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Only the sound of home remains

Cicadas remind a St. Petersburg Times reporter of a happy past. But with relatives scattered and the family hub flooded, will New Orleans ever be home again?

By REBECCA CATALANELLO, Times Staff Writer
Published September 9, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - The cicadas are still singing.

When night falls and the city grows quiet and even more uncertain, when the people who are left here retreat to their porches and floors with flashlights and guns - too nervous to leave, too heartbroken to sleep - the cicadas hum their raspy declaration.

"We're here. We're here. We're still here."

At least that's what I imagine they're saying.

When I was a girl, those chirping cicadas marked the end of summer as my grandmother and I rode our bikes beneath the live oaks to Lake Pontchartrain and back to her Lakeview home. She would talk to me about my aunts and cousins. I would talk about my friends and school. Me, grandma and the cicadas had a pact, a secret end-of-summer ritual. We'll meet here, all of us, and go for a ride.

I don't know what will happen here now.

My grandparents, aunts, uncles and mom have scattered to points north, west and east. The one-story brick house my grandfather built 40 years ago, our family hub, is probably unsalvageable, underwater for more than a week and inaccessible except by boat. We struggle to speak, struggle to find each other, struggle to understand what this moment will mean for us in six months, a year, 20 years.

"Benjamin won't even remember going to maw-maw's house," my aunt Nancy told me last night on the phone, her voice cracking to realize her 3-year-old son won't root through the same toy closet the rest of the grandchildren rooted through. He won't hear my grandmother warn us not to stand in "the high traffic area" of the kitchen. He won't do tumble sets in the front lawn, where we all did tumble sets. He won't clean those gutters with my grandfather standing below.

But it isn't the loss of family memories that scares me the most. My family is alive. We were fortunate to get out of New Orleans before it started slipping into the abyss. We were fortunate to have the means to get out. We know where everyone is.

More scary is the loss of home. My home. The home I had, the home to which I planned to return, the only home I could ever imagine raising children in, growing old in, dying in. My New Orleans. Our New Orleans.

Nothing I've ever experienced compares with the feeling I got Monday when St. Petersburg Times photographer Kathleen Flynn and I were driving through my deserted city at sunset and came upon five mules standing at the intersection of North Claiborne and Elysian Fields avenues. The Auto Zone at the corner had caved in on itself. An ice machine had been thrown on its side, a pair of tennis shoes on top. Floodwaters blocked three sides of the intersection. The only noise besides the faint laughter of a handful of rescue workers was the buzz of an airboat that came out of nowhere and then retreated into the watery ghost town.

Most of the mules - I'm pretty sure they were French Quarter buggy mules - were grazing on the median in the midst of this silent chaos, as if nothing was wrong. But one just stood there, her eyes glazed, the right side of her stomach swollen. She made no expression. Her skin didn't tic. Her long orange eyelashes covered half her eyes, making them appear bloodshot from a distance. We stood together, she and I, unmoving, exhausted. I slipped my hand into a leftover Ziploc bag and tried to console her by stroking her nose.

For the first time in five days of frantically reporting the story of my city and my people - for the first time since I began recording voices and visions of anguish, death and destruction in a reporter's note pad and then churning them into copy for people who weren't here to see what I was seeing - there was no reason for chatter, no reason to rush.

The only thoughts I had were the unaskable questions churning through my tired brain, the ones I imagined were rolling through hers.

How in the world did we get here, sweetie? Where on earth will we go? Why did this city turn on us so? Will we ever get back home? Will we?

As I write this, the cicadas are singing outside. We're here. We're here. We're still here.

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