The cell phone buzzed excitedly, and I fumbled with it as I pulled it from my pocket and flipped it open.
"This is Tony from FEMA," the distant voice said. "Can you meet me at your site to arrange for your travel trailer?"
Absolutely. Any day, any time, I told him.
"Can you be there at 3:30?"
Sure, I said, as I glanced at the clock and realized that was just 35 minutes from now. Difficult, but doable.
In post-K New Orleans, FEMA is the new E.F. Hutton. You don't put these guys on hold. You don't ever ask to reschedule. You have to be ready when they're ready.
I was ready.
And then Tony asked the question I most dreaded.
"Do you know where your sewer cleanout is located?"
Oops. I was not ready. I've blogged about the importance of this one little piece of pipe before. And I knew that one day I too would need to find this elusive Holy Grail of utilities. But I had not done it yet. I had not even started to search for it.
A neighbor down the street had recently turned his flat front yard into a diorama of WWI France. It had taken Reggie days to locate that all important cleanout. I started sweating just thinking about it.
I spoke with dread. "No, I don't know where my sewer cleanout is."
Tony did not seem as concerned as I was. "Write this number down." He rattled off the phone number to the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board. He told me to call and ask for the location of the cleanout. He said if I could get that info from the city, and if I could locate it on site right away, then there would be no delay.
I was dizzy with the impossibility of it all. First, get useful info from a city agency over the telephone. Second, travel across town to make an appointment. Third, find the buried treasure based on coordinates provided by a city agency.
I thought, I have a better chance of being elected Pope.
But this was no time for negativity. When the unthinkable happens, you learn that all limits are artificial.
"See you there," I said confidently.
I called my Darling Wife and told her I'd pick her up on the way to the house. "I'll be waiting for you outside," she said. Gotta love her spirit!
Since October, my Darling Wife and our Precious Daughter have been living in a nice, two-bedroom apartment in Riverbend. Comfortable and safe, it's on the second floor in a neighborhood that didn't even get water in the street, much less in any of the houses. We are quite simply as high and as safely dry as anyone in this fair city could be at this point in time.
And we're paying dearly for it--I don't care to admit just how much. Let's just say that the FEMA rental assistance is not even covering half of it, and it's not exactly Park Avenue here. That's why we're eager to get into a travel trailer. That's why we long to squeeze two adults, one child, two cats, and what's left of our belongings into a space about as big as your typical living room.
I picked her up and I keyed the cell phone for the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board. I was pleasantly surprised when the phone was answered on the second ring.
"I need to get the location of my sewer cleanout!" I'm sure I must have sounded desperate, more like someone calling 9-11 than the local water board.
"Okay, what's the address?" a friendly voice responded.
Surely this was not really happening. Was I not going to be transferred five times? Was I not going to be told that Mr. Slothington, who is the only person in the entire bureaucracy who has permission to access the information I needed, was on an extended lunch break?
Was I not going to be told that personal and sensitive information, such as the location of someone's sewer cleanout, could not be given out on the phone in post-9/11 America, and that I would have to go down there in person and spend the better part of a day waiting in line so that I could be told that I would need to come back tomorrow and stand in another line????
After holding less than a minute, the friendly voice returned with measurements. "It's five feet from your front property line and 27 feet from the dividing property line on the north side." I repeated the coordinates out loud and asked my Darling Wife to jot it down.
I thanked the lady profusely. "Who knew this would be so easy?" I said.
"We do this all the time," she said.
Amazed, I blubbered my gratitude and told her I would never speak ill of the Sewerage & Water Board again.
Some minutes later, we found a pick-up truck parked in front of our water-stained, brick veneer house.
"Did you get the location of the cleanout?" Tony immediately asked, getting right to business.
I produced the information, and Tony produced a tape measure. We started digging.
Two out of three, I mused to myself. We got the information from the city, and we made it back to the house on time. Can luck like this continue?
After turning several shovels of dirt, Tony told me to stop. "I don't think this is the right location."
Anger, disappointment and shame swept over me in quick succession. My Darling Wife and Precious Daughter were depending on me to find the cleanout, to meet FEMA requirements, to allow Tony to complete the paper work, to get us a travel trailer, to live on-site while we rebuild our house and our lives. It all came down to me and a garden shovel, and I was about to fail.
Tony went back to the truck and pulled out the tool that would save the day: a metal detector. It had a tubular body and a black box of electronics mounted on top with a couple knobs and switches. Tony quickly turned the tuning knob and with a gentle sweeping motion as one would use a scythe, he began to scan our front lawn.
The metal detector squealed and squawked in ways totally incomprehensible to me, but that seemed meaningful to him. Tony moved back and forth near the hole I had just dug, and then stopped. He kicked at the weeds growing there and scanned the spot with the metal detector again. Then he dug a divot in the dirt with his boot heel just one foot away from the first hole. "Dig here," he said.
I put the spade to work, and after digging for a few minutes, I hit a solid metal object. "I think that's it," I said.
"That's it," said Tony with the confidence of one who has done this a hundred times before.
Soon, we were looking at the cap of the elusive sewer cleanout, and I admit to feeling a bit like Indiana Jones at the pride and wonder I felt in discovering it. Its metal cover was imprinted with the same moon and stars motif that we commonly see on water meters here. It was rusty, dirty, and perhaps the most beautiful thing I had seen in my yard since Hurricane Katrina.
Tony, of course, was not as emotional and proceeded to spray it with fluorescent orange paint.
We signed some forms to give FEMA permission to install a travel trailer on our property, and we were on our way in short order. No estimate on when, but soon, we were told, soon FEMA will deliver a trailer.
And I learned once again that stereotypes are almost always wrong. I had called a city agency and received prompt, courteous, and very nearly accurate information. I had been helped by a FEMA employee who knew exactly what to do, how to do it, and was about as helpful as I could ever have hoped.
Before we left, I told Tony that I was going to have to change my tune about FEMA since he had done such a good job and had been so helpful.
"I'm from here, too," he said. "I'm just doing what I can to help people."
Thanks again, Tony.