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OPEN LETTER:

Christmas Letter 2006, from New Orleans

by JEANMARIE LoCOCO NICHOLSON
I guess the hardest thing about living here is the heartbreaking landscape. An area about two or three times the size of Manhattan destroyed.
Friends,

Merry Christmas! This is the first Christmas letter I’ve penned since 1999. I guess that’s the last time I had anything interesting and/or amusing to report—ha. Hope to answer the questions I’ve received periodically: “How are you?” and “What’s it really like in New Orleans?”

Needless to say, my family’s Katrina story is just one out of hundreds of thousands, and these are the highlights. This year’s been “the best of times and the worst of times.” And what a difference a year makes, thank God. The LoCoco family (sisters, their husbands, my nieces, nephew, Dad, and me) is gratefully doing just great.

Our neighborhood (“the ‘hood”) is called Faubourg St. John, just off of Esplanade Avenue, a few blocks from Bayou St. John, City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny are a couple of miles away at the other end of Esplanade. The ‘hood is an artsy, bohemian, eccentric, eclectic community, where residents have long memories of those who’ve come and gone and who’ve mostly remained. Gathering places on the Avenue include Café Degas, serving bona fide French cuisine, and Lola’s, an authentic Spanish bistro without a liquor license, so patrons BYO bottle of wine. The Terranova family has run a small grocery business for generations and returned to their corner of the Avenue before hardly anyone was back from wherever they’d evac’d to. Back when Dad was in the grocery business, the Terranovas were “the competition.” Mr. Bobby has run the corner pharmacy DeBlanc’s for as long as I can remember. Deblanc’s actually makes home deliveries in the ‘hood. Sips wine shop recently opened a branch where the new age shop used to be.

The famous Jazz & Heritage Fest takes place shouting distance away at the Fairgrounds racetrack. (The Fest was a huge success this year—my personal faves were Paul Simon and Irma Thomas.)

The best of NOLA, in my humble opinion, is the quirky coffee shops, très different from the corporate chains. Before the storm, there was one down the street called Fair Grinds. It was part of Sunday morning ritual in the ‘hood. The place flooded, and the owner has not rebuilt. When the city first opened up, he served free coffee outside in the alleyway every morning—someone had donated a ton of it. After the free coffee stopped, people continued to gather on the benches outside the forlorn coffee shop. It’s some kind of existential crisis, “Waiting for Godot.” Or a vigil. Like, if they keep coming and sitting, maybe the shop will be miraculously cured and open its doors again.

Some of our neighbors say, “Mr. Jay [Dad] built this neighborhood,” and I can’t help but think there’s some truth to that. Dad was the neighborhood grocer, around the corner from our house, until he finished putting us through school. He built the family home on Ponce de Leon Street with his own two hands in 1959. It’s a brick cape cod that’s seriously incongruous in a neighborhood of uniquely New Orleans, 100-plus-year-old houses. But it’s the kind of house Mom wanted, so he obliged. Over the years, Dad bought neighborhood rental properties, mostly shotgun doubles, and fixed them up. In 1981, he and Mom sold the grocery business to their partners (my aunt and uncle, God rest their souls) and went into the landlord business full-time.

The ‘hood sits on the Esplanade-Metairie ridge, one of the highest parts of this below-sea-level metropolis. It had never flooded here before, not even with Hurricane Betsy back in ’63. But when the levees broke, it got a couple feet of water. Raised houses fared well, while houses built on slabs (like my Dad’s and some of his rental properties) flooded. Like so many others in NOLA who figured “we’ve never flooded before,” Dad had no flood insurance. But thankfully he wasn’t without resources, not the least of which are his daughters, if I do say so myself. Faubourg St. John was designated “moderately damaged” and recommended for immediate reconstruction by the city consultants who formulated the controversial rebuilding plan that hit the news several months ago.

I and my household goods arrived in NOLA just before Thanksgiving last year, after two trips down to lend a hand. The family had evac’d to a relative's house in Lafayette. When the city opened back up, Dad and I first lived with relatives. Their house is Uptown, a stone’s throw from Loyola and Tulane, one of the areas that did not flood. But parts of their roof blew away, and during hard rains, we exhausted a monumental supply of pots and pans to catch all the drips. Just before Christmas 2005, Dad and I took up temporary residence in a small un-flooded double of his, across the street from his house. At Christmas dinner, the family created a modified version of the “12 days of Christmas”—“12 insurance adjusters” .... “5 new water heaters” ....“and a blue tarp on Papa’s roof.”

My sister took charge of the reconstruction details, as well as the mountain of paperwork—SBA and commercial loans, insurance claims (about 30-some adjusters, different ones for wind damage, contents, loss of rental income, etc.), FEMA, and the LRA. The adjusters have a way of “losing” files, so she learned to compile (1) an original set of claim documents, (2) one copy to submit, and (3) another copy for when the insurance adjuster or FEMA or the LRA loses the first copy. You should see the paperwork required for SBA and LRA—a challenge even for educated (and over-educated) people. How do folks manage to navigate the bureaucracy to get what’s owed?

During the rebuilding, we had to find creative solutions to problems. For example, when it was impossible to get a plumber, a relative spotted a truck with “Plumber” painted on the side. She chased it down the street until the driver stopped. He did a great job plumbing our properties, until one day he tried to get fresh with her. She was mortified. I got the duty of firing him. She lassoed other services off the street. When there was no way to get through on the phone line to Cox Cable, she spotted a Cox truck driving down our street and threw herself in front of it. (The woman is fearless.) Problems getting utilities turned on? “Hey, an Entergy truck—STOP!” We called her “the Sergeant” when we were kids; we’ve since promoted her to General.

Another problematic contractor was the unscrupulous roofer. This same relative climbed a 10-foot ladder to walk on top of Dad’s flat-roofed 4-plex and checked out the roofing job that we’d paid dearly for. Mind you, this is a woman who underwent 9 hours of cutting-edge (no pun intended) spinal reconstruction surgery a mere 18 months before the storm. When she demanded that I join her up there on the roof, I discovered a fear of heights that never seemed to bother me on the ski slopes, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. The roofer had laid the new roof over the old one, plus some other mortal-roofing-sins that he tried to justify. I got the duty of arguing with him, restraining Dad when he was provoked to the verge of fisticuffs, firing the dude, and getting our money back.

By summer, almost a year post-storm, Dad was back in his house. I live a few doors down in another of his shotgun doubles. Dad and I divvied up my furniture between us. My niece lives next door to Dad in one of his properties. She’s an LSU med student. She was living there and was two weeks into her first semester when the storm struck. Katrina blew the roof off of her place ... bad for loss of personal belongings but great for recovering non-flood-damage insurance proceeds.

The house where I’m living holds lots of family history. While Dad was building the cape cod, the whole family—Mom, Dad, and three baby girls under the age of 4—lived in this house. I was born here. Then, I lived here for several years before I got married. So, here I am again in an old familiar place. I’ve downsized (for the umpteenth time), am quite settled in, and quite content with my space. Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon in the movie “Dead Man Walking”) lives two doors down. She and her nuns are long-time tenants of Dad’s and run their death penalty ministry from a couple of the apartments. Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a local musician who’s a fave at Jazz Fest, lives across the street. Plus a variety of other colorful characters.

I’ve been sort of multi-tasking since moving to NOLA. The first two months, I helped out in my sister’s dental office as she rebuilt her office and business in Metairie. Business blossomed. She has a warm, soothing disposition, and her patients love her. She acquired many new patients because so many dentists were flooded out of their offices and didn’t return. And, old patients drove in for treatment from evacuation points in all directions. (She treats the President of Honduras and his family; they commute from Central America, go figure. So what’s a car ride from Baton Rouge?) Her husband’s business, a private security service, is also almost back to pre-Katrina levels.

The bottom line is, we’re doing great and feel very blessed to have accomplished so much in such a relatively short time, although in some ways it feels like it’s been a decade instead of just a year and change (and the mirror tells me I’ve aged about a decade). What we continue to deal with are: low water pressure (I haven’t fully gotten the shampoo rinsed from my hair in over a year); potholes that you could park an aircraft carrier in; many intersections where four-way stop signs have replaced signal lights in a city where no one seems to know how four-way stops are supposed to work (“whose turn is it to go?”); periodic repairs on tires that pick up nails from the debris and construction on the streets; the severely damaged infrastructure; limited healthcare options; inefficient city services; inconveniences; keeping a tight rein on the budget ... and of course the uncertainty about the viability of our hometown.

That said, I truly cannot imagine living anyplace else now.

Every bit of evidence of recovery that we see means a lot to us. In our ‘hood, I was thrilled when the gourmet “Market on Esplanade” opened up two blocks from my house. And I was horribly disappointed when it abruptly went out of business after a couple of months—not enough people to buy enough stuff, so the owners were hemorrhaging out-of-pocket money.

Chris Rose, a local columnist who’s become the voice of the post-Katrina population, says that living in New Orleans is by definition leading a meaningful life—a bit of an exaggeration. I guess the hardest thing about living here is the heartbreaking landscape. An area about two or three times the size of Manhattan destroyed. Especially sad is the previously vibrant, beautiful, upscale communities in and around Lakeview, which got eight to ten feet of water. These areas are now only sparsely populated. Many of my friends and acquaintances lost homes and businesses there. The affluent section of Old Metarie around the country club also got high water. And the lakefront...Southern Yacht Club burned down...boathouses blown away...the lighthouse still lies smashed on pier...scattered sailboats still rest on whatever piece of shore the wind blew them (although 90-something percent have been removed). Also, the Broadmoor neighborhood, Mid-City...the list goes on and on.

The face of post-Katrina New Orleans in the media is a grossly incomplete picture. And one simply can’t imagine the breadth of what happened here without seeing it firsthand.
So many of the destroyed areas used to be inhabited and frequented by local residents who employed others and fueled the city’s economy. Recently, when friends visited, I drove them through Lakeview and the Lakefront, a fraction of the affected areas. (We call this activity “the misery tour,” and the catch phrase is ... “it ain’t there no mo’.") My visitors asked “Where are all the people who lived here? They must have been...what?...bankers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs?” Yep. “We never saw any of this in the news.” Nope. We weep for the displaced poor, and God knows they need help. But the face of post-Katrina New Orleans in the media is a grossly incomplete picture. And one simply can’t imagine the breadth of what happened here without seeing it firsthand.

Over the past year, we in my family have often been stretched and periodically at one another’s throats, had our respective meltdowns, and grieved over losses that seem to come much too frequently at this stage in life. That said, we are eternally grateful to have what’s really important—each other. We have adjusted, and have learned (or re-learned) lessons about patience, humility, priorities and faith.

I’m so very grateful to everyone who’s lent supportiveness in one way or another. Thank you! Special thanks again and again to the Coast Guard—the truest heroes I’ve ever known.

It’s true that New Orleans was already broken in some ways before Katrina. But, regardless of its bizarre local politics or other issues, NOLA remains a beautiful, charming, unique place full of warm, hospitable people. It’s a great place to visit.
It’s true that New Orleans was already broken in some ways before Katrina. But, regardless of what anyone may opine about the bizarre local politics or other issues, NOLA remains a beautiful, charming, unique place full of warm, hospitable people. It’s a great place to visit. I hope it’s okay to say, I think the best thing anyone can do for New Orleans is come visit and have a good time. Miraculously, all areas of tourist interest went virtually unscathed.

I enjoyed writing this, so thanks for letting me share. I wish you and yours a peaceful, joyful, blessed Christmas and all good things in the new year. God bless us every one.


This letter is excerpted from a longer version the author sent to family and friends. She agreed to share her thoughts with the broader community.


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This story was published on December 22, 2006.