A Little House In New Orleans, Ten Years After Katrina

Athis Street House 2

This is the first house my future husband and I lived in the Milneburg section of New Orleans. It was a rental house, but plenty large for two people. It looked differently then. It was painted a faded sky-blue color, there were shrubs and lush St. Augustine grass. We could sit on the front steps and hand out Halloween candy to trick-or-treaters. Wave at old people driving by, or just read the Times-Picayune and sip coffee on a lazy Sunday morning.

There was no high water mark from a broken levee’, uplifted sidewalk, or new construction next door then. A friend’s aunt lived in a nice middle-class brick house to the right. Another Texaco employee lived down the block and rode his bike all the way into town through crazy, dangerous traffic. Friends lived blocks away, and I could ride my big chunky old fashioned bike to their houses.

UNO geology graduate school classmates of my future husband lived close by, as did professors who taught at UNO. On day our landlady decided she wanted her house back, and since we were on a month to month lease, we had little recourse when she booted us out.

Despite the unfriendly neighbors across the street who let their Miniature Collies poop all over our yard, it was a nice neighborhood. I was sad to go. We knew it was the end of an era when we found a new house across the expanse of the Pontchartrain bridges that crossed from Metairie to Mandeville. We didn’t know it was just another step towards an exodus away from New Orleans.

I don’t know what happened to our old landlady if she was still living there when Katrina hit. It was over 14 years later, so who knows. Going by the house where we’d first lived is painful. A lot of the neighborhood we knew is gone, destroyed by flood waters, and some big houses have gone up. Some houses sit abandoned after initial repairs had been started. The aunt’s sturdy brick house is gone as if it never existed.

Our little house had a wonderful picture window, later replaced with something more practical. A lot of hard work had gone into reclaiming it, despite the mold stains on the front siding. The rest of the house looked beautiful but empty. I looked at the back steps and remembered a lush potted garden of fresh herbs that once grew there.

People from outside of Louisiana look at pictures of new construction in New Orleans, and they think Katrina is done. Erased. She’s gone, but still felt. This house that once was a home to us is a metaphor. From the people who escaped and returned to rebuild, the struggle to find a new normal, and the tenacity of a people who chose to live below sea level. In an environment hostile to humans and other species.

New Orleans will survive. She always has, changing, evolving, surviving, and I will love and miss her every day of my life.

I’ll Never Fall Out of Love With New Orleans

Beignet bliss
Beignet bliss

I’ve come to accept that we’ll never live in New Orleans again, but I cannot let go of her easily. We have to go back, take the communion of food and music, navigate her scarred streets, go back to see our old houses in Gentilly and the lake area. She is a touchstone, a reminder of our youth and courtship, a base where we can still renew, explore, and celebrate.

The house my husband lovingly restored in Gentilly is still there, despite Katrina, mostly because he used his geologist training to find Gentilly Ridge, an ancient sandbar, then found a fixer-upper perched on the highest elevation. It’s still there, and thankfully the owners have taken good care of her; sadly the magnolia that once graced the yard was sacrificed for a security fence, but she still stands proudly. One of the things we miss are the trees, the huge oaks that fell over in too much flood water, and what was once a tree-lined avenue, is denuded.

Our old house near the lakefront, the one we had lived in briefly before our crazy landlady decided she wanted to move in, well, it was not so lucky. Mold is caked on the front of the house, showing where the floodwaters stood, but inside and around the other three sides is a little restored jewel. Mysterious. A note from the mortgage holder announces that they’ve taken the house, and new locks scar all the doors.

Despite the Miniature Collie owners who lived across the street and let their dogs use our lawn as a toilet, despite the fact taking the bus home from work took a lot of time, despite the giant “palmetto bugs” and mice that bowled with Warfarin balls in the attic, we loved it. The neat brick house next door is gone, a house that had belonged to a friend’s aunt, and a faux but cute Creole style house has taken its place. Every house still standing is either raised upon new foundations or is new construction. Or abandoned like our little cottage and the horror of a house down the street. It’s scarred exterior is raised up, waiting for renovation, fenced in, forlorn almost ten years after Katrina.

Over a year ago my husband, two sons, and I were heading back to our bed and breakfast, driving down Napoleon after dinner and trying to miss the gargantuan potholes in the very dark street. My husband, out of the blue, announced, “I can’t live here again,” and my heart sank a bit. “I can’t grow old in a town where we might be stranded on I-10 in a hurricane evacuation,” he said.

I understood completely. When Katrina hit, we’d been in Texas for five years, but still had good friends there. We’d hunkered down for Andrew, ridden out the edge of Opal, evacuated for Georges with tiny children, braced for Rita, and evacuated for Ike. Living on the Gulf Coast is not for the stupid or weak-hearted.

Now we go back to New Orleans, partaking in the only way we can, as knowing tourists. We drink her in, wrap her around us, dream in her arms, then head home.