“Storm Surge” is a novella of fiction based loosely on eye-witness accounts and actual facts related to the 2005 flooding of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana and subsequent efforts to rebuild the city.
The National Commercial Property Corporation’s boardroom had the look and feel of a well-maintained mausoleum on this dreary December night. The peripheral outer darkness permeated the room. The Lower Manhattan skyline struggled to be seen. A thick, gauze-like layer of clouds wrapped itself tightly around the top seventeen floors of the fifty-three story Empire One tower, blurring the view from the eagle’s nest.
A recessed parameter of dim floor lights cast just enough illumination to light the center of the nearly deserted chamber, revealing a huge oak conference table. Twenty leather-backed chairs, like tombstones, lined either side. The faces of former board members and C.E.O.’s added their own haunting airs to the setting, forever gazing down from their unmoving gilded frames on the dark oak-paneled walls.
A matronly woman sat in silence at the far end of the table, shrouded by the darkness of the immense, vaulted room. She was no stranger to this darkness. She seemed poised like a corporate image, packaged in an Italian hand-tailored, Navy-blue business suit. On this night, however, her hair was noticeably wet and windblown. A rain-soaked hooded raincoat lay where she caustically threw it across one of the vacant chairs to her left.
Her nip and tuck face showed no sign of emotion as she listened passively to a conference call in progress. Successor to her late husband and former Chairman of the Board, Victor Madison, Mrs. Madison took her role in deadly seriousness. Money was waiting to be made in real estate and she would be the one to make it.
The woman’s shadowy features were further concealed as she opened a monogrammed black leather attaché case. Lightening flashed outside the invisible wall to her left, electricity blazing across eight great window panes. In silence, she began going through her papers.
Halfway down the table, the dark silhouette of a second person revealed itself. This was Richard Dillon, a man with an imposing stance that would have made for a great politician. His six foot frame, square jaw, crystal blue eyes, and dark well-groomed hair all lent themselves to his ability to sell, sell, and sell some more. His commanding tone demanded attention, action, or absolute compliance, whichever he sought. His smooth, sophisticated patter seemed well rehearsed, but seldom was.
Dillon showed no visible signs of having been subjected to the weather outside. His voice was commanding as he talked casually through a speaker-phone on the conference table.
Another bright flash of light illuminated the room as a third man quietly entered from a brightly lit hallway. The outer door swung shut, pinching off the light, as the thin man stepped inside. The elderly woman, still rifling through the papers in her briefcase, did not look up.
Thomas Nolty, Head of Operations, was R.D.’s right-hand man. His build, slightly shorter and much slimmer than his boss defined his weasel-like character. He was also well dressed, but always appeared to be somewhat disheveled in his untailored attire. His gray overcoat was dripping noticeably on the carpeted floor. He had an annoyed look on his face as he tried to control his winded breathing.
The phone dialog evolved, uninterrupted, as Dillon continued to prime a high level Federal Emergency Management Agency official, calling in a favor.
“The media frenzy going on down there is a travesty, Bob; flooded homes and a city government in ruins. We all know the people down there need a new vision, a vision of the future. Now is not the time to dwell on the negative. Everyone wants something they can support. If we can put this project together we can build on that foundation. Thanks to your efforts, we will make a difference.”
Deputy Director Lambert soaked up the compliments. “No problem at all, Mr. Dillon,” he replied.
“Your referral of Mary Ellis is undoubtedly the best choice for the job,” the C.E.O. continued “She seems well qualified to provide the Senate Appropriations Committee all of the information they’ll need to make an informed decision. I understand she volunteered to assist FEMA at the onset, along with several of her colleagues.”
“John Roberts, out of Chicago, submitted her name. You remember John?”
“City Planning Commission. Led the charge on the Empire 3 Tower. Good man.”
“Between the two of us we have brought her up to speed on your proposal. Her assignment will be a no nonsense, get in – get out junket to assess the reaction of city officials, local planning groups, and to determine land-use impact implications.”
Dillon knew enough now to cut short the conversation. “FEMA’s cooperation throughout this process has been invaluable. I want to thank you again for your organization’s consideration of our interests…”
Lambert nodded; unperceived, knowing full well that he was just a cog in the gears of this behind-the-scenes business transaction.
“Naturally, we will arrange for Ms. Ellis’ travel, lodging, and her per diem expenses. National is quite honored to be sponsoring this young lady. We intend to see to it that she has everything she needs while in New Orleans. She has a big job ahead of her and only a limited time to get it done. I understand you have developed her itinerary for the week. It’s in everyone’s best interest that she gets a real sense of what needs to be done.”
“Naturally,” Lambert replied with a touch of sarcasm, fully understanding the true intent of the generous offer. “Do you still want to meet with her before she begins her work next week?”
“Of course. I’ll fly into Chicago O’ Hare Friday night and we’ll arrange the Saturday meeting there. Please let the Director know I’ll be in touch. Thank you again for your time, Mr. Lambert. Goodbye.”
Richard Dillon ended the conversation with the push of a button. He turned his attention now to Nolty, the man obviously nervous, his right hand on the oaken table, four fingers tapping softly on its surface.
As the head of Operations, Tom Nolty knew it was now going to be his job to put things into motion. Richard would expect immediate and positive results, no excuses. The thin man hesitated for a moment, then decided to voice a nagging concern.
“If we can’t acquire all the property we need down there, your so-called vision of the future will be history… You know I’ve already pumped over a million dollars into that swamp!”
“Tom, our projected profits are in excess of fifty million over the next five years. The million your people have invested is peanuts.” Richard automatically turned on the inevitable charm, “You’ve been busy purchasing land since the hurricane hit in September. The usual strategy of using anonymous buyers and dummy charity organizations to secure the properties is, as has always been the case, giving no one a hint of what lies ahead. As far as anyone is concerned we are only interested in a small, four block parcel off of Franklin Street. The residential areas to the east of that location suffered significant enough damage to be considered uninhabitable, right?”
“So it would seem, forty-five lots are in escrow, twenty-six more are in negotiation, and we’re in the process of locating as many owners in our six block radius as we can find. So far, most are taking the fast cash but there have been some hold outs. A lot of people are still waiting to see if they can get government assistance to rebuild…”
Dillon, unmoved, looked him straight in the eye, “Listen to what I’m saying Nolty, FEMA is doing the New Orleans land use study next week and making recommendations to the Senate Appropriations committee, we all know what that means…”
The gaunt faced man chuckled despite his irritation at Richard’s condescending attitude.
“The committee has to decide whether or not to funnel funding into our high-rise development in a former residential area. Senator Martin’s moratorium on new commercial construction in old neighborhoods is going to be defeated. We can’t loose; we are offering them Empire Tower 5. They are talking ‘if and when’ they might be able to replace washed out houses and gutted businesses. Their vision is mud huts, ours is skyscrapers!”
“Now I’ve pulled a few strings, he continued, as if trying to sell a Rolls Royce to someone who drives a Ford Mustang, “We have a rookie going down to do the social impact survey. What more do we need?
The old woman’s voice interrupted the exchange. “I have the details of the McMillan Tower failure in Canada last year.
“I recall that fiasco”, Nolty interrupted and the woman’s dark commanding eyes flashed him into silent submission as she continued.
“Our Vancouver engineers did a structural analysis of the damaged building and found faulty construction in the laying of the foundation on the eastern corner. The granite base gave way to a sandstone bluff in that section. The building design had not compensated for the difference in weight thresholds. When the building became uninhabitable the contractors were faulted but no fines were levied against us as the owners. When we give the sub-contractors on this project the final blueprints, a similar flaw will be incorporated into the new plans. Blue prints will be switched in and out, of course,” she eyed Nolty to be sure he was following all of this. “With any luck, Empire Tower 5 will collapse in less than ten years. The blame will be placed on the unstable ground and we will be poised to rebuild, using new and improved building techniques, thereby doubling our profits. That’s the future! You both have only one goal to accomplish; get us into that flood zone. We need that property now!”
“We’re going to loose big bucks if this committee thing doesn’t go our way!” Nolty snapped again, tapping his fingers harder on the table for emphasis.
“You boys,” she emphasized the word, “missed the boat after nine eleven. Totally unprepared,” she looked Richard in the eyes. What did we get out of that? A buyout and remodeling of a four story unit on Trinity Place?” she glared. “My Victor would have rebuilt those towers!”
Dillon, now eager to highlight his current plan, reached down and picked up a thick green file folder that had been lying undisturbed on the polished wooden surface to his right. Opening the folder he flipped through the cover letter and the FEMA study outline until he came to a resume.
“Thirty, single, undergraduate work at Tulane University in Political Science,” he read out loud. “Graduate work at the University of Illinois in Chicago, majoring in Environmental Studies, and three years behind a desk at the Chicago City Planning Commission. It says here she enjoys traveling and classical music, how charming is that? We have our pigeon,” he concluded, holding up an enlarged photo ID of an attractive young brunet.
“We need to be sure she’s on our side…” Nolty mumbled under his breath.
“Her boss, Lambert certainly supports our position,” Dillon reiterated, ignoring the negativity. “It’s just a matter of keeping her happy lounging around at the Le Pavillon Hotel sipping those Pat O'Brien hurricanes for a week. We’ll be fine. And if she doesn’t, “I’m sure we can circumvent any possible negative recommendations.” Dillon’s steely grey eyes restrained Nolty just long enough for him to add, “Just do your job!”
Mary Ellis found herself staring, first at a half-empty crystal glass of water and then out of the panoramic window of one of Chicago’s most elegant top floor restaurants. The sky outside was partly cloudy but showed visible sign of clearing. Lake Michigan lay sparkling on the horizon, wind-whipped waves like frilly lace accents, rippled across a dark blue-green surface. She was here to meet her mission sponsor, Richard Dillon.
Mary could not believe her luck in landing this assignment. The thought of being able to travel, all expenses paid to one of her favorite cities, New Orleans, was a dream come true . Then she shuddered to think how things might be different down there this time around. Still, she couldn’t help thinking about all the wonderful places she had seen and the fun she had had as an undergraduate student there. It was so exotic compared to Chicago. Her thoughts drifted into a happy revelry of memories.
“Mary?” A well-dressed, middle-aged man seemed to have materialized out of thin air. Mary looked up wide-eyed, speechless. His endearing smile quickly put her at ease. “May I sit down?”
She nodded, “Of course, Mr. Dillon.”
“Call me Richard, no strangers here,” his smile broadened. His eyes met hers and immediately held her attention.
An attentive waiter quickly approached the table, “My name is Michael and I will be serving you this afternoon. Would you care to start with drinks and an appetizer?” he stiffly offered the wine list to Richard.”
“I’ll have your best claret and the soup du jour, thank you. The same, Mary?”
“Yes, thank you,” she smiled, quickly realizing that he had just taken full command of the situation.
“Very well, I will return shortly to take your orders. Today the Maui Maui is fresh or if you prefer, the prime rib is the specialty of the house.” The young man deftly switched the wine list for two menus.
“Naturally, we are in Chicago, after all.” Richard replied nonchalantly, taking the two menus. His eyes remained on his charming guest throughout the exchange. He handed one to her and smiled again.
“Mary, allow me to get to the point of our meeting here. National is quite happy to be sponsoring your junket. Although we believe that our property development project will greatly enhance the conditions of this unfortunate community we know how important planning is under these circumstances. It is our singular intention to facilitate your efforts. Your observations and study findings are crucial to the Appropriations Committee. Mr. Lambert has told me you have excellent references.”
Mary smiled, a little self-conscious about the status she had assumed with this assignment. “Thank you for your faith in my abilities,” she managed. “New Orleans is such a wonderful place. You know I studied there at Tulane a few years back.”
“Excellent” he replied. “Then you should know your way around. I’ve made arrangements for your stay at Le Pavillon, a limousine will be at your disposal when you arrive.”
Mary blushed at the idea of riding around the city streets of New Orleans in a limousine. “Thank you Mr. Dillon, I mean Richard. But if it’s all the same, FEMA has a smaller vehicle reserved for my use. It just makes it easier to get around on those narrow streets,” she added, not wishing to offend her host.
“Of course, I would offer you a driver but I’m guessing you would be quite independent in that regard, as well. Am I right? Perhaps you would like for someone from our New York office to accompany you as an assistant? Compiling data and getting it ready for revue will be very time consuming,” he said warmly, making yet another attempt to place someone close to her for the course of her investigation.
“That won’t be necessary, but thank you.” Mary felt a bit embarrassed by her insistence on following ethical procedures. Mr. Dillon seemed so sincere; she knew he was only trying to be helpful.
“Well then, at least allow us to type up and duplicate the final draft for the committee,” he suggested as the wine was presented, then poured.
Not giving her the chance to respond this time he raised his glass, “A toast, then, to a challenge met!”
Mary raised her glass in kind, still overwhelmed by her good fortune. “To a challenge met,” she repeated softly as the waiter placed a steamy bowl of Broccoli Mimolette in front of her.
As Richard readied his spoon to sample the soup, a cell phone holstered on his belt chimed softly three times. Richard flipped it open, lifted it to his ear and listened without speaking, his ever-present smile partially fading. Finally the words, “Very well then,” were spoken.
“I cannot apologize enough,” he said in feigned earnestness. My Board of Directors is holding a special meeting and I am required to attend. I have to return to New York immediately. This was totally unforeseen. I do apologize.”
“It’s quite alright,” Mary said, not certain how to respond to this untimely interruption.
“Please, order what you like and enjoy the rest of your lunch and the view. By-the-way, did you know this was one of our Empire Towers?” Richard rose and politely took Mary’s hand. “God’s speed,” he said in mock sincerity. “Please keep in touch and let me know if you find yourself in need of anything at all.”
With that he turned and headed out of the room, briefly stopping at the maitre d’s podium and gesturing in Mary’s direction. The tuxedoed man nodded in reply. Then Dillon disappeared into the outer corridor.
As Mary slowly ate her soup, she couldn’t help but contemplate the powerful currents that swirled around her. She stared out at the skyline wistfully, wine glass in hand. The sun had now become a bright yellow ball. “Here’s to New Orleans,” she said, a twinge of excitement rising.
Mary stepped out of a camouflaged brown and green M998 HMMWV, commonly known as the Humvee. The city was full of them, as well as the larger military supply trucks and troupe carriers. Her escort was a young National Guardsman hailing from Nebraska.
“Ya gonna be alright here, miss?” the soldier asked. “I had orders to make sure ya got to the Broadway FEMA staging site.”
She waved him away. Despite the war-zone like atmosphere she had encountered upon her arrival, she was quickly adjusting. The vehicle had stopped in front of Tulane University directly across from Audubon Park. Her pale yellow, knee-length, sleeveless cotton dress ruffled in the afternoon breeze. Even during the second week of December it was a balmy sixty-nine degrees.
The squat military transport roared off behind her. She sighed, wishing the old street cars were still running. There was no sign of their presence on the two sets of tracks that ran down the center of St. Charles Avenue. Mary stood for a minute breathing in the warm, humid air. The giant oak trees that filled Audubon Park seemed to overflow the confines of that space, running down both sides of the old street, forming a canopy that had resisted the power of the hurricanes for centuries.
In the once teeming park only two joggers made use of the paths, a children’s playground stood vacant, and a small circle of young adults played haki-sack beneath a giant oak tree. Scattered piles of twisted and broken branches and the distant buzzing sound of a wood mulcher gave just a faint hint as to the extent of the ongoing recovery efforts.
Slowly she turned around to face the Tulane campus. It was flanked by the gothic bell tower of the Loyola campus chapel just off to the right. The pale white limestone structures seemed impervious to any force, man-made or natural. She smiled to herself as she soaked up the scene, revisiting the memories of her old school and its eloquent and sometimes bombastic professors.
The Loyola bell tolled the hour, twelve noon. Her eyes scanned the deserted school sidewalks. The only sign of activity was that of two small work crews on the campus grounds. One group was carefully climbing down from distant scaffolding, removing hard hats, while a second group removed disposable hazmat suits as they emerged from one of the dormitory buildings.
She paused again, this time closing her eyes, taking in a long sobering breath. Then, like a student having to return to class after a break, the annoying chime of her cell phone suddenly brought her back to reality.
“Hello? Mr. Lambert. Yes, I had a very comfortable flight. It was eerie at the airport though, the place was almost deserted, some wind damage there but nothing major.” She paused to listen as her advisor related some tidbits of one of his previous trips to the Crescent City.
“Mr. Lambert, they’ve put me up at the Le Pavillon Hotel, I’ve checked in and unpacked already. I had breakfast in the Crystal Room. It’s very nice there...”
Lambert interrupted again, this time to ask if she was ready to begin the study.
“There are actually some parts of the city that sustained minimal damage,” she replied, quickly assuming the tone of an official government observer. I’m standing on St. Charles Avenue, Uptown, and it is just as I remembered it from my school days except there are construction workers out here instead of the usual students. I was just on my way over to the FEMA staging lot to pick up my car. I should be there in about a half hour. I thought I might stop into an old school mate’s restaurant and see how her business is doing. I’ll note it as one of my community interviews.”
The assistant director politely reminded her of her busy schedule, including photographing key areas, meeting with the Mayor, city planners, an Army Corps of Engineers representative, and other city officials, as well as, attending a Rebuilding New Orleans Commission business development forum on Thursday. A report would be expected on his desk by 8 a.m. sharp, on the 20th. She had seven days to complete her fact finding mission, prepare a transcript, catch a plane to Washington and appear in front of the Appropriations Committee at 1 p.m. that same Monday afternoon to deliver and discuss the report in person.
Head back out of the clouds and two feet on the occasionally uneven sidewalks, she made her way down St. Charles and crossed Broadway. Two blocks later she stood at the door of a modest restaurant. A hand painted wooden sign above the door read: Café Dubois. It was accented by two brightly colored Mardi Gras masks, one at each end of the purple and gold lettering.
Darlene Dubois, one of Mary’s favorite college chums, had always dreamed of running her own restaurant. Jeffery, Darlene’s college sweetheart and later her charming husband, used his remodeling skills to modify a one story double shotgun house, converting it into an upscale bistro. Upon entering, the attractive visitor could immediately see that the diners were mostly construction workers. She ignored their staring and half-whispered comments as she made her way through the crowded room and into a small bar at the back.
There, a hard-at-work, mid-thirties, African American woman stood meticulously ringing up tabs. The lady looked up instinctively. As soon as she recognized Mary a broad smile lit up her soft round face.
“Mary! Girl, where the hell did you come from?” She turned, “Lizzy, can you work it for a minute?” she shouted into the busy kitchen.
“My Darlin’ Darlene,” Mary laughed recalling her girlfriend’s old nickname. They hugged each other warmly. “Looks like you need more tables, more chairs, and more help, girlfriend!”
“Honey, we need more everything down here!” Darlene said loudly, trying to be heard over the busy crowd. Let’s go out back.”
“Ms. Darlene, were almost out of hot sauce,” one of the waitresses called out before they could reach the door.
“Send Billy down to the Winn Dixie on Tchopatulous,” she shot back and made a quick exit.
On the steps leading down into the backyard patio a much younger version of her good friend sat glumly with her hands on her chin. The attractive eight-year old girl brightened at the sound of her mother’s voice and stood up.
“This is Angelique,” Darlene spoke with pride, “She’s such a big girl now. You know there still aren’t enough people in the city to put together any day care… and her school, Lord have mercy, hasn’t been able to open up since the storm. This place is keepin’ me so busy I don’t know what I’m gonna do. Her brother and my Momma can’t be here to help, no place to stay… My Jeffery is out workin’ on roofs from sunup to sundown… and girl, we be livin’ out of a motel room ‘til who knows when! An’ I don’t know what they’re talkin’ about with those little white trailers!”
Mary stooped down to the young girl’s eye level. “Hello sweetie. I remember when I left New Orleans your mamma was carrying you around in her arms like a sack of potatoes.”
Angelique smiled at the stranger’s imaginative recollection.
“Why aren’t you playing?”
“Don’t get her started,” Darlene said with a wink.
“I miss my brother. He’s got bussed to Houston. And Mimaw, she’s still with my cousins up in Memphis,” the eight-year-old lamented. “Most of the kids my age are gone. Even my school is closed. There’s no one here to play with…” Angelique looked up at her Mom, knowing that she had probably said enough.
“That’s too bad,” Mary tried to sympathize.
There was one more thing on Angelique’s mind and she couldn’t help blurting it out.
“And I wanted to go to my house today cause Momma says they‘re gonna throw everything out in the street. My doll, Missy Ann, is still in there, I just know she is!”
Darlene stroked her softly on the head in a hopeless attempt to sooth her. “Now hush yourself, child,” she consoled, “That part of New Orleans is closed up for now and that’s that.”
Mary thought for a moment, “Well, I was planning on taking some pictures around New Orleans today. I think I can probably sneak into your neighborhood for a quick look see. And I wouldn’t mind some company.” A glance at Darlene revealed the look of a mother’s anxiety. “I’d make sure was safe,” she reassured her former roommate.
“Uh huh, you better, for the both of you,” Darlene relented.
“Do you think we can find her, Angelique?” Mary asked, trying not to get her hopes up too high.
“Oh yes, I remember right where I put her just before the storm hit!”
“Baby,” Darlene now stooped to fuss with the collar of her daughter’s pink and white dress, “You know I have to be working here all day, do you want to go with my friend Mary?
“Oh yes, Momma please!”
“Alright. Now don’t go getting’ that pretty outfit all dirty,” she warned while giving her a big hug. Then she stood up and faced Mary, “How are you going to get past the check points?
Mary smiled, I’m here on official government business!” She pulled out a FEMA badge that had been carefully tucked into her purse, opening it with an official a flip of the wrist. “This should do the trick. I’m supposed to be assessing the damages along the Lakeshore, in Gentilly, Mid-City, the Central Business District, the French Quarter, and the Faubourg Marigny areas. The east side is completely off limits for now.
They want plenty of pictures. I can do a quick tour of the city today before I start in on all of the meetings they’ve scheduled for me this week. What time should I have her back?”
“We’ll be workin’ here till at least six. Things get real quiet after that,” she sighed. “Curfew starts at eight.”
“It’s closing in on one o’clock now;” she said, checking her watch. “We’ll be back before five!” Mary promised, “safe and sound. Besides, you and I have got plenty of catching up to do. Now you’d better get back in there before a riot breaks out!” She laughed as she took Angelique’s hand and the two started off on their adventure.
After checking out the Ford Escort from the Army Corps of Engineers compound on the river-bend, Mary and Angelique set out to see the city. The grey and thickening clouds gave Mary a shiver as she thought back to the reports she had seen in the hours and days following the storm. How could anyone not be changed by such a horrific experience? And yet, here was this cheery little girl sitting next to her, eagerly chatting away. She just wanted things to get "back to normal" again.
On any other day it would have taken only twenty minutes to get across the city of New Orleans. Mary quickly realized that this was not any other day. Her first indication came in the form of frequent pauses at nearly every intersection as she made her way up Broadway to Claiborne and then north on Carrollton Avenue.
Everywhere temporary stop signs had been hurriedly planted by city workers, replacing randomly blinking or completely uprooted traffic signals. No one seemed used to the changes, many stopped too long or failed to heed the signs altogether. Most of the traffic consisted of drivers wearing ball caps or cowboy hats riding around in pickup trucks with Texas or other out-of-state license plates. These work trucks, with accompanying trailers, plied the otherwise deserted streets.
Mary continued to encounter some new form of obstruction about every other block. With all of the distractions of the storm-altered landscape she tried to stay focused on the road ahead. As they traveled Angelique pointed out the blue-tarped roofs, toppled trees and billboards, and the ever-increasing signs of flood damage. Occasionally, Mary grabbed up her SX Series Power Shot digital camera, capturing the chaotic scenes outside of the driver-side window.
Mary had reviewed the official FEMA reports concerning the significantly damaged areas. On August 29 2005, greater New Orleans was severely flooded by a series of levee failures. High waters from the storm surge brought on by Hurricane Katrina had set the stage for disaster. One source stated that a loose barge had definitely caused at least one breach. Another source sited claims that some places in the levy had been dynamited on purpose. The Army Corps of Engineers' preliminary findings had provided no proof to these charges.”
The report went on to say, “Three major rifts occurred on the Industrial Canal; one on the northeast side, near the junction with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and two on the southeast side along the Lower Ninth Ward between Florida Avenue and Claiborne Avenue. On the east side of New Orleans the 17th Street Canal levee breached on the New Orleans side near the Old Hammond Highway Bridge. The London Avenue Canal in the Gentilly neighborhood breached on both sides; on the west side near Robert E. Lee Boulevard, and on the east, near the Mirabeau Avenue Bridge.”
In summary, the report had concluded, “Over 100,000 homes and businesses were lost in one day. Nearly 80% of the city and some adjacent suburbs suffered significant damage, not from Hurricane Katrina, but from the flooding triggered by at least 50 holes in the surrounding levee systems.”
Mary had also researched the city’s long and illustrious history. She had learned that the high ground upon which the city had original been built started in the Bywater on the river side of Saint Claude Avenue and ran west to form the famous crescent. This rose up along the east bank of the Mississippi River. The elevated strip included much of the French Quarter, part of the Central Business District, the Warehouse District, Irish Channel. the Garden District, Audubon Park, and the Uptown neighborhoods.
This thin sliver of land was the only real estate in the city to escape serious flooding. A few blocks down the highest part of the Gentilly Ridge and some property along the lakefront fill were also spared. The Franklin Avenue area was not so fortunate. There were reports of water six to eight feet deep there, she recalled. That was where Angelique’s home was located.
Mary had seen so much on the TV news that she thought nothing could unnerve her. However, the faces of the few people that they passed on their journey told an even more tragic story. There was one old man sitting alone on the steps of his porch. Several people were lined up along the side of a Red Cross truck, still accepting handouts of food, water, and cleaning supplies. Still others were dragging or throwing personal belongings out their front doors, with looks of disgust and grief etched into their down-turned eyes.
Large and small bulldozers moved like robots, up and down the side-streets, working relentlessly in the removal of piles and piles of debris. They doggedly filled large, open backed semis and a never-ending stream of dump-trucks.
Wet carpets, beds, TV sets, couches, tables, chairs, and every other imaginable household possession formed massive mounds in front of most of the houses where the water had been high enough to spill in doorways and windows. Broken branches and felled trees mixed with roofing tiles and twisted scraps of aluminum siding, covering yards and streets. This was a daunting task, with seemingly no end in sight, at least, not yet.
There was a look of despair and uncertainty on the faces of many long-time New Orleanians that replaced the easy-going smiles and friendly greetings she had come to expect in years gone by. The noticeable presence of a well-armed militia cruising the streets added yet another ominous tone to the scene. Military helicopters flew overhead.
But there were hopeful signs, as well. Roofers, electric company utility linemen, and an army of construction workers moved about like ants, busily doing what was necessary to assess the damages and do makeshift repairs on houses and businesses. Blue-tarped roofs indicated progress.
On one corner Mary spotted an apron draped cook standing outside of a small neighborhood seafood restaurant, eating from a bowl and talking loudly to a man across the street. Both chatted happily in the exchange.
Angelique was noticeably subdued by the scenes playing by outside the automobile’s windows. Her world was changing, the future uncertain. Mary reached over and squeezed Angelique's hand.
“There are people in Washington D.C. that care about what happens down here. We saw the damage that was done by Hurricane Katrina and the floods on TV. Right now people are trying to find ways to help rebuild New Orleans. I’m going to be there to give them some of the information they need to make good decisions.” Mary reassured her.
This information may be of little consequence to Angelique, she thought, as she slowly made her way across an eerily quiet Canal Street.
“What do you think about tall buildings Angelique?” Mary opted to change the subject and pointed toward the elevated skyline downtown.
“They look scary,” she replied. “Like our motel only a hundred times taller. There’s no yard at our motel, only a parking lot. Do you have a yard at your house?
“No sweetie, I live in a big building like that one…” she said pointing to a ten story office complex in the distance, “…in Chicago. There are lots of big buildings in Chicago and many people live in them. Did you ever hear abut the Wriggly building? It’s in Chicago, too. It was once the tallest building in the world!”
Angelique was clearly not impressed. “How do the neighbors visit each other without stoops or porches to sit on? Can they keep pets in there? Wouldn’t it be scary at night when there are no people outside and you want to go down to the corner store?
Mary was caught slightly off guard by this child’s keen perception of the relationship of buildings to community. “It’s not like living in a regular house, I guess,” she had to admit.
“I like my house,” Angelique went on, “I can walk to school and Rey’s Market is just around the corner. We go there for cold drinks sometimes when it gets real hot. My girlfriend Nikki and I always play in our back yard. Papa built me a playhouse…” The little girl stopped herself. Her mother had tried gently to remind her again and again that everything was gone where she lived. She still cried at night thinking about it.
“Have you ever been in a big flood, Mary?” Angelique could not help talking about the events that had forever changed her life.
“No, I haven’t.” Mary admitted.
“It happened in the morning, you know, after the hurricane was gone. We stayed in the kitchen for that. Just after breakfast Papa started yelling that there was water in the yard. We looked out and saw it. It came up fast. Papa said we had to get upstairs quick and we did what he said. Papa had to carry Mimaw up piggy-back.
“You must have been pretty scared, huh?” Mary was beginning to feel the emotion the little girl was conveying.
“Papa said we would be safe upstairs, and he was right. The water rose about halfway up the house. The only thing was, we couldn’t get out. Momma had plenty of food and water for the hurricane but the ‘lectricity went off and you couldn’t use the water from the sink or go to the bathroom. I started getting scared. There were all sorts of things floating around us in the water. I saw a drount lady and somebody’s dog too. Mimaw said people would be rising up out of their graves but we don’t mind what Mimaw says sometimes. I was more worried ‘bout snakes and gators. My friend Benny told me they come up out of the swamps when the water gets high and eat people. His Daddy told him that, I swear!” She shivered as she spoke.
“So what did you do?”
“Some people came in boats. I even saw one ol’ man paddelin’ around in an open ‘frigerator with no door! They went house to house and got everybody out. I saw helicopter guys pullin’ kids off of rooftops on the news. That would be even more scary!” Angelique admitted.
“We walked out on the back stairs. Papa tested it out first to see if it was still holdin’ up. Then one at a time we got in the boats. They took us up to the Super Dome. That was awful! Babies were cryin’ and people yellin’. There were so many people there that we had to sit in one place most of the time and Papa never left me outta his sight.”
Two whole days later,” she continued, “they took us out on busses but everyone was scared and tired and there was a lot of people fighting to see who got to go first. They took Mimaw out the second day we were there. They took her all the way to Memphis where my cousins live. Then Malcolm got put on a bus to Houston. He’s fourteen, ya know. He’s staying with Uncle Bud and Auntee Nakisha. He calls Momma twice a week and talks about wantin’ to come home. He doesn’t like having to go to a new school with those cowboys. He says Texas is full of cowboys but most all of the Indians are gone…”
“Where did you go?” Mary asked softly.
“We ended up in Baton Rouge, at first. Papa said he wanted to go back in as soon as he could. He said the FEMA people were askin’ all kinds of questions about our place. Papa said if he didn’t get back to check the house and the restaurant, we could lose them both. There was another hurricane before he could go home but he went back in as soon as it was over. Papa talked to everybody he could to find out when we could move back. The Red Cross finally got us a room in a motel out on Airline Highway. We got back just a couple of weeks ago. They wouldn’t let me see the house but Mamma’s café did alright. Her and Papa fixed it up and got it running again.”
“That’s quite a story, Angelique. I’m so glad you’re safe. I was worried about you. Nobody could call down because the phones weren’t working. Nobody up north knew what was going on down here for sure.”
“I just want to go home,” Angelique quipped, now focused on the familiar streets that lie ahead. “Look there’s my school!”
The storm ravaged buildings she pointed to appeared, at first glance, to be empty. However, even on a Sunday there were signs of life. Several vans and a utility truck had brought in workers who were busy trimming away broken tree limbs, cleaning out classrooms, and sizing up the damage to the roof and so many broken windows. Mary realized that this scene was being reenacted throughout almost every neighborhood in the city. Assessing the damages, salvaging furniture and what personal keepsakes or business records that remained untouched by this catastrophe, was all that could be done at this point. She knew some would be luckier than others.
As they navigated through Angelique’s neighborhood they encountered increasing numbers of closed or impassible streets. One street was open but to go beyond Esplanade they had to pass a checkpoint. Two young soldiers stood leaning up against their hum-vee. A flashing blue light let everyone know they were the law now. A portable stop sign was set up beside the truck. They watched as two vehicles ahead of them tried to pass the roadblock; one was successful, the other was turned back.
Mary already had her ID out when they pulled up to the stop sign. One of the men, a lieutenant, leaned halfway in through her open window. The other national guardsman, a much younger man, moved in closer, as well, an M-16 rifle slung over his shoulder. He smiled at the two sightseers but remained quiet. Mary smiled back.
“What’s your business, ma’am?” The officer in charge spoke with a Texas drawl.
“I’m a consultant, contracted by FEMA to conduct a study for a congressional review,” she said as officially as she could. She held up her badge and he took it from her, examining it closely. He handed it back to her and she started to put the car into gear. He did not move.
“Do you have any other ID on you?”
Embarrassed and a bit unnerved by this level of scrutiny, Mary reached down again and began going through the contents of her purse. “Just a second… yes, here’s my driver’s license.
He looked at it and showed it over his shoulder to the guy in back of him. “Kenny there is from Ft. Wayne, Indiana. You’re a long way from home Miss Ellis.”
“Yes I am,” she pulled the license from his fingers as he leaned back in the window.
“There’s some dangerous areas back there, but I’m sure you already knew that. So what’s with the little girl?” He eyed Angelique curiously. “You tryin’ to find her parents, or are you in short supply of assistants?” He laughed at his own joke.
“I’m her godmother and I told her she could see her old neighborhood”, she said, uncomfortable with the thought of stretching the truth. “I am here to take pictures, that’s all.” She reached down and picked up the digital camera that lay nestled between the two front seats.
“You best be careful where you go back in there. There’s nails and metal scraps that’ll cut your tires if you’re not lookin’. I wouldn’t talk to no one if I was you. Just do your business and get out, that’s my advice.”
“Thank you,” Mary regained her sense of purpose and looked closer at the guardsman’s ID tag, “Lt. Cooper. You have been very helpful. I’ll keep in mind what you’ve said.” She put the vehicle in gear and moved forward. He was shaking his head and waving the pickup truck behind them to a stop. Mary looked over to see how Angelique was doing. The spunky girl was still focused on the houses down the street.
“Turn here, turn here!” Angelique’s excitement was tempered by the ever increasing signs of flood damage, scores of abandoned, mud-caked cars, fallen trees, twisted street signs, and the piles and piles of household items in front of almost every house. It was obvious that peoples’ lives, their hopes and dreams, everything inside that makes a house a home, everything had been destroyed. If they were lucky these people had gotten out with a few personal items and the clothes on their back.
“What’s your house number, honey?” Mary slowed the car and began stopping frequently now. Camera in hand, she took more shots of the devastation surrounding them. She noted how rescue teams had marked the houses with a large spray painted “x” with letters and numbers written on the inside of each of the angles. They had been checking for people, living or dead, as well as abandoned pets. These same graffiti codes could be seen on almost every house in the city.
The air began to grow thick with a strong musty odor. Much of the ground, even the streets and sidewalks were caked in a thick layer of dried mud. Most of the grass and small plants were brown and withered, suffocated by the waters that had remained here for several days.
“There’s our church, Mary!” The brick structure Angelique pointed to was badly damaged. The two heavy oak doors in the front were not in place, ready to swing open for another Sunday congregation. Instead they were lying on their side across the gaping entrance to an otherwise lifeless building. An outer wall was caved in on one side and the familiar blue tarps covered most of the roof. Angelique was wide-eyed now, her mouth open in a look between horror and amazement.
“Your house, baby?” Mary tried again. She was beginning to regret her casual agreement to find the lost doll.
“Over there, Mary, there it is!”
The car rolled to a stop in what was once a well kept neighborhood. The vintage residences, including many of the unique old shotgun houses, were purposefully raised on block foundations, a sign of a history of high water in the area. Beyond a short flight of steps and small wooden porches, their one or two front doors and tall, plywood-shuttered windows were now quiet and lifeless.
The Dubois family home was a yellow wooden-framed camel-backed structure in the middle of the block. There was a mud-encrusted pickup truck abandoned in its driveway. A large pecan tree in the neighbor’s yard had fallen across the side fence, tearing it down. Before Mary could stop her, Angelique was out of the car and heading towards the front of her house.
“Wait for me!” Mary, camera in hand, made her way around the car and past a heap of furniture and appliances that nearly covered the sidewalk in front of the place. Angelique had come to a quick stop and was now eyeing the mound too, a noticeable frown forming on her face as she spotted her bicycle and other soggy, broken possessions buried among the rubble. Mary snapped a quick picture and then looking up saw two men carrying out a large couch.
“Angelique, look out!” she pointed to the top of the steps directly behind her. Obediently, the startled child ran to stand safely by her new friend’s side as the men hauled the sofa down the steps and heaved it onto the ever growing pile.
"Hey girl! Don’t ya know it’s dangerous bein’ in this part of town?” One of the workers turned to them as he pulled a white dust mask off from over his nose and mouth. “You folks lost?”
“This is her house,” Mary said looking down at Angelique. “Is it safe to go inside?”
The second worker, an older black man, removed his mask and sized them up, “Hey, Angelique, it’s me, Joie! Yo’ daddy put us up to workin’ here. Go on in, but be quick about it. We gots lots mo’ work ta do’. Now, watch yo’ step, they got busted glass and muck all around on dem floors.”
Before Mary could snap another picture, Angelique was up the stairs and standing inside the front door. She hurried behind. Once inside, both of them wrinkled their noses.
“Oh my gosh!” Mary said as she removed two Kleenexes from her pocket. “Put this over your nose and mouth honey. We can’t stay long.”
Angelique clasped the makeshift mask to her face and led Mary through two rooms and past a stairway on the left. Another room and the kitchen lie beyond. With the boarded up windows and without electricity the rooms were gloomy and filled with shadows, even at mid afternoon. Mary could only imagine how bright and inviting these same rooms would have been only a couple of months ago.
“Look how high the water came up,” her small guide pointed out the water marks on the wall, “It’s over my head!”
Angelique’s room was just beyond the stairs. The furniture was already gone. A look of alarm crossed the little girl’s face. Undaunted she strode across the bare floor and pulled open a closet door.
“Up there!” she shouted, taking the tissue from her face, “I took my chair and put her up there before the hurricane.”
Tucked into the back corner of the top shelf Mary could just make out the hem of a doll’s blue and white checkered dress. Reaching up she carefully removed a familiar Raggedy Ann doll from the safety of its perch. It was still dry. She handed it to Angelique who squealed with delight.
“Oh thank you Mary!” she hugged her waist, the soft doll pressed between them. Then Mary saw a small box wrapped in decorating foil on the same shelf. She carefully pulled it down.
“What’s this?” she asked, looking at over-sized coins, a cup with a picture on its side, and several strings of colorful plastic beads.
“My Mardi Gras stuff,” Angelique replied proudly. “I used to have posters too. I love Mardi Gras.” As she said this she pulled one string of beads out of the box to show Mary. Entangled in it was a small stuffed alligator. It fell to the floor. It had a gold, purple, and green ribbon around its neck. She reached down and picked it up.
“Do you like it? It’s from the Orpheus parade. You can have it if you want. It’s pretty, huh?
“Thank you, it is cute. Now let’s get out of here so the workers can get the place fixed up again, what do you say?”
Mary carried the small box of souvenirs and Angelique clutched her doll tightly as they returned to the bright sunshine.
“One more picture,” she said turning to Angelique. Carefully she set the box and her new keepsake on the hood of the car. Angelique was happily hugging her doll, framed by a mound of ruined furniture and an empty house. Mary took the shot.
With her home still standing and an arm full of happiness, Angelique made an unusual suggestion.
“Let’s go to church so we can thank God. My Momma always thanks God when something good happens. I feel so good! And she told me if you really want something important to happen you can ask God for that too. I really want us all to be back in our house again,” then she scratched her head in thought, “but our church got flooded.”
Mary was amazed at this young child’s perfect request. “Angelique,” she said, “New Orleans if full of beautiful churches. I know just the place.”
Angelique sat quietly, contentedly hugging her orange-haired doll as Mary carefully made her way back down to the French Quarter. She decided to stick to the main streets and retraced her route to Canal Street, then turned left. As they passed through the Central Business District the picture was not that of business as usual. Many buildings loomed like dark and empty giants. Signs and awnings hung at crazy angles, battered by the rage of the storm. Many of the once busy streets were closed off by barricades. Beyond them were huge portable generators and great machines that had octopus–like arms of flexible oversized tubing, running into the windows of multi-story buildings. Dehumidifiers, she guessed, trying desperately to remove the dampness that permeated thousands of deserted rooms.
Mary decided to work her way in from the top of the French Quarter. She took Basin Street in as far as the Louis Armstrong Park and made her way into the oldest part of the city. To the long-time Midwesterner, this had been a magical place, a place of 18th century European architecture, art, antique, and gift shops, inviting restaurants, and one of the most beautiful cathedrals she had ever seen. Mary stifled a sigh and imagined a day when everything would be as it once had been.
Mary took Angelique by the hand as they left the small sedan and walked down St. Peter Street to Jackson Square. The pigeons scattered as the playful girl let go of Mary’s hand and ran towards them.
“I know this place!” Angelique said, turning to Mary and pointing into a large fenced in garden. “That’s a statue of Andrew Jackson and his horse. He stopped the British when they tried to steal New Orleans in 1812. Gene Lafitte helped him. Did you know he was a pirate? My teacher said the people in New Orleans have always been very resilient.” Angelique emphasized the word although she wasn’t real sure what it meant. Mary smiled down at her.
Together they turned to walk into the St. Louis Cathedral. Inside, a row of colorful flags hung above each side of the processional aisle. Lifelike statues including Joan of Arc and magnificent paintings adorned the interior.
Mary knelt and crossed herself as the pair slid into a pew a few rows from the back, quietly staring up at the alter and a beautiful golden cross. Angelique, a stranger to this faith, had no problem feeling the presence of God here. The two leaned forward in their seats, hands together. Mary felt herself relaxing, her mind quieting from what had already been a busy introduction to the task that lay ahead of her. Then she heard Angelique’s happy prayer.
“Thank you God for helping me find Missy Ann today, and for sending Mary to help, and for the man in the boat, and the Red Cross people that gave us food and water when we got rescued. Please God help bring back my brother and mimaw and please help people fix up our neighborhood, my church, my school, the market, and ex-specially my bestus house … please, please make it safe so we can all go home again, amen.”
A tear ran down Mary’s cheek. She could only think to say these words in concluding her own softly spoken prayer, “and please help me do what’s best for the people of New Orleans.”
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