The New Orleans to which I returned six weeks after Hurricane Katrina was not the New Orleans I had left.
I was fortunate, though, to live in the unflooded crescent of the city near the Mississippi River (the sliver on the river), so I returned to a relatively unscathed home--my second-floor apartment in an old New Orleans house on Napoleon Avenue. Each of our six apartment units had been broken into by the National Guard, and our front door had been spray-painted in code with their findings. Every house in the city carried these markings, which--if you knew how to decipher the code--indicated the name of the National Guard unit, the date of entry, the number of survivors found, and the number of dead bodies. Some houses carried actual spray-painted words: "1 white Manx cat taken to Winn-Dixie," or even "1 dead body."
Driving was hazardous and circuitous. Traffic lights didn't function and STOP signs were down, so we had to treat intersections as four-way stops. Flat tires were a constant threat because of glass in the streets. We could never count on driving a straight route from here to there, as we'd find the streets blocked by piles of debris or by work crews clearing it away. At night, we drove through a checker-board of lighted and darkened neighborhoods, depending on where electricity had and had not been restored. Twice, in a darkened area at night, I almost drove into a deep pond of stagnant water still sitting in an underpass--and stopped just in time.
Flies and fleas were everywhere--you couldn't get rid of them.
Damaged roofs were covered by blue tarps provided by FEMA. From the air, New Orleans became a sea of blue. But the tarp that covered my apartment behaved more like a sieve than a temporary roof. Until we got our permanent roof in March 2006, whenever it rained, water streamed into my living room, and I had to collect it in five buckets and empty those buckets frequently.
But all this was minor. Beyond the unflooded crescent where I lived, conditions deteriorated quickly. Every home beyond the crescent was encircled with a brown water-ring showing how high the waters had risen. The farther from the Mississippi River, the higher the water-ring. Out near Lake Pontchartrain, those water-rings were above the eaves.
What hurt me most was entering the flooded homes of friends. The home was distorted beyond recognition. Furniture had floated about the house and landed wherever it had floated to when the waters receded. The kitchen table, upside-down in the living room. An armchair, tilted on its side in the bathtub. It was as though a giant had picked up the house, shaken it, and plopped it down with all the contents scattered. The furniture and walls and floor were water-logged, buckled, and moldy. The stench was nauseating.
I learned that my love for my friends extends to their homes. To see a beloved home so horribly distorted shocked me. It was like seeing the mutilated face of a loved one after an injury. My shock, though, was small compared to the shock of the friend whose home it was. Like Yvonne.
I spent hours with Yvonne, a pianist, sorting through wet page after wet page of sheet music--her first pieces from childhood recitals, hand-written pieces she had composed, pieces she had played and loved and carefully annotated. We painstakingly separated the sheets and set them out to dry, salvaging most of the music. But Yvonne's baby grand piano--her musical companion of thirty years--was ruined.
One bright spot in the bleakness of sorting through Yvonne's soaked belongings came from her pantry. Canned food on the higher shelves was in fine condition, but Yvonne would be moving on to Missouri.
"Karen, could you use this food?"
"Sure! I know just how! I'll invite the Party Pals for dinner. We'll call it Yvonne's Pantry Party!"
The Party Pals are ten new Orleanians who celebrate our friendship through parties. And Yvonne's Pantry Party was a success! I prepared a meal with the pantry contents, and we telephoned Yvonne in the midst of the festivities to thank her.