John lost his mother and brother in the past few months. You might say he lost them to Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, his story is not typical, but it is not all that uncommon either.
Sunday morning I wandered out of our FEMA Travel Trailer to look at the day. Across our vacant lot, across the lot next door made recently vacant as well, I saw John standing with his hands on his hips. I walked over to say hello.
The house that used to stand next to our vacant lot was knocked down last week. The backhoe arrived late one afternoon and parked in the front yard. When I got home from work the next day, nothing but brown dirt remained. The only evidence of the house was a few glass shards and chips of brick.
It's one of those odd circumstances of urban living. We moved here about 6 years before Katrina, before the flood washed the neighbors away. John lived just two doors away. But I don't recall ever meeting him before this day.
So as suddenly as the levees breached, as swiftly as the neighborhood had been doused, as quickly as that house between us had been ripped up and carted away, we stood there and talked as if we had been talking like this all along.
John told me that he had lived here since he was 10 years old. His mother and father had built one of the first homes in Vista Park. He said it was the second house on the whole street. He pointed to a white-brick house a few hundred feet away, telling me that was the only other one here back in the early days.
And now, John observed matter-of-factly, it's looking a lot like it did back then. Vacant land all around. A few houses and not much traffic.
John was soft-spoken and alert when I talked to him. But there was a slight slur as one side of his mouth lagged in movement. It was easy to guess that he was in his 60's; I wondered too if he had suffered a stroke recently.
The clear sky radiated a blueness that only occurs on the hottest days. The bright light of morning was tempered by the low humidity and light breeze of what was starting out to be a beautiful day. In stark contrast, John told me about the unhappy journey his life has become since that not-so-perfect-day in August 2005.
The Saturday before Katrina attacked, John and his elderly mother were planning to stay. They had stayed for Betsy. They had stayed for Camille. The street had never flooded and damage was mostly from a few fallen trees.
But Sunday morning John heard panic in the voices of the reporters and meteorologists on the TV. The hurricane had not turned. It was headed here. He heard desperation in the pleas of the Mayor and Governor. He decided to leave his childhood home, still expecting to come back in a few days. John took his mother to the north shore, to a house his brother owned on the relative high ground of St. Tammany Parish.
We all know what happened that Monday.
The weeks and months that followed have continued to be hard on John. Harder still on his family. His elderly mother was not able to return home, and his brother took up the job of filing the paperwork for insurance and government assistance. John was not specific--and I did not press for details--but at some point his brother was not able to go on. He killed himself less than a year after Katrina.
John's mother, now dealing with further grief, had to move to an assisted living facility. "She lasted six months," John says, so plainly that it startled me. As if her death from the one-two punch of a hurricane and a suicide was a given.
"And how about you?" I asked. "How are you getting along?"
He tells the same lie we all tell when asked. "Fine."
He purchased a condo in Metairie soon after the storm. John initially wanted to return here, had the house gutted and treated for mold. He's been keeping the lawn trim and made some inquiries with contractors.
But now he thinks not. "I don't need a three-bedroom house," he says. "And I don't have the energy to do the work anyway." His current plan is to sell it to The Road Home program, and he knows what will happen to his childhood home then: demolition.
He surveys the land around us. "I remember all these trees when they were first planted," he says with a mixture of pride and sadness. He smiles a crooked smile and shakes his head.
John lost his house in Katrina, and you could say he lost two family members, too. But more than that, he lost his home and probably all that remained of his youth and energy.
The rising waters drowned a lot more than just houses, and many, like John, are still treading to survive the flood. In New Orleans, his story is not typical, but it is not all that uncommon either.