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August 29, 2006

One Year Ago Today

Roy Meachum

The awed reaction was shock and surprise. Even though there had been various versions of a doom's-day ending for the New Orleans story, nobody believed it would really happen. Especially those of us who are from there.

Nancy Randall discouraged her son from taking a job down there. He told me about her fears that the city would fill up with water, the levees providing a bowl. In all projections the loss of life was very bad. According to what I read - there's a flood of stories for Katrina's first anniversary - the death rate fell short of the World Trade Centers. And the flooding, while awful, did not reach the proportion of Nancy's fears.

Although I lived in the shadow of the Garden District, a woman pushing a grocery cart told me the waters had come only up to the curb. Growing up in three different houses, the grocery cart was stopped in front of Ferret's house built to accommodate slaves. The brick on the patio had long since begun crumpling away. But that's where I fell; I was three years old and holding a celluloid horseman.

That was the place I was first introduced to the New Orleans patois and words like lagniappe (something extra), gallerie (applied to every porch), and gris-gris (voodoo in a city that still dabbled in the black arts). It was there I dressed for my first day in school, sat out a Mardi Gras flu on the gallerie and the next year went sashaying down to the French Quarter to show off my pirate's finery.

A significant part of my life in New Orleans passed as a boarder in Holy Cross College: the name was changed to simply school after Hurricane Camille knocked down dormitories. By coincidence, when the brothers of Holy Cross bought (1858) an old plantation to build the school, there was no Industrial Canal; it came later, well into the 20th century.

Unable to reach Lake Ponchartrain, the Mississippi roared by, contained by a giant earthen levee. The plantation had previously grown cotton. The Civil War interfered with the good brothers' plans. Holy Cross's first building didn't rise until 1879. "College" was awarded by the state government, in Baton Rouge; it simply recognized students could find room and board. And that's what I got that first year: I was nine when I started.

That last observation was not true. The brothers raised this fatherless boy. They provided order and discipline and something suspiciously like affection. Simply put, they cared. With all the brouhaha about sexual abuse within the church, I feel compelled to protest there was none of that; at least not around me. My teachers were "good guys;" they turned "boys into men," as the later motto claims.

The nuns of the Blessed Assumption weren't counted; they had fled France prior to World War I to avoid anti-clerical politicians. It was the only way to keep their habit: a black medieval dress topped by a long head covering; the face was trimmed by heavily starched linen. Two particular French ladies earned special regard: Mother Superior David who ran the infirmary and Sister Anne.

They were all gone by the late August day Katrina blasted in and that's a good thing. The nuns were long departed, the school and this earth; they had emigrated from France exactly 100 years ago (1906). Dropping boarders meant the ladies were no longer needed, in any case. But over the years I have been saddened by the brothers' disappearance. In my day the only civilian in the classroom was the football coach who also handled a health class. The present faculty even includes women! The student body remains resolutely all-male.

Holy Cross sat in the Lower Ninth Ward, infamous for being wiped out in last summer's hurricane. And that's why my life changed. Memory summons up no hurricanes while I was growing up; they all hit to the east, primarily Florida. We received hard rains, which can be expected in a normal year for the subtropical region.

After World War II, Hurricanes Agnes and Andrew came to call on New Orleans before Camille messily removed Holy Cross's back campus, taking away the buildings where the brothers and sisters lived, the 1912 gymnasium and two resident halls: one contained the snack shop. Oyster sandwiches were two-bits.

On a post-Katrina visit, I discovered plywood classrooms rising on the front campus; the only standing building I saw was the one designed by Freret and that was loaded with literally stinking mud. Most devastating of all, I learned my beloved school was abandoning the former plantation and heading inland, not far from City Park and its famous dueling oaks. The park's entrance is guarded by Confederate Gen. Pierre Toutant Beauregard, who started the Civil War by commanding the troops assaulting Fort Sumter.

The new site is completely beyond my boyhood's boundaries; I have visited the new neighborhood probably no more than three or four times. During my boarding years, I had acquired an affection for the Lower Ninth, which was then predominately white. The mile after mile of destroyed houses I saw on my recent visit belonged to African Americans, who had also taken over much of St. Bernard Parish (county). I have been dismayed to read the recent reports that virtually no homes have been restored in that area.

But supposedly, FEMA's big check is "in the mail," meant to arrive any day. That's put forth as a certainty while little else remains clear about the city that gave me heartaches; when I was a young soldier overseas I missed New Orleans as some guys pined after girls back home.

According to what I've read, experts expect the post-Katrina population should stabilize at little more than 50 percent of its pre-hurricane strength. They've said much of those post-World War II "snowbirds" will never return; that also applies to impoverished minorities and those simply fed up with living in the Big Easy's danger zone.

Somewhere I think I wrote how the French Quarter struck me, that last night in town, how things were when I was a teen and cruised the historic area on my own. Bereft of the tourists and their daily carnival, the old streets breathed easier. And so did I.

One year ago today Katrina's winds whipped up the river and the lake, overwhelming sea walls that had been built to political specifications. Nobody really believed, including me, that the City That Care Forgot would wind up with so many broken dreams.

That happened bringing a sudden wetness to my eyes as I write.

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