It’s Not Alligator Country

It’s Not Alligator Country

New Orleanians adjust to Mount Vernon

“The sky gets to be beautiful,” said Annise Fair, “There’s beautiful clear light, and it cools down.” But the eye was whirling above the gulf. “It hovered,” said Fair’s sister, Odalee. “That worked on people’s nerves because the longer it stayed there, the more intense it would become.”

By Saturday, August 27, “It had that look of a hurricane,” said Annise, “A dull glow to the sky, and the wind had picked up.”

“There’s a definite feeling,” her sister added. “You can feel it. The birds had started to go, even the ants and bees.”

The imperative is simple. Seek higher ground. Like many life-long residents of the city, the Fair sisters knew how to weather the storm. They had always fled to their brother’s house. He lived on the high ground of Barrone Street. They had never stayed longer than two days.

Annise lived in the historic Broadmoor neighborhood, formerly the Jewish part of town. She worked as a custodian in a nearby private school. “I love that part of the city because it’s centrally located and I could walk or take a bus … It was a neighborhood of families, third or fourth generation.” It was a place where the working poor, the middle class, and the rich were all within walking distance of one another,” added her sister. And it was below sea-level. “My neighborhood was like a cup sitting in a bowl,” Annise said. “It all flowed in.” Annise Fair had lived in her house for 22 years. In her lifetime, the farthest she had ever been from the city was its suburbs.

Odalee, a child-care worker, lived with her daughter, Cerita Desireé, in one of these suburbs, Jefferson Parish, only five minutes from the city. The family could walk to school, day care, the supermarket, pharmacies, and a bakery. They were less than four blocks from a hospital.

WHEN the sisters discuss the hurricane, their descriptions are strewn with the casual meteorology of people who are used to seeing weather born in a pressure system on the other side of the world give its last death rattle as a brown stain on their living room walls. “We had been monitoring this storm three weeks,” said Odalee. “First it started as a wave. We knew it started off the horn of Africa and those are the dangerous ones. They usually survive the travel … It landed in the Gulf of Mexico and that’s when everyone started to be concerned because the waters by then were very, very warm … We knew that if it entered the gulf it would be a problem for us.”

The threat became only more ominous as the last days of August slid away. “The eye wall was huge,” said Odalee. “When you looked at it [on the evening news] it frightened you.”

On the last weekend in August, everyone in the city was asking one another whether they would stay or go. “There was a feel about it,” said Annise, “Things were off the shelves. People were buying big bags of cat food, dog food. Lines at the service stations stretched around the block. There was a panic in the city. You could tell it. You could feel it.” Odalee had held out from leaving because the day care center where she worked had only a small staff. “I didn’t like leaving my employer in that position.” But by Sunday morning, she had made a decision, “I’m not sure where I’m going, but I know I’m going.”

She called Annise and said, “I’m coming to get you.” The Fairs’ older sister had a Ford Explorer. Six people jammed into it, each with about a week’s worth of clothes, canned goods and water, and their personal papers. “You left with the idea of at least being able to come back home,” said Annise.

“We expected there to be a mess,” said Odalee. “We knew we’d do a lot of cleaning. But we expected something there to be cleaned.”

THE FAMILY joined a line of traffic strung through the swamps that ring New Orleans. They passed roadblocks manned by sheriffs and National Guardsmen. Odalee recalls being surprised by the diversity of people that milled around at the rest stops. “When you stopped you’d see all of these people from all of these different countries,” Middle Easterners, Asians, European tourists. Odalee wondered whether they understood what was going on around them, “They had never had to flee nature before,” she thought.

The family was in northern Louisiana when the hurricane hit. They knew because the power went out. For the next two weeks, they bounced around small towns in Texas and Louisiana, sometimes in a convoy of as many as six vehicles. At one point they slept in a house with sixteen other people. Finally, an older sister who lives in Mount Vernon convinced her boss, a family friend, to fly Annise, Odalee, and Cerita into Reagan National Airport.

They spent the next four months living with their sister on Lockheed Boulevard. One of Odalee’s first priorities was to get Cerita enrolled in school. She said that she walked in to the office of Hybla Valley Elementary, explained her situation, and Cerita began classes the same day. “I didn’t like being the new kid,” said Cerita. “The people there used to laugh at me [but] they became my friends. And the principal’s funny.”

The sisters found their own apartment in the Mount Vernon Lakes apartment complex with the help of Good Shepherd Housing. They say they’ve become more comfortable with Mount Vernon, but neither woman drives, and it is difficult to function in Northern Virginia without a car.

What are other differences between Mount Vernon and New Orleans? “You don’t really see the history of the area,” said Odalee. “New Orleans was steeped in this architectural history, the people history, the food and everything. But here you don’t get a feel for exactly what this place is.”

“That’s really strange,” added Annise, “not being able to get a grip on the culture. That’s something we’re going to have to overcome.”

Are there any other differences? “Yeah,” said Odalee, “the food. We had a lot of regional food … the sausages came from one place, the hog head cheese from another place, the ice cream from another … up here they claim they have andouille [sausage], but no they don’t.”

“The coffee’s different. The bread’s different,” added Annise.

They have tried to cook familiar food, “but it’s hard,” said Odalee. “You can’t get etouffe and you can’t get alligator. This isn’t alligator country.”

“[But] What I like about this place, it’s not as formal,” Odalee added. “In New Orleans, so much is putting on appearances … You get dressed up just to go to the corner grocery or take a walk in the park … [In Mount Vernon] people are clean and modest,” but not dressed up.

Odalee said she was surprised by how clean Virginia was, despite its high population. “New Orleans was very, very dirty.” She added that the metro was “Completely foreign” to her. “Our local government is set up very well. It’s very organized.”

Annise described visiting the Red Cross after they first arrived. Every county agency was ready and waiting to help the evacuees transition to their new home. “We just went from one worker to the next. It was very well organized.”

Annise has found a job as a custodian for the county, but Odalee is still looking for work.

”Are you a house mom?” asked her daughter.

“I guess so,” Odalee replied. “For the moment I am. Not forever.”

THE FAIRS do not know when they will return to New Orleans. Odalee has been told her house was a total loss. Annise has heard her house is in better shape, but too many questions linger about what she will be coming home too. She has heard second-hand descriptions of which stores have reopened. She has heard the school is running, but she doesn’t know about school buses and day care.

Annise tried to visit her home in October. She couldn’t enter her neighborhood because it was late in the evening, and there were no lights. “But what I saw of the city was unimaginable,” she said. “It was like the life had been sucked out of it.” There was total silence. “And the smell was…” she begins to say, then trails off.

Odalee described hearing animal sounds outside her apartment in Mount Vernon, and contrasted it with the silence in her home city. “There are no animals in New Orleans,” she said.

The sisters estimate they may be able to move back in three years. But even if the city is rebuilt, they wonder what they will return to. “It ain’t ever going to be what it was because almost two million people evacuated from that area and I know that more than half of those people will not return,” said Odalee.

“Everything was right there.”

“For the very first time in all of our lifetime we have no one in our family living in New Orleans,” said Annise. Their family has been in New Orleans since their great-grandparents moved there.

At the end of the interview, Odalee suggested a visit to New Orleans. She described the French Market and the beignets, speaking as if she were not in a basement apartment in Northern Virginia, as if the levees had held firm. She spoke from a vision of the Superdome filled with circus animals, family outings to the zoo and the aquarium, music in the city park, a vision that denied the brown water, the dogs nervously pacing the rooftops, the National Guard. “I think you would like it,” she said. “The city has a feel to it.”