Returning to Slidell Post Katrinaby Maureen Hardegree
As we always do, my husband, daughter and I went to my parents' home in Slidell, Louisiana on December 26th. That's when my family celebrates our Christmas. My brother, two sisters, and I live in Florida, Georgia, and Virginia. I hadn't seen the hurricane destruction except in pictures and via news coverage. Viewing it months later, in person, these are my impressions of the trip to my former hometown.
Snapped trees, blown out signs, and blue roof tarps popped up outside Laurel, Mississippi and became more abundant the closer we drove to the Louisiana state line. A lot of debris had been cleared. I was surprised to see fields full of unused FEMA trailers. One of my friends said the trailers are sitting there because the trucks needed to transport them are being using to haul heavy debris. The sight of row after row of unused trailers bothered me even more when we arrived at my parents' house and discovered that one of my sisters' old grade school friends, who is a single divorced mom with kids, is still waiting on her trailer and living with her mom and dad. Michelle's mom is battling cancer. Michelle has been waiting for a trailer for three months. In the two days I've been home, my parents, who learned of her plight have stepped in to help and have arranged for several of the local churches to help rebuild her house. This is but one story, I think. How many other people are out there waiting?
Entering into my parents' neighborhood called Pinewood, I saw very few pines left, large root balls and stumps litter the curbs (too heavy for regular pick-up), and lots of sunlight beating down. My husband tells me their street looks a thousand times better than when he came three weeks after the hurricane to clear debris with my dad. The trees and shrubs have new leaves, the few pines left have put out new needles, and the surviving camellias are blooming in shades of pink and red, from cotton candy to scarlet. My parents' backyard has one tree standing, a leaning pecan. Dad has high hopes for his garden in the coming year, now that he has a sunny backyard. A blue tarp covers part of the roof next door and the roof across the street. One neighbor's live oak, which fell on the house, is now gone. I don't remember ever seeing so much sky. My parents were lucky. I was glad they bought a house in the north side of town and that the only tree that hit part of the house winged the garage.
My sister, sister-in-law, mom, daughter and I decided to venture to the south side, near Lake Ponchartrain yesterday. As I drove my van with Georgia plates past destroyed houses and cars and piles of debris, my mom assured me what I was seeing was better than it was a month ago. Signs outside a few businesses declared "Now Open" or "Help Wanted." Restaurants I loved like Salvaggio's and Vera's Seafood are gone. The apartment on Rats Nest Lane where my sister lived years ago, is gone. Only slab and a plywood sign with the address spray-painted on it remained. I saw a metal door wrapped around a tree trunk, overturned cars and boats, collapsed houses, and little signs of hope, like a FEMA trailer decorated for Christmas and a few apartments and houses that have been rebuilt. Another plywood sign wedged in a tree trunk where rows of fishing camps once stood declared, "May all the Camps Rest in Peace." "Amen," I said. Again, I am thankful for my parents' good fortune.
Last night, friends from high school and I went to dinner at one of the few restaurants open, a tradition we've upheld every year since some of us moved away and married. We weren't going to let Katrina stop us this year, either. The restaurant we went to last year flooded, then burned down. We spoke of the changes and about the challenges of rebuilding. Two of my friends who live in southern Mississippi lost their homes. One friend, Kitty Timko, will be featured as a Superheroine in August. She was in the process of adopting her daughter Katherine from an orphanage in Russia when the hurricane hit. I listened to their stories of how they make do and go on. Their optimism about the future made me feel optimistic, too. The refrain for the evening was that normal might take five to ten years, but for Slidell, Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast the new year had to be better than 2005. They all said the local churches, churches from as far away as California and Oregon, and friends and family have given them the most help when it came to rebuilding their lives. Taking help was hard. Asking for it was harder. What matters most to them now is the people they love who are still here. What they mourn are the sentimental items like baby journals and photographs that are gone and can never be replaced.
One of my friends' husband travels through western Louisiana and eastern Texas for business, where Rita hit. He said those people are even worse off. They aren't getting as much help from what he could see.
So if you have the resources to do so, please keep giving. Some Katrina victims and many Rita victims still need your help. If you have given, thank you. The people from my former hometown will never forget your generosity.