Monday, September 12, 2005

A Category All Its Own

My story is one of bad decisions followed by good luck, good friends, and good choices. I have no gritty life and death struggles with bandits. I've seen no dead bodies floating in the streets. But can I tell you: Katrina plus eleven days made for the saddest and most challenging experience of my life.

Of course, I should have left before the storm. Had the destructive eye plowed through vulnerable New Orleans instead of Mississippi, I might not be typing right now. I exhibited a stubborn stupidity before the storm, convinced that it would be better to secure my home after the worst had passed, frightened more of what possessions I might lose than what life I might lose.

Bad decision.

I rode out the storm with five others, a family named Pedeaux, in their big, old, sturdy-as-a-rock house on the high ground of the Esplanade Ridge, on Ursulines Street, just around the corner from my studio. Amazingly, we watched much of the storm from the front porch, tucked surprisingly safely into the recessed area of the front door. Huge limbs crashed to the ground. The howling wind producing awe, beautiful in its own way.

When the worst of the storm passed, I walked on dry sidewalks to check on my house. The house remained fairly dry, though beaten up badly.

I returned to the Pedeaux's for much needed sleep and woke to the fateful words: "Joe, the water is rising."

I dashed now through sloppy streets to my studio and raised my possessions, any that I could, ever higher. I returned again and again as the waters rose. And on Tuesday night I returned in haste and anguish as the mayor told us there could be nine feet of water on Saint Charles Avenue. Chairs stacked on tables stacked on larger tables. The stereo and computers and artwork raised to safety on platforms suspended from the ceilings.

Forcing my way through the waters and around fallen tree limbs, I checked on my house and possessions daily. Shocked at the quickness of decay, I watched mold form almost immediately.

After a few days, I returned to the house in a canoe. I opened up the windows, removing the boards that earlier had protected the house from windswept debris but now were locking in moisture, converting my house into a huge terrarium. Water dripped from the large plate glass windows, everything above the waterline taking in moisture and working its way to ruin.

Since the Pedeaux house had remained mostly dry (only two or three inches in a basement kitchen), I have stored the most important of my possessions there. On one return visit, I rowed straight through my open front door and into my studio, with several feet of water inside.

Because I stayed on, and able to check on the house and return to it with a canoe, I have saved my power tools, my paints, clothes, computers, stereo equipment and disks, artwork, even golf clubs.

I'm very aware of my good luck.

At the Pedeaux's, we never suffered. We had all the food we needed, with three dwellings' worth of provisions. A neighbor had left five, five-gallon bottles of water on the front porch of his house: it saved us. We took a generator from the same neighbor's basement (just in time, before the flood waters engulfed it) and syphoned gasoline from neighbor's cars. We ran the generator sparingly, creating a cool room for elderly Naomi and the others who are accustomed to cooler air. We were constantly aware of the news. We cooked on a Coleman camping stove, though the gas stove worked for the first day or two after the storm.

During a rain shower on the Wednesday following the hurricane, we collected rain water in a 30-gallon crawfish boil pot. Adding a touch of bleach to the water, we could bathe ourselves outdoors each day.

We kept a bucket of hard bleach water always ready for cleaning ourselves after any needed work was done in the floodwaters. Antibacterial medicines stayed ready on a corner of the kitchen counters and Nancy checked Bryan and me after each time out, rubbing iodine on any cuts or scrapes in our skin.

Our challenge was one of patience. By definition, the floodwaters would receded enough to drive out someday. The house is situated on the high ridge, so we'd go earlier than most in the city.

Our wait lasted eleven long days. Imagine inviting five friends to your house to watch paint dry or grass grow. I've never, ever wished away more time than the days spent watching waters recede in New Orleans. They are days lost forever and I'll spend my life trying to make them up.

We rarely, if ever, snapped at each other. And any snapping came from me more than any others. Never too bad, however, and quickly ending.

Paranoia and rumors didn't make the stay easier. Would they force us out? Would they euthanize our dogs? Would they toss our scant possessions if we needed to be helicoptered to dry land? Would they bring us to the dangerous Superdome or to the Convention Center?

We dodged rescue and asked for nothing from the military but to be left alone. We had gotten ourselves into this, we'd get ourselves out.

Bryan and I took soundings of the water levels and checked the owner's manual for each vehicle to learn wade capacities. We discovered the most shallow route out, cleared broken limbs, and waited for the moment when the water would fall to allow safe driving passage.

Finally, this past Thursday with a few pumps running, we got our chance, made our way, and escaped the flooded city.

I took in the site as much as I could as I drove through the streets. The images are seared into my memory. Gladly, many of the homes I saw are not as damaged as I had thought they would be. Though much of the city is totally ruined, of course, many houses will need only repair, not demolition.

IF the waters don't ruin them.

I've driven here to Daytona Beach, my hometown, in a car loaned to me by the generous and caring Pedeaux group. I'm sleeping each night with the dogs in my dad's barber shop. And I might have a chance to return to the city as part of the clean up team with a company based here in Daytona who will tow ruined vehicles from the streets.

Despite that possible return, I have no plans to live in New Orleans in the future.

Florida has been hit with seven hurricanes in the past two years. The Gulf has taken a few of its own and Katrina has caused damage to 90,000 square miles. Since I don't own a house in the city, and since I'm on my own with only two dogs, I have the option of leaving and I'm taking it. The risks have become too great to stay in the storm-prone Gulf Coast region.

I'm still unsure where I'll go.

As with so many others, options are many but means are dwindling. I need to act quickly and sooner more than later secure a new home and studio. I'd like to get back to work at first opportunity and complete some artwork on order from pre-Katrina days.

I'm very fortunate. Had I left the city, my possessions would be totally lost. My dignity and ability to work would be ruined.

But I also could've been killed. Next hurricane, should I ever be near one again, I'm gone. Early and far away. Gone!

Like so many others, it's a day at a time, taking opportunities when they come and struggling to grasp the enormity of this destructive event. My gut is wrenched. My heart is broken. My body is fatigued; rest and sleep have not returned despite coming here to safety.

My thanks and gratitude to so many friends who have expressed their worry.

I've exited this thing with more than most. And for that I'm very grateful.


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Blogger bradley said...

Brother, the eleven days are gone. They had reason and meaning, even if that's not evident right now; they were not wasted, even if they were obviously boring. With all the life you've got left, and with all the blessings you've accrued that will help you to live that life in the way that's best for you, don't make the mistake of letting those eleven days serve as a specter. That time is GONE. That's okay; now go get some more.

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