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In a place called Limbo

By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published September 3, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - I flew to New Orleans to meet Roy and Karen Moore in 2000. My son Peter was about to marry their daughter Heather. They lived in a sturdy brick house on Little Farms Avenue, about 20 minutes from the Superdome in a community called River Ridge.

River Ridge runs along the Mississippi River. I had never gotten a good look at the Mississippi before, so my son and I jogged along the top of the earthen levee. The Big Muddy was both beautiful and intimidating, as wide as many Florida lakes, though bulging with ship traffic. I am told it was an optical illusion, but to me the river looked higher than the neighborhood.

Last Sunday, around midnight, the Moores arrived exhausted in St. Petersburg after a 15-hour trip. They were among the lucky people who had the means and inclination to escape Hurricane Katrina.

When I visited them on Friday at my son's house, they didn't know when they would return to Jefferson Parish, whether their house was intact, or, if the house was intact, whether looters had taken everything of value.

Roy, 57, is a retired postmaster. Karen, 54, teaches first grade. She believes her Concordia Lutheran school survived without mortal damage, but can't be sure. Anyway, she is in the dark about when or if classes will resume but grateful that her boss knows where she is.

Like thousands of residents of Louisiana and Mississippi, the Moores now live in a place called Limbo. Limbo isn't a real city, of course, but it is a city of mind, a place where nothing is certain except, at least for the time being, uncertainty.

"You feel so helpless," Roy said, "because you don't know what is going to happen next. When we get back there, what are we going to find?"

Searching for clues

Karen keeps phoning numbers of friends and loved ones. All but one of her aunts is accounted for. Phone service is sporadic. She is learning the art of leaving text messages. They seem a little more dependable.

On Friday morning Roy sat at a computer in the spare bedroom that for now is home. The Internet, as much as television, has become the lifeline to New Orleans. He read reports and looked at photographs hoping for clues about life in the future.

He looked at a photograph of flooded school buses lined up in a yard. He looked at a photo showing a family camped on the broken interstate. He looked at a photograph that revealed a sheen of oil on the swollen river. He looked at a disturbing picture displaying a damaged graveyard. When New Orleans floods, coffins sometimes are liberated from their final resting places.

Family members have been born and buried in New Orleans for generations. Karen's kin goes back about a century; Roy's slightly longer.

"People say, "Well, you can just move, go somewhere else,' but this is our home," Roy said. "We love it here. We don't want to live anywhere else. We have so many memories."

Roy and Karen went on their first date on Nov. 7, 1969, to a dance at the University of New Orleans when they both were students. When the disc jockey gave Abbey Road a spin, Karen pretended she was a flapper as Paul McCartney crooned Maxwell's Silver Hammer.

"I freaked Roy out," Karen said.

They married on Aug. 4, 1972, at St. Matthew's Catholic Church. That's where two of their children have been married. Their youngest, Kathleen, is scheduled to marry next June.

Kathleen phoned the other day from Alabama, where she is a senior at Spring Hill College. She had been watching on television looters running amok on Veteran's Boulevard. "She was in tears," Karen said. Kathleen's wedding dress is hanging in a bridal shop on Veteran's Boulevard.

Keeping family records

They bought their house in 1975. The price tag was $30,000. They only had $4,000 for a down payment. Not enough. A postal clerk, Roy begged his boss to let him work overtime. Two months later, with $6,000 to put down, the house was theirs.

Over the years they have remodeled the kitchen and added a dining room and an upstairs bedroom. They have filled the garage with tools and camping equipment until there is no room for cars. Last year they burned the mortgage.

Roy and Karen brought all their important papers with them to St. Petersburg. They have the title to their home and insurance records and birth certificates.

Karen has been telephoning credit card companies to say they might be late catching up on their bills. "One little girl I talked to on the phone asked why our payment might be late," Karen said. "I said, "Because we live in New Orleans.' She said, "What happened in New Orleans?' "

The Moores evacuated with 10 albums crammed with irreplaceable family photographs of babies and grandbabies and loved ones long dead.

Another book contains Roy's Boy Scout records. For the past 14 years, he has led Troop 263. "I wanted those Boy Scout records because they tell me what merit badges my boys have earned and what badges they are working on. I have a few boys who have almost reached the highest level, Eagle Scouts. They need their records to advance and I would hate to lose them."

They brought no suitcases. Roy's extra blue jeans and four T-shirts were in an overnight bag. Karen carried her things in a rucksack.

In Limbo, a fancy wardrobe is not required.

Remembering Betsy

"When you grow up in New Orleans," Roy told me, "you prepare for hurricanes."

He was a teenager when Hurricane Betsy paid a terrible visit in 1965. "We lived on a house that was built off the ground. The wind would actually lift the house from the foundation and then drop it."

Years ago Roy built shutters. He put them up before he left last week. He gassed up their 1995 Ford Aerostar van and their 2003 Chevy Malibu and then debated whether to take both vehicles. He decided it would be more sensible to drive the more dependable Chevy.

He likes the old van. He hopes he sees it soon. On the Internet, he saw that Jefferson Parish residents might be able to return next week, as early as Monday, but only for a day, just long enough to check on their homes and pick up additional belongings. Roy would like to grab the camping equipment. Karen wants family heirloom silverware.

Then they must leave again, for how long nobody knows. Roy and Karen are now studying routes that might be open, routes that might take them past service stations ready to pump gas. If they get home, they hope they will find the house dry.

They are worried that their three fine old trees, two oaks and a pecan, might have crashed through the roof. The other day Roy bought a chain saw at Home Depot.

After they collect their things - if they collect their things - they intend to return to St. Petersburg. For how long? They don't know. For the time being, St. Petersburg will remain that place called Limbo.

-- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 and
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