Photo credit: Luigi Anzivino
Whenever a tornado threatened, we cut through our backyard into our neighbor’s backyard to join Bib and Erna and their two daughters down in their basement. My father and Bib would stay beyond the closed basement door to watch the dark clouds and lightening and probably smoke cigarettes. I was the youngest, my eyes closest to the dark cement floor. A blue Lucky Charms lollipop chosen from the red and blue ones offered. The translucent blue cellophane wrapper a little less than half the appeal. Wanting to join my father on the other side of the basement storm doors to see what was happening. That’s how I remember it.
I’ve only lived with a basement in Illinois. I haven’t personally even seen any in Mississippi, Florida or Louisiana, where I’ve also lived, or in Texas, where I have family and visit with some regularity. Basements everywhere fail, but in New Orleans they fail spectacularly. At Charity Hospital flood waters caused by failed levees following Hurricane Katrina found the hospital’s generators–yes, in the basement, dooming that fantastic building still to this day. As if it weren’t enough to destroy Louis Armstrong’s childhood home to build City Hall, much of our city’s real estate records were stored in City Hall’s basement. You guessed it. Lost to the 2005 flood waters:
Thousands of lawyers in the metropolitan area have lost their files, their clients and their offices, but one of the biggest legal ramifications of Hurricane Katrina’s flooding waters is the probable loss of real estate records dating back to the early 1800s.
The records, which include titles, mortgages, conveyances and liens, were stored in the now-flooded basement of City Hall on Poydras Street.
I lived in two places in Illinois with basements. The first, the ground floor apartment in a large Victorian house on the west side of Bloomington, where my wife and I lived a year after graduate school, and in Champaign, where we rented a house that had a partial basement laundry/utility room.
The Bloomington basement was an indoor cat’s playground. The walls were carpeted and fabric hung from the ceiling, ostensibly to hide pipes, but where our cats would become sagging lumps. They would sprint down the stairs and tear up the walls and launch into ceiling fabric canopy. The only environmental change that rivaled this basement experience was when they became outdoor cats in New Orleans.
As I said, the basement in Champaign was partial, just a laundry room and a bit more space for the water heater and of course the stairs. That was the extent of the cement slab, though a previous tenant had dug out the other half of the basement dirt so that his band had enough space to stand upright and practice. The dirt had simply been piled on the other “finished” side of the basement, beside the hot water heater. It had an unmistakeable serial killer vibe, but it was all only for rock and roll.
During that last spring there our partial basement flooded. We didn’t have standing water, water rushed in and out, but that was all it took to destroy the ephemera we had foolishly stored in cardboard boxes, including an album I’d filled with photos I took when I was a kid. Images of family and pets, friends and the neighborhood where I grew up, all lost. My own private City Hall debacle.