PINE TREES AND OAK TREES
Trees define the different locales. I grew up in Uptown New Orleans, surrounded by lots of oak, magnolia, and pecan trees. “Live oak” trees, covered in Spanish moss, are as emblematic of the City as the Superdome or the St. Louis Cathedral. Those trees are particularly stout and can stand up to a lot. Indeed, there are live oaks in the Midcity area, particularly in City Park, that are older than the City itself. Many of those trees are now thought to be in peril because they have been submerged for too long in toxic flood waters.
Although we have many different species of trees in St. Tammany Parish, including live oaks, we are really known more for our pine trees, some of which soar to heights in excess of 150 feet. Pine trees are very supple, and will bend and sway even in strong winds. But pine trees have very shallow roots, and the trunks are not terribly strong. If they are hit by hurricane-force winds, they may either topple over or simply snap in the middle. Residents of the gulf states know all too well the sight of snapped pine trees after hurricanes.
As we drove home from Chicago this past Wednesday, I tried to picture broken pines so that I would not be shocked when I actually saw them. I had a long time to think about it. It was an 18-hour drive in a very crowded car. And the youngest occupant was an autistic child who apparently had ingested a little gluten and or casein the night before. Anyone who doubts the efficacy of the gluten-free/casein-free diet should see what happens when an autistic child on the diet actually ingests even a little wheat. I’ve heard it described as an opiate-like reaction, and that seems accurate. My son was on the wild side, and he had no way to work off the nervous energy, except to run around road-side rest areas. It all added to the stress level in the car.
Another thing adding to the stress level was the realization that we would soon be driving into the hurricane-affected area. Relatives had already seen our house, and we knew the damage would be relatively minor. We found out that afternoon that electricity had been restored to our neighborhood. But we also knew that there were a lot of trees down. By the time we got about halfway into Mississippi, however, it was too dark to see the trees on the side of the Interstate.
We got a call from our friend, Reed, who had a key to our house. He stopped by to spend the night in between two days of trying to salvage personal goods from his home in Slidell, a very hard-hit area. The call was to warn us that coming into the house might not be terribly pleasant. After eight days without electricity, all of the meat stored in the freezer thawed.
We pulled into the subdivision a little after midnight. Trees were down everywhere. A willow near our front door was pushed completely onto its side. The top half of a 40-foot pine lay across our front lawn. Another 40-footer from a neighbor’s yard lay across our fence with the top branches on our roof. We were lucky. The neighbors on the other side of us had a 60-foot pine through their roof.
Reed was right about the aroma emanating from our refrigerator. There are no words to adequately describe just how bad rotting meat can smell. Despite the late hour, we spent a couple of hours cleaning out the contents of the refrigerator and freezer, and starting the long process of attempting to deodorize the unit. (That process continues a few days later.)
Getting home did my son a world of good. His routine is still a shambles; school will not reopen until early October at the earliest, and it’s not very clear whether his school will be able to provide the services he needs. But the morning after we arrived home, my son woke up, unpacked the Buzz Lightyear suitcase in which he carries his toys, and just enjoyed being in his own room.
A return to normalcy has not come so easily for the rest of us. National Guard troops are everywhere. Many large parking lots have tents set up for use by disaster response teams from FEMA, the Red Cross, or insurance companies. The sounds of helicopters and chain saws are ubiquitous. The stores still prominently display generators, batteries, and chain saws, but the post-disaster necessity that is the hardest to find is the simple television antenna. With cable out of service for the indefinite future, rabbit ears are a valuable commodity.
Downed trees created the need for the chain saws. Downed trees took out the power to the entire Parish, the full restoration of which is not yet complete. Downed trees brought down the phone lines. Downed trees took out cable television. Downed trees damaged my roof and destroyed part of my fence. And the sight of downed trees greets us everywhere we go.
When confronted with strong winds, pine trees either bend or they break. Arborists say that whether they bend or break depends on whether the tree was planted in the right place. Nevertheless, when you see two seemingly healthy pine trees of about the same size that were just a few feet from one another, and one is still standing and the other is lying across the lawn, you can’t help but believe that the lot of pines is determined by random fate. Some seem destined to be survivors.
I spent much of this past weekend working with trees. We have several small trees of different species (mostly pears) that had blown over onto the ground. Their roots remained in the soil, and there was no significant damage to the trunks. I pulled those trees to an upright position, staked them in place, added a little soil, and watered the roots. They seemed to be survivors who needed a little help. A globe willow, a water oak, and a pine that were down could not be saved. So the sound of a chain saw closed out the weekend in my yard.
We took from working around the house to take a ride Saturday evening. We drove along the lakefront in Mandeville. The lakefront is a place of beautiful old homes, many built in the latter-19th or early-20th centuries by well-to-do New Orleanians for use as summer homes. The lakefront is the one place where majestic live oaks outnumber pine trees. Live oaks stand up to wind far better than pines, but many of them were no match for Katrina’s storm surge. Neither were the houses and buildings.
As much damage as hurricane-force winds can do, the real deadly force in a hurricane is the storm surge. The hurricane pushes water onto shore, releasing a tremendous amount of energy. Katrina pushed water from the Gulf of Mexico into Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, and then pushed the water from the lakes onto shore. In Mandeville, the surge brought a huge wall of water that destroyed everything on a first-floor level. Houses were missing their fronts. Restaurants were reduced to empty shells. But the most amazing sight was of huge live oaks tossed to the ground as if they were accessories to a model train set. Just as wind had been the bane of so many pines, water destroyed some of the live oaks. Just like the wind-whipped pines, though, some of the oaks stood up to the surge and survived. Again, it all seemed so random.
There is a bar and pool hall named Donz on the Mandeville lakefront. It has always been somewhat of a notorious landmark, a thoroughly unpretentious dive in the middle of the high-rent district. Katrina’s storm surge reduced Donz to an empty shell: no doors or windows, no interior walls, no fixtures: just four incomplete walls. As we passed Donz Saturday evening, it was packed with people -- no doubt the regular weekend clientele -- who all sat on folding chairs or on debris, drinking beer they brought themselves. They too were survivors.
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Before leaving behind discussion of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, I wanted to once again thank everyone who expressed concern for Sheila Ealey and her family, and especially thank everyone who helped give Sheila real options to turn an unbelievable loss into something positive. Sheila is moving to Austin. As anyone who knows Sheila could surmise, her decision was made not on the basis of what would be most rewarding for her, but on where her children would have the most opportunities for success. I doubt I will need to give any further updates on her progress, for we will all be hearing more from this lady.