Debris is still scattered over lawns and sidewalks: roof shingles, loose insulation, pieces of wallboard, wires. The grass on the boulevard looks burned, the houses blackened with mold.
My father and I drive down St Claude Avenue in silence. We cross through the Ninth Ward into St. Bernard Parish. We drive through Chalmette, into the town of Arabi.
A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated 90,000 miles of the Gulf Coast, I’ve returned to New Orleans where I grew up, to see my family and friends, to attend the anniversary commemorations in the city.
I have also returned home to ask my parents why they did not evacuate when the hurricane was coming. Why they chose to stay and ride out the storm.
“We are not leaving,” my mother said. “This is our home.” And for several days, my sister, brother and I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. We called FEMA, the Red Cross, the Louisiana State Police, the local hospital, begging for help. All the phones were out, circuits busy. We typed their names in Coast Guard search engines. All we could do is watch the news – the roads in and out of New Orleans shut down, the floodwalls cracking open, the city filling like a bowl.
I want to ask my father about this, but the view of Arabi from the car window shuts down speech. Nearly every home in this parish flooded. All I can do is look at the landscape, its fine grit and rubble.
Throughout New Orleans I’ve seen houses stripped to beams and floorboards, ready for demolition. Trailers set on cement blocks. Residents gutting and rebuilding their own homes. Families raking debris, piling bricks. These are hopeful images from the stories the world would like to see about New Orleans, like the hand-lettered signs still staked to some front yards: we’re coming back! We’re coming home!
In Arabi, there is little of that desired narrative of closure, hope and recovery. Houses stand empty, blown out windows like eyeholes. Some are wrenched from their foundations. Everywhere is mud and sand. The streets are deserted, stores and gas stations shut down, boarded up. We find a single sign in front of a ravaged house: “Demolish it. Took the memories with me.”
The morning of the hurricane, after hours of rain, the winds suddenly quieted, and residents of St. Bernard stepped out of their houses, walked into their yards. They thought they’d been saved from the destruction, until they saw the first black wall of water surge across the railroad tracks. Much of St Bernard Parish was destroyed by a storm surge in fifteen minutes. Spilled crude oil from Murphy Oil poisoned the floodwater, turning the floodwaters toxic. Residents were left to escape in private boats or to wait uselessly on rooftops. Rescuers did not come for days, and in some areas of the parish, for weeks.
The morning of the hurricane, I placed my last phone call with my parents. We all knew Katrina would be a direct hit, and it would likely be a Category Five storm. I begged my parents, again, to leave New Orleans. I pleaded with them to go to the Superdome, named as the shelter of last resort. Finally, when they refused I told my mother to take the photo albums and put them high up in the safest closet, one for each of us, of our childhoods, so that we would have something left to salvage.
My parents survived. Several days later, I made contact with them through their cell phone. Their house was minimally damaged, despite its location two blocks from the Mississippi. In the narrative we all might like best, their lives were given up to God. Or good planning, But I fear that their survival was entirely random. And those citizens of Arabi who stayed during the storm were thinking exactly what my parents thought when they made their decision to stay.
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