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Are We There Yet?

September 1, 2009

_From the ruins of East New Orleans, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, eighteen-year-old Monique Thomas wonders when the world will hear their SOS._

thereyet300.jpgEvery morning as the sun comes up, there’s a smoky smell in the air, and I’m the first in my house to smell it. My family had long ago brushed off this sense of mine as faulty, so my complaint goes unanswered. But over time, the smell gets strong enough to even wake my father, a notoriously heavy sleeper, in the middle of the night. He checks the attic, searching for a loose wire that might have sparked a flame with the insulation (never underestimate the shoddy work of a hastily hired construction worker), but he finds none. He steps out onto the front porch, sniffing at the damp night air, only to find that it’s stronger there. What can you do with an invisible fire? We all try to go back to sleep.

After months of waking up to the smell and having no answer to its cause, I decided to find out for myself. I came across a small blurb from a local news station’s website on the internet explaining that the source of the smell was an underground marsh fire; dry debris, left dead after the storm, had caught fire.

One of New Orleans East’s biggest problems, literally, is its foundation. The East was originally marshland that was drained, like the rest of New Orleans. The neighborhood was built on top of a buried barrier island that mainly consisted of peat. Peat is highly flammable. I wonder, in the eyes of logic and safety, should the East even exist?

The land is built on the edge of a fault, which basically means that as it separates, the East sinks. This didn’t pop up over night, and though the earliest settlers may not have had a way to discover this, the later owners did. My parents bought our house in 1984; back then, our entire neighborhood was freshly built.

The land and real estate developers made dozens of these houses, all following the same basic composition, the only variants being the use of stucco on the façade or whether there was a porch. These were precursors to the prefabricated or “prefab” homes you can have shipped to your figurative doorstep—the ones that have become so popular in the city. The similarity of the houses in my neighborhood has always been surreal for me because I can look down my block and see my house four or five times over, only in beige, or purple, or teal. Concrete porch or garden patch? Garage or car port? Black or brown roof? They’d shuffled these details like a deck of cards, randomly dealing them to each house on the block, but it’s all the same beneath the frills. And I can walk into a neighbor’s house and know exactly where the bathroom is, or where their fridge must be in the eight-by-four kitchen; even if I was only there for a minute, I’d been there my whole life.

These were houses built on land that never should’ve been dry in the first place. And yet, not only were houses created here, but homes were; people created memories and families here that won’t simply be fatigued by a natural abnormity. Besides, do people flee the Northeast because of snow storms? The Midwest because of tornadoes? Or even California because of earthquakes? The question is, do you fear for your house more than you love your home? And those who answer “no” are the ones who stick it out and come back after rain storms.

Of course, the storm brought its own share of problems, the biggest of which being the “No, you come back first” conundrum; the big businesses that really supported the East financially, such as Sav-A-Center and Circuit City, are waiting for the homeowners to come back, while the homeowners are waiting for the big businesses. One can’t survive without the other. But the quiet battle over who will make the first step isn’t getting anyone anywhere.

When my parents first moved out to the East, they were seriously considering a house on Haynes, which was only a few yards away from the Lake, but they decided not to because they thought it would be the first place to get water if the area were to flood. Ironically, that house got no water at all; when the levees of the Intracoastal Waterway were breeched, our house—the one my parents chose, which is half a mile away from the obvious potential dangers of Lake Pontchartrain—was heavily flooded by waters that approached from the opposite direction.

In the first few months of living back in our house, my family wondered, both to themselves and aloud, if and when this store or that store was going to open. It reminded me of that old, familiar question that has plagued many a family road trip: Are we there yet? Have we reached a point where the neighborhood is more like it was before than it is different? Could I now pretend that this is June 2005 without having to close my eyes? After a while, we learned not to ask these questions and wait for others to see that we’re waiting. We’ve made that first move; will you pull through?

In September 2007, our neighborhood got new street signs. Finally, after a year of telling people to just “um, pass over the little bridgey thing and go two streets down, and we’re the second house on the left”; after a year of shaking my head at the scrawled graffiti on the telephone pole that proclaims: “WAVE” in messy letters; after a year of this, finally—a sign that someone in the city or the state or the country sees us down here, waving back at them.

**Monique Thomas** lives with her mom, dad, and little brother in New Orleans East.

Photo by “dpmshap”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/dpmarc/441314597/ via Flickr


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