Katrina post

I booted up an old Fujitsu tablet computer today that hadn’t been used for over three years and on the desktop was the text of an email that I sent to family and friends in September of 2005 following my first trip back to New Orleans after we evacuated for Katrina. The photos referred to in the text are posted to my Flickr account in a set called First post-Katrina visit.

I did make a trip to New Orleans this week, leaving Providence Wednesday morning and returning Thursday evening. When I turned the corner to pull into our driveway, our Fireman’s Fund insurance adjuster was leaning on the back of his rental car waiting for me. The pictures I referred you to come from the visit and provide a kind of random documentary of stuff.
The west end of the metropolitan area – the airport is in the west – is living a pretty normal life. Some wind damage to what you could conceive of as misbegotten structures (e.g., a six-story, windowless tower clad in aluminum used by the Coca-Cola bottling plant lost its entire western wall; an oversized roof-like canopy used to shield VIP parking in one of the commercial parking lots across from the airport simply collapsed onto the parking lot) but otherwise, the area is functioning. Gas stations open, accepting credit card payment at the pump, etc. People living fairly ordinary lives. A resident of that area remarked to me, “I guess I don’t have to worry about finding work any time soon,” referring to the fact that from the minute you get off the plane you see “help wanted” and “now accepting applications” signs everywhere.
As you move towards the east – we live about 10 miles east of the airport – conditions deteriorate. The major reason for this is that the 17th street canal flooding was contained at the parish line. Jefferson Parish, on the west, remained dry as Orleans Parish filled up with water. {Although I got no further east than our neighborhood, the story would continue…the lower Ninth Ward, with the Industrial Canal flooding, is another 6 or 7 miles to the east of us and is now a waste land. Another 30 miles and you reach Waveland, Pass Christian, Biloxi, etc, where the storm surge obliterated the coast line.}
So our neighborhood was without power, the water is questionable, and no businesses are open. In the pictures, the Calhoun Superette is our neighborhood grocery store, and you can see the five-foot high waterline. On Wednesday, only about 25 percent of the homes in our immediate neighborhood showed any signs of having been visited…ruined stuff moved out into the street and – in one case – a generator with dehumidifiers and air circulation equipment already at work…but people were on the way back in. One of my immediate neighbors had returned the day before, the other pulled up a couple of hours after I did.
Tree limbs were everywhere. Part from the storm, part from the overly zealous tree-trimming companies hired by our electric utility to clear the wires for re-stringing. Normally, they are fairly surgical about creating space around the wires, say about three feet. Post-Katrina the instructions were to cut anything within 20 feet of the wires…so you see some trees that look like they’ve been beheaded (I think there was a photo of one such tree at the back of our house). A 50-foot tall cypress standing next to our house had been snapped off at the 20-foot level; surprising in that I thought cypress were the monarchs of the swamps, not surprising given that of the 10 cypress surrounding the entry to Audubon Park, seven are now gone. So much for being a monarch of the swamp.
The pictures accidentally document the cleanup of the limbs and trash that’s going on. There are two pictures of the Audubon Boulevard sign taken four hours apart, with the difference being that the trash pickup vehicles moved through the area: Two 20-foot shipping containers with a small crane mounted between them pulled by a semi-tractor. The driver parks, jumps down, operates the crane from between the containers picking up trash and trees and then moves on.
The house was hot. The attic was hotter. Probably in the 110 degree range. The adjuster and I tramped through the house. His two primary tools are the laser measuring device and a humidity gauge. As you have seen the contents of the house appear to be in good shape. The water never made it above the door sills, so there was no standing water in the house. There is, however, the stench that pervades New Orleans, and I brought out some clothes to see if the smell can be gotten out by washing. (The answer to that question was no, the smell didn’t come out. There are still things in boxes – and even in one of the closets – that make our eyes water from the residual smell.)
On the other hand, if you looked at the pictures of the floors inside the house, you could see what appears to be dusty lines along the seams of the floorboards. Mildew. The water had reached the bottom of the floors and the water got drawn up. The floorboards are slightly cupped from warping where there is no covering; there is more evidence of warping where the water got trapped underneath vinyl flooring. As you could see, a carpet on the floor looks okay at a distance, but close up you can see the mold that formed when the seepage came up through the floor and dampened the carpet.
On the outside, the heating/air conditioning unit was clearly drowned, and the supply and return ductwork for the downstairs was completely submerged. So that has to be replaced.
Still sounds pretty okay. However, the humidity gauge indicates that the water got pulled up into the sheetrock. In the one place where we pulled baseboard away from the wall, there was a line of mold growing. Upstairs, there was some water infiltration into the walls from a broken window in Jed’s room, and also – according to the adjuster – from the open vents under the eaves in the attic. So the humidity gauge goes off for the upstairs sheetrock as well. The adjuster says that the sheetrock should be stripped to the studs, the studs and weatherboards allowed to dry completely, and then new sheetrock applied. Upstairs and down. (The carriage house behind the house is on a slab at ground level, and as you saw had over three feet of water in it. The adjuster says that that needs to be gutted and the studs encapsulated before starting over.)
The bottom line, according to the adjuster, is that in normal times it would take six months to get the job done. His estimate for the job now that there will be so much demand for contracting services is a year. So the good news is that a lot of our treasures are safe. The bad news is that the house will be unserviceable for quite a while.
Exactly where we come out on this won’t be determinable until we find out what the Fireman’s Fund adjuster settles on as their idea of a settlement and, even more uncertain, what the flood insurance adjuster will pick up. As you probably have heard, the two sources of insurance meet at the waterline, flood below and household above; but the meeting point is really just the beginning of debate. I return to the house on October 12th to meet the flood insurance adjuster. That will begin to answer the question of what their concept of fairness is.
Meantime, we are here in Bristol by the bay. Laurie has completed her first two back-to-back 12-hour shifts at the Miriam Hospital in Providence and actually navigated back to our house without getting lost at the end of the second shift. I am teaching my class at Roger Williams University and trying to keep up with the developments at Tulane, where announcements of a January opening seem optimistic although the University was filled with the sound of giant generators and a corps of contract workers is struggling to get the physical plant ready. We will visit Jed at Northwestern this coming weekend, staying with Bob and Gael Strong, and then return to Bristol where Addie will have part of Sunday and Columbus Day with us.
Thanks for all of your thoughts and good wishes. We have been truly fortunate. Our sympathy goes out to the great many people who have been less fortunate in the wake of Katrina and Rita than we were.
The most memorable thing about this visit was the night that I spent in Uptown New Orleans. As the afternoon faded, an exodus took place. The small army of workers on the Tulane campus were bussed back to Jefferson Parish for the night, and independent contractors/workers drove out of the city. The National Guard patrolled in their HumVees, loosely enforcing a curfew. I had no idea how strict or lax they might be, so before sunset I made my way to our friends’ house on the east side of Audubon Park. They had offered it because the flood waters hadn’t reached it but their refrigerator had had to be removed. They wanted to replace it but they didn’t know its model number and my visit was timed perfectly to read the required information from the refrigerator – still on the curb outside the house – and phone it to them so they could order the proper equipment.
The silence of the park was eerie. Many people who spent evenings in the city during this period reported the silence as a startling feature of the post-Katrina landscape. The silence was complete, animal and insect noises were gone. I stood on the jogging track and walked a bit on the familiar surface that was made entirely strange by the absence of people. It was the beginning of an evening and night when the hairs on the back of my neck were always raised. It wasn’t hard to imagine oneself as the last person in the city. (Of course, that was an illusion. There were a lot of people including the National Guard. But relatively speaking, and particularly as night fell and the absence of electricity became evident with the encroaching dark, the city felt empty.
I hadn’t been too good in my planning. I had a camera and a video camera to record the damage to our house, and I’d picked up water and snacks on the way in from the airport. But I hadn’t thought too much about night or a meal. My hosts for the evening, in addition to telling me where the key to the house was hidden, had told me which drawers to rifle through for flashlights and batteries, so I had a bit of light in the unfamiliar house. I was told I was welcome to use one of the children’s bedrooms upstairs but after looking over the layout  I opted for the couch in the den.
Supper was a cello bag of cashews and a packet of cookies. The house was hot. Cooler on the ground floor, but too warm for comfort.

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