My friend sits out on his back deck, where he would normally be grilling the hamburgers. The tiny pool is ready for our kids. The fence is propped up with two-by-fours. The house is clean, the toys are on the shelves, ready for an onslaught of little hands. But our kids aren't there. Not only our kids--any kids. Usually, his street is filled with them.
Fifty thousand households aren't coming back to New Orleans, according to a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll. That number includes a lot of children. The reasons: jobs, schools, homes, the environment.
"You know the story of the Pied Piper," my friend tells me one night over the phone. "You remember what happened in Hamelin? When the town wouldn't pay him?" His voice cracks. He walks to another room so he can cry unnoticed. "He took the children. That's what it feels like. There's no kids."
A sheet of paper hangs in the small classroom in New Iberia, La. On the top, it reads, "WORDS for our hurricane adventure stories." Next is the list: Hurricane Katrina; house; cars; van; highway; crowded traffic; Lusher School; flooding; levee; gross, dirty, disgusting water.
Then, on the bottom of the page, it says, "Once upon a time ..."
The teacher, Paul Reynaud, has illustrated each word with a little cartoon. Often, it's a self-caricature, a bearded, chubby man with a surprised look on his face, being chased around by the storm. He always includes such drawings when he writes in the kids' notebooks. It's like entering a Jules Feiffer comic.
Last year, Mr. Reynaud was my daughter Cecilia's first-grade teacher. We bought a house for this to happen. I'd first heard about him from one of his old childhood friends who told me he was the smartest person he'd ever met. Two years ago, we had to decide how to educate our kids in New Orleans. Our answer was to buy a house a block from the school where Mr. Reynaud teaches--Lusher Elementary School.
Our other reason was the Lusher dance troupe. We'd been following it across town. Lusher is one of the city's most racially integrated schools, and no matter what the title of the troupe's performance was, the subtext was always the same: Just look at what we're all doing together. Last year, Cecilia joined the youngest group of dancers.
Mr. Reynaud's car is constantly parked outside his first-grade classroom. In the summer, he tutors kids. In the afternoons, kids show up for help with homework, and to play on the computers. The car was parked there the day before the hurricane, too; the last thing Cecilia did before we left was run down the street to say good-bye. Mr. Reynaud is a New Orleans native who doesn't leave town for hurricanes. On Sunday, though, he heeded the mandatory evacuation and brought his parents, who are in their 80s, with him.
Three families in my New Orleans neighborhood all evacuated to small towns in southwest Louisiana. The week after the storm, we lined up to enroll our kids in the Lafayette school system; the district accepted about 3,000 evacuated students. But then we talked to Mr. Reynaud. He told us he always wanted to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. He could start with just paper, markers and little chairs. Other families signed on. He rented out an old CPA office in New Iberia. There are now about a dozen students, from kindergarten to fourth grade. They go to school in the back half; Mr. Reynaud's parents live in the front half.
New Iberia is surrounded by sugarcane fields. The kids named the school Sugarcane Academy. One of the first field trips was to a sugarcane field, where Mr. Reynaud showed them how to break the stalks and taste the syrup for themselves. They ate lunch along the Bayou Teche, where they found a snakeskin. ("Teche" is a Chitimacha Indian word for "snake.") They checked out snake books from the New Iberia public library and learned it was a cottonmouth.
At Sugarcane Academy, parents linger in the morning to talk about the Red Cross and insurance adjusters, about leaving and staying. There are no assignments that require the youngest children to memorize their addresses and phone numbers. Instead, the kids write in their journals: "What does my city look like? Does it miss me?"
We refugees crave routines, and Sugarcane Academy almost gave it to us. But last week, we held a PTA meeting. We sat around cross-legged in a back office and told our stories. Most people want to get back to town. Mr. Reynaud is ready to return, too. We decided to end classes in New Iberia at the end of October. On Nov. 7, Sugarcane Academy will open its doors in an unspecified location in New Orleans, covering the interim until Lusher School's anticipated reopening in January.
"I was worried you'd be upset," Kiki says when the meeting is over.
I don't really know how I feel about going back. We're the only family in Sugarcane Academy that isn't planning to live in New Orleans. When the Sugarcane Academy finally closes its doors in December, we're moving. That's the plan.
We haven't told the kids yet. This week, my wife, Tami, returns from Chicago, where she received an offer from a pediatric practice. We'll take the children someplace and call it a family meeting. We'll tell them about snow in the winter, and swimming in the big lake in the summer. How we can pile in the car and go visit grandparents who live in the Midwest.
We'll tell them all these things. But we'll also have to talk about what will lie just behind us: a city that we left one day and never could find our way back to.
For the weekend, I decide to take Cecilia and my 4-year-old son, Miles, to Baton Rouge. There's going to be an event called Fun Day for evacuated kids; sponsors include the Nickelodeon channel. Then we'll keep driving east until we get to New Orleans.
We meet up with friends in a Baton Rouge park. The kids all take off their shoes and start climbing into inflated dragons and caterpillars and castles. The Storyville Stompers brass band plays as buses drive up with evacuees. There are hot dogs and pickles and sno-balls. Kids line up to get a magazine, a squirt bottle and a jump rope from SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. The real Steve from Blue's Clues is here, in his green-striped T-shirt. So is his show replacement, Joe, in his purple sweater.
A band from New Orleans, The Imagination Movers, is performing today. We've been playing the band's CDs in our cars since the storm. When they're done, we find them under a tent. Steve and Joe are here, too.
I talk with musician Rich Collins as Cecilia and a friend discover the Blue's Clues guys. Rich and his wife, Becky, have three children. Their house flooded. He tells me that the first time they went back, they couldn't believe what water could do. It pushed a player piano over on its side. Furniture crashed around. You couldn't even get some of the doors open. They finally got in and found some family silver, and that's about all they could salvage.
I look over to make sure my kids are behaving. Steve is sitting at a table, his arms folded across his green-striped shirt; next to him, a guy in tattoos checks a BlackBerry. Joe is playing some kind of water game with Cecilia and her friend. He's taking a bottle and pouring a few drops on their feet, and they're all screaming.
Rich tells me about the last time he went back into the house. When they evacuated, they told their children that each of them could take just one toy. Rex, a first-grader, couldn't decide. So he put his four favorite stuffed animals on a plastic bin, and covered them with a large sombrero to protect them. After the flood, when Rich finally entered Rex's room, he saw the plastic bin. The water must have lifted it and then settled it back down on the floor. The sombrero kept the animals dry. The four toys were fine. Nothing else in the room was salvageable.
Cecilia and her friend are now splashing Joe. Suddenly, the game goes too far. He gets drenched. I start to apologize. He shakes his head, laughing.
It's time to leave.
This Saturday in Baton Rouge has been the lightest day I've spent with my kids since we evacuated. In fact, it feels just like New Orleans, seeing old friends. The sadness seems at bay.
About an hour later, we're crossing Lake Pontchartrain. "We're in New Orleans," I announce.
"We are?" Cecilia says. Miles looks out the window. They're acting so excited, it could be Disneyland.
"Do you want to go straight home, or do you want to see something else?"
"I want to see the old house!" Cecilia shouts. "The old house!" Miles repeats.
They'd heard us talking. The house we'd lived in the year before we moved near Lusher Elementary--the house we lived in when Miles was born--is in the flooded Broadmoor section of town. As we get closer, the children start to recognize the neighborhood. Lining the streets are piles of refrigerators, box fans, beds, bathtubs, toilets, and mounds of clothes and toys. There are a few boats left on the sidewalk. It's a sunny afternoon, but the neighborhood is gray and it feels like dusk.
"All the things in New Orleans are so crazy," says Miles.
I slow down so they can see the old house. Next door, a neighbor has created a mound in his front yard. The couch, the piano. Chairs. Clothes. We drive on.
In our own house, the electricity is on. We see neighbors with kids. They're living in Alabama now, but they're here for the weekend.
Mr. Reynaud is down the street. We stop by. There was water in the classroom; he's mopping up and throwing things out on the street.
The last time I was in our house, it seemed as if the people who lived here had all died. The old Times-Picayune was still sitting on the couch, announcing "Katrina Takes Aim." Now, it quickly becomes just another afternoon in our home. All the kids from the neighborhood are here, pulling down toys. At the end of the day, I wash their hands by opening gray cans labeled "drinking water." We fall asleep easily and wake up the next day to orange juice and breakfast bars. I'd told the kids that we could explore the neighborhood. Taking a cue from Mr. Reynaud, I say we'll go on an adventure. We'll go find the search-and-rescue markings.
On every block, walls and sidewalks bear a painted "X" that's been left behind by some search-and-rescue team. In the top quarter of the X is the date of the visitation; most indicate early September. The left side bears the name of the team. The bottom part lists the presence of any bodies. I'd been told "D.B." means "dead body." I'd decided not to tell the kids this, but as it turns out, our neighborhood has no D.B.s. On the right, usually, is a circle with a line through it and "ans," which means no animals. We copy the markings into our Blue's Clues notebooks.
The sidewalks are filled with debris: branches, boards with nails, rotting food. Swarms of flies. A few power lines still hang from poles. I walk the kids down the center of the street. Cecilia finds one of the team's old spray-paint cans and begins making her own markings. We stop by a friend's house. She's on the phone with her mother.
"Because it's our home," she says.
"I know it might happen again," she says. "In fact, I know it will happen again."
After awhile, we walk back to our house. Then we see an open door. It's an apartment where friends live; the boy is a year older than Miles. They're close friends. We walk up and call out his name. The rooms are empty, and the landlady comes out to see us. Everyone left just the other day.
We return to the middle of the street for our walk home.
"This hurricane is long," Cecilia says.
I ask Miles how he feels about the hurricane.
"I don't know," he says.
"Does it make you happy or sad?"
"It ruins houses."
On the way out of town, I want to take the West End exit. I'd heard that FEMA was erecting a trailer park on a wide swath of land by a canal. When we get there, the only person I can find is an ABC cameraman. He says he doesn't know about a trailer park.
I try to turn around, but the roads are blocked. The only way to go is through Lakeview. We turn onto Fleur de Lis Drive. The cars are covered in ash. The houses are all blasted. There's a sour smell, and dust is coming in through the air-conditioner. I can taste it on my lips. I close the vents. The kids keep singing in the back seat. The Imagination Movers are on the CD player.
There's nothing to do but drive through it. In a few blocks, we're out. I'm ready to leave.
On the way back to Lafayette, I ask the kids about everything they saw. I want to know if they have any more questions. That's when I realize that Cecilia must have heard the talk about moving.
"Why didn't we evacuate a long time ago?" she asks.
"What do you mean?"
"Mommy said that we knew a hurricane would come. So why didn't we evacuate before?"
"Well, what do you think?"
"Because our friends are here." Then she suddenly adds, "I'm not going to move away. And if I move away, I'm not going to make new friends."
It comes in awkwardly, wedged into a conversation where it doesn't really fit. I think she must have been waiting for the right time to bring it up. I don't know how to answer her. Not yet. I let it go for now.
One morning, a children's Cajun musician named Papillion--a variation on the French word for "Butterfly"--comes to Sugarcane Academy. He brings an accordion and a guitar, and a bag of tambourines, drums, triangles and zydeco rubboards for the kids. At first, he plays some Cajun songs. Then he starts out "Mardi Gras Mambo," a Mardi Gras song that kids in New Orleans know as well as kids everywhere else know "Jingle Bells." He sings: "Down in New Orleans where the blues was born ..." Eli, a first-grader, shouts out: "Down in yucky-town!"
Papillion stops. "Did you hear about the zoo? How the animals are all OK?"
"All the fish in the aquarium died," Eli says.
"That's true; a lot of them did," Papillion says. "But people all over the world are going to help."
"I had a fish, and it didn't die," says another first-grader.
"A lot of good things happened," Papillion says. "A lot of people have learned to be kinder."
"I'm going to be going back to New Orleans," says Olivia, a fourth-grader.
Papillion then breaks into "They All Ask'd for You," an old Meters song that starts out, "I went on down to the Audubon Zoo and they all ask'd for you."
Afterward, there's more talk about the hurricane. "It was sad to see a lot of the trees down," says Papillion. "But people are cleaning it up."
"Yeah, we all live on the same block, and we walk to school together," says Olivia.
Papillion closes with a song about making a wish. He talks about how they'll all see their friends again, and how the friends will say, "Look at you!"
Cecilia closes her eyes to wish. Papillion asks her about it. She can't tell him what it is, she says, or it won't come true.