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.
After our first few months as evacuees, my wife and baby daughter and I had attained a kind of equilibrium: We settled into an old Victorian house in the “Duck Pond” neighborhood of Gainesville, Fla., and got on with our lives, more or less. Our daughter regained most of the weight she’d lost after Katrina (at one point she dropped to the bottom-five percentile on the growth chart), made charming friends, and recently celebrated her second birthday. My wife finished her Ph.D. last week and has a salaried job lined up for the fall. And meanwhile I’ve waddled along with my Cheever biography—cutting and pasting little morsels of text all day, breaking at dusk to bicycle around the Duck Pond and count my blessings, such as they are.
No matter how determinedly we forge ahead, though, we never forget we’re evacuees—mainly because we’re followed around by a large thought-bubble containing a winged dollar. Things have gotten particularly sticky in the last couple of months. For one thing, our landlord (a celebrated scholar-poet who prefers to remain nameless) is returning from England this week, which means we’ll be moving, again, to a house where we actually have to pay rent. (As I wrote in a previous column, a kindly stranger in California had covered our rent at the poet’s house.) What’s more, we’re faced at last with having to replace all the furniture, appliances, and whatnot that we lugged out of our moldy house in New Orleans and dumped on the curb with surprisingly few regrets—few, that is, until now.
Of course, the ghastliest aspect of all is the fact that the large national bank holding a 30-year mortgage and home-equity loan on our ruined house still expects to be repaid, the sooner the better. For a while we kept up the monthly payments—it helped that we didn’t pay rent—while waiting for Congress to pass the big recovery bill proposed by Louisiana Republican Richard Baker that would have enabled homeowners to sell their damaged houses at no less than 60 percent of their pre-Katrina equity. Alas, in January the Bush administration took an enigmatic dislike to the plan and delivered a “death blow” to the city, as Baker put it. Thus, despite Bush’s pledge in Jackson Square a few days after Katrina to “do what it takes” (etc.) to rebuild New Orleans, it now appeared that the federal government was only prepared to help rebuild about a tenth of the houses in question—namely, those lacking flood insurance that were located outside the flood plain. What form this help would take was anybody’s guess, and the White House didn’t seem in any hurry. The good news was that we were among the lucky tenth.
I explained all this to the home-finance and home-equity divisions of the large national bank holding our mortgage and home-equity loans—separate entities that maintain little or no contact with each other. Nor do people within these entities communicate as far as I can tell, and for that matter there doesn’t appear to be any consistent policy whatsoever for dealing with hurricane victims. For all of us, it’s simply a matter of dumb luck: You make phone calls and either speak to helpful, competent people or (more often) mean, stupid people reading tag lines from scripts in nebulous foreign accents that suggest English is not their first or even second language, and hence, they needn’t understand a thing you say.
“I am sorry for your trouble, sir,” said the second sort of person in the home-equity division, when I called in hope of negotiating a moratorium on monthly payments while waiting for the White House to get off its dead ass. “But you must keep up your payments.”
Once, however, I spoke to a person in the home-finance division named Chrissy, who was every bit as helpful and competent as her name suggests. Chrissy told me that of course she’d grant me a three-month grace period on monthly payments, at the end of which I should simply give her a call and let her know how things were going, whereupon she’d almost certainly renew the grace period as needed. I find it hard to write about Chrissy without feeling verklempt. When I tried to reach her three months later, she was already gone—to greener pastures, one can only hope.
Meanwhile, I had a pretty juicy tax refund to look forward to, given my Katrina losses, which I spent a long insomniac night listing in IRS Publication 547 (“Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts”). Probity was the byword here. How many belts had I owned? Why, exactly four, but they were nice leather ones and kind of pricey; nevertheless I gave their total “fair market value before casualty” as a mere $75. Filling out the many schedules was an exercise in nostalgia. While completing “Schedule 9: Laundry and Basement,” I remembered the first time I’d peeked, post-Katrina, into our garage-cum-laundry room—the contents of which appeared to have been poured out of a cocktail shaker: The washer was lying on its side and the dryer upside down. For tax purposes I listed the value of these machines at $125 apiece, though they were almost new and each had cost at least twice that much. Likewise I listed our house at exactly half of its pre-Katrina value, based on what my real-estate agent had said about houses in the neighborhood with comparable damage. (A subsequent repair estimate revealed that our house had actually lost 63 percent of its pre-Katrina value.) Finally I sent all this paperwork to our accountant, a God-fearing woman of unimpeachable integrity named Donna Greenway, who determined the government owed us exactly $13,844.
Weeks passed. Occasionally I’d visit the IRS Web site to check the status of my refund, but always I got the same ominous response: “We are sorry. We cannot provide any information about your refund.” Finally I gave the IRS a call, and in the fullness of time a human voice came on the line.
“This is strange,” the woman said. “I can’t seem to find you on our computer.”
She put me on hold while she consulted her manager. When she returned she was sheepish.
“I’m sorry, sir, but there’s been some sort of—um—your return has been pulled.”
“Probably for an audit, sir, but we—well, we’re just not sure. It may be in transit to another campus … “
I pictured my tax return at another campus, perhaps enjoying itself at a tailgate party. I told the woman I was a Katrina evacuee and desperately needed my refund, whereupon she referred my case to the taxpayer-advocate service. My contact there is a nice woman named Kim, who has troubles of her own. Kim lives near Peabody, Mass., an area that was flooded a few months ago in a torrential (perhaps global warming-related) rainfall; while bailing out the basement, Kim’s husband was badly injured and had to miss work for several weeks. Kim mentioned this by way of commiseration. By then she’d discovered that I was indeed being audited, as were many Katrina evacuees (we’d been instructed to write “Hurricane Katrina Loss” in red at the top of our tax returns). Most of these audits were being prepared en masse at the Texas campus. According to Kim, my return had now visited the Atlanta campus and various campuses in between, but never once have I received any official notification of, well, anything. Mind, I appreciate the Treasury’s vigilance, what with rampant FEMA fraud and so forth, to say nothing of the $250 million a day going to Iraq.
One achieves a kind of peace. About a week ago I was sitting on my dung-heap, waiting for another custard pie to fly over the transom, et voilà: I got an e-mail alerting me to a Times-Picayune story about a recent New Orleans ordinance requiring homeowners to “clean, gut, and board up” their houses by Aug. 29 (Happy anniversary!) or else the city would “seize and demolish” same. During his re-election campaign in April, Mayor Nagin had denounced the deadline as unfair to “people spread out all over the country, particularly senior citizens,” but now he purports to see the wisdom of it and has initiated a “Good Neighbor Plan” to alert the citizenry wherever they may be. Thus alerted, I promptly got in touch with the man who’d estimated my house as a 63 percent goner: Could he clean, gut, and board the place before Aug. 29? Well, things are hectic, he told me (one can imagine), but he thought he could muster a crew if I could muster a 50 percent down payment of $8,625.
The councilman who sponsored this expensive ordinance is Jay Batt. It was pretty much his last act in office before being voted out on the strength of a well-publicized “Anybody But Batt” campaign. Oddly enough, Jay happens to be an old friend of mine. While attending Tulane we roomed together for a long year that (in the name of alma mater) I will forbear to describe. I haven’t spoken to Jay in many years, though I feel he’s speaking to me now, after a fashion.
But perhaps the worst is over. The White House has given its whimsical blessing to a plan whereby homeowners may receive the pre-Katrina value of their houses up to $150,000, minus FEMA and insurance payments. One awaits further word as one awaits the spark from heaven. And then there’s this: According to Kim—our contact at taxpayer advocate—the IRS has abruptly canceled our audit and will be sending our refund after all. Why? Who knows? One feels like Joseph K. trying to divine the nature of his guilt. At any rate Kim seemed as happy as we, and that was a nice reminder of everyday decency. Together we hope for better things. Perhaps a year from now I can report that my (now-gutted) house in New Orleans is rebuilt at last and filled with happy people—all I know for certain, though, is that we ourselves will be elsewhere.