This one is long.... it's been quite a month.
One month ago, Hurricane Ida struck southeast Louisiana, making a direct hit on my little town of Norco. The Category 4 (or maybe 5) storm battered my community in the River Parishes of Louisiana for hours on August 29, destroying homes, businesses, and lives. Many worlds were turned upside down. Some people lost all or part of their roofs, some lost all or parts of their homes and businesses.
I'm extremely grateful to report that our 90-year old brick house, ordered in the early 1930s from a catalogue by Dr. Almerico, the local dentist, and shipped by rail to Norco as a kit, stood strong. Oh it needs a new roof because approximately 4,286 shingles are now spread across Norco and a good 1,000 of them were in the pool. The rest are scattered across the yard, the driveway, the neighbors' yards and up and down Apple Street. Fortunately, we were one of the two blocks of Apple Street that did not flood from either rain or the backup of Clayton's Pond. The water stopped at the railroad tracks about 300 yards away.
While my white picket fence in the front yard survived, the storybook garden arch over the front gate did not. Not even The Coach's makeshift anchor -- an old belt of his -- could save it. The pink and white Mandevilla was still attached, though, until the guys who cleared our yard uprooted it and everything else in the front garden.
The back fence was taken down by a mature holly tree that produced holly exactly one time in the 20 or so years it has been there -- last year. Maybe it had a premonition or something.
Frankly, I kind of expected the pecan tree to go but it stood tall and strong and held up the white oak tree that uprooted and leaned on it for support. Another of our oak trees fell on the garage, leaving a sizeable hole in the roof. The banana trees were whipped into submission, but the Chinese Tallow stayed up, even after dropping its top branches into the pool.
The one tree that did survive, thankfully, is Lora's tree. It's the Japanese Magnolia we planted on April 15, 2002 -- the day her adoption was finalized. Like many of the trees in Louisiana, it had its leaves ripped off. Now, a month later, it's growing new ones like it does in the springtime and is so confused, it even bloomed a few pink flowers.
Most of our "damage" occurred in the backyard. The brand new patio pavilion we got from Lowe's in June, was left in a crumpled heap of metal and shattered string lights. Only the bolts meant to keep it from flying away survived. The big plastic storage trunk where we tucked all the pool toys and my few tools, was cracked open under the rubble. Miraculously, all the rafts and tools stayed right where they were. The worst for wear was the pool, turned into a putrid, smelly cocktail by Ms. Ida. By the time we got home nearly a week after the storm, it more resembled the bayou I grew up on than a swimming pool. We had to pull trees out of it.
Oh. And we did gain a port-o-potty. Ida blew it clear across the street from its original location, a work site where some men have been building Norco's new veterans memorial.
I'm happy to say I did not witness any of this destruction first-hand. Having lived in south Louisiana all of my life, I am certainly no stranger to hurricanes. I know the drill. When the weathermen start pointing their “Cone of Uncertainty” my way, I dutifully head to the store to buy bleach, batteries and bottled water, a stock of non-perishable food items and whatever Lil Debbies are left on the shelves. The Coach and I start picking up all the pool stuff and patio furniture. He puts what he can into the garage but often forgets to go get it out later. There are years of dead plants in there. We fill up our cars with gas and, once my older sister makes her obligatory “Do you have an axe in the attic? You're going to die!” doom and gloom phone call, we start the debate: Do we stay or do we go? Despite what people in Idaho think, it’s not an easy decision.
First of all, it’s no fun to ride out a hurricane of any category. The sounds of the wind, the rain and the mysterious stuff flying down the street are terrifying and unforgettable. No one I know who has done it wants to do it ever again. Every single person I know who stayed for Ida is swearing they never will.
But, it’s not any easier to walk away from everything you own. Yeah, it may be just "stuff," but it’s MY stuff. It's OUR stuff. It's my husband’s stuff, my daughter’s stuff, my mother’s stuff, my grandmother’s stuff, my great grandparents’ stuff, and because I am the family historian and genealogist, some of my great great grandparents’ stuff as well.
So, you watch the news and the computer models and you hope that the Cone of Uncertainty shifts just a little to the east or west, not because you wish ill on anyone else, but to make you feel just a little better. But when it doesn’t turn, you have a choice — stay and be terrified or go and be terrified.
Then the question becomes, where do you go -- because everyone I am related to is also in the Cone of Uncertainty and, by now, there’s not a hotel to be found south of Little Rock that will welcome my two little poodles.
When August 29 dawned and Hurricane Ida was still growing and still headed straight for us, The Coach answered all those questions. You see, I did not marry one of those Cajun boys who sees the storm coming and stands in his yard proclaiming, "This ain't my first rodeo!" or "We've got a generator. We're staying!" We don't and we didn't. We actually left the morning of the storm, packing up our hurricane snacks and the two poodles into his Town and Country van. We also took a bunch of pillows and blankets in case we had to sleep in it because, when we left, we actually had no place to go. We just headed north to where our daughter is in college -- and I think we really scared her because she thought we were coming to stay in her dorm.
Shortly before we left I was freshly showered and standing in my little home office room, staring at all my treasures, trying to decide what to take. The wedding album? Lora’s baby book? My mom's baby book? My scrapbook? The box of photos? My genealogy books? Ultimately I decided, I couldn’t save all of it so I didn’t take any of it. It was like choosing a favorite child. You can't.
Your mind does strange things under this kind of stress. I panic packed. I took all of my underwear but only one pair of shorts. I didn’t pack anything to fix my hair but I brought eye shadow. I left all my jewelry except my two rings and my pearls. My husband, who had finished the week’s laundry the night before, had the sense to put the entire laundry basket of folded clothes in the car, giving me extra shirts and, should I need them, clothes to teach in.
I'm not kidding when I say we chose the perfect time to go. Many people I know spent hours and hours in massive traffic jams on Friday and Saturday. But while there were ominous clouds behind us, there was no traffic on Sunday morning. We zipped through Baton Rouge like it the day after the zombie apocalypse.
As we drove, I continually checked hotel sites for openings in or near Natchitoches. Finally, just after noon — the normal check out time, right? — I lucked onto a room at the Motel 6 in Natchitoches at $55 a night! We were much relieved, as was our daughter. Just a few hours later we all were happily tucked in the Motel 6, watching Jim Cantore pretend to be knocked around by Ida’s winds in New Orleans. If he wanted to be knocked around, he should have gone to Norco, or Houma, or LaPlace, or Dulac, or Grand Isle. For real.
We spent four days at the luxurious Motel 6 with its empty turquoise pool and a menagerie of dogs trying to find spots to poop in the overgrown grass. But it wasn't bad. We had electricity, air conditioning, cable, and a nice firm mattress that cured my backache. Of course, our stay included several trips to the local Walmart because I needed more shorts and the Motel 6 does not provide those little niceties like shampoo, conditioner, or soap. It also did not have a blow dryer, but I came to like my "natural," air dried look.
But as soon as my sister got power restored in her Baton Rouge home, we headed her way on Thursday, introducing the two poodles to their dog Brynn -- who was none too happy. My sister is still recovering from hip replacement surgery after a year, so she isn't too mobile, but she was happy to share her home, which was flooded in 2016 by a freak storm, as long as I made her a lasagna before we left.
On Friday we made our first trip to our school in Reserve, then to our home. The pictures our friends sent us really did not prepare us for the massive extent of damage our area suffered. There were so many light poles down, cables and wires hanging everywhere across roads. I was stunned by the loss of trees, huge beautiful oaks that had stood for centuries. And I was amazed by the randomness, how one house could be perfectly fine with the grass neatly cut and cars in the driveway while, right next door, a house could be completely destroyed.
We spent a week going back and forth from Baton Rouge to school and home, fighting traffic without traffic lights, dodging electric trucks from across the country, and searching for gas stations that actually had some. We found some guys to put a tarp on our roof so we wouldn't suffer any more leaks, and another group to clear out some of the trees in the backyard. They did a great job, but even now, a month later, we could host a rousing game of pickup sticks. The winner gets a shingle.
Our school, Riverside Academy, took a beating as well. Roofs were peeled off, sending rainwater into some classrooms and offices, and much of the electrical wiring between the buildings was knocked down. The athletic facilities took the biggest hit. The Coach's brand new metal outfield fence was torn apart, his brand new 9-inning scoreboard was knocked down, his home dugout lost its roof and some of the bleachers ended up in the nets. Over on the football field, the press box that I spent so many Friday nights in covering football games was knocked off the top of the stands and left in a heap of rubble. I had just spent a whole Saturday morning cleaning it, too, removing years of nacho trays, the ends of hotdog buns, and spit cups.
On Sept. 9, 11 days after the storm, our house still had no power but The Coach's daughter, Courtney, did. So we loaded up the poodles and everything we had bought at the Natchitoches Walmart and headed to Kenner. Courtney wasn't there because she now works for the Tulane football team and the entire athletic staff was evacuated to Birmingham, Alabama. But she had a spare bedroom, a working stove, a big back yard and Hulu live! I finally got to watch Cinderella on Amazon (loved it!).
We made more trips to school and to home, growing more depressed as the piles of debris and home furnishings grew larger and larger. Mold and mildew grow fast in Louisiana after floods and in houses with no air conditioning. Mildew often can be cleaned up with a little elbow grease. Mold is a different story. Oftentimes, you have no choice but to throw everything away, no matter how cherished the item is. One friend of mine lost her baby's brand new nursery just days before her daughter was born. You drive down the street and see baby toys, cribs, mattresses, sofas, whole dining sets, clothes, and huge piles of trees. And there's so much, they can't pick it up fast enough. Our pile is still out front a month later. So is the port-o-potty.
On Thursday, September 16, The Coach and I decided to splurge a little and go to the Saltgrass Steakhouse. I had been wanting to try it (since our Roadhouse closed), and after a day at school, we kind of needed a treat. So I had two lemon martinis. I admit, I was a little tipsy by the time we left the restaurant. I told a group of electric linemen sitting near us that I would buy them all dinner if I was rich. "Don't worry," one of them replied. "You're paying for our dinner one way or another." Word.
In the car on the way back to Courtney's house, I continued my daily (OK,hourly) ritual of checking the Entergy map which showed who had The Power and who didn't. It was depressing too because it seemed to never change. New Orleans had turned mostly green. Some of LaPlace was green. But Norco was red and stayed red. Until then.
"Marty! Norco is green!" I shouted. I had been on enough Facebook pages to know that sometimes that didn't mean your power was on but that it would be shortly. So we called our friend Donnie, who lives a few blocks from us to see if he was turned on. He said he was not.
Then I posted on the Norco News Facebook page, where a different resident a day asked the question, "Does anyone know when the power will be back on?"
"Norco is green y'all!"
It was full of skeptics.
"The power isn't coming on until next week. Stop dreaming."
"Go to bed."
"It's on Oak!"
"It's on Pine!"
"I see streetlights!"
"I see streetlights!"
Still not sure, we called my daughter's boyfriend, who didn't answer, so we called her boyfriend's friend and asked if he would pleeeaassssseeeee drive by our house to check. A few minutes later he called.
"Your lights are on." Then Donnie called to tell us his lights were on.
I made The Coach drive me home to see for myself (and to check to make sure there were no sparks or surges). We took a good look around then went back to Courtney's to start packing. One more night and we would be home.
There is no way to explain what a joyous moment this was. We went 20 days without electricity in our home, so we went 20 days without our home. We aren't generator people. We did try for a day, but our house it so old it's really not designed for modern machinery and, frankly, it was a little scary to try. We were fortunate that we had places to stay and people who took us in. Not everyone was so fortunate. Some people are still waiting. Some will be waiting a long time because their homes are gutted or unlivable. But for those of us who had a home we just couldn't go back to until the power was restored, it was huge. It's a step towards normalcy. It was like the turning point in the story, the game-tying run in the big game, the momentum swinging touchdown. Because, as Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home.” I missed my mushy mattress. And my shower.
Oh we still have a long, long, long way to go. We got the pool back to blue but the yard is still a mess. We spent two days this week without power again because a transformer blew somewhere. Traffic is still horrendous. Our grocery stores are half-stocked. We have to wait in line to get IN Walmart. Some of our favorite stores and restaurants have closed forever. A Popeye's box of chicken costs $40! And it will be another week or so until internet and cable are restored. And no one knows when the storm debris will be gone. If it's not gone by Christmas I'm throwing tinsel on it.
But we're home. All our stuff is fine. I didn't lose any treasures, nothing that can't be replaced. We were safe and got to spend a few days with our daughter. Also, I got to buy a few new pairs of shorts because I only packed one. Hey. Silver linings.
People ask us why we live here when there are hurricanes every summer. The same reason people live in California where there are earthquakes, or Hawaii where there are volcanos and hurricanes and tsunamis, or Nebraska where there are tornadoes. This is our home. We were born in Louisiana. And the price we pay for good food, good music, cool festivals, boiled seafood, Mardi Gras, drive-thru daiquiris, and go cups is the occasional hurricane. And alligators.
If you would like to help our school, Riverside Academy, rebuild after Hurricane Ida, please click one of the links below. We are hoping to reopen the week of October 4.
Donations also may be dropped off or mailed to:
332 Railroad Avenue
Reserve, LA 70084