As time goes on, Kathy feels that she is growing more forgetful, as if the wiring in her brain has frayed. She goes to the bank one day and, in the middle of writing a check, freezes, forgetting why she’s there and what she’s supposed to be doing. The teller says something, but she can’t understand, though she tries to will herself to focus. Finally she returns to herself, and reassures the teller that she just spaced out for a minute. Kathy begins to forget facts, numbers, and dates, and has trouble concentrating.
Three years after the storm, Eggers returns to the Zeitoun family to take stock of how they’ve recovered and of what has taken place since Zeitoun’s wrongful imprisonment. The first example of what has changed is Kathy’s personality. These changes are apparently physical aftershocks of the painful, stressful weeks when she was constantly on edge.
In the fall of 2008, Zeitoun, Kathy, and their family move back into their old house on Dart, though it’s been gutted and now expanded to give all the children their own rooms. The office on Dublin was totally lost, and now they plan to move their office into their home. They have lived in seven apartments since the storm. The Dublin office has been leveled and is now a parking lot, and the new house is still unfinished—they are tired.
Upon returning from Hunt, Kathy and Zeitoun had moved into the studio apartment of one of their rental units on New Orleans’ West Bank, which had been undamaged. The first night, Zeitoun refused to talk about prison. He was ashamed, and wanted it erased. They said nothing for a long time, both of them feeling both thankful and bitter.
Returning to the period immediately following Zeitoun’s release, Eggers has the reader relive the strangeness—a sense of relief together with shame and bitterness—of the couple’s first night together again.
Though doctors could find no reason for the stabbing pain in Zeitoun’s side, he had lost 22 pounds and much hair. Slowly he regained his strength and his pain went away, convincing Zeitoun that it had been caused by heartbreak more than anything.
Zeitoun’s slow return to health underlines the fact that his ordeal continued to have painful effects long after it was over and he was safe. Trauma, stress, and mental anguish can have long-lasting physical effects, as they do here.
Zeitoun and Kathy returned to their home on Dart not long after his release from prison. It smelled of sewage and dead animals, gaps in the roof had damaged the house even more, and everything they owned was filthy. They took the computer and some clothes away, along with the book of photos. Then Zeitoun knocked on the doors of the two houses where he had fed the dogs, but heard nothing. He stretched his plank onto the house on the right and climbed onto its roof. He found all the dogs lying together, dead, as if waiting for him.
Even though Zeitoun was released, the couple’s problems were far from resolved, as they, like so many other residents of New Orleans, had to face the necessity of slowly recovering and rebuilding their entire lives, in addition to their homes. The death of the dogs is a tragic moment, and particularly excruciating to Zeitoun, who had assumed responsibility for them.
After two weeks, Kathy and Zeitoun are ready to reunite with the kids in New Orleans. Zeitoun is nervous about seeing them in his physical state, but they are happily reunited in Phoenix, and drive back to New Orleans to the studio apartment.
Zeitoun had already thought about how ashamed he was to look weak and fragile in front of his daughters, whom he was always so careful about protecting and inspiring.
One day Kathy receives a letter from FEMA, offering the Zeitouns a free two-bedroom trailer. In December 2005 an 18-wheeler pulls in to install it, but when Zeitoun returns from work, he sees that they haven’t connected it to water or electricity, and it is installed on rickety cement blocks four feet from the ground, with no way to enter. No one left keys for the trailer either. Kathy calls FEMA, but no one does anything for a month. Then a pickup truck arrives to drop off a set of steps—but no key. Six weeks later, an inspector arrives with keys, but tells Kathy that the trailer is leaning and unsafe to use: someone will come fix it.
This anecdote begins with a suggestion that FEMA is beginning to regain control over the situation in New Orleans. However, it soon becomes clear that just as Kathy could not break through the layers of bureaucracy in trying to find out where the court hearing would be located, the family now is faced with another example of bureaucratic mismanagement, though here in a more humorous example.
Zeitoun and Kathy begin to buy houses in their neighborhood, and soon began renovating some and renting others out. Meanwhile, the FEMA trailer has been parked for 8 months without ever being connected to water or electricity. The family doesn’t need it, and it is blocking a view of the house—which they are now trying to sell. FEMA won’t pick it up, though Kathy keeps calling and telling them that it’s decreasing the value of their property.
Zeitoun and Kathy are recovering from their ordeal through the entrepreneurial spirit that had characterized their way of living before Hurricane Katrina. Now, it’s bureaucratic mismanagement and crossed wires that are getting in the way of their recovery, rather than assisting it.
In June 2006, a FEMA inspector comes to collect the keys, but months go by without anyone returning to pick up the trailer. Finally, in April 2007, Kathy writes a letter about the saga to the newspaper the Times-Picayune. The morning it’s published a FEMA official calls Kathy, and they take the trailer away that day.
Kathy, as usual, is not afraid to speak up for herself and draw attention to unfair treatment the best way she knows how. Bad press, indeed, seems to be the best way to make the authorities act quickly.
Kathy also begins to have stomach problems, and grows clumsier, sometimes feeling as if she has vertigo. Doctors administer a variety of tests, which overall indicate post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Like Zeitoun, Kathy does not immediately recover from her stressful ordeal: its aftereffects continue on in the form of psychological struggles.
While Kathy and Zeitoun are originally reluctant, their friends urged them to hold those responsible for their ordeal accountable by pursuing a civil suit against the city, state, prisons, police, and others. There are hundreds of other cases against all these groups, however, and even three years after the storm few have moved forward.
Again it becomes clear that while Kathy and Zeitoun’s ordeal was harrowing, it was far from isolated—it was just one example among hundreds of people being denied their civil rights.
A few months after Zeitoun was released, the lawyer they hired had found his arrest report. Kathy clung to the names on it: Donald Lima and Ralph Gonzalez. Gonzalez was from out of state, meaning he couldn’t make an arrest, so Kathy decides to name Lima in the lawsuit. But he had resigned after the storm, and no forwarding address could be found.
Kathy seems to want to find some kind of resolution by talking to those directly responsible for Zeitoun’s arrest, feeling that they might provide answers or at least clues to the reasons for Zeitoun’s imprisonment.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, is reached by phone in fall 2008. He had been a police officer for 21 years when Katrina hit, and his captain suggested they send a team to help out. Gonzalez and the others had heard reports of shootings and rapes, so they were tense, though they didn’t witness such crimes. They did see a great deal of death and destruction, though, and grew increasingly on edge. On September 6, Gonzalez was ordered to participate in a house search involving at least four suspects thought to have been looting and dealing drugs. It could be very dangerous, he was told. Gonzalez was one of the first to enter, and he saw computer parts and stereo equipment on the dining room table, along with four men whose attitude signaled that they were “up to no good.”
As Kathy had heard herself, the media reports coming out of New Orleans after the storm were more exaggerated than based in reality. Nevertheless, these reports did have a real impact, making everyone left in the city wary and ready to immediately respond to any hint of violence or danger. Primed in such a way to see anything through the lens of violent crime, Gonzalez and the others seem to have jumped to conclusions when entering the house, even profiling the inhabitants based on how they looked.
Gonzalez and the others handed the men over to the authorities at the staging ground, and their part was done. No one ever secured the house or collected evidence. Learning that an innocent man had spent a month in maximum-security prison, Gonzalez seems regretful, but he says that normally police officers only investigate and make arrests—then it’s up to the judicial system to give the suspects a phone call and a way to post bail. He agrees it was wrong that they didn’t get a phone call.
Gonzalez attempts to excuse himself from at least part of the blame by referring to the chain of command that normally ensures that the legal system functions smoothly. In this framework, a series of checks and balances is supposed to ensure that it’s difficult for innocent people to slip through the cracks and be denied their rights, as was clearly the case here.
Finally the lawyer tracks down Lima, who quickly notes that he only made the arrest, and wasn’t responsible for the men’s long imprisonment. During Katrina, he stayed in the city to guard his house with his family, and during the day made rescues throughout the city with other policemen and National Guardsmen. The Guardsmen had plenty of gasoline but not much else, so Lima and the others would break into convenience stores and take cigarettes and tobacco in exchange for gas. Looting was essential to their mission, Lima said.
Lima, similarly, claims innocence for Zeitoun’s ordeal by invoking the chain of command of the legal system in its normal operation. The fact that some police officers broke into and “looted” stores and homes is ironic—according to the media, it was violent looting and gang marauding by citizens that was supposed to justify the massive police presence in the first place.
One day Lima saw four men carrying stolen goods from a Walgreens into a blue-and-white motorboat; two days later he saw the same boat tethered to a house on Claiborne, and gathered a group of officers at the staging ground. They thought the equipment on the dining room table was stolen goods, and Lima was sure that the four men—who seemed somehow amiss—were the ones he saw leaving Walgreens. Lima filled out paperwork for the arrest and drove the suspects to Camp Greyhound. Later he saw the maps, cash, and memory chips laid out on a table, and figured the men had been up to something.
Lima’s justification for wanting to arrest Zeitoun and the others was on less shaky ground than Gonzalez’s, but it still relied on unproven inference and profiling based on the men’s appearance. Even at Camp Greyhound, the “evidence” amassed leads not to any specific charge but rather to a general assumption about the men’s guilt, without any of the legal process that should lead to such a charge.
According to Lima, there was no time to secure the house as a crime scene, though he was certain that the men in the house were guilty of something. He admitted that the system broke down in preventing the men from getting a phone call and attorney.
Lima’s “certainty” again relied not on any conclusive proof but rather on snap judgments, which can particularly harm people already likely to face prejudice.
In some ways, the Zeitouns are comforted that Zeitoun was not hunted and arrested purposely because he was Middle Eastern. But it is unsettling to learn that his ordeal stemmed from the fact that ignorance, malfunction, and perhaps paranoia had triumphed, causing the system itself to crumble.
Kathy also soon receives a document from a friend that better helps her understand the mindset of soldiers and officers at the time. FEMA had historically operated on its own for natural disasters, but had become part of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11. During Katrina, as for other disasters, FEMA assumed responsibility for all police, fire, and rescue operations, including the prison system.
Eggers helps to fill in some of the history on a national level that would turn out to be personally relevant to Kathy and Zeitoun. FEMA’s newfound connection to Homeland Security helps to explain the suspicion of terrorist activity that seemed to affect Zeitoun and the others.
As Katrina was approaching, a document was faxed and emailed to law-enforcement agencies and National Guard units in the region, written by representatives of Homeland Security, the CIA, Marines, and corporate security firms. The committee had been asked to assess a “possible terrorist exploitation of a high category hurricane.” Though it admitted that this was unlikely, it went through the ways that terrorists might do so, from hostage situations to cyber attacks. To combat these threats, the committee recommended increased security procedures at evacuation center and patrols at key transportation points. It suggested that any act would most likely be a “splinter” terrorist cell or “lone actor” motivated by political or religious extremism.
This document, discovered by Eggers while completing the research for this book, helps to clarify the mindset of many authorities as they were responding to Hurricane Katrina. Even though the document acknowledges how rare a terrorist manipulation of a natural disaster would be, its specific, detailed conclusions regarding how such an event could take place must have planted the idea in the minds of those responsible for maintaining law and order in New Orleans after the storm.
Kathy isn’t certain whether learning such things is helpful or not. She and her family are returning to normal, slowly, and getting back into the routine of work and the kids’ school. But she continues to become disoriented at various points.
Again, more information is not necessarily comforting or helpful to Kathy. It’s probably better than the alternative, but she still has to find other ways to recover and move on.
Camp Greyhound grew famous after the storm, and Amtrak clerks still show visitors where prisoners were fingerprinted, and where the height chart still remains. Zeitoun later learns that the prison was built so quickly by prisoners from Jackson from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The country’s largest prison, its prisoners have an average sentence of 89.9 years and have long been forced to do backbreaking labor. Burl Cain, Angola’s warder, received a call from the sheriff of Orleans parish asking him to help build an impromptu prison once the Orleans Parish Prison was flooded. Cain sent prisoners, many convicted of murder and rape, to build cages for new prisoners, while they slept outside Camp Greyhound at night. It was completed in two days and would hold over 1,200 people. This was all completed while New Orleans residents were trapped in homes and highway overpasses. There were working toilets and cases of water and food for the workers and employees, while people in the Superdome and Convention Center had none.
Kathy and Zeitoun obviously were unaware of the details of these places or phenomena in the chaotic days and weeks after Katrina. After the initial disaster, more and more information began to trickle out. This information helps to situate and contextualize Zeitoun’s arrest and imprisonment within a broader history of New Orleans in September and October 2005. The example of the prison construction is remarkable in underlining just how much emphasis was given to prisons—in a kind of militarized rather than rescue-based response to Katrina. Clearly, efficiency was possible when the will and effort were there, but both were apparently lacking for many victims trapped in the city.
One day in 2006, Zeitoun is visiting his cousin Adnan at his Subway franchise when he sees a tall African American woman enter in fatigues. Suddenly he realizes she was one of the National Guard soldiers who arrested him. He stares at her, but soon she is gone. He asks Adnan to ask the woman questions if she ever returns. Zeitoun is immediately brought back to reliving his arrest and the later weeks. He begins to try to avoid the Greyhound station, though it was too central, and becomes paranoid about committing any minor traffic violation.
This is another example of how Zeitoun’s ordeal continued to resonate in his life in the months and even years afterward. In this example, the reappearance of someone who contributed to Zeitoun’s wrongful imprisonment provokes a traumatic reliving of the events, forcing him to modify his own paths throughout the city in order to prevent such memories from resurging.
In the week after Zeitoun’s release, after he had recovered somewhat, Kathy insisted that they return to Camp Greyhound to recover Zeitoun’s wallet, which contained his ID. Nervous, Zeitoun drove to the Greyhound station with Kathy, warning her not to say anything, though she was trembling with rage. As they walked inside, a pair of soldiers directed them through a metal detector and patted Zeitoun down. They waited in the same pair of chairs in which Zeitoun had been questioned, putting him on edge.
After Zeitoun’s release, it’s Kathy who becomes more stubborn and determined in Zeitoun’s place. Visiting the place where Zeitoun spent those harrowing days and nights is painful for him, but anger-inducing for Kathy, who now sees for the first time the kind of ordeal her husband had been subjected to while she remained ignorant.
As they waited, a reporter from the Netherlands started asking Zeitoun and Kathy why they were there. Kathy didn’t hesitate to tell him about her husband’s wrongful arrest, but then a female officer wearing full camouflage barked at the reporter to get away from them. She told a pair of National Guardsmen to arrest the reporter if they saw him again. Kathy marched up to the woman and started exclaiming about her right to freedom of speech, but the officer turned away and ordered the reporter’s removal.
Kathy, as usual, is unafraid to speak her mind, especially when it means drawing attention to unfair treatment and being able to expose wrongdoing, even if she is in a position of comparatively less power than others. Here, she is ultimately unable to triumph in her assertion of her rights, though she doesn’t let this defeat come easily.
The assistant district attorney finally asked how he could help Kathy and Zeitoun. He said that the wallet was still being used as evidence, and they couldn’t have it without permission of the district attorney, Eddie Jordan. The assistant didn’t know when he’d be there. Kathy and Zeitoun walked into the lobby, and suddenly Kathy caught sight of Jordan out front, surrounded by reporters. Kathy walked right up to him and explained the situation, but Jordan said there was nothing he could do. Increasingly angry, Kathy reiterated what had happened to her husband as loudly as she could, in front of the reporters.
Once again, Kathy and Zeitoun come up against the excruciating, frustrating bureaucracy of the New Orleans legal system, especially in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It makes no sense why Zeitoun’s wallet would still be needed as evidence when he’d been cleared of all “interest” by the Department of Homeland Security. As usual, those in power seem indifferent to the couple’s plight.
Though Zeitoun felt more cautious, Kathy marched them back inside and, nearly in tears, demanded that the assistant DA do something. Jordan left the office, and ten minutes later returned with the wallet, which contained Zeitoun’s driver’s license and permanent-resident card, but no cash, business cards, or credit cards: the assistant DA didn’t know where they were. Still, Kathy thanked him, and felt like hugging him for this small piece of humanity.
For the first time, someone in a position of authority in this story does not only act politely and cordially, but actually follows through with that behavior by completing the small act of kindness for which Kathy is so grateful—even if, with the wallet mostly empty, this was a partial victory at best.
Now Kathy rarely gets that focused and angry, and her rage is more diffuse. She’s become more fearful with her children, and watches them sleep sometimes, which she never did before.
Kathy’s very temperament and character has changed after the storm, as she continues to suffer from the aftershocks of the ordeal.
Nademah, now 13, helps to take care of her sisters, while Zachary is 18 and works at one of Adnan’s Subway restaurants, and Safiya and Aisha are still young and happy-go-lucky. Now there is also Ahmad, who was born in November 2006. Zeitoun’s brother Ahmad, the namesake, still lives in Spain. Kathy works less these days, preferring to care for the baby. She no longer feels up to the task of handling all the paperwork on her own.
Returning to the present day (2008), Eggers shares what has happened to the rest of the family. The children seem to have recovered relatively well, though this may be thanks to Kathy’s commitment to keep them largely sheltered from the anxiety of her husband’s disappearance at the time.
Kathy has been spending time trying to deal with her medical issues. Doctors have asked what the most traumatic part of Katrina was for her, and she was surprised to realize that it was when she knew Zeitoun was alive and at Hunt, but was not allowed to see him or know when she could. She said she felt broken to hear that she could simply be denied crucial information by a stranger.
While it was traumatizing for Kathy to not know if her husband was alive or dead, this memory makes sense, given that Kathy is the kind of person to appreciate being calm, in control, and on top of the situation. The fact that another human being could deny her the truth is difficult to bear.
Kathy thinks about how easily the situation could have been avoided if one person had shown some humanity. She wants to thank the missionary who risked something, but she also knows that he didn’t risk that much, and that his act should not be considered one of great heroism.
Kathy worries that her husband works too hard now, even while fasting, as he’s grown more religious. People ask why Zeitoun hasn’t left the United States to escape the dark memories, and he does have bitter feelings when he passes the Greyhound station and Claiborne house.
Zeitoun has always put his work first, but now it seems that he is working hard less because he loves it than because it’s a way for him to distract himself from what he’s gone through.
Todd Gambino spent over 5 months at Hunt before all charges were dropped, and none of his confiscated $2,400 was ever returned to him. Nasser spent 6 months at Hunt before the charges against him were dropped. He never recovered his $10,000 life savings, and in 2008 he moved back to Syria. Ronnie spent 8 months at Hunt, and since his release the Zeitouns haven’t heard from him.
While Eggers has traced Zeitoun’s story in particular, it is clear from the description of what Todd, Nasser, and Ronnie went through that experiences such as Zeitoun’s were far from isolated. Indeed, for Nasser, his arrest was financially catastrophic, forcing him to return to Syria.
Zeitoun sometimes recalls the beauty of the canoe, which allowed him to move and listen carefully. The canoe was gone when he finally returned to Claiborne, and the house had been robbed too, since the policemen had left the house unlocked. The other things were replaced, but Zeitoun keeps an eye out for the canoe still, wondering if his daughters will now like it more, and will be drawn to the water like generations of Zeitouns before them.
Although what happened following Zeitoun’s arrest was certainly traumatic, not all of his memories from the time after the storm are so negative—he takes solace in remembering how calm, peaceful, and helpful he felt maneuvering throughout the city and assisting those in need.
Some nights Zeitoun struggles to sleep, thinking of those who arrested and jailed him, who failed to see him as a neighbor and countryman. But he always awakens to the sounds of his young children, and he tries to tell them that everything happens for a reason—it’s in God’s hands.
Zeitoun struggles to balance his natural optimism and faith in God with his continued knowledge that what happened to him was unfair, wrong, and senseless.
The city’s recovery has been slow, and it’s taken a long time for the FEMA money to appear and insurance money to come through for his clients, but since Katrina, Zeitoun’s company has restored 114 houses. He’s proud of the projects he’s working on now, including a junior high school, the Leidenheimer Bakery, and the St. Clement of Rome Parish Church.
Just as Zeitoun and Kathy have taken years to recover from the weeks after the storm and to rebuild their lives, so the city itself is slow in rebuilding itself—a process whose physical manifestations are part of Zeitoun’s livelihood.
Zeitoun is happy to be free in his city, the place where he was married, had children, and made a career. He was tested, he tells himself, but is now louder and more determined. He now must trust and have faith, so he builds and rebuilds—an act of faith, in coastal Louisiana. By building he proves he is part of this place. He imagines it not just as it was but as it can be, far better, in constant progress. He is committed to working as hard as he can, as he’s done before.
The book ends on an optimistic note, in line with Zeitoun’s own sentiments regarding what happened to him. Building, in this ending, becomes not just a physical act but a symbolic representation of constructing and maintaining one’s own identity and beliefs, even in the face of struggles. Eggers ends almost with a plea to the average American reader, asking us to be worthy of American ideals, and not to give into the worst parts of our nature in times of crisis. Unfortunately, the story of the Zeitouns has gone downhill in the years since Katrina, as the couple is now separated, and Zeitoun himself has been arrested on charges of domestic violence—and even attempted murder. This adds a new level of darkness to the idea of Zeitoun’s PTSD and its long-lasting affects, but also may call into question some of Eggers’ more idealistic portrayals of his hero.