The Philadelphia Inquirer

January 22, 2006, Sunday

NEW ORLEANS _ Before the cleanup team arrived with their face masks and rubber gloves, their crowbars and trash bins, Bradley and Connie Tompkins took a final walk through the remains of their apartment near Lake Pontchartrain.

The flood, unleashed from the nearby canal on Aug. 30 by the failings of man and the force of nature, had been ferocious. It had roared through this city neighborhood and attacked everything in its path. It had ransacked their first-floor apartment _ knocking down furniture, tossing books and knickknacks, and pulling open drawers and scattering the contents.

The water had not cared that the Tompkinses were newlyweds, a Media, Pa., boy and a Metairie, La., girl building a new life together. The water had not spared their most cherished possessions, like the teddy bear made from a suit belonging to Bradley’s late father.

The water never gave a thought to the fact that these were good people who had worked hard for what they had, that an insurance misunderstanding would mean they would not receive compensation for what they’d lost.

But, the Tompkinses say, they’ll make it. They’ll rebuild. They’re alive. They’re together.

“Early on, Connie and I were smart enough to realize that the only things we had left were each other,” said Bradley, 28. “There are a million ways to let things spiral out of control, and we both have our up and down days. But a couple of times, we’ve actually looked at each other and said, ‘Thank God I have you.'”

More than four months ago, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The images from the disaster are now familiar: a city submerged in water, desperate residents being rescued from their rooftops, dead bodies floating through the streets or lying discarded on dry ground, wild-eyed families pushing their few remaining possessions in shopping carts.

Most people are aware of the big debates _ over who is responsible for the city’s lack of protection from giant storms, over which politicians made the biggest post-hurricane mistakes, over questions of race and class in America _ that will go on for years. But what many outside this region do not realize is that Hurricane Katrina is still very much a part of daily life in New Orleans.

It’s not just that people here talk about it, recounting “Where were you?” stories in much the same way as people nationwide did after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The damaged city simply hasn’t allowed them to move on.

About 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded. More than half of the houses stand as shells, the occupants scattered to points unknown. Many restaurants and stores, even those that didn’t take on water, remain closed. Occasionally, officials announce they’ve found another body tucked in some corner of the city or under debris.

Still, there are people like the Tompkinses, who have vowed to be part of New Orleans’ rebirth. But it’s a constant test. There are some especially painful days, like the one earlier this month when they watched a group of volunteers pile almost everything they owned on the curb for trash pickup.

“To pack up and leave now, we’d sort of be giving up,” Bradley said. “As comforting as moving would be in the short term, it would be giving up what we wanted to do when we came down here.”

They met in July 2000, in Philadelphia, at the now-defunct Delaware Avenue hot spot Egypt. Connie, in town for work, is quick to say that she “didn’t know better” and that a hotel employee was the one to recommend the down-at-the-heels nightclub. Bradley, a 1995 graduate of Penncrest High School, jokingly notes that he knew of Egypt’s reputation and considered it, if anything, a positive.

She noticed him the moment he walked in. He felt the spark, too. She’d never had a Yuengling. He bought her one. They danced all night.

It could have ended there, with her in New Orleans and him in Philadelphia. It didn’t. They called and wrote. Finally, they saw each other again when he flew to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve that year.

“Through our e-mails and letters, I think we’d fallen in love without seeing each other,” said Connie, 29. “I know I did.” Added Bradley: “I wouldn’t have come down if I hadn’t.”

They moved into a Berwyn apartment in June 2002. They got married on June 26, 2004, then moved to New Orleans. Both enrolled in Ph.D. programs _ Connie at the University of New Orleans, Bradley at Louisiana State University _ and both found work as research associates at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center’s School of Public Health.

Things were going well: They had good jobs, a great apartment on the first floor of a house only blocks from the lake. Their landlord was one of their dearest friends; their neighbors were like family. Copernicus, their Yorkshire terrier, was lavished with love and toys.

They had plans _ buying a house and having a family _ but were focused on the immediate needs, like finishing their degrees and decorating their apartment. The CD cabinet was carefully chosen, as were the bed frame and the two espresso-colored leather chairs.

“They were our favorite things,” Bradley said. “We’d saved up for them for so long.”

Katrina wasn’t supposed to hit Louisiana.

Initially, forecasters said the storm would smash into Florida, then head east toward the Atlantic. But on Saturday, Aug. 27, all that had changed. The rapidly strengthening hurricane was headed toward the Gulf Coast.

Bradley and Connie were in Pennsylvania at the time, attending the wedding of one of Bradley’s cousins. While the people around them celebrated, the couple worried about getting home, getting their stuff, and getting out.

“This is potentially the best weekend of their lives, and we’re happy for them,” Bradley said of his cousin and her husband in an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer on Aug. 28. “But it could be the worst weekend of ours.” Noted Connie at the time: “Essentially, our lives could be destroyed.”

But no one really believed that.

The couple arrived at Louis Armstrong International Airport that morning on one of the last flights allowed in. They ran home to pick up a few things: photos of their wedding and of Bradley’s father, the computer hard drive, some clean clothes for themselves, and some toys for Copernicus, who had already been evacuated by family members.

They grabbed their important papers _ their college degrees, their birth certificates _ then headed toward Baton Rouge, joining thousands of others on the trek. The drive normally takes about an hour. That day, it took almost six.

Like almost everyone else, Bradley and Connie thought they’d be back home in a few days. They had no idea how their lives were about to change.

For three months, the couple were essentially homeless. They left Baton Rouge and made their way to Media, Pa., staying there until the end of September. When they returned to Louisiana, they moved in with Connie’s boss for about two months.

They eventually found an apartment in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood.

They knew their former home had been damaged: They had lived only blocks from the 17th Street Canal, in a direct line from the spot where it ruptured and water gushed out.

“We knew we had water, but we didn’t know exactly how deep,” Connie said. “We were still holding out hope for the stuff at the top of our closets.”

They were stunned at the devastation they found. Almost 12 feet of water had filled their dwelling. Furniture had floated into different rooms.

“I just couldn’t get over the violence of the water,” Connie said.

They searched for anything that could be saved. There wasn’t much. They pulled out dishes and glassware, some silverware, and Bradley’s treasured Charles Barkley jersey. As a child, he’d meticulously saved his money, waiting a seeming eternity until he finally had $100 to buy it. He took it from the mess, mold and all.

“It still smells a little, but I’m keeping it. We washed it, dry-cleaned it, and I Febreze it every couple of weeks,” Bradley said. “It’s just something I wanted to hold on to. All of my other childhood stuff is destroyed.”

The couple thought they’d been properly insured. Their policy, prepared by a longtime friend of Connie’s family, included hurricane protection. But it did not include flood protection, which left them out of luck. Thousands of Gulf Coast residents found themselves in the same predicament. The attorney general of Mississippi has filed a lawsuit against major insurers, claiming the exclusion for water damage violates the state’s Consumer Protection Act.

Their insurer gave the Tompkinses 10 days of living expenses for the loss of use of their home. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave them $2,000. They’re still trying to get a loan from FEMA, but it’s difficult for them to get grant money because both are employed and together make more than the federal maximum of $1,300 per month, Bradley said.

Still, they wanted to be normal, or as normal as they could be in a city so shattered. So in the last few months, they’ve been replacing the items they lost.

They purchased an exact replica of their old CD cabinet, but now, instead of being jammed with hundreds of CDs, it holds fewer than 10 and they keep gum in one of the drawers. They’ve replaced their bed with the same model and frame. They purchased the same leather chairs.

“It’s almost like we bought them out of spite to Katrina,” Connie said. “We’re getting what we had back.”

Connie feels guilty for bringing Bradley to Louisiana. Bradley said it was too soon to tell if he regretted the move. In a few years, he said, both would have their doctorates and the sacrifice might prove worthwhile.

“We are not the type to cut and run, so we need to stick to our commitments and see this thing through,” Bradley said.

Their marriage, they said, has grown stronger, surviving a challenge they never expected. Bradley turned to his wife: “It makes me feel good I’m married to you,” he said.

She replied: “Me, too.”

The two vanloads of volunteers that arrived at Bradley and Connie’s house last week belonged to Christian organizations from around the country and were working in Louisiana under the banner of the Gretna, La.-based School of Urban Missions.

For the last few weeks, the group of about 20 workers helped homeowners empty their houses, piling the furniture, books, clothing and memories on the curb, separating the electronics equipment and the hazardous materials from the rest of the debris.

Before the cleanup at the Tompkinses’, team leader Bryant Sabandal of Seattle called the group together to hold hands and say a prayer. Connie and Bradley joined in.

“Keep us safe as we do this work, Lord, and bless these families and prosper them,” he intoned.

Then the pieces of the Tompkinses’ life together, still covered in mud and slime, still festering with a throat-burning dark mold, were carried out. The couple watched silently, as load after load was dumped onto the ground.

The lavender Mixmaster, a wedding gift. The silky, brightly printed belt Connie always wore.

The broken pieces of the desk that had belonged to Bradley’s father, and the tiny MG mechanic’s uniform the older Tompkins had dressed his son in.

“Both things were my connection to him,” Bradley said. “Not to have him around is very hard, but to lose those things that connect to him, that was like a punch in the gut for me.”

For a while, the tiny MG outfit _ blue and white with red piping, dabbled with mold _ lay atop the pile of debris. Then Bradley walked over, picked it up, and placed it under a tree with the other salvageable items, including Connie’s rosary and some dishes.

“Do you need some Kleenex? I got some Kleenex in my car,” said neighbor Terry Jo Vojkovich, putting an arm around each. “I know. I know. It’s the hardest thing.”

The volunteers, who ranged in age from teenagers to senior citizens, worked tirelessly throughout the morning. They dumped carton after carton of what looked like mulch, but was really masses of wet paper and clothing, outside the home.

The mattresses, when they were hauled out, were still thick with water. The two leather chairs, mold-coated, were rolled out end over end.

Connie and Bradley checked each load for something worth saving. They found an unopened bottle of Bogle merlot, a favorite of Bradley’s father, that the family had purchased in 1999 for a dinner outing that never came to pass.

They laughed over their premarriage “contract,” a tongue-in-cheek pact to stay in shape, among other things, which was soaking wet but possibly salvageable.

About two hours after they’d begun their work, the volunteers were finished and the house was empty.

They gathered with Connie and Bradley in another circle. After a quick prayer, they broke, and Bradley began walking around the group, shaking each person’s hand and saying, “Thank you.”

Connie was pulled into more than one embrace, and her eyes filled with tears. The volunteers patted her back and offered reassurances: They weren’t alone.

They would survive. They would rebuild.

“You’ll do more than bounce back,” volunteer Christopher Earp, 19, told them confidently. “You’ll flourish.”

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