Scenes from New Orleans

SIX DAYS IN NEW ORLEANS: November 2005 – by Jordanne, Anais & Justin Dervaes

Open the thesaurus and find the word “desolation.” All those synonyms and more
could describe what we saw last week when we spent a busy six days in New
Orleans. Ten weeks after the crippling damage from the recent Hurricane Katrina,
the city’s flood waters are drained but New Orleans continues to struggle.

We have relatives and friends in New Orleans and in the surrounding parishes so
the catastrophe struck close to the heart for us since we have many ties to the
city. We knew the people there. We’ve walked the streets. Our relationship
extended past the sentimental memories and emotional connection, into the
colorful decades of New Orleans history.

Because of that personal relation, we felt that we could – should – do more than
donate money. Long ago, that city was built through many hard efforts and
dreams; it was the least we could do to keep it alive.

For days and weeks after Katrina, we lost contact with relatives and friends;
but, as the chaos settled enough for locating the displaced evacuees, we were
deeply relieved to find that, although most did not escape the loss of
possessions and homes, they were alive.

Soon after, as the condition of their houses and the impact of Katrina into
their lives came to light, we began to feel a strong desire to join them and do
what we could to help lessen the burden of what they were facing on their own.

Unsure of exactly what could be done, we decided to travel to New Orleans and
find out.

The Plan

Because of a prior trip last October to visit our Grandmere (now deceased) in
New Orleans, when we took the train and arrived more than 26 hours late on the
return to Los Angeles, three of us had received vouchers, allowing us to ride
the rails for relatively free. Because Amtrak is almost guaranteed to be
notoriously late, they have a little known policy of issuing vouchers to
complaining customers if the train arrives at a destination more than 4 hours
late. Our 26 hours definitely beat that record.

So with the price of our transportation deeply discounted, we made plans to
visit two families whose lives were impacted by the flood; Lester Davis, a
friend, and a relative, Aunt Jane.

Lester Davis lived in New Orleans East near the Industrial Canal. His house
experienced about approximately 4-5 feet of flooding and had tornados raking the
area, prying through roofs and ripping into rooms. He, his wife and grand
daughter spent three days in their attic before being rescued by a helicopter.

He had been our Grandmere’s gardener and handyman for many, many years. As her
health declined he often took time from his work to check in on her, do things
for her and drive her to places she needed to go.

Aunt Jane lived in Lakeview, only a few blocks from the infamous 17th Street
levee breach. Her home had much deeper flooding … about 8-10 feet of water. 30
souls perished in her neighborhood.

Both Lester’s and Aunt Jane’s homes were standing structurally but the water had
destroyed most everything inside (and outside). All of their damaged possessions, years of
memories, needed to be taken out before they could start fixing up the damage.

Their story is a mere few pages of a chronicle in which hundreds of thousands of
lives played a part.

The Problem

This diary entry cannot describe our personal experience nearly as accurate as
it was in reality, nor can it do justice to the utter devastation and tragedy.
But perhaps these words may give a brief overview or even a sense to readers
from an eye-witness account of a city that survived a hurricane’s wrath only to
succumb to a tragic aftermath where stupidity, red-tape and cost cutting
measures of the bureaucratic process transformed a fierce hurricane into a
man-made disaster of epic proportions.

Speak of “New Orleans” and it conjures up a decadent variety of images; these
are the traditional images of New Orleans that many people think of… but there
is another side to the city.

Katrina and her aftermath are now written into the pages of our history as two
immense catastrophes. Soon, the blame game will dwindle and the finger pointing
will drop; but Katrina’s aftermath peeled back the scabs of complacency and
corruption that so long hid the errors and mistakes that doomed New Orleans to
this fate.

Everyone knows of the inadequate response to the hurricane, but this underbelly
of inadequacy reaches far back.

Take the 17th Street levee for instance.


The Corps of Engineers claimed the levee was correctly built 17 feet below sea
level but upon sonar inspection the levee is proven to have been at only 10
feet. The water soaked through underneath the base of the levee and breached it.

This is the cause of the flooding, not any “conspiracy” like some of the rumors
have been maintaining – enough of that, thank you very much.

For those of us who are aware of the environmental issues plaguing the Louisiana
coast, Katrina wasn’t much of a surprise. A recent
CBS 60 Minutes
only touched
lightly upon this subject

The very same levees that protect New Orleans have doomed it. The Mississippi
River isn’t allowed to flood and replace sediment over the land and replenish
the wetlands. Wetlands that once existed along the coast could have offered
protection to New Orleans by slowing and weakening an oncoming hurricane.

New Orleans has always been plagued by water, but the highest area in the region
was along the banks of the Mississippi. The natural levees there had been
created by years of soil being deposited by the river’s current.

Here the oldest parts of the city were built – the Vieux Carre or French
Quarter. It’s obvious the French, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne
de Bienville selected these areas for the rare bit of natural high ground along
the flood-prone banks of the lower Mississippi.

In historic areas of the city the extent of damage varies: the French Quarter
looks like it always does, albeit empty. Uptown, including the Garden District,
is cluttered with fallen tree branches and other debris, but is otherwise intact
and as pretty as ever. Houses along lower flood prone areas weren’t built in
modern day concrete slab style but were mostly raised 6’ off the ground.

The mistake these original city planners made was not foreseeing unplanned urban
sprawl which condemned most of New Orleans’ neighborhoods to Katrina. During our
Grandmere’s time, places that were once fishing villages, farms and sugarcane
fields (establishments that could take a flooding) gave way to homes.

And long since the founding of New Orleans and over decades of time, wetlands
were drained, drainage canals filled in and more and more houses were built. And
with that, a vicious cycle was created as more levees had to be built to protect
these new neighborhoods, causing a “sinking” of the land, which in turn,
requires heavier levees.

Not surprisingly, not only did historic parts of the city survive with little
damage, but old houses that did flood fared better than new ones. A quote from a
CNN article:

The French founded New Orleans in 1718 and many of the buildings are hundreds of
years old. Some older buildings may actually fare better and likely can be
saved, said Elizabeth English, an associate professor at the Louisiana State
University Hurricane Center.
“The buildings that have historic value, it’s worth much more to try to preserve
those,” she said. “And most likely they’ve been constructed from more durable
materials and it may not be as difficult to save them.”
English, who has a degree in architecture, said that old homes were built with a
denser wood that is more resistant to mold and rot.
And those homes were built with painstaking craftsmanship better than today’s
workmanship, she suggested.
Well, with that said, we’ll spare our readers of any further lengthy rants on
the topic of unplanned urban sprawl in New Orleans and the draining of wetlands.
UncertaintyLife as it existed in post Katrina New Orleans was full of uncertainty. Having
exchanged phone conversations with those in the city, we were apprehensive of
what we would find since it has only been 3 months since the hurricane. We were
about the find out whether news reports were over dramatic and if rumors were
just rumors.
From LA to NOLA

To reach Union Station in Los Angeles, we took public transportation courtesy of
the Gold Line which stretches from Sierra Madre, through Pasadena and ends at
Union Station. The nearest Gold Line station is just about a mile from our
house, so it’s really handy. We tend to travel with backcountry type internal
frame backpacks rather than traditional luggage so all four of us created some
attention among the commuter crowd. I’m sure we looked as though we were
embarking on a sort of expedition, which, come to think of it, is a pretty adapt
description for a journey to post Katrina New Orleans.

Amtrak’s Sunset Limited departed Los Angeles at 2:30pm and arrived in New
Orleans Sunday afternoon Nov. 6 at 4pm, surprisingly on schedule. We expected
some delays due to the fact that it was only the second passenger train into New
Orleans since the hurricane and there were comments from the conductors of the
possibilities of track repairs. As it was, we saw a few places where it looked
like work was done around the rails but I think that the Union Pacific traffic,
which made us late the time before, wasn’t as congested because there probably
isn’t any freight coming from or going into the southern route due to the
devastation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast.

The train was sparse with passengers and after Houston’s station stop, there was
an even smaller handful left consisting of us four and about a little more than
a dozen Louisiana natives. Most were going home for the first time and did not
know in what condition their houses were – if indeed there was a house left.

Powerful Nature

Outside of Beaumont, Texas, patches of splintered trees scattered among more
densely forested areas foretold the fury of Katrina’s sister storm Rita. The
sight of massive and ancient trees fractured
into shreds of pale yellow stumps was enough to send shivers up the spine. It
was hard not to be humbled by nature’s power.

But destruction upon landscape and trees, although harsh, did not carry such an
emotional impact as seeing the damage to small houses and trailers. The force of
the wind collapsed small buildings, wrenched shingles from roofs, crashed trees
into houses and peeled aluminum siding from warehouses and trailers. The
unmistakable bright blue of poly tarps covered the rooftops of many houses or
patched holes in walls for weather protection.

The sense was unreal, speeding along mile after mile with the guilt of a curious
‘lookie-loo’ peering into the backyards and homes. We were distanced from the
damage by windows and cocooned in comfort within the train’s sealed environment.

And then, all signs of Hurricane Rita faded away and everything looked normal

Later, as Amtrak’s Sunset Limited made its approach toward the outskirts of the
city of New Orleans, slowly winding its way across the Mississippi River on the
Huey P. Long Bridge, we began to see evidence of Katrina’s power. Far below,
from our high vantage, we could see that now familiar patchwork of blue on
hundreds and hundreds of houses and warehouses.

We were soon to find out that these residents were the lucky ones having
sustained only wind damage. Already some were installing new roofs.

The other side of the Mississippi River was a completely different scene. A
freeze-frame of a despair, desolation and loss.

Street after street, entire neighborhood after neighborhood, a life interrupted
was frozen in silence. Cars appeared to be identical in color, caked in a
grayish film, pointing this way and that, tossed onto the neutral ground and
into yards. With broken windows like empty eyes staring into the street, houses
looked forlorn and battered, baring the fate of their former occupants in red
spray paint that told who or what was found or not found.

Somehow, it seemed as if the world had turned a sepia color, an aged, water
damaged photograph.

Desolation Row

At the NOLA’s Union Station, Lester Davis met us and took us on a personal tour
around the city. Since Katrina, he has found a job and is allowed the use of a
company car. His own truck that he worked hard to afford is useless after
standing several weeks in flood waters. His current home is a simple cot in a
warehouse. His wife and family scattered about among relatives.

Our intended first stop was Lester’s home.

Outside of the train station, New Orleans looked pretty much the same as it
always did if one ignored the extra trash littering the streets, the high-rise
buildings with plywood pockmarked windows, and the lonely sense of abandonment
saturating the city.

Something that looked like a white nylon tent sheltered the damaged roof of the
Super Dome, its smooth and pristine whiteness lending the deceitful appearance
of normality, or perhaps, an attempt to whitewash the memory of the chapter it
wrote in Katrina’s legacy.

On the freeways where millions across the world saw desperate flood evicted
people finding high ground above the water the ghost of a memory lived in the
inflated air mattresses, cartons of food, sleeping bags, chairs, and rotting
trash left behind on the mud streaked concrete.

In a city which lurks with supposed ghosts and eeriness – the scene in which we
found ourselves could only be described as surreal, even spooky. But this was no
voodoo, no nonsense, and no superstition. It was real.

Deeper into the city itself and north east of it, debris and devastation
increased until it seemed that entire parishes had morphed into blighted
moonscapes. Everything is brown in this once verdant tropical city. Mid City
shows high water lines along the once-flooded, now molding buildings.

It got worse the farther we went. Lakeview and much of New Orleans East flooded
to the rooftops. In places, even the asphalt has disintegrated after staying
underwater so long.

The quality of the air is shock to the senses. It carries its own particular
stink that even today, back in Pasadena, we can recall easily. Variations of
this smell were found throughout the city, but it was the same odor of decay,
mold, and rot… and often death. The latter stench lingered around the
cemeteries, but more unnervingly around particular houses in neighborhoods.

Our hearts felt very heavy and we began to ache inside. Inside the car, our
silence matched that of the streets.

Just two hours in New Orleans and the scene was unbearable – beyond words. We
had seen the same pictures on the news but just did not comprehend the vastness
of the ruin. It hadn’t been exaggeration when reports said that 80% of the city
was underwater.

We passed devastation beyond devastation. It almost looked as if a bomb impacted on the city. There was almost no sign of life. It was hard to
imagine people were found surviving in this.

The flood decorated the street with dried mud and all kinds of litter in a
landscape as deserted as any ghost town. Electrical wires from toppled utility
poles still snarl sidewalks, catching garbage in their coils.

The majority of buildings and houses have spray-painted symbols defacing their
exterior, signs that they were inspected for rescue attempts or that the SPCA
came to feed the pets trapped within. It is graffiti of disaster. Bright orange
circles with an X inside, a cryptic communication indicating that no one was
found, alive or dead

In the same paint, messages from the SPCA
detail animals removed from the houses… or those found dead. No interpretation
needed to decipher these enigmatic messages. 4 dogs, dead. 1 dog, dead. 1 black
rooster in backyard, needs rescue. 1 dog, alive.

We pass by, wanting to believe those alive and left behind were eventually rescued.

Opened bags of dog food remain on a few porches. No animals in sight.

(PBS recently aired a segment on what many are saying is ” the largest animal rescue operation in history” — out of an estimated 250,000 animals only 15,000 were believed to have been rescued.

Katrina Animal Rescue
— CAUTION: show contains images that may disturb.)

Many houses are unlocked, their doors stand open. Splintered openings in
rooftops were an unnerving visual display. But aren’t these jagged hatchet
holes, hacked from the inside, telling a happy tale? The people inside, they got
out. Right?

We hope so.

Lester drove us through his neighborhood, navigating around heaps of soggy
drywall and furniture. When we saw his house, we thought it was wonderful that
his house looked to be in good shape. But opening the door, it was like the
house from hell. The stench that greeted us is hard to describe – mud, mold, and
whatever natural and unnatural contamination had been in the waters.

His home was filled with mud and waterlogged wall to wall carpeting. And the
mold was “in bloom” all over the walls and ceiling. Lester showed us the doors
which he reinforced with wood to keep a persistent alligator from swimming into
the living room as the water rose.

The immensity of the clean up and work that was needed surprised us and we
wondered what the hell we had gotten ourselves into. We were only going to be in
New Orleans for 6 days and we had taken on the responsibility of two houses. We
were going to have to work fast to get as much done as we could, otherwise the
trip would be pointless.

Quietly, we stared at the mess the flood had claimed, now overgrown with mold.
Everything inside would have to go out. Nothing to be saved.

Our naiveté gone, we then learned that mountains of wreckage in front of homes
are a good sign. This meant that people had returned, thrown out everything and
are going to rebuild and reclaim their lives. The worst thing to see were homes
and neighborhoods with no interior debris piled up in the front of the homes.
This could only mean that these people hadn’t or even weren’t coming back and
the mold and rot was festering and growing. These houses may have to be
destroyed because they had been left to disintegrate and were quickly the beyond repair point.

As Lester took us on a tour from one side of the city to the other it was
obvious that everyone had some sort of water damage although some worse than
others. And what had been spared of the flood, had suffered from Katrina’s wind.

Nightfall came on then and the blackness swallowed us. The headlights of the car
fought against the night, pushing out an effort with twin pools of hazy yellow
before being conquered by the emptiness. It was at night that the true sense of
desolation came on strong.

On the freeway there were no lights. No lights on the streets. No lights in the
houses. Expanse after expanse of houses huddled in the shadows. Even when we
entered a place that had electricity restored, the houses remained dark. Now we
began to understand just how empty the city had become. No lights meant no one
was home.

Morel House in Bayou St John

A Safe Haven

Finally, as curfew loomed, we made our way to Bayou St. John and the historic 

  house where we would spend our nights. This
beautiful 1840s Greek Revival style home was built by a direct ancestor and is
one of several of our family’s ancestral homes in Louisiana (and one of two
under private ownership). It is no longer in our family, but last year, we met
the couple who own it and have kept in touch since.

This neighborhood experienced intense winds (which the houses fared well in)
and 18 inches of flood water. However, as most historic New Orleans homes were
raised above the ground, the main floors stayed safe. In recent years, people
who owned these homes often closed in the pillars or converted the cellars for
living space. With the Morel-Wisner residence, the 6 foot pillars raising the
house were closed in, creating a small apartment which an artist and his small
family rented from the home’s owners. They lost pretty much everything because
after weeks of 18 inch standing water, the mold began to grow.

Our original intention was to pitch tents in one of the many newly developed “Katrinavilles,”
sprouting up in empty car lots, green spaces, neutral grounds, and parks. Many
could be seen on the side of the road, but the biggest one was in City Park near
the historic Tad Gormley stadium where a huge convoy or trucks, trailers,
emergency tents, and relief stations used as a base. We expected to camp in one
of these places or in the backyard of our Aunt Jane’s home so we carried tents
and sleeping bags in our backpacks.

Fortunately, Andy and Linda (our friends and owners of the Morel-Wisner house)
had graciously invited us to stay as guests. They insisted, expressing concern
about the quality of the air of the places we would be working in and sharing
their experience with flood damaged homes. They owned 5 houses in the New
Orleans area and lost 3 so they knew what we would be facing in molded homes and
just how dirty we would become.

The neighborhood was one of the few homes that had running water (not safe for
drinking, however) and electricity, although gas hadn’t been restored yet.
Personally seeing the situation in the city we gratefully accepted but not
without a tinge of guilt knowing that many people did not have the same blessing
we did to stay in a comfortable place and the opportunity to enjoy a shower
after hauling molding and rotting junk all day.

(On a sidenote, Andy and Linda decided that this hurricane was one too many and
put the Morel-Wisner House on the market. It sold while we were there.)

Fort N’awlins

Rumor had it that the authorities arrested people on the spot, no questions
asked if found out of doors after curfew. It may have been true for areas like
the lower 9th ward, but it appeared less likely in most of New Orleans. Still,
the curfew was strictly enforced. The times of curfew varied with certain
boundaries. The French Quarter had the latest time of 2am. Lakeview and New
Orleans East – about 6pm. Downtown New Orleans, Canal St, Uptown, and less
damaged locations such as Bayou St. John had an 8pm curfew.

It was rather bizarre–especially to pay attention to where we were and to
remember what time the curfew was in that particular place. While in New Orleans
East cleaning Lester’s home we knew we had to get out at curfew for the Lift
Bridges were raised, allowing no access into – or out of – the parish.

Drivers shared the road with Humvees and Jeeps filled with cammo-clad men and
women. Mostly they could be found downtown or on the major streets. A few stood
guard outside of certain buildings. Other establishments such as the Ritz
Carlton on Canal St. had armed private security guards standing stoically at
their doors, pistols a threatening presence on their hips.

In Bayou St. John where we were staying, the National Guard appeared like
clockwork about a half hour before 8pm, slowly patrolling the streets just
before curfew.

With sanitation dangerously abysmal, the destruction, the despair, the lack of
amenities, the closed and boarded up stores, and especially the military
presence, it was strange to remember we were still in America and not some third
world country – at times, you couldn’t even tell.

Lester’s home in New Orleans East

Reality Sets In

The first day of our attempts to clean and gut two houses, we woke early,
determined to get a head start.

First, we needed to rent a car – a task in itself that had proven to be
difficult for many of the rental agencies had been damaged, their cars flooded.
And with most phone lines down, making arrangements from Pasadena was
frustrating. One rental agency on Canal St. was newly open under limited hours,
their cars recently shipped in from other states. Our car bore Florida license

Normally, we would have used the Street Cars trolling Canal St. for
transportation needs such as getting down to this car rental. But the familiar
red cars haven’t been seen since Katrina.

Luckily, Bayou St. John was just within walking distance from the Budget Rental
so we headed down the unnervingly empty Canal St. Normally teeming with cars and
the hustle and bustle of everyday business, this major thoroughfare quietly bore
the many wounds of looted and gutted shops.

The yellow watermark of floodwater that would soon become a familiar sight to us
wrote a story on block after block of damaged stores. As we walked toward the
Mississippi River and the French Quarter (a place that had been built on land
ABOVE sea level), this yellow line dropped lower and lower until it disappeared.

Café du Monde was one of few places which had reopened since Katrina and
continuing a tradition, we went there for a breakfast of their famous Beignets.
(Sometimes we crave these treats living out here in LA.) Only a few other people
were there and it was a real contrast to the old pre-Katrina morning rush and

Several hours or so later with buckets, shovels, a rake, gallons of bleach, and
garbage bags piled high in the back of the rented minivan, we arrived at
Lester’s home, donned gloves and masks and plunged into work. His home is quite
big and we literally attacked each room. We were determined to get the muddied,
molded and waterlogged furniture, appliances and stuff out of the house and onto
the curb. Having a deadline of only a few days to work kept us moving even as
the stench permeated into our brains with a dull headache, the waterlogged
carpets and slime soaked floors threatened to spill us with one misstep and the
itchy masks formed prickly goatees of sweat on our faces.

Before long, the humidity made it even more uncomfortable. An hour later, our
shirts were drenched as though they had been dunked in water. The guys could
wring out theirs. The masks we wore for protection from the mold, icky bacteria,
and whatever toxins lurked in the house began to stick to our faces, forcing us
to take short and shallow breaths. It was as though a wet paper bag had been
held against our mouth and nose, making it a struggle to breathe.

The remaining clothes we wore that did not get drenched from sweat were quickly
soaked by remaining floodwater. We sloshed through carpets that were mini Lake
Ponchatrains and every container in the house was a fetid cesspool – often we’d
scoop these various containers from cupboards and shelves only to realize too
late as they came falling down that they were full of water.

Very, very icky

Sometimes happy little mosquito larva could be seen swimming about in
these prefect breeding “ponds.”

A satisfyingly huge heap of rubbish stood outside of Lester’s home once we
wrapped the car’s seats in garbage bags, plopped our weary bodies in and drove
to Aunt Jane’s place. By this time, we understood how precious it was to stock
up on gallons of drinking water. There was no place of safe drinking water to
fill up (that we knew of) and we had rapidly depleted whatever we brought with

Aunt Jane’s house was another mess – which was also a shock to us because we
thought that perhaps she fared a bit better living in a middle class
neighborhood. But the flood water didn’t pick out class or race – all were
affected by the levee break. Astonishingly the house wasn’t affected with nearly
as much mold as Lester’s house but the force of the water coming from the 17th
St. levee buckled her floor and toppled the contents of her house into a
jumbled chaos. Wooden furniture had disintegrated; an heirloom piano sat
forlornly, its formally lovely structure barely recognizable. Many of her
windows were broken.

Her neighborhood was a tree-lined street with much of it under a lush canopy.
Today, it was a memory. A few bedraggled trees broke the bleak wide-open

We were “in the groove” from cleaning Lester’s home and were ready to tackle the
task of Aunt Jane’s house but found it was somewhat different. Lester had to
work so we were left to clean his house on our own. He did not see anything he
had emotional attachment to being smashed up and chucked out.

Aunt Jane’s home in Lakeview

In Lakeview, Aunt Jane was there and watching us, emotional about the state of her beautiful house
of 40 years and solemnly looking at the skeletons of her antique furniture. She
had her sister-in-law, Aunt Toni, there for support but Aunt Jane had resigned
herself to selling out and moving somewhere else. Much of Aunt Jane’s home was
furnished and decorated with quality heirlooms, some of which had been passed on
through the family, and with beautiful handmade needlework items she had made
herself. Her unique curtains, bedspreads, pillows, rugs, wall hangings, etc.,
were evidence of many hours of work over numerous years and they could not be

It was sad to see our Aunt Jane watching us smash what was left of her antique
piano where she had sung songs to her children and to see her, a quiet figure
alone in her yard, staring at the growing pile of trash.

But our presence seemed to lift her spirits and as the house gradually was
cleaned out, hope began to flare to life in her eyes. She is a deeply devout woman and although she admitted it hurt to lose many of her things, she
accepted it was just “things” and the “good Lord doesn’t care about such things”
and that she was immensely grateful she had her life and her family.

We girls began to delight in finding a few salvageable things underneath all the
rubble and presenting them to our Aunt. She had a collection of depression era
glass she was fond of and most of it had survived. It was really wonderful to
see her marvel at some of the delicate items that came out unscathed.

Still, we found it difficult to throw out a lot of what her house contained. It
is one thing hauling out some mass produced IKEA table and saying “good
riddance” to it – it’s another to haul out an antique, many generations old
handmade wood and hand-blown glass cabinet or a one-of-a-kind table from Spain.
For the girls, we also felt the pain carrying out her handmade items because
being crafters ourselves … we know the effort that goes into each item.

However, there was something magical in a family working together and one little
house in the wretched remains of its neighborhood became alive with laughter and

At the end of the day, we were beat, dirty and in much need of a shower. It was
hard being around one’s self and the stink had traveled into our mouths where we
were beginning to taste it. Back in the car and traveling to our temporary home,
we used the vehicle’s air condition to help with the smell. A shower and a
change of clothes did wonders. It was a relief to find out that the smell
actually did come off……

The next two days followed the same pattern: Lester Davis’s house in the morning
until around 2pm and then Aunt Jane’s house until it became impossible to see
anything (~5pm). We felt muscles in our bodies that hadn’t been used in a long

At Lester’s house, we struggled with the lack of tools. Anything that resembled
a sledge was put to use as a sledge. Those blue curbside recycling containers
became makeshift (but irritatingly wheel less) wheelbarrows. A lawnmower blade
was used to hack apart cabinets and did very well as a crowbar.

By now we had all the carpets out and most of the freestanding furniture. But in
the master bedroom was the bane of our days. A huge, king sized mattress had
defied all attempts to remove it. Waterlogged, molded, soggy and heavy, this
behemoth was almost a living breathing thing. It flopped, flailed, bucked and
tossed off the lightest of us who dared to wrestle it from its rightful place.
Four people could not budge it. Electrical cords used as improvised ropes could
not tame it. Sheets tied together yielded under its strength. It had no handles
so maneuvering it was like wrestling a one big hulkin’ honkin’ fish (not that
any of us have ever done that!)

We gave up often, leaving it to mold another day and silently mock us whenever
we passed its lair.

The very last day of cleaning Lester’s home, we attacked it again. Armed with a
car battery jumper cable as another improvised rope, we tried folding the
mattress in half again and cheered when it could not beak the bonds of this new
restraint. Slashing at it with a kitchen knife, we laid bare a few springs for
handholds and pushed and hauled the monster inch by inch through a hallway and
three other rooms and out to the trash pile.

Lying defeated outside with the rest of the garbage, the monster mattress didn’t
look as massive as it did inside its den…

It may be awhile before we look at kitchens in a “normal” way again. They are
heck to deal with when the time comes to clean them out. Every pot, every
container, EVERYTHING catches water and every cabinet has to be emptied of maggoty food.
And all the appliances have to go out, refrigerators being the worse. Not
because they are heavy and bulky, but because after weeks and weeks of being
without electricity they STINK. It became so bad, that people would turn pale
and vacate the area if someone threatened to open a refrigerator door.

Over the days at Aunt Jane’s house, we had our cousin Julie stop by to see us
briefly before leaving since she was singing in the French Quarter that night
and had to attend a photo shoot. And then the last day, Aunt Jane and Aunt Toni
brought a young man named Joel to help.

Finally, we hauled our last piece of Katrina’s junk at our Aunt’s house. We had
completed most of what we set out to do – completely gutting Aunt Jane’s home
and even getting down to taking down several walls of the molded drywall in
Lester Davis’s house. We wish we had the time to finish and do more.

By now, Aunt Jane had decided she would stay. Obviously, seeing her house
quickly cleaned and gutted, she felt hope. All that needed to be done were new
floors, the fixing of her plaster walls, new paint and redoing the kitchen and

Aunt Jane grew more animated with her face alight as she spoke of where she
would plant her azaleas and how soon she would plant new grass. She is
definitely staying in the house she loves.

That night, as heavy fog rolled in, blanketing the street in a smoky whiteness
and making the atmosphere more eerie, we sat outside Aunt Jane’s house in the
deepening twilight of an empty neighborhood.

Aunt Jane, Aunt Toni, and Joel brought with them a bottle of wine, a box of
chocolates, and a few packs of beer from a local brewery.

There in our smelly and dirty clothes, amid devastation and junk, we celebrated
the end to the cleaning and toasted to a new beginning.

Post Katrina New Orleans Survival 101

Ten things we learned:

1.) Do NOT drink the water without distilling or boiling it first.

2.) Always carry water. Anywhere you can get drinkable water free, get it.

3.) Wash hands TWICE before eating.

4.) Do not touch face with hands when cleaning a home. Keep all skin covered if
possible. Masks, hats, and gloves…

5.) When stopping for gasoline, fill up the tank completely. You never know
where you’ll find another station that is open.

6.) Fresh air is a rarity. Enjoy it when you can – if you ever can find some.

7.) Just drive how you can, even if it’s hard to tell where you are because
street signs are twisted, or missing, traffic signals don’t work – even if you
can find one standing at all.

8.) Just because a store is lit and displays a ‘now open’ sign, does not mean it
is open.

9.) Eat during the day because you won’t find a place to eat at night. Don’t
expect much open after 6pm.

10.) If you find a food store that is open, stop and buy enough for several
meals even if you are not hungry. When you’re hungry, it’s almost guaranteed
that you won’t find anyplace open. The stores that were open had aisles of empty
shelves and limited hours. Eateries had limited menus and shortages.

Item #10 we learned the hard way. After spending a day from morning to night
cleaning out a house, we sought something warm to eat. We had only consumed two
energy bars that entire day … one for breakfast, one for lunch. After driving
for more than two hours around town chasing the lit up signs of several eateries
(that turned out to be closed or gutted), we went back “home” and ate a box of

Have It Your Way?

The next day, famished and wanting something warm and more substantial before
heading to work, we found ourselves staring at a Burger King that was just
opening for the morning. Our hunger threw our values out the window and we
became part of the growing line queuing up outside the door. Contractors,
volunteers and work crews waited impatiently, grumbling about the lack of food
in the city and the early closing hours of the places that were open.

Pretty soon, other people driving by noticed the line outside Burger King and
joined in. Inside, the few employees eyed the doors, hesitating briefly before
unlocking them. The rush was on.

Unfortunately, Burger King wasn’t serving their Veggie Burger so we settled for
two orders of hash browns. They weren’t serving fries in the morning, so what
else was there for a vegetarian? These little round discs tasted like nothing
(though, some of us later claimed it was as tasty as cardboard) but they were
warm, filling and full of starch, not to mention great for an excuse to eat
ketchup. No one complained and we practically inhaled the meal.

(P.S. After another hard days work, at the end of the day we found ourselves again at BK. They still weren’t serving veggie burgers so we opted for a fish sandwich and fries instead)

PTF crew eating at a fast food establishment – what has the world come to? 😉

Later on during our stay in New Orleans, we traveled through town during
daylight hours and found an open Subway and a WholeFoods (that had limited
groceries) where we stocked up on food.

For people like us who spent the day working, the early closing hours of stores
posed a real problem. By the time we drove from the abandoned damaged areas of
the city, everything was closed. A few restaurants would be open, but they were
expensive and we were dirty and stunk to high heaven. One woman had traveled
around for hours one night only to find a $30 meal of chicken in a hotel.

At times like that, you really appreciated basic necessities. Forget all the
stuff you have accumulated in your life. If you didn’t have the four basics –
food, water, shelter and light/heat it was a pretty hopeless situation indeed.

The Land of Opportunity

While we were working on cleaning out Lester’s and Aunt Jane’s houses, other
neighbors came and asked us what we were charging to do such work. They looked
surprised when we replied we were volunteering. Later, we found out that people
were charging anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 to do what we were doing. So we
felt good that we saved Lester and Aunt Jane this expense.

New Orleans has become the setting for fortune seekers. “Help Wanted” and “Now
Hiring” signs were everywhere. Desperate for employees, stores have begun to
advertise their wages on huge banners, hoping to lure in prospects. McDonalds
offered a $6,000 bonus on top of $9-$15 an hr.

New Orleans doesn’t really need money – it vitally needs people with hands to
help clean the city up and staff the businesses. The people also need a place to
stay, but there were very few places available or affordable. Renting cost about
$1 a sq. ft.

Signs advertising everything from beauty salons to house gutting landscaped
neutral grounds with a colorful flutter. Hundreds of hundreds of signs sprouted
everywhere there was an empty space, each wanting the business of gutting a
house or removing dry wall.

There weren’t trash haulers but “hurricane validators” and “mold abatement

Some even advertised “gentle removal” of a house’s interior.

Heck, whatever was left in those flooded houses needed to be smashed to pieces
and thrown out.

For those who couldn’t afford to print an official sign or just decided to jump
in on the modern day gold rush, spray paint on any available surface would
suffice whether it was a broken cardboard box, a trashed refrigerator, or a
junked car.

Aid & Assistance

We did not see much of FEMA, although I’m sure they do have a foothold at their
place in City Park, but the Red Cross appeared to be more involved with stations
scattered throughout the city where residents could find water, food and
cleaning supplies. We saw two men in a Red Cross van driving through the city
stopping people and asking if they had enough food – handing bags out to people
who wanted some. On our last day cleaning our Aunt’s house, the Salvation Army
came by, giving out food and water before continuing down the neighborhood.

Although we had the means to find food and or water if we traveled out of the
city and certainly wouldn’t starve to death, the Salvation Army’s action had a
way of making us feel that someone knew this neighborhood was struggling to come
“back” and was there supporting us. They cared enough to travel down block after
block of empty neighborhoods, seeking those dirty, filthy people doing the
lonely job of cleaning out homes.

I’m sure many much more needy people experienced that feeling tenfold over the
weeks following Katrina.

Snapshots of the city

Scenes from New Orleans

Among the many crises created by the force of Katrina, the mountains of trash
would be the most indelible as well as enduring. Towering heaps of trash litter
the once lushly tree-lined streets, claiming prominence amid handfuls of the
city’s surviving majestic oaks.

Long after evacuees have trickled back in, political dust-ups have died down and
the region has made efforts to rebound, the landscape will be littered with
these soggy remnants of resident’s lives.

Rubbish piling up in Lakeview neighborhood

According to state estimates, the hurricane created 22 million tons of debris in
southeast Louisiana, more than half of that in the New Orleans area. That
includes debris from more than 160,000 homes, but it does not include about
350,000 vehicles and 35,000 recreational fishing boats that were damaged by


West End street rubbish heap

is rumored to have stolen the highest point in
New Orleans title from City Park’s Laborde’s Mountain. 

So where does all this trash go eventually? No one really knows. It is an
environmental nightmare. Nothing is being sorted, recycled, and carefully
disposed of. Electronic equipment, household chemicals, drywall, insulation, car
parts, gasoline, you name it – are being ground up or smashed together into
hazardous recipe for environmental repercussions.

There are all these issues that New Orleanians are having to deal while
struggling with lack of funds and employees.

Another thing we did noticed while traveling around the city was that the
familiar tendrils of Spanish Moss were missing from the last existing oak trees.
Apparently, the wind had blown clean the branches.

Boats left on sidewalks or sides of streets reminded us of those honorable
individuals who took it upon themselves to commandeer boats into flooded
neighborhoods, saving thousands of people. These stranded boats scattered
throughout the city are reminders of this amazing floating rescue armada.

Andy and Linda (our friends at the Morel-Wisner house) showed us their canoe
that had rescued over 40 people when it was taken out by the person who had
stayed to watch their house.

Although the ducks are still making their homes in the waterways of Audubon and
City Park, the city seems devoid of wild birds. I did not hear a single bird
sing while gutting either home. Before our arrival, we were told by friends that
butterflies were falling to the ground, dead. The air had been so toxic. But on
our last day of cleaning Lester’s home, I saw a single Monarch butterfly alight
on the pile of trash, resting a brief minute before flitting away.


It was depressing to see and smell such a putrid wasteland, but towards the end
of our trip there, we saw small signs of hope … and humor.

Some residents had painted slogans on their junked refrigerators that sat on the
side of the road. Some slogans were political and defiant, a few were strong
declarations – “We will survive,” and some were humorous such as the ones that
offered free gumbo to anyone who dared opened the door.

One lady was in her yard amongst the remains of what had been in her house,
planting pansies. Local stores were starting to open with signs proudly stating
“we are back and open!”

Despite local governments’ empty coffers, despite all the duct-taped
refrigerators lining the streets, there is ample reason for hope.

Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?

We spent our last evening in the French Quarter at the famous Revolving Carousel
and Piano Bar at Hotel Monteleon. Our cousin, Julie Jules, is a well-recognized
local singer. Unfortunately, the show, A Salute to Satchmo (
that she put together is on hold. The Louis Armstrong Society Band she does the
performance with hasn’t reunited since the hurricane so she is soloing with
another famous French Quarter musician, a pianist and a former a classmate and
friend of hers. We had a lot of fun and there were some poignant moments as the
song “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” was sung. But except for a
few people at the bar, it was just us, Aunt Jane, Aunt Toni and Joel.

From the bar you could look out on Royal St and there were very few people, a
most unusual sight for the Quarter – mostly out-of-town contractors and their
work crews of Hispanics (many, they say, are illegal). Hardly, if any, families,
kids, women were spotted in the Quarter.

Saying Goodbye

Friday, November 12, it was back on the train to head for home. We had hoped to
see Lester and his family before we left, but he was unable to get off work. We
are optimistic that what we accomplished will give him a jump start to rebuild.

New Orleans sent us off with one big final whiff of the smell we had been
breathing for so long. While walking back from dropping off the rental car, I (Jordanne)
and Jules headed back to the station which is in relatively close distance from
the Super Dome. Near an underground parking lot between the Super Dome and the
Riverwalk, a pocket of putrid air remained, its stench a festering horrible
reminder. It was so overwhelming that we broke into a run for a block or so,
convinced that the smell was going to permeate our clothing.

It remained with us for several minutes, but it felt longer. These days, I can
recall exactly how it smelled.

We left feeling that while we did complete what we had come to do, we didn’t do
enough. It was tough leaving because to us, it didn’t feel like a job finished.
New Orleans was so wasted and there was so much more to do. Even today, there is
always something nagging at our minds, whispering of all that disaster we had
seen and that needs to be fixed.

Those 6 days in New Orleans will certainly stay with us and we hope that our
story of our experience there will give our readers a sense of what type an
environment the residents are going through. We hope that it can only get better
and that we in some small way helped in that effort of restoration.

It wasn’t without some guilt and some thankfulness that we can go back to the safety and security of our home in Pasadena far away from the
sadness and destruction. The people who are living there are seeing and dealing
with this each and every day – they are the ones that are going to need all the
strength and courage to get through this. They say they want to build a ‘better
city” and for all those citizens that are struggling to do their part we hope
for their sake that they do.

People ask us if we saw any “green developments/building” happening in the city.
Right now, people aren’t concerned with “green” they are just struggling for
survival — a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs (and the money to
afford it). Our compromise to eat at Burger King was as a result of a sort of

Seeing and experiencing this first hand definitely changes an everyday outlook
and we are so fortunate to had this option of living a sustainable lifestyle.

For those experts who want to know what would happen in such scenarios as peak
oil and the likes — go to New Orleans. We can talk about all the sorts of
scenarios but to try to live in such an environment is something that is both
emotionally and physically challenging.

Already Forgotten

The world is experiencing disaster overload. Our planet is an uneasy place to
be. The desire to help is easy to feel when people are suffering on camera. But
when these images are triumphed by pain and suffering from some new situation,
does anyone remember those prior tragedies?

Ignorance affords us a modicum of complacency that maybe everything is all
right. If we don’t see someone suffering, then it’s easy to believe they are

Ready or Not?

What if such a calamity hit LA? What if the “Big One” finally strikes LA? For
years New Orleans had been hearing of the “Big One” – the hurricane that would
swamp the city. They became complacent.

We have been hearing of our “Big One” – the earthquake that would shatter LA.
And yet, we don’t feel the danger.

We hear of global “Big Ones” such as peak oil, bird flu, global warming, etc.,
etc., etc.

But even with our lifestyle sustainable on our urban homestead, we could not
handle such a crisis. Think about it – the whole city of LA without power, water
and infrastructure.

For a sense of what it would be like to live in an end of the world scenario – go to New Orleans and find out first hand. Reading
in the comfy of your surroundings is one thing; living the nightmare is another.

For as short a time we were there, we hope to never experience something like
that again. We hope it was an once-in-a-lifetime event; but, with the way things
are going, we aren’t quite sure.

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