Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ten Years After

The Biloxi Bridge after Katrina

In 2005, my father (83 at the time) was living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in the Villa Maria Retirement Apartments:  a low-income senior building, a concrete high rise, that was four blocks from the water and one of the tallest things in town. He lived on the top floor, with a panoramic view of the Gulf Coast and its casinos, which often shot off fireworks on Friday nights. Villa Maria was a mile, maybe less, from the U.S. 90 bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs. He adored living there. He’d been even happier living on his sailboat in Biloxi, but health concerns had forced him off the boat and into an apartment. He’d had quadruple bypass in 2001, and in 2005 he often used a wheelchair and was also on a feeding tube -- which he hated; the man loved his food and especially his drink -- because of swallowing problems after a stroke.

I don’t clearly remember the sequence of events leading up to Katrina. We were all concerned about the storm, but Dad’s building wasn’t under mandatory evacuation orders, and he had no plans to leave. I remember at some point hearing that storm damage hadn’t been that bad and being relieved. We weren’t yet worried about not being able to reach Dad; we weren’t surprised phones were down. Then, on Monday morning, my sister called me and said, “Susan, New Orleans is flooding. The levees broke.”

My father was ninety miles from New Orleans, but reports from the Mississippi Gulf Coast were grim, too. That bridge I mentioned?  It’s the one everyone saw on the news, the one reduced to rubble by the storm. What were the odds that Villa Maria, so nearby and with such a high profile, hadn’t also been demolished?  “He has to be dead,” my sister said. “I just hope it was quick.”

We started a frenzied search for information. There was no getting through to anyone in Ocean Springs, but I found an online bulletin board where relatives and friends of people who lived in the Villa Maria were posting queries and sharing whatever they’d heard. No one had heard much.

Then, on Wednesday, a friend of Dad’s drove by the Villa Maria, saw people there, and realized that the building hadn’t been evacuated, as he’d assumed. He raced up to my father’s apartment, handed Dad his cellphone, and said, “Call your daughters. They’re going to be frantic.”

Dad called my sister. She heard his voice and started crying.

To hear him tell it, the storm had been a jolly romp. “They told us to go down to the lobby, so I went down there in my wheelchair with my mattress and my pillow and my Ensure and a bottle of vodka, and I poured Ensure and vodka through my feeding tube, and I was fine!” Whatever gets you through the night, Dad. Remarkably, the Villa Maria had suffered only minor roof damage, perhaps because the strongest winds had flowed around it rather than hitting it head-on. Dad was back in his apartment within a day.

We were very lucky. Millions of other people weren’t.

I flew down to Ocean Springs for Thanksgiving that year. Ocean Springs itself had been largely spared, although all of the beautiful old trees had trash in their topmost branches: clothing, children’s toys, kitchen utensils. Dad and I went for a drive along U.S. 90, the road to New Orleans, taking a long detour around the ruined bridge. Before the storm, the road had been lined with floating casinos on one side and antebellum mansions, surrounded by venerable trees, on the others. All gone. We drove through a moonscape littered with unidentifiable sticks and scraps.  A few staircases rose alone into the air for a few feet. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to tell that the area had ever been populated.

Our drive back to the Villa Maria was very quiet.

Everyone I talked to in Ocean Springs had a Katrina story. Almost everyone knew somebody who had died; many people had harrowing evacuation stories. No one had anything good to say about FEMA. No one had anything bad to say about the National Guard, hailed as heroes and saviors. One woman told me she’d complained to a Guardsman about the Meals Ready to Eat that everyone had been given. “It’s too much food! I can’t eat all that!”

“Ma’am,” the Guardsman said, “MREs are designed for the nutritional needs of soldiers in combat. You’re sitting in your living room reading a book.”

My favorite National Guard story came from Dad’s friend Darlene, who taught art at a local at-risk school where most of the students were black and very poor. The Friday before the storm hit, she’d gotten her classroom ready for the beginning of school the following week. She’d cleaned, put up student artwork from the previous year to inspire her new pupils, and left a to-do list on the corner of her desk. 

School didn’t start the following week. Darlene learned that her school was being used to billet National Guard troops, and assumed that the place would be a shambles. As soon as she could drive safely again, she went to the school and asked if she could visit her classroom. Yes, of course she could.

The room was pristine. The to-do list was still where it had been on her desk, and the Guardsmen had used the blackboard to leave notes for the children, telling them how beautiful their artwork was. I’m not sure if Darlene cried when she told me this story, but I cried when I heard it, and I’m crying now, typing it.  

The Villa Maria instituted a new policy that in the event of a hurricane, all residents would have to evacuate and wouldn’t be able to return to the building until any repairs were completed. Because evacuation wouldn’t have been feasible for him, Dad decided to leave his beloved Gulf Coast. In 2006, he moved to live near my sister in Philadelphia. On his birthday that year, he sent me $300 and asked me to research Katrina charities and send the money to the ones I considered worthiest. In 2008, he moved to Reno to be near me and Gary. He died in 2009. He wasn’t technically one of the displaced because he left shelter that was still habitable, and he didn’t apply for or receive FEMA money, but there’s no doubt that he was part of the larger Katrina diaspora. He was never as happy as he’d been on the Gulf Coast. (After he died, our plans to scatter his ashes in the Gulf were defeated by another disaster, the BP oil spill. I was glad he wasn’t alive to see that; it would have left him sickened and despairing.)

Meanwhile, in 2006, my novel The Necessary Beggar won an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and I flew down to New Orleans to accept the award -- one of ten given to adult books with YA crossover appeal -- at the ALA convention. We were the first convention to meet there after Katrina, in the infamous convention center which had gotten so much press, and which was now as bland and antiseptic as most facilities of that sort. On the shuttle ride from the airport, my driver pointed out storm damage, implored us to spend as much money as we could in the city, and thanked us fervently for coming.

Everyone thanked us for coming. Shop windows displayed signs: “We love you ALA.” The city was desperate for business. Many people at the convention took storm tours of the hardest hit parts of the city; I didn’t, because I didn’t think I could bear it, but I wandered through shops, searching for anything I wanted to buy, fighting my guilt when I found only a bracelet, a Katrina memorial t-shirt, and a souvenir voodoo doll for Gary.  

For several years after the storm, I occasionally met Katrina survivors in the ER. One patient told me he was from Biloxi, and we had a long, lively conversation. “Sure I know the Villa Maria! You can see that building for miles. I’m so glad your dad was okay.” Although we’d never met before, and although I’d never actually lived in those communities, it felt like a family reunion. The patient had gone through, was going through, agonies I'd been spared; even so, both of us understood things that other people around us didn't.  

My family was very lucky. My father was in the right place in the right circumstances; even with limited income and mobility, he was less poor and had more options than many of the people (black and terrifyingly poor, left without any money because the storm hit at the end of the month) who died when the New Orleans levees broke. We were grateful for our privileges and enraged on behalf of those who didn’t share them. We mourned those who had died and gave thanks for those who hadn’t.  

I live in the desert, thousands of miles from the Gulf Coast. I know some people might challenge my belief that Katrina is part of my history, too. I’m white and affluent; I wasn’t there; the person I loved who was there made it through largely unscathed. Other people lost and suffered so much more. But I’ll always feel a connection to that terrible time, and I’ll never hear a hurricane forecast without thinking about Katrina.

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