Thursday, February 02, 2006

Part 10: Finding out what is lost.

Recap: We had just survived Hurricane Rita, just weeks after Hurricane Katrina. My job called me back to Metairie, so I moved in with my parents. Mark, however, would remain in the RV in Baton Rouge.

My school was, miraculously, fine. Located in Mid-City, it was truly an island. However, due to its location, we had no idea when electricity, water, and sewerage would be restored to our campus. We opened a high school in a defunct elementary school this year. Being so small, there was a ton of space available. And so, our administration, combined with the Archdiocese, decided that we would have to move the elementary school to the high school campus. Because it would be such a monumental task, we would remain out in Metairie for the school year. By this point, we were six weeks out of the storm. That's half of a summer vacation. It seemed like school would probably run until July.

The Monday after Rita, I had to report to school. Almost 80 percent of our staff was planning to return. But, in some small part thanks to Rita, many of them could not yet return. Others needed a few more days to come in. But most of the 80 percent would be there to help move.

I arrived at 9, and found myself in a room of the shell-shocked. Then one teacher, who was one of the rookies with me, came up to me while I was reuniting with Melissa, my teaching partner. Melissa lived in St. Bernard Parish, as I think I said before. We'd been in contact during our exiles, but we had not seen each other yet. We were a great match for each other. We are the same age. She'd taught for 3 years in another school, and was experiencing her first year at this school. We had some common interests. Both of us curse like sailors (not in the classroom, naturally, unless the kids are gone), and both of us can burp better than most men can (also, when the kids are not in the classroom). She was really helping make my first year as a teacher a lot easier. It was great to see each other.

But this other teacher came bouncing up, hair in a a perky ponytail, wearing her own clothes. Melissa and I, like so many others, were in borrowed clothes or clothes we'd evacuated with. We'd lost everything else.

Don't get me wrong...this other teacher is great. I like her a lot, as do the students. But what she did next still has me floored. She came up, happy and perky, and said, "'d you guys do?"

Melissa and I looked at each other, then the other teacher. "Pretty rotten," I said. "About as bad as you could have," Melissa said. We each briefly stated our neighborhoods, and I mentioned having had to go through the storm. The perky demeanor was immediately replaced by an uncomfortable one. Another teacher came up, and she edged her way out of our conversation and into another one.

After about an hour, enough people were there to get started. The administrators knew we all wanted and needed to talk. So, while we sat around the tables, we told our stories. Most were fine. They evacuated early, went on vacation while in exile, stayed with family and friends, enrolled their kids in schools, etc. Some had no damage (the ones from River Ridge), others had downed trees, an inch to two feet of water in their homes, etc.

Those of us who lost so much seemed to seek each other out. We had a lot of teachers from Lakeview and St. Bernard. Most of us were in a group together. I'll interrupt for a second to say exactly how wonderful it was to FINALLY be with someone non-immediate family who understood what I was going through, and how I was feeling. You can say you understand, you can say you have sympathy, but until you experience what we have experienced, you have no idea. Don't even try to pretend.

As soon as we got to our area, the Kleenex boxes came out. Dry eyes were few and far between. Sometimes, it was the story-teller. Other times, it was other people. Most were not here for the storm. I was a rare breed there. One of the religion teachers, a sweet little old lady, lived in the Upper 9th Ward. The Lower 9th was obliterated. The Upper, not as much, but still bad. Anyway, she stayed in her home, by herself. She was trapped by water. She slept on her porch at night, because it was cooler. She was evetually taken out.

When I spoke, the room was silent. No one knew about Mark working at WWL. When I said he worked there, the president of the school said, "Oh, the heroes!" I hadn't realized how important where we were and what was done actually was. I wasn't entirely comfortable with talking about it all, but once I started, I couldn't stop. I spoke of everything we'd seen, felt, and heard, from the windows, to Garland running, to looting, to Spud's heroic efforts. I talked about our house, my father's business, Mark living in Baton Rouge, and moving in with my parents.

At the time, I didn't realize how long I'd been talking. But my audience was captivated. They sat and listened. When I was done, many had tears in their eyes. I didn't realize how much attention people had paid to me. But for weeks afterwards, people would talk to me about it all, ask me how we were doing. It felt so good to see real people caring. Up until that point, I felt no one did, locally. Everyone was caught in their own drama. I had only seen the generosity of total strangers and long-distance relatives. But now I had the support of my colleagues. These were people who didn't know who I was until I spoke. Most...not that they didn't care...they just didn't know who I was or what grade I taught or anything. I was a nameless face they worked with for 2 weeks. Suddenly, people cared. And it wasn't just about me. It really brought a lot of our staff closer. Those who faced little to no damage were trying to do everything they could for those of us who were devastated. We started a donation room that quickly filled up. People brought in clothes, snacks, supplies, household items, shoes, uniforms, you name it. Some came from staff members and their families. Others were trucked in by schools that had adopted ours. And everyone was there for each other.

The first thing the school did was set up a healing team. We have an ecclectic staff, which includes social workers, counselors, and psych degrees. These people worked tirelessly to put together a very comprehensive plan for helping the kids and teachers cope with what happened. We knew it would be a very rough year. We knew we would probably never see some of our students again. Or some of our coworkers. We'd all been through so much in those six weeks. Our healing team has earned several grants, and they also have been approached by various agencies in the city to adopt their plan. The whole Archdiocese will implement it, as well. They're amazing.

Due to Rita reflooding parts of the city, our return to our Mid-City campus was delayed. Instead of getting in there Monday, we could not go to Orleans Parish until Thursday. We had to get special permission to set up an emerggency caravan to get through. So on Monday and Tuesday, we regrouped, discussed the Healing Team and the plans, and waited for our numbers to rise.

We were promised that all of us would have some sort of job, even if our numbers were low. We are a necessary school, since we serve special needs kids in a Catholic school setting, and no one else does. They created some positions to retain people. We were so lucky: the Archdiocese was laying off thousands of workers due to insufficient funds. However, they were not really telling us what we could do. The newbies, like Melissa and I, worried. We were the newest employees. Those who were there longer would surely be the ones to definitely have jobs. Even though we were all being promised positions, the promise was not set in stone. The promise was more of a "we'll try our hardest to keep you and justify it."

Some of us went to Target, which had just reopened for about 4 hours each morning, and a manager stopped us. "Do you all have jobs yet?" he asked. We looked at each other. "Maybe," Melissa said. We're supposed to know soon. Why?" "Because we're raising our salaries for three months. The regular starting salary is $6.25. We're promising a $3 increase for at least these three months. The guy pushing carts in teh parking lot? He'll be making $9.25 an hour."

We were shocked. But this apparently became a trend. Workers were scarce, jobs were scarce, and companies instituted incentives. Work for Burger King? Earn $9 an hour, plus get a $6,000 bonus for working for 12 months. McDonald's? Extra $125 per week, plus $10 an hour. There is now no shame in asking someone if they want fries with that.

Because we could not cross over into Orleans yet, Wednesday was an optional day. I woke up to the sound of my phone vibrating with a text message. It was Geoff. "Kev says no roadblocks into Orleans. Go while you can." I ran down the hall, read it to my father, and called Mark to tell him. We were making a try for Lakeview. Orleans was not open to anyone other than emergency personnel. Mark said, "I'll be there in an hour." Mom and I ran to Target to buy some ratty clothes for him to wear, along with boots for him and for her. I bought some "designer" Isaac Mizrahi boots from there on Monday. They were white and had his name printed all over them. They were the only boots I could find. Designer "Cajun Reeboks." Joy. I donned Karen's castoff clothes, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and prepared myself. I had seen Kevin's pictures of his parents' Lakeview home. He has a construction permit, which allowed him in. He'd seen our house, and told us that we had broken windows, but that it was standing. He'd taken pictures of Phil's Firehouse Snowballs, the best snowball stand in the city. It was almost across the street from us. It looked bad, as did the gas station behind it. I knew what I would expect.

We drove up Verteran's Blvd. to the parish line. Army men stopped us. "Can't get in." My dad had been in the week before to survey what was left of his Lakeview service station. It was not pretty. I'd seen those pictures, too. He hadn't been able to get to us, though, because Rita had broken through the not-quite-repaired 17th Street Canal breach and caused minor flooding which hadnot yet gone down. But he's also been with an Orleans Parish cop he's friends with. Anyway, he tried saying he was getting in to work on his business. However, that did not fly any more. And with no cop accompanying us, we were shot down. Mark flashed his press pass. The Army guy told us that if Mark was in his own car, he could get in. It was no use arguing the stupidity of that statement.

So, we went up to Metairie Road and crossed the canal there. How? Dad and Mark switched seats, Mark flashed his press pass, and in we rolled. We drove down Canal Blvd. in silence. The devastation increased the further in we got. We ran through some standing water by the train tracks. We gawked at the water lines, the downed trees, the crumpled homes, the flooded out cars. We passed my first elementary school on Harrison Ave. It looked awful. We paued at a great Po-Boy shop, Charlie's Deli, and thought sadly about how we may never eat there again. We stopped at my dad's employee's home on Harrison. It was in bad shape before. It was to be condemned in a few days' time. We crossed West End. Blvd., then Pontchartrain Blvd. We saw Phil's and the gas station. They looked worse thatn the pictures. We turned down Fleur de Lis. Everything was brown and in states of ruin that one could never imagine. We turned onto 26th. We were on the corner. I set my jaw. The house looked bad. My poor little had floated and was blocking the door under the carport.

The front door was hanging inside. The screen door was ajar. The first spray-painted X for our house was on our roof. Rescuers left these marks basically, to say who checked it, when it was checked, and how many live and dead bodies were found. On Sept. 11, my house was still so under water that they reached it by boat, rapped on the roof, had no answer, sprayed the X mark on the roof, and moved on to the next house. Our second X came just days earlier, Sept. 25. It was painted on the screen door. The elderly neighbor had evidently left, as we'd been worried about. Her marks said there were no bodies found. We were relieved. She wasn't the nicest neighbor, but you don't want anyone to die like that.

I thought I was okay. I thought I could handle it. Then I stepped cautiously into the doorway. We had to move the door out of the way, but could not get it far, as the sofa had floated across teh room and was right behind it. Mask, gloves, and boots on, I looked inside for the first time.

I thought I was prepared. I'd seen enough photos in the past few days, especially of places I knew. But nothing, absolutely nothing can prepare you for this. I burst into hysterics.

I could not be consoled.

I composed myself, put Vick's Vapo-Rub inside and outside of my mask (thanks, CSI:!) , and removed myself from it. I pretended none of it was mine. I tried to find the funny (cat bed on top of a halogen lamp, perfectly centered) and the bizarre (the way the refrigerator flipped). I went home, and Mark went to Baton Rouge. I cried myself to sleep.

I won't say much more about this. It's very hard to talk about, yes, but this sort of pain can not be served justice by the English language. I am tearing up right now, actually, and will leave you with this:

I wish this on no one. Not Hitler. Not Vlad the Impaler. Not David Duke. Not Atilla the Hun. Not anyone I hate. Not even Bush. I wish it on no one.

Next time: Part 11: It takes a village to move a school.

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