Friday, September 5, 2008

Gustav, meet Katrina

This was supposed to run in Tuesday's edition of The Times-Picayune, to coincide with the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Obviously, other news bumped it.

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It took us a long time to find my husband’s parents’ driveway.

               It looked pretty much the same as it always had, with its unique half-moon added onto the left to allow for an extra car to park. It’s just that it’s hard to single out any one driveway in a row of many that no longer lead to a house.  As many a Katrina victim can tell you, all the lots look the same these days.

We did eventually pick it out, then spent a few more minutes debating whether this was really it or not. This was after we had spent several minutes going up and down Waveland’s nameless streets trying to find it.

Our doubts were wiped out quickly, however, as we made our way up the walk to where the front door had been. The red terra cotta tile was still on the ground where the foyer used to be. And so was the linoleum tile. And then we noticed that we could still see the outlines of all of the walls that used to be there, like a weird life-sized architechtural model. That was the dining room. That was the kitchen. This is where my husband used to lie on the floor for his post-turkey nap.

That’s about when my 7-year-old daughter, who still is traumatized by visions of the “big red storm” on our TV screens, asked what in the heck we were doing here on this block of cement among the tall grass, under the blazing sun. My husband turned to her gently and said, “This was Grandma and Pappy’s house.”

An outline is all that is left of the last home owned by Valsin and Jane Luquet, native New Orleanians, who had retired a half a block from the Gulf of Mexico after living, working and raising three sons in California and Illinois. One son remained in California, another moved to Texas. The youngest, my husband Marty, is a high school teacher and coach in Destrehan. When Val’s job with American Cyanamid ended in North Carolina in the early 1990s, they decided to be near him and the grandchildren.

They, and we, all consider the Mississippi Gulf Coast to be a second home. This is where Jane and Val spent summers at Camp Onward in the middle of Bay St. Louis. Later, my parents bought the house that once served as its chapel. This is where Marty would take his children on his weekend visits after his first marriage ended. This is where our daughter, Lora Leigh, first met the beach.

While Marty was growing up in California and Illinois, I was spending nearly every summer on the beach in Biloxi, swimming, playing in the sand and going to the amusement park with the big green dinosaur out front. My grandfather’s sister had inherited the family’s summer home in Biloxi, a lovely victorian just half a block off the beach. Once upon a time there had been a little family-owned  hotel that fronted the beach in front of her house. It had little individual cottages and a swimming pool, so we would stay there and walk to Nannie’s house,  named “Heartsease.” It – and Nannie -- survived Camille. The hotel did not.

It was just days after that other storm that our family made its way past the huge piles of debris and the hundreds of steps going to nowhere to see for ourselves that Nannie was all right. She had ridden out Camille in her church in downtown Biloxi. Upon her return home, the telephone was ringing – with my grandfather on the other end. Being all of 7 myself  back then, I was thrilled to see that the big green dinosaur had survived – even if the bumper cars had not.

To the Luquet family, Camille was just another hurricane that hit close to their hometown while they were living the life in California. They had no pictures in their heads of the beautiful mansions that had been washed away, the broken oak trees, the crumbled roads or the tugboat that landed next to the beach road and was converted into a souvenir shop.  I’ve had them my whole life.

Being New Orleans natives, they certainly were hurricane wary. When Ivan threatened in 2003 we survived 13 hours together in the car to Houston – and another 12 back. And when Katrina headed in, they headed out again, on their own, to a relative’s house in Kiln.

It was three days before Marty and I, from our haven in Natchitoches, learned that they were alive thanks to a slew of Internet message board postings. A week later, they moved into my spare bedroom with everything they still possessed in one plastic shopping bag. They stayed for a year.

A few weeks after Katrina they went home to see what was left of their lives. My mother-in-law came back with a plastic tub full of sandy treasures – a Christmas ornament, a plaque from their wall, a piece of china.  There have been a few more trips back, mostly quick drive-bys just to check the progress of things,  to see how the grass is growing.

This week, as we all mark the third anniversary of Katrina, they will move the few possessions they have reaccumulated  to yet another relative’s house, in Kenner,  to live out what remains of their golden years, far away from the beach in Waveland.

Just recently, my father-in-law got a nice grant from Mississippi’s version of the Road Home. Being the man he is, Val wrote a note back to the Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississipi, thanking him for having such a program. Val explained that, being in their 70s now, it’s just impossible for them to rebuild, but that the family still owns two lots. Maybe, someday, someone in our family will move back there and rebuild.

Maybe someday, someone will. If we can find them.

 

 

 



 

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