Some through the flood

A Hurricane Katrina flood victim inspires the insurance adjuster sent to assess her loss (as if he could).

The Essay

Some Through The Flood

There is strength in her beauty.

She is tall – at least five-foot-nine – slender, and elegant. Her hair is silver, not gray. She wears it neck-length with bangs that swoop to the right, hiding a slither of her face and framing the rest as well as any artist might. Her chiseled cheekbones and concave cheeks form swooping, inverted parentheses for her lips, which are shiny with gloss and perfectly apportioned. When she smiles her sea-green irises shine and her pearly-white teeth glisten.

She is not smiling.

She and I are standing in the chaotic rubble of destroyed vintage furnishings, pieces of art, photos of family members, and a million memories.

Breathing is difficult. Mildew’s pungent odor accompanies the great spider webs of mold attached to ceiling and walls and holds captive the oxygen in the house. The spongy wood floors strain beneath my weight and squish beneath my boot with each step.

This is more than a house she has occupied since the 1950s. This is her home. Before Hurricane Katrina, it was a pristine wood-framed house, painted white. An oversized front porch featured a two-person swing, an aromatic array of potted plants and flowers, a small, round iron table with a colorful top made of ceramic pieces broken and assembled in a pattern as random as the trash that used to be the stuff of her life, and two chairs made of the same fabric as the table. A white house it was with pale yellow window frames and trim.

Hers is an unassuming but charming home in the Lakeview District of New Orleans, a coveted middle-class neighborhood, a quiet place that sprinkles new homes among the original structures, like this one. A quiet place. A family place. A place to live…and let live.

When I return to the living room from a brief trek through the wreckage, I find her stooped. She extends a 5x7 framed photo of a much younger woman who looks exactly like her, but with brunette hair and softer lines. She is dressed in a white dress and standing beside a man who looks like an Elvis Presley-James Dean mashup.

“Wow! Amazing. Beautiful couple.”

“Our wedding day.”

She smiles with her lips, but her eyes sit this one out. They moisten and betray sorrow.

“You look happy and in love,” I offer. “I mean in the picture.”

“Yes. I was. For 57 years, I was happy and in love. My James died a month before Katrina hit.”

She sighs.

“He was sick a long time. I don’t know which was more devastating, the sickness or the storm.”

I am here as an Allstate Insurance adjuster, but in a former life, I was a minister. I have been in this position, in this proximity to pain, suffering, and loss more times than I can recall. The right words elude. It is hard to say anything, but impossible to say nothing. Right now, these are the only words I have.

“I’m sorry.”

“I know.” In an ironic twist of roles, she comforts me with a nod. “I know you are. Don’t be. I’m glad he died when he did. He had had enough and there was no sense in him seeing…this.”

Her eyes make a final, wistful sweep over the ruins of her life. “I won’t rebuild. I won’t return,” she advises as she stands in the doorway facing the street. I cannot help but wonder whether today’s grisly view of her former life, likely the last time she'll see it, will be enough to erase more than 50 years of life in Lakeview.

There is beauty in her strength.

Standing in the once-manicured front lawn, she looks down the street. More than a month after the storm, residents are just now allowed to return to the neighborhood. Authorities had closed off access and posted barricades and Army reserve troops at every entry point. If you didn’t have official business there, you weren’t getting in.

The street is littered with debris and on either side, those houses where demolition has begun feature great piles of drywall, lumber, paneling, furniture, flooring, and all the things that make a house a home.

Well, not all the things.

She turns back to the once-white, now dingy brownish-gray house. A big red spray-painted X on the front door indicates first responders broke into the home shortly after the storm, searched it, and found no casualties. X means “All clear.” Not every home they searched has one. Seaweed and assorted ocean debris remain plastered to the house and what looks like a thick orangish chalk line on the fascia just below the gutters tells you this house was immersed to more than nine feet.

“This isn’t home anymore,” she sighs. “James is in Heaven. The kids are off living their lives.”

“What will you do?”

She looks at me and I see a radiance in her a thousand Katrinas could never destroy. I see a woman whose beauty was once her strength and whose strength is now her beauty.

“I am not sure.” She pauses while remembering something from last Sunday and a hundred other Sundays. “Do you go to church?”

She doesn’t wait for my answer.

“We sang a hymn Sunday. ‘Some through the water, some through the flood, some through the fire, but all through the blood…God leads His dear children along.’ I don’t know where He’s leading me now, But I believe He will and I will try to follow.”

For the first time (but not the last) as an adjuster, I slip into preacher mode.

“I love that song. Here’s another:

‘All the way my Savior leads me;
  What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
  Who through life has been my Guide?
Heavenly peace, divinest comfort,
  Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whate’er befall me,
  Jesus doeth all things well.’”

“Oh! I love that, too! So encouraging.”

She smiles, hugs me, thanks me, tells me she will pray for me as my job is very difficult, and leaves.

I weep.

essay Two Excerpt

This was it! This was the river of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, the river of my boyhood fantasies winding its way to the Gulf of Mexico, supporting commerce, hosting vacationers, supplying fishermen, fueling childhood dreams.