January 30, 2006

It's been almost 5 months since Hurricane Katrina. Being 1400 miles away in NJ, I utilized all the things one can accomplish with a phone, fax, fed ex account and the internet. Seek and ye shall find was my mission. Exhausting all avenues of getting information for my folks has put me at a stand still...something I was not about to accept. So, my husband, Chris & I booked a flight to New Orleans about two weeks ago.

I have had a chance to think about our trip and assess what it all meant. Not having seen my family once they were rescued 6 days from their flooded home sat heavily on my conscience. People ask me, "So what do you expect to get when you're there?" I respond, "To get closure and help my folks." I had no magic answer, but knew in my heart that this needed to be done.

Actually, "closure" is what I've had to toy with inside my own head with each day that has passed since the inception of Katrina. What do we expect get? I can't really say because I have never had to go through this before. Feeling utterly helpless as I witness the ruins of a beautiful unique city become more embedded into the psyche of the American public. Watching family and friends scurrying to regain permanent residence in unfamiliar towns and trying to remain in touch. Watching them return to their old flooded homes by enduring several long road trips to pick up any piece of something recognizable that these insidious mold spores failed to deface. Watching my childhood hometown be erased from this earth as if it never existed. It's almost the same feeling of witnessing a loved one pass away...the grieving is all the same. It's hard to feel as if anyone can really get closure in this tragedy.

As we fly in, we are immediately taken back by a sea of blue turquoise tarps protecting battered roofs from impending rain. This is the first sign of vastness. Being up miles in the sky, you can actually see all the devastated areas east to west: Bay St. Louis, all of St. Tammany Parish, Lake Pontchartrain's shore line, all of New Orleans, my hometown of St. Bernard Parish, to as far west as the airport in Kenner and LaPlace. One can not mistake normal terrain to what is pure devastation.

The trees! Many laying down exhausted by the hard winds never to wake up again. Lots of them broken in half like fragile glass rods. Having viewed it from this vantage point began to make me shake. What am I about to enter?! This isn't my home anymore! I surely held back the tears more than those levees held back the floods. But I'm not gonna cry...not right now. I'm on a mission and tears would hold me back. But to be honest, I was slowly crumbling inside. The swells of sadness stuck in my throat as if someone was strangling me. Everyone in the plane was in awe by the ground below. Other passengers struggling over others to get one glimpse out of those tiny cabin windows. We were all curious, and I can almost guarantee not one of us was visiting there for a pleasure trip. Even the plane we flew in on was downgraded to a rubberband mini-jet sitting 3 across. Understandably, this town is finding it hard to draw in the crowds but I will come back to this later.

The weather was a nice breezy 60�. A far cry from what it was just 3 months ago. The first sign of silence was in the airport. Flying in on a Wednesday afternoon should be bustling. Dixie music playing in the background. People dodging people. But not this day. I expected delays getting to St. Bernard Parish before night fall, but we actually made it in record time. It also helped that there wasn't one traffic light working for 40 miles. And even though the streets seemed cleared, you still have to watch for nails and small debris.

Security? What security? I guess at this point, people's lives have been exposed for so long, it doesn't matter who enters the towns. We weren't carded at any stop point.

Leaving the airport, you are immediately hit with a musty smell. This isn't that abnormal for the southern coast. But the smell grew stronger as we approached New Orleans. We were informed that the Claiborne Bridge (over the Industrial Canal) which connects the upper and lower 9th Ward was just opened, so we took this route. My heart sunk as we approached the area. I don't care how stone hearted a person can be, this will certainly bring tears to anyone's eyes. No matter where you drive, you immediately look for the water level lines to gauge how much destruction you are about to enter. And there it hits you, the breakage in the levee so close to you and so vast. This is what flooded New Orleans' lower 9th Ward and most of St. Bernard Parish among some other through-ways from the eastern side

As we drove over the bridge, what cannot be captured on camera was the strong smell of death. To this day, there are still missing bodies amongst the 10-20ft high piles of rubble that the government has halted the recovery efforts for. How can we forget them? As I ride through Claiborne Ave., I know they are there. I can smell them. I can hear their cries. And all they want is to be found and remembered. It is unmistakable what awaits the surviving family members under this debris. And still, they are having a difficult time regaining their dignity because there is no help. Family members who have the financial means to return (not many do) are taking it upon themselves to rummage through the dried up muck and piles of dangerous debris to find a skeleton with a piece of clothing that might give the dead some identity.

As Claiborne Ave. becomes Judge Perez Drive, we make our way through Arabi, and you began to get a sense of what is levee flood damage to what might be hurricane wind damage. Now remember, parts of the eye of the storm brushed over St. Bernard Parish. Arabi begins St. Bernard Parish; one of the older parts of the Parish. Many homes are made of wood and therefore, float like wood. Homes were just twisted off foundations deposited in new locations, even a few blocks away. Some just collapsed onto themselves. From the time we got off Interstate 10 (I-10), I was baffled by street after street. An endless stream of devastation. My brow began to hurt because the expression on my face was locked in a frown position of disbelief. People's lives turned upside down...floated away like their house on some street. All the life drained out of huge 100 year old Oak trees just uprooted, defoliated by the winds, as they lean on the bashed-in roofs of nearby homes.

You notice a lot of cars and boats. Some still parked in driveways. But no one around. No birds. No voices. Nothing. A ghost town of cars, boats, refrigerators, and battered landscape. All bearing the signs of what is now known as the "Katrina Patina" stain. A lot of cars have had their tires stolen jacked up on bricks (like my mother's car) assuming the streets have been hard on people's cars returning. Many of the newer cars, which seem to be airtight, floated on an angle with their backs in the air because the engine weighed more. They lay up against trees, still dangling by strong branches, or on someone's roof, or even by another car in the same position. Some boats floated off their trailers and redeposited on streets.

I was told by several witnesses (one of them my father) that during the initial flood, tsunami-like waves of water took cars, boats and debris with it rolling them in an easterly direction down the highways like little matchbox cars and toy boats. And maybe even some unlucky souls were sucked up in this growing monster of black muddy water. All banging up against buildings, homes, lamp posts and trees along the way. All this activity taking a mere 30 minutes to fill up a town bowl of 20 and 30 feet deep in some areas on Aug. 29th around 6:45am.

To give you an idea of just how quick the flood came, at about 6:00am, my father had just learned on the radio that the Industrial Canal levee just gave way. Around 6:15am were his first sightings of waves rolling down St. Bernard Highway and in between homes. He described it as if someone just dumped a giant bucket of water on the town rushing everywhere. By 6:30am, water made it into their house by over 3 feet. Proof by the clock on their kitchen wall stopping at 6:30am. By 6:45am, he was swimming in about 12-15 ft of water. Winds still gusting at 155-165 mph even though the eye had already passed over them. In all this activity, my mother made it into the attic with 2 of their cats. My dad rushes to the top of the roof and chops a hole through it to get my mother. At this point, the water level has surpassed the gutter line by about 1-2 ft. My brother, also on the roof, grabs onto the canoe with 3 of their small dogs in it and fights the strong swirling currents and choppy waves with every bit of strength determined to keep their dogs safe. Sadly, 7 of their other pets perished just minutes before. Now, imagine if it was just 3 hours earlier in total darkness.

Chris and I make it to our destination in Chalmette where FEMA trailers begin to line the streets. You have to commend these die-hards for trying to pick their lives back up again in a town that is colorless, and the only thing bringing a smile to your face are the funny signs people spray painted on their homes bashing FEMA and insurance companies for not being true to their word.

As we approach my parents' house on Chalmette Ave, I grew nervous. I was hit with a wave of a strong moldy odor. Pretty much everything is dry at this point except for any enclosed furniture or cabinetry. The saying in town is, "if it dried, it died". But if you ask me, mold lived for millions of years. And there ain't nothin' dry about the south. Amazingly, the only spring of life I witnessed was the tomato plant in my father's garden growing a strong 3 feet high with little round shiny tomatoes peeking from under the leaves. Hello, this is January! I had to laugh as tears came streaming down my face. A sign of hope! I feel like a wuss. I am crying because I see tomatoes...friggin tomatoes!

I was greeted by my thin frail father, Owen and robust brother, O.J. I never hugged someone so tight as I held them this day. With my gear on, I then proceeded to make my way through piles and piles of debris still littering the sidewalks. As I enter the front door, everything looked rusty, brownish and unrecognizable. Every color of mold lined the walls and anything porous. Black, white, green and orange tufts of little alien molds. Heck, they must be aliens if they can survive the toxins emitted into this water. Some containers still holding this black egg-smelling sewage flood water of death. The entire ceiling sheet-rock had fallen on top of the furniture below in every room creating a giant dried papier mache of some unrecognizable sculpture. Several water-level markings lined the walls as the flood slowly receded. My parents' possessions destroyed and exposed to be hauled away like meaningless junk. Cabinets hanging on by minimal strength still holding that bowl I use to make Ambrosia in for Thanksgiving. Or my parents' wedding chinaware. Antique depression glassware discolored by the blackness in the water. Knick-knacks floated into other rooms. Books turned black as they still lay snuggled in the turned-over bookcase warped by the mucky water. Anything plastic turned a dark grey and wreaked of something indescribable. The refrigerator lay flat on its back taunting our curiosity with, "Go ahead, I dare you. Open me up." My parents' bed still made, but still holding two of their dead cats in the box spring like some temporary coffin. Photos defaced like abstract watercolors. The only photos that survived the acidic water were old Polaroids. Ain't that something?

I was then greeted by my good friend, Mark Paxton, an Air National Guardsman. He was also a Physical Therapist in what is now a flooded hospital. But for now, he has been stationed in the Parish to help people get the aid they need from FEMA and other organizations. He came by to help my folks go through the house and remove furniture, debris and salvage items my mother had hoped to find. He has also lost his home in the Lexington subdivision of Meraux. Those of you who don't know about Lexington, this is probably one of the most devastated areas hit by the storm surge coming from the marshlands off the Ship Channel/Intercoastal Waterways aside from the Hopedale, Delacroix, Plaquemines Parish and Slidell areas. Big beautiful brick homes just lifted with their foundations still connected. Mark showed us how one house bounced in a zig-zag motion off each neighboring house until it was deposited down the street past 10-15 houses. Tufts of marshland grass dangling from ceiling fans and roof tops never to be returned to the marshes that use to help protect the land from surges. All around you see a weakened landscape and many broken hearts. Fortunately, Mark was able to relocate his family to Abita Springs (north of the Lake) in a home they recently purchased.

It took us longer than we thought to go through my folks' house. My father had made several long trips prior to do just what we did. But having every family member there (except my mother), and with Mark's help, was like a big reunion of old times. We were all on a mission. We found my mother's 4 deceased cats that perished during the initial flood and buried them. We also found a few heirloom possessions and important papers. Sadly, I was unable to salvage any of my grandmother's photos which I had hoped to put together in a nice memorial album for her memorial service, but what's done is done.

In all this, my good friends, Stephanie and Hank Luckow let us stay in their Slidell home for the duration. Driving the Twin Span Bridge over Lake Pontchartrain everyday allowed us to see just how much marshland has been lost by the storm surge. Amazingly, they just opened the bridge after Katrina ripped apart sections of the side heading into New Orleans. I admit I was a little weary driving over it.

Luckily, Steph & Hank's home came out of this unscathed except for a few wind damaged exterior items on their house and in their yard. Considering how close they were to homes torn up like toothpicks in their town, they were very lucky .

In the middle of our trip, we took my cousin, Maria, out for a delayed birthday dinner on Esplanade at a very good restaurant called Caf� Degas near the fairgrounds where they hold the N.O. Jazz Festival each year. The streets were eerie at night and we felt weird enjoying a nice dinner, but happy to give them our business. As we left the restaurant, getting to the I-10 via St. Bernard Ave. in New Orleans was pretty scary even though there was no one around. You feel alone in a town of complete darkness. Don't pop a tire because no one can help you. Driving back to Slidell on the I-10 through New Orleans East at night is just miles and miles of heartbreaking views. The only way I can describe it is if you've ever seen that horror movie based in London called "28 Days Later"; came out about 2 yrs ago. A disease overtakes the country and people go into survival mode from zombies. London becomes a ghost town. And New Orleans is this ghost town. And it is so sad.

Towards the end of our trip, I felt compelled to tour other areas I have lived in. I saw my old childhood home on Licciardi Ln. in the town of Violet (still in St. Bernard Parish) where I grew up in my first 14 years. The town has become worn around the edges pre-Katrina. And it's amazing how big things seem when you are a kid. The street is small and littered with debris. Unsurpassable because a house sits on the middle of it. On a neighboring street, Guerra Drive, I also ran into my school bus driver during the early '70s, Mr. JJ, who was cleaning out his own house. What a bittersweet reunion this was. The McDonald's I use to work in as a teenager, exposed and still has the dried up cracked silt left there on the floors from the marshes near where the Murphy Oil tank leaked black crude on neighboring streets.

The levees are a priority and the government seems to be lacking in this urgency. I have gone down there to see for myself and get closure. You just have to go down there for yourself to be changed for life. They want people from the outside to come in. They want you to come in and help business thrive. Many are even willing to give quick tours to help you understand better. Throughout our trip down there, we were being told about heroic stories one after another, and learning of more friends that have perished in the flood. We should not forget this. For me, this is a very personal pain. But for those of you who aren't from there and want to help make a difference, take a long weekend trip there to digest some of this. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. We thought the government could bail us out of situations, but this has proven to us that we are still primitive in our way of thinking. The recent past has shown us unthinkable tragedies can happen whether it is man-made or natural. If you can think it, it can happen. The question is, are we prepared after what we've just learned?

Even after 5 months, all the towns look as if like they were forgotten. Literally...the City that Care REALLY forgot. I know progress has happened, but the problem is so vast, I admit I was beginning to lose hope in how can an undertaking of this magnitude fix all the problems of every town. FEMA isn't helping like we had hoped and folks are still struggling to live. It took 300 years to become what it was pre-Katrina. And it took one day to wipe it all clean. Hurricane Betsy looks like a spit in the wind to Katrina. Describing this or even seeing photos cannot capture the vastness. I felt like a tiny ant in 360� of utter devastation. Imagine an area including all of New Jersey, New York City and most of Connecticut wiped out. Or a coastal area from Los Angeles to Monterey Bay, just shy of San Francisco. Or even from D.C. to the northern border of New Jersey. It's hard to comprehend this much destruction.

My mother said it in a nutshell, "The earth owns us. We don't own it." I can honestly say that I now have a new appreciation for life.

Thank you for reading through this long email. I hope it has touched you in a way that is informative and sparks interest. Spread the word to those around you. If you want to know more from those directly affected, let me know. Maybe I can put you in touch with victims willing to talk about their experiences.

Be safe and be well,
Antonina Pascual Landi
E: tplandi@mindspring.com