Christmas After the Storm, December 2006

A Phoenix Rises in New Orleans

My sister Nicole poses for a photo in her rebuilt home in New Orleans, Louisiana.
My sister Nicole poses for a photo in her rebuilt home in New Orleans, Louisiana.
This was my sister's house in March 2005 prior to her moving into it and renovating it the first time.
This was my sister’s house in March 2005 prior to her moving into it and renovating it the first time.

My sister Nicole was one of the victims of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Her home in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which she had purchased in April 2005, was very seriously damaged by floodwaters in what has become one of the most iconic and recognizable catastrophes of our time.

Nicole was properly and fully insured, so with the help of the Preservation Resource Center, from whom she bought her house, she was able to restore her home to a state of near perfection, and was the first resident to return after the hurricane.

Nicole spent nearly two months after the storm living with our mother in Palm Coast, Florida, then nearly a year in a shared apartment, directing contractors and workers on the reconstruction of her home.

This is Nicole's house after she renovated it in the spring of 2005, but before it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in August.
This is Nicole’s house after she renovated it in the spring of 2005, but before it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in August.

After the disaster struck, my wife Abby, like a lot of Americans, stressed about the situation, in particular, of course, about my sister. Abby would pick up an ordinary household object like a spoon and think, “Nicole doesn’t even have this any more.”

One thing Abby did that I thought was brilliant was go to our local Wal Mart and buy summer clothes, which in September were on sale but were perfect for the weather in Palm Coast, along with other housewares and apparel for Nicole, and bought a rolling suitcase, which she packed full of all she’d just bought, and sent it to Nicole in Florida.

This is the exterior of Nicole's house in early October 2005, on an occasion when she was able to visit it, but prior to the start of repairs.
This is the exterior of Nicole’s house in early October 2005, on an occasion when she was able to visit it, but prior to the start of repairs.

Here is a collection of emails (in blue italics) from Nicole she shared as she rebuilt her life…

October 24, 2005: Hello dear friends,

I’m back in New Orleans!  My friend, co-worker, and neighbor David knew someone with an available apartment, so we jumped at the chance to return.  We’re living Uptown in a fabulous but frighteningly decorated 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment in the heart of the action.

New Orleans was always a wonderful place to be, but now it’s better than ever.  People are being exceedingly kind; as an example, the owners of Cafe Luna wouldn’t let us pay for breakfast yesterday morning once they heard about what happened to our houses.  We sat on the porch outside while a man read the newspaper aloud and we all made outrageous comments and laughed uproariously.
Many commercial places are not yet open, and the ones that are have a limited selection of goods.  We’re fortunate in that we’re within walking distance of both a grocery store and a gas station.  Everything else we needed we brought with us, Jode-like.
I’ve met with my insurance adjusters and with FEMA.  Still no definite word on what will happen to my house.  It’s possible that the authorities will elect not to rebuild the area, choosing instead to bulldoze it.  Even if they don’t, it will be months before there are water, sewerage, and electricity, all of which are necessary not only for occupation but to get the repairs underway.
As for my job, so far, so good.  It’s tenuous, and so I’ve decided that if it comes to it, I’ll join the legions of hospitality workers.  How does this sound:  “You want fries with that?”  Or how about this:  “Buy me a glass of champagne, solider?”
David is a wonderful room mate.  I say, “What would you like for dinner?” and he gets up and fixes it (I clean up, after).  This morning I was presented with bacon and eggs, AFTER he’d awakened early to walk both dogs (mine and his) in the cold morning air.
Coffee break’s over.  Back to work for me.
Love, Nicole
Nicole inspects her home as repair work begins.
Nicole inspects her home as repair work begins.
November 18, 2005: Hello Everyone,

It’s 5 am, and I’m up for two reasons:  first, my famous insomnia has found a new manifestation.  Instead of not being able to go to sleep at night, I now drop off just fine, only to find myself wide awake at 4 in the morning, unable to return to slumber (special shout-out here to Chuck:  I’m feelin’ your pain, buddy).  Second, I have my home repair people living in my apartment, and they awaken early, pack up an enormous lunch and various cranes and forklifts, and rumble off in their collassal work truck for yet another day of chopping away at house bits.

The back deck of Nicole's house broke off and floated away during the storm. Workers later found it a couple of blocks away and reattached it.
The back deck of Nicole’s house broke off and floated away during the storm. Workers later found it a couple of blocks away and reattached it.
So obviously the news here is good:  we’ve been officially allowed to reconstruct our neighborhood and the houses within it.  In fact, the power grid within our immediate few blocks has been restored; we need only to re-wire our houses and have them pass inspection in order for Energy to come turn on the lights.  Hence, David’s brother, his business partner, and a friend of theirs have descended upon New Orleans and are camped in our front room, along with the dogs Gene Kelly and Griffin, sleeping on some moldy mattresses rescued from David’s house.  They’re nice guys, and although you certainly couldn’t have convinced me a year ago that I could tolerate living in a commune, I’ve quickly grown accustomed to swimming in this sea of testosterone.  Besides, they cook.
Since my insurance companies still have not given me a final determination on just how much dough I’m going to get to fix things up, they’ve started on David’s house first.  His needs more work anyway.  Unlike me, he didn’t have those fabulous heart pine floors, and so he needs an entirely new one.  In addition, the National Guard or whoever went around breaking into our houses to ensure our post-alluvian absence kicked his doors completely in, shattering them.  My locks on my doors were merely punched out, so they may be able to be repaired rather than outright replaced.

In any event, the demolition stage should be completed just after Thanksgiving, and then work can begin on the actual reconstruction.  We expect delays in that regard, as there is a critical shortage of materials (please send sheetrock!), and David, being David, has ordered some of the most beautiful Bolivian rosewood to replace his floors, which will take weeks to arrive.

When we visited, Nicole took us on a "destruction tour." Many houses, like this one not far from Nicole's, were damaged beyond repair.
When we visited, Nicole took us on a “destruction tour.” Many houses, like this one not far from Nicole’s, were damaged beyond repair.
The plan is for all of us to move into David’s house as soon as it is livable, so that we can stop paying rent.  We’re obviously looking forward to being back in the Mighty Nine (our nickname for the Lower Ninth Ward), but will miss being in the heart of town with so many lovely shops within walking distance and where we routinely encounter pretty much everyone we know on a daily basis.  We’ve got high hopes for the Mighty Nine, however.  The crackheads ain’t comin’ back, it appears, leaving only people like us — homeowners who love beautiful old houses and who are looking upon this disaster as the opportunity to forge the latest and greatest symbol of gentrification.

And speaking of loving old houses, I’ve decided, assuming my insurance company gives me some love, to make a few improvements while I’m at it.  Eat your heart out as you consider these items:  crown molding in the living room…brackets along the front eave (I picked them out yesterday; they feature a fleur de lis design)…real wood kitchen cabinets with granite countertops….mantles in both bedrooms…I’m even going to wire the place for sound so that “Come on Eileen” can be heard even as I undertake my morning ablutions.

About my job:  I still have it.  I’m working harder than I ever have in my life — sometimes 18 hours a day.  David suggests that I perhaps not try to save the world, but I find it a welcome distraction from the realities of our situation, and besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong with world-saving.  However, if I end up losing this gig, so be it.  I can always go to Clown College.
I think that brings us up to date.  Somebody please send me a curling iron. Nicole
The towel rack and light switch in this image give an idea how high the water was in Nicole's house.
The towel rack and light switch in this image give an idea how high the water was in Nicole’s house.
December 12, 2005: Hello Darlings!
This is what I overheard at the City of New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits as I waited to be given permission to reconstruct my house:
So the storm had passed, and I realized that the lights were out.  “I’d better get in there and eat up that jar of mayonnaise in the refrigerator before it goes bad”, I thought to myself.  I’d just stuck the spoon into the jar when I noticed I was standing in water…..”
Ahem.  Anyway, back to our continuing saga.  Work on our houses continues apace, a pretty amazing feat when you consider that we don’t have any utilities.  The wonderful news is, we now have WATER in the neighborhood!  Electricity, gas, and sewerage can’t be far behind, right?  Our utility company estimates that it will be late December before we have power, and early to mid-January before we have gas.
An oddly common sight in the Lower Ninth Ward was boats of all sizes, like this one not far from Nicole's house.
An oddly common sight in the Lower Ninth Ward was boats of all sizes, like this one not far from Nicole’s house.

In anticipation of having all these modern conveniences, we’ve already had our electrician, a plumber, and an a/c guy come out, so we’ll be ready to turn it all back on when the time comes.  One has to get permits for all that stuff before the city will give its approval to let you live like a civilized person.  Our workers even mentioned seeing a Cox Cable van doing things in the area, but I figure if I’ve lived this long without television, that will be the last thing I’m worried about.  Books are more important to me anyway, as evidenced by my ever-growing library.  One by one, I’m not only replacing the books I’ve lost, but also buying books that I’d once only checked out of the library but wished I’d owned.  I ordered what I believe was the very last (and very tattered) copy of James Leo Herlihy’s “Crazy October” from some dude in Canada.  Don’t ask me what I paid for it; suffice it to say it was worth every penny just for the story “Pretty on the Bus At Night Time”, my all-time favorite.  Helping the process along in particular have been Bill Devault, who sent me a free copy of his book, The Panther Cycles, and Phil Donlay, who sent me a replacement copy of his novel Category Five, which I (and don’t you just love THIS irony) edited for him.

Delightful news on the insurance front:  they paid my claim in full.  Yes, you read that right.  I sent it to the mortgage company today.  It seems that I’ve surpassed my goal of being a homeowner by 40 — I’m a homeowner with a paid-for house!  I’ll get a much smaller home equity loan to finish up the reconstruction and to furnish the place.  I’m essentially restoring the place to its former glory as a fine example of Victorian architecture — doing cool things like opening up and rebricking the fireplace mantels, covering every switchplate with elaborate brass, etc.  Now if someone will just send me some jodhpurs and a smoking jacket I’ll fit right in.  Oh, and a horse.

This view looks down the street from Nicole's front porch in 2006.
This view looks down the street from Nicole’s front porch in 2006.
I still have a job, amazingly.  It’s torturously difficult, and I live in fear of making some horrendous mistake, but so far, they seem pleased with my work.  I miss my cancer center “family” a lot, though — especially the ones I know I’ll never see again.  The very core people are still around, and they routinely stop by our office cum apartment cum construction headquarters, to drop things off, pick things up, make copies, and drink copious amounts of coffee.
Two pieces of unhappy news: the first is that Holy Cross High School, our neighborhood anchor, has decided to move away, having lost its student population when St. Bernard Parish floated away.  The second is that Evil Kenny (he of the famous comment “You white people are coming in and tryin’ to force us black folks outta here”) has returned, and spent a good portion of his day harassing my workers.  John appeased him by cutting up a fallen tree for him.  I would have used the chainsaw in a different way, which I suppose shows why it’s best not to put a power tool in my hand when I’m angry.
My chin continues to be up, but that may just be an optical illusion resulting from what David thinks is a rather alarming weight loss.  He took note that my fingers are beginning to look scrawny.  Pffft I say to that tommyrot.  If Bridget Jones (the main character in Helen Fielding’s books) can use her time in a Thai prison to take advantage of the dieting opportunities, can I not be similarly motivated by a hurricane?  But as I was saying.  I’ve been an expert, as my mother would, at tolerating ambiguity, but mercy I’m tired of living like this.  Another man (this one with a more sophisticated palette, I presume) at Safety and Permits put it well when he said, “This storm has made us all feel like we were gonna feel in 10 years anyway”.
I think that about covers it.  I’m going to retreat into my bedroom to do something relaxing, like gazing into the mirror and marveling at how great I look for 50.
Love you all. Happy Holidays. Nicole
This commemorative Hurricane Katrina waterline plaque hangs in Nicole's central hallway.
This commemorative Hurricane Katrina waterline plaque hangs in Nicole’s central hallway.

March 13, 2006: Gentle Readers,

I’m horrified not to have sent an update before now.  I could blame it on any number of things, but they’d all be excuses, and not reasons.  Yes, I go through the days in an exhausted stupor, and yes, I’m busier than a confessional booth priest on Ash Wednesday, but that’s not why I’ve neglected my responsibilities to keep you all informed.  The reason — not the excuse — is that I haven’t been able to come up with a new plot point.  Until today.

It’s all just taken on such a sameness.  Awaken, stumble into kitchen, make kettle of contractor-strong coffee, discuss construction materials, ablute, drive to work, serve as a twisted, beaten drone to the God of Employment, stagger home, do nail maintenance (for those of you worrying about whether I’d lost my essential self – obviously not), and crawl into one of two pieces of furniture I actually own, my bed.  The other piece, an antique french commode (look it up) is too small into which to crawl, and lacks the scent of New! Gain! Tropical! Paradise!

Nicole poses in a phone box in the Bahamas.
Nicole poses in a phone box in the Bahamas.
Where was I?  Oh, yes, the monotony.  It’s been punctuated by a couple of interesting things, to be honest.  I took a trip to the Bahamas with my friend Rose.  The best thing I can say about the trip is that I snagged a flattering photograph of myself (see below).  The worst thing I can say is IF YOU GO THE BAHAMAS IN JANUARY FOR THE LOVE OF GOD BRING A PARKA.
Mardi Gras also happened, and I participated.  My friend Max came from New York, and it was a delight to watch him enjoy what he himself called “the best vacation of his life”.
I’ve spoken to most of you recently enough that you’re aware that construction on my house continues, and continues, and continues.  Sheetrock is up, kitchen cabinets are installed, crown molding winks from the ceilings, baseboards stand guard around the floors.

My interior paint is mostly finished, although it’s taking a while to get the texture just right.  I had a bit of a scare with the color I’d initially selected for most of the space.  My contractors had the good sense, however, to call me after the first coat got slapped on and counsel me that perhaps Scrambled Egg was not the hue I was after.  Once we corrected it to the golden taupe I was trying to achieve, I amused myself by making up names for the other colors I’ve got.  The office, a dark, ballister-esque red, is now, in my mind, “sucking chest wound”.  The guest room, a soothing mossy grey/green, I can now only think of as “meconium”.  The master bedroom, a sunny yet subtle yellow, “cirrhosis”.

The Marine Corps Colonel who took Nicole to see her home shortly after it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina also took her to see this handmade memorial to landmarks in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The Marine Corps Colonel who took Nicole to see her home shortly after it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina also took her to see this handmade memorial to landmarks in the Lower Ninth Ward.
The ceiling fans (and my God, what fans — my dreams of living in a Civil War-era bordello are finally coming true) were hung at the end of last week, and a serpentine yet tasteful iron handrail now adorns my front steps.  I met this evening with the man who will fashion the brackets for my overhang.  And here is where that plot point comes in.  For this evening, as I leaned against my car trying to get roofing materials unstuck from the bottom of my pumps, I saw it.  Or rather, him.  Ben.
You know, Ben.  Sing with me, everyone:
Ben, the two of us need look no more
We both found what we were looking for
With a friend to call my own
I’ll never be alone
And you, my friend, will see
You’ve got a friend in me
(you’ve got a friend in me)
Ben, you’re always running here and there
You feel you’re not wanted anywhere
If you ever look behind
And don’t like what you find
There’s one thing you should know
You’ve got a place to go
(you’ve got a place to go)
I used to say “I” and “me”
Now it’s “us”, now it’s “we”
I used to say “I” and “me”
Now it’s “us”, now it’s “we”
Ben, most people would turn you away
I don’t listen to a word they say
They don’t see you as I do
I wish they would try to
I’m sure they’d think again
If they had a friend like Ben
(a friend) Like Ben
(like Ben) Like Ben

Ben was at least a foot long and it was clear from his yellow-toothed grin that Hurricane Katrina was the best damn thing that ever happened to him.  I couldn’t help but envy the impunity with which he skittered across Dauphine Street.  He’s probably got himself a day job as a Red Cross Food Truck volunteer, or perhaps he took advantage of the $6,000 Burger King sign-on bonus.  In any case, I’m getting a cat.  A big, mean, scruffy, rodent-controlling mountain lion.  You’ll know he’s mine by the rhinestone collar.

Nicole stands at the end of her hallway about a month after Hurricane Katrina flooded her home.
Nicole stands at the end of her hallway about a month after Hurricane Katrina flooded her home.
This is Nicole in the same location as in the previous image, at the end of her hall, during our Christmas visit in 2006.
This is Nicole in the same location as in the previous image, at the end of her hall, during our Christmas visit in 2006.

To celebrate her homecoming, Nicole invited Abby and me, and our mother Sarah Jo in Florida, to join her for Christmas 2006. Abby and I drove the twelve hours straight through, with the dogs in our laps. It was my first visit to New Orleans since June 2001, and mine and Abby’s first visit to Nicole’s new house. Despite vast changes in the landscape and socialscape of New Orleans, its character had not, in my view, fundamentally changed. The people were coming home. The streets were just as confusing as they ever were. It felt like New Orleans.

When Nicole was finished with her post-Katrina reconstruction, her home looked better than it had ever looked, thanks to Nicole's tenacity and attention to detail.
When Nicole was finished with her post-Katrina reconstruction, her home looked better than it had ever looked, thanks to Nicole’s tenacity and attention to detail.

Nicole says that after the hurricane, news reporters kept harping on how the city smelled, and Nicole insists it always smelled like that, like New Orleans.

Mom, Abby and Nicole pose with our dogs Sierra and Max on Christmas Eve 2006.
Mom, Abby and Nicole pose with our dogs Sierra and Max on Christmas Eve 2006.

Mom came from Florida to share Christmas with us, and we all had a great time. Nicole drove us around her neighborhood, showing us all the homes around her that were destroyed.

We celebrated Christmas Mass at the Episcopal Cathedral downtown at Mom’s request.

Christmas gifts were exchanged, including gifts for the dogs. When Abby opened a pair of diamond earrings from Mom, she burst into grateful tears.

It was a great Christmas, and Nicole was home.

Post Script, January 25, 2008 Hello!

As most of you know, I’m often called upon, in this post-Katrina landscape, to provide tours of my house.  Groups, such as Comic Relief and the National Council of Mayors, have trouped through from time to time.  They’re interested in what I’ve done to the place since the storm, and in seeing what life is like for someone living in what is still pretty much a disaster area.

Nicole poses in her house with actress Diane Keaton.
Nicole poses in her house with actress Diane Keaton.

This morning was no exception.  The Board of Directors of the National Trust for Historic Preservation arrived via Greyhound bus, and filed in one by one.  I performed my usual routine — “Hello, welcome, please come in, I’m Nicole Barron, so delighted to meet you, thank you for visiting”, etc.  They in turn told me their names and offered various bon mots — “Nice place you have here, are those the original floors, I’m Bob Jones, I’m Mary Smith, I’m……”

And so on.  The tenth person to walk through my door this morning did the same thing — clasped my hand, thanked me for opening up the house, and said, “Hello, I’m Diane.” Diane. …Diane KEATON, that is. Terrible picture of me, but I don’t care.

Love, Nicole

After our Christmas visit, I asked Nicole if she would write about her experience for my newspaper. Here is the story she penned…

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS by Nicole G. Barron

Abby and Nicole smile for a portrait outside Nicole's house.
Abby and Nicole smile for a portrait outside Nicole’s house.

Christmas 2006 represented a dream come true for me; I finally got to spend the holiday with the woman I love.

Yes, I’m female, so this may seem a little strange. But if you could see her, you’d love her too. Her timeless beauty and grace are unsurpassed; her elegant manner and kindness are known the world over. Like so many ladies of a certain age, she’s seen her share of tragedy, yet continues to hold her head high, welcoming guests with enormous platters of delicious food and warm, soft embraces.

The woman is New Orleans, and she is my home.

The tradition in my family has long been to spend Christmas with my parents in Palm Coast, Florida . My brother Richard Barron and I went every year, and in 2004, we were delighted to be joined by Abby, my
brother’s lovely bride. Sadly, we lost my father early in 2005, and spending the next Christmas in Palm Coast seemed too sad a reminder of that incalculable loss.

We crafted a new tradition, that of a round-robin celebration, beginning with Christmas 2005 in Byng with the newly-formed Young Barron Clan, then 2006 here, in New Orleans. Next year we’ll be back in Florida, plucking oranges off my mother’s enormous trees and watching our dogs cavort in her park-like back yard.

Nicole's Christmas tree fills her living room with light and holiday cheer on Christmas Eve 2006.
Nicole’s Christmas tree fills her living room with light and holiday cheer on Christmas Eve 2006.

Each locale has its charms; Byng is the epitome of pastoral comfort, and includes a pair of goats available for our amusement. Palm Coast, a thriving, well-bred community of retired Northern ex-pats, offers a spa-like experience. But to my mind, nothing beats New Orleans. That’s why, against all reason, I returned here after Hurricane Katrina murdered 1,800 of my neighbors and tore my home to shreds.

Though I attempt to masquerade as a curmudgeonly old crone, at heart I’m a plucky optimist. I suppose that explains how I managed to translate “my brand-new house is ruined!” into, “well, now I can renovate!”

And ruined it was. No words can turn a stomach more than “total loss,” especially as spoken by a FEMA representative. I’d bought the house – my first – just three months before the storm, and seeing it in its post-alluvion state does not rank among my most pleasant memories. The water reached 5 feet inside my house, which sits on 3-foot piers. For all intents and purposes, everything I’d owned was gone, including treasured photographs, letters, and artwork. I had not a stick of furniture, not a pot to cook in, not even a sundeck, which had, until the Great Deluge, been fastened to the back of my house.

But I did have what every woman really needs – a flattering lipstick, the love of a good dog, and my wonderfully supportive family. Those things, coupled with a generous insurance settlement, sent me on my way to rebuilding what I unabashedly now describe as a gorgeous home.

And it was to that rebuilt home that I invited my little family. I’d been preparing for this visit in my mind for months. I purchased a 9-foot Frasier Fir to grace the front room of my high-ceilinged Italianate cottage, its branches decorated with silk flowers and its hundreds of white lights reflecting the gleam from my 100-year-old heart pine floors. I hung a set of towels, festooned with fleur-de-lis, in the guest bathroom, and placed potted poinsettias in the wrought iron window boxes. Stars of Bethlehem glowed in the multi-paned front windows, and my new granite countertops groaned under the weight of an assortment of holiday treats.

My mother, Sarah Jo Barron, arrived first, followed shortly thereafter by Abby and Richard from Byng.

Christmas Eve found us at Christ Church Cathedral, a massive gothic structure inside of which can be found a scene reminiscent of the Royal Wedding. I opened my hymnal and belted out carol after carol, trying not to cringe at the sound of my well-intentioned but hopelessly flat alto voice.

We spotted this message in Nicole's neighborhood as well.
We spotted this message in Nicole’s neighborhood as well.

A good deal of time was spent eating; we particularly enjoyed Abby’s pumpkin trifle, and I took considerable pride in the spread I put out on Christmas day. My dog Griffin and Byng’s celebrated Chihuahuas, Sierra and Max, were particularly enamored of the mouth-watering orange-glazed turkey I prepared.

Gifts included cashmere socks for my delicately beautiful sister-in-law and camping gear for my outdoorsman brother. I was profoundly grateful to receive a set of monogrammed coasters and salt-and-pepper shakers that coordinated perfectly with my new stainless steel appliances.

After our feast, my family and I ventured out to see the city, on a tour now dubbed by most of us locals as the “Magical Misery Tour.” It was important to me that my guests see the miles of destruction, and to recognize that, while I am a daughter of fortune, thousands upon thousands of my fellow citizens are not. New Orleans, like the hearts of its people, is currently held together with bailing wire and duct tape. A particularly poignant message was painted on one house we passed: “Home. This was home.”

And home it is, for me, and for all the victims of the Diaspora eventuated by the storm. What made it complete, the thing that meant I’d finally recovered, was having my family inside it, sharing with me my rise from the ashes of destruction.

No stress or disaster or bad news could stop Christmas morning for Mom, Nicole, and Abby.
No stress or disaster or bad news could stop Christmas morning for Mom, Nicole, and Abby.
Nicole poses in her new bedroom. She was the first person in her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood to return and rebuild.
Nicole poses in her new bedroom. She was the first person in her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood to return and rebuild.