Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas in New Orleans

This was originally sent out as an email in December 2005. It was then posted with all the others at the Katrina Refrigerator blog. It seems appropriate to re-post it now.

Lately there have been a lot of articles in the Times Picayune about police shootings post-Katrina. Most of them have not been investigated nor were they reported at the time. Here is a report from a person in the Convention Center (also on the Crescent City Connection bridge) who sat in my kitchen telling me about his nephew being shot. I never got to follow up on this story as once Louis went back to Utah and then finally returned to New Orleans the second time, we saw him rarely. We moved, he eventually moved. I haven't been able to track him down to get the entirety of his story. I do know that for the couple of weeks after his second return to New Orleans that he was not the same man. His son, the one for whom he'd been working so hard, died of a heart attack at the age of 30. No drugs found in his tox screen. It was determined that a combination of stress and probable congenital problems were the cause. Louis sunk into himself after burying that boy. As far as I know, no one has looked into the alleged Convention Center shooting, although in the years since I've heard several similar stories.

This is a tough Christmas for some. Economy a mess, money tight, jobs lost. Meanwhile the television continues to blare messages of failure if you don't buy the Missus a Lexus or a giant diamond, or the Mister a big screen TV. Re-reading this post makes me remember that Christmas--decorating friends' trees with the contents of MRE's and Mardi Gras beads, being glad we had power when so much of the city still had none, being grateful that we were still here, by the river, optimistic that we'd make it through anything after having made it through that fall.

So, if you're having a rough time this year, for whatever reason, read this. It was the people, the people with no wrapping paper or bows, that mattered. They still do.

Well there have been lots of articles about Christmas in New Orleans. Some of them about families who came back to spend their holidays together as they always had, others about the evacuees who couldn't get back home.

We have our own little New Orleans Christmas story to tell.

When we first started writing these emails, we sent one out about the people who were missing. These were people we actually knew, not the people of the statistics. As they've turned up, we've let you all know. On Christmas Eve some of those on our personal "missing" list showed up on our doorstep. Gifts.

We were standing outside, the weather was warm for this time of year. Zack and Melissa's folks were here, and they're always a joy. So we stood out there talking, laughing, having a couple drinks. David was due home shortly but was still at work. I had come back in the house for something and the doorbell rang. When I opened it there was a man with a wonderful smile on his face, dressed in a bright Christmas red sweatshirt, black pants, and red hush puppies. It was Louis Towns, our neighbor. All he needed was a bow on his head and he would have been the best gift of Christmas. Before he could get the "Hello Miss Marie" out of his mouth we were hugging each other. Then the phone rang and it was my husband. I told him there was someone here who wanted to talk to him. I handed the phone to Louis and he said, "Hey, Mr. Dave!" David was thrilled and hurried home.

I still don't have the whole story of Louis' odyssey, but I'll give you what I do know. First a little bit about Louis. Louis is one of the most decent and one of the hardest working men I've ever known. A black man, born and raised in Louisiana, very intelligent, not very well educated. He's married, has a son who wants to be an engineer, and he had two grandsons. He may have former wives, other kids, other grandchildren, but we've never discussed any of that. Pre-Katrina David and I met him on the Ferry as it seemed we were usually coming and going at about the same time, all on bicycles. He lives a few doors down on our block and of course we'd seen him, but it was on the Ferry that we made friends. Many nights we'd be coming home from work the same time as he did and we'd talk about lots of things. He worked in a warehouse in Metairie, which is by bicycle a very long way from Algiers Point. Louis is in his early 50's and he rode his bicycle to and from his job in a warehouse every day. If we didn't see him on the Ferry we knew that his boss, who thought he hung the moon, must have picked him and his bicycle up over near the bridge, but usually if the boss did that it was at 4:30AM. Louis, grateful for the ride, would go to work early then ride his bike home. Our relationship was casual. He'd come to our porch to talk, we'd stop at his porch to talk, but we always talked on the Ferry.

About three weeks before the storm, Louis had somehow dropped either a pallet full of stuff or a large 5-600 lb drum on his foot. I can't remember which, I only remember him telling me the story and it was a totally freak accident. His foot had been literally smashed and the doctors had put multiple pins in it just to keep the bones together. One of the pins was sticking out of his big toe. Just looking at it made you cringe because you could imagine, or thought you could, how painful this injury was. David and I had talked back then about how difficult it would be after this accident for Louis to do his daily Algiers to Metairie ride. Louis said he'd find a way to get to work because he was trying to help his son become an engineer, besides, he had said, he'd been saving up some money to buy some old beater car. About a week before the storm, Louis moved up to a friend's house in Metairie, or near there, because it was closer to the doctors who were treating him and walking to and from mass transit wasn't really an option for him at the time. Then came Katrina. We didn't see him again. When his family returned to the flat up the street, we'd ask every time we saw them if they'd heard anything from Louis. They had no idea where he was. They were worried too. We all knew that he had been in a part of the city that had flooded. At least once a week David or I would wonder if Louis had made it. It was one of those vague little aches that we didn't know how to fix, someone once there suddenly gone. We didn't know his last name---he was simply Louis and we were David and Marie, a name that I am not sure how he ascribed to me but he's always called me that and I've never corrected him. We weren't really close with his family so felt like we'd be intruding if we asked for last names and we figured they'd already checked all the various lists.

On Christmas Eve when he showed up on the doorstep we found out what had happened to him. Unfortunately, it's not a particularly unique story. He's just one of many. He had been in Utah. I should have figured that out by looking at the Utah Utes red sweatshirt, but hadn't noticed anything but his smile. How he got to Utah is a story that I hope to get in toto one day. He says he's written some of it down and has warned me that his spelling is no good. I don't care. I got the "short" version the other night and want to hear the complete version. (He said he'd been interviewed several times by the Utah newspapers. I wonder what they made of his story.)

When the storm hit he was lakeside in the City, either in Metairie or nearby. That is the area that the 17th St Canal breached and flooded. His foot still full of pins and in a cast, he walked through waist deep polluted water until someone rescued him and took him to the Convention Center. There he spent five days. Another couple of friends were also in the Convention Center and have told me about the level and degree of filth, including two inches of urine on the floor. He was there with his 19 year old nephew and some other friends or family. His nephew went to get bottled water for some of the elderly people near them at the Center, and somehow he wound up in the chaos of evacuees and police and was shot and killed. Louis stood in my kitchen at one point and sobbed saying, "I watched my nephew die and all he was doing was going to get some water for the old people." He looks utterly bewildered when he says this. There is some anger in him, but his anguish over not being able to help his nephew outweighs the anger. At least for now. At this point his feet and legs were in terrible shape from walking through the water in combination with the injury he had sustained prior to the storm. He left the Convention Center on foot and joined the people on the Crescent City connection. He was one of the people the Gretna police turned back. Remember, he lives over here. He was told that if he could get someone on the phone to come and get him, that he could come through. He didn't have anyone's phone number and no cell phone, so that option was gone for him. He walked back to the other side of the river and through some intervention, not sure whose intervention, he wound up on a Jet Blue to Utah.

When he got to Utah, they put him straight in to a hospital, where he was told that his feet and legs were so horribly infected that they might have to amputate them. Evidently his feet and lower legs were triple the size they normally are. They pumped him full of antibiotics and painkillers, and remarkably, saved his legs. I told him he was actually lucky not to have been allowed to cross the bridge because at that point I'm not sure that there would have been a hospital in the area who could have taken care of him. There was still no power in most places. He spent weeks in the hospital and was so sick and so out of it that he said he didn't realize how much time had passed and he didn't know where the rest of his family was either. Finally he was released, evidently has been set up in some kind of living arrangement, still has medical issues that need to be dealt with so he could only stay here for a couple of days before heading back to Utah. He also found out once he got in touch with his family here that one of his grandsons had died. So his return here was bittersweet, but he was so grateful to be home. He says he'll return home permanently at the end of March, but for now he'll be in Utah not liking the snow but grateful for all the help he's had. He believes absolutely that he was saved for a reason. His emotional pain will take much longer to heal.

As we were talking with Louis and the neighbor/family next door, we see two short people walking toward us. It was two of our "angel urchins" and they had also been lost. Kendrick and Trevonne are brothers. Their mother works offshore on a oil rig, they live with an aunt a few blocks from here, but last we'd heard they were going to move to St. Bernard parish. Gratefully they didn't, but we hadn't seen them since about a week before the storm and we'd worried about them and their cousin Terrence. Kendrick is 12, his brother Trevonne is about 14, Terrence is about 14 too. We were delighted to see them. I grabbed Kendrick and gave him a big hug and we told them how much we'd worried about them. Melissa said she saw Kendrick's bottom lip quiver when I grabbed him. I didn't see it, I was so grateful to see these boys that I had tears in my own eyes and wouldn't have noticed if Kendrick did too. Trevonne stood down at the bottom of the steps til I asked him if he was too big to give me a hug on Christmas Eve. He grinned and came up and hugged me. They told us they had been in Napoleonville, "the country" as they call it, and were glad to be home. Terrence is in another little town "in the country" and probably won't be coming home. Kendrick and Trevonne will start back to school sometime in January.

So we got to chalk four people off of our personal "missing" list. It was a lovely Christmas!

Others won't be so lucky. You've all seen the death toll numbers, which I'm still not really convinced of. (Does that number include people like Louis's nephew?) But no one's talking about the "missing" numbers. As of last week, according to I believe it was an Associated Press story, these are the statistics so far:

-80% of New Orleans was under water
-284,000 homes were destroyed
-81,000 business were destroyed

Horrible stats, but the following statistics are rarely mentioned:
-6644 people are still listed as MISSING, and this number includes 1000 children

Where are they? Is someone doing anything to find them? With over 1000+ confirmed dead, what about the 6600 missing people?

Seems to me this needs to be looked into, not just reported and dismissed. We are lucky. Most of our missing people are turning up. I cannot imagine not knowing where my daughter and grandson were for all these months. Wondering if they were under a building somewhere dead and still not found, or had been sent three states away but not put on any list. Them being so untrackable would be torture. This is the reality for many people in this region.

I am so grateful that our Christmas gifts this year were on two feet walking up our steps and giving us peace of mind as far as their well being was concerned. We couldn't have asked for more.