CHALMETTE, La. — Huey Borne walked across his dirt-covered driveway in Chalmette, La., a curious round-shaped box in his arms. He held out the container to his wife, Margarite, who wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“I think I can save this,” he said, showing her a handsome gray fedora peeking out of the fragile tissue, half-covered in a chalky green substance.
“Oh, it’ll still smell,” Margarite said, unconvinced. “Just pitch it.”
Undeterred, Huey added the moldy hatbox to the small pile of belongings the older couple was storing in the back of their pick-up truck. This collection of their 50 years together was pitiful compared to the towering mountain of trash that sat just a few yards away in the front lawn—all the belongings they couldn’t save.
“We come every two or three weeks to clean it out,” Margarite said. “I don’t want to come too often.”
The good china and crystal were salvageable, but the salty, oil-filled water that sat in their house for almost three weeks ate through everything, including the knife blades on their sterling silverware.
Huey misses everything they’ve lost, Margarite jokes, but the smell is what bothers her the most. “That smell just gets to me,” she said. “Everything just smells awful.”
The Bornes almost didn’t leave St. Bernard Parish that late August weekend when Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast, leaving thousands of people homeless and hundreds trapped by rising floodwaters. Huey was recovering from surgery and besides, the last time a big storm came through—Hurricane Betsy in 1965—the Bornes didn’t even get wet. It was only after Huey heard the storm had reached category 5 that they decided it might be best to wait out Katrina with their son, John, and his wife in Baton Rouge.
“We got out just in time,” Margarite said. “I’m not sure we would be here if we had stayed.”
The Bornes have lived in Chalmette, a suburb of New Orleans, for 49 years, moving in soon after they were married in 1955. They raised their children in this house and many of their friends, new and old, lived near them. But now no one is here. Save for Huey and Margarite cleaning out their mold-covered ranch house, where the water reached five-and-a-half feet, the streets are empty, with heavy marsh grasses still strewn across most people’s front yards and dried, cracked mud covering what used to be lush green grass. The effect is much like a cross between a ghost town and a desert.
“I’d just like to know where a lot of people are,” Margarite said, pointing out the houses where she hasn’t heard from residents, most of them neighbors for the last 40-odd years.
As Huey and John shut down the house for the night, lowering the garage door and tugging the side door shut through the goopy mud still inside the house, Margarite spoke of one more decision she and Huey have made. They’re buying a house across the lake in Hammond and hope to move in soon. For the Bornes, restoring their home would be far too much work and most of the memories they left in it, like their wedding album, were ruined by the floodwaters.
“It would be years before you could get it really where you could live in it,” Margarite said. “There’s nothing here [in Chalmette]. It looks like a bomb hit it and it’s just not livable.”
Huey, tightening the ropes on the back of the pickup truck a few yards away, talked about his plans for the house. “I’ll clean it up, dry it out, stabilize it and when the market comes back I’ll sell it,” he said. “But I’m not going to give it away.”
And no one knows how long that will take.
“You can’t just hang around here for two years,” Huey added.
“Life goes on. We’ll survive,” Margarite said. “What are you going to do? We have so far. I guess we will survive some more.”e