After seven weeks of saturation coverage, much of America is tired of Katrina. The hurricane recovery is no longer front page news or the lead story. But in New Orleans the nightmare of her aftermath has just begun.
My sister owns and lives in the 50-year old house in Lakeview where she and I grew up. It is about a mile from the 17th Street Canal of levee break fame. The entire neighborhood was flooded and sat in 10 feet of water for more than 3 weeks. No home was spared, none are currently inhabitable and many will be a total loss.
My little part in the recovery effort is to help clean out the house.
The worst part is the smell. I could mention the devastation; describe the toppled trees, water-logged abandoned cars and mounds of ruined personal belongings piled next to the brown shrubbery. I could help you picture the water line as it painted stripes across the little white house a few inches below the top of the front door. You might share my tears as I bag bundles of wet clothes and muck-covered remnants of photos spanning five decades.
But nothing is worse than the odor.
The smell of wet decomposing leaves is similar but far more tolerable than the scent of a lifetime of paper, clothes, furniture and wet carpet that has been saturated with the muddy, brackish water of Lake Pontchartrain that spilled through the levee.
I smell it in the house, near other houses; sometimes a breeze sends it my way as I stand in the dusty yard changing into my clean clothes (hey, whose watching? I’m alone on this block today). The minivan interior absorbs the aroma during a 30-minute ride to my cousin’s suburban home where I promptly place the jeans and long-sleeve t-shirt in the washer. Last night I woke up with that scent in my nostrils. Just looking at photos of the house tricks my nose into acknowledging the stench.
New Orleans used to smell like magnolias, hot sauce and chicory. Now mold is the signature scent of this ghost town.