Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Then came Katrina

Mellisa, Jason, Dad, and I drive to the remains ofGlenda’s house. Mounting our own miniature cleanup mission. God only knows how much it will cost her to restore the place. But if we can somehow ease the suffering, it will make one person’s life a little more tolerable.

Dad volunteered to go. He knows Glenda doesn’t have anyone else. She’d do it for him if the roles reversed. So he joined the adventure.

Jason didn’t want to go. But I told him we’d get it done sooner. It would be less work with three people.

Mel asked to tag along because she is paranoid that Jay will get hurt without her. They’re almost newlyweds by my measure, so the umbilicus doesn’t reach very far.

We wade through the back roads of post-apocalyptic Gulfport. 28th street packed with Disaster Tourists and debris and cleanup crews and convoys of linemen. Additional power poles have fallen across the road, forcing a detour through a soggy graveyard. (Thankfully, nobody has floated up through to the surface.)

Highway 49 now patrolled by National Guardsmen instead of beleaguered policemen. We thank them as we drive past. They nod and signal us through. Each of them wearing long sleeves and thick camouflage pants. They’ve got to be dying on their feet as they manage traffic on the balmy August streets. Hour after hour. With no shade and the taste of exhaust on every breath. Did they have any idea what they were signing up for?

Mel and Jason Oh-My-God their throats raw as they get a first hand look at the damage outside of Long Beach. They hadn’t seen any serious flood damage. Hadn’t seen store fronts strewn across roadways for miles. Hadn’t seen trees twisted around themselves to the point of detonation. Their first look at anything other than missing shingles and fallen trees. I’d seen it yesterday. Dad saw it in 1969.

Then the unbelievable: an open gas station. In the guts of Bayou View (which had become Lake Bayou View during Katrina’s stay) we pass the bombed out remains of a BP. Only one pump is working. Hooked to a rusted brown generator. Operated by a three hundred pound sweaty man in overalls. He is an angel. A Southern cherub bringing sweet sweet gasoline! With twenty hungry parishioners in line at his feet.

I nearly skid the car to a halt in the middle of the street. Jason and Mel try to figure out who will drive while I’m pulling out our tools and telling Dad that we’re only two blocks from Glenda’s house. We can get started while Jason fills the two empty gas cans we had brought on the off chance that we’d find just such a gold mine. The last five gallons Dad has at home will only last us through the night. Two more will buy us a couple of days of power for the refrigerator and a couple of hours under the fans.

Two blocks seem like twenty when the sun is squatting on your back. But we talk about the prize we’ll bring home tonight and I discuss the finer art of spotting flood damage as we walk.

Dad and I are already sweating when we get to the front door. He’s seen the water marks on the outside of the houses and knows it isn’t going to be nice inside. But neither of us are braced for the smell. Nor the heat. It’s a sauna in Glenda’s house. A rancid, sweltering sauna. Reaking of kitty litter, bayou mud, sewage and moldy dry wall.

The plan is to move half of the furniture, scrap the carpet underneath, move the other half of the furniture, and scrap the last of the carpet. But our plan didn’t include moving saturated mattresses. And we didn’t factor in the weight of drawers filled with water and drown clothes. Thank god there are only three carpeted rooms to strip. If it were the whole house, it would take us all night.

We clear just the first half of the first room and we’re both out of breath. Both tired. Even with all the windows open, the house is every bit as hot as the roof was this morning. We’re sweating constantly. The heat saps us. Constricting. Lungs full of napalm. Oppressive.

And the carpet is soaked. Tougher to cut. Heavier to lift. I make the initial incision then lean into it. Pulling with my arms. Pushing with my back. Holding the slippery material tight, while Dad tries to saw through it. Only five feet through a ten foot stretch, the first length we’ve tried to cut, and we’re ready to quit. Pouring sweat like a faucet. Panting like slow Southern dogs.

Dad says he’s done. I tell him to cut harder and we’ll be done quicker. So he cuts harder.

Two more feet. I say I’m done. Dad says to pull harder and we’ll be done sooner. So I pull harder.

We finish the room like that. One of us trying to quit. The other not quiting. Then we trade places. Trade rolls. Dad pushing me past my limit. I push him past his. And it is just the first room, of three.

He doesn’t like it, but I make Dad load me up with the freed rolls of carpet when everything is cut. I won’t let carry any of it. He’s damn near sixty. I’m almost half his age. And, prior to Katrina, I’d spend hours in the gym each week trying to get a workout like this. The secret is to get the weight of the drown carpet onto one hip. Then I’m walking and sweating and carrying the scraps out to the growing mound in the front yard. The water from the rolls drenches me, soaking my shorts. And my purple, deeply lacerated shin. It’s cold. Refreshing. And since it is cooling me down, I fool myself into believing the wound won’t get infected from the filth.

The second room is worse than the first. Bigger. More drawers. Larger ones. The drawers below my knee are still flooded. So heavy with water that the handles snap off when we try to pull them out to empty them. Which means we have to move the whole thing, flooded or not.

Then repeat the process of shifting the furniture, scrapping the carpet, and hauling off the pieces. It’s grueling. We keep jabbering: almost done, almost done. Sweating and cursing and not quiting. I want to give up. He won’t let me. He wants to give up. I won’t let him. It’s a constant conversation between each length of carpet. But it helps pass the time.

When we finish the second room, it has been two hours, and we’re nearly exhausted. Don’t even talk anymore. Just catch our breath and discover Dad drank the six pack of water and I drank the six pack of Power Aide. In two hours, neither of us have peed once. We're utterly dehydrated. And to my surprise, when I step on Glenda's rusting bathroom scale, I've lost 10 pounds in three day.

The third room will have to wait. We’re nearly dead on our feet. But, Jason is no where to be found.

So we decide mop and scrape the quarter inch pond that has taken up residence in the front room. We take turns between a broom and a squeegee. One of us pushes the water toward the door, the other knocks it outside. After thirty minutes, we’ve stopped panting and almost stopped sweating. The front is mostly dry. And we have no idea if/when Jason will drive up with the car.

Nothing else to do and we’re either stupid or gluttons (or both) because we eyeball the refrigerator. It is flat on its back. Like a white coffin. And somehow, we think we should right it. Might as well? Jason’s probably lost, and Glenda won’t be able to get this sucker back on its feet.

Being longer of leg, longer of arm, and thicker of skull, I shimmy between the fridge and the wall. Suddenly finding myself almost ankle deep in a field of broken glass. Wine bottles? Oil bottles? Decorative crap? I dunno. It is all sharp and crunchy. And I’m so damn stupid that I feel my way through the jagged, sewage-crusted shards and grip the edge of the fridge.

On three? I ask

Yep. Dad’s on one side, more of a coach at this point.

One. This is so stupid, I think.

Two. I’m gonna blow a disk, I think.

Three! Dumb dumb dumb!

I push down with my legs, into the mound of glass, pull up with my arms and push with my sun-blistered back. Howling at the top of my lungs as the fridge creeps up, inch by inch. Daddy’s yelling GOOO! GOOO! It’s moving. Half way. And my spine is still in one piece. Almost there. I keep howling like kamikaze on his flight down. Dad’s chanting. And it goes up. Onto its feet!

Then the bastard spills its guts. Onto the dry floor. Throws up a stomach full of spoiled milk, pickle juice, Tabasco sauce, bayou funk, rotten spaghetti, curdled yogurt, ten different kinds of wine, and god-knows-what else. And I’m running outside, crying god’s name and covering my face and my dry heaves with the top of my sweat-soaked shirt.

The fumes fade. We mop for another hour. Sweating the whole time. Cursing the whole time. Glad to get everything past us. Just one room left to do tomorrow, as Jason arrives to survey all our handy work.

He sat in the air-conditioned car for three hours. But they found the Holy Grail: gasoline. Ten gallons of liquid gold.

Well worth the wait.

And as we leave, I find Liam’s fishbowl in the ruined field of broken glass. Still intact after battling Katrina and supporting my weight and my fight with the fridge. But Jupiter is gone. A deep blue betafish with one bright red spot on his side. Liam’s first pet. Not a sign of him.

Gone with the flood, I’ll lie to Liam. That’s right, son, Jupiter escaped. To live with his friends in the bays and bayous of Gulfport. He escaped to tell the other fish about the sweet, young boy who kept him safe and kept him fed.

Then came Katrina.

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