New Orleans: Storms, survival and reunions
They probably should make you show your passport to get into New Orleans. It’s so wonderfully unique that it should have its own national borders: The French Quarter, the music, the food, the cocktails, the streetcars, the Gulf, the swamps, the Cajun culture, all overlaid with the bittersweet sense of the fleeting nature of life, losses, survival and renewal after Hurricane Katrina, now more than a decade ago.
Our guides here were Dave and Judy Walker, longtime friends and former colleagues at The Arizona Republic, NOLA citizens since 2000, and until recently, journalists at the Times-Picayune. Dave was the television writer, former president of the national Television Critics Association, and has written for TV Guide and other outlets. Judy covered homes and gardens, then food, and has written several cookbooks, including Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans (with columnist Marcelle Bienvenu), a work of love envisioned after readers lost all their clipped recipes in the storm. Judy still writes her food column at NOLA.com and Dave has a new gig at the famed National World War II Museum. We hadn’t seen them for maybe 15 years, and were excited for the reunion.
We rolled in on a Friday evening, parked in their driveway, and headed to the High Hat Cafe, one of their favorite neighborhood restaurants, where we caught up over cocktails – Sazeracs and Uptown Pimm’s Cups and Life of Leisure (Chamomile Vodka, Orgeat, Lime, Maraschino Liqueur and Orange Bitter) – and shrimp creole that was so good I wanted to lick the bowl.
We told them of our visit to Galveston, where we learned about The Great Storm of 1900, which killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people, depending on whose numbers you use, and about the book we were reading by Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. It tells how people were caught completely unaware, despite efforts by Cuban forecasters to warn of the hurricane’s advance. Bureaucratic bumbling, dodgy science and jealousy in the newly formed National Weather Service contributed to their deaths. The storm came roaring across the shallow bay and then from the Gulf, pulling train trestles, house and corpses into a mountain ridge across the city.
It brought back memories of our previous visit to New Orleans, when Tom, Nate, my mother Jeannine, and I passed through in the summer 2006, less than a year after Katrina hit in August 2005. We had taken a tour of the Ninth Ward that broke my heart, mile after mile after mile of destroyed homes in east New Orleans, some with notations still visible of bodies found. I had seen it on television, which could not convey the shocking enormity of the affected area.
The morning before Katrina hit, Judy and their son, Mack, packed three days of clothes and headed for Baton Rouge, to stay with friends. Judy begged Dave to come with them, but he wanted to stay with the house. As the storm got worse, he moved to the newspaper’s bunkerlike building, but soon realized he would have no electricity, no television (his job), so headed north.
“I was never so happy to seen anyone in my life,” Judy remembered. “I hugged him so hard.”
They were safe. So many others weren’t. More than 1,800 died in the storm and the flooding when levies failed. After traumatic days stranded at the coliseum or on overpasses, people by the hundreds were taken to airports and put on planes, not knowing where they were headed. Many came to Phoenix, where my mother helped organize the Red Cross shelter at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The Times-Picayune set up a temporary workspace in Baton Rouge until they could get back into their building. Judy remembered spilling a soda on her only shirt, then crying when a box of donated clothing from Baton Rouge journalists arrived in the newsroom. Small mercies. She grabbed a replacement and kept on working. She remembered crying another time at a gas station, when a man dressed in his work clothes and work boots, a man who would never expect favors, asked her for gas money. “Nobody had anything,” she said.
Dave, armed with a media pass that got him through National Guard checkpoints, was one of the first to get back home near Tulane University. Once again, they were lucky. Their street, slightly higher than the surrounding area, had seen about four feet of water, their house, raised several feet, had about four inches inside. Still, the first floor had to be gutted and rebuilt, electrical, plumbing, cabinets, floors, appliances.
Dave and Judy started the hard slog back toward normalcy. They worked ungodly hours every day telling their community’s stories, Judy interviewing family members for the endless, but unique, obituaries, Dave following the national media coverage, then working on the house every night and weekends. Schools were closed, and Mack, in high school, had to go back to Phoenix to stay with friends for months, until they reopened.
The newspaper, already integral to the community, became beloved for the work it did through those dark and difficult days. When it faced the fate of many papers across the country, downsizing in the wake of shrinking advertising revenue and laying off most of its veteran staff, people did everything they could, but it didn’t help. Dave left the newspaper shortly before Judy retired on Nov. 30, 2015.
The next morning, Judy took us to the quilt shop where she works one day a week and to the farmers market, where we bought shrimp from a woman who, during Katrina, clung in the trees for hours with her husband before being rescued. We went to City Park, where we saw the celebration of life in the lovely tulip garden, roller-skating children and beautiful sculptures at The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art. That night, fueled by wine and beer, we cooked Bruscaloni, a rolled, stuffed meat recipe in yummy tomato sauce, from Cooking Up a Storm, laughing as we wrestled the meat and string, as Dave grilled the shrimp on the back patio.
One night, Judy took me to her book club, where we ate homemade Shepard’s Pie, drank wine and laughed around the table over The Uncommon Reader, A Novella, by Alan Bennett. It’s a hilarious story of the Queen of England inspired to a life of reading by a traveling library van that stops on the palace grounds and about the transformative power of books. Around the table were the faces of women who had survived, some who left and returned, all of whom couldn’t imagine home anywhere else.
As New Orleans recovered from the storm, so did its traditions, including Spring Fiesta, during which a queen is named, there is a parade (always in NOLA), and several homes are opened for visitors to see. We arrived in time for this year’s celebration, which included several homes in The French Quarter.
The first, an elegant townhouse on Royal Street previously owned by Delta Burke of Designing Women and her husband Gerald McRaney, included a guest house where Delta used to house her dogs, playing reruns so they could hear her voice. It’s now owned by Gerald’s cousin, Bob McRaney and his wife, Samantha. Bob, his hair as white and crisp as his shirt, his pink tie sparkling, welcomed us into his living room and told us how he loved the sound of laughing children passing each day to and from the elementary school next door. In the kitchen, the island is made from a piece of marble counter from the Columbus, Mississippi, Post Office, where Bob grew up, and doors from the nearby women’s college, the Mississippi University for Women. In the dining room, a friend told of the 200 people floating through the house during Mardi Gras and about the mirrors around the dining room walls, a tradition in New Orleans so you can watch people eating without appearing to stare.
A few blocks away, we were ushered up the steps to a townhouse created for Yvonne Alciatore Blount, the matriarch of Antoine’s Restaurant, a famous French Quarter eatery founded in 1840. She greeted us seated in her living room, her cane propped against her chair, and told about moving to Florida after Katrina.
“We had a nice townhouse, right on the water,” she said. “I never put my toes in the sand. I don’t like the sun and the sun doesn’t like me. Every morning, we’d look at the ocean and say, ‘Isn’t it beautiful.’ And every evening, we’d have a drink and look at the water and say, ‘Isn’t it beautiful.’ But there was nothing to do.”
She hated it and so, like many others who left, she came back. Her family created the townhouse with a door to the restaurant as a temporary roost until her Lakeview home was restored, but Blount thinks she’ll just stay put.
“I love having my coffee on the balcony, listing to the French Quarter wake up,” she said. “Of course, that’s about 10 a.m. We’re not early risers.”
We stepped out onto her balcony, which wraps around the corner on Royal Street, and were handed champagne cocktails – a sugar cube, bitters and bubbly. As we sat in the wicker chairs, sipping, the sounds drifted up from the street from of a woman singing Ave Maria.
Just down the road on the St. Charles Streetcar is the famed National World War II Museum, an amazing and vast collection of military memorabilia, where just weeks ago, Dave started working. The museum was inspired by the Higgins boat, an amphibious landing craft, designed by Andrew Higgins and built in New Orleans, and used extensively in amphibious landings in World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme allied commander, declared the Higgins boat crucial to victories on the European Western Front and the fighting in North Africa and Italy. The museum’s newest acquisition is a fully restored PT boat, which will be returned to Lake Pontchartrain, where it was first tested. You can contribute to this project here.
Dave got us passes and we arrived mid-morning, thinking we’d spend a couple of hours. At lunchtime, we grabbed candy bars and kept going. Just before 5 p.m., closing time, we texted Dave to ask for a ride home because we never left. There are multiple buildings, interactive displays on the Pacific and European operations and a 4-D movie narrated by Tom Hanks. We couldn’t see it all.
At the museum, you are given “dog tags” with a digital chip for information. They assign you a specific soldier to follow, or you can choose your own. I chose Roland Ehlers, who grew up on a farm near Junction City, Kansas, my birth state, and enlisted in the Army in 1940, along with his younger brother, Walt. They trained at Fort Riley, where my aunt still lives, then at Fort Ord, California, where I visited my mother, also from Kansas, before her MASH unit was shipped to Desert Storm. Roland and Walt, in the same unit, fought in North Africa and Sicily, where Walt had to dig Roland out after he was hit by German artillery. They were assigned to separate units for the Normandy invasion on Omaha Beach, where Roland was hit by a mortar and killed.
I remembered the stories my mother told of the boys in her Kansas high school enlisting and leaving, many never returning, and I wondered at the confluence of ideas of home, memory, loss and reunion, and the way they are tested, in war and disasters, like Katrina.
“Did you ever think of leaving,” I asked Dave.
“Every day,” he said.
But he didn’t. They didn’t.