Cars And Katrina At Our House

By Chris Goertzen


We needed to buy another car. We had used up much of the autumn of the odometer of our youngest (a 1993 Honda Accord Wagon) fleeing Katrina. At first, it had seemed like overkill to evacuate our home in Slidell: the storm would veer away late in the game, and we'd toddle home, slightly chagrined, in dense traffic much like that in which we'd departed. We would feel a little silly for having packed up the cat and the hound (and the daughter, the precious papers, and so on), and suppress mild guilt after Katrina hit somewhere else. But the news reports that we expected to show the storm track veering away from us didn't follow the odds and do that. The curve remained pretty much as predicted all along, with our back yard the apparent target. The sky remained so clear and the air so still when we entered the novel contra-flow traffic, and migrated north with the rest of the city—could this be real?

We rode out the wind and the noise in a friend's apartment in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 80 miles inland. Katrina started like many another storm, but each time we thought the climax had been reached, it kept building. Ed's apartment, on the third floor, looked out over some woods. Trees fell (but not on the faithful Honda), the windows strained loudly, and power went out and stayed off. We toured the city later, and saw its wounds: so many houses crushed or at least winged seriously by trees that had looked so sturdy; so many power lines down and signs shattered. If it was this wretched here, how much worse must it be back home in Slidell?

After a few days without power in Hattiesburg, sleeping in sheaths of sweat and barbecuing all meals—pizza works, pancakes are dubious—we decided to decamp, adopting our Hattiesburg host for the continued journey. With Ed joining us in the tightly-packed long-suffering Honda, we continued north, staying the first night in a hotel in Dumas, Arkansas, an unremarkable joint made eerie by a riptide of rumors. We explored alternative next steps by phone, and found longer-term refuge with my wife's cousins in Jonesboro. Their house was roomy, they were kind, and their computer allowed us to try to monitor developments back home. Valerie spent endless hours trying to find out if we still had a home. Satellite pictures of Slidell were amazingly clear and numerous, but never seemed to home in on our neighborhood. Then a message board led us to a man from Chicago who was driving down to check his elderly mother's house on our street. God bless the internet. We asked this faithful son to check on our place too, and he did, saying it looked intact. We wanted to believe him.

After nearly two weeks in Jonesboro, we repacked the Honda and headed back. Residents of Slidell were finally being allowed to go home. We stopped off a night in Hattiesburg and helped Ed clean out his fridge. Then we headed home on a freeway barely navigable due to fallen trees. Our timing was good. Power had just returned to our neighborhood, and the boil order for water had just been lifted. We would find that our house was basically OK, with some shingles and siding gone but restorable in a few days of work. Our refrigerator ? well, that's an ugly story I won't recount, since most folks shared the gross details (by gross I don't mean large, I mean profoundly gross). We didn't put ours out on the curb, like many neighbors did, but instead cleaned it as best as we could. We remain suspicious of the water from the dispenser on the door.

As we settled back in, we certainly had an easier time than many. But we were still living in Slidell.

We helped neighbors a bit, and faced enduring inconveniences. Stores were (and remain, half a year later) understaffed and under-stocked and indefinably grimy, roads carpeted with debris, and traffic horrible. My job (in Hattiesburg) started up again right away, while my wife's job, in New Orleans, went on hiatus until January. That brings me back to cars. Our commutes lasted longer due to the new, nasty road and traffic conditions, and our vehicles aged visibly from day to day. The worst aspect was (and is) that Valerie is really passing through a ghost town on her daily journey, and so needs a car more trustworthy than either of our geriatric Hondas. We belong to the "three old cars" school, that is, that's what we own, and so save on insurance, and have a back-up car available when one of the two younger stalwarts falters. But the youngest, the Honda we had gone north in, now was up to 185,000 miles. It was time to buy a "new" middle-aged car and retire our oldest.

Shopping for an experienced but reliable car in the New Orleans area is no fun these days. We're picky: nothing that reeks of cigarettes or other evidence of a tawdry past will do, and we require a manual transmission but 4 doors, something solid but under $8000. Our initial shopping revealed a volatile and expensive local market. We had heard that some 350,000 cars were flooded by the storms. Car dealerships had horrid messes to clean up before they could return to business, of course. Ones we could see on the way to New Orleans had had their stock tossed around every which way by the storm surge, and painted an evil gray with flood cess: the overall impression was of giant bug carcasses fallen in semi-organized clusters from celestial spider webs. But dealerships just slightly out of the hurricanes' paths went into sales frenzies. We looked at a few used cars, but none had been even properly cleaned up. Toys rolled from under seats, handles came off with little pressure, dirt remained in all but a few efficiently touched-up locations. After a few miserable visits, and a handful of discouraging calls to private sellers (one car was smelly, another flooded "just a little"), we decided to take a trip after Christmas, and combine some family fun with a car purchase. We went to Atlanta, and managed to do those things. The 1997 Nissan Maxima that we bought from a young couple thinning out their stable before a move to New York just needed some attention to the suspension, and still works well for Valerie's commute.

The other half of the transaction was to sell our oldest car, a 1980 VW camper. It wasn't in great shape, but, we thought, was worth the $1200 we decided to ask for it. It proceeded from here to there steadily if not quickly, and had a good bed. What did it matter that the speedometer, odometer, and gas gauge had serially gone silent over the years? We put an ad in the paper . . . and all hell broke loose. Our first call was from a youngish local woman who worked in an nursing home, and had been staying in a room there for some months while her husband slept in their Ford Taurus. The jig was up: too many elderly had arrived, so no bed remained for her. She and her husband wanted the van that night, sight unseen, to live in a nearby campground. There were problems: She couldn't come up with the money all at once, couldn't pay quite that much. We promised her the van anyway, and she and her husband picked it up late that night, found the camp, and are there still. But phone calls kept coming, dozens of them, at all hours of the day and night. Some who called took the news that the van was promised with good grace, but many did not. They were desperate for a place to stay while they worked on their houses or worked as recovery staff or just worked for the high money that roofing and similar easy construction jobs now commanded.

Many told us they "just wanted to get off the ground," out of tents. I thought of the stable where our ninth-grader rides, and the camp of RVs and tents that had grown up on the grounds (along with new residents of stalls: dogs, a pig, several orphaned horses, two donkeys, and an emu found wandering down a residential street that's still at the stable after months). Might one of the calls have been from there? We apologized to supplicant after supplicant, and were glad when the ad lapsed.

Now we have an updated fleet. Valerie drives the Maxima into New Orleans, and I take turns with the Hondas, both of which are now pushing the 200,000 mile mark. The remaining problem is of minor repairs. Shops employ fewer mechanics, because so many abandoned flooded homes and remain away. And jobs that might be completed in a day now take several. We go to a shop in Hattiesburg, taking in one car, then trading for the next, etc. It's all part of the grind of post-Katrina life, the aspects that touch us whether our houses were hurt or not.

Chris Goertzen teaches music history and world music at The University of Southern Mississippi. This article was originally published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 16-17 in 2008.