My Year of Hurricanes

Three weeks after Katrina: missing cats, Wal-Mart, and a search for day care.

The house that no longer exists 
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The house that no longer exists

This article is part of an ongoing series by Blake Bailey, a New Orleans resident who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Click here to read more of his dispatches.

In our former lives, my wife and I liked to lie on the couch, sip our drinks, and read books after a long day: The pleasant ritual was our reward for working hard on things that mattered to us. Now we watch TV—whether with friends in Oxford, Miss., where we first fled from the storm, or in Fayetteville, Ark., where we stayed a few days with my father-in-law, or in Norman, Okla., where we now live with my mother. Our concentration is shot after hours of inconclusive phone calls, e-mails, and frantic errands that usually entail at least one trip to Wal-Mart or a Wal-Mart equivalent; and then of course we wonder, compulsively, about the home we left behind. Over the last 15 days or so, images of New Orleans have been recycled so often they’ve achieved a kind of permanent iconography: the flayed Superdome, looking like something out of Planet of the Apes; the old people stoically mopping their faces; the mothers sobbing over their dehydrated, heat-stunned babies; the blanketed corpses.

My wife worries about her therapy cases. “Oh my God, what about those kids at Tulane Med?” she said, when we heard that doctors were siphoning gas to keep generators running. As a psychology intern at Tulane, she had worked with seriously ill children and the biological parents of children in foster care; the latter were poor people, mostly, whose bad mental health and substance abuse had impaired their performance as parents. Many of them had no way to get out of the city and were perhaps in the Astrodome wondering if their children were safe. Probably my wife would never see any of these people again. She worried about one patient in particular, a child on advanced life-support who would almost certainly have died if the power failed.

The world, to be sure, was too much with us. For several days my wife had tried contacting her program director—what would become of her internship, our health insurance, this month’s paycheck?—to no avail. All Tulane e-mail was down and nobody’s cell phone (but ours) worked. Finally the director set up a Hotmail account and replied: He was in Houston, he reported, enrolling his children in school; the program would resume at some point and meanwhile he’d keep everybody posted. This seemed a trifle optimistic, given that New Orleans resembled a Hieronymus Bosch painting, so my wife was glad to hear from her training director at the University of Florida (where her doctoral program was based). They’d managed to scrape some money together and create a new position for her; it appeared we’d be going back to Gainesville.

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Finding new day care is the next big hurdle

That posed the problem of day care for our baby daughter. It seemed only yesterday that we’d been languishing on the wait-list of every semirespectable facility in New Orleans—thrilled to be told of a last-minute opening at our first choice, a Montessori place in the suburban town of Metairie, where our baby had adored her teacher and fallen into a benevolent routine. All that was shot to hell now. Hours in a hot car, a farrago of faces and scenery, her parents’ palpable malaise—all had conspired to make our daughter, let us say, unpredictable. So, my wife was relieved to find, at length, a place of good repute in Gainesville that seemed willing to make room for a hurricane refugee.

“And how long has she been walking?” a staff person asked during a phone interview.

“She doesn’t,” my wife replied. “Walk. Yet. But she’s about to! Any day now! “

“Oh dear,” the woman sighed, and explained with genuine regret that their program was available only to children who’d been walking a few months. The physical activities and so on. She named a few other places my wife could try.

Meanwhile, we’re haunted by the cat we left behind—left behind, that is to say, because of her horror of cars, the cat-hating dachshund at our saviors’ house in Oxford, as well as the fact that we fully expected to return in a few days. We’d saved her, as a kitten, from meth heads who lived down the road from us in rural Waldo, Fla., and it’s hard not to picture her waiting for our return with that bemused scowl of hers. The day after the hurricane, my wife checked postings on Nola.com for pet-rescue operations; she called the LSU Veterinary School and e-mailed “Noah’s Wish.” And of course we both tried calling the Humane Society at 1-800-HUMANE-1. For more than a week the line rang and rang, followed by a curious, resigned, silence. But finally I got through. There was a babble of ambient voices, like when you call a telethon; my own contact sounded as though she’d just woken up. She kept asking what color or breed my dog was. I kept repeating that the animal in question was a cat.

“And what’s his condition?”

“Her. Not very good, I imagine, unless she’s been rescued already. We tried—”

“I’ll just put ‘unknown’ … “

And finally the day ends. I sit in my mother’s office and scroll through hundreds of photographs of rescued cats. That one there, in a shelter in Gonzales, La., has the right markings, but her head is averted (pettishly?) and I can’t see the telltale scowl. In any case, I e-mail the shelter, then go home to another bleary night of TV. One hopes, at least, to find the baby in decent fettle. Tomorrow her hectic journey continues, as she and my wife fly to North Carolina to visit my mother-in-law (a fellow evacuee) and her family, then back to Gainesville, where a kind friend has offered us the use of her apartment through November. As for me, I’ll stay here in Norman for the next couple of weeks, alone—working on my book, pursuing insurance claims, going to Wal-Mart, and pausing to gaze now and then at a photograph of my baby daughter in our old home, sitting in a nursery that no longer exists.

Next: The dramatic rescue of our lost cat.