Tornadoes hit New Orleans: Families rebuild again

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“The tornado picked up her FEMA trailer and threw it all the way back toward the levee. You can see some of the wheels of her trailer sitting right there.”

“Murphy Lewis pulled 86-year-old Stella Chambers from the rubble … Chambers died later at University Hospital, a victim of a tornado that ravaged Pontchartrain Park, a tornado that finished off homes that Hurricane Katrina flooded.”
... From reports by Katie Moore at WWL TV 4 News, New Orleans, La.

These are the kinds of snippets that sent waves of anxiety through my chest. “Picked up the FEMA trailer … finished off homes that Hurricane Katrina flooded ... 1 dead, 15 injured.” Okay, God. Why? I wonder, but this is life.

Not only did the tornadoes hit Pontchartrain Park, one of the first middle-class subdivisions for African-Americans in the country and one of many neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but the whirlwinds also sliced Metarie in Jefferson Parish, an area adjacent to New Orleans. It punched the Carrollton area, part of Uptown, as well.

My aunt lives in Carrollton in my late grandmother’s house. My grandfather, a licensed carpenter, built that house, and my aunt recently restored it after Katrina. I also have an uncle on Cambronne Street in the Carrollton/Holly Grove area, an area that has old home styles ranging from mansions to shotguns. Katrina was relatively kind to Carrollton.

A newscaster described the tornadoes as "hopscotching through the city," my hometown. I didn’t find out about them until after 3:00 p.m. today, about 12 hours after the first tornado ripped roofs off homes. I hadn't been online or watched the news because I’d stayed up last night filling out paperwork related to moving back to the city, back after living elsewhere for more than 25 years.

People who know me well say, "I wondered how long it would take for you to realize you needed to go back." People who don't know me well ask, "Are you nuts?"

I was with my daughter and son, steering my car away from a grocery store in Jersey, when my 86-year-old father called me. He and my mother live with my brother and his wife in Slidell, La. They moved there about a month after Hurricane Katrina.

Dad said, “Hey, Nordette. Did you hear the news?”

“What? What are you saying, Dad? I haven’t had the news on today.”

“About the tornado that hit last night. Started about three in the morning, over by the river bend, you know Westwego. Really hit Pontchartrain Park. Hit up around Earhart (Blvd), up in Carrollton. Your uncle’s okay. Out in The Park (Pontchartrain), knocked down one woman’s house who’d just finished rebuilding.”

“Well what about Gentilly, Dad. Did it hit Gentilly?”

“You know The Park is considered part of Gentilly,” he said. My dad still informs me of the city’s neighborhoods as though he’s educating a child. He used to work for the U.S. Postal Service and still thinks through areas and neighborhoods that way.

I asked about Gentilly because that’s where he and my brother have been struggling with contractors to restore my parents' house, the house in which I grew up. It’s located a few miles, just walking distance, from Lake Pontchartrain. Following Katrina the house sat in six feet of water.

“We seem to have been spared,” he said.

In the background I heard my mother, a cancer survivor who has Alzheimers, saying, “Ask her about the children? Are the children okay?”

I have two children, an adult and a teenager. Sometimes in my mother’s mind I have four or more. When she gets confused, I tease her and say, "I know you think Bolt and Kelly (the dog and the cat) are your grandchildren too." This will trigger a memory of when she visited us and fell in love with the dog. "Oh, Bolt! That's a sweet dog." I didn't talk to her today.

My dad goes on to tell me that he’s not feeling too well. He has what sounds like a cold. I tell him to be careful, to make sure he doesn’t let congestion build up. He also says he couldn’t keep down a sandwich. This is a concern because my father has dropped about 30 pounds since Katrina. He's 5'7" and down to 127 pounds. The doctors have been working with us to prevent his losing more weight. Sometimes my brother calls, asking me to encourage my father to eat more.

Today I tell my dad to get some Healthy Choice soup, low sodium, but to him, soup is made by Campbell’s, and he tells me he can’t eat that. He suffers from diabetes and severe arthritis. One hip's arealdy been replaced. Up until Katrina, he was my mother's primary caregiver, a duty he fights giving up.

So, I get off the phone and call my brother. We discuss the new disaster, tornadoes, and how my sister-in-law will take care of getting dad the right soup. Even my brother, who's at work, asks about the house in Gentilly. He wants to know if Dad's heard anything that indicates it was hit again. I hear stress pull his voice taut.

He's speaking and my mind flies to those families in Pontchartrain Park. How will they handle this new disaster? When I get home and check WWL's website, I hear that its residents, like residents who've moved back all over the city, say that they'll rebuild. They'll rebuild as many times as they must because home is home, and love of it makes you fearless.

Last night I was busy with paperwork and in deep contemplation about what it means to move back to New Orleans. Today I reflect again on loss, on flattened houses and death, on the challenges of family, and the road ahead.

NOTE: WWL TV 4 has excellent coverage of the storm and tornadoes that just hit. Click the link here for stories, including video and slideshows.

You may visit Nordette’s personal blogs, Confessions of a Jersey Goddess or NJ Spoken Word, or get connected to more of her work, including fiction and poetry, at WritingJunkie.net

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