Katrina: A Baton Rouge Diary, Part 5

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09/22/2005

New Orleans, LA

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

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Sept. 21, 2005: Entering Orleans Parish

“Enter Orleans Parish,” read the green sign cocked at a forty-five degree angle announcing my arrival. And with that, I traversed the bridge over the 17th Street Canal, leaving Old Metairie behind and driving into New Orleans. My only impediment to this point was some traffic through Jefferson Parish and a large pile of sand haphazardly sitting to one side of the bridge.

Throughout Jefferson there were tree limbs all over the place, near-naked trees and leaning telephone poles. Power outages were spotty, witnessed by some inoperable traffic lights, but on the whole it seemed that Jefferson was slowly coming to life. Gas station canopies were tossed over on their sides; buildings sustained serious roof damage and there were emergency vehicles aplenty. On Airline Hwy there was a long line for ice and water – it appeared that the troops were keeping everything under strict control.

I meandered my way around until I reached Metairie Road. From that point I drove with fearful anticipation that around the next bend I would find a roadblock and be turned back. That never happened and soon I saw the green sign on the bridge. And I crossed, deeper into uncharted territory. The road was dry.

I came to the intersection where Metairie Road turns into City Park Avenue. As I descended underneath the Interstate I came upon the National Guard. I handed over my driver's license and asked, “Where you from, sir?”

The National Guardsman said, “Oregon.”

I replied, “Well, welcome to New Orleans.”

This evoked a sigh and a smile. I explained that I was hoping to get through for a brief period of time just to check on the house and retrieve a few things that I hoped were salvageable. He replied that I didn’t appear to be a “shady type” and that I was free to pass. I thanked him for his service to the people of New Orleans.

That was just plain too easy. It was just the beginning.

Unless you have been living in a box these past few weeks you have certainly heard about the smell. It is the smell of death.

Everything is dead.

Driving by “The Cemeteries” (which is what New Orleanians call them) I noticed that all the grass was brown. Turning on to Canal Boulevard I found the streets mostly clear, but debris was everywhere. The waters had washed everything from dumpsters to shingles everywhere. The cleaning crews pushed everything that had floated out into the streets into the Neutral Ground (median). All of the shrubbery was colored a rust brown dead. The high water mark was clearly visible on the houses I passed. But, above everything, the stench permeated the air and you could not ignore it.

I made it to the house after a few short blocks and I sat in my car for a minute or two. I had never been to a war zone but I imagined that the frontline could not look much worse. With the exception of the live oaks and other tall trees, all of the foliage appeared to have received a large dose of Agent Orange. While I was mulling this thought, a Black Hawk Helicopter buzzed low overhead. What immediately popped into my mind: This was “Apocalypse Now.” I got out of the car and put on a respirator mask.

The property was a shambles. Lawn furniture, which was originally on one side of the house, was now on the other. There were some things that were remarkably in place and yet others that were completely out of sight. I pulled out a tape measure and placed it to the high water line – seven feet, two inches. I shook my head to rid myself of the daze but that effort was in vain. The only thing that made me conscious of the reality was the acrid salty air of death that surrounded me. I was completely alone.

I walked to the carport and observed the 2000 Toyota Camry, which had been completely immersed. Driver’s side window busted out, I soon came to realize that every car had a window busted out. It was not from the looters, but courtesy of those seeking the dead. Upon the brick wall in the back of the house there was a message sprayed in red. It was a big “X” with “06:14 / EN” on the left, “09-14 / No Ans” on the right, and below the X was “0.” Pretty self-explanatory.»

I opened the back storm door to discover corroded locks and pressed the keys in, to no avail. The same was true with the front and side doors. Wearing a Yale T-shirt in honor of “Georgie,” I became a looter of my own house. I began kicking in the back door.

For those of you who have ever busted down a door before, a waterlogged door is the most formidable opponent. Dry doors are pretty easy, but a spongy door, that gives but does not yield to the force of a combat boot, presents a challenge. Complicating my maneuver was the fact that I was on a set of three steps leading up to the door. I considered shooting the lock – but I believed that this John Wayne approach might cause me more harm than the door. Eventually, I prevailed. The moment of truth had arrived.

It is said that sometimes the truth is hard to accept. This truth was no exception. What lay beyond the door was an act so foul that no group of vandals could have ever conceived of the notion.

My entrance into the utility room proved to be an entrance into an obstacle course. A refrigerator on its side, the bed frame that I had built with my own hands warped and washed across the floor. Newspapers, bottles, an ironing board, a washer well out of its original place – and a wet linoleum floor covered with a quarter inch of sediment.

I thought that the stench outside was bad – inside was magnified by the hot humid musty breath of rampant mold flourishing. I could have had five masks on, the smell would not have been deterred.

I came into the kitchen. The table was up against the stove. The refrigerator was lying on its back, the countertops simply collapsed into the cabinets. High above it all, hanging on the wall, was a battery powered clock which ticked away the time.

I proceeded to the next room. Furniture was everywhere. A sleeper sofa was leaning upright against the wall. Other pieces had floated to other rooms. Never have I ever seen such a sight. The hardwood floors had buckled. There was obviously fecal material outlining the water mark. Dead roaches (this is Louisiana, where everyone has roaches like it or not), which had come out of the woodwork, clung lifelessly on the plaster. Mold was everywhere and in some spots had begun to resemble moss hanging from the trees. Inside, the water had reached a level of five feet even.

I began to scavenge what I felt was worth saving. This was mainly some artwork – four items to be exact. I gathered a few things which my father had requested. In truth, there was no reason to hang about, there was not much really worth saving.

I brought the car around the back and loaded the booty. Next I pulled out the cordless drill and secured the aluminum door with some screws. This was probably pointless, as there is not too much worth stealing. From there I washed up with Hibiclens and bottled water. I will not return until I have a Class A MOP suit; if there was ever a hazmat scene, the inside of the house is it.

Back in Baton Rouge, I disrobed on the front porch – yes, in the middle of downtown. I came in and showered and then hosed down my clothing before placing them in the wash. I may have to burn what I wore today.

Water is a strange thing. I had visions during my sleep of the contents of the house floating around, those visions did not prepare me for what I was to find. As I said above, the most malicious group of vandals could not have caused more destruction. I guess now is the time to wait for the bulldozer.

Today is a day that will live with me forever. The stench is still in my nose. I guess I was lucky in my timing, upon my departure everything had been blocked and they were not allowing many through.

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