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A Culture in Confusion

A Storm Strips Away More than Buildings.

by Rita Ayers
May 17, 2006

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A Culture in Confusion
You've seen hundreds of hours of video footage; you've read news stories about the wind and water damage and the displaced residents of New Orleans and the Mississippi coast; thousands of still photos have passed by your radar screen. Nothing, however, can prepare you for the reality of seeing, with your own eyes, homes scattered topsy-turvy and piled one upon another like dominos, cars in trees, airplanes upside down on runways, and block after block of neighborhoods once teeming with life, now sitting in ruins without so much as a green sprig of spring growth to signal hope. The lack of electricity would have alarmed me at one time, given that no traffic signals are in operation. However, this is not a problem, as there really is very little traffic to control. That may be the eeriest feeling of all; if you've ever been to New Orleans, you know that traffic is usually heavy and frenetically paced.
My husband, Quintin, is a native of New Orleans and lived there until he was in his late twenties. Two of his four brothers still live there; his mother did as well until she lost her home to Katrina. Shortly after the storm, Quintin spent days there trying to help family members recover. The emotional toll on him was significant and, while I certainly understood it, it wasn't until I saw what he had seen that I truly empathized.
Last month, we went to a family wedding and reception in Metairie, immediately adjacent to New Orleans. Even in Metairie, which many people believe survived relatively unscathed, about half of the homes have FEMA trailers parked immediately in front of them. Looks can be deceiving; a home may appear fine on the outside, but a quick glance into one of the windows reveals nothing but the wooden support structure; sheetrock walls had to be stripped away, damaged beyond repair and serving as a breeding ground for mold and mildew.
I wondered in advance how the happy couple would manage to pull this wedding off, given that so many things were still not up to speed. I should not have worried; the bride was beautiful, the food delectable, the flowers lovely, and the reception hall perfect. It was no surprise when my athletic 10-year-old daughter, who plays catcher on her softball team, jumped higher than all the much taller young single women to snag the bride's bouquet. She turned her nose up when we explained to her that meant she would be next to marry, but I noticed she didn't turn loose of the bouquet.
Many of the customs of New Orleans-style nuptials were able to be observed. Guests received sticks of taffy from the Roman Candy Man as they departed, rather than picking up bags of rice or bird seed to throw at the couple. They had the ribbon pull, where single girls pull ribbons out of the wedding cake; each ribbon bears a trinket that has a special meaning. Folks in New Orleans really like to hide things in their sweets, and not just at weddings. For weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, the king cake tradition is carried out in every place imaginable, from offices to schools to construction sites. You see, each king cake – usually in the shape of a braided loop and decorated with purple, green and gold sprinkles of sugar - is baked with a plastic baby in it; the exact location is a secret until one person finds it in their slice. That person is then to bring the next cake to the same group… and on and on it goes until Ash Wednesday. I've had my share of king cake, but the pull-the-ribbon-out-of-the-wedding cake ritual was new to me.
Following the reception and the after-reception at my brother-in-law's home, we retired to a FEMA trailer ourselves, parked on the grounds of an apartment complex where one building remains intact and the building less than six feet away is totally destroyed. At first blush, it would seem that the fortunate residents of the first building should be nothing but grateful, and they are. But, how normal is a life where half of your neighbors have now been scattered all across the country… neighbors you have known and loved, in some cases, for decades? I had listened earlier to some of these friends and relatives at the reception; some are still in the complex, while others had to drive in for the wedding from their new homes several hours away. Their voices tumbled through my thoughts all night as I slept fitfully; I kept hearing the displaced ones say, "We're fine, but it's not home."
I was grateful we had the FEMA trailer. It was comfortable and roomy enough, but then again, we only stayed there one night. What must it be like, day after day, to have no closet space, no kitchen countertop to mix cookie dough on, no water pressure with which to take a shower (the water source is a garden hose connected to the apartment complex), no washer and dryer – in short, very few of the amenities that most of us enjoy? Still, those with the FEMA trailers are lucky to have a roof over their heads, and they know it.
To reach New Orleans, we had to cross through the most devastated areas of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where many citizens are still camped in tents. In case you've lost track, Hurricane Katrina reached land on August 29, 2005 – over eight months ago. What really angers me about these tent cities is the fact that in my own county, a mere hour away from where they are needed, hundreds of FEMA trailers are parked in fields, just waiting to be delivered. Can someone please tell me what the holdup is? Can they not just be taken to these people immediately? The people can fill out the proper forms after they are able to procure a working writing utensil; there are no stores nearby in which to buy the most basic of supplies.
On Sunday, we traveled across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville, which suffered about the same amount of damage that we did in Fairhope, two states away. Roofs, trees and fences were usually the greatest losses. For the most part, life on what is known as the north shore has returned to normal, with the exception of the huge influx of people who have now made Mandeville and the surrounding area their new home. Quintin's childhood best friend, Chris "Rabbit" Rabensteiner, makes his home here, along with his amazing wife Rhonda and five of their six children, the oldest having already flown the coop. Rhonda home schools all the others. We call them, affectionately of course, "The Rabbits."
Rabbit and Rhonda appear to have put all vestiges of their difficulties after the storm behind them. They were displaced completely in the beginning and stayed with us for a few days before Rabbit learned that his company was temporarily relocating him to Austin, Texas. During their stay with us, we got a first-hand view of how difficult it was to apply for, and receive, relief from the government. Each day, they made the pilgrimage to the local FEMA office twenty miles away with all of the kids in tow, only to be turned away and told to come back the next day. We finally got the call meant for the Rabensteiners from FEMA, long after they had already moved to Austin, letting them know that their appointment would actually be honored the next day.
The dilemma that Rabbit and his family found themselves in was typical of many families. Their home was damaged, but livable, yet Rabbit's place of employment was out of commission. Quintin's brother, John, was still expected to come to work each day, but his home was uninhabitable. Things worked out for both families for the short run: John and his family lived in Rabbit's home until theirs was repaired, while The Rabbits found housing in Austin near his new workplace.
The visit on Sunday was a celebration in many ways. The underlying premise for the shindig was baby Billy's first birthday, but it was much, much more than just that. About a year earlier, and just a few months before Katrina, we had journeyed to Mandeville on the occasion of Rabbit's 40th birthday; that party, like this one, featured loads of great food, music, and fun. The adults again had the horseshoe tournament against a backdrop of hundreds of pounds of crawfish, corn on the cob, and potatoes, accompanied by strains of Grand Funk Railroad singing "We're an American Band." The kids again jumped to their hearts' content in a rented Space Walk adorned with a big dinosaur head before feasting on hot dogs, hamburgers, birthday cake and ice cream. Many of the same people were there; the outcome of the horseshoe event was about the same; even the tents pitched for shading the food were the same. The fence had been replaced and all the tree stumps were barely noticeable. Flowers were again blooming; Rabbit had even built a new jungle gym for the kids to exhibit their acrobatic prowess on for the watchful adults – the show started at 3 p.m., according to the handwritten invitations we each received from young Emma. Not one word of the storm was spoken all day, or at least not within my earshot. I looked from face to face, knowing I was seeing faces of people who had suffered greatly, knowing they should not have been the same people I had enjoyed a year before. Yet, all I could see in those faces was the desire to enjoy a beautiful Sunday in April surrounded by good friends and great times, always with the nod towards the flavor that is distinctly Louisiana.
I felt blessed to be there; I felt blessed to be surrounded by people with such an indomitable sense of spirit and zest for life; I was humbled in their presence. As I wrote a few weeks back in a previous article (Vive la Difference!), I am one who cherishes the distinctive regions, voices, and cultures of our diverse country. As the old saying goes, "Variety is the spice of life," and our Louisiana brethren are some of the spiciest of the lot.
We are faced now with a dilemma of gargantuan proportions, one for which I see no simple solutions. If we lose the culture that is New Orleans, we all lose. But this culture is geographically located on dangerous, shifting sands indeed. The affluent Lakeview neighborhood on Lake Pontchartrain is a macabre ghost of its former self; citizens are vowing to rebuild. When and if they do, they will once more reside on top of marsh lands that were filled in for the purpose of building Metairie and easing the overcrowding of New Orleans proper. Here again, the vegetation, or rather the lack of living vegetation, rubs death right in your face… but that is what sitting in oily salt water for three weeks will do to trees, bushes, gardens and lawns. In the much-publicized devastation that is the 9th ward, small, bright "No Bulldozing!" signs can occasionally be spotted amidst the rubble and rotting shrubbery. Believe me when I say, bulldozing would be the most humane method of euthanasia here; there is nothing, nothing, nothing salvageable for miles and miles.
People who have suggested that New Orleans be rebuilt in a different location have been scoffed at; it does seem rather a foolish suggestion, given that the French Quarter (the true heart of the city, and the part that draws in the tourists) was salvaged, but the idea is not completely without merit or historical precedent. Alabama's only port city, Mobile, was first built in an area that suffered a series of floods; the populace made a wise decision to simply move the whole city downriver to its present location way back in 1711. Clearly, they believed that Mother Nature is not a force to overcome; rather, it is a dominant power that a wise man should work with, not against.
At the same time that I think these thoughts, I think also of my husband's emotional losses. His childhood homes, schools, playgrounds, memories, are lost forever. How do you recover from something like that? Finally, the voice that echoes in my head loudest of all was that of my displaced mother-in-law, who said at the wedding, "We can't come back. This wasn't even the big one. I've been hearing all my life about the "big one" and that one will be when the river (the Mississippi) comes over the levee."
Are we prepared for that? Mother Nature is.

Comments (4)

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Janet writes:
May 17, 2006
Thank you, Rita. Your article offers a lot of information I haven't seen elsewhere, plus that critical benefit of personal observation, which you acknowledged as necessary for true empathy. You gave us a taste of this tragedy - and of the spicy spirit of the people.

larry slay from brewton al writes:
May 19, 2006
Reet, you touched a nerve with me in this article and brought back memories I have. Memories of the weekends I spent going to Gulf Port helping re-build homes there. I know what it is like to sleep in a tent - wish we had had a FEMA trailer. You also made a very strong point about the people in New Orleans and surrounding areas, they are a fun loving lot but also they are strong. New Orleans will come back - in the words from a song, Black Water by the Doobie Brothers, it takes a lot of water to wash away New Orleans'.

Rita Ayers from Fairhope, AL writes:
May 24, 2006
Thank you, Janet and Larry, for your comments. Since I wrote this piece, my niece Daya sent me a link that I wish I had been able to include with the original publication. I thought this step-by-step graphic explanation of how and where the flooding occurred was exceptionally well done. You can also just play through the whole thing at one time, if you choose. You have to put in your zip code to be able to access it, but it's well worth it. Even though I am relatively familiar with the geography of the New Orleans area, it helped me understand exactly how some areas are destroyed while others are intact.

You can access it at http://www.nola.com/katrina/graphics/flashflood.swf. Daya sent it with an explanation that she and her husband live roughly between the A and R in Carrollton.

mary Beth culp from Mobile, Alabama writes:
May 27, 2006
What a great article on New Orleans by Rita Ayers! I could see, hear, smell, and feel the city and its spirit. I, too, wonder what will happen to New Orleans and am saddened by the destruction there and angered by the lack of rebuilding after so many months. But I am encouraged by the her portrait of the people and their enduring spirit in the face of such a catastrophe. Bravo, Rita!

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