there were rumors of violence outside, and then the water had started rushing in. The tiles, I noticed, were still a bit on the scummy side.
Later we walked a few blocks to the famous Pat O'Brien's Bar. The French Quarter seemed sadly depleted—more like, say, Frontier City in Oklahoma than the Quarter circa New Year's Eve (no less). Bourbon Street was haunted by the ghosts of Sugar Bowls Past. In that bar, there, Lester and I had bellowed "Hang On, Sloopy" with a boisterous crowd of Buckeye fans (Les is from Cleveland); on that corner—just the year before last—I'd been accosted by an old battle-ax in LSU purple who'd jabbed a finger at my OU sweatshirt and brayed, "It's 80 degrees outside, you stupid Okie asshole!" But this year the Sugar Bowl was in Atlanta. There was no line to get into Pat O's piano bar, as in years past, and we were rushed to a table right under the pianos in front.
The next day (per tradition) we arranged to meet for lunch at Felix's Oyster Bar, on Bourbon a block off Canal. I arrived first and found the place closed, condemned. Pressing my face to the dirty window, I saw a chaos of garbage and fallen plaster. Across the street, however (and throughout the renascent Quarter), was some gaudy new Bennigan's-like place that advertised AUTHENTIC NAWLINS SEAFOOD!! and was pretty much empty as far as I could see. We went to the Napoleon House and had muffulettas and Pimm's Cups, then I took my friends for a drive.
All they'd seen so far was the Quarter and the affluent, relatively unflooded Uptown neighborhoods near St. Charles Avenue. I drove them around the rest of the city, the other 80 percent or so, toward the lake. My friends stared out the window, chain-smoking and saying the word s---a lot, while we passed mile after mile of dead lawns and drowned, deserted houses. Finally we stopped at my own house in the suburb of Gentilly. The waist-high debris had been cleared off my lawn, I was happy to see—this in accordance with "Executive Order CRN 05-02" (there was a notice taped to my door) granting right-of-entry to FEMA and its contractors. That was fine. I remembered how my neighbor Daphne, pre-Katrina, had once spent nine hours grooming her lawn and power-hosing her driveway. Our lawn, however, was something of a disgrace even before the storm, and afterward the heavy, hopeless debris had shamed me vaguely. I pictured Daphne gazing across the street and shaking her head.
"Have a look inside?" I asked Les and Lee, holding the door open. I wanted to show them the cypress moldings and hardwood floors and so forth, but they kept their distance—no way were they coming near that mold. Lee wouldn't even get out of the car. What the hell, though, I was Dead Man Walking anyway, so I went inside and poked around a bit. Nothing had changed much, except the maggots on our fridge were all dead now. They looked (I'm sorry to say) like so many desiccated boogers.
We drove on toward the lake, where the waterline went all the way up to the eaves on some houses, and the power lines sagged to the asphalt, and muddy cars were strewn about like the unclaimed dead at Passchendaele.
"Every one of these houses," Les wondered, "was a family."
At last we came to the shoreline, where a fair portion of the city's newer rich had lived. Oddly enough, this neighborhood seemed virtually untouched by the flood: All at once the lawns were green again, and the windows gleamed with life inside. Go figure. Perhaps the grassy man-made embankment here (and only here) had stopped the water, or perhaps the gods are simply whimsical.
Next: Life one year after Katrina.