Road to Nowhere
My life as a victim of Hurricane Katrina and the ineffectual Road Home program.
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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.
The only Road Home Housing Assistance Center where I could get a timely appointment was in Baton Rouge, so I drove there (10 hours) on Nov. 1. The first thing that struck me in the reception area was the manifest poverty of my fellow applicants—supplicants—who sat staring at nothing, stoical except for the odd sigh; some had children, who either played on the floor (half-heartedly) or slumped against their parents, sleeping. A Port Authority bus terminal at midnight. And really, it made sense: These were people, like me, with modest homes in the $150,000 (or lower) range; these were the displaced and uninsured. My wife and I had declined flood insurance because we were in a "low-risk zone"—as the FEMA maps would have it—and anyway we'd only lived there for a couple of months and were still mulling things over. So, here we were.
I was polishing off a Big Gulp of black coffee I'd bought at a gas station when my name was called, and the first thing I asked my housing adviser, Jacqueline Dix, was whether I could use the restroom before we got started. I hefted my Big Gulp and laughed—ingratiatingly, I hoped: To some extent, my life depended on this tall and rather intimidating person. She replied in a neutral voice that since this was a federal building, she'd have to accompany me. I said I could probably wait a while.
Jacqueline's manner was austere but not really unfriendly. I got the impression that her clients' neediness made her a little uncomfortable, and she was at pains to keep a seemly distance. She asked me for various documents—the deed to my house, FEMA and insurance stuff, a power-of-attorney letter (since my wife couldn't make it), and so on—then explained the Road Home flowchart that enumerated a seven-step process: I was at Step 3 (Meet Adviser), with Verify, Determine Benefit, Make Award, and Advise (advise further, that is) still to come. On Jacqueline's desk was a photograph of a white dog that appeared to be a twin of my own dog, Gracie, now living with my mother in rural Oklahoma. I noted the resemblance, and suddenly Jacqueline was wreathed in smiles. It was like asking Dr. Johnson about his beloved cat, Hodge: I'd broken the ice. Before I knew it, Jacqueline was telling me all about switching her major in college (either from journalism to communications or the other way around) and how this might impinge on future career moves. As we wrapped up the interview, I confessed that if I didn't use the bathroom, I was liable to black out, but did this mean … ? As it happened, she only stood guard in the hall, where she could watch me come and go, and then she escorted me all the way down to the parking lot. I felt as if I'd made a friend.
I was spending the night in New Orleans, so I stopped by the old neighborhood to see how things were going. Maybe half the houses were boarded up and abandoned like mine, while three or four (like Chuck's) were good as new; the rest had FEMA trailers parked in their driveways. After a depressing tour of my house—I'd seen the photographs, of course, but that's nothing like walking around and picturing the way things were—I saw my old neighbor Kathleen getting out of her car, three houses down, and went over to say hi. She showed me the inside of her FEMA trailer, insisting that I not take pictures, as she knew about my Slate columns and was frankly ashamed of the place. Respecting her wishes, I'll say only that it was grim—period—and relate one detail about the hot-water tank: Kathleen swears it only holds a single gallon, which I find hard to believe, but at any rate, she assures me it's a very unsatisfactory washing experience.
My friendship with Jacqueline Dix, it turned out, was not fated to blossom. Within "eight to 10 business days" of our interview, she'd promised, the program would be in touch about scheduling an inspection of my house (to assess damage and calculate my grant); so, I told my local real-estate agent to stand by, as I'd need her to let the inspector in, and waited. Nobody contacted me. Meanwhile, I read a harrowing story in the New York Times about the feeble performance of the Road Home program: Of the 79,000 families who'd applied, only 1,721 had received award letters, and only 22 had received funds. I e-mailed Jacqueline (she hadn't returned my call) asking if I should be worried, and she replied curtly that she'd just learned in a staff meeting "that the 8-10 day time frame has now been put into a 3-4 week time frame." Four weeks passed, then another two, before the inspection took place; afterward, the inspector told me it wouldn't be long before I received my award letter. How long? "Oh, pretty soon now."
Weeks passed. Chuck called, asking to buy my house as a tear-down. The New Year came and went. Finally, I e-mailed Jacqueline a very cordial note expressing my slight angst over the fact that I'd yet to receive a letter. This time the perky, girlish Jacqueline replied: "From here Mr. Blake you can view the status of your application on-line," she wrote, closing with "Happy New Year!!!!" I promptly checked my application on the Web site, which informed me that no action had been taken since Oct. 11, 2006—that is, when they first informed me of my eligibility. Before Baton Rouge, even. Taken aback, I e-mailed Jacqueline again: Should I be worried about this? She didn't reply. I re-mailed: Would you look into this for me? Please? Or give me the name of someone who can? She didn't reply.
Weeks passed. My Google News search on the Road Home program brought ill tidings almost daily. As of Martin Luther King Day, only 177 homeowners had received funding out of (by then) almost 100,000 applicants, and lawmakers in New Orleans were calling the program the "Road Homeless" and the "Road to Nowhere." "This Road Home program is a joke," said Maxine Waters, D-Calif., during congressional hearings in Washington, and by then I had to agree. Indeed, I was vexed, and in mid-February, I e-mailed Jacqueline again (this time cc-ing the public relations contact, Carol Hector-Harris): "I deeply, deeply resent not only the unconscionable delays," I wrote in part, "but also the fact that nobody—including yourself—seems able to give me any useful information about the status of my application." Of course, she didn't reply, but Ms. Hector-Harris wrote that she'd forwarded my complaint to "constituent services" and I should hear from someone any day now.
And lo, it came to pass. A woman named Elizabeth Hill—who had the phone manner of a weirdly optimistic grief counselor—let me know she was very sorry and meant to get right to the bottom of things.
"How bout I call you tomorrow?" she chirped. "Would that be all right?"
It would have been great. But she didn't call. I waited a few days and left a cordial message. Nothing. I waited a week and left another message. Nothing. "Why can't anybody behave decently?" I asked finally, tremulously, and I guess that tore it between Elizabeth Hill and me. She never called again.
Every three months I have to send a lengthy fax to the large national bank holding our mortgage—this includes documentation attesting to the fact that we're doing everything humanly possible to expedite the repair and sale of our house via the Road Home program, and therefore that it is in the bank's interest to extend the grace period on our mortgage. But what, I wonder, will I write when our latest grace period expires? Will I tell them that according to the Road Home Web site, our application is in total limbo? That nobody will return my calls or e-mails? That two contractors have already despaired of repairing my house, while a third has begun taking a sort of bitter, derisive tone? That my former neighbors want nothing better than to raze the ruined eyesore that used to be my house? Sick to death of the whole fiasco—my pre-Katrina misanthropy reinstated in spades—I want to write, Just take it. Foreclosure can't be any worse than this.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.