Don’t look back in anger

Settled for good on the Cape, a Katrina survivor visits his old city
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 3, 2006

REVELRY AND WRECKAGE: New Orleans Mardi Gras, 2006These days, New Orleans residents are “drinking a lot and cussing a lot,” says Hurricane Katrina survivor Don Vavasseur, on the phone this week from his former home in the Gentilly neighborhood of the Crescent city. “The lexicon down here has gotten pretty raunchy. And people I’ve known for a long time, who have never really drank, are drinking a lot more.”

They’re not drinking just because this week marks the 150th anniversary of Mardi Gras — the city’s grand, weeklong party, full of parades, intoxication, and beads. They’re drinking because they need something to take the edge off.

It’s been six months since Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1000 people and devastating the region. Less than half of the city’s pre-Katrina population has returned, entire neighborhoods remain empty, and piles of garbage still clog some streets. Just buying a carton of milk is a challenge, Vavasseur says, when so many corner stores have been destroyed or abandoned.

Back in September, Vavasseur was one of more than 200 Katrina evacuees who found refuge at Camp Edwards, located on Otis Air Force Base in Buzzard’s Bay (See “God, Liquor, and Katrina,” September 16, 2005). At the time, the 48-year-old photographer couldn’t wait to go back. The ponytailed jazz fan, who had invested so much in his own house, and risked so much rescuing neighbors during the disaster, couldn’t imagine being far from the red beans and rice, and Southern friendliness, of his lifelong home. “As soon as I can,” he had answered when I asked about his plans to return.

But once he spent time somewhere other than New Orleans, Vavasseur realized that life can and does go on beyond the bayou. Today, he’s a proud and permanent Massachusetts resident, working in construction and as a freelance photographer in Chatham. Where New Orleans was “crime-ridden and drug-infested,” Vavasseur views Cape Cod as open-minded and safe. He describes his adopted home as “astonishingly beautiful,” and gets excited talking about recent snowstorms.

“I was totally in the spirit of coming back and rebuilding,” Vavasseur says. “And I’m still ambivalent. Every time I come down I feel drawn to staying. But I really like the Cape. I like the people I’ve been meeting and I really see a future there.”

Vavassuer decided to stay in Massachusetts even before he took his first trip back down to New Orleans in January. But that trip served to remind him of what he was leaving behind. Driving south with another Massachusetts Katrina transplant, Vavasseur “had trouble talking to him because I was so anxious,” he recalls. “It just got worse as we got closer to New Orleans.”

When they arrived, they found a city that “looked better when it was under water,” says Vavasseur. He didn’t expect things to be perfect, but “it looked like the hurricane had just happened a week ago. I wasn’t prepared.”

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