Thursday, March 15, 2007

One Visit, eighteen months on

We met Michael at our first trailer of the day. We were in a hard-hit neighborhood with few trailers and fewer inhabited houses. The street was broken into rubble and outside one or two of the houses sat the massive piles of trash that signaled the early stages of the gutting process. Unlike the area just a few blocks away, many homes here looked as they must have immediately after the water had been pumped away: the interiors soggy, moldy and in disarray, a child’s doll under the upturned kitchen table, pictures still hung on the dark splotchy walls. Michael’s trailer was in the yard outside one such house. As we knocked on the door, he growled out of the rear window, asking who we were. When we explained that we were volunteers, he said he’d be out in just a moment.

When he opened the door, he immediately invited us in to talk. His niece was asleep on the couch and there was barely enough room for the two of us and Michael to fit in the small central room. He was a large man, over six feet tall and 300 pounds, and the trailers are only seven feet wide and barely that high. As we began to ask our standard questions, he explained that he owned the house behind his trailer and had evacuated before the storm, caravanning up to Baton Rouge with his sister and her family. As they bounced from Louisiana to Tennessee to Atlanta, they had no word of their neighborhood, nor their houses (his sister lives next door) until, at a hotel in Atlanta, they saw them on the news, under six feet of water.

When Michael finally returned to his neighborhood, where he’s owned his home for 18 years, the devastation was greater than he had imagined. While he’s lived in his trailer for over a year, on the yard of his own house, he doesn’t feel capable of going in side his destroyed home. The burden is too great, he says, and he gets emotional thinking about his whole life, trapped under that water for all those weeks. He wants to rebuild, but his homeowners insurance didn’t cover any of the water damage and he had no flood insurance because his house sits above sea level. Now he waits on the massive government bureaucracy to sort through his application, weigh its merits, and, hopefully, grant him the money to begin to rebuild his life.

Even living in the trailer, he doesn’t feel safe in his neighborhood. Neighbors have not returned and the streets are dark and empty at night. In order to visit friends, he walks across the city (buses are worthless, he says, as they rarely run and only cover a small portion of the routes they once did). He mentions incidents of police harassment as he walks through the city, yet feels he has no choice but to endure it as the price of getting some sense of his lost community.
As we left, he urged us to come back and visit his neighbor, an older Vietnamese man. He didn’t leave during the storm, Michael says, he just sat on his porch to protect his house and keep an eye on the neighborhood. As the water came into the house, he continued to wait, hoping it would go down. When it got to chest height, he decided it was time to evacuate and with no boat and no one left in the neighborhood, he swam over a mile, through the streets to a highway overpass. He slept there for two more nights before being rescued. He’s has returned to his house, but he’s in a bad way, Michael relates, his head isn’t right any more, not after that. We hope to return to meet him in the coming days.

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