Thursday, May 29, 2008

Yes, all of the above

Where is the optimism I had two years ago? In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I was sorry for myself, but not sad. When I saw the carcass of what was once our home--dank, molded and smelling like a garbage truck--I was filled with sadness, but not remorse.

I don't know if that makes sense to anyone except me, but it's how I used to feel.

And somehow, I was defiant. I was determined. I was optimistic. I started writing this blog to express those sentiments to myself, my family and friends, and the world.

Now that we have a new house and we officially sold our vacant property to the Road Home, I feel very different.

I feel tired, and beaten, and a bit depressed about it.

Am I tired because this has been going on for so damn long? Is it because our particular "Road Home" has been a winding, uphill trek of more than two and half years? Is it the long hours I've been working, saddled with the "time off" spent working on the "new" house?

Am I beaten because I originally envisioned a new house on our property in Vista Park, rising high above the ground to escape future floods and strapped down at every stud to resist powerful winds? Is it because I had to take down that sign we had out front for the past year, the one that proudly proclaimed, "We're rebuilding"?

Am I depressed because I see the slow, painful progress of my once beautiful neighborhood, and I know that I am doing nothing to help? Am I shook up by my neighbors who have not elevated their homes but merely nailed up new sheetrock, as if the basic flood protection here, still under construction, was in fact bulletproof and finished? Does it bother me that national newspapers print smug and insulting stories of our struggle to recover from a disaster of biblical proportions, while local media uncritically print and broadcast the unsubstantiated allegations of angry and irrational critics?

Yes, all of the above.

I tell myself things will get better. I tell myself my life will be easier in a few weeks once we've fully unpacked and settled into our new home, leaving behind forever the tiny lifestyle of a FEMA travel trailer. I tell myself that buying a house and investing in New Orleans is a positive act of helping with the recovery.

I tell myself that the unreasoned scorn of strangers outside of Louisiana is not important, that their anger is theirs own alone. I tell myself that New Orleans was created by outcasts, misfits and adventurers, and that the only proper way to rebuild it will be with the help of outcasts, misfits and adventurers.

And I make it a rule never to lie to myself.

More than two years after the water went down, I still have a house full of love, appreciation and support. I still live in one of the great cities of the world. I still have a lot to look forward to.

Oh, there's that optimism!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Vagaries of government decisionmakers and whims of developers

"One guy is building 12 feet in the air because he's freaked out. The next guy is building at eight feet because that's the new flood regs. The next guy is building at four feet because he's grandfathered in [to the pre-Katrina code requirements], and the next guy is building right on the beach because he knew somebody at city hall and was able to get away with it."

Except for the beach part, you could almost imagine this is about Louisiana.

But it's not: it's coastal Mississippi.

Read the full story from The Christian Science Monitor.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The essential luxury

Here is what I like about our new home: Hot water.

Oh sure, there are hardwood floors, a king size bed and the breeze-swept balcony with a view of the New Orleans skyline. My Darling Wife loves the high ceilings and fans and our Precious Daughter is enjoying her red and black room with full-length mirrors on the closet doors.

But for me, the greatest improvement in quality of life is the new bathroom.

Let me explain.

Here's how my mornings used to go: My alarm would go off. I would turn on the hot water heater. I would reset my alarm for 15 minutes. I would go back to bed. My alarm would go off again. I would get ready to shower. I would stoop slightly and step into the tub. I would remain bent because if I stood straight my head would hit the ceiling of the trailer. I would shower and shave as quickly as possible, because the trailer hot water tank only held about 6 gallons and it usually lasted about 15 minutes.

That's how it was for about 22 months in the FEMA Travel Trailer.

Here's how my morning goes now: My alarm goes off. I get ready to shower. I stand up and no stooping or bending is required. I stand under the strong spray of hot water for as long as I please. I emerge happy.

If clean water is one of the hallmarks of a civilized living, hot water is one of its essential luxuries.

Oh, I could probably wax poetic about the essential nature of water versus the sensuous pleasure of a hot shower, or even the paradoxical relationship we have with water since it was, after all, a water event that plunged us all into this long journey of misery in the first place.

But I'll let that alone for now.

I suppose at one time or another we've all been deprived of the luxury of a hot shower. Whether camping or during a power or gas outage, we probably had to deal with the inconvenience of little or no hot water for a day or two.

Well that's nothing. Try it for 22 consecutive months.

And then you'll know why my favorite part of the new house is all wet.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Unambiguously home

There is a line that runs through all our lives here. It marks the place where everything changed.

It is first and foremost the water line. Thirty-two months ago, every house, pole, tree, car and street sign in the flooded parts of New Orleans bore the line. We've washed that ugly stain from most of our homes now, but the line remains. I can still see the line in my own neighborhood--the line that separates what survives from what dies.

Everyone knows that to survive, you must stay above the water line. That water line was the subject of a song by Paul Soniat. He sings about how a lot of lives "fell below the water line" in 2005. A lot of relationships, jobs and schools fell below the water line and did not reemerge.

The City of New Orleans is ignoring the water line. At City Hall, the only line they notice is the imaginary line drawn on the flood insurance maps. All they seem to care about is the Base Flood Elevation, that magical line that will allow you to get a building permit, and the best flood insurance rate, and the peace of mind we all crave. Or not.

There are other lines.

There is the line on the calendar that separates our lives in time. It is a line that separates the lives of the people of New Orleans into pre-K and post-K. It starkly separates our lives between how we lived before August 29, 2005, and after. In far too many cases, it starkly separates life and survivors from the dead.

And surviving the hurricane and flood was not an end; it was the beginning of the survivor saga. Fellow blogger Karen Gadbois wrote to me, "Funny how this storm has turned us all into other things." She sees how people have changed where they live, where they work, where they go to school. She knows people who are doing things they never dreamed and never planned to do. But they crossed the line in time and they changed.

For instance, we all know a lot more about flood maps and how to navigate insurance claims than we did before. I always thought I was up to speed on insurance, but you never really know until something happens. You never really know what lurks in the fine print until you get a form letter from the insurance company that matter-of-factly describes what is covered and for how much.

And having traversed that timeline in 2005, we all know more about tropical weather forecasting than ever before. During the past two anxious hurricane seasons, everyone here was keenly aware of every puff of rainy weather in the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic.

Another NOLA blogger, Mark Folse said, "I don't think anyone without AMS certification knew anything about Invests, etc. until after K. Now we're all looking at computer model tracks and wondering about the reliability of this model over that, thinking about sea surface temp, wind shear, etc."

When we crossed that line, we all became armchair meteorologists, studying the maps and reading the reports and checking the computer modeling. I haven't heard of any fantasy forecasting leagues starting up yet, but surely one cannot be far from forming.

And then there is the line for help. Lines of people at the Road Home closing center. Lines of citizens at City Hall trying to get permits, or to talk sense to their Assessors. Lines at the hardware stores.

Now my family is approaching yet another line, a line that will officially denote our passage from Post-K to Post-Post-K. We bought a new house and we're moving in this weekend. For the first time since Katrina filled our city with despair, we will have a roof over our heads that we can call our own. We will sleep in beds that belong to us and us alone. We will change our voter registration and discard stationary with our "old" address on it.

We fled the city and our home in August 2005, seeking shelter with family in Texas and Virginia, brief stays in friends' undamaged houses in Harahan and uptown New Orleans, a few months in an expensive apartment in the Sliver by the River, and almost 22 months in a FEMA Travel Trailer.

We bounced around quite a bit, but only now are we landing safely in a place we can unambiguously call, "home."

My family for the past almost three years has been somewhat controlled by a broken line on the highway, a line on a map, a line on the calendar, a line to get help, a line of credit to replace what was lost, and of course, the water line.

Most of these stories are recorded in the lines on our faces. I'm hoping that by this time next week, the dominant line on my face will be a smile.