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SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2006

New Orleans resident Sara Beth Williams lived at her mother’s residence in Decatur following Hurricane Katrina. Now she’s back picking up the pieces in the Crescent City, where they found a corpse under her home.
DAILY File Photo by Dan Henry
New Orleans resident Sara Beth Williams lived at her mother’s residence in Decatur following Hurricane Katrina. Now she’s back picking up the pieces in the Crescent City, where they found a corpse under her home.

Living In Ruins
Spring in New Orleans blooms bittersweet for Decatur native

By Sara Beth Williams
Special to THE DAILY

NEW ORLEANS — It's an astoundingly beautiful day, the kind of afternoon that puts me in mind of a song I sang more than 30 years ago with a lot of other Decatur High girls also too young to understand what it really meant:

"Who will buy this wonderful morning? Such a sky you never did see ... who will tie it up with a ribbon and put it in a box for me?"

But now, I really get it.

It is also Mardi Gras, and six months to the day after Katrina skirted New Orleans, and the levees caved in. I am in my uptown backyard, where life seems a lot like it used to be, momentarily.

Only momentarily because, as I dig around the flower beds, and pull debris from behind the hedge of ginger, I find other people's belongings. Still.

Sara Beth Williams’ neighborhood in New Orleans.
Courtesy Photo by Geoff Clayton
Sara Beth Williams’ neighborhood in New Orleans.
To date: a part of a stroller, a muddy Barbie, a laminated recipe card for Margaret's Favorite Red Pepper Dip, an old iron door handle, a bag of sodden fireworks, dozens of roof shingles, the splinters of some busted shutters, part of a rusted grate from a gas wall heater, a toy pig gone sour and greenish, a silver fork with the initial "D."

Today, as my son Isaac picks the lemons off the tree to make room for the new blooms, already pressing out and exuding their heady sweet scent, he finds a crucifix on a chain wrapped in the upper limbs.

"Leave it there," I tell him.

I don't have to say why. We've left the rescue worker's red spray paint on our house, too. It indicates no one died here. Some reminders are both obvious, and good.

Usually, my very favorite thing to do on Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the same kind of favorite thing I like to do in Decatur the day after Thanksgiving. That is, knowing where the crowds will be (here, along St. Charles Avenue, in the French Quarter, or back in Alabama, at the shopping mall), I light out in the opposite direction.

In most years, the gulf beaches are a welcome territory, ribboning the warm surf for miles and miles, and almost no one else around. Dauphin Island, Fort Morgan, Destin, Perdido Key are as deserted in late winter as Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is earlier in that season, when I tuck two pockets full of leftover pecan and sweet potato pie, and take the whole quiet day to myself. That is, if you don't count a few birds and fishes and I don't. I don't count much at all anymore. Nothing adds up the way you think it will anyway.

The letters on the side of Sara Beth Williams’ front door in New Orleans indicate the house was used as a food-and-water or FW station for pets in the neighborhood in the aftermath of Katrina.
Courtesy Photo by Geoff Clayton
The letters on the side of Sara Beth Williams’ front door in New Orleans indicate the house was used as a food-and-water or FW station for pets in the neighborhood in the aftermath of Katrina.
But with the little seaside cabins turned inside-out and the sands littered with plumbing and dresser drawers and downed palm trees, I'm finding my solitude at home this year.

I am admiring my bridal veil bush, in its white, heavy glory, blooming like nothing happened at all, and I'm ripping out the rosemary, the fern and the ligustrum that didn't survive the 18 inches of fetid and oily water that washed over my yard when the 17th Street Canal levee broke.

My lawn, if you can call it that, is raggedy and strewn with wild thistle, dollar weed and stray violets. I admire their tenacity, especially the violets, for they look so fragile. Looks deceive. You'd be surprised what survives a disaster.

People ask how I am, how I am faring down here where the world nearly ended, And I say I'm OK. Because that is what we say. And because on many days, I am OK.

But this is the same thing you say when you've slipped off the curb, and the blood is clearly staining your torn trousers and your stomach feels queasy with the stinging and you're less than OK, but explaining how much less takes a language you're just learning — the kind of language you start to learn as soon as you're left with just one good leg.

What you mean is that you are standing, that you will concentrate on standing. That your heart is beating, and you are breathing, and that from all you know, this is what it takes to go on.

I can tell my experience in numbers: I had about $70,000 in damage, and nearly the same in insurance payouts. I went two weeks without a land line, three months without hot showers or any but the most rudimentary electricity, four months with no corn bread because I had no oven.

But, I am now qualified to cook almost anything else in an electric wok or on a charcoal grill. I still drive 77 miles to get much of my mail. I've gone through four mops, two cases of bleach, eight bottles of Pine-Sol and one pair of rubber boots. The bruises that a mold-proof respirator makes on your face take three days to fade. The wait time for my son to see a doctor at Children's Hospital emergency room in mid-November was 10 minutes — there were so few children in the city then. The wait time for applying for unemployment benefits during the same week: 6˝ hours, half of that outside in the rain, listening to sad stories, and to simple weeping.

These numbers are cold by now, and reveal little. Especially when I know how lucky I am. I can name more than a dozen friends who lost their homes entirely. My former assistant at work, Sonnet, waited two days to be rescued from her roof, with her mother. They were deposited under an overpass for two more days, given two bottles of water each and no food. When they were finally delivered to an airport for evacuation, still in the nightgowns they'd been wearing for four days, she fashioned shoes for them out of cardboard boxes she dug from the trash.

She and her mom are safe in San Antonio now, presumably with real shoes. They're not coming back.

Today, breathing in this blue sky, I miss all the people like Sonnet, and wish they could see the city this way, again. I wish they could see my bougainvillea reaching for the clouds, riotous as ever. I wish they could have been here when I started to yank up the wisteria, and found it resistant, when I cut into the gray tangle of it, found it green, alive underneath.

I wish they could have been at the riverfront a few weeks back when yet one more local legend launched into "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" again and my friend Paul leaned over and asked me, "Are you getting tired of that song?" and I looked at him and just mouthed "No."

He answered back, "Neither am I," and squeezed my hand.

I can tell what the reporters won't think to ask about, like how I took a shower behind the shed door in the corner of my yard next to the blind man's house, through much of October. Water heats up nicely in a hose left coiled in a sunny back yard — remember that next time you're abandoned and cheated by your government and your community is left in ruins.

Keep in mind you can find a way. I might warn you, though, about what bleach does to your skin even through gloves and old clothes, or how you learn to dress in the dark while answering dead-of-night calls from friends who can't sleep, can't stop crying or can't start.

I can tell you that what I've lost includes a taste for platitudes.

It may be that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but strength is overrated. It comes with exhaustion, skin rashes, a diet of Pop-Tarts and canned tuna, despair in the afternoon, flat tires, interminable lines, infestations, late fees, lost mail, disappointment, unstocked shelves and betrayal.

Pure strength is for mouthwash and Clark Kent's alter ego. In real life, it comes diluted, and like the flood water, with who knows what. You can't think about it. You just have to put on the rubber boots, the industrial-quality respirators, and have at it.

"There's a silver lining behind every cloud" is a phrase you'd better not say to me, or especially to my neighbors in Lakeview, or Gentilly, or Chalmette or the Ninth Ward. Even if there is, what need have they of silver linings? They need the government to make good on its promises and obligations. They need working gas lines, electricity, FEMA trailers. Find us the nimbus cloud sheltering these.

And I'm telling you that business about "God doesn't give you any more than you can handle" comes only from people who haven't had their turns yet. (What about those couple of dark nights in October, that cold, dreary week in November?) I admit to handling it well enough when the electricians found the corpse under my house in December but what was the point of having to handle that news at all?

Today, while the hammers and drills and generators have stopped for the pre-Lenten celebration downtown, it is quiet and I watch my just-turned-14-year-old son up in the lemon tree, tossing down the fruit we won't eat this year.

Citrus roots are shallow, and these were covered for too many days in flood water that left behind a scum we'd rather not examine too closely, much less ingest.

He's so tall now. He grew 3 inches taller over the fall, gained 15 pounds and more maturity than I thought I'd see from him before he was 20. He has been strong and brave and loving. He has lived in four homes and gone to five schools since August, and has kept his sense of humor and his sense of purpose, and most remarkable of all, his sense of peace. And most graciously, he has shared these with everyone in his life.

So, yes, it is a beautiful day.

Seeing the lemon crop pile up, I can finally tally up my other losses, too: a box of photographs, 12 valentines from Isaac, our well-loved orange cat, my job of 17 years, my books, the rosemary hedge, a lifetime of bundled letters from family and friends, my grandmother's cedar chest, her nurse's uniform and her desk calendar, and any sense of security I thought I had as an American citizen.

But there is my son. And here is my backyard. And we are together.

We have resilience and dirty fingernails and hope and each other. And in the background, the truck floats are lining up on Claiborne Avenue. They're loud, with their music blaring and their horns blowing, invading our hidden-away afternoon. But it's OK.

And everyone under this sun today really is OK — standing, breathing, going on.

Who will buy this wonderful feeling? Put it in a box for me.

Decatur native Sara Beth Williams is working on her first book-length work, a novel set in civil-rights-era Alabama.

On the Net: Williams' Sept. 4, 2005, DECATUR DAILY article on Hurricane Katrina, www

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