Christmas in New Orleans

Fatima Shaik

Pic­ture Santa’s sled with a rolling kitch­enette attached and you have some idea about the size of a FEMA trail­er. I came across a yard of them when I got lost on the high­way near Baton Rouge, where most of my fam­i­ly evac­u­at­ed out of New Orleans.

The trail­ers are not the dou­ble-wides I imag­ined – but some are fes­tooned with lights and an arti­fi­cial Christ­mas tree out­side the door as in a Bob­bie Ann Mason short sto­ry. A FEMA trail­er is more like a camper that you’d attach with a hitch to your four-wheel­er when you want to get out of the city for the week­end. Tiny, but nonethe­less a gift.

As the rest of the coun­try, chil­dren and adults alike, envi­sion Christ­mas with piles of presents from their favorite elec­tron­ic and cloth­ing stores, the peo­ple of the Kat­ri­na dias­po­ra are wak­ing up dai­ly with thoughts of clean under­wear, one com­fort­able chair and not being home for the hol­i­days. But they are try­ing to make it. 

In the town of Bak­er, the trail­ers sit row after incal­cu­la­ble row on a dusty field iso­lat­ed from the sleepy com­mu­ni­ty. Bak­er is a town where Main Street sits along the rail­road tracks and leads from the inter­state past the chem­i­cal plant and the play­ground to the church and two roads named Mag­no­lia. An esti­mat­ed 1,700 peo­ple live on the Bak­er plain. It is a good mile from any shop­ping or famil­iar com­mu­ni­ty life. The FEMA park is named Renais­sance Vil­lage, for the RVs as much as the hopes of their occupants.

Oth­er evac­uees stay in tem­po­rary apart­ments and pile into hous­es around Baton Rouge. One of my cousins host­ed 70 peo­ple in her home in the days after the hurricane.

Now, life means close quar­ters, small irri­ta­tions and long hugs with too many mem­o­ries of home. Evac­uees send e‑mails to each oth­er with Christ­mas poet­ry wist­ful for beignets, king cakes and burg­ers at Port of Call. Peo­ple who lived for their front porch­es and pecan trees are get­ting used to see­ing a clear, cold night sky. 

Like chil­dren mak­ing their wish lists to San­ta, the evac­uees are hop­ing hard and won­der­ing if they will ever regain shel­ter, san­i­ty and a decent future. 

The Christ­mas com­merce that exists in the wel­com­ing malls of the North is a harsh con­trast to the stores and hotels of New Orleans, that were board­ed up for pro­tec­tion and to keep out Katrina’s home­less. Peo­ple joke about spend­ing food stamps on Christ­mas can­dy or presents or seafood for gum­bo, and the rea­sons not to hoard instant noo­dles and canned goods. The sud­den­ly indi­gent now rec­og­nize the del­i­cate bal­ance between enti­tle­ment and nutrition. 

The jokes these days are edgy. Once vot­ing for gov­er­nor was a choice between the Klans­man and the Crook. (Vote for the Crook, my folks advised every­one.) Now, the joke is Where’s Wal­do?,” with bank offi­cers and city and gov­ern­ment offi­cials hard to find.

Best friends and neigh­bors whose fam­i­ly con­nec­tions extend for gen­er­a­tions now meet fleet­ing­ly before trav­el­ing to jobs in one city or anoth­er. Rel­a­tives lose pre­cious phone num­bers and cas­ti­gate them­selves for doing every­thing wrong. Those who escaped Kat­ri­na have not escaped wor­ry and longing.

Going home for the hol­i­days are most­ly the elder­ly and infirm. Their home­com­ings take place in down­town New Orleans at one of the three St. Louis ceme­ter­ies, which hold some of the city’s most per­ma­nent residents.

Still, the sur­vivors talk open­ly to strangers in crowd­ed meet­ing halls. Peo­ple with ded­i­ca­tion and sym­pa­thet­ic hearts are work­ing and plan­ning. As in New Orleans’ ear­ly days, crooks and futur­ists are find­ing com­mon­al­i­ties in notions of a new fron­tier. Indi­vid­u­als are wash­ing their hous­es by cup and spoon. They are teach­ing their chil­dren that kind­ness is shar­ing a bot­tle of water and self-suf­fi­cien­cy is keep­ing some. 

When the nation emerges from its pile of gifts on Christ­mas morn­ing and picks up the news­pa­per or moves to the tele­vi­sion, will Amer­i­cans still attend to the peo­ple of New Orleans? Or will Katrina’s poor folk move back toward the invis­i­bil­i­ty where they exist­ed for so many years? The peo­ple of south Louisiana may accept their lot or maybe dis­ap­point­ments will fes­ter. Let us hope that they bear no bit­ter­ness if Amer­i­ca moves on.

In poor Louisiana, the com­mu­ni­ty of Kat­ri­na sur­vivors is look­ing for mir­a­cles. At this time of the year, they are find­ing a par­al­lel to their tragedy and hard­ship from long ago: There was no room at the inn for the first Christ­mas and few places to rest their heads now for the peo­ple of New Orleans.

Fati­ma Shaik is the author of five books set in Louisiana and a for­mer reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Her most recent book is the short sto­ry col­lec­tion What Went Miss­ing and What Got Found (August 2015), a love let­ter to the enter­tain­ing, unpre­dictable and flawed char­ac­ters who pop­u­lat­ed New Orleans before Hur­ri­cane Katrina.
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