9.30.2005

Back to New Orleans

On September 19, A. and I returned to New Orleans to check the apartment and pick up some items and a few trapped pets. Aside from the damage, two oddities stood out the entire time we were in the city: the military presence and the post-apocalyptic, ghost-town feel. We saw few people, but what few we saw were mostly in humvees or manning checkpoints. Unlike the New Orleans police who questioned us later, they were very polite.

Legally, we weren't supposed to be there. We left early from Laurel, Mississippi, which is about 100 miles from the decimated Coast but not far enough to've escape Katrina's wrath itself. After topping off the tank in Mandeville, scarfing down a poboy (the first authentic one since the storm) and making sure the way was clear, we crossed Lake Pontchartrain on the causeway. Relatives had told us it was impassable. It wasn't.

Arriving in Metairie, we were surprised at both the destruction and the lack thereof. When Katrina threw her tantrum, she was selective: most buildings were intact, with minimal wind damage, but here and there was a building missing a wall or an entire story. When we reached River Road, traffic was doing what FEMA did the week after the storm: nothing. So we took Jefferson Hwy and eased through a National Guard checkpoint. A few cars were being told to turn around and go back. For whatever reason, we weren't.

Uptown was lucky; it wasn't low enough to flood. Our apartment, a few blocks from the river, was untouched, as was all our stuff. The power was off and it was in the mid-90's outside, so we sweated our way through the apartment, hurriedly gathering a few items to ease our exile. Computer monitor. Router. Clothes. DVDs. I'm relieved I lost nothing but felt a little guilty that I didn't while so many others did, including my cousin who lost his house. A. and I suffered psychologically, but I was already in the middle of an existential crisis anyway, so even that doesn't count for much.

We locked up the house and headed for the Quarter. There was little damage there. Some signs dangling. The occasional car buried beneath a fallen facade. The Faubourg Marigny, just east of the Quarter, did equally well (the lack of trees probably helped).

That's where we broke into our first house.

We'd come with a list of pets to either feed or rescue, and the owner of this shotgun house had asked us to get the cats inside. They'd been there for three weeks and we didn't know what we'd find. A., an animal devotee, was afraid we'd find carnage. Fortunately, we'd planned ahead: In addition to 20 gallons of water and big bags of pet food, we'd brought a crowbar, an axe and a shovel, in case the animals we'd come for were dead.

Now I'd never opened a gate with a crowbar before, but it wasn't hard, even with the deadbolt, and the National Guard troops manning the barb-wired barricade a block away either weren't paying attention or didn't care. Once through the gate, we walked alongside the house and found the back door and side windows locked. One of them, however, was missing a small pane, but that wasn't enough to get in. The windows were about six feet aboveground and the latches were halfway up the windows, so we weren't sure how to get in. We found a plastic ice chest in the walkway and tried standing on it. That got me close enough to break enough windowpanes for A. to crawl through--with much wriggling and grunting and acrobatics.

Once through the window, A. looked anxious and said there was something unidentifiable on the floor. Afraid the cats had turned cannibals, she searched the rest of the apartment. She said it was a mess inside, with cat shit, torn food bags and so on. But no cats living or dead. Presumably, they'd exited through that one missing windowpane.

Getting out of the window proved more difficult than getting in. The jump was a long one, especially for non-cheerleaders, and there were a couple of shards of broken glass sticking out of the sides of the window, like the curled lip of a sneer. A. cut herself on one of these. Blood streamed down her forearm. Then I saw blood streaming down mine too. A. started sobbing. She said she wished we'd never come. (Later, she told me this was because she was afraid we'd find nothing wherever we went.) I shouted at her to jump down, and she did. I squirted water on her hand and my arm. She'd cut her hand--a minor wound. Same with my arm--just a nick near the elbow.

We drove through Bywater, checking on a couple of other houses, to no avail. Occasionally, we'd see a dog or cat and stop to give them water. At one point, a white cat nuzzled up to A. She nabbed him and put him in the car, planning on putting his mug shot on the web once we got back to Laurel. Moving on, we passed through Mid-City, we started seeing some of the damage we'd heard about. In some cases, it didn't look as bad as we expected, but there were always water lines on buildings. They gave better testimony than the detritus and dead grass.

We drove down Carrollton, in Mid-City, searching for a house not far from the initial 17th St. levee breach. The sister of the man who lived in the house had called me while we were driving to New Orleans, asking us to rescue her brother's cats. He'd been injured in the storm and, she said, needed something to live for. Along the way, we ran into a couple of official animal rescue volunteers in a white van. We gave them the address of a 9th ward Yorkshire Terrier on our list, the pet of a nursing-home resident, who was sure her dog was dead. They gave us air-filter masks and agreed to check on the dog.

After driving down a few streets covered in a dingy film, past innumerable abandoned cars detoxing from the flood waters they'd bathed in, we found the house. The water line almost reached the top of the first floor. An old car in the back of the driveway looked like someone dumped their trash on it. We made our way through an obstacle course of absurd litter on the outside stairs--the sort of stuff that would be on a porch, hinting at all the stuff that the waters had moved from one home to another.

The door was locked. Breathing through an air-filter mask (without it, the air smelled like sewerage), I tried to pry open the door with the crowbar. Several frustrating minutes later, I switched to the axe. But it's a stubborn door and the wood on the other side of the frame is strong. Kicking helped a bit, especially when I accidentally hit the panes of glass in the middle. They shattered on the other side and we crawled through.

Clearly, cats lived here. There was food and water in containers on the floor, though one or the other was almost out, and the leather furniture in the living room had become a toilet. To make matters worse, there was lots of junk in the hallway--perfect for cats to hide under. After searching for a while, we were about to leave when A. found a calico kitten, Jill. Jill wasn't happy about being found and was even less so about being jailed in a carrier. A few more minutes' searching revealed an adult Siamese, Jackie, which sank his claws into A. before she jailed him with his roommate.

It wasn't until we drove up Robert E. Lee, towards the lake, that we reached another National Guard checkpoint. There A. told the two soldiers about our friends' pets and led them to believe that she sort of lives in this area. Genial, they smiled awkwardly at A. and then let us through. Passing the bayou, we turned into Gentilly.

Everything looked like it was covered in ash. The roads were dirt once again. Here, large oaks lay uprooted on sludge-covered yards, many crushing cars and roofs. No one was here.

It was the last neighborhood on our list. We had a few places to check but I told A. that I thought we should leave. The first place was a ruined apartment complex. A circle with a slash through it was painted in glowing orange on the dingy brick. The entranceway was blocked by a long, broken awning. Beyond it was glistening foot-printed toxic sludge ending in a closed metal gate. I'd heard about rescue workers getting decontaminated after falling in the 9th-Ward water, so I was leery of getting near the sludge, even if it was mostly mud. We were not going in there, I said, and A. suggested we try around the side. I could hear in her voice she was determined to get in.

Along the side of the complex was a graveyard of cars. A couple we passed were half full of sludge. We stepped carefully through the courtyard, trying to stay on the dried mud. But the wing of the complex that was full of mud was the one where the apartment on our list was located, and A. was wearing flip-flops. So I went in. I climbed over the pool fence--the pool full of what looked like bubbling tar--and went up the stairs. The door I was looking for was open, with signs of tampering. A track of black footprints ran through the musty apartment. What little was inside was intact. No animals, though the food and water in bowls on the floor attested to their recent stay there.

I'd been taking pictures the whole time we'd been in New Orleans and now was no exception. On the way into the complex, I noted the abandoned muddy boots standing in the parking lot, as if their owner had been raptured. Now I stopped to photograph them before I got back in the car. Wary of the sludge, I put my muddy shoes in plastic bags.

We tried to get to the next place on the list, but there was a short bridge between here and there, and on the other side of the bridge everything looked wet, recently drained. "Fuck!" A. exclaimed. I didn't see how we could drive through what was on the other side, and neither did she. But I had to take a picture. Making a U turn, she stopped at the edge of the bridge and I walked onto the median in my socks. I went up a few yards and snapped a picture. A SUV passed, the Indian-looking driver wearing a dark blue tee shirt with official-looking yellow lettering. In the distance, another SUV, black-and-white with a bar of lights on top, was headed for the bridge. I got back in the car.

We were only yards from the bridge when the SUV turned on its lights and pulled us over.

A fit, balding cop appeared at A.'s door and beckoned her to get out. After a while of talking with him behind the car, a tall, steroid-abusing cop in a standard blue uniform motioned at me and I stepped onto the mud-caked road, my feet in plastic bags. He stood at a distance, his hand on his holster. Who was I? I handed him my passport. What was I doing on the bridge? Taking a picture. Was I supposed to be doing that? I thought I was free to do that, I said. He didn't like this response and told me that I couldn't "win" against him. He asked me if I was sure that there was nothing in the car that shouldn't be there, and I told him yes. Just water and cats. (Later, A. would tell me that they showed interest in my computer monitor. While that made sense, I was surprised they didn't ask to look in the trunk. I can't say whether asking to look is legal, but if they'd looked, they would've seen water and food--not looting materials.) I told the cop that the National Guard let us through the checkpoint. Frustrated but satisfied that I couldn't add anything more, he returned me to the car. Several minutes later, A. got in the car, sobbing.

She drove back toward Robert E. Lee, telling me details of what the cops had asked for. Like most cops who pull you over, they seemed intent on her convincing them that they were important men with authority. They didn't take kindly to the word "but" or to any sentence that was not a plain statement of fact. They stressed how dangerous the area was and asked her why she was trying to kill her boyfriend. They said women had been raped, though given the lack of people one wondered by whom. A. said that during the interrogation, they pushed the point that our being in Gentilly was illegal and that if we returned A. would be thrown in jail.

We weren't so sure of that, but we were leaving anyway and didn't want any (more) trouble. We tried exiting New Orleans the way we came in, but the National Guard stopped us at a checkpoint. Again, they were sheepish with A., like adolescents. But they were clear, so we left via Metairie. Seems that's where everyone was: on I-10, either coming or going. The traffic was bad but we got out quicker than we could've gotten to the airport during rush hour on a normal day.

It was a long drive. We were both emotionally exhausted, and the cats were yowling for the first few miles. After a couple of attempts at finding functioning cities in the far south of Mississippi, eventually we reached Hattiesburg. We were disheveled. My shoes were covered in mud and A.'s shirt was torn and stained. But we walked into the "New Orleans style" Crescent City Cafe without a problem, washed up and got a table.

BONUS: Pictures! (Apologies for the low aesthetic.)

POST SCRIPT: Cookie, the 9th-Ward Yorkie, was rescued that same day by the volunteers we gave her address to. They found her weak, barely breathing, in a space beneath fallen shelves, resting in a pool of toxic sludge. She couldn't even lift her head. Eight veterinarians spent hours saving her. Now she's recovering with one of the rescue workers, in New York. Supposedly, she was on local TV, but the worker who saved her hasn't sent us a tape or anything yet.

Jack and Jill, the two cats we took from the Mid-City apartment, were returned to their owner yesterday. We'll miss them.

The white cat tested positive for feline leukemia, though he seems healthy. He's in quarantine and will be tested again in a couple of weeks. We haven't yet found his owner.

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