Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Part 6: Everything starts sinking in in Morgan City

Recap: We just made it out of New Orleans to Baton Rouge, thanks to John "Spud" McConnell and were picked up by my in-laws, who had no damage in Morgan City to speak of.

We arrived in Morgan City that afternoon feeling exhausted. But, even though we hadn't slept since we woke up around 6:30 p.m. Monday night, and it was now Tuesday night, we were beyond sleep. We were brought to the shop Mark's family owns and saw some of his family. They were very happy to see us. While I would have rather seen my own family, I was grateful to see them. It was some people we knew, who were safe and fine and had electricity and were going about their everyday lives. But at the same time, it was very upsetting, because here were people, some of whom never even lost electricity, going about their daily lives as though nothing had happened. We told bits and pieces of our story, and we were finally taken to his parents' house.

We were due to visit them the following weekend for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival. We arrived early. They had purchased some king sized sheets, an egg crate, and a bed bridge to turn the two pushed together twin beds into a king sized bed. When we eventually went to bed, it was a true luxury. We'd been sleeping on my unzipped sleeping bag under a little fleece blanket on the floors of WWL for a while.

I say for a while because it's reflective of our bodily clocks at the time. We had been catching sleep in cat naps whenever the chance arose, and it was very rare that we had such a chance. As a result, we had no idea of what day or time it was. That went on until about the weekend, when we fit into a schedule of sorts.

Once we got to Morgan City, our cell phones shut down again. But we had Internet access. We got online for the first time in what seemed like months, judging by the way our bodies felt. The e-mails, the blog messages, the MySpace Forum my group of friends and I have, and my other forum: all were jumping with questions regarding everyone's safety. But one question that kept popping up was, "Has anyone heard from Aimée and Mark? Are they okay?" We typed up brief notes letting people know we'd made it out of the rapidly declining conditions of our (once) fair city. We promised more in-depth messages later. We were too close to the tragedy, and more than likely suffering from shock. We need to decompress.

We ate our second real meal since Saturday night. I couldn't tell you what it was, to be honest. But I once again ate as I never had before. I'd lost a few pounds, which surprised me since we hadn't really moved around. But then I remembered we weren't really eating anything, and it made sense. I continued until I'd lost between 5-7 pounds by the time I got where I am now. I've been eating a lot better here, and so some of those have come back. But oh well. At least it's because I'm eating, as opposed to not.

The main role people seemed to adopt was to tell us that everything was going to be okay, that we didn't know anything for sure, and that our stuff was just stuff that could be replaced.

I'll be brutally honest here. If I can't get it out, then it will fester inside me and so I have to say it all. Just remember that these are thoughts I was having at the immediate moment, not thoughts that popped up after the fact. I just feel that if I'm not honest, then why do this? I am not writing this for entertainment purposes; I am writing this blog to get it out of me, and to have it for posterity, and to let people in on how things were and, eventually as I catch up on my blog, how I'm doing. If you don't like what I have to say in this place, well, no one is forcing you to read.

The running theme the entire time we were in Morgan City and Thibodaux was as I said before. At one point, I told Mark, through tear-laden eyes and snot-dripping nose, that if one more person said "It'll be okay," "Cheer up," or "It's just stuff," that I was NOT responsible for my words and actions. I did not want to be placated. I did not want to be told to cheer up. I did not want to be told that everything will be fine. Because, yeah, some day, it may be. But it will take a VERY long time for that to happen. And the worst of all was that every person who told me, "It's just stuff" was someone who had lost NOTHING, usually including electricity. Yeah. It may just be stuff. But it's OUR stuff. It's stuff we got as wedding presents. Stuff from our childhoods. Stuff we'd saved up for and bought during the last three and a half years of financial struggle in our marriage. We were just turning our lives around, finally.

Our marriage has been frought with trouble: Right after we were married, Mark was laid off when his temporary job at Toys R Us ended. He went to work for my father at his service station: a job he hated and knew nothing about that had him out in all extreme temperatures, which he kept until the storm ended. A week or so after that, I was laid off from that Newspaper Which Shall Not Be Named. That day, Lily escaped for the first time but was under the house. Three months later, I got the Kids Konnection gig for a grand total of 14 hours a week. I bounced a check the week before I got the first paycheck. Not because I bought frivolous stuff, but because I'd been helping Mark with the bills all along. A couple months later, I mentioned that I wasn't making enough money and would probably have to look for another job, and then I got more hours and a pay raise. Mark started working that summer on Sunday mornings at Entercom. The following spring, when my more hours kicked in, that included me working on Sundays. For three years, roughly, we worked 6-day work-weeks. Neither of us was paid much. We had a lot of financial problems because of this. I went through a lot of heart-ache getting into grad school. Then, things were starting to look great for us. Mark was getting more hours at Entercom and less at my dad's. I finally got my job, and we made plans all summer long. I would be making almost twice what I'd been making. Mark was possibly getting a raise to go with a sort of promotion he'd gotten. We both were losing our Sunday hours, but it wasn't going to impact us financially. I started my teaching job, and I fell immediately in love with the job, the administration, the kids, and the cameraderie of the staff at my grade-level. I was planning on keeping up with Travel Camp and helping with birthday parties at the J for extra that we would put towards the vacation we've been dying to have since...well, since our honeymoon ended....but have never been able to afford. Two weeks after school started, Katrina took everything from us.

I just feel we'll never get ahead.

So anyway, every time someone who was sitting comfortably in his or her own home, or car, going to work, or school, used electricity, saw family and friends regularly, and didn't have to worry about what would happen in the near future said, "It's just stuff," I wanted to bash in his or her head. I tried to be polite. I tried to be nice. But there's only so much a person can stand when she's in the depths of despair and feels alone.

The worst was when we went to a football game at Mark's alma mater and someone turned around with an "It's just stuff." She then went on to say that, "Water damage is not as bad as fire damage. We had a fire one time, and we never got the smoke out. But we got a couple inches (try EXACTLY a couple, at most) in the apartment when Allison came through, and all we did was turn everything upside-down and it dried. Everything's going to be okay. At least it wasn't fire."

I will not say who said that, as it is not fair. I gritted my teeth, stared at the game, and tried to grin, but I'm sure it came off as a grimace. I almost hope it did. The mild damage from Allison was not a levee breaching a few blocks from her home...this was the condo they owned but did not live in. It cannot be compared. If it was an attempt to make me feel better, it had the opposite effect.

I know each comment was made in an attempt to console or placate us, and the effort is appreciated. But no one was allowing me to grieve the way I needed to grieve. The constant news watching was making things worse. The few times the TV was not on a news station, it was on Discovery and the History Channel, where specials about hurricanes and the levee system and the Causeway aired almost 'round the clock. Other than that, we only saw "Big Brother" and "Rock Star: INXS." At least we enjoyed INXS until the final episode.

Anyway, that first night, around 9 p.m., my cell phone went crazy. Eighteen voice mails and 22 texts came through all at once. Apparently, I would have cell service at night. I scribbled down strange long distance numbers and returned a few calls. I made some more to other people, and a texting war waged on through the next few nights. We went to bed around midnight or so, and did not wake up until 2 p.m. Wednesday.

But did we feel rested? Not really. There was a split second of feeling mild curiosity over where I was and how did I get there. Then I realized it. And remembered why. And cried again. I did not have a restful night of sleep. I woke up all night long, sometimes in tears, sometimes feeling panic. Always feeling horrible. It was what I was afraid of. As I slept, I kept seeing everything and reliving everything again. It got to the point where I didn't want to sleep anymore. I wanted everything to stop and to go away. I wanted everythign to return to normal. The nightmares, or reliving sessions, as I call them, went on in full force for about two weeks. Then, they slowly tapered off. I still get them; I wake in panic, in fear, in confusion, in tears. It's not as often, 6 weeks (has it really been that long?) later, but it still happens. And more than likely will keep happening. And that is why I write.

On Wednesday night, I was able to get in touch with Kate. I think this was my lowest point. When I heard her voice, which was full of fear because she hadn't heard from her parents since the storm, with Lance's last sentence to his sister being, "Oh shit, a tree just fell on the shed, I have to go" from across the lake in Folsom at our mothers' sister's house. The two of us lost it. I'd cried on the phone every time I spoke to someone. But for some reason, when Kate and I spoke, the two of us were inconsolable. We finally hung up the phone because neither of us could understand the other very well. After I hung up, I went into hysterics. No one knew what to do with me. My in-laws watched news programs almost 24 hours a day. They get the Morgan City, Houma, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Lafayette news stations. They also get the cable news networks. They did not stop watching it. For a while, neither could I. But then it became a grim reminder of what we'd been through and what we'd lost.

We found out that there were suicides and rapes and murders in the Superdome Tuesday night. We were almost subjected to taking shelter there. Remember what they had been doing Monday night? They were singing Gospel music. What had happened to turn hopefulness and joy over survival into the basest of human behavior? Things were bad for my hometown; they were deteriorating rapidly. Later, it would come out that only one person leapt to his death. And only a couple of rapes happened. And murder? Allegedly, only 2 people were killed by violence once the Dome was evacuated. Allegedly.

Looting was taken to a new level. We were not the only sanctioned looters. Calie's dad is a Jefferson Parish cop. He was living in the Landmark Hotel with their tiny precious dog. Sheriff Harry Lee sanctioned their looting of the Whole Foods Market across the street. People started out looting for, white, yellow, brown, purple plaid....all looted for survival. Police stood at the doorways, watching, keeping the peace. Then some got greedy. They moved to electronics, tennis shoes, non-essential items. Riots broke out. Things were even worse than imagined.

But amidst this unimaginable ugliness, there was some beauty. I belong to an Internet forum. I will protect the people there by not naming it. But they knew I was at the Hyatt, and that I was staying for the storm. I joined it at Danielle's request in 2001, posted a lot at the beginning, then slowly tapered off. I had slowed down a lot in posting...maybe making a comment once every week. But I popped into the Hurricane Season topic and posted what we were doing. We recieved a lot of well-wishes. When I logged in on Thursday, Wednesday, whatever, after the storm, a frenzy of worry broke out. It seems that one person organized a care package relief effort. People were pledging to send stuff to us as soon as I could post my address. I was amazed at what I saw. I sent my address to the leader, Misti, and in a few hours, I started getting e-mails and private messages like you would not believe. Days later, I got my first package. I will reserve some tact and not say what was in each package, but we've gotten money orders, checks, gift cards, nice-smelling lotions, CDs, cat toys, cash, puzzle books, candles, and homemade cookies, to name a few items. And each was accompanied by a beautiful note. Some simply snet notes, and each note has meant more to me than anything else. These are some of the most beautiful people in the world. People whose real names I did not know until I opened the mail. People I've never laid eyes on or heard speak. People from all over the U.S., Canada, London, and Wales. Messages sent from Israel, Australia, and more. Each time a letter or package arrived, I cried. If people were around, I usually held it together. But if I was alone, or as soon as I could be, I cried. These are debts I can never repay. I hope I never have to. I will always love these kindred spirits of mine.

Also happening in that first week, it was arranged to get my parents from Auburn to Morgan City, where they would live rent-free in Mark's great-grandparents' home, next door to his grandparents. The house had been empty since 1993, but his grandparents still own it. They were, as you may recall, getting kicked out in favor of the Auburn football fans and had nowhere else to go. That week, Mark and Phil helped Pops with some maintenance, and Maw Maw made sure the house was clean. My in-laws brought me to Rouse's to stock the fridge with things they like. The house was made as homey as possible, with a sunporch for the cats to live. When I called my dad to tell him they had a place to go, he had to hand the phone to my mom. He was rendered speechless. Just physically speechless. My mom sounded scared when I handed the phone to her. When I told her what I'd just told my dad, she cried. I had to tell Geoff, because she couldn't. I think we all cried that night. We had to send them around the state in a round-about way, because there were reports of horrendous traffic in big cities like Baton Rouge, and they also couldn't get there through New Orleans, as a total evacuation was in order. Phil and Mr. Loy plotted out a perfect route. It took them about 15 hours to get to Morgan City, including a couple of hours waiting in line for gas along the way. But they made it safely, and I don't think I've ever been happier to see my family or hug them in my whole life. Happy tears were shed for the first time since the storm.

I spent as much time as I could with my parents. For fun, we went across the street to watch two football games...including Homecoming...for Mark's high school. Mark went to work at the family shop. I applied for a job as a babysitter at the health club, a job I was overqualified for, I believe, as I never heard back from them. We went to Thibodaux and registered me at my alma mater, Nicholls State, as a visiting student. Colleges were accepting displaced students on "good faith credit." I was losing my mind sitting around doing nothing all day. I had to do something. I took charge of my life and tried to get some normalcy to return. Maw Maw and Pops brought us to Houma and bought us some clothes. Devon mailed us some clothes. Emi sent us some clothes. Karen and Anne brought over some shoes and clothes they didn't need any more. Kate sent me things. Female Blake sent stuff. I was too numb to everything. Too overwhelmed. I never thought I'd have to accept charity.

Accepting and learning to accept charity was hard. I felt like I was taking things without needing them. I felt guilty because I hadn't done anything to deserve this stuff. It was hard to accept. I had to keep reminding myself that I had nothing left. I'm still not comfortable with it. When people ask, "What do you need? Is there anything I can do?" I clam up. I don't know how to answer that. People have enough stuff to do without having to take care of us. And where do I begin with what we need? This is worse than a wedding registry list. This is a living registry. I usually try to change to subject or shrug cluelessly. How DO you answer that?

Back to female Blake, I told you she would come into play eventually, and now she does. We found out on MySpace that she rode out the storm in Covington. About a week or so went by before anyone heard from her. Matt got a text from someone saying she was making her way to St. Louis to see her mom. She was alive!!!! We couldn't be happier!

Except for the Keith situation. Keith stayed home in River Ridge for the storm. No one heard from him. No one could contact him. We sent frantic texts. I can't imagine how Caroline felt. He finally got in touch with her. But his family never did leave. They went to Houma one day out of boredom and a search for food. They had plenty sotckpiled, and they had a generator, so they were fine. But the looting was spreading into the suburbs. We worried. He's fine today, don't worry. But he never once left the city. We heard about him, we thought, from Calie's dad, who was now staying in their house in Harahan. Some guy rode his bike over, asked about all of us, accepted a drink from Mr. Frank, and left. He thought the guy's name was Kevin. He was just delerious from 16-hour shifts.

Finally, our group was all accounted for. But what about our homes? Would we ever all be together again?

Stay tuned for part 7: Post-Katrina blues set in.


Geoff said...

Even though I know every part of this story already,e specially since I participated in most of the latter portions, I still look forward to the updates. Well written.

Amy said...

You are very strong and brave. Even thought you may not feel like that right now.

Anne said...

It all seems surreal and I can't even begin to imagine what you've all gone through. But reading these last few posts has helped to make this situation more than just another piece of news to be noticed for a moment and then forgotten when it no longer is played out on tv. Reading your posts has made it real life and shown me what courage and strength and depth you possess and made me proud to be your friend.

Mae said...

Thanks, everyone...but, um...which Amy and which Anne are you guys? You can just say your locations. Full names are NOT necessary!

Anne said...

That would be moi, none other than your very own Anne-girl (the one from California).

Em said...

Reading this really helps to understand. I hope it's helping you too. And the comment about the forum was really lovely.

Mae said...

Ok thanks...there's a minimum of 3 Anne's (all with E's) reading this....just wasn't sure which it was, haha.

Amy said...


Amy from Thibodaux.

anne in maryland said...

I know what you mean. Everytime someone tells me everything is going to be okay I want to punch them in the face because they don't know what they're talking about. Question for you - will you be able to save any of your pop culture/americana toy collections?

Mae said...

Well, Mark took pretty much all of his He-Men. He tried cleaning them at the RV in Baton Rouge that Entercom is putting him up in. The crap in the water changed a lot of the paint. Some changed when he used a bleach solution. All stink to high heaven. He's dropped them off with his mom, who is trying to fix them now.

As we understand it, DVDs are okay. We sent those to Morgan City, too, but haven't heard back about ours, specifically. However, we opened one at our house in order to decide whether or not to take them. It looked untouched by the Lakeview Sludge. My aunt and uncle live in Gentilly, and their house looks like ours. Apparently, ours smells worse, though. Anyway, my uncle said that his are fine...most he wiped off on his pants, others were no trouble at all, and some needed to be cleaned. Hopefully, those will be OK.

The Simpsons are all over the place. Chief Wiggum is on the windowsill, and we found Mr. Burns holding someone's gun on the floor near the He-Men and his pile of money... Castle Greyskull bit it, though. It was in pieces, mostly. The Simpsons figures have computer chips in them to make them interact with the playsets. I'm not even going to try. We've left them there. I don't feel like cleaning them.

My china and crystal has been rescued by Alicia and Calie, my cousin and Geoff's girlfriend. I don't want it. They say it's ok if you clean it properly, but I've seen where it was, and I've smelled it. I was just leaving it to be bulldozed with everything else. But my mother insisted that i get it, and Calie and Alicia decided to do it. Everyone says I'll be happy about it later. But I can't bring myself to ever use it again.

China. Who needs it, anyway.