14 months later….A Homecoming
Barring any last minute surprises, the Pierce Family is finally returning to Mid City, exactly 14 months after we all packed into our vehicles to flee KTMB.
Seymour has been after me for months now to post our Katrina story. In short, our story is far worse than some, but far luckier than some others. After all, we didn’t lose a life – not a human one at least. Even the cats we lost were indirect KTMB mortalities, but I digress.
I can’t possibly relive the details of months of being evacuated right now, but I want to mention that we always considered ourselves evacuated. The use of the word ‘home’ in the beginning of these 14 months just meant the place that was flooded in Mid City. Several months in, around the time that our first child was born in December, ‘that place we were renting’ in Belle Chasse – a far cry from Mid City in more ways than one, became known as ‘home’ by default.
My mind has been scatter-brained at best through all of this, and it’s time to sort it all out – get it all down before I forget. I’m sure I’ll never get it all down the way it happened. I tried to journal in the early days after KTMB, but comforting my pregnant wife, securing short & long term temporary shelter, and battling for an equitable share of insurance took precedence over writing. Not to mention SBA and FEMA. Most of the bloggers on this site don’t seem to have been as personally affected as I was by the levee break. Regardless, the sympathy and understanding I’ve received from reading this blog since Seymour started it has helped keep me sane.
I suppose I’ll start from the beginning… (don’t worry, I still don’t have the time to make this too long, not here, not now)
My wife was choked up as we left in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, August 28th with our two Labrador retrievers, 2 cats, a small new model 4Dr sedan and 1996 SUV (that I was worried would overheat if we didn’t beat the traffic). You see, in 2004 when returning from our Hurricane Ivan evacuation, we still had our two Saturns and one of them overheated somewhere on I-12 before exiting for the Causeway. We had to pile my sister’s 2 cats, our two cats, and those two Labrador retrievers I just told you about into ONE of those Saturns. Oh yeah, and three adults as well.
But I wasn’t choked up like my wife was about leaving the house on 8/28/05, I was convinced we’d see home sweet home by that Tuesday afternoon at the latest. I chalked up her emotions to being 6 months pregnant, and focused on picking up my sister from Metairie before heading over the Huey P. Long Bridge, to Hwy 90, and on to our friend’s house in Lafayette.
Before arriving to my childhood home in West Metairie, KTMB was announced to be a Cat 5. Ohhhhh boy, this was getting worse. I still wasn’t scared, life had dealt us a lot of curve balls since 2002, this would surely pass. We had all kinds of Karma points waiting to be cashed in for an event like this, so surely we’d be spared, right? Oh yeah, I guess this is a good place to mention that we had just fought off an audit by the IRS days before KTMB. No taxes owed - no change to the filing.
We arrived in the darkness to pick up my sister from the house that she still lived in after our parents died respectively in 2002 and 2004. Being in my mid thirties, I was a bit young to be receiving my meager inheritance, but the house was set to go to act of sale on Tuesday, August 30th – if it were still there. My share of less than 1/3 of the proceeds would pay off our credit card debt and renovation debt that we had swallowed from living a little beyond our means for the last 4-5 years. Maybe there’d be a little left over to pay for shutters so I wouldn’t nearly kill myself boarding up the myriad of windows of that two story double we call home ‘next time.’
So it was daylight, and the traffic was thickening on Hwy 90 – in Lafourche Parish maybe? Of course, the 20lb cat crapped in his carrier not longer after arriving on the Westbank, in his regular evacuation ritual it seemed.
Anyway, the first time I was scared was when Father Maestri, the local spokesman for the Catholic Church in New Orleans, was on WWL 870AM praying for the city to be spared KTMB’s wrath. Whoa, this had never happened before, at least not during the 1992, 1998, or 2004 Hurricane scares for NoLa. It was the first tear I would shed thanks to KTMB.
I won’t get into the immediate shock and trauma of realizing that our house had flooded. That’s for another day… let me skip to a few weeks and months later..
My sister would be sent to the Northeast to stay with my brother and his family until her life in Metairie could return to normal. My wife, our cats, my sister’s cats, our dogs, and unborn child remained with me in Lafayette until RTMB ran us eastward. We’d unsettle in Baton Rouge for one more month – our stuff and livestock scattered across the NoLa area, before returning to the Westbank to live with my wife’s parents. The plan was to rent an apartment owned by my wife’s family, but it wouldn’t be ready until the week of Thanksgiving when we moved in, just in time to prepare the nest for our first born. It wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful for the people who had given us shelter, I just needed to be in ‘our place’ before the baby arrived. She was due to be born in the first week of December, so surely my wife should have been ‘nesting’ by now.
Everyone in our neighborhood was being ‘maxed out’ with their flood policies. A friend with a FEMA pass had snuck me and my flood insurance adjuster past FEMA checkpoints on the first day when there was no longer standing water on our street in Mid City (9/13 I think), but I think I was the last person in my neighborhood to get an insurance check (that would be ½ in January, and after much protesting and fighting the 2nd ½ in April). It also seemed that everyone else we knew were given 3 months with no house payments – even those not really affected. The initial shock and aftershock of realizing what we had lost and what it would take to rebuild our house would turn out to be just a blip on the radar screen of what would become our 14 month evacuation. But we were among the lucky ones, after a bit of a hiatus and working from BR, I returned to my regular job in the New Orleans area. And so could my wife – well sorta, but that’s another story. Anyway, we hadn’t even lost any of the lives of our cats yet, so we were not among the most unfortunate. But what was becoming more apparent every day, we were not among the people all around us who were making out like bandits with insurance claims. So the house was gutted using borrowed $$ from SBA, treated for mold, and we signed up with a GC that most of our tight knit block was going to use to rebuild. He was from BR, but said he’d be living on the block until all of our houses were rebuilt. We figured if he turned bad on us, the whole block would revolt against him. Like most of this, that chapter isn’t closed yet.
Our beautiful baby girl was born 5 days after her due date. My wife was a champion during labor and was instantly a great mother. The two nights we stayed in the hospital were like nights of luxury. It was really the first time since KTMB that we could slow down to appreciate our world – and the world in which we had just brought in a new little girl. The last 3 months of enjoying our D I N K status was stripped from under our feet. But our little girl was born in Orleans Parish - assisted by a doctor who had delivered the first baby after this particular hospital has reopened.
We returned to our West Bank rental, baby in tow. It wasn’t supposed to be this way – not there, not like this, but it was joyous nonetheless. My mother in law, had posted a “It’s a girl!” sign in the window – which would stay there much longer than it probably should have. Even the quiet guy next door congratulated me. I was a proud Dad.
My wife returned to work in March, and did so in my office. She works for a state office, and once some people in BR caught wind of her working away from ‘the mothership’ – it quickly had to come to an end until her NoLa office was rebuilt. So, until early August 2006, she had to commute to BR 4 days a week. Living in Belle Chasse meant the alarm clock sounded at 4:30AM every morning. The three of us wouldn’t see each other until about 8pm each night, before we could shower and get ready for the next day. When a friend pointed out the KTMB relevant lyrics of a Green Day song – “When September Ends” and how it eerily (but only coincidently) fit the KTMB aftermath, it became sort of a drive to work song that quickly cleansed the tear ducts for the first half of 2006. I loved this album already, but crying to a punk-pop song, damn, where’s the Anti-Depressants?
I keep saying these days that I am ready to reclaim at least 10 hours a week that I currently spend commuting back and forth to my job in the suburbs. For most of these 12 months that we’ve been back in the NoLA area, I’ve stopped by our house in Mid City to check on the rebuilding status at lunchtime – having a smoothie or junk food for lunch most of the time. It has become a ritual that I long to end. I miss the days where my coworkers and I asked each other the most important question of the day “What’s for lunch?” as we would arrive at work around 8am.
To make a LONG story a little bit shorter for now, I can’t concentrate on anything but moving home. It was supposed to happen last Saturday (10/21/06), but the official end of our evacuation will be 10/28/06. Unless this cartoon character named “Fred the floor guy” decides he doesn’t want to show up today, this Sat. will finally be our Rebirth.
A return to normalcy – not quite of course. Our little area of Mid City is bustling with activity, but we may awaken Sunday morning after our first night’s sleep in our home (for the last 14 months – it was called ‘that place we’ve paying on that mortgage’) to the BEEP-BEEP-BEEP of the cleanup bobcats that are still picking up KTMB debris.
Either way, maybe I’ll spend a few minutes of those 10 hours a week I’ve been losing describing on this blog what it’s like to return to a portion of the City that was brought to it’s knees but still has a bright future. If I don’t write another entry here for awhile, I think you’ll understand – I have a lot of frozen chalices of beer to drink, spumoni ice cream to eat, and miles of jogging under the oaks of City Park to log.
Paul S. Pierce