“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.
Richard Dillon and Tom Nolty busily sorted through the blueprints and artists renditions of the Empire 5 project on a table in the executive’s office. As they worked, Richard carefully separated out only those images that featured the tower.
“Once we get approval for one commercial structure, we will be free to develop the rest of the surrounding neighborhood. The plans for six square blocks of strip malls, restaurants, and of course, the metroplex cinema, will be introduced only after the groundbreaking ceremonies, understand?”
“Right.” Nolty obediently responded. “Nothing but the tower.”
“When you get down there you sweet talk those local yokels,” Dillon continued, “Don’t forget to mention the four million a year they’ll be getting in tax revenues from our tenants.”
“Yes, sir,” Nolty replied dryly.
“Check in with our girl, Ms. Ellis. Catch her before the presentation on Thursday, she’ll only have one more day before submitting her report. Don’t ask too many questions; just make sure she’s been comfortable. Feel her out…”
“Yeah, ok,” Nolty responded mechanically. “We want to make sure she’s giving a thumbs up on the project, right?”
“That’s not your concern, Nolty. Your job is to sell the building, period! I’ll take care of the final report”
Rolling up the designated documents, the thin man turned once more to Dillon before leaving the room. “What if…”
“Just do it, Tom!” Richard said, waving him out of the room. He flipped a switch on his intercom. “Get Bob Lambert on the phone, Stella, and don’t forget those opera tickets.”
Mary and Angelique walked out the front of the cathedral. The park gates on the square were open and a handful of visitors, mostly recovery workers, were hurriedly snapping souvenir photos.
“We’ve got a little more time, Angelique, Mary said checking her watch. Would you mind if we walked around a little and I got a few more pictures?”
“Sure!” her young charge happily responded.
The two strolled down Chartres Street, checking the antique shops, boutiques, and art galleries as they went. Most were closed. Mary made her way inside the few that remained open, asking the clerks and owners about business in the area.
“Things are going to pick back up, soon enough,” one white haired lady responded as she straightened dresses on a rack. “People love New Orleans. They’ll be back in no time.”
As the two resumed their walk they passed a street musician. Mary could tell he was her own age and wondered what it would be like to stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and play for money. The suave buscar had a trumpet across his lap as he sat lazily on a stool, a small plastic bucket at his feet. Today there was no crowd. His eyes appeared closed as the two neared. Despite the apparent intermission, Mary decided to contribute to his small collection anyway. She quickly dug through her purse and handed Angelique a dollar bill to drop in the container as they passed.
“Thank ya, honey,” an alluring voice spoke softly. Mary looked back to see two smiling eyes staring up at her. Like school girls they both let out a giggle.
“He’s cute, isn’t he?” Angelique grinned. Blushing, Mary nodded in reply but kept walking down the street, pretending not to notice.
As they made their way up Decatur Street, they passed the Hard Rock Café in the old Jax Beer building. Angelique stopped to peer into the window of the Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not’ museum. She eagerly tried the door but it was locked.
“Darn,” she said. “Mamma keeps sayin’ she’ll take me in there but we never seem to get around to it. This isn’t like a regular museum, I know. I’ve been to the New Orleans Museum of Art. That place just has a bunch of pictures in it. I heard Ripley’s has people with two heads in there!”
Mary laughed. “I guess the art museum is more for big people.”
As the two were on their way back to the car, something caught Angelique’s eye and she ran to look into a gated courtyard next to the St. Louis Cathedral. In the enclosure she could see two eight foot jesters, one a man, the other a woman. Cans of paint, scaffolding, and dull green tarps were carefully stacked around them. The figures, oblivious to their surroundings, appeared to be laughing and dancing about. Their costumes were brightly colored, purple, gold, and green.
“Mardi Gras dancers!” Angelique noted with glee. “I love Mardi Gras! I hope we can still have the parades next year. My favorite is Zulu. The costumes are amazing. Have you ever seen the Mardi Gras Indian gangs? They come out and show off their beadwork. It reminds everyone of how the Indians helped the runaway slaves sneak into New Orleans a long time ago.”
Mary found herself curiously looking through the gate. A small sign posted on the fence read: Closed due to Hurricane Damage. “Wow, I never really noticed this place before,” she said to herself. “There’s a lot I don’t know about New Orleans.”
Then gently she reminded Angelique, “It’s time to be getting you back to your Momma.”
On Monday, Mary met with the mayor and several city council members, a handful of state representatives, and two Congressmen at a private meeting. The talk was mostly about getting Washington to release money. Mary noted that there was a careful avoidance of any specific projects to commit the money to at this time. It was the consensus that these things would be decided in committee and be implemented over time.
That same afternoon, at a Convention and Tourist Commission gathering, a bevy of frustrated business people and Central Business District property owners met to consider their options. Everyone there was attempting to predict the future, a future that no one held certain. If levees could not protect the city, who then, would control the high land? Could tourism survive? Should more businesses be built within multi-story, flood and hurricane resistant structures? How would that affect the traditional architectural appeal of the city? The mood was speculative and tense.
On Tuesday, a handful of FEMA and Army Corps of Engineer representatives and a host of private contractors convened to advance their ideas on rebuilding the levees. There was talk of creating new storm-surge barriers, upgrading pumping facilities, and reclaiming coastal wetlands. Many favored turning vast areas of the city into green-space, another way of saying uninhabitable flood-zone real estate. Some advocated smaller levees and canals or creating moats around valued neighborhoods. At yet another meeting, local citizens seized the opportunity to shout out their intention to fight the in-discriminant bulldozing of badly affected areas. City Council representatives listened, as if shell-shocked. The standing-room-only crowd had a look of desperation in their eyes.
The residents Mary had been able to speak with privately had confided that the rebuilding efforts were so bound up in red tape as to be nearly insurmountable. Gas, electricity, safe water, and waste removal were only being restored at a snail’s pace. The mail was almost non-existent. The lack of telephone communications and access to the Internet was also a major concern. Several people spoke of the unrepresented members of the community, tens of thousands of individuals, entire families that remained scattered in exile across the country. How would their voices be heard?
Mary became keenly aware that the rebuilding process would take years, not weeks or months. There seemed to be two central questions involved, 1) Could the nearly half a million citizens of greater New Orleans return home any time soon? And 2) How could the city prepare itself to meet their needs? Which should come first, assistance for the business interests, aimed at generating a tax base on which to build a new metropolis, or a greater level of assistance for individuals and families rebuilding their homes and neighborhoods?
On Wednesday, Mary continued her photographic duties. She was guided by FEMA personnel this time, seeing first-hand the breaks in the levees, the overtaxed pumping stations, and the thousands of homes and businesses that were destroyed in the flood waters. The destruction in the lower 9th Ward was heart-wrenching.
When Thursday rolled around she almost decided to stay in the luxury of her warm, quilted bed. The idea of yet another meeting, a room full of presenters, each with their own agenda and little feelings for the reality that was the world outside their own hotel walls, sapped her enthusiasm. She had to reach deep inside herself to find the will to continue her charge. The words of Angelique, the simple prayer for families to be reunited, homes to be restored, and the city that she loved so much to return to some sense of normalcy made their way into her thoughts. These words pushed her, despite her reluctance, out the door and down the carpeted hall to a waiting elevator.
Mary decided to walk to the Sheraton. The sky was more ominous today, she noted. She almost longed for one of the local hucksters to play the traditional con, “I bet you five dollars I can tell you where you got your shoes at!” She looked down, “On my feet,” she nodded to herself, “They’re still on my feet.”
The Sheraton lobby was abuzz with people coming to the Mayor’s Restoring New Orleans Commission meeting. She stopped for a tall latte at the Starbucks just inside the door and then proceeded up the escalator to the second floor, making her way into the Napoleon Ballroom.
Already presenters were taking their place at the u-shaped bank of tables facing out into the audience, appropriately draped in black linen. Committee members, sober-faced and speaking in hushed conversations were sitting at the base of the configuration with their backs to a wall accented by two overhead viewer screens. Closed circuit TV cameras placed around the room were already being tested as images of the assemblage were relayed from camera to camera and projected above for the audience.
“There you are.” An unfamiliar voice greeted her. She looked over her shoulder to see a thin man dressed in dark business suit and tie, His jacket bore a presenter’s name-tag, Tom Nolty – National Commercial Properties Corporation.
“I’m Tom Nolty, and you must be Mary Ellis.”
“How did you pick me out?” Mary was uncomfortably aware that she had not yet put a name tag on her Navy-blue jacket lapel. She stood up and politely shook the stranger’s hand.
“I got a perfect description from Mr. Dillon.” He smiled. “I work for National Properties. He asked me to check in on you. Are you finding everything to your satisfaction? Have you tried one of those Hurricanes yet? I hear they can knock you right outta your socks,” he pretended to gulp something down; his head tipped back, eyes squinting at her teasingly.
“No, I haven’t had the chance…”
“Well, we can soon remedy that, young lady! How about after the meeting…”
Mary’s was quick to cut him off, “Looks like they’re getting ready to start. I’m afraid my schedule is pretty much set. Perhaps another time…”
She noted a feigned look of disappointment, “Of course, the project is what we’re here to focus on today. Restoring New Orleans, right? Perhaps we can chat later.”
As the meeting started, methodically Mary removed a steno pad and a pen from her purse. Still open in her lap she glanced down into it now to see the furry green head of the small alligator peering up at her. She smiled and petted its muzzle.
Nolty took his place at the conference table. As if on cue an attractive blond woman in a partially unbuttoned frilly short-sleeved blouse, tight knit black thigh-length skirt, and stiletto-heeled shoes brought a briefcase and a bottle of water to him then quickly retreated to the sidelines. He took advantage of the attention she was being given by leaning over to the male committee member on his left and whispering something to him, then winking slyly.
The mayor entered the room to a polite round of applause, moving to the right of the chairwoman and taking a seat. She briefly introduced the members of the committee and then gave the mayor time for some opening remarks.
Although he was a young and highly regarded African American politician, the strain of the past three months was more than evident on the man’s face. He spoke briefly, but eloquently about meeting the needs of all of his citizens, persevering in the face of adversity, and building upon the existing heritage and culture of the community. As would any good representative, he concluded by thanking the committee members for their efforts and saying, “Our future is in the hands and hearts of our people!” Mary noted that for the rest of the meeting he tried his best to look upbeat.
Three large corporate executives in succession reassured the committee that given adequate assurances, and any public assistance that might be offered, they would try their best not to withdraw completely from the city. The mayor’s continence did not improve.
Nolty then had his run. “I would like to thank the committee for its dedication to the future of this great city,” he said standing to increase his presence. “The president promised bigger and better and that is what this community deserves.”
Pushing a projector remote button, a slide appeared simultaneously on the two overhead screens. The picture was of the New York skyline. To the left of the picture was an impressive high-rise building, its glassy exterior reflecting the structures surrounding it.
“New Orleans is the economic center of the south. Americans are rooting for you to become a renewed, vital center of commerce, both for Louisiana and the nation.” The slide on the screens vanished and was replaced by a view of a garden plaza and the entrance to a modern complex. Men and women, clutching briefcases and computer totes stood frozen in an otherwise busy mid-week scene.
“The Empire 5 structure will enhance the status of many new and existing businesses and will include handicapped accessible features, residential housing units, and office space.” The slide was smoothly transitioned to an interior view. A glass-walled optometrist’s office was featured. A young boy and his father appeared to be waiting for an appointment inside.
Without skipping a beat, Nolty continued with soundtrack precision, “Four million dollars per year in tax revenue will be generated from within Empire 5 as the building becomes fully occupied. Our engineers have designed the building to withstand a category 5 hurricane and it will be secure against flooding. Within our grounds, two separate pumping units will work in tandem with your existing pumping system to contain any threat to the entire property and surrounding neighborhoods. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the future.” With a wave of his hand the final slide, an artist’s rendition of Empire 5 appeared on the New Orleans skyline. A huge American flag planted at the peak of a glass pyramid that crowned the building waved unfurled.
“The investors are ready today,” he concluded. We will strive to assemble a construction workforce that is 80% Louisiana manned. We will pay top dollar to insure quality workmanship at every level. If city, state, and federal governments act decisively today, to give us a place to stand, we will rise to the occasion. We want to be a part of the new New Orleans. Thank you, Mr. Mayor and members of the committee for your time and consideration.
Mary could see how impressed many of the commissioners were. Even the Mayor had become mesmerized by the event. He watched Nolty closely until the next presentation began.
When the chairperson took the floor again, she began reading a brief statement outlining the urgent need to prioritize government and private activities in the reconstruction effort. As a follow-up, members of the citizens committee were allowed to include their input on the matter. This discourse went on for nearly three hours.
Finally it was time for public comments. Thirty speakers lined up behind a microphone, facing the commission. They wanted to know when basic services were going to be restored, how to simplify the remodeling and building permit process, where trailer camps were slated to be located, and to encourage the city to see what it could do to speed up FEMA claim settlements and bring in reconstruction money from Washington.
Finally, an elderly minister began to speak. Mary looked at his unique presence. Wearing a colorful fez and dashiki robe he was not timid about acknowledging his African heritage. His voice was commanding, he appeared well educated, and an outspoken advocate for his community.
“I have come not to raise questions,” he began, “but to impart to each of you a message. You have gathered here because God has given you this opportunity and this responsibility,” he addressed the committee and the audience. “You have been charged also by the citizens of this community, both here and afar to take up this task. But as you consider the future of New Orleans I would remind you that you must do it right. Not right in the sense that it is correct. But right in that it is done for all the right reasons. Do not falter in this mission. Do not fail to meet the needs of our people both high and low. Do not become faint or weary in striving for a renewed community built on the firm foundation stones of justice and compassion. If you seek guidance, look to God. If you seek inspiration, look to God. If you seek strength, allow God to share your burden.”
“As this is not a Sunday sermon, ladies and gentlemen, I will not take up any more of your time,” he concluded. When he finished the silence in the hall was interspersed with a host of “Amen’s!”
For a moment, Mary felt compelled to say “amen” herself. She knew the time had come for her to put her report into its final draft and she truly wanted to do the right thing. The question in her mind was how to convince Congress what the right thing to do might be.
Mary realized that this city, like any other, revolved around commerce. She had seen for herself that the existing businesses were struggling against all odds to pick up the pieces. Many were relocating to other cities. As long as the citizens of New Orleans were scattered about, demand for many services and goods had been cut to a fraction of their previous levels. Those businesses that were needed the most were often unable to find the manpower or the supplies to continue operating. They would ask for tax-breaks and subsidies to sustain their efforts. Police and operational fire stations in their neighborhoods would be a must. Repairing communication systems would also be high on their list of priorities.
On the other hand, it seemed impossible to restore normalcy without the return of thousands of the city’s former residents. These people had their own priorities beginning with safe, clean, and affordable housing. These were the laborers that would be needed to reconstruct the city, to staff local businesses, to run the various departments of local government, and of course they would be consumers, as well.
Without adequate housing their return was impractical. Even if the homes were provided, she surmised, again there were support services: hospitals, schools, grocery stores, garbage collectors, utility workers and the like, that would have to be available when they got here. How would that work?
And in all cases, there was the ominous question about the future security of the levee systems. Another hurricane season was just nine months away. The risk of future flooding was still in grave doubt.
The plight of homeowners and renters was perhaps the most tenuous of the elements being considered. It occurred to her that the city had sustained itself for hundreds of years based on its position on the Mississippi River, being the second largest coastal port on the eastern seaboard following New York. Based on its rich culture, the architecture, arts, food, music, and southern hospitality the city had flourished. At this point, she wasn’t convinced at all that rebuilding the Big Easy in the image of the Big Apple was the best solution.
Not since cramming for her final semester in college had Mary experienced such an immensity of pressure. Her hand was beginning to cramp as she typed page after page of information into her laptop, checking her first, then second, and now third notebook for references.
All day Friday, she labored over the report. Outlining the pros and cons of the city’s redevelopment options, she tried to stay objective, as any good consultant should do, but found she continued to emphasize the needs of the individual neighborhoods. She aptly prioritized levee repairs, the buyout of properties that were the hardest hit at fair market values, funding low-income housing construction and debris removal, and propping up basic utility and social services. Existing companies should have the first shot at any federal monies, she reasoned. Expanding the Central Business District simply didn’t make sense. If there were outside investors, why couldn’t they put their money into time tested markets, supporting a pre-Katrina business base?
As she worked into the night, the green alligator watched patiently from the nightstand.
By early Saturday afternoon Nolty was about to bust. He was tired of this wait and see game, sitting cooped up in his hotel room. He flipped the remote to quiet the TV from its drone of cartoon characters and cooking show hosts. He told himself it would be appropriate to just check in and find out what was going on at the home office. He dialed the number and then waited patiently until he was transferred to the executive office. Finally his boss was on the line.
“Richard, Nolty here. I just thought I’d check in to see if you had any word from our Miss Congeniality.”
“What do you want, Tom?”
“Well, I just thought you might want an update.”
“I take it there were no problems at the presentation.”
“No, no, none at all.” Nolty began drumming his fingers on the table top on which the phone rested “It was well received. One of the commissioners even asked about investing in the project. He’s convinced that the city is better off without having to support all of the poor people that took more than they could give. Time to think big, he said. I know he’s talking us up. I had him over for drinks last night.”
“Only one?” Dillon had no time for small talk.
“No, of course not,” his fingers struck the wood soundly now. “They all ate it up. Even the Mayor seemed interested, especially when I mentioned the taxes that would come in. That was brilliant, Rich, you hit it right on the nose.”
Unmoved, the C.E.O. did not reply. Nolty got nervous enough to finally blurt out his real concern, “So what about Ellis? How are we going to handle her if she comes down on the wrong side of the fence? She never did really talk to me after the presentation. She went out for dinner and then retreated to her room. She hasn’t been out since. I’ve got Rita keeping an eye on her.”
Richard Dillon snapped, “Do not interfere with Ms. Ellis under any circumstances!” He said it as if scolding a child.
“You told me to check on her.”
“And did you?”
“Of course, just before the meeting started I asked her if her accommodations were comfortable and she said yes. That was it.”
“Dillon eased off a bit, “Good, wrap up your business and get up here tomorrow. I may need you for some follow-up questions at the hearing on Monday.”
“And Miss Ellis?” Nolty winced as he broached the subject one last time.
“I told you before, I’ve got that covered. She won’t even be here on Monday. Do I have to spell it out for you? The final report will be ours to deliver. She’s going to give it to us to finalize. Is that clear enough? I’ve arranged for her to take a short vacation down there until the whole thing is a done deal. She will not be a problem, unless of course, you do something to make her one.”
“Sure, no, uh, I understand,” Nolty relented. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon.”
“Damn, him!” Nolty said to himself after he had hung up. “He’s so full of himself that he wouldn’t know a bus if it hit him!” Ignoring his instructions he called his assistant for an update.
Only minutes after Tom Nolty had hung up the phone Mary had pushed the button on her laptop computer, sending her report to New York for its final preparations. She had worked through the night and then in a groggy haze had reviewed everything once more before sending it out. Fifty six pages including the Army Corps of Engineers current status on levee repairs and green space recommendations. It was done.
She had just started putting her lunch dishes back on the serving cart when the phone rang. It was Mr. Dillard.
Richard’s smooth voice oiled her ear. “Did you get a chance to attend our presentation?”
“Of course!” Mary responded trying to sound alert and efficient. “I attended the Empire Towers preview at the Mayor’s Restoring New Orleans Forum. I also spent another two days doing interviews with residents and the business community and another day and a half touring the flooded zones. And I took over two hundred photographs!”
“And projected rebuilding timetables? Did you get a sense of that piece of the puzzle?”
“Yes, I have the most recent figures. It’s covered in my email, I just sent it over.” Mary hesitated for a moment and then decided to get a reaction from the man in charge, “All things considered, maybe your company should reconsider its position in this matter…”
Richard Dillon had already seen the emailed report but did not tip his hand, “Reconsider?”
“I know there are risks involved in rebuilding the neighborhoods and businesses, but with careful planning it looks like many areas, including your proposed tract, could be preserved. And I was wondering about the affordability of your units… You know development in any one of the existing commercial zones is still a very feasible option…”
Dillon interrupted, his patter still upbeat, “Ms. Ellis, you’ve done an excellent job. My staff will be evaluating your report and we will take the necessary actions to make this a win-win situation. I have all of your information at this point; you were quite thorough, thank you. I’ll get in touch with Mr. Lambert immediately. I’m sure we can make all the necessary arrangements for the presentation from here.
“Well thank you Mr. Dillon, that’s very nice of you, but I should be there to …”
“Mary, I heard you were a classical music fan, Richard pushed forward his agenda. “Did you know that this coming Tuesday, Placido Domingo is doing a private performance with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at the Loyola campus? To thank you properly, I’d like to personally arrange for you to attend the concert “
“Really?” Mary felt ingratiated to such a generous offer. “I saw that in the paper. That’s a fund raiser at $1,500 a seat.”
“$1,700.” Richard replied deftly. “I’ll have your ticket delivered to your room. Enjoy your stay, and I’ll put in a good word with your supervisor in Chicago. Mary, you deserve this. Thank you again for your contributions. You’ve done a fabulous job... by the way, there’s dinner with the show. I could arrange for a line of credit for some appropriate clothing. The food will be sumptuous!”
“Thank you, Mr. Dillon, I mean Richard. I don’t know what to say.”
“Goodbye, then. Enjoy your vacation.”
With that Mary placed the phone back in the cradle and lying sprawled across the bed, relaxed enough to fall into a deep sleep.
Mary woke with a start, trying to figure out what day it was and how long she had been asleep. Grabbing the remote she switched on the TV. A news commentator was interviewing a Senator about the upcoming Appropriations hearings. It was early Sunday morning.
After a hot shower and coffee and croissants, Mary, the consultant, began to carefully sort information, label folders and file away her gathered materials. In one ear she listened to the Senator as he told the American public that everything was being done to put the south coast back together. He found himself being asked to critique the administration and high ranking FEMA officials for problems that occurred in the early days when rescue had been more of an issue than recovery. Diplomatically he sidestepped each question, repeating the mantra that recovery was well underway, people were safe, and the planning of the rebuilding effort was on track. She switched the program off and decided to take a walk. She just had to let go of this thing. It was someone else’s turn to do the convincing now.
Later that morning, Mary found herself standing on the Moonwalk, wistfully looking out over the Mississippi River. Tug boats, barges, and freighters slipped silently by, but they were few and far between. A cruise ship was ported near the Riverfront Mall but it didn’t host the usual tourists. Instead it was offshore housing for police, firefighters, and other people who were desperately trying to put the tattered community back together.
She shivered with a slight chill. A thin fog was just beginning to burn off. In the distance, the faint refrain of a melodic Dixieland tune hovered in the air. A lone trumpeter was adding his salutations to the coming day.
Mary made a decision. She pulled the cell phone out of her purse. Two shiny black alligator eyes stared encouragingly up at her.
“Mr. Lambert, this is Mary Ellis. Listen, I know it’s Sunday but you told me to call at any time. Well, I just wanted to check in with you. I finished the study and sent a copy to National Commercial Properties yesterday. They should deliver the report to you soon, if they haven’t already. Richard Dillon told me that it would be ok to spend a couple of extra days here and that they would contact you regarding the Senate Committee presentation.
Bob Lambert stood placidly in his townhouse kitchen, still wrapped in his bathrobe and clutching a cup of coffee. “That’s right,” he responded coolly, “we talked. Sounds like you’ve done a tremendous job. He’s sending me a copy of the report this afternoon.” He stopped knowing it was better to say less than more.
“Maybe we should meet before the committee meeting…”
“No, no need,” the portly man sputtered not trying to sound alarmed. The Director and I will be at the hearing. We can handle this. Thank you and enjoy your concert.” Not desiring to prolong the conversation he simply hung up the phone.
“Mr. Lambert?” A disquieting feeling washed over Mary as she tried to fathom why her responsibility to the survey had been so abruptly curtailed. Maybe she was overreacting. She needed to relax.
Almost reluctantly Mary continued her morning walk. Ahead of her, near the empty dock where the Natchez steamboat was usually ported, the unseen trumpet player seemed to materialize from the fog. As she neared he continued to play, facing out over the river, seemingly intent on conveying his love of music to the world. He was a striking young man, dark hair and eyes with soft white fingers curled over the three keys. Suddenly she recognized him as the resting musician she and Angelique had encountered on Chartres Street earlier that week. Realizing that she was now staring she quickly averted her eyes.
In that same moment the music stopped. The man spoke to her in a voice as rich as the notes he had just played.
“It’ll be great to see New Orleans up and running again, as long as those big city developer types don’t get their spoons in the gumbo and really stir things up.”
Flustered by the sentiment and with her own inability to make a difference she responded, “Everything changes.”
“Maybe so , but a good many people, good hard working people, lost everything, and those are the people that make New Orleans what she is, like spices in a good recipe… you can’t just toss ‘em out and do something completely different. It simply won’t do. Life here is what it is for a reason. I tell you what, we need another Andrew Jackson to lead a march up to Washington. Somebody needs to tell those folks, even if we do things different, we’re as American as they are!”
Mary laughed at the imagery, “Yeah your right!”
Back in her suite, Mary held to a new resolve. She picked up the phone and dialed the number to FEMA’s Washington headquarters.
“This is Mary Ellis. I need to talk to Mr. Randall, the FEMA director... Yes, I’ve been assigned to a task force under Mr. Lambert… but…. I understand I should go through him, but please, I need to speak with Mr. Randall… Yes… My name is Mary Ellis… I need to speak with Mr. Randall… No… I’m working for Mr. Lambert as a consultant… I know, protocol says I am to communicate through Mr. Lambert’s office… yes… The first receptionist told me that… but…. OK thanks.” She slammed down the phone, “Dang beurocracy!”
Determined, she went into the liner of her suitcase and removed a packet of plane tickets. She found the return flight stub and checked the date and time of departure: Sunday, 8:15 p.m. Acting on her decision she began to gather up her clothing and neatly pack it away. Just as she finished there was a knock at the door.
“Surprise!” It was Darlene with Angelique looking as cute as a button in a pair of coveralls and a red t-shirt.
“Couldn’t let you slip away without going for coffee and beignets at Café du Monde”, Darlene said in a commanding tone. Get your jacket girl.”
“Perfect.” Mary smiled and hugged her friend. As she got the jacket Angelique stared wide-eyed at the lavish surroundings of the suite.
“This is like one of those fairy tale castles!” she happily observed. “That would make you a princess,” she winked at Mary.
“You might be a princess some day if you do well in school and get into the right college,” her mother pointed out. Mary nodded encouragingly.
“I’m not dressed too fancy though,” Mary noted looking down at her blue jeans and old Tulane sweatshirt.
“Nonsense, girl, were just out to get some coffee. The sugar will be all over you anyway.”
“Powdered sugar is the best!” Angelique chimed in, recalling one of her favorite treats.
The threesome made their way back into to the Quarter. It was still eerily quiet on the street but the sun was feeling warmer now and what few people they encountered were all smiles.
A Vietnamese lady attentively waited on their table in the covered patio at Café du Monde. Mary and Darlene took French Roast and chickaree coffee with their traditional serving of three beignets each. Angelique had hot chocolate with hers.
Angelique shook the excess sugar into her coco as the two former school mates reminisced again about the old days in the city. They recalled the times they had gone out to see their favorite bands, their adventures during Mardi Gras, and visits to Darlene’s parents’ house on Napoleon, when her father was still living.
“You were the whitest black girl I ever knew!” Darlene laughed. She looked over at Angelique and whispered, “I used to say we was twins!”
Angelique giggled and a cloud of white powder rose from the pastry she was nibbling.
“How is it going with the house?” Mary inquired.
“Still no power, no gas, no nothin’. My Jeffery’s been tryin’ to get the FEMA folks to put in a power pole but who knows how long that’s gonna take.” I don’t look forward to spending any time in one o’ those itty bitty white trailers. Mom and my boy would never fit. It just makes me wanna cry to think about it.”
Mary reached over to comfort her friend. She wished there were more she could do.
“Here’s a shocker for you,” she prepared her friend. My supervisor says I can spend some extra time here if I want,”
Darlene’s eyes went wide, “Go on wit’ yo’ bad self!”
“It’s supposed to be some kind of bonus for a job well done but I have the worst feeling about it. Not that I wouldn’t want to spend more time here,” she smiled at Angelique, “but something doesn’t feel right about the whole thing.”
As Mary continued to speak a blond lady in black slacks and fur trimmed leather jacket sat down across from them at the next table. “It was as much a surprise to me as it is to you,” Mary continued. “The firm that sponsored me is giving me a paid vacation for the work I’ve done.”
“But I thought you were supposed to leave tonight to present your findings at that hearing tomorrow.” Darlene seemed to quickly catch on to Mary’s dilemma, considering the unusual change of events. “Don’t you want to personally tell those folks what you saw down here? Or are they gonna get it secondhand?”
Mary shifted in her chair uncomfortably.
“That’s just what I thought. I was trying to contact the Director at FEMA just before you came over. I couldn’t get through. I guess the report would speak for itself but in most cases there are questions to be answered even after the presentation. Mr. Dillon said the people at FEMA would be able to handle it. But somehow it just doesn’t feel right.”
The lady at the next table looked away but leaned in a little closer to listen.
“I do feel like I should be there. My ticket is still good for the flight out today.”
The eavesdropper suddenly jumped up from her chair and headed for the street. The rear passenger door on a black Lincoln Continental opened and she slid in as it glided past, conveniently scooping her up.
“What’s going on?” Nolty said from behind the tinted glass windows. “I told you to keep tabs on what they were talking about.”
“Mr. Nolty, I think she’s going back up to Washington anyway. She told that black lady sitting with her, ‘I should be there’. That’s not good, huh?”
“Damn!” I was right! Miss Goody-Two-Shoes just couldn’t leave well enough alone. We need to do something and do it now. Perhaps I could convince her to stay put. But not here. I’ll need some privacy. We need to work fast.” He motioned to the driver and the car sped off.
An hour later Mary sat on her bed with a sigh. The thought of ignoring her sponsors and making a grand appearance in Washington seemed somehow unprofessional. She decided she would just say she was uncomfortable in the storm ravaged city and wanted to see how her work played out. She knew she would probably not even get a chance to speak but hoped that the report would speak for itself. As an afterthought she went through her folders and pulled out the packets of pictures she had had processed the day before. She began to thumb through them and came upon the picture of Angelique clutching her doll in front of her gutted house. Mary reached into her purse on the bed stand and pulled out her soft green friend, stroking its head lightly.
“We’ll think of something,” she said solemnly.
At that moment the phone rang and nervously she jumped up to answer it, hoping that it might be the Director of FEMA on the line. The voice, however, was not familiar.
“How ya’ll doin’? Is this Miss Mary Ellis?” Nolty was at the other end of the line trying his best to disguise his voice with a thick southern accent.
“Yes… can I help you?”
“This here’s Joe Boudreaux down to the pumpin’ station off of Metairie Road. Ya know the place?
“I saw it briefly on a tour last week.”
“That’s right. I was there too, kinda in the background. All those bigwigs made me nervous alright, but I’m the assistant plant manager and my boss said I should give ya a call ‘bout some new information that just got faxed in. Ya know the talk about upgradin’ an’ all,” Nolty had carefully rehearsed the conversation. “He said I gotta get a copy into your hands before you go back up north. Would ya mind comin’ down and pickin’ it up?”
Mary looked at her watch. It was just after two o’clock. Sure, I’ll get there as quick as I can,” she volunteered.
“Um, er, well, truth is I’m gonna be busy until about six. Can ya come ‘round then?”
“Well, I have a plane to catch at eight…”
“Won’t take but a minute of your time darling,” Nolty poured it on.
Ok, I guess I can fit it in.” As soon as the words came out of her mouth the receiver went dead and the call abruptly ended.
Mary shrugged her shoulders and went back to the pictures.
Having the loaner car still at her disposal Mary climbed behind the wheel at five thirty. The sky was already darkening. She passed the Superdome as she merged to get onto I-10 heading north. The early news reports from the storm stricken city flashed in her mind. Tens of thousands had not foreseen the impending danger or had no way to escape. Most were poor and had no where else to go, no way to get there. As she climbed onto an overpass she remembered too the scenes of thousands, without food or water, stranded on the cement islands that rose above the lower grounds. People had died here.
In a matter of minutes she took the Old Metairie Road exit. The side roads were lifeless but she still took her time, cautiously checking each intersection before crossing. Turning left she drove slowly past a great cemetery with its statue of a confederate soldier on horseback and hundreds of raised tombs. A shiver went down her spine as she realized how the dead could actually rise up from their watery graves. She now understood the local tradition of placing the dead above the ground, housed in ornate vaults in cemeteries like this one, and many more scattered throughout the city.
Continuing her trek she crossed a drainage canal and turned right on Orpheum Street. On her right was the canal and on the other side a row of houses and apartments littered with debris and tons of household belongings gutted and thrown into huge piles. The air was thick with the stench of decay. She hoped she didn’t get stopped, or worse, that she wouldn’t be mistaken for a looter.
Four blocks later the road came to an end and a drive led down to the base of a long three story red-brown brick structure that spanned the waterway. It was the pumping station.
The place appeared nearly deserted with only a car, a truck, and several bulldozers parked in the compound. Turning off the ignition she could see a light coming from a second story window about halfway down the building.
As the sun was going down the air was cooling again. She pulled her jacket collar up as she stepped out of the car and looked around. Carefully she made her way toward the building wishing the errand could have been taken care of earlier.
“Miss,” a faint voice came from a young woman who had just appeared at the end of the pumping station. “Come with me please.”
Mary changed course, grateful for the escort. She hurriedly followed. Her guide passed through an open door and led her toward the back of the structure.
This pumping station had failed during a critical period of the flooding but was now back on-line. There was a low humming coming from somewhere deep inside. The young lady walking in front of her advanced to the foot of a flight of stairs leading up to a catwalk. She did not look back. Reluctantly, Mary followed.
The catwalk spanned a series of huge pipes leading to another stretch of canal and eventually to Lake Pontchartrain, at the northern edge of the city. It was too dark by now to see that far distant. Nolty’s assistant then turned and made her way up another short flight of steps and down another walkway leading out and away from the building. Now Mary could just make out the silhouette of a man standing at one end of a platform that housed great valve wheels that controlled the flow of water outward. The woman leading her did not approach the man but instead went off to the left side of the platform and stood silently.
About seven feet from the man in the overcoat Mary recognized Nolty and stopped.
A wave of discomfort swept over her as he looked her in the eyes and advanced a step in her direction.
"Miss Ellis, we meet again.”
"I don’t understand. I was supposed to meet someone here about some plans…” Mary quickly realized the ruse and looked over her shoulder to see if anyone from the plant was nearby. “What do you want?” She decided to find out what this was all about.
“Just a heart to heart chat, that’s all." Nolty took another step toward her and she stopped in her tracks. He smiled and held up his hand. "I don’t want to hurt you sweetie. I just want to make sure that you understand your place in the scheme of things. You’re a little fish, me, I’m so so,” he extended his hands as if measuring something. There are those much bigger than you or I who need to do what’s good for the company. They are the real players and now it’s their turn to play. You, you just need to do what you’ve been told to do.” A frown crossed the man’s face. “You get what I mean?”
“I’m not quite sure…” she glanced around again hoping for a worker to find them in this awkward place. “I thought I was doing my job. I sent in my report yesterday. Why have you called me out here?” a streak of defiance rose in her voice.
Nolty now pointed, three fingers arched down as if seeking something solid to strike. “Listen up, ‘cause I’m not going to say this twice. You stay put in New Orleans like a good girl and you won’t get hurt.”
“I don’t care what your problem is, but I don’t have to take this kind of harassment from anybody!” As Mary uttered the words she turned to walk away. Behind her the heavy thuds on steel grating told her that Nolty was now running at her. Fear and adrenaline rushed through her as she felt the man grab at the back of her jacket, jerking her to a halt.
“Come back here!” he commanded. Catching him off guard she spun into him and pushed him away. Surprised by her reaction Nolty fell back, loosing his grip on her. His face darkened and veins bulged on his forehead as he lunged once more in her direction. Again he caught the tail of her jacket as she sidestepped him but he quickly spun around behind her and grabbed her around the waste pushing her toward the railing that topped a twenty foot drop into the canal. There were gaps in the rail. She reacted instinctively. Again catching him off guard she bolted directly for the ledge. As she neared the gap she veered to the left and spun herself, placing Nolty between the bars, jerking fiercely she felt his hands pull away from her and seconds later heard a weird yelp and then the distant splash as his body hit the water below.
The young lady who had stood frozen at the sight of the altercation let out a wild shriek. “He can’t swim, he told me he can’t swim!” she cried not wanting to look over the edge.
At the same time three men came running up the catwalk, “What the Sam hill’s goin’ on out here?” The man in front demanded.
There’s a man in the water,” Mary informed him, “he was trying to hurt me and he fell in the scuffle.”
The man waved the other two down to the banks of the canal. Still shaken by the ordeal, Mary managed to shout, “Call 911, and get the police and an ambulance out here!”
The man retreated back toward the building. The young lady was crying now.
“I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I’m so sorry,” she sobbed.
Fifteen minutes later the police arrived and she went with them down to the edge of the canal. Nolty had been brought to the top of the levee. He was dazed and sputtering water. “I got too greedy,” he was gasping. “Needed cheep property… needed to buy up the hood, tear it all down…and for what? To put up a building that’s going to collapse in ten years. What’s that all about?” He laughed sheepishly. “I went a little crazy, that’s all, a little crazy… I just wanted to scare her,” he rolled over onto his stomach as the ambulance pulled up, still sputtering and talking in a delirious rant.
Mary didn’t know what the ramifications of Nolty’s confession meant exactly but she knew her gut instincts were correct. She needed to be in Washington. Looking down at her watch she noted it was now nearly seven o’clock.
“I’ve got a plane to catch she told the officer closest to her.
“’Fraid not, missy. You’ll have to come with us down to the station while we sort this all out.”
Unlike New Orleans, Washington D.C. was gushing with the flow of thousands of people going about their normal routines. In the Senate building the sound of the gavel gave notice that the session was in order. A row of Senators flipped through stacks of papers and sent young pages and interns off in different directions. The hall was packed with spectators and reporters.
At a table adorned by three microphones sat Dillon, Lambert, and the Director of the Federal Emergency Management System. They also had papers to shuffle. Richard Dillon looked more serious than usual. The fact that Nolty had missed his fight and had not been heard from since yesterday evening weighed heavily on his mind. He steeled himself and readied to push ahead. Behind him, toward the back of the galley an elderly lady took a seat.
The chairperson of the committee spoke, “For the record the testimony we are about to hear is concerning the results of a survey commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The survey conducted in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, was to ascertain the potential for development of properties, both commercial and residential. This survey was not intended to be an assessment of damages but rather a consensus among those citizens as to the direction funding should take in supporting new development as is possible over the next three to five years. It is a snapshot of the community’s strengths and weaknesses. While we cannot influence the weather down there…” a chuckle rose from the audience and he cleared his throat, “We can work within existing frameworks to allow new growth to match the rebuilding effort."
The speaker now addressed the table. "Gentlemen, I understand Mr. Lambert will summarize your findings. We have each just received a copy of the report but due to the urgency of this matter we anxiously await your interpretation of the data you are submitting to this committee. Mr. Lambert.”
In a business-like manner Lambert began by relating all of the regulations that allowed for the making of the document and a brief background of its intent.
“As may be obvious to this committee,” he paused to sip some water from a nearby glass, “there is a sense of flux in the region. People are adjusting to significant changes in their lives and living conditions. Revitalizing the business sector will not only produce government revenue but provide job opportunities for those who continue to want to live in the area.”
“There are many questions that remain unanswered, of course. However, in light of our findings, it is felt that incentives for those wishing to build in the city will undoubtedly have a positive impact. In reading the report you will note that this was an anecdotal approach to determining the needs of this community. The primary source of data was taken from individual interviews and observations of community sponsored events wherein individual and group needs were wholly expressed. Additional input includes the most recent assessments of city and parish officials regarding patterns of possible development adjusted to local expansions of growth in the respective sectors. Given the Army Corps of Engineers ability to not only shore up existing levee protection but modify and enhance the infrastructure, there still remains the question of housing.”
“It is our estimation that the city’s footprint will shrink around the natural crescent of raised ground along the Mississippi River and that the city and parish government bodies will, in the end, need to make some adjustments to existing zoned areas. Multi-story living units may need to provide as much as 60% of the housing envisioned in the foreseeable future. Allowing private corporations the option to buy out small blocks of property in certain residential areas will not only serve to provide the much needed housing but will also help eliminate blighted neighborhoods that only have a marginal chance of owner rehabilitation or any profitable real estate turnover, at least for the foreseeable future.”
Lambert nervously cleared his throat and continued, “Those of you, who have been there, undoubtedly, know that the Central Business District and the French Quarter, two of the tourist and convention industries prime real estate areas have sustained recoverable damage. For all purposes and intents expanding on this base would be a win-win situation,” he nodded in Dillon’s direction and then resumed the commentary, “There will continue to be historical buildings, fine art galleries, great jazz, and of course the food.” He forced himself to chuckle and the panel responded in kind with a nodding of heads.
"The summary which you were provided clearly…” he stopped as a congressional page hand-delivered a folder of documents to the Director at the end of the table. He strained to hear the whispered words but when Dillon stared intently at him he quickly resumed the pitch.
“Allow me to formally introduce Mr. Richard…”
The motion of Mr. Randall's hand urgently waving someone forward unnerved him and he faltered.
Dillon ignored the small disruption and jumped in to finish his own introduction, “Richard Dillon of National Commercial Property Corporation. We were the honored sponsors of the fact finding mission and I just wanted to add that if you look over our company prospectus you will see a history of successes. What New Orleans may need most now is a story of success…”
This time it was Dillon who fell silent. Everyone seemed to be looking behind him. With some trepidation he turned to see what was happening.
With a determined look in her eyes, Mary Ellis walked the long isle to the front row of tables. Lambert sat frozen, staring as she leaned in to exchange hushed words with the Director. He was now comparing information in the folder to the report that was in front of him.
The Chairperson had to tap his gavel again to diminish a buzz of speculation that was now filling the chamber.
“Director Randall, is there something you would like to share with us?”
The head of FEMA reached out and pulled a table microphone closer. He held his hand over it for a moment and made one more comment to Mary who nodded in consent.
“Mr. Chairman, I would like to introduce to the committee Ms. Mary Ellis, the consultant who took on this daunting task. Before she begins however, I would just like to say that FEMA has been accused lately of tripping over its own red tape…” the words brought a round of laughter from the crowd behind him. “But the fact of the matter is, in this instance there seems to be a pressing need to do things right the first time. With that said, Ms. Ellis would like to speak directly to the members of this committee,” he looked over at Mary and pulling the microphone from its stand, placing it in her hand.
“Good afternoon,” she started shyly, looking back at the Director who was nodding his head while Lambert and Dillon were doing their best to keep straight faces.
“I apologize for the disruption but not that I was able to keep Mr. Dillon from his task. Without going into a great deal of detail as to the content of the reports before you I would simply ask that they be disregarded as they have been purposefully skewed to support his personal agenda.”
A clamor of disbelief rose up from the committee and the roomful of observers. Mr. Lambert now had a handkerchief out and was wiping the sweat from his face. He started to excuse himself to leave but was motioned to sit down by his superior.
“The fact is that Mr. Dillard and a select few inside the National Commercial Properties Corporation actually conspired to manipulate the outcome of this hearing, and in doing so, to cheat the people of New Orleans. It was, in fact, Mr. Dillon’s intention to not only build one tower but to eventually seize control of various properties in large sections of the city once they were zoned commercial or multi-use. Although it may not be an uncommon tactic there is reasonable proof to believe that under false pretenses the principal players have already been buying properties preying on homeowner’s fears or in some cases misplaced trust."
"And if that weren’t reprehensible enough", she continued, "this same conspiracy colluded to knowingly erect a structure that would collapse, that’s right, fall down, only a few years after its construction. The idea was to blame faulty workmanship on local construction companies or chalk it up to the shifting of subterranean silt. In either case they would certainly be defrauding both you, the government, to the extent of your support, and also the insurance industry at some level. But the worst is the obvious reckless endangerment, actions that if taken, certainly may have resulted in the possibility of death or serious injury to many innocent people, not to mention leaving them with yet another disaster to overcome.”
Mary stopped as a roar of voices and a volley of flashing cameras lit the room. Lambert had his face down on the table, his hands over his eyes. Richard Dillon sat looking bewildered and couldn’t stop shaking his head in denial and disbelief.
As the chairperson once more dropped the gavel a new set of reports was placed in front of each member. On the front page of each packet was the picture of a little girl who just wanted to be back in her own home.
“I do want to say this,” Mary went on, bolstered by the silent resignation of the two men, “New Orleans, Louisiana and many surrounding communities have suffered a tremendous loss, across the board. The destruction did not necessarily favor rich over poor or business owners over homeowners. Everyone has been affected. Everyone is trying to determine how they can recover from this terrible event. Allowing people to determine their own fate is the way of America and these people are certainly Americans."
Although outside assistance is the obvious key to the recovery effort," she went on emphatically, "we must allow these people the dignity to rebuild what has been theirs for generations, the homes, the schools, the churches, and the neighborhoods that carry on a culture that transcends a mere tourist destination. There will be changes, of that there is no doubt. But let the changes be channeled through the people who live and work there and not by way of corporate takeovers. People just want to go home and they are counting on your wisdom and your power to help make that dream become reality!”
“Ms. Ellis,” the chairperson injected at her conclusion, “Thank you for your contributions in this matter. We will carefully study your reports and take your findings under advisement. I would like to remind everyone here today that it is the undying determination of the people of New Orleans, and so many other south coast communities that continues to rally the citizens of this nation to their cause. Their fortitude is a true reflection of the American spirit. It takes courage and determination to recover and rebuild in the face of such overwhelming odds. Let us stand united in this common goal!”
A round of applause swept the room. Mary blushed. She had made a difference after all!
The gavel fell for the final time as two armed Federal Marshals put Dillon and Lambert in handcuffs and led them away. In the back of the room there was a small scuffle as Mrs. Madison was also taken into custody.
Six months later…
Mary felt the warm, humid air rush over her as she stepped down off of the new shiny red Elysian Fields streetcar. As she walked down from the tracks toward Jackson Square and the historic cathedral she smiled to herself. The scene was electric with a renewed energy. Businesses were open and tourists holding bags and cameras dotted the colorful Crescent City landscape.
A short distance away a Dixieland brass band filled a small French Quarter restaurant with the bright sounds of “When The Saints Go Marching In”. The entire Dubois family was gathered for the occasion, occupying two large tables, enjoying the best of food and music. There was an empty chair between Darlene and Grandma. Angelique and her big brother, Malcolm, teased each other, happy to be together again.
A cheer went up and everyone in the room turned their eyes to Mary as she passed through the door. She bowed appreciatively and waved to all.
“Welcome back girlfriend,” Darlene shouted above the stirring music. “I brought in this band just for you.” She ushered her to the empty seat.
Mary stopped at the table and looked up at the musicians. She instantly recognized the trumpet player and a broad smile broke out on her face as he paused to grin back in her direction.
“God bless you child,” Grandma Dubois said reaching out and patting her hand. In it Mary clutched her constant companion, the Mardi Gras alligator.
“And God bless New Orleans!” Mary said jubilantly as she held her mascot high.