Of Respirators and Renewal

A neoprene respirator sits on the passenger seat of my car these days. On the floor lies a sledge hammer, axe, flashlight, assorted batteries, and a quart jar of water, crowded into a space that once held muddy soccer cleats and math homework. The cloying smell of decay hangs in the air, and dust coats the outside of my car and the inside of my nostrils.

In August, I worried about deadlines and what to cook for dinner and whether my tenth-grader would make the starting volleyball lineup. Now, it's black mold, toxic soil, and my friend Nicci, who lost two houses and her job and is, in her own words, "just drifting" through these difficult days.

Like most others, we had no clue that this storm would prove to be The Killer Hurricane, the one long predicted but never, deep down, really expected. That last day, we hauled in the lawn furniture, moved family albums upstairs, packed two days' worth of clothes, and loaded our daughter and our dog into the car, as we had done a half-dozen other times over the past three decades. The realization dawned slowly: This one was different.

From our temporary headquarters in Houston, we watched New Orleans die. We agonized over friends stranded for days on balconies, in shelters, unrescued, without food and losing hope. We pored over satellite maps, picking out landmarks. Is that Jane and Ed's house under water? Is this Tom and Kathy's house that seemed to survive? News reports told of looting and lawlessness, the slow strangulation of a culture we had lived and loved.

Catastrophe brings out the worst in people. "That's what you get for building on land below sea level," a convenience store clerk snapped when we stopped to get gas. But some are at their best during a tragedy. We were at a restaurant one evening in Houston--my husband, daughter, and I--when a busboy sidled over. "Are you from New Orleans?" he asked shyly. We told him yes. "Can I give you a hug?" We stood up, one by one, and solemnly embraced him.

The Kenyon community embraced us as well. Classmates and professors overwhelmed us with their unstinting support. We were offered a flat in Manhattan, a beach house in Florida, an apartment in Chicago, and the unprecedented opportunity to give away a teenager to fellow alumni willing to take her in and provide schooling. Former roommates sent gift certificates to our three girls to replace lost clothing. Southerners are big on family, and suddenly we had a sprawling and generous one.

The big truths of this disaster have yet to dawn on us. When catastrophe strikes, you're too busy with the details--setting up an office, finding a place to live, getting the kids in school, navigating bureaucratic snarls--to ponder what it all means.

But I am left with mental snapshots: The first sight of my neighborhood three weeks after the flood, a bizarre stillness--no bird calls or street noises--and a world colored in brown and gray. Dead trees with roots pointed skyward. Gaping windows adorned with tattered curtains stained with mud. There were maggots in my refrigerator. At least three different kinds of mold crawled up my dining room wall, weaving around photos of family vacations. Six soldiers with the 82nd Airborne, M16s at their hips, walked abreast down my lakefront street.

I see a rusty pickup, dragged to my daughter's best friend's front yard by the flood waters from the 17th Street Canal. I see my legs climbing onto it, up a fallen oak, and over a second-floor balcony. I am checking on the family's dog, left behind in the storm because shelters wouldn't take pets. I open the door and find the little schnauzer dead.

I returned to work on October 10, while my husband, Stewart (Class of '74), and daughter Katherine remained in Houston. Half a dozen others in my section, men and women, live in New Orleans alone now, while spouses stay with kids attending school in Alexandria and St. Louis, rural Wisconsin and upstate New York. This is not, at the moment, a city for children.

But we are rebuilding, and breathing life back into that one-of-a-kind culture that we all so cherish. Shortly after I moved back, I drove with some coworkers through my neighborhood, where crews cleared away dead branches, trucks towed away silt-covered cars, and gloved and masked homeowners tossed furniture and pieces of drywall onto their lawns. We stopped on Harrison Avenue for a free lunch of Tabasco-laced chicken and pasta, dished out by Drago's, known more widely for its charbroiled oysters.

The debate over how to rebuild is under way. I hope for a return to the eclectic, crazy-quilt look of the city. But whatever its physical reincarnation, the soul of New Orleans survives. Six weeks after the storm we had our first post-Katrina jazz funeral, for Austin Leslie, a chef praised for his crisp fried chicken and ability to carve poultry into eleven distinct pieces. People are talking about costumes for Mardi Gras ("How about a mother as mold, the kids as spores?") and when--not if--their favorite coffee shops will reopen.

New Orleanians have a sense of community and a joie de vivre that will serve them well in the months to come. And perhaps that's the only big truth that matters.

--Renee Brandt Peck is an editor at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

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