Our back Patio before Katrina
“We should leave first thing tomorrow” Larry told me. It was Saturday morning, and we were planning to go to Shabbat services after we finished our Torah study group. But Larry was growing anxious, and instead we stopped at my gallery on the way home. I turned off the computers and placed the things from under the counters onto the top of the counters and went home to help ready our home for evacuation.
We had bought our home on Emerald Street in West Lakeshore on a Friday, just before Passover in 2001. My father-in law called in the late afternoon to see if we needed anything, and I invited him over for Shabbat dinner. He was amazed, but I had planned it, and I knew where my pots and dishes were, and I had the meal ready to cook. The only thing I couldn’t find was a corkscrew, so I asked him to bring one, and that evening Larry’s partner Aaron showed up at our door as well. I invited him in, pulled up a chair, and he joined the three of us for a happy and memorable meal – our first of many in that beautiful space.
It was my dream home. It had been built by an architect named John Rock, in the late fifties, and had 2417 square feet. The pool was in the back patio, and there was a terrace that was inside the walls of the home, the screen top of which followed the roof line. The ceiling beams were exposed, and the angles of the home delighted my senses sculpturally. The windows that faced the street were all very high, so that light came in without any need for shades or drapes. I had it painted in different shades of light grey, and the huge sliding glass doors were perhaps twenty feet long and ceiling high, facing out to the terrace from the living room, as well as smaller ones also facing out to the terrace from the bedroom. Our turtles, Waldo and Walden, lived quite happily in that terrace.
That Saturday morning, August 27th, 2005, I dragged the outdoor furniture into the kitchen while Larry did some bookkeeping and backed up and saved our Quicken information. That evening we had a nice dinner, walked the dog and took a peaceful moonlit swim. It was so beautiful there in our patio. The geraniums showed in the moonlight, and the silhouettes of the palm trees swayed in the breeze while we splashed and laughed together.
Sunday morning Larry wheeled the Weber grill into the kitchen, laid the huge sun umbrella with the cement base down on its side, and we packed a few things into a couple of bags. We decided to leave Sippi’s crate and just pack her things, since we knew Larry’s sister Carolyn would have a crate we could use for the miniature dachshund, and we would probably be gone only a couple of days.
Larry’s dad, Rene, arrived promptly at 8am and asked, “Which car do we want to sacrifice?” We were going to drive his to the airport, but his tires were low, so we decided to take Larry’s car instead. Sippi and I sat in the back during a somewhat bumpy flight, and as we flew towards the West, I looked down from about 6000 feet over New Orleans and saw the traffic bumper to bumper as far as I could see in both directions. As soon as we landed in Houston Larry got a call from his daughter, Emily, who was in medical school in Pittsburgh. He asked her about various family members and she told him that her grandparents, Dianne’s parents Joe and Elizabeth were staying in New Orleans. Larry immediately called them and learned that they planned to go to a shelter at McMain High School and they insisted they would be fine. Larry suggested that he get back into the airplane and go back to New Orleans to pick them up and bring them to Houston. They again insisted they would be fine, and he relented.
We all went to Pico’s that night for dinner. Great margaritas. We watched the “hurricane returns” on TV until we went to bed. Early in the morning the hurricane hit. It was bad. It came in just to the East of New Orleans, and we were somewhat relieved, as the western side of the hurricane is not so harmful as being to the east. We watched the news on CNN all day. Early the next morning, on Tuesday, Larry woke me gently, and said, “Honey, I have bad news.” I tried to wake up as he continued, “The levees gave way, and the city is flooded.” The levee at the 17th Street Canal had not held. Our home was only ½ mile from the canal.
We left Houston the next morning to spend some time with our friends, Carole and Harvey Green, at their condo in Watercolor, Florida. We took Sippi with us and we flew directly over New Orleans on our way to Florida, circling above the city several times. It was incredible. Practically the entire city seemed to be flooded. In fact, we knew that was indeed the case, and yet it seemed impossible to comprehend. We were silent for awhile as we continued toward Florida.
Harvey and Carole met us at the airport in Destin, as they had done many times in the past. But this time we all had a haze about us, we hugged and cried a bit, it all seemed so surreal. We went back to Watercolor, and along with some other New Orleans refugees we spent a lot of time glued to either the computer or the
television. The hotel, which is a part of the resort where Carole and Harvey own their condo, had set up rooms with computers in order for the displaced of New Orleans to check on the current news and aerial photos of our homes, taken by satellite. Carole and Harvery were worried about Seymore, their handyman, who had stayed at their house, and was now somewhere with their van, their dog, and Harvey's cell phone, and they kept trying to contact him, never succeeding. We were becoming more and more worried about Emily’s mom’s parents, who evidently had stayed in New Orleans as they’d planned, and the last we had heard, had been evacuated from McMain to the Superdome.
We stayed in Watercolor for three or four days. On the morning we left, I sat across from Larry at breakfast, and he was despondent. “I have no hope”, he said.
I was alarmed, that’s so unlike him. “What do you mean, honey?” I asked.
“I have no hope that Joe and Elizabeth are still alive”, he said. It had been a whole week and we had not heard a word from them.
“We’ll find them”, I told him.
After breakfast, Carole and Harvey took us back to the airport. We packed the airplane up and were just about to leave, when Larry’s phone rang. It was Emily.
“Dad, we found them!”
It was incredible. They had been bussed from the Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston, where they were the first bus to be turned away. Then they went to Dallas, and ultimately to Oklahoma, to an army base. They weren’t in good shape, and we had to get them back to Houston where their other daughter, Denise was. Larry’s first thought was to fly there to pick them up, but of course that made no sense, it would take too long. So Larry called Angel Flight and arranged it. Within an hour an Angel Flight pilot had driven to pick them up, and they were flying to Houston in a private plane. Larry had flown so many Angel Flights himself, we never thought that we would actually need an Angel Flight pilot to help us. Elizabeth and Joe were so very grateful, and we felt so sorry for what they had been through. But at least they were alive, and eventually they made it back to New Orleans, where they are still living in their home, which did not flood.
We boarded our little plane and flew on to St. Pete Beach, where our good friends Wendy and Steve Rosen had invited us to make their vacation home our temporary home.
Larry spent the next several days setting up his office, visiting the computer tech to set things up on the new laptop, forwarding his calls to their phone, forwarding the mail, and getting in touch with his staff and clients. We were both pretty stressed out, not knowing when we would be able to go home, if we even had a home!
Wendy and I went shopping before she and Steve left to return to Baltimore, but I hated to buy much, not knowing for sure what I still might have. I bought one pair of pants and two tops.
Larry and I went to a Torah Study at a local synagogue on Saturday morning, and the woman sitting two seats from me, learning I was from New Orleans, gave me her denim jacket. She insisted on my taking it and told me she didn’t want it back. I told her I would send it back to her, but with all the moving and resettling, I lost her address. I have to admit, I used that jacket a lot. For quite some time, it was the only jacket I had.
The cars were just where we left them. My father-in-law’s car looked worse than mine, for some reason. Maybe because the color was darker. They were both dripping inside, ringed with layers of dirt and scum all the way up to the windshield, and big globs of light and dark grey mold were growing everywhere inside. We had finally reached our home.
Hurricane Katrina was exactly 3 weeks past, yet her devastation lay everywhere. The front door was swollen shut. Larry went across the street to get the pickaxe from Mark’s shed, and we kicked the door in.
What met our eyes and our noses was worse than we’d imagined. A soggy, moldy red easy chair was settled on its side, blocking the door in our entryway. On it sat a discarded newspaper left behind. A small red vase lay on its side atop the newspaper, partially blocking the headline “Katrina threatens New Orleans and Gulf Coast”.
The inside of the house was about 110 degrees or maybe more, and the smell was overwhelmingly pungent. It was stifling. We had to get some other doors and windows open and let it air out a few minutes before we could even stay inside. The entire floor was filled with about 1” of slime and muck. Our lovely area rugs were now dark brown and incredibly soggy. Squish, squish. Furniture was turned over and had floated everywhere. We had to pick our way slowly through the mayhem. Our Walter Anderson had fallen off the wall and the glass had broken, leaving the artwork face down in the disgusting muck.
In the kitchen, the water had reached right up to the countertops. The granite countertop was cracked, and all of the bottom cabinets and drawers were swollen shut and stuck that way. Everything was warped.
In the den, the built-in floor-to-ceiling bookcases were warped and falling down. All of the books were soggy, wet and moldy. Furniture was everywhere. The worst room was the study, in the back. Although we had opened the windows, it was so intense in there, hot and smelly, that after working in there a little while trying to salvage pearls and tools, my head began to swim, and I had to leave the house. My face was dripping with sweat, running down into my eyes and stinging. I felt faint. But after a few face wipes and some water I returned to the house to try to salvage some more of our belongings.
There wasn’t much to salvage from the study. I’d had a huge collection of pearls, and most of them were in a box under the desk. They’d been soaking in mucky water for several weeks, and their nacre was ruined. All the little gold and silver findings were scattered in the muck, my tools were rusted and pitted and all the joints and hinges were stuck shut. Twenty-five years worth of tools I had collected, some of which I had made myself, while I was in art school. All ruined. And all of the pearls and gems I had collected, most of which were not salvageable, either.
And then I thought of my letters to my mother, all those letters that were irreplaceable. She had saved them for more than twenty years, and I had barely looked at them since she died. The box they had been in was on the floor in the closet, and it was total mush. More than anything else that I lost in the storm, I grieve for those letters, such a direct connection to my mother.
The last thing I had held in my hand as we had left the house that Sunday morning before the storm was our wedding album. I looked at it and thought, “I wonder what I should do with this.” I was thinking more about wind than about flooding, silly me. I put it on a middle shelf of an inside closet, and when I found it again there was nothing left to salvage. The photos were totally gone, all blobs of black, totally soaked.
By lunchtime we were hungry and exhausted. The sweat was running down our faces and stinging our eyes. Rosa had packed us a lunch, and we were going to sit out on the terrace for a break. I had already covered the tiny outdoor table with paper towels, when we decided it was just too hot, and we needed more of a break. We went out front and climbed into the rented SUV, and Larry turned the engine on. The air-conditioning was heavenly. We enjoyed our ten minute lunch break, and got back to work.
In the bedroom, most of the furniture had been knocked over by the wet forces within our home, and it was all pretty disgusting. I had a beautiful hand-made Art Deco style inlaid wooden jewelry box, with several drawers. It used to be on my dresser, along with the pictures of my parents and my nieces and nephews. It was all broken apart on the floor, with its contents scattered in the muck.
I made Larry get the pick-axe from across the street again, and he pulled open some of the drawers of my dresser, laying sadly on its side. I had an envelope filled with five-dollar bills in there, my parking money from before the storm. I took it to Rosa’s house and laid all the bills out in her hot garage, and they dried quickly. They all had a pink tinge to them though, so they were unmistakable. I called it my “Katrina money”.
We had received a call that morning from the flood insurance adjuster. He was supposed to meet us at the house at 3pm, but by 4:30, when he had not yet arrived, we left. We were exhausted. He called later in the evening and evidently he had been at the wrong house. The next day we had an appointment with him at 9am. He called a little after 9 and told us that he had encountered a checkpoint, and had to turn back. I heard Larry tell him, “Well, you just have to bull**** your way through.” He gave the phone to me, and I began to give him directions on how to go around some of the checkpoints and approach the house from a different direction. The poor guy was from Kentucky and didn’t know the area at all, and I realized that he was not able to absorb very many instructions, so I gave him just a couple and told him to call me when he reached a certain point. From there on, he must have called me every 3 or 4 minutes until he arrived, which was about an hour later. He had run into one more checkpoint, where he told them that he was going to see a client who was 8-1/2 months pregnant and relying on him to take her out of New Orleans. When he finally arrived at the house, he got out of the car and called me “little mama”. It was hilarious.
When we had finally had enough of the grueling work, we drove out to Lakefront Airport, located in New Orleans East, to check on Larry’s car. First we drove around our neighborhood a little. It was so quiet. All of the homes had been flooded at least as badly as ours, except for one that had been built as a raised home. Otherwise it was a total loss with the exception of a couple of blocks right by the levee. Obviously the flooding in our neighborhood had come mostly from the 17th Street Canal, and not from Lake Pontchartrain directly.
On the way out to the airport, I maintained my usual optimism concerning anything I have not yet seen. I pointed out, “It could be that it didn’t flood. Maybe we could just get in your car and drive it away. Wouldn’t that be nice?” But as we approached the airport, we saw incredible devastation. There were airplanes blown into the road, and we saw several airplanes that looked like they were rolled up into a ball of scrap metal. The boats in the harbor were all askew. Fences were blown down and there was one boat sitting in the middle of the neutral ground.
The T-hangars were very badly damaged. Metal siding was blown off the sides and some of the roofs were damaged. It looked like there had been incredible wind damage as well as some flooding. Larry’s car was still inside the hangar, but it had either been blown or had floated into the corner. It was badly banged up on one side and also in the rear end, as well as having been flooded.
There was nothing we could do there, so we left to go check Rene’s house. As we drove back by our own neighborhood shopping center I saw the waterline was much higher than it had been on our house. It was halfway up the buildings, maybe 6 or 7 feet. The Blockbuster Videos had been broken into, probably looted. Everything was deserted.
Along Pontchartrain Blvd the homes were much worse. The flood lines were up to the tops of the doors. Windows were blown out on almost all of them, and roofs were blown away. Trees were down. Everything was brown. The grass was dead and so were the shrubs, the plants, and even the bottoms of the trees. The neutral ground park was no more. I remembered the building of that park, the planting of the young trees, the serpentine bike path, the babies in carriages, the joggers and the birds. Now it looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb.
As we approached Lakewood North, we could see that it was even worse than our own neighborhood. There were more trees down, and the flood line was higher. Then we got to Lakewood South. Such devastation. Even though my father-in-law’s home was on the high side of the street, built up by several feet, it didn’t seem to make much difference. It was the same story once again: the slippery muck on the floor, the furniture everywhere. The searing heat and the choking smell. But somehow it was still worse. The kitchen counters were so soaked that they had collapsed, and the walls were so soaked that some of the artwork had fallen off. The only piece of artwork I could save from the downstairs was the Barry Ivker print in the den. And the beautiful chiming carved wooden wall clock that had come all the way from Germany was ruined.
Larry picked his way around the fallen furniture and worked his way upstairs. He called to me to come on up. He said, “Take your sneakers off on the stairs and come up, it’s really nice up here.” And it was. On the second floor, it was as if nothing had ever happened. We opened some windows and the lace curtains blew in the breeze. It was warm, but it was pleasant. We were glad that Rene would have some furniture and clothes, as well as his computer and his books to start again somewhere else.
Yesterday we drove to Baton Rouge to attend a funeral. A friend of Larry’s had died of a heart attack, most likely from the stress surrounding Hurricane Katrina. The funeral took place in St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Baton Rouge, and it was a very beautiful service, with lovely music. After the service, we went to the airport and Larry flew the airplane back to New Orleans while I drove the rental van and picked him up at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
Then we drove back across the Mississippi River to Rosa’s house where we were staying. We felt quite fortunate that Larry's secretary had invited us to stay at her home in Harvey while we looked for an apartment. Rosa told us the day before that she had had to wait outside in line to get into the grocery store and Walmart. The employees were giving water and sun umbrellas to the people in line. You also had to wait in line to get gas, if the gas stations had any left. Most of them just had plastic bags on the pumps.
One night as Larry and I were going to bed I began laughing. “What is it?” he asked. “This could be a novel” I replied. “No, No, it could be a sit-com! Here we are, the lawyer and the businesswoman, staying with the lawyer’s secretary and her tugboat captain husband, because their house was flooded. I was laughing hysterically, I could barely get the words out as tears formed in the corners of my eyes.
Meanwhile, a new Category 4 hurricane, “Rita” was making her way through the Gulf and threatened Galveston, Houston and points East all the way to New Orleans.
We were now concerned about Larry’s dad, still staying in Houston with Carolyn and David. They had attempted evacuating from Houston to Dallas about 4am, leaving in 2 cars along with their daughter Hannah, David’s parents and the Rottweiler and the Pointer. They drove about 12 miles in the first 2 hours. It was gridlock. A slowly moving parking lot, they eventually made it about 50 miles by 10pm. Then they turned around. They arrived home exhausted and dehydrated about 11:30pm. Hurricane Rita passed with little damage to Houston.
One evening I spoke with my friend Lisa Bialac, who lives in California. She’d volunteered for the Red Cross and they were deploying her to Baton Rouge that Tuesday. She asked me, “What are you and Larry doing to have some fun in the midst of all this? Remember, you need to have some fun.” “Well, today we went to a funeral,” I replied.
“No, I mean, really” she said.
"Really", I replied, “You have to look at it from our point of view. For the last 2 days we’ve spent the majority of the day in the midst of devastation, working and sweating in mud and muck. This morning we got up and got dressed in nice clothes, drove to Baton Rouge, stopped at a restaurant for lunch, and went to a beautiful Cathedral where there was lovely music and we saw and commiserated with people we knew.”
“Well, I guess I see what you mean,” she said. I didn't mean to be disrespectful, it's just that it was the most peaceful and beautiful day I'd had in some time. Just getting out of New Orleans was somewhat refreshing.
The last time I went back into our home before it was gutted, I was on a search for some hankies. I had had quite a collection of my mother’s and Larry’s grandmother’s handkerchiefs, and I’m the old-fashioned sort of girl who actually uses them. I had mentioned the loss to my friend, Julie Grant Meyer, and she said to me, “Dashka, you should go back there and get your hankies. I know you could get them. You should try again.”
That was a Sunday. The next day the house was scheduled to be gutted. I stopped by early in the morning, before the workmen came. I went into the bedroom, donned my rubber gloves, and looked through what I could get to in the wet dresser drawers, but it was hopeless. As soon as I touched anything, a flock of mosquitoes rose out of the drawer. It took me by surprise.
“Well, since I’m here”, I thought, “I might as well check the closet and see if there’s anything else I can salvage. The closet was black, there was no electricity. I stepped to the back, where my dresses were hanging, and tried to move them on the rack. So many mosquitoes flew out, that I stepped back. A lot of the clothes had fallen to the floor, and were in wet lumps. All of a sudden, one of the lumps began to move. I turned tail and ran out front, screaming. I looked embarrassedly up and down the street, but of course I was alone. “Julie”, I thought, if you really want me to have my mother’s hankies, you’re going to have to go in there and find them yourself!” Some time later, it was Julie who surprised me with a lovely package of pretty hankies she had from her own mother and grandmother, and I use them to this very day.
September was almost at an end, and along with it we would be closer to the end of hurricane season. But not yet. Hurricane Rita was bringing us rain and wind, there in Harvey, where we were staying in Rosa’s home. We heard on the radio that the Industrial Canal had overflowed again, and that the lower 9th Ward was already flooded with waist-deep water. I had expected that we would be able
to go outside that day, but it appeared that the winds were too strong, and it might be dangerous. We lost electricity for a couple of hours but then it was restored. So we stayed at home and watched the water in the canal behind Rosa’s housing development rise higher and higher.
We stayed with Rosa and Glen for a couple of weeks, then we wanted to get on with our lives. We needed more privacy, and a feeling of being on our way to working things out. So we took the things we needed to get by, and we moved into the third floor of the Chartres Street building, above my gallery. We stayed there just a few days. One evening, Larry dropped me off and went to park the car. I was unlocking the front door, when the man talking on his cell phone in front of the building turned and looked at me.
“Dashka?” he asked.
“John Young!” I replied. This was the lawyer in whose French Quarter building Larry lived when he and Diane were getting divorced. It’s where he lived when we first began dating. John came in and we chatted until Larry returned, then we went out to dinner at the only restaurant that was open in the area, Bacco. John had already bought a house in Baton Rouge, and moved his family there. He offered us his place on St. Louis Street. It was kind of romantic staying there again with the sauna and the tiny winding staircase that went down from the bedroom to the kitchen. It was September, and we stayed there until November, when John evidently wanted to move on with some plans to renovate the building. We were desperate for a place close by, in order to oversea the repair work that was needed, so we overpaid to rent a third floor walk-up loft-type apartment only a few doors down from our building on Chartres Street.
Hurricane Katrina had left us with roof damage, and the water had wicked down in the plaster walls, and left them all mushy. In addition to the extensive wall repairs, we decided to fix up the third-floor studio apartment that Larry's grandparents had lived in, since the requirements for rebuilding our home were awfully fuzzy. The local government kept saying one thing, then another, and it was difficult to tell whether the re-build of our home in West Lakeshore would be feasible.
I closed the gallery in February of 2006 to begin the work. We had had difficulty finding a contractor, and one evening as we discussed the possibilities, I said, "I can do it. I know I can do it." And so began my life as a contractor. I hired a subcontractor who was to supply the workers to do most of the demolition, carpentry work and painting. I also hired an electrician and a plumber. As it turned out, after all of the lengthy demolition and plaster work, when we were finally ready to paint, the painter came only a couple of times, then stopped turning up. So I ended up painting almost the entire interior myself. Eventually I had to fire the subcontractor, I was on my 2nd plumber and my 3rd electrician. While we were working on the repairs, we discovered some structural damage in the front of the building that was not due to Katrina, but had to be addressed nonetheless. We needed to replace a 16-foot steel I-Beam that supports the entire brick front of the building. So I hired a structural engineer who made plans and drawings, and I engaged a reputable shoring company. They shored the building, and I hired a brickmason who came and banged out holes in the front of the building. Big holes. I remember sitting at my desk on the second floor, looking out into air. Our 6 months lease was up, and no work was done while we were on vacation in Maine that year. When we returned, our friends Harvey and Carole generously gave us their lovely home Uptown while they summered in Lenox. The work began again, and after the I-Beam was made to specifications, galvanized and installed, the brickmason came back to rebuild the front, then I had to find a stucco specialist to bring it back to its original look, as required by the Vieux Carre Commission, the historic society that keeps the French Quarter looking so quaint.
When Carole and Harvey returned home, we moved into the Homewood Suites, an extended-stay hotel on Poydras Street. I negotiated a good price for a three-month stay, and it included breakfast daily and dinner Monday through Friday! Sometimes I thought the work would never end. We moved the appliances in through the 3rd-floor window with a hydraulic lift. It took forever to get the granite countertops ready. They plumber was never available when I needed him, and I had a finish carpenter who started the work, then decided he didn't want to come to the French Quarter, and never finished...he should have been called a beginning carpenter, not a finish carpenter! I still have a $500 wood door leaning against the wall behind one of my cases, waiting to find someone who can install it on my second floor!
We moved in on November 19th, 2006 with no sink in the kitchen or the bathroom, no countertops, and no toilet on the 2nd floor. We were washing the dishes in the bathtub. I re-opened the gallery on December 5th, and our Grand Re-Opening Celebration was the weekend of my birthday, the end of January, 2007.