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6th Anniversary of the Storm

I'm not sure why this year has hit me harder than the others. Perhaps, it is because my son, unborn at the time of the disaster, has started kindergarten. His difficulty in adjusting reminds me of my own vulnerability in the years 2005-2006. While slightly reluctant to share this personal story, I decided even though we move on, it's important to remember. This essay was first published in Mother Verse, Issue 5, January 2007.

Goodbye, My New Orleans

first published in Mother Verse, Issue #5


The television in the hospital waiting room was on but muted. A large red and orange graphic was swirling on the screen.


“Hurricane,” I said casually as I steered my toddler away from the vending machines.


My husband replied, “Yeah, It’s gonna hit the Florida panhandle.”


“Hmm,” I pondered before I was distracted by the calling of my name.


I was there for the five month ultrasound that would reveal the gender of my new child. My husband held our reluctant 20-month-old daughter in his lap as the doctor glided the wand over my full abdomen.


“Boy,” he said.


“You sure?” My husband, Errol, asked, containing his glee.


“Definitely a boy,” the doctor confirmed.


The rest of the day was busy as we happily bought “It’s a Boy” foil banners, baby blue balloons, and party supplies. The following day, we were going to have an ultrasound party for our family, concealing the big surprise until they arrived.


The next morning, I swept and mopped the floors, decorated the house, and put on a pretty maternity dress. Errol and I were about to prepare some finger foods, when the phone rang. It was his mother and she wanted to know if we were evacuating.


He put the television on and there it was again. The big red and orange swirling thing was in the Gulf of Mexico and heading right for New Orleans.


“Pack your bags,” he said after making reservations in Austin, Texas.


“But I don’t want to leave. I’m having a party today,” I whined.


“We can’t stay for a Category 5 Hurricane,” the voice of reason replied.


I knew he was right but my mind ventured back to the year before when we evacuated for Hurricane Ivan. It took us eighteen hours to drive to Austin in bumper to bumper traffic with our traumatized caged cat and our unhappy nine month old daughter. It was a costly and uncomfortable unplanned vacation. Errol’s company forced their employees to use vacation time for a hurricane that didn’t come.


“I don’t know what to take,” I said as if I had never done this before.


“Just enough things for four or five days,” Errol said.

It was hard to get packing. I stood under the baby blue balloons and ominously looked around the house. The walls were covered with priceless paintings my late father-in-law, Dimitri Fouquet, had painted. Would they be safe in the attic? I wondered. But what if the roof blows off? I felt helpless and strangely hopeless. I grabbed a bag and quickly filled it with baby books, photo albums, toys, plastic sippy cups, my daughter’s clothes and five maternity dresses. I put a large bag in my daughter’s room in front of her bookshelf.

“Zoë,” I said. “Fill this bag with the books you want to bring.”

I packed her favorite stuffed animals, the sheet on her crib, and her beloved blanket. When I turned around, the bag was overflowing with children’s books. I laughed.

“Okay. We’ll take all of these.”

As we pulled out of the driveway, I had a peculiar feeling while I studied the outside of the house. I wondered how the little garden in front that Zoë and I had planted would fare in the bad weather. It was August 27, 2005 and it would be the last time I saw my home.

The drive to Austin was not too bad. We had evacuated early so it took only twelve hours this time. However, our accommodations at the motel were not very comfortable, especially with a toddler. After a sleepless night, we packed up again and across town checked into a roomy suite equipped with a kitchen. In front of the television, we settled in to watch what Hurricane Katrina would do to our city.

It was a long wait. The hurricane did turn east but strong winds still pummeled New Orleans. We watched the television eagerly for the damage assessment. A phone call from my mother lifted our spirits. A cousin had stayed behind and drove around the neighborhoods. My grandparents’ house was fine and so was the house we were renting. Relief washed over us. All we had to do was sit tight a few more days until electricity could be restored, after that we could go home.

Then, the levees broke. Lake Pontchartrain poured into the city with an unstoppable force. Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded. Our neighborhood was completely submerged underwater. The following hours were confused and emotional as we tried to contemplate the loss of absolutely everything. I tried to imagine all of our rooms filled with water. Cell phones with the 504 area code were not in service, so trying to stay in touch with other family members was impossible.

Our next move was to move again. Along with being homeless, the realization that Errol might not have a job anymore hit us, so we needed to find another place to stay. We checked into an Extended Stay America in North Austin for its inexpensive weekly rates. It would become our refuge for the next three weeks.

We saw the horrors of New Orleans unfolding on the television. For years, we had heard our elders talk of Hurricane Betsy like others talk of the boogie man. We had seen the old films of the flooded city. Those who rode out Betsy, a Category 3 hurricane, acquired a false sense of security that they could withstand any future ones. Despite all the scientific data that forecasted New Orleans to be underwater within fifty years, we lived in a naïve denial that it couldn’t happen, wouldn’t happen. But now it had.

Paralyzed in disbelief, we watched scores of people begging from rooftops to be rescued. Children separated from their mothers were being airlifted by helicopters. Footage from the Superdome and Convention Center was nightmarish and devastating. People without the means to evacuate were dying from dehydration, starvation, and lack of medicine. I looked around our meager room and felt guilty for feeling sorry for ourselves.

We were fortunate to have some diversions from the endless television drama. Errol had some friends who lived just North of Austin. We visited with them several times a week. Their two sons, ages 1 and 3, were great playmates for Zoë. Also, in the hotel was another couple from New Orleans we knew; they too had lost everything. She was six months pregnant with their first child. Other guests smiled at the two ladies with big bellies as they tried to pass us in the hallway. We visited with my aunt and uncle who live in San Antonio. We politely declined their invitation to have us stay with them. Everyone wanted to help; we felt vulnerable but proud.

Errol did accept a laptop on loan and started typing out a resume. His employer hadn’t made any decisions on who would be kept on, so Errol started sending his resume out everywhere. I was due to have a baby in early January and he needed a job with health benefits.

We lived in limbo but were starting to get some assistance. Errol’s company gave their employees $500. Their Denver office sent some clothes for Zoë and a $150 gift certificate to Wal-Mart. The Red Cross paid the hotel rate for the week. FEMA gave us $2,000.

Finally, with some breathing room in our checking account, we were able to buy some much needed clothes and sundries. We brought Zoë to a toy store to pick out a couple of things. My heart was heavy as she gravitated to toys she used to have. She gave a big stuffed panda bear a hug. Did she think it was her friend we had left behind?

“They’re only material things,” Errol said, responding to my teary eyes. “We’ll replace everything eventually.”

Back at the hotel, we were informed that The Red Cross was paying for us to stay another two weeks. That eased some of our fears. Errol was conducting phone interviews with companies in Houston, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. As I held my napping daughter in the recliner, I just wished he would get something soon because I desperately wanted to get her back on a schedule. She had been unbelievably adaptable but she wanted to go home. So did we but it was not an option. I wondered where we’d end up.

New York and L.A. were the strongest possibilities. There were some decent offers, yet relocation and housing would have been quite challenging. Then, on Monday, September 12th, Errol got a call from a recruiter working for a company in North Carolina. He was familiar with their product but it was a bit out of his field of expertise. After a couple of phone interviews and some negotiations, he got the job.

“What’s in North Carolina?” I asked.

“I guess we’ll find out,” he said.

On Saturday, September 17th, we loaded up the car, tranquilized the cat, and we three headed out of Austin on a two day car trip which would end in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was bizarre moving to a city we had never been to before. All the reports were good: low crime, affordable housing, great schools. These were important things that New Orleans could not offer us at that moment, if ever.

The long trip was conducive to thought. I glanced over at my beautiful New Orleans girl. Images of her there came to me. It was bittersweet now to remember her raising her little arms to catch Mardi Gras beads. I recalled the joy of watching her dance so freely to the bands at French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest. She ate spicy crawfish like a natural. Zoë might never remember her hometown.

I rubbed my belly and smiled at the quiver from within. He would be born in Raleigh, North Carolina. People often don’t understand that New Orleans isn’t just a place; it’s a living culture. I wanted so much to raise two New Orleans kids. I wanted them to grow up with the joie de vivre of my birthplace with its cuisine, customs, and nomenclature. I wanted that more than anything but it was out of my hands.

On my thirty-fifth birthday, September 18, 2005, we drove into Raleigh to begin a new life. The city possessed natural beauty but I longed for the familiar ancient architecture of New Orleans. We rented an older house that had some familiar features and set about buying everything all over again. All that shopping might seem fun to some but it was exhausting trying to reequip an entire household quickly. My relief was that Zoë settled in beautifully.

It was also a relief to not be in Texas, where so many other evacuees had gone. The media was calling us refugees. After arriving in Raleigh, we had lunch at a farmhouse restaurant. The waitress asked us where we were from. Before we paid our bill, the owner approached us with the offer of $500, a collection the employees had gotten together for Katrina victims. We were touched but asked if they would give it to a charity like Habitat for Humanity. Some of Errol’s coworkers were also generous in their offers. It was all very nice but we were ready to move away from our victim status and rebuild our lives on our own.

In October, Errol went back to New Orleans. He needed the closure and was hopeful to find anything salvageable in the wreckage. A few weeks prior, a friend of my mine had retrieved Dimitri’s paintings with the hope of restoration. The house was worse than Errol could have imagined. The numerous flies and the stench from the toxic mold were unbearable. The house had been filled with water close to the ceiling for three weeks before it finally drained.

Along with the paintings and a couple of Dimitri’s Zen ink drawings, Errol brought back some items that could be cleaned: one of my late father’s old pipes, a perfume bottle Dimitri had given me, hat pins, some cobalt glass items, and a few other things. Gone forever were vacation photos, love letters, and home movies. He showed me the photographs he’d taken inside the house. The refrigerator and television armoire were overturned. Furniture had floated into other rooms. The walls and everything in the entire house were covered in thick black mold. Eerily, the only things pristine were the “It’s a Boy” foil banners and the baby blue balloons, still inflated.

Thanksgiving, Zoë’s second birthday, and Christmas came and were celebrated considerably less without family or friends. As grateful as we were for our new life, an intense homesickness tainted our good fortune. Errol and I stopped talking about New Orleans but we both knew the other was pining to go home. It was simply understood that it was something that had to happen.

After months of anxiety and worry that this disaster would have a negative impact on my baby; our son, Jean Dimitri, was born. He arrived on January 6th, 2006 and scored a perfect 10 Apgar. The 6th of January is King’s Day, the first official day of the carnival season in New Orleans, a time of great excitement and energy for the locals. For the rest of the United States, the holiday season pretty much ends with New Year’s Day. For New Orleanians, it’s just the beginning of Mardi Gras followed by French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest. I plan on baking Jean king cakes for his birthdays instead of traditional birthday cakes.

Two months quickly flew by with the nursing and care of a newborn. In March, Errol got a call from his previous employer in New Orleans. They were looking for someone to fill a position that was essentially his old job. He was eager and started negotiations. Things were positive and we were really hopeful to return home. We were pricing houses to purchase in New Orleans online and talking to family and friends about moving back. Then, bluntly, Errol was told his requirements could not be met. A deep depression engulfed us.

Frightened for my children, I pulled myself together and told Errol that we couldn’t live in this kind of purgatory. He had a great job and we needed to really give this place a chance. In April, we bought our first house in Cary, North Carolina. It’s bigger and more comfortable than anywhere we’ve lived in our decade together. Although Errol and I still battle with homesickness almost daily, settling down and accepting our fate was the most positive thing we could do for our kids.

So, on this anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I watch my seven-month-old son crawl for the first time, confirming that life does indeed move on. I know that I would have never left New Orleans voluntarily. That decision was made by that mother controlling us all, Mother Nature. Our friends say we’ll be back, that the city’s in our blood. A friend’s quote comes to mind, “You can take the girl out of New Orleans but you can’t take New Orleans out of the girl.”

But for now, I must say “goodbye” to my New Orleans because it isn’t there anymore. Neighborhoods in that city where I hold fond memories no longer exist. I don’t know what the new New Orleans is becoming, that’s up to the people who are there and who are rebuilding it. We’ll all wait and see.

I realize that we are the lucky ones. There are many victims who simply don’t have the resources that we have to build a new life. There are people who lost family members. There are families involuntarily dispersed all over the country. FEMA has just cut off electricity to Hurricane victims in Houston. Whatever aid there was is clearly running out.

We left with our lives and were able to build new ones. The important things were saved. Dimitri’s paintings are now at The North Carolina Museum of Art. The conservator for the museum is in the long and costly process of restoring them. I’m pleased to know that they will be our children’s legacy.

Naturally, material items are remembered before a sigh and the word “lost” is murmured. The irreplaceable things were love letters written by Errol to me and numerous photographs. However, the most invaluable thing lost is intangible. We lost our culture. In New Orleans, most people never leave; families are close and come together often to celebrate just about anything. We miss our families. We miss our friends. In the past year, we’ve had many visitors and we are grateful for that but it’s bittersweet.

We live our lives in a strange vacuum, trying to preserve old customs and traditions. For Mardi Gras 2006 in exile, I dressed my kids up in costumes and threw plastic beads to them. It amused them but I felt hollow. Many people thought Mardi Gras shouldn’t have happened this year but I wished I could have been there. Of all years, this one needed to be celebrated. In many parts of the world, making fun of death is universally funny. Mardi Gras is a grand satire where a false royalty reigns over the city and people gladly adopt a suspension of disbelief as they covet the plastic baubles being thrown at them as if they were truly priceless treasures. This year, New Orleanians desperately deserved the important catharsis of poking fun at Katrina and FEMA. It was the ultimate mental health day.

In New Orleans, people come together, friends and strangers alike for customs and festivals. In other parts of the country, people talk of the unexplained smiles strangers share around Christmastime. It is like that in New Orleans year round for locals. We embrace each other. Of course the ugly side of human nature shows itself sometimes but when you’re standing on a street during Mardi Gras and you and the stranger next to you both catch a loot of beads together, you gladly split it.

You feel the love in New Orleans during the most mundane tasks. It might just be a Southern thing but people talk so wonderfully familiar with each other. At the grocery checkout, the cashier might say, “’Zat all you need, Baby?” or “Thank ya, Sugar.” Catching a streetcar, someone might allow you to board first by saying, “Go head, Darlin’.” The family being such a valued institution there, you’ll often hear the question, “How’s ya momma and ‘dem.” I miss that warmth.

There’s no other place like it in the world but I’m afraid that that New Orleans isn’t there anymore. People are struggling there, many in despair. We were deeply saddened to find out that Zoë’s pediatrician committed suicide shortly after Katrina. His Uptown home and practice were damaged but salvageable. However, his patients didn’t return to the city, a fact he could not bear.

With an inflated real estate market, few jobs paying a livable wage, a worsened education system, inadequate healthcare, and rising crime plaguing the city, who wants to go back? If our children’s welfare was not such a priority, we would. Ultimately, I wonder how many of New Orleans’ children, of all ages, will and can come marching home. I wonder if we will want to be in that number.

***

©2006


Kristin Fouquet and her family returned to New Orleans in May of 2007.


Comments

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  2. Wow, Kristen, thank you for sharing your story. It moved me, tremendously. If only I had known you were in Cary -- I am from Raleigh and Chapel Hill, and visit regularly. Peace...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you so much, Linda. I was in NC for a year and nine months, but I have met so many people online and eventually in real life from your state since I moved back to New Orleans. It's actually incredible and I wished I had known all of you then as I was really lonely there. Thanks for reading and commenting. It's great to hear from you and I truly enjoyed "Waiting."

    ReplyDelete
  4. Kristin, thank you for posting this reprint here. Cathartic, touching, wrenching--I can pile up the adjectives, but still hard to express the great value of your personal story. I appreciate that you stepped out to share it with us. Happy for the return of your family to NOLA. Reading your Twenty Stories now---grateful for them. xox, Allie

    ReplyDelete
  5. Allie, thanks so much for reading. I know it's been six years and many people think we should get over it, but I think you understand how it's important to remember and to be grateful. I am so thankful we were able to come home. Thank you for all the kind words. Best wishes to you and yours.

    ReplyDelete

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Paintings by Dimitri Fouquet

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Dimitri Fouquet

(1943-2002)

New Orleans artist