"I'm not in control of my life." It is the mantra of this era of post-Katrina, of Catastrophe. Loss of control: It hits Mary Kay Caiado, 45, when she tries to reclaim some sense of normalcy and finds herself facing things once unknown to her, like food stamps and laundromats.
So she's here to regroup at Starbucks. It's a vestige of her old life. A change of scenery from the Salvation Army food lines, the hotel room that is her family's new home. She has come with her daughter, mother, father, brother-in-law, niece and husband, Edward, 53.
He is at a WiFi terminal, online, trying to check their banking situation and getting more agitated as he thinks about returning to their home on Long Branch Drive in Marerro, just outside New Orleans, to stand watch for fear of looters. A retired Marine and Vietnam vet, he's in "hyper-vigilance" mode, his wife says. And you know what she means when he declares, "I'd like to buy a shotgun." (And later in the day goes off to a local gun store and picks out a pump-action Winchester.)
Caitlin, their 13-year-old daughter, mourns her jazz dance classes. "Kendall's Dance Academy," her T-shirt says. And high school -- one week and two days of the eighth grade, before Katrina hit. She misses the friends now gone -- to Texas, Florida, Atlanta. And the Siberian husky her dad gave her for her 10th birthday: He could not fit with her and her mom and grandmom, Sylvia Bourgeois, 67, in their room at the Holiday Inn. They gave Cirocco away to a local family.
"I cried because I love that dog so much," Caitlin says.
Caitlin's cousin, Mia Trupiano, laments the band, swim team and drama club she won't be participating in for her senior year of high school. She, like Caitlin, is waiting to hear which local school will take her.
"You can't adjust, because you're just kind of, like, floating."
Her dad, Frank Trupiano, a crisis counselor, says they feel like they're "on a desert island even in the middle of civilization."
That's the rub. Civilization's all around, but the crisis of Katrina left them disconnected, unplugged. Off the grid.
Where's the mail? Where's the new school? Where's life going to land them?
Folks like them have been evacuated to cities and towns across the nation, but here in Baton Rouge they have nearly doubled the population. Federal, state and local agencies are swamped with applicants for various kinds of aid. Internet cafes, too, have drawn hordes of people searching for a way out of their mess, a way to reconnect with the grid of life they knew.
You can see them, huddled over stacks of papers or yellow legal pads. They are, often, the ones with tears in their eyes, desperation on their faces.
The Caiados aren't quite there yet.
She's a native, from a long line of French and Italian New Orleanians. He's Argentinean, raised in the United States since infancy. She is a bank officer; he is retired military and law enforcement. They have some means, though not enough for food stamps to be out of the question. Through FEMA, her company and the Red Cross, she'll patch together the funds to cover the cost of the Holiday Inn that's home for the foreseeable future.
Not knowing when they'd be allowed to move back into their home, Mary Kay Caiado tried to buy a new home up here in Baton Rouge. That's how she learned the family's hefty home equity line of credit had been cut off -- probably for fear their collateral (on Long Branch Drive) had been destroyed.
It's overwhelming, this post-Katrina life.
"You have every problem you'd have in a 10-year period in one week," she says.
"I think I'm suffering from PTSD 'cause I'm like a cat on a hot tin roof."
But actually their home isn't destroyed. Not at all. Eddie Caiado returned after the hurricane to assess the damage. The lovely brick-fronted home with blue siding still stands, virtually unscathed. In the Holiday Inn, he shows pictures of the house on a CD-ROM. He's done this every time a big storm approached the Big Easy: records the before-and-after images for insurance claims adjusters.
That's what you do (or did) in New Orleans: be ready.
"This goes to his hyper-vigilance. He's prepared to lose everything," his wife explains. He seems amused as she speaks.
So they made reservations at the Holiday Inn here and fled there before the storm -- at least most of them did. The Caiados and Mary Kay's mother decamped to the Holiday Inn. Mary Kay's in-laws, the Trupianos, went to another relative's, though Sandy Trupiano, her sister, stayed behind in New Orleans with the medical technology staff she supervises at a hospital. Frank Trupiano and his father-in-law, Joseph Provenzano, 70, ended up stuck in a truck when Katrina hit. They finally made it to Baton Rouge to join the rest of the clan.
Provenzano, a rotund gentleman who owns about 60 rental properties in New Orleans, struggled in the days after the storm to understand what he'd lost. Mary Kay tried to tell her father he wouldn't be receiving the income he once had from his real estate holdings.
"He kept saying, Well, they're not going to live in my places without paying rent," says Mary Kay. She had to tell him: Dad, there's no one there. The city's emptying out.
Mary Kay's mom, who is no longer married to Provenzano, lost property, too. Her Jefferson Parish home is flooded, ruined. Good thing she'd already taken a trove of family photos when she evacuated before the storm, along with jewelry that had been packed since Hurricane Cindy in 1999.
On a post-storm return visit, Bourgeois found mold growing over her furniture and up the walls. She grabbed her mink and a few good clothes. All that's in the trunk of her long black Lincoln Continental parked near the Caiados' truck outside the Holiday Inn where the Salvation Army serves meals.
Home. For now.
They tried to play Scrabble.
"We couldn't concentrate," says Bourgeois.
The small desk in their room now is their kitchen counter, crammed with breads and spreads and chips and fruit. Caitlin's standing there later in the afternoon fixing her dad a ham-and-cheese sandwich.
"Nothing like starvation and mental depression to get that diet," Eddie Caiados jokes.
He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after a year in Vietnam, Eddie explains, and recently was treated for cancer. He's a gung-ho veteran, flying the big red Marine Corps flag from his home and sporting USMC floor mats on his car.
He's been thinking of Nam more and more of late, reminded of it by the smell of diesel fumes from all the military vehicles, by the smell of decaying food and flesh, by the thwop-thwop of those search-and-rescue choppers coursing overhead.
It's good that he can be elsewhere, because "he doesn't do well around people in closed situations," says his wife of 21 years.
Plus, he's got to have his own private "potty time," he jokes, much to his wife's horror. Caitlin rolls her eyes at her dad's off-color humor.
He's been losing weight, going back to the house to sit vigil, with no protection (till the shotgun arrives) and no electricity, until it finally returned on Sunday. He's spent his days cutting up a tree that fell and clipped a small corner of the roof. He's been clearing the brush and otherwise showing his face in fear that a home left abandoned is a home to be picked clean by looters.
That's the new normal for this family: staying vigilant amid a tangled new existence. Gone, for now, are those mundane old pastimes -- playing with the dog, going to dinner.
But parts of the old normalcy survive, like Caitlin's lime-green fixation: lime-green flip flops, sneakers, backpack, luggage even lime-green curtains back in her room at the house in Marerro.
And so the girl in the lime green steps into a new normal: laundromat time.
"I'll donate a quarter," Caitlin laughs sweetly as her mom lifts the laundry basket and steps outside in the sun to put it in the big Lincoln.
"Mom, you're too old to be in all that heat," Caitlin chides.
And to her own mom, Mary Kay says, "Mama, be mindful that some of those are four-load ones," sounding as normal as can be.