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Assignment: New Orleans

Son, daughter help his mother clean up after Hurricane Katrina.

Although the Hurricane Katrina saga has been told and retold so many times in the past two months, one look at the piles of trash, abandoned houses and shattered lives on a typical New Orleans street had all the signs of a tragedy still in progress.

The storm hit in late August. By the time November rolled around, my mother, a former resident of Hayfield Farm and a current resident of Bancroft Drive in the Lakeside neighborhood of New Orleans, was ready for some help. My sister and I packed up the van and headed south, not knowing what to expect.

From Northern Virginia, the drive to New Orleans is 1,050 miles through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and a short stretch of Louisiana before crossing the bridge at Slidel, just east of New Orleans. As we got closer to the city, the destruction became increasingly obvious. We passed downed trees, mangled street signs, and several Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trucks towing trailers bound for the recovery effort.

Once inside the greater New Orleans area, we encountered entire neighborhoods smattered with trash and destruction. Abandoned boats sat on the median, flooded-out cars were abandoned at the roadside, and taped-up refrigerators full of rotten food dotted the side streets.

Mom’s house had sat in 18 inches of water for three weeks, which took its toll. She showed us the inside, holding back the tears, while we planned our strategy for clearing the rooms for the rebuilding job.

ACCORDING TO FEMA, porous material such as wallboard must be removed a foot above the watermark, and then the interior of the wall must be checked for mold. This was already done in my mother’s house. However, damaged furniture cluttered the inside and had to be thrown away. FEMA recommends “when in doubt, throw it out” because of the hazards that are associated with mold, including respiratory problems, nasal and sinus congestion, eye irritation, skin irritations, nervous system ailments and general aches and pains. When working in this environment, gloves, mask and eye protection are recommended.

Although most of the residents of Bancroft Drive were insured, homeowners and flood insurance are two different things. FEMA recommends that “even if you have taken steps to protect your home from flooding, you still need flood insurance if you live in a floodplain.” This can be purchased under the National Flood Insurance Program. The average flood insurance premium costs about $400 a year for an average of $100,000 of coverage, but it’s not as costly as paying back a disaster home loan, FEMA noted.

June Shirley, of Allstate Insurance in Annandale, sees a few homeowners in this area getting flood insurance, but not that many because of the cost. “It’s usually as expensive as homeowners insurance,” she said. “It depends on what zone you’re in,” she added, referring to high flood risk zones determined by FEMA. Homeowners on some streets in Old Town, Alexandria, for example, are required to have flood insurance, Shirley said, adding that not all water-related destruction is considered a flood by definition. “To be considered a flood, it has to cover more than one property.”

But the residents of the Big Easy were not deterred, and the process of rebuilding continued on every block. The rumor of big insurance money and lots of work attracted migrant workers by the truckload. In one part of City Park, an instant village popped up of campers and tents, creating a security nightmare for the city.

At one point, a worker from Chicago approached us in the middle of the street and told us his hard luck story of how he had been in camp for a month and only made $400. He then proceeded to explain how the city was tearing everything down, which wasn’t what the homeowners were told, and possibly just a rumor spreading around the camp.

It wasn’t clear if all the workers were licensed in Louisiana, and this may create a problem for electrical or drywall replacement. “Each state has its own licensing,” said Sonny Nazemian, the chief executive officer at Michael Nash Kitchen’s and Interiors in Fairfax. Nazemian has a crew currently down in New Orleans, working on a former Fairfax Station customer’s second home.

Over on Bancroft Drive, a neighbor was out cleaning her yard and not hesitant to stop and share combat stories of her Katrina experience, including a call from FEMA about a trailer they couldn’t deliver because no electricity was available in that part of town.

The first day, while around back clearing leaves and branches, a couple of Homeland Security agents sporting sidearms showed up to make sure no looting was going on. They proceeded to explain that looters did target two-story houses, and we should lock up when we were done and keep on the lookout. This warning eased our conscience and created paranoia at the same time.

In the next few days, Humvees patrolled up and down the road. The city trash service was making its way toward Bancroft Drive to scoop up the trash but it was a slow process. In front of each house was a heaping pile of rotted furniture, clothes, food and debris. For some reason, canceled checks were blowing around in the street dating back to 1973, 1976 and the early 1990s. All around were baby dolls, stuffed animals, shards of dishes, toilets, a broken mirror, and various elements of lives that were put on hold. A layer of silt covered everything.

A Newington resident, Mike Salmon is a former community reporter of the Springfield Connection.