I'd left Maine nearly ten years ago with no immediate plans of returning full time, but then Hurricane Katrina struck and New Orleans flooded and I returned to my home state. My family — a wife of eighteen years, three small kids, and I — evacuated our beloved adopted city before Katrina made land, taking, as we had each of the six previous times we had evacuated, three days' worth of clothes and some coloring books and toys for the kids. Leaving the city for fear of what might happen had become a ritual for us, a chance to get away for a few days and then return to our lives — such had been our experience up until Katrina.We spent the first two nights in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in a hotel overcrowded with people just like us — jittery and pensive and once again hoping the hurricane would either shift course or fizzle out. But Katrina grew into a monstrous Category 5 storm, so we fled farther north to Tennessee, where in the early afternoon of August 29, 2005, we learned that New Orleans was spared — that was the initial report — but power would be out for at least a month, so we decided to head back to Maine to wait for the repairs to be completed.
I say back to Maine because we had just returned to New Orleans after spending the summer in Naples, in my parents' guest cottage on Brandy Pond. Although all three of my children were born in New Orleans, we spend every summer in Maine. My daughter, the oldest at seven, can spot loons at a hundred yards, knows their eyes are fierce red, and they travel in pairs. She knows the honk of Canadian geese and the smell of pine. We've watched fledgling chickadees learn to fly and even rescued one that had wobbled into the lake. Both she and her middle brother, Nate, learned to ride their bicycles on the hard-packed dirt road that winds through the woods along Brandy Pond, and this past winter — my kids' first Maine winter — the two learned to ice skate. Maine has always been our kids' second home, and they were delighted we were heading back.
But this ride to Maine proved to be the longest of my life. We caught a blip on the radio about one of the levees failing, but nothing more. Our cell phone worked only occasionally, so we couldn't confirm the news. Over time, though, we pieced together enough of a story to understand that Katrina was not like other hurricanes; still, the magnitude of what was happening remained unclear. Stopping to investigate a "check engine" light, I pulled into a car dealership in Virginia, where CNN blared on a TV. With the rest of my family waiting outside, I stared in disbelief at the terrible images on the screen. The levees were indeed failing, and New Orleans, topographically bowl-shaped, was filling up with water. Already whole neighborhoods were flooded. People sought refuge on rooftops. A huge section of the causeway, which connects New Orleans to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, had been wiped out.
That night in the hotel room in Pennsylvania after the kids had fallen asleep, I stared at the surreal images of Katrina's aftermath — the flooding and harrowing rescues and looting. The images of the area around the Superdome were apocalyptic. People were dead and dying.
The next day before reaching Maine, my wife and I realized that our house was probably flooded. News reports only confirmed our worst fears. Eighty percent of New Orleans was under water. We bickered about the things we should have taken. We blamed each other. We cried. If not for our kids, we would have surely lost our wits. But the despair we felt went beyond just our personal situation — what about our friends, our neighbors, our kids' classmates and teachers? Did they all get out? We understood, even then, that New Orleans would never be the New Orleans we knew and loved.
On August 31, exhausted and emotionally drained, we arrived in Maine. It took three weeks to track down our friends and neighbors, and it was not until October that we learned our neighborhood had not flooded, our house had survived. Five blocks away, at Tulane University, the water had risen to nearly eight feet, but somehow our block was spared.
Despite being incredibly lucky, my family is not returning to Louisiana. I miss New Orleans, but I also know our decision to stay in Maine is best. I am reminded of this fact every time I find myself driving on a hilly back road, slicing past pine trees and open fields and rock walls and lakes, cool air blowing in my face. Maine just feels right.
This past spring, walking along the shore and enjoying the quiet on the lake before summer, ice-out occurred on Brandy Pond, and for twenty minutes, my family and I stood there, listening, watching, marveling at the incredible beauty of lake ice turning back to water. In a way, my wife and I have done the equivalent of ice-out — we've returned to where we belong. Our home. Maine.