Residents Return to Streets of Means

Unlike the poor, the well-off of New Orleans are often able to make the trip to their homes.

By David Zucchino and Solomon Moore

Los Angeles Times

September 13, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Before this weekend, Steve Vicknair, Chris Malkove and David McKeon had never met. Yet they had at least three things in common:

They had all been flooded out of their homes in the Lakeview section of this ruined city. They all wanted desperately to check on their homes. And they all visited Internet chat rooms linking Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

On Sunday afternoon, they found themselves squeezed into Vicknair's jet-drive fishing boat, floating past submerged cars and sunken trees toward their former homes on the city's western edge. For several hours, they shared an emotionally wrenching return, helping one another haul cats and belongings from the soggy wrecks they once called home.

"Believe it or not, this has been a good day," Malkove said, exhausted and shaking after wading through thigh-high water in hip waders inside her rented home on Woodlawn Place to retrieve her five cats, a camera and a cellphone. "I got what I came for — the cats. Cats are more important than possessions."

In the tragedy of New Orleans, there are two classes of evacuees: those with means and mobility, and those without. All are miserable and bereft, but the fortunate among them at least have the bittersweet opportunity to revisit their homes.

Those who had very little and lost it all — mostly African Americans — have for the most part been unable to return to their flooded homes to collect their belongings and pets. Thousands of people were doomed to the filth and violence of the Superdome and convention center, then bused to Texas.

Those better off — mostly whites — have also suffered, but in most cases with more control over their destiny. Many can afford hotel rooms and rental cars, or are able to stay with friends or family in middle-class areas untouched by Hurricane Katrina. Some have been able to return to save what they can.

In flooded African American neighborhoods in New Orleans East, authorities have permitted few residents to return. But emergency authorities have allowed residents of Lakeview, which is 90% white, to return if they can secure boats — even though that neighborhood is as thoroughly flooded as New Orleans East.

Two predominantly white suburban districts, Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines Parish, have also allowed residents to check on their homes and retrieve possessions. Those residents returned, however, to homes that were mostly damaged by high winds but not water.

Even in predominantly white New Orleans areas where police have said residents are not allowed to return, some residents have been able to find a way to check on their homes.

Chuck Perret, an executive at his family's printing company, and his wife, an oncologist, returned to their turn-of-the-century Garden District home Saturday with two armed guards in tow to find their property only slightly damaged. Perret said his wife told checkpoint guards she need to retrieve vital patient records.

"I'm kind of embarrassed by the ease of the time we had," Perret said.

Similarly, Mark Crawford, Chris Dreiling and Quinn Jones drove back to their homes in the city in a convoy that included a lawyer friend who told checkpoint guards he had to retrieve important legal files.

In Lakeview, Vicknair, Malkove and McKeon began their journey after contacting one another via the Internet. They had to talk their way past National Guard sentries and maneuver Vicknair's boat past wrecked vessels and rescue crews launching boats where the bridge plunges into floodwaters.

Lakeview, filled with small post-World War II "starter" bungalows and gracious double-story homes, was founded by Irish immigrants more than 100 years ago. Its streets are lined with towering oaks, their thick trunks now awash.

The community borders the Metairie Relief Outfall Canal, where the 17th Street levee ruptured after Hurricane Katrina struck. Lakeview was thus the first section of New Orleans to flood when the waters of Lake Pontchartrain rushed in.

Vicknair, who grew up in Lakeview but now lives in Houston, answered Internet pleas for boat owners willing to take people into flooded areas. An animal lover who said he was moved by people begging for help in rescuing stranded pets, Vicknair drove his boat from Houston and picked up Malkove and McKeon in Baton Rouge.

Vicknair, 51, an amiable, generous insurance agent with a shock of graying hair, managed to navigate to the home he grew up in — occupied by his aunt, Virgie Vicknair, until just before the hurricane arrived. The sight of the little yellow bungalow on Rosemary Street, with greenish-black water lapping at the windows and coursing through the living room, brought Vicknair to tears. He hung his head as the vessel drifted.

He managed to take a few video images of the ruins for his Aunt Virgie, but it was a hollow effort. He didn't even want to go inside, he said, even though his aunt had asked him to retrieve her knitting needles.

It pained him to see his boyhood home gone, for he could name every family and every child who lived with him on Rosemary Street. He pointed to the flooded Homedale Inn, which was Larry's Bar when Vicknair and his 8-year-old friend Moochie helped carry Moochie's drunken father home. He saw the Homedale Grocery, where he bought snowball treats on hot summer afternoons.

The scenes flooded him with pain and nostalgia, mixing with the empathy he had felt for Malkove as she worried frantically about her stranded cats. Vicknair adores his own dog, Lucy, so much that he has an image of her tattooed on his chest.

"I ain't mad at nobody — just the hurricane," he said finally. But when Malkove mentioned that she now considered FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a four-letter word because of the agency's slow aid response, Vicknair added: "And B-U-S-H too."

Vicknair did find solace in helping two fellow Lakeview residents in need — at no charge. "Bad mojo," he said of those boaters who have charged residents.

He brightened, too, when he was able to rescue two frightened young Massachusetts National Guard soldiers who had driven their 5-ton military truck into 4 feet of water on Robert E. Lee Street. Specialists Jerieme Daley and Jason Harris had been marooned on the hood of the truck, hollering for help, after they got lost trying to rescue two other soldiers whose truck was semi-submerged.

McKeon, 41, a dentist with a slender build, also was overcome by the sight of his home.

The white frame house on Marshal Foch Street was filled with foul floodwaters that had overturned his living room furniture and sloshed through the kitchen.

When McKeon waded inside to find four of his seven cats floating dead in the kitchen and the other three alive but soaked, it was more than he could bear. He tried hard to control his grief, but he failed, and his narrow frame sank heavily into the boat.

He and his wife had been through an ordeal — evacuating their house with only enough time to take wedding photos and valuables, living like gypsies at the homes of family members, trying to find a boat to revisit their ruined home.

"My wife and I accept that the house is gone," he said.

He did not take photos of the house for his wife. "She doesn't want to see that thing," he said.

Malkove, 52, a tiny woman with short-cropped hair, said she was resigned to losing her apartment and virtually all her belongings. Her primary concern was the cats — her obsession during the punishing odyssey following her rooftop rescue from her home the day after the levee failed. She said she moved from an evacuation point to an overcrowded shelter before making her way to her relatives' home in Birmingham, Ala.

As Vicknair's boat pulled away from Malkove's collapsed double shotgun duplex, she cooed to her five cats, cowering in pet containers she had lugged onto the boat. "My babies," she said. "I told you I'd come back for you."