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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.
Around Christmas I got a call from Chuck, my former next-door neighbor in New Orleans. To this day I haven't the slightest idea how he got my cell number, as I was too surprised to ask when we talked. Before that, we'd said all of 10 words to each other: My family and I had moved to New Orleans in mid-June 2005, and Katrina hit on Aug. 29. When I think of Chuck, I think of a stocky, balding, intense-looking guy in his late 40s, doing yardwork or solemnly tossing a ball with his son.
Chuck got right to the point: He wanted to buy my house.
"Really?" I said.
"Well, just as a tear-down. I want the extra space."
Chuck, by the way, has a fairly typical New Orleans accent, which A.J. Liebling once described as being a lot like a Hoboken accent. I won't attempt to re-create it here, except to note that it seemed sort of abrasive under the circumstances.
"I tell you, Blake, I think it was a mistake for you to gut your house like that. Those are nice plaster walls, and you could've gotten them cleaned. The mold comes off."
He described in loving detail how he and certain other neighbors, all well-insured, had restored their homes to pre-Katrina condition or better. Most of the houses on our block in Gentilly were built in the '30s with the same plaster walls and cypress moldings, so Chuck knew whereof he spoke when he referred to my plaster walls. The contractor who'd gutted my house phoned me at the last minute to let me know that, because the walls were not drywall, the job would cost an extra $1,500, for a total of $18,625. I told him to go ahead. At the time, there was an ordinance requiring homeowners to clean, gut, and board up their flood-damaged houses by Aug. 29 (the anniversary), or else the city was entitled to "seize and destroy" same. Alas, I later learned that this wasn't really enforced, and besides, there were church groups and whatnot gutting places for free. In my case, I had to borrow on my publisher's advance, and everyone agrees I got screwed.
"So, you want to sell the place or what?" Chuck finally asked.
"Well, no, Chuck. We've applied for Road Home money."
I won't say Chuck laughed outright, but I detected something risible in his silence. Then he told me, in so many words, that he'd heard some pretty bad things about the Road Home, but whatever.
Two months before Chuck's call, I'd finally received my summons to meet with a housing adviser from the Road Home program, which was created to distribute the $7.5 billion in federal grants for Louisiana homeowners with uninsured Katrina losses. The money was long in coming—what with various distractions in Washington—but at last the program was ready to accept applications in August 2006. By then, we were living in our third rental in Gainesville, Fla., after preliminary stops with friends and relatives in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Oklahoma; for any number of reasons, we had no intention of returning to New Orleans. The plan was to stay in Florida while my wife finished her postdoctoral work and I finished my book, meanwhile rebuilding our house in New Orleans with Road Home money (up to $150,000, minus FEMA and insurance payments) and selling as soon as possible. Then we'd move somewhere else, preferably inland and above sea level.