“All I want is to see where I’m going next.”
—Amy Hempel, Tumble Home
NEW ORLEANS, JUNE 2006, Official Opening of Hurricane Season.
Imagine a morning in New Orleans in late August 2005. A coming-of-catastrophe morning almost 10 months ago. The catastrophe goes by the partly Grimm’s Fairy Tales, partly dumbass name “Katrina.”
(Does there exist a National Institute for the Naming of Hurricanes? If so, what were the officials over there thinking?)
The lyrics of the old Randy Newman song about the Great Louisiana Flood of 1927 apply to Hurricane Katrina as well: Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right.
In both the Louisiana Flood of 1927 and the Louisiana Hurricane of 2005, however, a third category should be acknowledged: the people who got lost in the flood, then got away all right.
Of course, the big picture here depends on your definition of “all right.”
My husband and I landed at the New Orleans airport at 6:30 PM on Saturday, August 27, just as 75 percent of the city’s population of 465,000 was fleeing in fear of Katrina. We were not among those daredevils who are known as “stormchasers.” We were among the unknowing passengers on the last commercial flight a certain airline flew out of Atlanta into New Orleans before Katrina made landfall on the morning of August 29 at Buras, Louisiana. Our pilot had decided to keep it to himself that he was flying us directly into the target of a Category 5 storm, 460 miles in diameter. I can verify the fact that for at least two of the passengers, e.g., my husband and me, that flight was a connecting flight home to New Orleans, immediately following a trans-Atlantic journey out of Gatwick, London. So according to our diurnal clocks, it wasn’t 6:30 PM CDT, it was 12:30 AM, London time. Not the best hour to embark on an evacuation.
As our flight landed in New Orleans, the pilot’s voice came over the cabin’s loudspeaker. The voice said, The weather here in New Orleans is warm and windy. Have a great weekend!
I keep a Katrina Scrapbook of pictures (some remembered, some imagined, due to my lack of firsthand observation) with an accompanying sound track. The scrapbook’s not on a table, though; it’s in my head. That way, there’s less chance that a natural disaster will blow the scrapbook away or submerge it in floodwater, or that a looter will drop by during disaster’s aftermath and steal the scrapbook, or rip apart its pages. You can’t be too careful, is my motto now.
In my Katrina Scrapbook, I have several pictures of Commander (not his real name, but close). Commander, who is 74, has worked for my husband’s family for 30 years. At the time Katrina hit the city, Commander resided near the lakefront. He was born in New Orleans proper, in the historic Treme district near North Rampart Street, on the edge of the Vieux Carré. Walking distance to Congo Square. I recall idly asking Commander, a few years back, if he knew what was on the flipside of the old 45 rpm recording of Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City.” Commander used to sing professionally in nightclubs in New Orleans before he witnessed what the life was doing to performers such as Ernie K-Doe and quit. Since quitting the clubs, Commander still sings Christian hymns at his church, where he’s known as Brother Commander. Occasionally, at church suppers, he sings his own composition, “Every Day is Mother Day.” It turned out neither Commander nor I knew the exact title of the Jimmy Reed recording on the flipside of “Bright Lights, Big City,” but we could sing most of the words to the music. The lyrics sounded like: “Got me runnin, got me hidin,’ / Got me run, hide, hide, run / Any way you want me / let it roll. Yah, yah, ya-ah. You got me doin’ what you want me / Baby why you wanna let roll.”
Here’s a headline I recently placed in my Katrina Scrapbook, from the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Sunday, May 14, 2006: CITY’S FATE SEALED IN HOURS. The lead paragraphs, under the byline of Bob Marshall, Staff Writer, read:
“Generations of New Orleanians worked for 300 years to raise a great city in the often inhospitable terrain along the banks of the Mississippi River. It took Hurricane Katrina less than six hours to put that labor of love under water, damaging 200,000 homes and killing more than 1,200 people.”
When I returned to New Orleans at twilight on an evening last November and drove slowly through the darkened, silent wreckage of the neighborhood where I spent my childhood, it suddenly occurred to me that I might be dead. I said to myself, “It’s unlikely that I’m dead, but it’s certainly possible. Remember, it took Patrick Swayze an entire reel of film in Ghost to figure out he was dead!”
An interviewer once asked Ernest Hemingway what he thought of Death. I like to paraphrase Hemingway’s response to that question, when asked what I think of Katrina. I reply, “Katrina? Just another whore.”
As a result of Hurricane Dumbass, Commander did four nights and three days—Sunday, August 28, until Thursday, September 1—at a private health institution, Methodist Hospital, on Read Boulevard, about a quarter of a mile from Lake Pontchartrain. He and his wife had left their house in New Orleans East for Methodist on the Sunday before Katrina, in response to the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order. In addition to the 150 patients at Methodist, there were over 400 people who had come to the hospital seeking shelter from the storm. When the hurricane struck New Orleans early on Monday, August 29, the wind blew out the electrical power. Between 9:30 AM and 10:30 AM, storm-driven water from Lake Pontchartrain collapsed the floodwalls at the 17th Street canal and the London Avenue canal. At Methodist Hospital, the basement generators flooded and the sewers backed up. The supply of food and drinking water ran out, and within hours, the Read Boulevard neighborhood was underwater. Douglas Brinkley would later declare, in his book The Great Deluge, that the temperature inside Methodist after the air conditioning quit reached 106 degrees.
Commander tells me, “At Methodist on Monday night, those that could, we climb up on the roof for some air. Earlier in the day, we had gone down into the floodwaters and, you know, got us some food out a grocery. So then we grilled things, up on the roof.”
“Up On the Roof” is another old song, but nobody’s singing that one.
Somebody who was stranded in the Katrina flood wrote those words, in what looked like white paint, up on a roof in New Orleans. I saw the hand-painted sign, with the missing E, and the people up on the roof, waving alongside the sign, on a television news program. This was during the first week of September, after my husband and I had escaped to Houston.
On Thursday, September 1, a private citizen in a fishing boat turned up at Methodist Hospital and took Commander and his wife, along with three others, to dry land downtown, near the riverfront: the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Commander says, “He told us we couldn’t take nothing with us in the boat except our medicines. I ask the man driving the boat, Where we going after you drops us off at the Convention Center? Man say, Going wherever they takes you.”
I saw Katrina enter uptown New Orleans, alongside the river, in a spectacular array of color—chartreuse, aubergine, slate gray—an array that, I see in retrospect, had “tornado” written all over it. We stood in a downstairs bedroom window, me and my death wish, and watched the show. Early that afternoon, after the wind and the rain moved on, I stepped outside into the heat and the stillness. You couldn’t hear a thing, because there wasn’t a thing to hear. Not even the usual after-a-violent-Louisiana-thunderstorm inquiries from the birds and the frogs, the stunned cats, the runaway dogs, the chorus of croaking, chirping, meowing, and barking that translates to, God-damn! What the hell was that?
The animals were here, though; they were struck dumb, struck down, along with the rest of us. You can see that the animals were still here by reading the signs the National Guard spray-painted onto thousands of ruined houses in the weeks and months after the storm. The Guard searched every house in New Orleans for the living and the dead, human and animal, that Katrina left behind. The signs the guardsmen painted regarding the animals read, for example:
UNDER HOUSE/WON’T COME OUT
Here’s a snapshot from my Katrina Scrapbook that shows the private citizen in his fishing boat as he drops off Commander in downtown New Orleans, at the now-infamous Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The Convention Center didn’t flood, but there was no drinking water there, no food, no medical care, no safe shelter from the sunlight or the dark. A woman, among others, died there at the Convention Center, sitting upright in a wheelchair; the people around her covered her corpse with a blanket and pushed the wheelchair out of the foot traffic, alongside the wall of the building.
Hundreds of people had come to the Convention Center as the result of a widespread urban legend that the Convention Center had become a post-hurricane city-run shelter and that “the government” was going to send buses to that location. According to the rumors, the buses would take the dying and the desperate, the children and the elderly, out of New Orleans to places where the necessities of life were still to be found.
Commander tells me, “People kept saying, Buses is coming for us, everybody line up for the buses. But if you get on a bus, you maybe got to get on separate from your family, and go to wherever the bus is taking you. So that’s no good. On the other hand, bad things was going on, there at the Convention Center.”
I ask Commander what kind of bad things.
Commander says, “People takin’ dirty diapers off babies, throwin’ the diapers right down on the sidewalk. Other people was doing some other things, right out in front everybody.”
I ask Commander, Exactly what kind of things were they doing?
Commander hesitates. “Well …” he explains, “they was … loving each other.”
The one good thing you can say about a hurricane is, a hurricane is strictly seasonal. There’s an official meteorological guarantee that a hurricane can’t get you during, say, Christmas dinner or an Easter Egg Hunt. Whereas we’re continuously up for grabs by earthquakes, lightning, terrorist attacks! And none of us can ever tell ourselves or others: That lump? Got to be benign! It’s not cancer season!
Commander and the others there at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, lining up for the buses that would never come. That is one of many mental pictures that I would prefer not to keep in my Katrina Scrapbook, but there it is. You can’t tear a picture out of a scrapbook you keep in your head. The best you can do, under the circumstances, is substitute one picture for another. Temporarily, at least. So here is a better picture taken at the Convention Center—videotape is a more accurate word. It shows a scene recorded by a television news camera that was re-broadcast frequently during the first weeks of September 2005.
This videotape features one of the very few white women shown at the Convention Center on that nightmare Thursday, September 1, 2005, a young, angry-looking white woman, standing among the desperate and the dying in the killing afternoon heat. Her hair is matted with sweat and the white T-shirt she’s wearing is streaked with dirt. With one splayed hand, she holds against her chest a naked, sunburnt, weakly squirming baby. As the camera moves in for a close-up, and the television newsman holds his microphone up to catch the young woman’s words, the television audience sees a thin, black, female arm reach rapidly but deliberately from the viewer’s right, into camera range. The black woman’s arm places onto the young white woman’s head a small canvas cap, which had fallen off, evidently, into the surrounding crowd. As quickly as it entered the camera shot, the arm of the black woman withdraws. The white mother on camera does not glance toward the black woman, nor does she brush away the woman’s intervening arm. It appears she tacitly welcomes the assistance. No words are audible from that off-camera black woman, but I imagine I can hear what she was telling the woman being interviewed:
Girl, they putting you on television! Here’s your hat, now keep it on your head. You got to look the best you can, under the circumstances.
The circumstances as of now, Tuesday, July 11, ten months after Katrina, as reported by Mark Schleifstein, Staff Writer, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
Accompanied by a warning that protecting New Orleans and the Louisiana coast from major hurricanes would cost “double-digit billions of dollars” and take decades to accomplish, the Bush administration and the Army Corps of Engineers on Monday (July 10) submitted to Congress an interim protection report that includes no recommendations for specific projects.
In a cover letter to Vice President Dick Cheney … John Woodley Jr., the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, warned that making the decision to proceed with greater hurricane protection could be daunting.
“Ultimately, decision makers will have to use their best judgment to make trade-offs as to which, if any, measures they deem practical,” Woodley said. “There is no such thing as unlimited resources … .
Dan Hitchings, an official with the corps’ Mississippi Valley Division office in Vicksburg, which oversees all work along the river from Louisiana to Minnesota, said it was too early to estimate the cost of any alternative hurricane protection plans, adding that the release of any such numbers would be “irresponsible.”
The consolation for all of us here, of course, is the statement that the Corps of Engineers, refreshingly, now refuses to engage in behavior that is “irresponsible.”
Comforting as well is the assistant secretary of the Army, Mr. Woodley Jr.‘s, use of the word daunting. It’s reassuring to know the administration is familiar with that word. So if I were to tell assistant secretary of the Army John Woodley Jr. that I find, say, Dan Hitchings’s statement daunting (Hitchings’s statement that, some ten months after Katrina, it’s “too early to estimate the cost of any alternative hurricane protection plans”), Mr. Woodley Jr. would understand exactly what I mean, seeing as Mr. Woodley himself used the word daunting in the letter he wrote to Dick Cheney to describe how it would feel for him to make the decision to proceed with greater hurricane protection! So that’s a relief.
Here in New Orleans, in mid-July, corpses are still being found by recovery dogs in flooded houses in the Ninth Ward.
Commander, who survived the four-day stint at Methodist Hospital and the day at the Convention Center, is living now in a FEMA trailer parked in front of the ruin of his house near the lakefront. Most of his former neighbors remain scattered, but a grocery store has reopened. The grocer’s prices for produce sound excessive. According to Commander, bell peppers are going for roughly the cost of lobsters, pre-Katrina.
One thousand Katrina-wrecked houses in St. Bernard Parish have now been demolished; six thousand wrecked houses in St. Bernard Parish await their turn to be razed. The neighborhoods of Lakeview, Gentilly, and New Orleans East remain mostly deserted, wind-wrecked, flood-damaged, trashed, overgrown with weeds and scattered with downed trees, the occasional swept-away motorboat moored on a median, the permanently paralyzed automobile lodged in a tree branch.
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, re-elected to his second term in May, estimates that 300,000 people will have returned to the city by the end of the year, 165,000 less than inhabited the city on August 29, 2005. The 165,000 includes the former residents of four New Orleans public housing projects that HUD has declared permanently closed.
My husband and I returned to our house in uptown New Orleans, on the high ground near the river, early last November. In the months since, we’ve had the tornado-damaged fence and the wind-torn roof repaired. We’ve replaced the broken glass door across the back of the house that was smashed by an unknown intruder after we finally left the city on Wednesday, August 31. The intruder heaved a metal sculpture from the back yard through the glass, entered the house, removed from its usual place in a hall table drawer the key to the Honda we had left in our driveway, and drove away. We never saw the Honda again, but nothing other than the car was taken; except for the smashed glass, though, the house was undisturbed.
HOME INVADER STEALS KEYS TO CAR, LEAVES CONTENTS OF HOUSE INTACT. MAMA RAISED HIM RIGHT, SAY POLICE.
On November 1, 2005, the day before we left Houston to return to New Orleans, I read an obituary online in the Times-Picayune: my favorite English teacher at the school I attended for eight years, the Academy of the Sacred Heart on Saint Charles Avenue, had died, a casualty at Katrina. According to the obituary, Julie LeBourgeois “was rescued by her Lord from the LaFon Nursing Home on Thursday, September 1, 2005.” The brilliantly witty, indomitable Miss LeBourgeois died at the age of 76, after Katrina knocked out the electrical power and flooded the streets so badly that the nursing home became, for its 100 elderly, frail inhabitants and the few nuns who stayed behind to care far them, a dark hell that no earthly rescuers could reach until six days after the storm. Julie LeBourgeois survived there until day five.
I remembered a day in 11th grade when Miss LeBourgeois’s chair suddenly slipped as she was taking her seat at the beginning of English class, and she crashed to the floor. Miss LeBourgeois’s desk and chair were on a raised platform at the front at the classroom, and when she hit the floor that day, she disappeared from view. An outcry went up from her students; we surged en masse to the front of the classroom, crying, Miss LeBourgeois! Miss LeBourgeois! Are you all right?
Slowly, dramatically, head first, Miss LeBourgeois reappeared, picking herself up from the floor, righting her chair, seating herself.
“I’m fine,” she announced with dignity, opening her copy of T. S. Eliot. “Better luck next time.”
If only Miss LeBourgeois’s Lord had rescued her in time for her to have survived, not least so that she could have given George Bush’s assistant secretary of the Army, Mr. John Woodley Jr., an after-school lesson on the English language. On daunting, for example, the definition of the word, its shadings and nuance.
… since the coma he often couldn’t think of the word he meant to say, and the word that came out in its place was “government.” He was not aware that he said it, according to the neighbor who had heard him say he would like to put his boat in the government and do some fishing … . And we wondered why government was the word he said. Couldn’t the word that came into his head as easily have been grasshopper? Or galoshes? Or ghost?
… Some of us saw it this way: there was a morning we walked our properties, taking in the damage the “government” had done in the night. We saw broken trees and downed lines, flooded gullies and drowned flowers … . And as we cleared away debris, it seemed to us that even though he didn’t realize what he said when he thought he was using the word he meant, when he invoked for protection from all that was ungovernable the word that he did, the son of a bitch was right.
—Amy Hempel, Tumble Home