📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
Disaster unifies you. It abbreviates emotions. Things are good or things are bad. The binary code of youth returns, typing out its internal dash-dot-dash emergency messages. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was no different. Everyone operated on sensory overload.
Before the storm and subsequent levee failures there were no checkpoints. There were no high water marks. The X-code graffiti left on front doors; that was nonexistent, too. Afterward, New Orleans overflowed with anonymous gunmen policing the devastation from Humvees. Almost everyone else was gone.
When the storm first developed, S., a good friend who asked to remain anonymous, and his wife no longer called New Orleans home. They had moved away, but owned property in town and had tenants. The city's particular cadence still beat inside them both. New Orleans was not only the place where they met and fell in love, it was the community that supported and shared their way of life.
Yes it was the murder capital.
Yes it was rabidly drug infested.
But it also offered an abundance of magnolia blossoms, butt-shaking music, and a lexicon of architectural delights—all things that call back to you the moment you depart.
Moving delivered a cyclone of emotions, but it was a decision S. never backed away from. As Katrina approached, he worried for his friends, his tenants, for the city itself. Afterward, he traveled back as soon as flights resumed. Armed with several butane stoves and canned food, he downshifted into fixit mode.
Refrigerators rotted. Garbage mounds proliferated. Mold spores bloomed. A lot of landlords quickly rehabbed apartments and upped the rent. In contrast, S. stopped charging his tenants until some semblance of order returned. It was a simple calculus. Armed patrols roamed the streets, sure. But eventually, regular everyday people would be back to reclaim their city. They were going to need as much help as they could get.
H: Okay. When did you first go to New Orleans? When did you move there originally?
S: Well I moved there on Christmas Day, 1993, I think.
H: What did you do for a living?
S: Whatever it took. I was a waiter, or a bartender, worked in the service industry, worked in all manner of things. I painted houses, worked in plumbing. I did electrical.
H: How did you learn how to do like electrical work?
S: Self taught.
H: Lots of shocks, huh?
S: No, no. Just I've never been very afraid of trying anything.
H: When did you leave New Orleans?
S: We finally moved away in 2002 completely, something like that.
H: That was before you had your kiddo, right?
S: Yeah, she was born in 2005, several months before Katrina.
H: Were you monitoring Katrina all along?
S: We went to a friend's house that had cable and we were watching cable and keeping up with it online.
H: Afterwards, did you immediately make plans to go back?
S: You couldn't go back immediately. As soon as there was a flight back in, I mean I probably could have driven and snuck in, but I didn't want to do that. As soon as there were flights, I got a ticket and flew back. It was under a month, 25 days after the storm, something like that.
H: You flew into Louis Armstrong Airport and then what'd you rent a car?
S: No, I got picked up.
H: Do you remember that ride into New Orleans?
S: I just remember how empty and quiet it was. It was very quiet. It was like camping in the ruins of a city, which is actually what it was.
H: You had to start dragging stuff out so you could stay there, right, because there was mold everywhere?
S: It wasn't very moldy in my house. My house is all plaster. There was one wall that had some sheet rock on it and that was a little moldy, the vast majority is plaster and cement and it didn't mold. It was dirty and gross and the furniture was moldy or whatever. Had to spray it all down and drag it out to the street, wear a respirator and take care of it.
There were lots of agencies giving away bleach and cleaning supplies. I brought a bunch of supplies with me from Los Angeles. It was certainly quiet. There was a store open out in, what is it, over by the river, by the airport. Basically I had to drive back to the airport to go to a supermarket. There wasn't really much there.
H: How long were you there?
S: Like 10 to 12 days, something like that. I was there before the vast majority of people came back and I was lucky in that regard. It was disgusting to go into my tenant's places and refrigerators crawling with maggots and oozing goo. It was just something that you had to deal with and so I dealt with it.
H: Since you had stuff to deal with, you had to go to work, did that make it easier?
S: Since I wasn't living there, day-to-day at that time, it wasn't as traumatic. There were things about it that were very traumatic to me, but I had a house and I had a job. I had the luxury of being able to take a little time and come back and patch a hole in the roof temporarily and take all the rotten garbage out of my house, and help some other people do the same thing to their places.
I think I was telling you the other day that I had recently put all of my college memorabilia and all my negatives, all my gifts, lots and lots of art that I had done, or pictures I had taken or music I'd recorded and I put it in plastic bins and put it on a shelf. I think the stuff would have floated except for it was on the shelf. The shelf held it down. It filled up with water and sat full of water in a plastic bin that just destroyed everything. I took a lot of stuff to the curb.
That stuff I couldn't throw out, I went back, and going through that stuff, it was bringing back all these memories. There are a lot of memories that I'll never have a trigger for anymore because so much was destroyed.
H: Was it a little bit easier to deal with because you were working, you had a new family?
S: It was great to be home to see my child, to see my wife and get back to normal housing. I wasn't living [in New Orleans] so my experience was different. Even then, I didn't want to come off like I was some kind of victim or hero because I was just the guy that owned a few houses there. One of the things that precipitated our moving away, it wasn't the only thing, but it was part of the equation; it was several years earlier there had been a Scientific American article that laid out the consequences of a direct hit on New Orleans. Listening to politicians talk about it, like "Oh, we had no idea." It's complete bullshit.
It's just like, "Are you fucking kidding me?" We were prepared in many ways, but I don't think anybody was emotionally ready to believe that their house was going to be under that many feet of water.
H: Did you actually have a relationship with your insurance guy?
S: Yeah. It was multiple insurance companies that I had to deal with and that was full-time job, too. That was the first thing I did, long before I went back to New Orleans. It took fighting because they were fucking assholes. In one case, they were like, "Well, you know, we're not going to pay you a fraction of what the appraisers are saying we need to because your house was under-insured." I was like, "No, look back in your documents, assholes, because 3 months before this thing occurred, I was asking you to up my coverage." They're like, "Oh." I had to fight with them. I had to prove that. Luckily, because I didn't have all my documentation in New Orleans, it wasn't all destroyed. A lot of people didn't have that advantage.
H: I mean I can relate to that just because I had a police record and the storm wiped it out.
H: I actually benefited.
S: Yeah, well I think a lot of people did. A lot of people suffered, but a lot of people have looked at it as an opportunity to see something different, cheated it. They have to have been forced out of their homes, which was a terrible thing. A lot of people never came back because they were realizing, "Oh well, things don't have to be shitty."
H: What was the military presence like?
S: It was like, what the? What are you doing? There's hardly anybody here, and the vast majority of people that are here are trying to work and you guys are driving around. I guess there's some need for that, but a lot of that was happening by guys with guns that were wearing uniforms.
H: So, when you get a gun pointed at you, you're at your house at that point, right?
S: We were sitting around after dark, candles, drinking beer and a couple guys come up and were like, "What the fuck are you doing here?" "Well, I own the house." Then they wanted to see some kind of documentation, and I had to dig around in the dark, in the garbage to find some kind of mortgage paper, or something. They held my friend while I went inside. Obviously we're not looting. Then again, I could have gone back in and gotten a rifle. I could have gone out another door. I found my documents and showed it to them and they left. It really wasn't traumatic.
H: It wasn't traumatic, but were they identifiably guardsman or what?
S: I have no idea. There were so many different agencies.
H: You couldn't tell.
S: Some were mercenaries, Blackwater. There were those guys. They were all wearing fatigues, but I don't know the difference. They weren't saying, "Blah, blah, blah, National Guard." That only happened once. I remember pulling some of one of my tenant's stuff out and there was a rotten dresser full of clothes. He wasn't going to make it back for months and it couldn't stay in the house. I dumped it out and a pistol falls out of the top drawer. It was like, shit, I'd better grab that. I look up and there's a Humvee with four guys pointing guns. They thankfully didn't see what I was grabbing. That was the most scary moment.
H: How did you just determine that's what you should bring, did you talk to somebody?
S: I just took what I thought. I took rations. It was fine. I was immersed in doing the work. You could buy gas. I think Coops was even open. I think we went there one night and had a meal or something. I can't remember.
H: I worked at Coop's in '92 and there was a big hurricane that was going to come and all of Decatur Street shut down except for Molly's and Coop's and neither one of them would close until the other one did, so I had to go to work. I was so pissed off.
S: Yep, but that's a good civic duty.
H: What about in your neighborhood? Did you guys start to take stuff to the dumps?
S: There were no dumps. The expectation was that you put it in the street. Then for months, for years probably afterwards it was still there.
H: How do you think you came out of the situation directly thereafter?
S: I stepped back into normal life, so that's how it was. I had lots and lots of friends that became refugees, or everything that they had was gone. Everything that I would ever think about saying or seeing was tempered by that. I just went back and cleaned up some mess of my house and I'm going to be fine, was kind of my response.
I talk a lot about my tenants, and I know a lot of people kicked their tenants out or raised their rent, things like that.
H: That's not something that you did.
S: It's not what I did. I didn't think that I'd raise the rent at all for a few years at least, and I think that I didn't charge anybody rent for a few months while all that was happening.
H: How did you come to that decision? That was just an impulse or?
S: That just seemed like the right thing to do.
H: Can you tell me how your relationship with the city changed over the years, and what I mean by that is before, during and after the storm?
S: I still love New Orleans, but the longer you're away from a place, the longer you journey into being an adult, at this point, I'm a middle-aged person. Those things that I did and enjoyed and loved are a long time ago and I have responsibilities. When I go there, it's a different place and everybody's busy and everybody's being successful, which is great. The community that I knew is gone.
H: I always thought you were more of an adult than the rest of us, from the moment I met you.
S: Yeah, but you know what, that's a nice compliment and it may be true, but it may not be. I never got strung out on drugs, and a lot of our former friends became junkies of one sort or another. That's really what damaged the community that I loved.