I remember telling my mom about my plans to go back to New Orleans. We sat by the fireplace in the formal living room. I remember sitting there with my legs tucked up under my arms, as I nervously rocked back and forth. I knew I was not welcome in Virginia, and I was sure I was not welcome here, either. But, I was welcome at home in New Orleans. I thought she would be upset, and I thought she would try to keep me from going…but she did not. I think she was a little relieved to not have to face any more difficult decisions with me. And now, I know I cannot blame her….
All was set. The ticket was ready. And then, it began snowing in New York. The train was delayed for three days. My parents bought me a plane ticket. The anxiety on such a long train ride did not seem like a good idea. The anxiety had not totally gone away, and sometimes I still had panicked moments. I woke up at night a lot. And I still paced a little. But, when it started…I just took another pill.
I landed in New Orleans after many, many detours. That day I flew me all over the country. The weather in Charlotte delayed my short flight to Atlanta. When I got there, I had missed the connector to New Orleans. They flew me to Philadelphia next. I sat around there, until they flew me to St. Louis. Then, they flew me to Chicago, where I finally caught a plane to New Orleans.
By the time a friend picked me up, it was too late to get my bag…and I was almost a zombie from all the traveling…and combating the anxiety with pills throughout the nightmare. I ended up at Quentin’s the next day.
Quentin and his girlfriend Barbie lived on North Rampart. Quentin had lived there forever. Barbie was pregnant, and they were excited to be back in New Orleans. These two remain my closest friends in the world.
The drive to the Bywater that morning was a trip I will never forget. We left the North Shore early that morning. I remember the sun streaking into my friend’s guest room, as I fumbled for my morning dose. I needed my pills, or else I would be crazy again. We went to the airport, and retrieved my bags. I had everything I owned in those bags, and I was glad to have them back. Once again, I was completely uprooted amidst the mist of mental madness, and here, I stood with my mangled and mismanaged self. We left the airport, and headed towards the Quarter.
My friend asked about Sophia, as we rode over the bridge to New Orleans. I looked out over the water of the Lake Ponchatrain, water in every direction. The road next to us, up on its stilts to stand above the lake, a forty mile bridge, was crumbling and falling in places. Wood, falling and rotting, left with only one side of the major highway in and out of the city.
I told him I had not heard anything. He said he heard he apartment building burned down. I would have to verify this with Quentin. I casually looked out the window, dismissing it all as mere rumor. But, my spine shivered as I thought of all the very real possibilities. My heart sped up, as I watched the damage unfold in front of me.
There was destruction everywhere. Driving by Metairie on the I-10, I saw collapsed houses in the distance, and many of the stores were still boarded up. Restaurants stood empty, and there was no traffic. I looked out the car window, for any sign of the breaks in the levee. I was not sure what I was looking for, but I watched a ramshackle of wood and dust and debris float by the window. As we pulled into town, the destruction rose like mountains all around me.
I cannot even begin to describe the damage I witnessed in those three months I was in New Orleans after the storm. I looked through pictures to try to put the images in my head into words, and I was brought to tears again and again as I thumbed through those images. Yet, I am left with a blank on the page in trying to describe what I saw. It really was indescribable.
Wood. Wood was everywhere. I was amazed at the amount of wood that was everywhere. Splintered wood with chipping paint in the bright colors of the houses in the Bywater, chipping in pinks and greens and yellows and reds. Rotting in brown, and turning to black.
Boards. Wooden boards were everywhere. Splintered and scattered and strewn about. Various lengths and sizes lay tossed all over the roads, piling up into a massive mound made of molding and rotting wood. Boards that once created a barrier to the elements for the families inside now left lying in ruin by the force of the storm and the weight of the water.
In the middle of St. Claude, the wood piled so high in points that is was over my head. Mismatched sizes, tossed and strewn at various angles, balancing precariously on one end. Bits of bright paint, speckled throughout the various shades of brown and black. Rotting, molding, discarded wood. No longer suitable to stand, splintered and smashed.
Pieces of white ceiling tiles, turning black from the muds and the mold. Flaky pieces of plaster, crumbling like sand in the dry, but clumping like clay in the wet. Various layers and textures of plaster and ceiling. Pieces of walls scattered throughout, painted in neutral and brights and pastels, fading away to the color of grey outside in the heat and the elements.
Furniture, falling apart from the weight of the wet water. Dressers, rotten and moldy stand outside so many houses, sad and lonely on the streets. Clothes, spotted with black mold, pop out of the dresser drawers, tattered and torn and blowing in the wind. Taffeta, and silk, and cotton, and lace. Jeans and shirts and dresses and hats. Discarded and ruined left homeless on the streets of New Orleans. Sagging boards of chests and tables and dressers and drawers, nearly bucking under the pressure…to conform and become a part of this conglomeration of wood.
And debris. Logs, and sticks, and scattered barks. Rotting leaves, making their way back to the Earth in decay. The Louisiana black mud was still wet, and the ground retained the pungent and putrid smell of death in places. Soft, rich, and fertile Louisiana soil squished around your shoes, green grass burst forth from within the black mud in places less travelled. And footprints sank in the rest.
Houses speckled with black dots of mold, revealing their sagging interior and weakened foundations. The water line stretched from house to house throughout the Bywater and beyond. The line rose higher and higher the deeper you went into the Ninth Ward, until there is no more visible water line…and all you see is destruction.
Cars smashed and tossed and discarded on those streets. The only houses here left crumbling, and it was an eerie quiet. Deserted streets, covered in mud and silt and debris. Wood piled everywhere, scattered remnants of a neighborhood that once stood here. The wind whipped off the river, and in the quiet the sound of a lone hammer rode the Ninth Ward wind. The heavy feeling of death weighed down on the living that had returned to this coffin.
Vehicles lifted to roofs, and houses moved down the street. Toilets abandoned in the middle of the road. Sinks and stoves out in the yards. Toys buried in the mud and debris, left dirty and rotting to never be played with again. A house on the hills near a levee left with all its belongings pushed high against one side by the quick rushing deluge. A refrigerator turned over once floated down a street.
Bright orange spray paint, weird hieroglyphics of Xs, and numbers, and in discernable letters marked the houses from search and rescue…denoting what was dead and what may be living. Notes from the aftermath, scrawled like graffiti for the entire world to see.
Reflections of rainbows in the sun scattered throughout the mud and debris. Remnants of oil and gas, leaving their rainbow patterns glimmering everywhere in the sun. I remembered the way the rainbows floated on top of the water in those days following the storm. Now, these rainbows looked devastated in their fading state of existence.
Windows broken, a million different patterns of glass and shatter emerged. A million different stories they told. Shattered, spewing glass everywhere by the sheer forces of nature. Broken bits and pieces, and broken parts of things once whole, all the remnants shattered under the sheer force of multiple disasters. It was devastating.
Piles of wood, and plaster, and metal, and debris loomed up everywhere. Collapsed houses, and wooden splinters spilling out into the streets. Bright bits of fabric dotted the landscape of destruction. As we got close to the Quarter, I heard hammering and saw fresh lumber on many corners. Buildings on Canal still stood behind boarded up windows. Hotels still housed gaping holes in their hearts, with debris spilling out. Turning down Rampart, I was appalled at the Middle Ground. It was piled with debris…piled so high you could not see the opposite two lanes of traffic. It looked like wood, and cardboard, and tires, and refrigerators, and toilets, and pipes, and metal, and plaster, and buckets, and dressers with clothes spilling out, and couches, and chairs, and tables, and cabinets falling apart…it was a big mountain of ruined and soggy pieces of people’s lives.
Many of the houses had the black markings of mold to show where the waterline had been. I watched as that waterline grew higher and higher the deeper we got into the Bywater.