Hard times: Family stories tell the tale

Normally a Charlottesville-based home inspector, Peter Drenan is on special assignment as a FEMA leader and a Hook stringer. This is the fourth in a series of dispatches from the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast.

There's an almost-new baseball on the shoulder of an eight-lane highway overpass.

There's no rhyme or reason why it showed up here. It's too shiny to have been in the floodwaters, too unscarred to have fallen off a passing car overloaded with a family's salvaged treasures.

You know there's a story here, a story about how this baseball was saved from being washed away; about how it reminded a boy of playing catch with his dad or reminded a family of a trip together to see the local team– a family trip of love, laughter and comfort.

The baseball is lost now. But it still has its story.

There are stories everywhere here. Some are obvious– a truck perched in a tree or a barge on top of a dozen houses. There are weird images that grab your eye– a car on the roof of a house that is itself on top of another car. Mile-long ditches filled with animal carcasses, tree trunks standing tall but stripped clean of every limb– images everywhere. There are whole stretches– perhaps miles long– where there is no evidence of any previous life, while in other areas houses are piled upon one another like toy blocks.

But the stories I like best are the family stories.

There are so many displaced families who want to move back home that they're camped out in tents and campers. Every vacant parking lot, closed shopping center, and municipal area has become a multi-colored field billowing tents, canopies, tarps, and shanties. Some of the lucky families are living on the cruise ships still docked at the port with as many as six people jammed into a single cabin. This is not luxury on the high seas.

The very luckier ones are staying together as families in the few hotels that are functioning in downtown New Orleans. Just yesterday in the elevator of a fancy hotel, there was a family of five with three small boys. They were beautiful children, not more than five or six years old. Their backpacks were larger than their bodies. They were smiling and laughing– living in a hotel is a great adventure.

These three boys know the nooks and crannies, they know the rhythm of the day, they know the staff and the concierge. As the elevator doors opened, one of the boys shot towards the bell captain's station– only to find that a table had been removed. We looked around in surprise and then went over to the marble counter. The smallest boy's little hand stretched up to catch the attention of the tuxedo-wearing concierge who smiled, leaning over the counter.

"The table's gone. Where did the table go?" the little boy said.

"We moved the table– it wasn't really supposed to be there."

"But where are the newspapers? There used to be newspapers on the table. I want to get my daddy a newspaper." There was a pleading tone to his voice. The concierge reached behind the counter and handed a crisply folded newspaper to the boy, whose face beamed like he had struck gold.

This little boy loved the adventure of being surrounded by carpets and tapestries, linen tablecloths, and crystal and silver. The whole family was camping out in one hotel room, all five of them in two beds. It was a wonderful adventure.

He didn't really grasp how lucky they were. He only knew how his daddy smiled when he handed him the morning newspaper, proud and smiling that he had accomplished his mission.

The beautiful little boy with the beaming smile didn't grasp how desperate life around him was. His daddy knew, though– as soon as the three little boys were off to school, dad's shoulders slumped and the smile left his face. The morning headline declared that all FEMA-subsidized hotel payments were ending for displaced people on December 1. Their luck was about to run out.