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.
"I'm sorry, sir, but there's been some sort of—um—your return has been pulled."
"Probably for an audit, sir, but we—well, we're just not sure. It may be in transit to another campus … "
I pictured my tax return at another campus, perhaps enjoying itself at a tailgate party. I told the woman I was a Katrina evacuee and desperately needed my refund, whereupon she referred my case to the taxpayer-advocate service. My contact there is a nice woman named Kim, who has troubles of her own. Kim lives near Peabody, Mass., an area that was flooded a few months ago in a torrential (perhaps global warming-related) rainfall; while bailing out the basement, Kim's husband was badly injured and had to miss work for several weeks. Kim mentioned this by way of commiseration. By then she'd discovered that I was indeed being audited, as were many Katrina evacuees (we'd been instructed to write "Hurricane Katrina Loss" in red at the top of our tax returns). Most of these audits were being prepared en masse at the Texas campus. According to Kim, my return had now visited the Atlanta campus and various campuses in between, but never once have I received any official notification of, well, anything. Mind, I appreciate the Treasury's vigilance, what with rampant FEMA fraud and so forth, to say nothing of the $250 million a day going to Iraq.
One achieves a kind of peace. About a week ago I was sitting on my dung-heap, waiting for another custard pie to fly over the transom, et voilà: I got an e-mail alerting me to a Times-Picayune story about a recent New Orleans ordinance requiring homeowners to "clean, gut, and board up" their houses by Aug. 29 (Happy anniversary!) or else the city would "seize and demolish" same. During his re-election campaign in April, Mayor Nagin had denounced the deadline as unfair to "people spread out all over the country, particularly senior citizens," but now he purports to see the wisdom of it and has initiated a "Good Neighbor Plan" to alert the citizenry wherever they may be. Thus alerted, I promptly got in touch with the man who'd estimated my house as a 63 percent goner: Could he clean, gut, and board the place before Aug. 29? Well, things are hectic, he told me (one can imagine), but he thought he could muster a crew if I could muster a 50 percent down payment of $8,625.
The councilman who sponsored this expensive ordinance is Jay Batt. It was pretty much his last act in office before being voted out on the strength of a well-publicized "Anybody But Batt" campaign. Oddly enough, Jay happens to be an old friend of mine. While attending Tulane we roomed together for a long year that (in the name of alma mater) I will forbear to describe. I haven't spoken to Jay in many years, though I feel he's speaking to me now, after a fashion.
But perhaps the worst is over. The White House has given its whimsical blessing to a plan whereby homeowners may receive the pre-Katrina value of their houses up to $150,000, minus FEMA and insurance payments. One awaits further word as one awaits the spark from heaven. And then there's this: According to Kim—our contact at taxpayer advocate—the IRS has abruptly canceled our audit and will be sending our refund after all. Why? Who knows? One feels like Joseph K. trying to divine the nature of his guilt. At any rate Kim seemed as happy as we, and that was a nice reminder of everyday decency. Together we hope for better things. Perhaps a year from now I can report that my (now-gutted) house in New Orleans is rebuilt at last and filled with happy people—all I know for certain, though, is that we ourselves will be elsewhere.