New Orleans residents recover memories from water-soaked homes


by JJ Bailey /

Posted on August 30, 2012 at 8:34 AM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 4 at 11:12 PM

NEW ORLEANS ( -- The hotel phone woke me from an restless sleep. I wasn't sure what time it was, or how long I had been unconscious. It was one of those moments where you're not entirely sure of where you are. 

I reached for the phone, disoriented. Who could this be? And where the heck am I? "Sir, this is the front desk," said the voice on the other end. "Do you have water coming into your room?" Oh, right. I suddenly remembered all I needed to know. 

My room had no standing water, but the more awake I became, the more aware I was that everything felt damp. I assured the front desk there was no water coming in, and reached for my jeans. They were still wet from the mad scramble to and from the car last night. The towel from my mid-Tuesday shower felt like it had just been used. 

It was a testament to just how much water was in the air because of Isaac. Even indoors, the moisture had permeated everything. There simply was no where for it all to go. 

I staggered to the lobby, unsure of how much sleep I had gotten- having spent much of the night staring in awe at the unrelenting sheets of rain. When I got there, I saw the reason for the phone call. The lobby was completely empty. The furniture had been replaced by wet vacs and industrial fans and dehumidifiers. 

Isaac had come calling. 

After eating a meal of leftovers provided by the hotel restaurant, I was ready to head out and see what the storm had wrought. The streets of the French Quarter, famous for their flood resistance, were sopping- but solid. I walked through the sheets of rain and wind to the station thinking that despite the current conditions, perhaps today would be the end of the mess. 

 Five minutes into my shift it was apparent that I still knew nothing about hurricanes. Emails and photos were pouring in, and I was stunned by the content. It was the visual documentation of people losing their cars, their homes, sometimes even their towns to the rising waters. The fireworks may have been Tuesday night, but the real show of Isaacs power was just beginning. 

A couple of hours produced thousands of emails. The more I sifted through, the heavier my heart grew. Homes slowly rebuilt after Katrina were being overtaken once again. Businesses regrown from scratch were disappearing before my eyes. 

In some cases, I was seeing the last image of a family's belongings. I was sharing in their last moments with the places and things they loved. Trees were thrown into houses, roofs collapsed and the rising waters were pouring into everything. Isaac wasn't sneaking into the basement, it was coming through the front door. 

Sometimes it was a matter of an hour before a safe place was overtaken. In St. John Parish, the water was rising to rooftop level. It got bad enough to begin evacuations, and people began hiding in their attics and on rooftops waiting for help. 

In Plaquemines Parish, residents were able to realize the horror of waters unearthing coffins in the local cemetery and carrying them away. Not content with harassing the living, the storm displaced the dead as well. It was something I never could have imagined in a million years. Knowing your loved ones, disturbed from peace, were drifting into the roiling waters as you retreated to the last vestige of what was once your home.

The physical damage is immediate. It's fast and vicious and incredibly powerful. But the true damage of a hurricane, I'm learning, is what it does to the hearts and minds of the people it strikes. Katrina left Louisiana with a scar. For some, Isaac was the realization of their worst nightmare: that scar torn open and the pain begun anew. 

Seven years isn't enough time to forget, but it is just long enough to start building new hope. It's long enough to fill a rebuilt house with enough love and memories that it becomes a home. It's enough time to rebuild family savings after a disaster. Seven years is the right amount of time to start moving on. 

For some, as it turns out, seven years was a cruel taste of calm before another devastation. All their progress, all their hope and closure had been erased in 48 hours. I had sat, unable to help, and watched every moment. As darkness fell and one day bled into the next, the emails finally stopped. Those sending them had either been evacuated, lost the means to, or hopefully found some rest. 

As I reach for my poncho and get ready to trek to the hotel, I realize a damp room and some wet clothes don't seem like so much of a problem. 

At the time of this writing, about 3,000 people are being evacuated in St. John Parish. 676,000 people are still without power.