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Back home, waiting again for disaster

September 02, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — The dregs of Hurricane Gustav are beating down on my parents' house tonight. I am alone here, a sweating, stinking, exhausted reporter wearing a pair of damp socks. My parents are among the hundreds of thousands of South Louisianians who are somewhere other than home, wondering once again about what, if anything, they have to come home to.

What I have discovered, knock on wood and pray the levees hold, is that their new house -- the one they bought after Katrina -- is OK. Up on the expensive high ground, it is full of handsome antiques that replaced the family heirlooms that disintegrated in the stagnant water three years ago.

My parents evacuated Saturday and are safe with friends in Florida, eating well, drinking wine, watching 24-hour news on TV. They are more comfortable than the legions of poor who spent last weekend in shelters scattered across the country.

Still, I knew they were hurting -- the helpless feeling of watching that swirling, inevitable power build out in the gulf, inching closer every minute. This time around, I figured, they also were wondering whether they had been foolish to invest again in this enchanting and cursed city. Is it worth it to go through this much hassle just because you love -- what exactly? The food? The Saints? The way a South Louisiana fisherman tells, with relish, another curious and rambling fishing tale?

As the predictions for Gustav grew worse, my mother text-messaged me repeatedly: "GET OUT OF NEW ORLEANS."

Then, as the storm hit the city Monday: "RU OK?"

Her latest message to me reads: "When u have time would u go by the house?"

I had trouble getting through to them all day over my cellphone.

We moved to New Orleans in 1980. The city had always held a certain allure for my parents. They had honeymooned here, and it always seemed to match them quirk for quirk. My Texas father was an oil-and-minerals man, an attorney. His wife was the daughter of a Georgia cotton trader who had raised her in Paris after World War II.

They settled into this city's loose and funny rhythm. They got dressed up and went to Mardi Gras balls. My father went deep-sea fishing in the gulf with a coterie of eccentric friends whose boats were always breaking down. My mother learned six dozen ways to prepare redfish.

As the energy industry struggled, my father was laid off. So they opened a little gift store in the Garden District. It was a block from one of those cemeteries where the caskets are above ground, because New Orleans is too close to sea level to really bury anything. My father and his buddies started taking long lunches in the middle of the week.

When I was here reporting on Katrina, I tried to check out their old house. They had Fed Exed a key to Los Angeles. But I couldn't hail a boat to take me to their block. They were all being used to rescue people who had stayed with their houses.

After that hurricane, they moved to Houston and thought about starting over. I remember scouting out storefronts with my father amid the strip malls: All of the prospects were perfectly adequate. And perfectly antiseptic. They were back in New Orleans in a few months.

For a couple of years, they made do in a second-story apartment near the Mississippi River, the area least prone to flooding. After two quiet hurricane seasons, they bought a two-story condominium next door. It reminded my father of the sophisticated apartments he'd seen while visiting my mother's haunts in France. But it was expensive, and he fretted about betting his money on such a fragile city.

Friday night, my mother cooked for me after my first day of reporting. My father tried not to be annoyed as I traded phone calls with my editor. We were tweaking a story that noted his city might once again be blanketed in unfathomable suffering. In the morning, he would have to screw plywood to the windows again. He would have to gather his essential papers again. No need to worry about family photos: Katrina took those.

His face was colorless, his eyes dull. "I don't think I can do this much more," he said.

They asked me to cover the stairs under the leaky skylight with plastic before the storm hit. They reminded me to throw out all the food in the refrigerator. They didn't want to come home to that smell again.

Then they were gone, and I was left to chronicle another confusing and painful exodus from the city where they raised me. It meant another series of trips down deserted streets in a rented SUV full of gas cans and MREs. They were the streets I used to drive with girls and friends, looking for a good band or a beer.

On Sunday, I found a clump of guys on Prytania Street, standing around smoking cigarettes. I was looking for residents who were defying Mayor Ray Nagin's evacuation order. It turned out they were journalists too, from local television station WWL-TV.

"You're from New Orleans?" one said to me.


"This sucks. Like covering a wake."

"Like covering your sister's wake," I replied.

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