Going Home to New Orleans: The Cats Are Okay
September 11, 2005
by Lili LeGardeur

We drove into New Orleans yesterday to get, of all things, ladies’ clothing from my stepmother’s boutique in the riverbend area of Uptown. After meandering between Airline Highway  and the river, we got on the River Road and passed a National Guard checkpoint with little ado. Miles, Ace, Wendy and I then proceeded to raid the inventory at the little cottage on Dante St., where water was gushing from an open pipe on the exterior but no other damage was evident. Leaf debris matted the walkway behind the locked gate and the crepe myrtle at the curb was topple,d but otherwise the store looked ready for a normal business day when we opened  the door. Each of us in turn, comically, tried to flip on the lights, then went to work with the aid of sunlight through the open back door and a set of battery-operated candles we found amongst the gift items in inventory. Loading up the two cars with gowns, jeans and dresses is a  story unto itself -- it’s a tribute to both my stepmother’s business drive and her sensitivity to the needs of upper middle class women. I mean, let’s face it, if your multimillion dollar McMansion in Lakeview is  under 13 feet of water, how are you going to comfort yourself? A new dress could be high on the survival gear list. Wendy loaded up lots of plus sizes in flattering cuts. This morning over coffee she remarked that they might have lost everything, but they also probably will get their insurance money first.

It felt like we took forever there because Wendy kept trying to squeeze in a few more items for transport to the Baton Rouge store, but finally about 10:30 a.m. (we’d left Baton Rouge a bit before 7 a.m.) we took off for our house at Belfast and Short. All the topo maps we’d checked the night before had indicated this area was still under 2-3 feet of water, and a phone call to a store manager whose sister is with NOPD had confirmed that idea on Saturday. There we were on Sunday, however, and street after street was dry as we rolled towards Claiborne Avenue. By the time we reached Hickory Street we began to see waterlines, first on foundations, then rising to the second step, then to the walls of houses. At Fern Street it looked as though 1.5-2 feet of most houses had been kissed by water -- not a disastrous thing in many cases because New Orleans houses are often built several feet above water. Sighting a huge treefall ahead on Sycamore St., we drove the wrong way down Neron Place, where I was born (and where our family weathered the last disastrous New Orleans hurricane, Betsy, in 1965), turned (again wrong way) down another street and then charged across Claiborne with me holding my breath. At this point we were four blocks from home and I was damned if I was going to be stopped by guardsmen. We’d spotted a clot of soldiers on foot somewhere near Claiborne and Carrolton when we were making our way down Carrollton en route from the store, and that sight had made us turn aside to fall in with a convoy of vehicles following an NOPD SUV. By crossing Claiborne, we were again entering the view of the checkpoint we assumed had been set up at that major intersection. We crossed, Ace and Wendy crossed, no one stopped us. Three blocks straight on, one to the right: we pulled up in front of our duplex and left the car in the middle of the street, which was all plastered with leaves and dried mud but quite passable. The big potted plants on the step were all cast aside, presumably toppled by water.  I couldn’t get the door open because it had swollen a bit in the flood, Miles managed it, and we stepped over ruined foamboard exhibits form a talk I gave last month at the Old U.S. Mint. A good foot of mold had started working in earnest on the soaked bottom 12 inches in the stairwell — I’m sure the same condition holds in the entire downstairs apartment, but in context it’s no big deal. We stepped over and past that to a dry stairwell still stacked with items for the house we’ve been working on ( a faucet, two ceiling fans.)

I was ready for the cats to be dead. Behind the locked door at the top of the stairs there was Gracie looking outraged and a bit incredulous. Such huge green eyes in an outraged face — swooped her up , dropping walkie talkie and keys and the backpack I’d bought to ferry the few items we’d agreed to rescue through the water we thought we’d find standing in the street. (N.B. We’d also come the city equipped with chest-high waders. No one wants hepatitis A.) No Morgaine, though — we both went through the apartment calling, and I was looking with trepidation at al the closed bedroom doors, fearful that she’d gotten locked inside a room with NO food and water before we left. But of course Morgaine is old and a bit deaf. She emerged from somewhere, clearly disturbed to have been awakened from a deep nap. Miles boxed Morgaine in her carry box, and I carried Gracie out in my arms. My stepmother hates cats, but she almost cried with relief. Fifteen days, guys, with a sack of kibble and two bowls of water. Cats are amazing survivors; they went through both bowls of water and had drunk down the level of water in the one toilet bowl they could access. The first thing they did when they knew they were rescued was take a shit. I think it’s instinct for them to shut down, metabolically speaking, when they know they’re in crisis. Maybe that helped them make it. When we finally got them back to Baton Rouge, they went through a  can of wet food like a laser through metal. They wouldn’t drink more than a few sips of water, though, until they’d gotten their food.

On Belfast St., Ace and Wendy stayed outside in their car while we gathered a few necessities. It’s funny what you grab, or what you think of, when you’re  an evacuee. My Momus pin and my Twelfth Night bean, tokens of a carnival system I’ve poo-pooed my entire life; Mom’s gold hoop earrings and a watch fob necklace; the everyday  necklace and earrings that were Miles’ first birthday present to me. While I raided the jewel box, Miles was in the office gathering insurance policies. But we also gathered  the software for the Olympus camera we’d brought the first time out; Isaac’s Game Boy, which we’ll ship to him at his grandma’s house in Decatur, Alabama. to alleviate his boredom; a battery recharger. trading places, Miles fetched a single suit from the bedroom closet while I found my digital recorder and the textbook for the journalism course I was scheduled to be teaching at Tulane. In a flash of impulse, I emptied the potatoes out the colander on the kitchen counter (next to moldering package of hamburger buns) and took it along. That item was greeted with glee back at Camp LeGardeur, where my restauranteur brother-in-law was pleased to have some means of draining the egg noodles he prepared to go with beef stew Sunday  night. it was a good thing Wendy and Ace stayed outside, because two National Guard soldiers from Tennessee (one redhead, one blonde, both thirty-ish) came ambling over to see what we were about. The parents kept them chatting while we looted our own home. The guardsmen were camped out at the public school across the street, bivouacking on the platform that once was the school’s bandstand.

The two guardsmen said they’d been busy but now were a little bit bored. The water had just come down in our street the night before, they said. The Public School (Armand will recognize it, it’s the Lafayette School, right down the block from where we lived on Walmsley once) served as a refuge for about 40 people who were rescued off of the roof by helicopter. The school was a wreck, they said, because it had been attacked and looted and vandalized before they came. It had also served as a refuge for dogs; the guardsmen said the SPCA had come and taken them away the day before. I forgot to ask how many dogs were inside the building, but got the impression it was quite a few. The redheaded guardsman confirmed that their mission had shifted from finding survivors to recovering bodies. The two of them confirmed that their unit hadn’t been called up until Thursday. The party line form the military is that Blanco failed to recall the Louisiana National Guard from Iraq prior to Thursday, and that that was the cause of delay because you can’t call in other National Guard units until you’ve engaged your own state’s resources. A check with the Louisiana Governor’s website reveals that Blanco, in fact, declared a state of emergency on August 28, THE DAY BEFORE THE STORM. What she failed to do was follow military procedure by specifically recalling Louisiana's National Guard units that had completed their tours in Iraq but were still on the ground there. She completed that step on Thursday. But why, dear God, did no one advise her that that particular “I” had to be dotted in order to get any help at all before Thursday, three days after the storm and two days after the levee break flooded the city?

I’m still confused why the SPCA did the do rescue on the school and failed to stop at our house after we’d been assured we were on all pet rescue lists. Like every rescue force, I’m sure they were just overwhelmed. Throughout this thing, organization has been sorely missing form every aspect of operation.

The cats would have to wait before they were truly delivered, however. Wendy and Ace could not be this close to their home in Metairie without checking to see if the water on their street had finally gone down. We were totally behind them in this, I want to add, and very eager to help as long as the rescued cats did not expire in the process. Reaching Metairie again required meandering; Jefferson highway was clogged with stuff, so we went Carrollton  to oak and back out to River Road to rejoin Jefferson Hwy out past Ochsner Foundation Hospital. Airline Highway under the traffic circle is a swimming pool,, and the rest of Airline is closed so emergency workers can pump the water out -- Airline between the water and Clearview Pkwy. is pretty much an open-air pumping station, with huge pipes running along the roadbed. More meandering to avoid cruising cop cars, Sheriff’s cars. We had papers but they specified out destination at ### Dante St. in Orleans Parish, and we were now In Jefferson.

Metairie Road, which sits on a  natural ridge, was high and dry. We saw plenty of downed trees but few of them had landed on houses. Over the railroad tracks to the foot of Hector Ave. — dry — up Hector towards my parents’ house — my grandfather’s old house at Avenue A. was tangled in down trees but dry, dry, dry, and it stayed high all the way to the parents’ home. Wendy, who was riding ahead in the Volvo with Ace, stuck her  hand out the window and pumped a “thumbs’ up” sign. They turned in at the driveway from habit, parking next to dad’s now-dead new Subaru SUV; again, we just stopped the car  mid-street.

The parents’ house is built on two levels, with the pool room, living room and master bedroom sitting on the ground. The original raised cottage at the heart of the much-enlarged building was out of reach of the water, but those lower areas were soaked, as were the furnishings inside them. for a good two hours, then, we moved antiques, mopped floors, and tried to create a decent environment for drying pieces that hood stood up to their ankles in murky, slimy  water for days. Several chests and chairs were already sprouting mold on their nicely turned feet, and mold had already started to blister other surfaces, like the underside of the desk in the living room or the backs of side tables that had stood close enough to walls to create a nice cozy dap environment. Without air conditioning and with glass doors  and windows darkened by protective plywood, the house was a regular petri dish for mold. I tackled all fuzzy spots with pledge, wiped up the brick floor in the living room, set wadded paper towel under chests whose legs were still sopped with water. We emptied the contents of the bedroom into the living room, then ripped up the bedroom carpet and dumped it in the backyard. Wet carpet is, of course, heavy, and a cypress pocket door nailed ot a wall almost took out my husband when it toppled. But we stripped bedroom, dressing room and hall down to the cement and mopped those dry. That’s progress. it was strange, though, to hear my stepmother say “It looks marvelous” when we were done. the back yard was littered with upside-down lawn furniture over which we had strewed soaked, dirty towels to dry. The chest that usually sits at the center of the living room was perched atop a planter on the back patio in hopes that its underside would dry. The pool, meanwhile, resembled a witches’ cauldron or a still backwoods bayou Algae bloomed in clump across the deep green water. Every time my father approached it, my stepmother practically screamed -- she was that afraid he would fall into what is certainly a vat of infection.

I just got a call that Miles is coming to get me from this coffee shop  where I’ve stolen an hour to write. Forgive me if this is more than anyone wanted to know. I just thought you’d want an account of what’s up. Much of the city will be fine, though much is damaged. We’re still hoping we can get back within  the month.

Lili LeGardeur is a lifelong resident of New Orleans and a journalist. © 2005, Lili LeGardeur.

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