NEW ORLEANS — When a room smells, most people leave it. Monique Nelson did the opposite. Before pulling a painter’s mask down from her forehead to her mouth, Monique takes one last deep breath.
“Be careful and don’t touch the walls,” Freddie Owens, her uncle, says. “The mold is dangerous.”
Less than two months ago and just before Hurricane Katrina hit, Monique fled the Crescent city with fewer clothes than she would take to a sleepover. She was expecting to return to her house the next day. She was wrong about that but right about something else: “It can happen to anyone,” she said.
“It” is not a hurricane. “It” is an unexpected tragedy.
A blue tarp, peppered with FEMA insignias, covers the roof of her home. Attached to the security screen on her front door hangs a white ribbon with a black X and a scrawl of code. The markings show the task force that initially searched her home, the date of inspection and the number of survivors and victims found.
After a long wait in the front yard, she enters.
The kitchen is her first stop. With each step her shoes stick to the floor. The hum of the refrigerator is reassurance that the electricity is back on. A picture colored by her 8-year-old daughter Taylor hangs from a magnet.
Freddie follows Monique into the kitchen; he stops and takes a step back to face the fridge. He’s too curious to resist the temptation and works up to carefully pulling the fridge door open with one hand while covering his nose with the other. He grins childlike as he shares the revolt of maggots and gnats feasting on spoiled, rancid food.
Disgusted, Monique moves on to the living room. She cautiously looks up. A rib cage of rafters is fully exposed. Lowering her head, she sees a thick layer of insulation fallen, like snow, covering everything.
The maroon couches are now gray. The ceiling fan has fallen. Baby Haley’s monitor rests silently on the floor. Her stroller is filled with insulation. Small white shoes are barely visible under the gray mulch.
She moves slowly, shoulders slumped, numb to her ruined surroundings. Her aim was to get in, get her pictures and get out — quickly. But she can’t pull herself through the experience fast enough. She straightens the knick knacks on her dresser. She organizes her photos into a box. To the best of her ability, she attempts to impose order on chaos,
“I am blessed,” she mumbles to no one in particular. “I am blessed.”
Before leaving her bedroom, Monique takes a final look. She decides to take something else that only she can then see sense in — her costume jewelry.
“Who takes costume jewelry from a house destroyed by a hurricane?” she jokes. “I may feel like only fifty cents, but I can still look like a million dollars.”
On the way out, Monique accidentally drops her mortgage-payment book in the living room. It sinks into the insulation. She glances down at it for a second and with little hesitation, she turns and walks away.
“Well, I guess I’ve had enough of this,” she says, as she makes for the back door. “I thought I knew what to expect, but it’s totally different. I just thought there were a couple of holes in the roof.”
Columbia to Algiers
In a dark apartment parking lot on West Broadway, 30 hours before Monique walks into her house in New Orleans, she sits in her SUV with baby Haley in her lap. Eventually sister Ebony; cousin Joyce; Kenya, uncle Freddie’s fiancee; and nephews Dimario and Kyron fill the car.
It’s 12 hours before the twilight ushers the car into southern Louisiana. Lake Maurepas is higher than normal and unusually close to Interstate 55. On Interstate 10 east, just south of Lake Pontchartrain, headlights from cars heading out of New Orleans line the highway.
“I bet they’re leaving because they saw their houses and had nowhere to stay,” Monique says.
Ebony speeds up. Joyce keeps quiet. Monique admits to being scared. Her neighborhood, Algiers, is close.
Nearly two weeks before Monique’s road trip, Algiers reopened to its 27,000 residents. On the west bank of the Mississippi and across the river from the French Quarter, the area was the first major section of the city to reopen to residents.
The open highways and expanding landscapes give way to crowded roads bordered by piles of trash. Pulling into Monique’s street, the Yukon slows. Refrigerators, taped shut, line the streets. Crookedly taped to the door of one, a scribbled sign reads, ‘Do not open’. The air reeks of sewage.
Monique, 28, is the mother of two children, Taylor and Haley. She has been with her fiance, Herb Dawson, for 10 years. She drives a big car, owns a two-bedroom house and regularly gets her hair and nails done. At weekly barbecues, when Herb grills steaks and homemade hamburgers for the family, he drinks Remy Martin. Her family is accustomed to living a good life. And then Katrina happened.
It’s a long drive before Monique finally steps out of the car in front of her house. A fallen power line serves as an urban version of a military tripwire. Ebony backs up the vehicle to shine the headlights onto the driveway. Monique is not here to see her house just yet. She has come for her mail. An unemployment check from a disaster relief organization is supposed to be in the mailbox.
Fear of what might lie in the unmowed grass is enough to discourage Monique from going further. The check and any other mail can wait. She joins her family in the car and decides to come back in the morning.
It was not until Saturday afternoon and after seeing their house that Monique and Herb joined Freddie and Kenya for a trip through the rest of New Orleans.
First stop: cousin Nicole’s two-story townhouse. Monique and Kenya step out of the car to get a better look.
“Watch where you’re going,” Freddie says. “There might be snakes.”
Standing outside of Nicole’s place, Herb pulls out his cell phone and gives her a call.
“I think you got it the worst of all of us,” he says. The upstairs bedrooms of Nicole’s townhouse have been stripped of its walls. Her yard is covered with jagged-edged lumber and her above-ground swimming pool is missing.
Continuing their grim sight-seeing tour, they drive uptown. The water is gone, but the lines left on the sides of buildings and cars are clues to its former height. Not too long ago, only the tops of cars were visible.
On Martin Luther King Boulevard, limousines and hearses rest derelict on medians. Herb and Freddie debate how they got there. Herb believes they were stolen. Freddie says that they might have been used to take people to higher ground. Herb swerves to avoid hitting mattresses lying on the road.
Herb laughs as he tells the story of his grandfather’s escape.
“Nobody tells my grandfather what to do. He’s kind of a hard-headed old man. When they told him to leave his house on the east side of New Orleans, he wouldn’t. But then he had a vision of my dead grandmother and she was like ‘You betta get yo’ ass outta there.’ He cut a hole in the roof and waited for a helicopter to pick him up.”
His grandfather relocated to Baton Rouge, La., with no definitive plans on coming back.
An uncertain future
Six out of seven days are good for Monique. It is the seventh one that gets to her. She can’t explain why but the seventh day is when reality hits her hard.
She does not have a home to call her own, her fiance must stay in New Orleans to make money and her family has been forced to split up. Even when her house is restored, she cannot help but wonder if it will ever “really feel like home.”
“I don’t know how my life is going to be,” she says. “But I know it’s going to be hard.”
And still she considers herself fortunate. The last thing she wants is pity.
“I’m glad I can’t tell people a sad story,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done if I had been stranded on a bridge or inside the Superdome with nowhere to live.”
She hopes to go back to New Orleans but does not know when. Her invitation to stay rent-free in Columbia expires at the end of December. At the moment, she is thinking about moving to Atlanta and joining cousin Nicole. But nothing is certain.
“I can’t get angry because there are too many things to be mad at,” she says. “I still have to function.”