The Year of Hurricane Katrina

Chapter 6 – Autumn

The next several months passed by in a blur. One memorable event was our second wedding anniversary, October 14, 2005.

For months before Winnie arrived, I had metal fantasies about celebrating our first wedding anniversary together in the US. My fantasies involved vacation time, candle-light dinner at a nice restaurant and two-day hotel stay, along with presenting each other wedding rings. The reality of our anniversary was enjoying home delivery pizza with two neighbors in our dusty house after a long day hanging sheet rock. No rings.

Thanksgiving and the Holidays

Winnie’s first Thanksgiving in America was another memorable event. For the previous ten years I had always hosted Thanksgiving dinner at our house for my closest friends on the Coast, the O’Dwyer family. Past dinner’s were always a big event involving lots of good food, and setting out the fine china on our dining table.

This year, our house had no oven to roast the turkey in and no table to eat at. Our fine china was packed away in the garage. The O’Dwyer family had lost their house to Katrina, but was able to buy an undamaged house right away. Their new house had a working oven and a table.

So, Thanksgiving morning I stuffed the Turkey, carried it over to the O’Dwyer’s and popped it in their oven. We met back at the O’Dwyer’s that afternoon, along with Beth as our guest, for a somber dinner using paper plates. It would turn out to be the last Thanksgiving dinner we’d have with the O’Dwyer’s.

Late Season Recovery

We didn’t have a replacement refrigerator until late October. Without a refrigerator we used ice chests as needed (kept my beer cold) and ate a lot of MRE’s and non-perishable foods. Getting ice was not a problem until the National Guard disappeared, and then it became a major headache.

The National Guard started making daily supply runs in our neighborhood about three weeks after the storm providing MREs, bottled water and juice. They distributed ice and other essentials (diapers, tampons, baby food, MREs and water) from central locations which in Gautier was the mall. Church groups co-located with them distributing other supplies including clothing and household essentials. This routine continued until about early October. Then one day the National Guard just disappeared, leaving relief supply distribution to the Red Cross and church groups. The Red Cross was useless.

Life was difficult during this time with the constant chaos of finding supplies, keeping a semblance of daily life, and rebuilding the house. It seems I was forever struggling with issues that should have been simple, but weren’t. Getting a new refrigerator delivered required days of increasingly acrimonious phone calls to the poor delivery manager, starting weeks after delivery had been promised. Getting building supplies was like playing the slot machines – some days Lowe’s and Home Depot had what I needed, usually they didn’t.

I was still working 12 hour days 3 days per week while new office space was prepared. On my off time, I was spending about two of every four days locating tools and building materials, food, ice, and other essentials. Some days, I just couldn’t deal with being inside the house dealing with the dirt and chaos so would find excuses to just go somewhere with Winnie. The rest of my off time was spent building the house.

On the rare occasion I would visit someone whose home had not been flooded; I experienced a moment of severe disorientation as I walked inside their house. It was such a strange feeling of normalcy so alien to anything I was experiencing. It was as if I suddenly walked into a different world.

Winnie Showed Her Strength

Above everything else, Winnie was my biggest worry. She had only arrived from China six weeks prior to the storm, her first time ever outside of her native country and away from family, and I knew she was dealing with a lot of issues.

It would have been hard enough if all we had to do was adapt to married life together and get her acclimated to a strange country where she could barely even speak the language. Now we were dealing with all that on top of dealing with a wrecked house and the aftermath of surviving the greatest natural disaster to ever hit the US.

Although Winnie normally maintained her composure, she “lost it” several times when we were alone. And we had fights like I’d never experienced in my previous marriage. Several times she threatened to go back to China; several times I thought it would be a good idea.

But we worked through the fights and kept going. She worked tirelessly on rebuilding the house during the days I was at work. On the days I was at home, she motivated me to accomplish things beyond what I thought possible.

I am proud to say that our house was rebuilt so quickly because of her. I can also say without her, I would have quickly lost my energy for rebuilding.

My own mental state was partly to blame for many of our fights. I am normally a pretty temperate person, but in the months immediately following the storm I found myself completely loosing my temper for no rational reasons. It became typical for me to be in a furious rage of anger at the end of a long day of home repairs, or after a long day of shopping for materials. I didn’t understand where that rage was coming from or how to deal with it.

Somehow, Winnie and I built our life together as we rebuilt our house. We worked together gutting out the house, treating exposed wood framing, hanging insulating and drywall, buying building materials and planning the look of our future rebuilt house.

Living Rough

Even with insulation and drywall back up the house was a long way from being considered livable. We were cooking on a camp stove out on the back porch, sleeping on a futon bed in one of the small front bedrooms, using the one working toilet located in one bathroom and the one working bathtub / shower located in the other bath. The floors were all bare concrete; after I developed the worse case of athlete’s foot ever, Winnie and I were careful to wear sandals everywhere inside the house. Wearing sandals were also good for keeping nails out of our feet.

In late September I had suffered through a bout of “Katrina Cough,” a respiratory-tract infection caused by black mold and rotting debries. In late October I suffered another respiratory-tract infection from the drywall and fiberglass insulation dust that coated every interior inch of the house. Winnie didn’t seem affected by any of this, other than getting a bit of skin rash from hanging insulation.

Our kitchen countertops had been torn out along with all of the lower cabinets. Winnie rigged up some folding tables outside next to our camp stove to make our Katrina kitchen. The few kitchen utensils we needed were stored under the camp stove table in Tupperware containers.

We had boxed up everything we could save but did not immediately need and stored it in the garage. We kept our essential clothes in other cardboard boxes that were moved around the house as work progressed. Since all the interior doors and lower walls had been removed, we hung sheets around the bathrooms to give a semblance of privacy. Otherwise, we had a see-through house for several months.

Our one working bathtub served many functions. We showered in it, and then moved to the other bathroom to brush our teeth and shave. Winnie washed our clothes in the tub. Since we had no useable furniture other than our futon bed and a small kitchen table, the only place I had to unwind and drink a beer before sleep was in the – dry – bathtub, much to Winnie’s amusement.

But it was home. I never even considered asking for a FEMA trailer. Call it stubborn independence, false pride, or just unwilling to deal with more inept bureaucracy. I’m still not sure that was the best decision. A FEMA trailer, once it was delivered and setup, would have given us a clean place to sleep and eat while we rebuilt.

The weeks we were hanging drywall were especially tough with gypsum dust coating everything. On the flip side, we didn’t see FEMA trailers coming into our neighborhoods until mid-October when we were already starting the drywall. Having a trailer sitting in our front yard would have made trash disposal, deliveries of building supplies, and parking pretty tight.

I can say we were one of the few homes in our subdivision of more than 200 houses that did not have a FEMA trailer on the front lawn by end of November – and all but two houses had been flooded.

As soon as the drywall was hung we had hired a crew to do the finish plaster. Less than a week after they finished Winnie was finished painted out the house. By Christmas season we had a new roof, one complete working bathroom and were starting to put down flooring.

We took ten days to go visit my mom in New York over the holidays, the first vacation break we’d had since the storm.

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  1. […] those posts can be found in my “Katrina Diaries” category. I also wrote an extended story “The Year of Hurricane Katrina” around the one year anniversary that rolled a lot of those posts together and tried to make […]

    August 29, 2015
  2. […] Winnie and I have a considerable amount of experience in home improvement. My expertise goes back to my teen years and I’ve been involved with projects (some of which involved contractors) on each of the five homes I’ve owned. Winnie used to help her uncles pour concrete and lay tile roofs back in China, and has worked with me on all our home improvement projects starting right after hurricane Katrina. […]

    October 31, 2015

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