Before returning home to New Orleans in February, I had a marginal understanding of what it meant for New Orleanians who had been forced to evacuate due to Katrina to go home and rebuild. I understood it would be hard, but exactly what rebuilding entailed, I could not grasp the depth of the task. I had heard the city was not up to speed. Although excessive numbers of people were living in the inhabitable areas, many stores were not open and many services were not available. I read an email that said most of the white (refrigerators and other home appliances) trash had been recovered. I read comments about the state of affairs on my family’s email group. I heard about the process of de-molding the furniture my aunts and uncles salvaged from my grandmother’s apartment. A process that included cleaning with bleach, leaving out in the sun, and cleaning a second time. I heard about the arguments and emotional meltdowns between some family members; I heard about the amazing unity and teamwork of others.
I received notice that my childhood home on 1708 Tennessee Street in the Lower 9th Ward was on the Red Danger List. What that means is the old Salaam home is one of more than 5,000 properties deemed ‘in imminent danger of collapse’ and recommended for demolition. However: “No timeline has been set for removal.” What it would mean that my childhood home was to be demolished and that no timeline had been set for removal was unclear to me. I would not really understand what it meant until I returned home.
Returning home had a double thrust for me. I was not chased out of my home by Katrina, yet 90% of my immediate family had been. I felt coming home to see the city was something I HAD to do. I wanted to be as close as possible to this experience that had defined the last 6 months of my family’s life (and will continue to dominate their lives indefinitely). In addition, after a year in Mexico, I was coming home to my family. My grandmother was turning 80, we had festivities planned. Our annual cook-off was scheduled. All 4 of my siblings would be in town. I would see my father. My daughter would get to play with cousins she sees only once a year. All of this to say, although I was en-route to see a city in destruction, I was also bent on celebration. Joining with my family is the fuel that keeps me going. They are some of the most amazing and inspiring individuals I know. I was going to be among those with whom I belong.
Of course, once you start talking about Katrina, it’s something that gets stuck in the throat—like whatever airborne contagions are causing the Katrina cough. From the moment we were waiting to board the plane to New Orleans in Houston, everyone was talking about Katrina. In the streets of post-Katrina New Orleans, the stories of survival, befuddlement and exhaustion are thick and as numerous as the missing residents. People in New Orleans love to talk and tell stories anyway. At the bus stop you’re liable to find out random personal details about the strangers waiting with you. So we heard them, the stories. In the airport, at the grocery store, in our family’s living rooms. We heard about the would-be homeowners who can’t find an insurer to cover newly purchased New Orleans property. We heard about the Katrina survivor who was finally paid out by his insurers only to have his home hit by a tornado—a tornado! Everyone wanted to know how everyone else made out. Where’s your family? You coming back? You got money from your insurance? You got FEMA money? (In fact, my sister-in-law told me about a song that’s been playing on the radio called “What Is Your FEMA Number?” making light of the disturbing reality that the majority of New Orleanians are on some type of relief.)
The precarious state of the city was obvious immediately. First in odd little details—houses missing necessary roofing, trees oddly bereft of leaves, the double “s’s” on the ever popular “Double Happiness” restaurant on Carrolton Ave, stretched out and twisted at an odd angle. Then I noticed larger strokes. The dirt-brown, waist-high water-lines staining the sides of buildings where the water had soaked in. Stores with windows broken, posts tilted and knocked over, and hand-drawn banners that read “Now Open.” Blocks and blocks of business empty and closed to patronage.
Even with all this destruction, the thing that most deeply symbolized how hard the city had been hit (and how far the city is from full recovery) is the fact that streetlights at many major (and minor) intersections are not working. Drivers have to use their own discretion and treat the dead stoplights as four-way stop signs. The city has gone to the trouble to place stop signs at some of the intersections. Many of the stop signs are simply propped at the base of the stoplights. I realize failed streetlights are the least of a returning New Orleanian’s troubles. With housing issues, employment complications, a ruptured community and a bedraggled city, there are many pressing problems New Orleanians are concerned about. However, the mute and dumb stoplights whispered that something sinister and irreparable had happened. The anomaly of inoperable streetlights haunted me throughout my visit.
My brother and father spoke to me angrily, as though I were an outsider when I told them what I had seen. (Of course I am an outsider, I am not a Katrina survivor). “You haven’t seen anything,” they both told me gruffly. “What you saw has been cleaned up.” And they were right. I hadn’t seen anything. I hadn’t seen the piles of debris outside of homes. I hadn’t seen collapsed structures. I had not seen the destruction.
My father took me on a drive through the city. He took me down Carrolton pointing out that from Claiborne to Esplanade we saw perhaps two or three business open. We went around City Park through the neighborhoods that skirt Lakeview into Gentilly. And I began to see the destruction. Trees, giant trees, uprooted. Balconies on the lakefront apartment buildings crumpled. Roofs, doors, and windows crushed. Fence posts wrenched out of the dirt. After we passed through four neighborhoods, my father asked, did you see one house that is inhabited? “No,” I answered. The area we covered easily included 2,000 houses. That’s a conservative guess. These were middle class, as well as upper class, homes. Some medium-sized family homes and some large family homes. Abandoned. There was nothing and no one stirring.
We rolled into Gentilly and headed to my brother’s house. My father paused at a corner and started mumbling to himself. “What?” I asked him. “I forgot to count,” he said. “Count what?” I asked. “Streets,” he said. “There are no signs.” The storm yanked the street signs down and they have not been replaced. We rolled right past my brother’s house. Why? The huge tree that identified their house had disappeared, changing the character of the property. We looked at their empty home quietly. I was thinking of the video my brother had shown me of the interior of the house the day he and his wife went to clean it out. The mold, the buckled floors, the unrecognizable soaked clothing, the split tv console and inoperable television. Everything had to go. The newly renovated kitchen, the couch, the beds, the books, the refrigerator. “Who helped y’all?” I asked. “Nobody,” my brother said. “Just us two,” my sister-in-law said.
Now, this is an odd occurrence. I have a big family, my sister-in-law has a big family, but this was my first moment of understanding what it means to come home and rebuild. It means you are on your own. You can’t call on your neighbors, they’re not in the city. You can’t call on your siblings, they’re spread across the nation. You can’t depend on the city, they’re still drawing up plans and concepts. They haven’t even decided which neighborhoods are going to be saved and which are going to be demolished. Six months later, everyone who goes home to rebuild is still on their own.
We continued on to SUNO—Southern University of New Orleans. The water lines on the brick buildings and the empty campus said it all. This was a destroyed university complex. It appeared that no one had been back to start pulling things together. “That’s millions of dollars in damages,” my father said. I just nodded my head mutely. What was there to say? We continued on to the winding roads around the green neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park. That’s when I started to notice the insides of the homes. Some of them were full of damaged items and others of them—many of them—had been gutted. I could see the wood supports of the homes, the only thing left of the interior. Imagine all the house in your neighborhood abandoned and gutted.
Gutting is a now a major reality in New Orleans. In order to rebuild you have to clear all your personal effects out of your home. (Most of these personal items will be unsalvageable. They will go in a soggy heap in front of your house. You will decorate your home with new things. You will attempt to forget your mementos. You will buy new clothing for yourself and your children.) Then you will pay someone to gut your house—tear out the floor, the walls, the ceilings and do mold abatement. Then you have to rebuild. (When you rebuild you are now mandated to meet new elevation codes in flood areas—meaning the cost to rebuild may be more than what is approved by your insurance company based on the value of your original home.) As you can imagine, the complications are innumerable. Where are you going to live, for example, while you are going through this arduous process? In a city when everyone is rebuilding, who are you going to contract to work on your house? Depending on your insurance company’s response to your attempt to collect on your claim, how are you going to afford to do this work?
Six months after the storm, my sister-in-law tells me she just got a check from her insurance company to gut her house. The check is written out to the mortgage company and the homeowner and it’s only a fraction of the full amount owed them. The money is to be applied to the first step of rebuilding. Once the house is gutted, the insurance company must approve the work before releasing the next check. Some people—of course—are getting nothing at all from their insurance companies. My sister-in-law explains all this to me in the living room of their newly rented house. They are now living uptown (in one of the areas least impacted by the storm). As my brother noted on his blog, the rent on their new apartment is more than 130% of their monthly mortgage payment—a payment they are still required to make despite the fact that their home is uninhabitable. Last word from home was that my brother was working seven days a week. The overtime is helping to defray the exorbitant cost of being committed to rebuilding a city whose government is hesitant to invest in its own reconstruction.
Another reality of post-Katrina New Orleans is trailers. Lightweight trailers on wheels have been FEMA’s solution to the catch-22 situation of New Orleanians who want to rebuild but have nowhere to live while they work on their homes. In “Trailers, Vital After Hurricane, Now Pose Own Risks on Gulf,” journalist Eric Lipton states: “More than 87,100 families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are living in the FEMA trailers, while only some 2,300 are in sturdier mobile homes.” Most people living in these FEMA trailers are living close to their damaged and “partially reconstructed homes.” With hurricane season less than three months away, concern is surfacing about the safety of the trailers. “‘They’re campers,’ Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi told a Senate committee this month. ‘They’re not designed to be used as housing for a family for months, much less years. The trailers don’t provide even the most basic protection from high winds or severe thunderstorms, much less tornadoes or hurricanes.'” The debris that is an ever-present reality in post-Katrina New Orleans and the Gulf Coast “can turn into dangerous projectiles when the wind picks up.”
Eric Lipton explains why FEMA ordered these lightweight trailers. “FEMA ordered far more travel trailers than mobile homes after the hurricane because the trailers could be towed to a homeowner’s property and quickly dropped into place. Being portable, they are not generally covered by building codes and not explicitly banned in flood zones.”
Not EXPLICITLY banned in flood zones. In other words, there are some sturdier mobile homes that are banned from flood zones. However, because these trailers are intended for recreational use, they aren’t even considered homes. If they aren’t homes, then they have no flood-related regulations. So you will live in a flimsy piece of metal while you build your home up to new flood-safe standards. How’s that for irony?
But there’s more. These FEMA trailers may not be placed in the street, so if you have no space on your property, you can’t camp near your house. Because people are living (not camping) in these trailers, each trailer needs to be hooked up to a sewage line and a water line. It’s good to have electricity too. So if you need a trailer to rebuild your home and your neighborhood hasn’t had restored utilities, you won’t be able to live close to your home. Two friends of the family from Mid-City don’t have space on their property and, until February, did not have water or electricity on their street. As a consequence, they have settled their trailer on my aunt and uncle’s property in the Faubourg Marigny area, about half an hour away. They have a good sense of humor about the situation, as do my aunt and uncle. My aunt and uncle’s home did not flood given my uncle’s habit of checking the elevation of all the properties he buys. As such they have opened their doors to a revolving parade of relatives and friends. They consider themselves a safe house.
The friends living in a trailer gave my brother and me a tour describing the lengths they had to go through to get a hole in the sewage line fixed and a burning smell connected to the electricity examined. They have outfitted the trailer with decorations and fabric. It is their only home while they reconstruct their property in Mid-City. This claustrophobia-inducing box is barely big enough for one person, yet it is said to sleep six. Two in the bedroom, two on the table that converts into a bed, and two on bunks in an area that looks like a closet with absolutely NO headroom. Pointing out all the child-safety hazards, they assured us the trailers were no place for children. In an effort to make the trailer their own, they got a friend to decorate the exterior of their trailer. This act of spirit is, however, a felony. It is strictly against the law to decorate the exterior of FEMA trailers.
My father continued our tour by taking me out to New Orleans East—home of numerous apartment complexes and big houses of the black middle class. Also the home of Village de l’Est, a Vietnamese neighborhood. There the destruction was worse. I began to see completely collapsed roofs. I saw abandoned cars and streets blocked off by debris. Apparently some people can’t get to their homes due to debris blockages. We drove by my uncle’s house, where the water was shoulder high on the first floor. The apartment complexes were completely destroyed. My brother had his home in one of those complexes. When he returned to the city, his belongings were intact because he was on the second floor, but he found evidence of people squatting in his apartment. Among the strange personal effects, there were diapers leading to the conclusion that the people who sought refuge in his apartment had an infant.
By this point we had driven uncountable miles. My father bitterly commenting on the impossibility of rebuilding the wide expanse of destroyed residences. Seeing all those homes made me think of all the families that lived in the thousands and thousands of structures. Each home, each apartment represented a displaced family and an individual family’s burden. Any homeowner deciding to recover and/or rebuild their property would have to deal with their own drama. It felt as if the city had done nothing to encourage the rebuilding. This isn’t true—of course. All major thoroughfares had been cleared of debris and blockage. We saw very few abandoned cars on the street and virtually no refrigerators or dishwashers. I suppose the city just hasn’t had the opportunity to address the piles of debris, collapsed houses, some of the felled trees, and the dead streetlights.
My father kept stressing to me that the New Orleans I was seeing was much improved. The fact that we could drive smoothly and tour these neighborhoods was a testament to the clean up that had been done. The city’s clean up had allowed, and possibly encouraged, residents to return. The city, which was empty for months, is now considerably more active. There are many reasons for people’s return. My brother and his family returned because the elementary school his children attend reopened and insinuated that they would give away the spots of any children who weren’t back by January. Two aunts, an uncle, and my grandmother settled in Baton Rouge, about an hour and a half away. As the city regains more and more vibrance, my aunt and my uncle have separate business concerns that bring them into the city more and more frequently. With more returning residents, there are more businesses open or looking to open. The return of jobs means the return of residents. My father and his wife are making plans to return based on a forthcoming work opportunity.
My mother spent a few months in Oaxaca with me and is now restarting her life in New Orleans. One of her first orders of business was restocking the house and registering the title of a new car. Running those brief errands turned out to be something of a wild goose chase. We had to go out to Metairie to shop because the big grocery store near my sister-in-law’s (who was shuttling us around) had not yet opened. Then we went to the Department of Motor Vehicles. There was a huge iron tower fallen on its side and dominating the parking lot. The building was fenced in, structurally damaged and obviously not open for business. We drove to Kenner looking for another DMV office. When we got there, there were people spilling out the door. Someone had a chair and was sitting outside. My mother went in intending to ask a question. She came out dismayed, I have to stand in line to get a number, she said. This is post-Katrina New Orleans.
Having chauffeured me through about half of the city’s residential neighborhoods my father turned his car toward the Lower 9th Ward. I was getting a fuller understanding of why he’s said repeatedly that the city will not recover. The scale of the destruction is unimaginable. The painful pace of progress suggests a government that is overwhelmed, inept, or unconcerned. Driving through the multiple abandoned neighborhoods, it is easy to see how some New Orleanians feel abandoned. Abandonment is the sensation that repeatedly echoed through me as my father wheeled his car through neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood. These people are on their own. And yet for many, New Orleans is still the only place for them to be. It’s home. It’s family history. It’s the roots of their existence.
The stores you remember may or may not be there. The services you used to rely on may or may not be available. Your loved ones—friends and family—may or may not have the interest, resources, or energy to rebuild. But the weather is still beautiful. The accents are still the same. People are still open and talkative. And the city still has so much flavor. For those who live and breathe New Orleans, nothing will make them quit the city. Not even the fact that 75% of the residences stand empty. For those that have returned or are orchestrating their return, the shell of the city is still sweeter than a fully functioning new town. It is a fact of growing up steeped in the cultures and traditions of a unique, contradictory, passionate, celebratory place: if you’re not home, you’re in a foreign land. And for most New Orleanians, not being home, is the worst fate they can imagine.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam