Returning Home After Katrina
Carolyn tried to come back home immediately, but the Lower Ninth was cordoned off. "The policeman stopped me at the foot of the bridge. I told him, 'Officer, all I want to do is... see if my house is still standing.'" She wasn't allowed. A month later, in October, she tried again, and this time a guard recognized her. And told her she was dead.
"Pinch me!" was Carolyn's response.
As she walked through the emptiness of Holy Cross, a neighbor told her the same thing, and somehow it fit. "When I came to see my house," she says now, "there was a deep breath I had to take. 'Cause everything down here was, like, dead." She looks around slowly. "It was like I was walking into death... Everything was gray."
She saw her house was still in one piece and took pictures of the ruined interior. "In a swirl, like it had gone down a drain."
A couple of months later, on Kyra's Christmas break, the two of them returned to start the cleanup. Father Joe met them. It was clear to Carolyn that someone had been through the swirl of her possessions and helped themselves. Mother, daughter, priest, and another parishioner salvaged what they could, shoveling out the river mud that covered the hardwood floors, pulling down the rotted walls. Volunteers from the Alleluia Group -- a self-described "charismatic, ecumenical, Christian community" -- had come down from Georgia to volunteer. "The Alleluia Group came in and pretty much finished off everything that we couldn't do," Kyrah recalls. "'Cause we weren't tall enough and didn't have ladders." The team also gutted another parishioner's house and started on St. David. Father Joe held a pre-Christmas service outside the battered church.
During that time, Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission held its first public meeting at the Sheraton Hotel. Holy Cross had been designated an "Infill Development Area," subject to land seizure and developer's plans. Carolyn put on a brown print house dress and, with a black purse over her shoulder, made her way downtown through the ruins. Inside the Sheraton, she kept running into people she knew. And they kept telling her she was dead.
When the time came for public comment, she walked to the microphone and politely introduced herself. "I came to this meeting to find what your vision for the Lower Ninth Ward." Her voice was a little hesitant at first, in front of the cameras and the crowd. "I heard nothing really for the Lower Ninth Ward." As her confidence grew, she emphasized her points by tossing her head. "Those are my family, my friend, my neighbor. I been down there -- yes, I'm telling my age -- fifty-nine years! And I know who been here, I know who came, and I know who went."
Now, standing on her porch, describing the scene, she says, "It looked like they didn't understand me, right? So that's what made me pause."
After the pause, she leaned in to the mike. "I'm here for those persons who cannot get back to New Orleans," scanning the panel, which included Mayor Nagin, "and I don't think it's right if you try and take our property." A voice gave a faint thank-you; her two minutes were up. "Because like I said," Carolyn continued, "over my dead body! I didn't die with Katrina! Bye." And she spun from the mike, the crowd applauding and shouting.
"I think they heard me," she says now, grinning. The moment was replayed on C-SPAN; NPR picked it up. Carolyn says someone asked President Bush about the woman at the Sheraton. Here on her porch, Carolyn reenacts the president's back-and-forth with reporters. "The man said, 'Well, President, the lady say you'll get it over her dead body.'" Carolyn's big smile reemerges. "'I have no comment.' 'But the lady say --' 'Well, I don't know how she really, really feel.'"
Now, with this small party going on in the midst of her still-dark neighborhood, she adds, "I'll tell you how I really, really feel. I love New Orleans. I love the Lower Ninth Ward. And I'm not going anywhere." She gives a proud smile, looking at her gutted house. "'Cause I'm home. I'm home. These are my friends. These are my neighbors. And I love that."
She's been staying here, illegally, since February. "It was supposed to be look-and-leave. I came in a U-Haul. And with flashlights and batteries. And candles!" She gives her troublemaking grin. Carolyn and her brother Raymond started camping in the bare bones of her gutted home. That first night, she remembers, "I lit up the whole house!... It was glowing on the corner, and it was total darkness all around... So the police came, and I let them in. And he said, 'Don't you know you're supposed to look and leave?' I said, 'The last time I noticed, I owned this house!'" She tosses her head and grins some more. "So, look-and-leave went to look-and-stay."
They've been camping ever since: bathing in water hauled from the corner fire hydrant, watching battery-run TVs, cooking off a propane barbeque grill that doubles as a heater. The Red Cross gave them hot food and blankets. "They thought it was so cute: two senior citizens breaking violations." Carolyn laughs.
Someone suggests throwing a block party to show they're back: putting tables out on Jourdan Avenue and having everyone cook.
"Next year," says Carolyn. "My knees will be ready." She's scheduled for a knee replacement operation. And by next year, she figures, the neighborhood should be back. Looking out on the block, she ticks off the status of each house. The one to her north, "the landlord has." And the one to the south, "I find out this couple's not coming back, so that's probably up for sale. The next house right behind it, I don't know if he's coming back. 'Cause that's a senior citizen."
The sun has now set, and the mosquitoes are starting to come out. It's time for the small party to break up. Carolyn says goodnight to everyone, then locks the front gate against stray dogs. She carefully pulls the front door closed and locks it, too -- against looters. Soon the block is still again, the only light the blue flicker of her TV.
Copyright 2012 by Daniel Wolff. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury.