Tuesday, February 09, 2010


If you’re one of those people who is sensitive to the vibes of your fellow beings, then New Orleans is a great place to be right now. There’s a palpable buzz in the air, a smile on every face, a twinkle in every eye.

The city threw a parade for the Saints today, and no one does a parade like New Orleans. It’s carnival season right now anyway, so the parade route was already in place. The various krewes donated the floats, the marching bands added a few more miles to their already dizzying totals for the season. The air was filled with flying beads and the sound of jazz. And everywhere you looked were happy faces—black, brown, white—all united in joy and a poignant sense of relief.

I heard someone say today, “Katrina is finally over,” and it struck me as profoundly apt. Yes, the streets are still masses of car-swallowing potholes. Yes,a lot neighborhoods are still struggling. Yes, many of our houses aren’t finished yet. But that nasty air of gloom and despair that has hung over the city for four and a half years has lifted.

We’re New Orleans, and we’re finally, really back.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Planting Pablo’s Oak

Pablo is gone now. But before he died, he planted an acorn that has since grown into a small tree. Last weekend, Steve and I took Pablo’s oak up the lake as a memorial to a fondly remembered friend.

So who was Pablo? Here he is:

No, not the person; that’s Ben, a great guy who gave up part of his 2005 Christmas vacation to come down from Kentucky and help us rebuild after Katrina. Pablo is the squirrel. He brightened our lives through all the dark, heartbreaking months we were struggling to recover from the hurricane.

Katrina’s combination of wind and flood decimated the neighborhood’s squirrel population. The sole survivor was Pablo, a rather small male with the scraggliest tail I’ve ever seen on a squirrel. He was so lonely—and hungry—that he adopted us. Every morning when I’d pull into the driveway to begin another day’s work on our devastated house, he’d come pelting down the walk, chattering happily. There you are, there you are. Launching into a flying leap, he’d land on my shoulder. (He did that once to the UPS guy, who freaked out.)

We kept Pablo supplied with nuts, and in return he made us laugh and helped us to remember what is important in life and what isn’t. After about eight months, a new squirrel appeared, young and plump and female. Together, she and Pablo set to work rebuilding the neighborhood squirrel population. Yet even after he had his own kind again, Pablo stayed our friend.

By the time we moved back into our house, we could tell he was aging. He could no longer make the great leap from the pavement to our shoulders, but would have to climb the brick posts or a tree and chatter for us to come close enough that he could jump. And then one day he came no more, and we knew Pablo was gone.

But he left my yard seeded with lots of little nut trees—pecans and oaks and walnuts. The little oak I found growing in my hanging bougainvillea—one of Pablo’s favorite spots—made me laugh so much that I carefully separated it out and potted it up. I’ve nursed it along for several years now. We selected a spot down by the back fence of our lake house, and last weekend we planted it.

There are lots of squirrels up at the lake. Hopefully, in time, their descendents will enjoy the acorns from Pablo’s oak. And every time we see it, we’ll be reminded of the little friend who helped us through one of the darkest periods of our lives.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Katrina Plus Four

For me, the day before Katrina is the anniversary that always brings a moment’s silent remembrance and reassessment. It was on Sunday that we finished boarding up our house, packed our cars, and drove away from a neighborhood, a city, a life that would never be the same again. It was on Sunday when, trapped in traffic as the feeder bands of the hurricane rolled over us, I looked out over a vista of tens of thousands fleeing for their lives and realized three things with sudden, painful clarity: that I was part of an event that was both frightening and powerfully historic, that my world was about to be turned upside down and inside out, and that I was one of the lucky ones because I was getting out with my family.

It sounds like a selfish focus, concentrated on my own pain, my own experience rather than on the 1,800+ who died. It is not.

I actually started this blog on an earlier Katrina anniversary, when—like the parents of a newborn child—we were still counting the passage of time by months. Curious about how far I’ve come since that day, I went back and reread my first posting, written in my gutted office when we were still working so hard to get back into our house. Here it is…

Saturday was an anniversary of sorts. Eight months ago yesterday, Hurricane Katrina took off the roof of our New Orleans-area house while the floodwaters of Lake Pontchartrain came sluicing through the ground floor. Sometimes I still lay awake at night and torture myself with conjured images of water lapping at my bookcases…swirling around my daughter’s lovely old iron frame piano…leaching the color from the polished wood of ancient chests. The images are always without sound, like glimpses into the eerie, flooded world of Atlantis or the Titanic. And then I think, No, not my house. Reality tilts and never quite rights itself.

Eight months. For eight months we’ve lived the life of refugees, shuttling from one shelter to the next. The possessions Katrina left us are boxed and scattered—at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge and two storage units in two different cities, at my mother’s house and the now-empty house of an aged aunt for whom the horrors of Katrina proved simply too much to bear. My mind is scattered, too. I look at the antique roses in my garden, survivors whose carefully lettered copper labels were carried away by the waters into oblivion. Once, I could have named every bush, told you its heritage and characteristics. Not now. That was another life, another reality.

Imagine a house shattered by wind and water. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of houses standing broken and empty. That is New Orleans. Imagine the army of laborers and carpenters, electricians and plumbers and roofers required to make it all right again. They’re not here. (Where would they live?) And so we either wait, or we take up tools and get to work. With hammer and wrecking bar, we attack sodden walls and mold-covered doorframes. We choke back tears as we drag beloved memories, the pieces of our lives, out to the curb and abandon them there to the sun and the rain. We learn to hang and float Sheetrock, to stomp ceilings, to cut trim and plumb sinks. There is a sense of pride, a strength that comes from rebuilding our own house. I think of my ancestors braving the terrors of immigrant ships to build log cabins in the dark forests of Virginia and Tennessee. Or my other great-grandparents, the ones who belonged to the Clan of the Wolf and lived in tune with the seasons and the pulses of the earth. I wonder if they would be ashamed of me, see me as weak. Crushed and disoriented by one little hurricane. Okay, one big hurricane.

Will we ever be the same again? No. Is that a good thing, or bad? Perhaps it is both. In all these months, I have written little. The people in New York have been understanding, in their way. I put the manuscript for my next book, When Gods Die, in the mail a week before Katrina hit. My editor didn’t bother me with the revisions until January. Perhaps she realized I couldn’t handle it until then. I’m still amazed I did manage to do the revisions. I am now committed to write the next book in the series, Why Mermaids Sing. Once, I was excited about this book. I’m still excited about this book. But doubts crowd in on me. My husband says, You’ve always been like this when you start a book.

Yes, I was. But my books come from my soul, and my soul has shifted.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

When Urban Legend Turns Out to Be Fact

Living here in Katrinaville, we hear all sorts of ugly rumors. About how everyone seems to be sick. About how deaths in our city have skyrocketed even though the population has fallen. About how everyone is on antidepressants. About how in the months after the storm hospitals were dealing with more suicide attempts in a typical 24-hour period than they normally saw in a month. We’ve all been to more funerals in the past four years than most of us have been to in our lives, but up until now our perceptions have all been antidotal; we could tell ourselves maybe it wasn't really as bad as we thought.

Well, now the studies and facts and figures are coming out, and they’re not pretty. Yes, in the nearly four years since Katrina, levels of sickness have indeed risen sharply. Nearly two-thirds of New Orleanians now report chronic health problems, up a staggering 45%. The number suffering from depression has tripled, with suicides still running at double what they were in 2005 (and they’re actually now way DOWN from what they were in the first 12 months after the storm). The city’s population is still at less than 75% of what is was before Katrina. But here’s the scary part: Only 57% of the city’s medical facilities have reopened, and even hospitals that are open are short-staffed.

If this were Burma, or Bangladesh, I could maybe understand it. But for a major American city to be hit with a natural disaster and then essentially abandoned by the federal government is a disgrace. Yes, lots of money flowed in here, but as is typical in such cases, it went to the Shaw Group, and Halliburton, and Blackwater, fattening the balance sheets of Corporate America while the city itself—and its residents—were left to slowly collapse.

And here’s another unpleasant statistic: One in five New Orleans residents now say they are considering leaving the city.

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Monday, May 04, 2009

The Last of the Dominoes

On Sunday, my extended family gave a birthday party for my Aunt May. She’s ninety-seven. Amongst the family members attending were her three surviving siblings, who range in age from my own soon-to-be ninety-two-year-old mother (on the right, in the yellow top and skirt), to the baby of the family, Uncle Jiggs, now eighty-five. My Uncle Al is turning ninety.

My grandparents, Elizabeth and Peter Paul Wegmann, married relatively late in life but still managed to have nine children. My grandmother used to tell the story of how she brought all of her little ones through the flu epidemic of 1919 by lining them up every night and giving each a hot toddy of honey, lemon, and whiskey. All four of her sons went off to fight in World War II, and by some miracle not only survived but all came home, one after the other, on the same day. Of good German stock, my grandmother lived to be ninety. My grandfather died at ninety-two. As they aged, their nine children all seemed to share the same somewhat bizarre conviction that they, in turn, would live to be ninety or ninety-two. Then they would start keeling over, one by one, in order of their birth. Like dominoes. It became such a family joke that we started calling them the Dominoes.

When I moved to New Orleans a few years ago, all nine were still alive. But then, inevitably, the Dominoes started falling. The first to go was my Aunt Helen, the second oldest, who died at the age of ninety. It was quite a shock. She wasn’t supposed to be the first to go. Then came 2005, a horrible year for us, when we buried four in less than 12 months. The eldest, Aunt Henrietta, was 95. But one of the brothers was “only” in his late eighties. My Aunt Clair died, at the age of 93, in the aftermath of Katrina. Since the cemeteries in the city were still under water, we had to bury her in a small town up the river. It was, to say the least, traumatic.

Now there are only four Dominoes. Uncle Al still lives at home, alone since the death of his wife last year, although his sons are trying to talk him into moving into an assisted living complex. He says, “Heck, I don’t need that! I still mow my own lawn.” Uncle Jiggs had a stroke a few years ago, but is well cared for by his wife, who is 25 years his junior. My mother had a stroke after Katrina and now lives with me, although she’s still going strong. Aunt May still works every day in her garden, although she admits she now needs to get her great-grandsons to dig the holes for her. She told me a few years ago that she’s decided she’s going to live to be one hundred.

I suspect she’s going to make it.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Really Happens to Heroes

I was planning to do a post today about heroes in fiction, but instead I’m going to write about a real-life hero, Dr. Ivor van Heerden.

As deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center, van Heerden created a hurricane modeling program that predicted—very accurately, as it turned out—what would happen to the southern Louisiana coast and New Orleans if the area were hit by a major hurricane. Horrified by what he knew was going to happen, van Heerden spent the years before Katrina battling to get everyone from FEMA to the Army Corps of Engineers to listen to him. They laughed at him.

His forecasts predicting massive levee failures and flooding in Eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, and the Lower Ninth Ward, were published in the Times-Picayune the day before Katrina hit and helped convinced many to flee. He was at his post at the Hurricane Center, sleepless, through the long dreadful hours of Katrina’s landfall. After the collapse of the federal levee system, he was in the city, watching the water sweep away homes and businesses. This a man who, through intelligence, dedication, and hard work, helped save the lives of countless thousands. After the storm, in a white heat of anger, he sat down and wrote a book called, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina. It’s a gripping read that will leave you sick and angry and wanting to shake a few people. More than a few people. (I blogged about it when I read it in August of 2006, right after we moved back into our house, here.)

Not only did van Heerden write a book, he also agreed to head the forensic investigation on what went wrong. Dubbed Team Louisiana, this investigation prepared the report The Failure of the New Orleans Levee System During Hurricane Katrina for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Because of his expertise and the accuracy of his forecasts, he was frequently quoted by various media outlets. Needless to say, his comments were not flattering to the Powers That Be.

So how did LSU treat this hero? In November of 2005, they told him to stop talking to the media because he was hurting the university’s chances of getting federal dollars (not to mention reflecting badly on George Bush, good buddy of the University’s chancellor O’Keefe). And now, under the direction of Louisiana’s new Republican governor, LSU has fired van Heerden. Their reason? None given, not to the press, nor to van Heerden himself.

Risking his job, Van Heerden fought long and hard to get the truth out there, to save lives, to save our city, to save our coast. That’s heroic. Now, he’s paid the price. In popular fiction, he would ultimately triumph as a reward for making the morally “right” choice. But this isn’t fiction; this is life.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009


Steve and I started feeding the birds and squirrels back in those ugly, traumatic days after Katrina, when the hurricane’s winds had stripped the vegetation from the area’s shrubs and trees, and the receding floodwaters had left neighborhood gardens brown and dead. Now, Steve throws out big scoopfuls of seed and nuts and cracked corn every morning before he leaves for work. Our garden is an oasis of birdsong played out against the splash of the fountains (and the occasional “Meow! I want one of those!” from our gang of fascinated, ever-hopeful inside cats).

But this is the first time we’ve looked out the window to find ducks in our garden. I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given that we live only a couple hundred feet from a canal. But it was still enough of a treat to send me scrambling for my camera.

Bye, guys! Ya’all come back now, you hear?

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Friday, February 20, 2009

A Car Full of Roses for Valentine’s Day

Steve and I spent the Saturday before Katrina at City Park’s Botanic Gardens Plant Sale. Every couple of months, the volunteers at the Pelican Greenhouse used to help raise money for the park by putting on a sale of old-fashioned plants and roses that do well in New Orleans (not all green things love our heat and humidity). There weren’t a lot of people at the sale that morning, which surprised us until we were driving home up Metairie Road and saw shops with big signs in the window that read, CLOSED FOR HURRICANE. We looked at each other and said, “Hurricane? What hurricane?” (From which you can tell we don’t watch much television and so were oblivious to the fact that the hurricane that was supposed to be heading for Florida had shifted to take aim at us.)

A couple months later, we took time off from working on our gutted house to go look at what the hurricane had done to City Park. We had to drive the long way around to get to the Pelican Greenhouse because there was STILL water sitting in the dip under the railroad tracks. The greenhouse itself was a shattered wreck; the pots of the plants that hadn’t sold that fateful Saturday were strewn about wherever the receding floodwaters had left them. We’d been attending those plant sales regularly since before we were even married; a lot of wonderful memories of good times, sunshine, and laughter were associated with that greenhouse. Steve parked the car and we just sat in silence for a moment, looking at it.

If you’re wondering why I’m blogging about this now, it’s because last Saturday, on Valentine’s Day, City Park had its first Pelican Greenhouse sale since Katrina. It’s taken them a long time to get the greenhouse back up and running, and they’re still trying to replace all their cutting stock. Volunteers were going around the sale asking regulars, “Do you have a Phyllis Byde? You do! Can we have cuttings?”

It’s nice to be able to give back, after all the joy those sales have given me.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Katrina Day Number Three and Counting

Friday will mark the third anniversary of the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf shore, essentially wiping out the New Orleans we all knew and loved, and altering forever those of us who lived through it. It’s a story the rest of the country has long since grown tired of hearing. But for those of us who still live here, the storm is a part of our lives. It’s become a tradition for a group of us to take a tour of the city, then meet for lunch at a local restaurant before heading over to the home of author Laura Joh Rowland for desert. Laura’s house in Gentilly took about four feet of water on the bottom floor, and she says organizing the annual event means she has something to look forward to on that day, rather than simply dreading the memories the anniversary inevitably brings.

I’m not sure that works for me. But the get-togethers make for a fun day, and since it’s been a while since I’ve driven out to Chalmette and the Ninth Ward, I’m also curious to see how things are progressing down there.

In my own neighborhood, probably one out of every fifteen or so houses is still empty—gutted and abandoned. I often look at those houses when I go for a walk and try to understand what happened to the people who used to live there. Are they dead? Are they someplace else, still paying mortgages on houses they don’t inhabit? Why don’t they sell the houses? Or if the bank has repossessed them, why doesn’t the bank sell the properties? Of course, in the truly devastated neighborhoods, selling probably isn’t an option.

With Hurricane Gustav now taking aim at the Gulf, we're also all reviewing our evacuation plans...which has added a nasty fillip to the looming anniversary.

Image courtesy of weatherunderground.com


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fay and the Faint-hearted

It doesn’t help that we’re just days away from the three-year anniversary of Katrina. But the truth is, no one with hurricane-induced posttraumatic stress syndrome should send their youngest child to college in Florida.

Fay isn’t a hurricane yet, but they expect it to turn into one before it comes ashore. The path has been vibrating back and forth across the western coast of Florida, with landfall expected close enough to my daughter’s college that they’re ordering an evacuation. That means they close the campus, and where the students go and how they get there is up to them.

“Keep yourself safe,” I tell my daughter in one of the thousand phone calls I’ve made to Florida in the last 48 hours.

Her response is predictable. “I can’t believe you said that. It’s just a little Category 1. I went through Katrina, remember?”

Like I could possibly have forgotten? I say, “It’s not the hurricane I’m worried about; it’s the evacuation traffic.”

“Oh. I’ll be careful.”

But I lied, of course. I am worried about the evacuation traffic, but I’m also worried about falling trees and rampaging storm surges and roving lawless gangs and all the other nasties that come with hurricanes.

I’m really great at worrying. Unfortunately, from here, it’s all I can do.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Nightmare, Revisited

We’d planned a nice, relaxing weekend. We’ve been working so hard for what seems like forever—rebuilding from Katrina, renovating our newly acquired lakeside weekend getaway/hurricane evacuation house, sorting through my globetrotting mother’s lifetime accumulation of treasures and reconfiguring our house to get ready to move her in with us—that we decided we deserved a few days off. The idea was to go up to the lake, resist doing any of the zillion and one things that still need doing up there, and instead lounge around, sip root beer and eat (vegetarian) hotdogs at the picnic table overlooking the water, and then mosey down into town for the local Red, White, and Blueberry Festival.

Ah, fate. I pushed open the front door to hear the sound of rushing water. At some time in the past three weeks, the hot water heater sprang a leak. At first, from the looks of things, just a fine spray, at some point it turned into a gushing flood.

It could have been so, so much worse. I seriously suspect the final burst occurred just hours before our arrival, which is what saved the house from total destruction. Thanks to our decision to go up there and “goof off” this weekend, the damage was limited to two rooms—the room where the hot water heater is located, and the dining room. The casualties are a bunch of Steve’s tools (which were stored on the shelves and floor of the former), a dining room chair (already refinished once after Katrina!), an antique buffet already in need of refinishing, and of course the walls of said two rooms.

There’s nothing like ripping out moldy sheetrock and soaked insulation to bring back the bad ol’ days of Katrina and provoke on a dose of posttraumatic stress syndrome. At least we know the drill. After bleaching, we’ll now need to let the studs dry for six weeks before we can start rebuilding. But we did get the Sheetrock we need, and I was incensed to see that it is now selling for less than $6 a sheet, despite the recent Midwest floods. Why incensed? Because my house was rebuilt after Katrina using $12 a sheet drywall. Ya gotta love capitalism.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I sooo did not expect this! I've just learned that WHY MERMAIDS SING has won the Best Historical Mystery Reviewers Choice Award from Romantic Times.

I've known for several months that MERMAIDS had been nominated. But it was up against such fierce competition from such well-known writers that I was convinced there was no way it would win. I simply counted it as an honor to be nominated, and forgot about it.

When I remember the conditions under which I wrote this book--as a Katrina refugee devoting most of my time to rebuilding my house--it really seems incredible. The most amazing thing to me is that the book ever made it into print.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Another &#@$ Flat Tire

Amongst all the horrendous grief, trauma, and expense generated by the failure of the Federal levees during Hurricane Katrina, flat tires obviously rank way, way down there on the misery index. But when it comes to sheer, repetitive aggravation, they can really start to get to you.

Steve and I have had so many flat tires over the last 2 ½ years that I’ve lost count, although as the rebuilding in our own neighborhood progresses, the incidents have lessened. But Sam, who took a year off from Yale Law School to attend premed courses at a local university, just had her third flat in six months.

Her daily commute takes her through Lakeview, which was the scene of the 17th Street levee collapse. Rebuilding the houses and businesses in that area—or demolishing them and starting over—will take years. Sam’s first two flats were caused by roofing nails; the culprit of this latest episode was a drywall screw. Perhaps this is a sign of progress?


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Years Resolutions

Every year I list them. At times I’m tempted to give up the exercise as futile, but the truth is that once in a while, they work. Every year I resolve to eat better, exercise more, and lose weight. And you know what? Last year I did. What made the difference? I suspect it was the discovery the week before Christmas that a first cousin just two years my senior had stage three ovarian cancer. I looked up preventing cancer, and there it was: exercise, stay lean, eat well. Suddenly it was no longer just about vanity; it was about my health and being here for my girls (yes, I know they’re grown, but they still need their mother) and for Steve. As a result, my resolution this year is simply “keep exercising and eating well.” And by the way, my incredible cousin is still alive—in fact, she hosted the family’s Christmas Eve party.

So what else is on my list this year? Number One: Stop Procrastinating. I’m a terrible procrastinator. ‘Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow’ could be my motto. This was actually a late addition to my list, but when I realized that doing this one thing would probably help me accomplish most of the other things on the list, I gave it top billing.

Number Two: Get More Sleep. Since I’m a terrible insomniac, I’m still trying to figure out HOW to do this, but it’s my second priority.

Number Three: Keep a Cleaner House. Living first as a refugeee, then in a building zone after Katrina, I learned I could either tolerate mess or go insane. But what was once adaptive has become habitual. Enough is enough. Notice it does not say, “Keep a Clean House.” That’s asking too much for a writer with two book contracts. But cleaner would be, well, an improvement.

Number Four: Cook More. Pre-Katrina, Steve and I sat down to a proper home-cooked dinner most nights. Now, it’s rare. Typically, he’ll open a can of beans and I’ll have a fruit and yogurt smoothie. Yes, our nest is usually empty these days, but the occasional fish and veggie meal would be nice. I married a great cook, so this is really a joint resolution. He just doesn’t know it yet!

I thought about putting “Finish rebuilding the house” on the list, but I decided that would only raise my stress levels and work against #2, so I left it off. Hopefully #1 will help motivate me to at least paint the trim in my office. I realize that Numbers One, Three and Four will probably also work against Number Two. Ah, well. I’ll let you know at the end of the year how I did.

Thanks to all who wished me well. I'm feeling much better. Happy New Year to all!

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Of Writers and Friends

You’re looking at an incredible group of people. We are the men and women of Sola, the Southern Louisiana chapter of the Romance Writers of America, gathered here for our third post-Katrina Christmas Party. Every one of these people has a story to tell, of heartbreak and trauma, of loss and triumph. Some lost family members to the storm, many lost houses or suffered devastating damage. Even those whose homes miraculously escaped nevertheless endured long periods of evacuation, survivor-guilt, and all the craziness that is a part of living in a devastated city still partially patrolled by the National Guard.

We held our first post-Katrina meeting just two months after the storm. We sat around in a circle in a half-gutted room and simply listened as, one after the other, we took our turn telling our stories. Some tales were harrowing, others hilarious. Together, we laughed, we cried, and we forged a bond that is still there and probably always will be.

Jamie, the woman who hosted this year’s party, has almost finished rebuilding. This house is in Lakeviw, about a mile from the levee break. There’s a plaque about six feet up on the entry wall, marking their Katrina water line. Many of her neighbors are gone, their houses now empty lots. But an encouraging number are back, or at least in various stages of rebuilding. As we drank wine and laughed through Sadistic Santa, we could hear the distant whirl of a saw and the steady tapping of hammers. The sounds of our city, coming back.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why we’re holding food packages, it’s because we also collected foodstuffs for the local foodbank.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

As the Thunder Rumbles

I'm having a hard time settling down to write on this dreary, rainy New Orleans Monday morning. Part of it is the distractions of the past few days--painting my mother's bedroom last Thursday and Friday, then going up to the lake over the weekend to work on that house (what kind of masochists try to renovate three houses at the same time?). But I suspect most of the blame lies with the thunder rumbling in the distance, the heavy gray cloud cover pressing down on me, the echoes of horror and despair that continue to whisper in my memory no matter how much I try to ignore them. The worst of our hurricane season is, thankfully, past. I know this is just a little squall. But I can't help it. I once loved the power of storms. Now, I hate storms.

Press hates them, too. Press is our half-feral foundling cat. He'll lay at my feet for hours, purring. But reach for him and he's gone. Which is why Press was left in our house--with lots of food and water--when we evacuated with the other cats for Katrina. We battled our way down to rescue him exactly one week after the hurricane hit. He was scared, but okay; we have a two-story house and we "only" got one foot of water. But to this day, at the first clap of thunder, Press leaps up off the floor onto the nearest sofa or chair. Which sort of answers our question about where exactly in the house he was when the water came sluicing in!

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Katrina Plus Two

I’d planned to write about New Orleans today. But then I got together with a group of writer friends for a Katrina Survivors Anniversary Lunch, and as I drove home (actually, RODE home—I still haven’t replaced my car) past the usual miles and miles of empty storefronts, of boarded up houses and weed-grown empty lots, I realized, I can’t write about New Orleans today. So I’m going to write about Katrina and me.

I had an epiphany of sorts this past weekend. Spurred on by the imminent ninetieth birthday party we’ve been planning for my mother, Steve and I spent the weekend painting the upstairs hall and getting ready to lay flooring. If you’re wondering why we keep doing this work ourselves, the simple reason is that it’s impossible to hire anyone for small-scale projects here in Katrinaville. We were part of the vanguard of residents who returned just days after the storm. Faced with the choice of waiting until construction crews filtered into the city or starting to rebuild ourselves, we set to work. As a result, we were one of the first families in the neighborhood to move back into our house. Also as a result, we’re still not finished rebuilding (along with hundreds of thousands of other people).

I was pondering this irony—and the looming two-year anniversary—last Sunday as I caulked crown molding and sanded trim. That’s when it hit me. You see, there was a time when I was so caught up in Katrina and what it had done to the city and to my family that I couldn’t see beyond it. Yet at some point in the past six months, without my even realizing it, something shifted. At some point, all of my experiences in those dark, terrible days settled down to become a part of who I now am.

When I started this blog nearly a year and a half ago, I blogged more about Katrina than about writing. An old friend stumbled across one of my early posts and quoted me that saying, ‘What doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger.’ I told him I didn’t believe him. I might still be alive, yet I felt diminished, weakened. But you know what? He was right. Thanks to Katrina, bitch that she was, I am stronger today. I say that not with arrogance, but with a kind of wonder.

Don’t get me wrong. I still wish with all my heart the storm had never happened. I still mourn my city, the loved ones I lost, the way of life we all seem to have lost. But I now know that I can watch my house destroyed and build it again with my own hands. I have found a new peace and joy in yoga and meditation. And I now appreciate as never before what incredible children I have and what a wonderful man I married barely twenty months before a hurricane turned our lives upside down.

I know I am one of the lucky ones. There are many who suffered so much they will never recover from what this storm did to them. Ironically, that realization of how lucky, lucky, lucky I am is another gift from Katrina.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thoughts on an Anniversary

This weekend it will have been an entire year since we moved back into our house post-Katrina. The house was still far from finished at the time, but we felt such an intense need to be home that we rushed it. We had this idea that if we were in the house we’d be able to spend more time working on it. In fact, the opposite happened. Once we were actually in the house, we slacked off. Life took over.

I wish I had taken pictures of the house as it was a year ago. Then I’d be able to look back and see how much progress we’ve made—all the boxes we’ve unpacked, all the furniture we’ve replaced. Instead, I see what isn’t finished. The upstairs hall is still just plywood. We still need new carpet on the stairs. The arched windows are still raw openings (arches are REALLY hard to do). The front gallery is still a torn mess. Just yesterday I noticed that the baseboards in the entry were never nailed in or painted. How do you forget something like that? The list goes on and on. When we didn’t make our “we’ll be finished by Christmas” goal last year, we said, “Next Christmas.” Now we’re saying, Christmas of ’08. Ha. So I look at other pictures, like the one I've posted here taken sometime in October 05. Then I remember how far we've come.

A month or so ago I thought I’d found someone to rebuild the gallery. One of the brothers was about to get married, but they promised they’d start as soon as he got back from his honeymoon. Maybe his wife strangled him on his wedding night or something, but he seems to have disappeared. Such is life and rebuilding in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Sometimes it all gets to me. Sometimes I think we’ll never be put right again. I see signs of progress every time we drive into the city. Ruined commercial buildings from the Ugly Decades of the twentieth century are starting to be knocked down—finally! New business buildings are going up, here and there. I try to focus on that, rather than the miles and miles of largely empty houses and storefronts.

In the months after Katrina, city officials worried about what they called the “jack-o’-lantern effect”—renovated homes scattered amidst rows of dark empty houses. It’s what we now have. On my street, we have only something like half a dozen empty houses, but in many neighborhoods there are twenty empty houses for every one that’s inhabited.

I heard the other day that the 17th Street Canal on the Metairie side is collapsing. The Corps of Engineers isn’t going to do anything about it because they can’t figure out why it’s happening and “routine maintenance isn’t their job.” The parish is saying it’s collapsing because of what the Corps is doing on the Orleans Parish side of the canal. And I’m thinking, Yo, people! Just fix it, all right!!

When I was in Florida recently, people were surprised when they heard the city wasn’t back to normal. With the exception of the narrow tourist strip along the river—the French Quarter and the Garden District—New Orleans today is a Third World country. The death rate has soared. It’s a national disgrace, only no one seems to know about it, no one seems to be holding our president and his minions accountable. In another month, it will be two years since Katrina. Who’d have thought?


Friday, July 06, 2007

Revisiting Hell

The galleys for WHY MERMAIDS SING are due back in New York on Tuesday. Because of the long time lag in publishing, that means I’ve been spending the last few days rereading the book I wrote right after Katrina—the book I thought would never get finished. I had sent the proposal for MERMAIDS off to my agent right before the storm hit. And then I didn’t write another word for more then six months.

At first my days were spent driving back and forth from Baton Rouge, mucking out the house, dragging what couldn’t be salvaged out to the curb, tearing out walls. Even after we moved down to my mother’s house in Metairie, we still had to drive up to Baton Rouge once a week for groceries. While we waited for our stripped studs to dry out, I set about the painful task of attempting to restore my antique furniture. And then it was time to start putting up walls, finish Sheetrock, and do all the million and one other things needed to put a house back together. I spent my days in paint-splattered clothes, joking that with the cost of labor in New Orleans I could make more money installing Sheetrock than I could writing. Actually, it wasn’t a joke. After all, the only reason I’d acquired the skill was because good Sheetrockers were impossible to find in New Orleans. They still are. But I digress.

Sometime around February or March I realized I had to quit working on the house and start working on my book. My deadline was looming. Only, how could I? We were rebuilding the house ourselves simply because we couldn’t find anyone to hire. Even putting in 12-14 hour days, Steve could only do so much on the weekends; I was the one working on it seven days a week. I was desperate to rebuild my nest, rebuild some kind of normal life for my traumatized chicks. I kept saying, how can I just quit and sit down and start writing? How can I write when I live, breathe, sleep, dream Katrina?

In the end, of course, I realized I had no choice. At first I set up my computer in my mother’s backroom. Then Steve and our friend Jon got the paneling up in my office and I started writing in here. The floor was just a concrete slab, there were no baseboards or crown moldings or doorframes or window frame (actually, there’s STILL no window frame!). There was no kitchen in the house, although one of the bathrooms upstairs still functioned. The neighborhood was filled with the sound of air compressors and hammering and sawing. I kept saying, I can’t write like this! I’d write half the day, then give in to the compulsion and go off to do Sheetrock or sand trim, seal tile or paint ceilings. In the end, the only thing that saved me was the miracle that is the lake house.

Yet somehow, the book not only worked, but worked amazingly well. The only problem is that as I go through the galleys, I find that I can only read about thirty pages at a time and then I need to put it aside and do something else for a while. I find myself remembering the time I was assaulted by a raving lunatic at one of the city’s few functioning gas stations (people were seriously losing it in those days). I remember sitting next to my dying aunt and listening to the hospital rep apologize for the fact they were using orange FEMA blankets, but their laundry service had flooded. I remember the miles of flooded cars choking the streets of New Orleans, the boat abandoned just two blocks from my mother’s house (where the water stopped). I remember the huge flies that seemed to mutate after Katrina, and the smell. Who could ever forget that smell? And then I go pick up the galleys again.

And I wonder, is it there? Did the heartache and the trauma and the craziness of it all somehow bleed into these words about an English Viscount chasing a tormented killer through the streets of 1811 London?

I don’t know.

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Monday, March 05, 2007


This is going to be a scattered blog because my mind is scattered, although maybe it’d be more accurate to say my mind is distracted. I’m waiting for too many things. I’m waiting to hear my editor’s reaction to THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT (yes, I finished it a month ago, but it was actually due March 1 and she’s only now getting around to reading it). I’m waiting to hear something from Hollywood, although that will be a longer wait. And I'm waiting for the post-Katrina reconstruction of my house to be finished. That will be the longest wait of all.

Did you know there’s a protocol to submissions in Hollywood? Most production companies are associated with a studio, and one is supposed to submit a property to only one production company per studio. There’s also a pecking order among production companies at a given studio, which typically depends on how well—or how badly—a company’s last film performed. So if several production companies affiliated with the same studio are interested in a book, a smart agent sounds out which company is highest on the food chain and sends it there. My agent has assembled what she calls "anyone's dream list" of production companies that are interested. It certainly looks like a dream list to me. But it all moves so slowly.

This past weekend, everyone in the family pitched in to wage war on our house and cleaned madly from top to bottom. Just because we have no windowsills and there are holes in the floor is no reason to live like we're camping in a construction site. I decided I was fed up with not having a coat closet and that the time had come to clear out all the paint, drywall compound, and other assorted building materials that have been hiding in the entry closet since we moved back into the house post Katrina (I was waiting for the garage to get cleaned out, but I'm beginning to think that will never happen). As I pulled out rolls of painters' paper and boxes of wiping rags and stacks of caulk, the tile floor gradually began to emerge...and no baseboards. It turns out the closet has been stuffed with so much cr*p for so long that we totally forgot we'd never put the baseboards down in there. I know that's somehow symbolic of my life, but my mind's too scattered at the moment to pin it down.

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