Chapter 8 – Moving On
By mid-March our reconstruction was going slow. We were doing all finish work now which took a lot of time for very little apparent progress. I was back to a normal 4 day / ten hour work week, and attempting to rebuild the vending route I had started just four months prior to the storm. Winnie was working five and six day weeks at the restaurant. Now the only time we had for home repairs was evenings and weekends. We also had the boarder with us and felt obligated to arrange some projects around his being out of the house.
We had purchased all new kitchens and laundry appliances just before the holidays but made the decision not to install them until the floors and trim work was finished. I felt frustrated seeing all new appliances still in boxes stored in the living room not able to be used, and I felt pressured to hurry up the work so we could use them again.
The tendonitis in my right arm continued to give me problems. I was wearing an elbow wrap continuously now during the days, occasionally even when I was sleeping. I had to depend on Winnie to do a lot of the more physical work which hurt me, but that made the work tougher for her.
About mid-spring I felt as if Winnie and I “turned a corner” in working together. We were able to negotiate solutions with less fighting. The frequency of my flashbacks gradually subsided and was less vivid when I did have one. But other issues keep cropping up. The next big issue was finances.
Recovering Our Finances
Our finances had been in chaos ever since the storm. Prior to the storm I spent a great deal of time keeping bills paid and maintaining accurate records. Then all my files were ruined during the storm and subsequently thrown out. I didn’t even have a full book of blank checks immediately afterwards.
Literally all our creditors willingly provided a three month grace period for bills to people who asked, affected by Katrina. I did file with all my creditors and had a breather that eliminated a LOT of worry. This grace period ended in November and starting December I had to resume my bill-paying chores, long before I was able to.
It wasn’t a case of not having the money; it was a case of not having any organized place to keep the bills as they came in. Either Winnie or I would collect the mail, place it somewhere in the house, then the other person would bury the letters with construction materials or move them. I was always busy with some project and would either forget about bills for weeks on end or just not have the energy to deal with them. As a result, by early spring I was getting dunning notices and late fees on a pretty regular basis.
The credit card companies were initially understanding and willing to remove late fees. I didn’t experience any local utility attempting to cut-off services during this period due to a late or missed payment, as opposed to before the storm where being 2 days late would result in threatening phone calls and notice cards hanging on the door knob. But it was one more piece of irritation and stress to deal with.
By late spring I gradually got my finances organized again. We had a pretty good idea how much insurance money we still needed to finish. We used the leftover insurance money to pay off some loans and credit card balances. We actually came out in better financial shape than we were just prior to the storm, and now I had fewer monthly bills to worry about.
A New House Inside an Old House
By now the house was looking more finished nearly every day. We started buying new furniture and hooking up our appliances. The clothes washer was actually hooked up by end of January, but the dryer wasn’t working until late March. In March we also regained a working indoor stove; regaining indoor cooking technology was a moment to remember. By the end of May we had the lower kitchen cabinets reinstalled, upper cabinets refaced to match the lower, and new tiled counter tops finished, all built to Winnie’s specifications.
Replacing windows was the last major project. Ten out of thirteen windows needed to be replaced due to various types of storm damage. I had spent months thinking, talking to people, looking at the existing windows, and thinking some more about how to get the old windows out. Finally, when the time came to remove them I just used a sledge hammer and crowbar and scattered glass all over everything. It actually felt good breaking out all that glass, except then I had to clean it all up under Winnie’s careful supervision.
The more the house was finished and more appliances we installed, the more we regained that “normalcy” feeling. We were now able to joke about having ice always available and washing clothes in the bathtub. In early June we had our house inspected and declared “finished” even though there were dozens of small honey-do projects left.
The house looked beautiful; we had tile and wood floors, custom windows and trim work, new furniture, new kitchen cabinets and all new appliances. All the colors and patterns were our choice. The belongings we had saved were back in place and pictures hung on the walls. We had climbed the technology ladder back to all the luxuries a normal American house contains.
But it felt all wrong.
The problem was having a new house inside an old house. From the outside the house looked the same as before the storm. Inside, the house had the same floor plan. But, the plaster on the walls had a different texture. The rooms echoed a different way. The sound of closing doors was different. The plumbing and air conditioning sounds were different. The house even smelled different. It just all felt wrong. The many subtle new things layered on the old house strongly and subtlety affected me. The differences were a constant reminder of the storm.
The Wrongness of Our Lives
I also began to feel resentment towards outside contractors coming to the coast. Although these contractors mostly did good work and helped keep price-gouging by “local” contractors in check, their attitude began to annoy me. These outside contractors carried the attitude of “finding a gold mine” of steady work for years to come. We, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, had become a business opportunity.
Everywhere I went there were reminders of what had been lost. Familiar landmarks, historic buildings, local museums, even renowned Live Oaks, all gone. The overwhelming community loss became too much to bear on top of all the personal losses. The sense of security I had built over years of living here was gone.
I began to feel a wrongness everywhere on the coast I traveled. I listened to people talk about needing at least five years to “get back to what we had” and felt sick to my heart. I couldn’t see how even five years would be enough time. There was also the constant thought in the back of my head about the probability of being flooded again. The chances of another “Katrina strength” hurricane was a common topic of debate. I couldn’t help but think the Coast did not have five years to rebuild.
By now, I felt wearier that I could ever remember. The constant grind of home repairs, the relentless chaos of life in a disaster zone, the seemingly unending list of repairs still needing to be done had taken it’s toll. I was sick of going to Lowe’s, once my favorite store. By mid-spring I knew I could never live a life like this again. I finally accepted the painful realization that I just could not continue living on the Gulf Coast.
In late spring I started talking to Winnie about moving away. I first broached it as a joke, and then gradually became more serious. To my surprise, she was entirely agreeable to moving. One night in early June, I sat down in front of my computer, took a deep breath, and published my resume on an Internet jobs site.
I coded my preferences for jobs in locations away from the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
By late August I completed a series of interviews with a small company in northern Virginia. On September 13 I accepted an offer and gave two weeks notice to my company the next day, September 14. On October 11, 2006, with our house emptied out, Winnie and I left Mississippi for the last time.
Our house was officially sold on March 2, 2007.
In the end, Hurricane Katrina won. The aftershocks of the storm pushed me out of the safe cocoon of a house and away from a community I loved, into a very new and different world. The end of this story is a new beginning.
This is a personal account. It was not written to gain sympathy or pity. I wrote it the way I did as this is the only way I know to describe the impact of what is now being called the “worse natural disaster in American history.”
Updated February 12, 2007: Added links to Katrina Photo Gallery.
Updated March 2, 2007: Added additional narrative in Chapter’s 6, 8 and the footer.
Updated March 17, 2020: Converted to Gutenberg Blocks, cleaned up formatting and SEO.