Cover Story: Coming Home

Returning to New Orleans, a UC professor tests the power of memory and of community

Sean Hughes

Coming Home

The hotel has a hole blown through the front of the building, slicing it in half. Gray palm trees, nearly leafless, some snapped in half, surround the fragile remains of the building.

Jon Hughes' camera clicks on the destruction.

"This is like fucking Bosnia," he says, his response to the collapsed building seemingly pulled from him, from his own memories. He's seen some stuff in his time, traveling the world.

But this isn't Bosnia. It's Biloxi, in the middle of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I've been here before, many times. And if not at this particular hotel, then one just like it, probably gone now, blown away by Katrina. As kids, we'd eagerly come here with parents in tow.

Biloxi is a short ride from New Orleans, maybe 70 miles at the most. An easy vacation spot for working class families.

In the early '70s, the beaches were white, the water swimable. Hotels, souvenir shops, a mall — all lined U.S. 90, scenic route curving with the beach and vacationers. We'd shop for flip-flops and the latest toys. Our sandcastles, made with Dixie cups, served as the battlefront for our own versions of Star Wars.

Sand explodes easily. Plastic figurines don't seem to mind being buried in the dirt. We can always dig them out.

I show all this to Jon, cameras wrapped around his neck. He wanted to come here with me to see this for himself, try to see it through my eyes as well. Because I have been here before. But it's not fucking Bosnia.

Fortunate one
Driving down from Cincinnati, where I live and work, we pass through the forested desolations of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi. Cities interrupt the trees in 100-mile increments. Bowling Green, Nashville, Birmingham, Meridian. This is the rural South, pretty in its own stark way.

Hitting I-10 in southeastern Louisiana, you know you're near the wetlands. Everything is flat. Pockets of water, riverways, the beginnings of marshland — all visible with increasing frequency from the highway.

Trailers, shacks, even a few boathouses visible through the trees. I remember how poor this area is.

We travel west toward New Orleans, through Slidell, a bedroom community, and then reach a five-mile bridge called the twinspan, which stretches across a far eastern sliver of Lake Pontchartrain, a huge, shallow body of water stretching across the city to the north.

I must have driven across this bridge, with family and without, a thousand times, visiting relatives in Slidell, vacationing in Biloxi, putting flowers by gravestones in Picayune. This is, for me, among the most familiar of familiar journeys.

In August, right after Katrina hit, this bridge was impassable, large sections of it washed away. In December, visiting family for the winter holiday, one lane of the twinspan was opened for traffic.

Now, in mid-February, both lanes are open, but we're warned: Stay at 50 mph or below. We pass over stretches of steel bridge, replacing the blown-away concrete; it's clearly rickety, reminding me of the Erector set I had as a kid. Half a year after the storm, and this bridge could be destroyed by human traffic.

From Mississippi, traveling on I-10, you come first to New Orleans East. Mile after mile of abandoned homes, apartments, businesses. Cars wading in canals.

This is the eeriest experience of my life. As a teen and young adult, I'd spent many hours at the Lake Forest Mall, now deserted. The waters rose, and people left, leaving their material lives covered in sewage, mold, other people's refuse.

We go through the city and get off at the Causeway exit in Metairie, a large suburban area to the west of New Orleans where I largely grew up, went to high school, became a young adult.

This area, to the west of the 17th Street canal that divides Orleans Parish (county) from Jefferson Parish, was largely unflooded. Some homes had 3 or so feet of water in them, but not the 8 to 9 feet that devastated mile upon mile of homes in Lakeview to the east of the 17th Street canal.

People are everywhere, the traffic horrible. As one of the surviving areas, like Mandeville north of Lake Pontchartrain or even Baton Rouge 90 miles to the northwest, Metairie has seen a huge influx of people looking for dry homes and places to work. The crowding, though, makes these old neighborhoods, once so charming, seem dirty, used.

There's trash everywhere. You sit in long lines of traffic, waiting for roads to clear.

We pass by my parents' old house, the one in which I passed through puberty into young adulthood. I learned to play the piano there, watched a favorite uncle die, discovered how much I love to read. Just a big old blue house, boxy, set back a little from the street in this lower middle-class neighborhood.

Its roof was damaged in the storm, and a team of Latino workers are busy repairing it. I haven't lived there in almost two decades, so I stumble when I try to talk to Jon about the house.

I'm glad my mom doesn't live here anymore; the damage would hurt her. I know she hasn't been by here to see this place. Doesn't want to.

Still, I'm glad it's largely OK, but I instantly think of my youngest sister. She grew up in this house, the only one she ever knew, from birth to adulthood. I have to drive on.

We then drive by my old high school. In December, I'd visited with a former teacher, the one who inspired me to become an English teacher myself. She said that my old school had had to absorb displaced students from around the city and was operating on a split-day schedule, one set of students taking class from early morning to early afternoon and another set with other teachers coming in from early afternoon to early evening. Many teachers are out of work, with those working having to take at-will contracts with set salaries regardless of seniority.

She kept telling me over lunch how fortunate I am. Truly fortunate. I have a good home in Ohio, a good job, a good partner. Lucky.

Even my dad's death in early September, shortly after the storm hit, seems fortunate in retrospect. He had suffered terribly this past decade with Parkinson's disease, and Mom had to hospitalize him shortly after they evacuated to stay with relatives outside of Lake Charles in southwest Louisiana near the Texas border. Dad couldn't handle the strain, and his body gave out, following a mind that had already largely left us months earlier.

I still feel a little shame when I say that we felt a little relieved. But he'd suffered — a lot. The task of rebuilding, of trying to get back to some semblance of normal post-Katrina, would be much easier with him at rest.

So that's where we are. Lucky. Fortunate.

I miss this sense of the normal, of fortune, though, when reading about the disaster. FEMA describes it this way: "Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, in southeastern Louisiana, with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph. Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 105 miles from the center of the storm. Coastal storm surge flooding of 20 to 30 feet above normal tide levels, along with large and dangerous battering waves, occurred near and to the east of where the center of the storm made landfall. Widespread damage occurred, including beach erosion and damage and/or destruction of homes and infrastructure."

Others try to attach value to the experience, as in evaluating the nation's response to the disaster. CNN details a recent congressional report, coming out in the second week of February: "At every level — individual, corporate, philanthropic and governmental — we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina."

This is how we usually think. We want to meet disaster head on, to be prepared, to face the challenge. But you have to know what the challenge is — and it's often much more than buildings, levees, infrastructure.

It's memory. It's the past living on through ruins. It's also change — but change unexpected and devastating.

How do you deal with such change? The surrounding areas provide few clues.

100 percent better than what?
We need a mental-health break, so we head to the French Quarter, mercifully spared. Beignets in Café Du Monde, a walk through Jackson Square, slipping through Pirate Alley between the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral. It's almost like home.

But it is home. I've spent so much time here, loved people here, friends, family, people I haven't seen in years. Been drunk here more than once. After all, Bourbon Street is just a couple of blocks away. I built part of my young adulthood on the stones of some of these streets, some of the oldest in North America.

Now, a Friday afternoon, a cool February day, the buildings, shops, antique dealers and souvenir stands invite guests who do not come. With less than half the city's population having returned in the half-year since the storm, this once vibrant place is dulled. The mix of people — tourists, street musicians, tarot readers, locals enjoying some time out of the office — quelled to a sober few this afternoon.

Later, my brother-in-law Michael takes us to Lakeview, the neighborhood nearest Metairie, the suburb where I grew up. The entire area, miles of homes and local stores, is deserted.

Lakeview was completely flooded when the levee of the 17th Street Canal gave way. There is no one here on this day.

We stop every few blocks, seeing homes literally split in half. One house was washed off its foundation and settled in the middle of a street. That's part of the high drama of this catastrophe. Almost too dramatic, because it's the little things that you start to miss when travelling through this destruction. You pass right by them.

The mink coat hung out to dry on the branches of a dead tree. A stuffed animal frog hanging from a downed powerline. A set of shoes lined up in a window, drying in the cool air. Small things.

You learn to pay attention to the things in the corners of your eyes. You catch the human touch. Otherwise, it's just so many deadening ruins.

We stop in a library, which we would've missed if Jon hadn't noticed the metal shelves dumped near the sidewalk and rusting in the sunlight. The front doors are actually unlocked, and we go in.

Immediately we're taken aback by the smell of books, but the building is emptied out. Nothing. No posters, no desks.

Someone has come in to remove things that would mold easily, probably hoping to salvage the building at some point. But the books — you can't take away their smell, which stays behind, telling us of the community that had been here, the kids learning to read, the adults exchanging books week after week.

Michael pulls up in front of his sister's home, half of which she rented out to a tenant. We go inside. Mold rises to the ceiling. Furniture and refrigerators had risen with the water and settled out of place, on their sides, upside down.

Michael points to the beads that his sister left hanging on the wall of her workroom. "She likes to bead, but she had to leave these," he says. "Too much mold."

We walk through the tenant's portion of the house, and I stop by a kitchen table, money scattered across it. Soaked envelopes containing bills, unopened. A desk full of dried-out papers.

It hits me. She hasn't come back. Whoever she was, she's left her life here behind.

We ask and find out that the tenant hasn't returned. But why would she?

It's taken me half a year just to come here, to bear witness myself to this destruction. And my immediate family was lucky; we didn't lose any property in the storm or its aftermath. Just Dad.

We drive past other houses, noticing large orange Xs spray-painted on every house. A number in the top quadrant of the X notes when the house was inspected by FEMA agents, a number beneath how many dead were found in the homes and a number to the side how many pets or other animals were discovered.

We pass a house: "Two cats."

As we sift through rubble, other people's debris, avoiding trash and pieces of furniture and "white goods" such as refrigerator doors and oventops, I hear my brother-in-law reassure us: "It's 100 percent better" and "It's not so bad." But 100 percent better than what? It occurs to me that he lives with this, every day.

He, my sister, my nephews and my niece wake up every day, go to work, go to school, come home and hear about reconstruction and levee fortification every night on the news. They witness the endless arguments among politicians, each casting blame at everyone else. They read about cleanup and repair in the paper, talk about Katrina with their neighbors and see streamers running along the bottom of the television screen: those needing assistance with dialysis call this number, those looking for lost pets call that number. They pass one billboard after another: "We stayed; we'll rebuild," "New Orleans will return..."

You can't get away from it, from either the destruction or the constant reminders of it when you're at home, safe in a house that survived. From that perspective, yes, I suppose "It's not so bad." Your house is safe.

And I can go home, back to Cincinnati, the place where I live and work. Yes, 100 percent better, at least in terms of infrastructure, and a relative absence of desolation. But when I come here — home home — to what do I return?

The casualty here for me is memory.

Don't get me wrong: I certainly remember much. But much memory relies on place, sight, smell — the physical calling us back to time past.

So I pass by the beaches of Biloxi, the Lake Forrest Mall, my old home in Metairie — and I remember. But what's gone? What will I never remember again because these places are so changed, so transformed in just a few days that I can visit them and already start not to know them?

Some memories still alive
I stretch my memory, once more into the city, to the last day Jon and I spend in New Orleans. To uptown, the Garden District, along St. Charles Avenue, famous for its streetcars and oak-lined lanes.

I spent so much time here in graduate school. Nearly every weekend, I'd drive from LSU in Baton Rouge back to this area, to visit, to work, to play. I loved this stated area: PJ's Cafe, Vera Cruz Mexican diner, the Maple Street Bookshop.

The last was in an old home, its old living rooms now categorizing different kinds of books — fiction, poetry, philosophy. I spent much of my teaching assistantship money here, what little of it there was. Buy a book, head to PJ's, maybe a Dos Equis and Mexican dinner to round out the day.

This area is virtually untouched.

I walk into the bookshop, catch a whiff of the paper, the glue in the bindings, and there are tears in my eyes. It's hard not to think of the library in Lakeview, which I'd seen less than a day ago. Gone, but not this.

I am so grateful this is still here.

More Katrina Coverage Online

JONATHAN ALEXANDER, a New Orleans native, is a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.