Stormy Weather

They say bad things occur in sets of three, and after hearing my story, even the least superstitious of you might agree.  

At the beginning of this summer, I was on the brink of a major transition.  For the first time in my life, I finally found a place so culturally rich, so entertaining, and so professionally stimulating that I decided to buy a house.  It is not something I pictured happening at the ripe age of 35, single, and without children, but there I was, preparing to move out of my apartment in the elite dollhouse Riverbend neighborhood of New Orleans, into the distressed, predominantly African-American neighborhood of Central City.  It was a move I took time to make after moving here--a year to be exact--and it has taken another year for the blighted house I identified as my future home to finally complete construction, under the direction of the non-profit housing developer for which I work.  I was scheduled to close the first week in August.   

I can say without exaggeration that after living in nine different cities in the past 17 years, it is the first real commitment I have made in a very long time.  

This decision was not without tests, three of them to be exact, all of which occurred in the month of August.  But now it is September and I can look back knowing that I have learned invaluable lessons about commitment, friendship, and this place called New Orleans.

A Collapsing House and a Demolition
A New Orleans summer is not without its challenges, and this past one was no exception.  June and July brought monsoon-like showers that beat down on the city and its aged housing stock, many of which were left blighted and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  One such house loomed eerily next to my targeted new home and I only signed a purchase agreement because I knew that the monstrosity was on the City's demolition list.  It was rumored to be a once a historic home, characteristic of the Caribbean architecture imported here by freed slaves originating from the West Indies.  But by June of 2012 it was a decrepit mess with a caved-in roof, serving as a squatting location for homeless junkies looking for a dark corner in which to shoot up.  Its owners were wealthy residents living in one of the most elite neighborhoods of New Orleans, who claimed for years that they were saving to fix it up.  Twenty thousand dollars later in back taxes the property made its way onto the City's obligatory demolition list, but not in time to keep it from collapsing under the pressure June rains, causing it to crawl closer and closer towards my would-be home just days away from completing construction.  On July 27th, after a thunderstorm, it looked like this:

It made its way on the fast-track to demolition.  I was slated to close within days, and after an analysis of my Asian lunar calendar fortune, I was instructed by my mother to avoid, at all costs, closing or moving into the house on August 3rd, 4th, or 5th.  Despite the convenience of asking friends to help with the move on Saturday August 5th, I heeded my mother's advice.  The move was scheduled for August 6th, two days before I was scheduled to leave the state for a friend's wedding.

On August 5th, the City conducted the demolition of the neighboring structure.  I stopped by to find a pile of rubble, disturbingly close to my would-be home.

And on further inspection, I saw my the bedroom of my little house was not spared.

Repair work started two days later by the general contractor who had been hired by my work.  I stayed in town to make sure all was in order with the repairs to begin and missed the wedding of my long-time friend in California but still had time left in my planned vacation.  In my absence my pets stayed in my apartment with a friend who agreed to house-sit.  I hoped to get away from the commotion for at least a little bit and relax in California for two weeks with my nieces and nephews.

A Fire
I was not in California for more than four days when I learned that the apartment building where my stuff remained, with my pets and my house sitter,  caught on fire.  The handyman and plumber, fond of my dog Milo, came into my apartment even before the firefighters arrived.  They called me while I was in California to tell me that they saved my dog.  

But they forgot about my cats.  

After a flurry of phone calls, the cats were eventually saved by firefighters on a second trip into my apartment, this time escorted by the housesitter.  The fire made the evening news.

Though the fire-starting culprit lived in the apartment above mine across the hall, the entire building filled with smoke, and after all was said and done, the entire structure resembled a war zone.

My apartment was covered in soot, some of it drenched in stale water from the fire hoses.

I came back the next day, and after sending a few texts, several friends offered housing,  petsitting, help in packing and moving.  My boss offered a place in her own home for me, and also offered that I move into the new house before the closing date; the general contractor sped up repairs, working his crew overtime on the weekend.  

My friends moved me into the home which was not yet mine, pets and all.

A Hurricane
And, after two weeks of putting the finishing touches on the house that would be my home, with closing prolonged by my lender for a few more days, Hurricane Isaac decided to pay New Orleans a visit.  With my pets just barely starting to eat and poop normally again, I was in no mood to relocate them.  So-called expert predictions on Isaac's scope varied from a category 1 to a category 3 back down to a mere tropical storm.  Mayor Landrieu declared a state of emergency but did not require evacuation.  

A self-selected group of friends with strong stomachs decided to stay in town, and Hurricane pods were formed as designated by neighborhood and friendship proximity.  The decision amongst five of us was to hunker down at my house, located geographically on the incline of the flood plain, which did not see too much water during Hurricane Katrina.  

Three of us were Hurricane newbies, unused to the howling sounds of winds, rain, thunder, of  crackling houses busting up, of transformers throughout the neighborhood blowing once every few hours.  While I distracted myself with the tasks of hosting, others would crack jokes, suggest games to play, or help prepare the next meal.  We had all cooked up our perishables for that night, in contemplation of power outages and failing refrigerators.  We ate like kings, and frequently so, in order to pass the time.  

"It's not the Hurricane that sucks so much, it's the boredom without electricity," said Ryan, a veteran of Hurricane Gustav.  I spent my energy prioritizing items to be cooked next, and frozen yogurt to be made, based on a hierarchy of perishables.  I focused on cleaning and making sure my guests were comfortable.  I focused on hosting my first dinner party which happened to be in honor of a hurricane.  I focused on whatever I could to distract me from wondering if this newly rehabbed 100-year old house would keep us all safe and dry.

It did.  While others had rows of downed trees, missing siding, yards of shingles stripped from their roofs, collapsed fences, I counted on one hand the number of missing shingles.  Massive oak trees and medium sized banana trees took out fences, windows, and power lines.  We were lucky, I was lucky.  And for the second time in two days, I burned incense in gratitude to and in memory of my grandmother as tears quietly trickled down my cheeks.  The worst part was over.  Well, almost.

For two more days, we hurricane buddies gave eachother space but also stuck together, some of us going to work, others whiling the daytime hours with busy work in our houses, all of us staring down the dark, hot, muggy night, in the blackness of a place that once was and still is a swamp.  With no air-conditioning, no fans in our own homes and neighborhoods, we all gravitated to the French Quarter, the one neighborhood in town with electricity, spared from the blackout by the sole subterranean power grid in the city kept perfectly in tact.  We ate and drank like newly released prisoners, though we had been eating and drinking for the past two days just to stay sane.

The company helped us all get through the hot, sticky nights, as did the battery-powered karaoke machine, and our determination not only to stick it out, but help one another do the same.  And maybe the alcohol helped too.  The heat was a relentless, unforgivingly moist heat.  My heart wished in vain that Isaac had enough mercy to at least leave a little breeze.

By day four of no electricity, my determination waned and I second-guessed my decision to stay.  I did not contemplate that riding out the storm also meant enduring the merciless dank heat without power, and I accumulated less than 10 hours of sleep over the span of four days.  I took brief naps at houses that had  their power restored earlier than mine, and for one night I even camped on a friend's couch with my dog while her cats took refuge in her bedroom.  

In the daytime, I rode around the city, taking in a scenery of downed oak trees tangled in electrical wires in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  I saw tanks parked in front of French cafes, and the National Guard scurrying about in various spots.  

I saw electrical lines drooping from tilted poles, and portions of fences completely missing, wind-borne elsewhere.

The storm hit on Tuesday and not until Saturday evening was I able to enjoy the privilege of hearing the whirr of the motor on my central air-conditioning kick back on, of feeling the breeze from my ceiling fans, or of enjoying the sound of music from my computer.  Some of my hurricane friends had left town as planned for the long Labour Day weekend, others had their flights cancelled, and those of us remaining in town continued to check in on one another, for safety and for moral support, to stay sane after a hurricane which was more of a mind-bender than a natural disaster.

At some point my co-worker Charles called, a life-long New Orleanian who lost everything in his Lower Ninth Ward home in Hurricane Katrina, and said, "You're not a virgin anymore, baby girl!  Congratulations!  Wooo hooo!"  Isaac to him was a blink of the eye, his family safe and sound, well-fed by his hurricane-ready barbecue grill.  Charles and his family weathered Isaac and its merciless heat like professionals.

In the process writing this blog entry, part of me is surprised that I didn't pack my pets and bags and hit the road for good.  My first real attempt at commitment seem to be jinxed, and a different me in a different city might not have stuck through it, overwhelmed by negativity.  But instead, thoughts of this past August and all its disasters give me comfort.  I think of my new neighbors who stood by my side when a chunk of the house in between us flew through my would-be bedroom during a demolition; the new romance sparked between two close friends--never having met one another before--who came to my rescue to move my remaining possessions out of a charred apartment building; the hurricane-inspired slumber party-bender and the company of friends working hard to distract one another from the stress of impending natural disaster; my own brief hurricane romance involving a third generation barber whose swimming pool I enjoyed in my third day without electricity; and most certainly, the beautiful house in which I now sit, hurried to construction completion by general contractors who felt empathy for me and my odd housing luck--a house which kept me, my pets, and my friends safe and dry in a nasty little storm.   

New Orleans is a test of loyalty with its hurricanes, heat, and dysfunctional infrastructure, all of which work against those of us who live here, even in post-disaster times.   But the past month, with all its misfortune, served to galvanize existing friendships and spark new ones.  The way I see it now, bad things happen everywhere, so if they are going to, there's no place I'd rather be than here, and I am proud to call New Orleans home.  


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