After Hurricane Katrina ravaged their upscale neighborhood on the northeastern bank of Lake Pontchartrain, James and Charlotte Pazon paid contractors to gut their home. Hired hands also helped clear the deluge of debris in their backyard, including their neighbor’s speedboat, and an uprooted oak tree that covered the Pazon’s long, egg-shaped swimming pool.
Despite the damage and all that remains to be done, the couple have moved back home.
“We’re making do is the best we can say,” said Pazon, 57, a retired Louisiana state employee, adding: “Every day is better than the last. You’ve got to go with the flow.”
A couple miles away, in a less affluent neighborhood along Pontchartrain Drive, Rudy Arevallo and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Fogg, don’t see each day getting better. Their possessions are ruined and their second story rental is uninhabitable -- the interior of the apartment building is fully exposed to the elements, including a nearby bayou. Arevallo and Fogg are crashing at a friend’s damaged house that has become a refuge for nine people.
The couple can’t go home.
“Sometimes we talk about [what happened], sometimes we don’t,” said Arevallo, his eyes lowered toward the still-damp floorboards of the living room where he used to watch TV. “What can you say when you’ve lost everything?”
The challenges confronting Arevallo, Fogg and the Pazons exemplify the degrees of struggle and sluggish success that most residents of flood-ravaged New Orleans are facing as they try to put their lives back on track.
For some, it will be a matter of pooling resources and rebuilding on foundations left intact. For others, it will mean relying on the goodwill of family and friends and starting from scratch. The losses have been immense for all.
“For some people, life has picked up and has started to move on,” said Suzanne Parsons Stymiest, a spokeswoman for St. Tammany Parish, where the town of Slidell is located. But, she added: “There are thousands and thousands and thousands of citizens who do not have houses yet, and some may not have a house for a very long time.”
By Thursday, 101,548 St. Tammany Parish residents had applied for FEMA help, according to Buffy Gilfoil, a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman responsible for monitoring the parish. Those seeking help are being encouraged to be persistent and patient in calling the agency’s assistance hotline.
Residents were allowed back Sept. 9 but then ordered to evacuate again for Hurricane Rita. Earlier this week, the parish was reopened a second time -- and beginning today residents will be officially allowed to return to the rest of New Orleans.
St. Tammany and federal officials said a sense of normality was slowly returning. Electricity, gas and water were back in operation. Garbage pickup was slowly getting underway. And schools were scheduled to open Monday.
“It’s going to be a new normalcy,” Gilfoil said. “It’s going to come around little by little.”
Determined to quickly regain order in their lives, the Pazons immediately began scrubbing and cleaning. Workers removed the house’s wet sheet rock, insulation and flooring to stop the mold that had crept up the walls after about 4 feet of water started to recede.
The Pazons doused the home with gallons of bleach. Red Cross relief workers gave them a bucket, Lysol disinfectant and a broom to keep the bare floorboards clean. The couple covered the broken windows with sheets of plastic.
A plastic patio table and six folding chairs were among the few possessions the couple managed to save. They installed a utility sink and a mini-fridge in an otherwise bare kitchen. A microwave oven was given a home atop a side table in what will one day return to being Charlotte Pazon’s sewing room.
A new washer and dryer were installed not far from a small air-conditioning unit that droned in a downstairs window of the 2,700-square-foot home. The couple, their daughter and her two children -- evacuees from another part of the city who lost everything and have no place else to go -- sleep on inflatable mattresses.
Knowing that they have homeowners’ insurance has helped put the Pazons’ mind at ease.
“You can’t live on the water without insurance,” said James Pazon, who evacuated to central Louisiana in advance of Katrina with his wife, a collie and an Australian cattle dog. Still, he had not expected his house to flood, because it is 10.5 feet above sea level
He wondered whether the bills for his repairs would be footed by the insurance company or by FEMA. Pazon said he had registered with FEMA and was going to spend the upcoming days finalizing the claim papers with his insurance company.
“We’ll wait for the settlement, and see about hiring people to rebuild,” said the retired state employee. “But you can’t do anything without the money.”
Dealing with their new circumstances is “tolerable,” said Pazon, an elementary school teacher, as she donned a pair of galoshes and headed outside to see what she could salvage from the aluminum shed that was once her pottery studio.
“It’s tolerable, but stressful, is the best way to describe it,” James Pazon chimed in, urging his wife to wait so he could help her hoist a pot rack out of the shed. “But a lot of people are worse off than us. A lot of people don’t have a place to stay.”
Arevallo and Fogg are among those who have no home left to try to rebuild. Friends have taken them in; the nine housemates rotate shifts on the three beds, sofa and floor space.
The couple did not evacuate before Katrina slammed ashore. “We were sure that nothing would happen,” said Arevallo, a construction worker. “We were on the second floor.” The floodwaters rose to chest level as Arevallo and Fogg scrambled to leave. When a yacht got tangled in debris and lodged against the apartment building, the couple found their means to escape.
Along with their house, Katrina stole the couple’s appliances, clothes and cellphones, forest green Jeep Grand Cherokee and beige Mitsubishi Gallant. And it took Arevallo’s most precious treasure -- the one remaining photo of his mother who died two years ago.
Trying to salvage anything from under the mounds of dry grass and mud that filled the apartment after the water went down proved futile -- and dangerous, Fogg said. Dozens of poisonous water moccasins lurked in the muck and debris. Arevallo’s legs are peppered with blisters contracted after he waded through muddy waters.
He and Fogg are being clothed and fed by a local Baptist church. They said they were grateful but desperate to regain some semblance of normality as soon as they can.
“I would love to have my life back to the way it was,” said Arevallo; “to sleep in my own bed, get up and eat what I want ... have clean shoes, a haircut. All the things that we took for granted.”
“You just try to be strong and survive,” said Fogg, 45, who boards horses at a local stable she owns. A dejected Arevallo, who was upset about being billed for the treatment he received at a local hospital, said “you pay your taxes, and your government doesn’t help you.” He has no medical insurance. “People who went to other states are getting all the help.”
Arevallo and Fogg had no insurance for the one-bedroom flat they rented for $600 a month. Their efforts to get initial financial assistance from FEMA have so far been in vain.
It took over a week to log on to the correct FEMA registration page, Fogg said. When they finally hit the right site, the computer picked up a virus and crashed. It then took several more days to get through to FEMA on two shared mobile phones. The agency promised to mail a packet of information, Arevallo said.
On Thursday, he was still waiting for it to arrive.