No birds. No barking dogs. No rustling of leaves in the wind. The only sound during most of my visit was the distant rumble of front-end loaders scooping up soaked discarded household debris from front lawns.
It is hard for me to believe that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans eight years ago this week. Eight years! Six weeks later I was helping my sister discard her still wet household belongings, most of which were destroyed during the three weeks her house sat in ten feet of stagnant water.
My strongest memories of that week are the smell of mold and the absence of sound. I wore a mask, gloves, jeans and a long sleeved shirt to protect myself from the mold as I entered the house each day. In the middle of the afternoon, when I could no longer stand the heat, humidity and sadness, I changed into clean shorts and a t-shirt out in the open in the back yard. I was alone most days (my sister was at work most of that week, one of the lucky few whose job had returned) and there wasn’t anybody around to see me in my underwear; the next closest clean-up crew was a block away.
Everything had that moldy smell, including the few items we could salvage. I washed my work clothes every day, hoping the smell didn’t travel with me to my cousin’s suburban house where I stayed that week. I dropped off ‘keeper’ items at my sister’s friend’s house each day but the smell lingered in my mini-van for weeks after my return to Maryland. Months later my sister sent me a package of mementos she had found. As soon as I opened the box that smell hit me. For more than a year I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night with that smell in my nostrils, imagined no doubt but my brain perceived it as real.
The house I was cleaning is the one where we grew up. The pre-Katrina neighborhood sounds included children playing, dogs barking, cars taking a speedy short-cut down that street, air conditioners working hard to beat the heat, birds chirping in oak trees, mosquitoes buzzing at dusk. None of those sounds filled my ears during that mid-October week in 2005. The lack of those sounds was louder in my head and my heart that the heavy machinery of rebuilding or the police cars broadcasting curfew orders as sunset approached.
New Orleans is odd, quirky, unique and resilient. People who never lived there provided a cacophony of commentary questioning the wisdom of rebuilding and predicting the death of the city. Those of us who understand the nature of the place knew better. NOLA natives like my sister and most of my family knew that one day the sound of chirping birds, barking dogs, mosquitoes and jazz would eventually replace rumbling of dump trucks and the sobbing of loss.
For me though, this week always brings back memories of that moldy smell and the deafening sound of quiet.