If you’re looking for high drama, sensational Hurricane Katrina stories are easy to find. But for many of us, reality was less exciting This diary is not to diminish the pain of those who suffered real trauma, but gives a daily account of what it was like for me and my 70-year-old mom.
Sunday, August 28
I took the only precautions I ever take for hurricanes: moved in all the patio furniture and nailed a board across my front screen door. Walking toward Mom’s house past the row of 100-year-old, wooden frame houses, I see that more people than usual are fleeing town. Don and Karen, perennial throwers of the hurricane party, are already in their car.
“Hey Don,” I say, “Where we gonna get our finger food and drinks for the hurricane?”
“Forget about us,” says Don. “They say it’s a category 5. Good luck!”
“Good luck, y’all, too.”
Mom’s house, a corner double, has a cracked window on the street side. Flailing around on the ladder, I patch it with cardboard and duct tape. Then we nail a few ill-fitting boards on windows.
“You think it’ll keep the debris out?” asks Mom. “Hell,” I say, “The way we got it up, we’re probably just providing our own debris.” We laugh at ourselves and go in for coffee. Mom comforts her two dogs. They are beginning to feel some anxiety. I plunk a few batteries down on the table. “That’s all I’ve got.” “That’s OK, honey,” says Mom. “I’ve got everything we need.”
About 5 p.m., Valerie, a Spanish teacher from the Canary Islands, comes over. She doesn’t want to stay alone. Of course, she can stay here for the night, and the storm will be over by early afternoon. But she begins to panic. I drive her just before curfew to the Superdome pickup site. Other citizens are at the pickup site, but no signs or officials. No one seems to know what’s going on, but Valerie chooses to stay there. I get home ten minutes after curfew.
As the night falls, I sit on the porch reading Jane Eyre and watching the storm blow in. Gusts of wind and sprays of mist become more frequent. I know somewhere houses will be ravaged and lives may be lost, and yet the thrill of the storm strikes some deep aesthetic register and I cannot help but love it.
Monday, August 29
Daybreak comes with heavy wind and rain, and the storm makes slow work of our neighbor Antonia’s shed. “There goes another piece,” Mom keeps saying. Antonia’s siding begins to peel like shavings off a pencil. Mom and I watch from the kitchen. She makes us some coffee and fries up a little something to eat as we watch and listen to everything outside.
The storm recedes in the early afternoon The neighborhood looks good, just a few shingles missing here and there. My car sits unscratched. I take note of damages in my house: awnings blown away, balcony screen door mangled, a breach with a bit of water damage inside. Katrina was not so bad. My neighbor, Johnny, calls from Oklahoma and I tell him all is fine. Another neighbor, Willie, calls more desperate. He and Charlene went to Baptist Hospital for shelter at the last minute, leaving Petunia the pot-bellied pig in the house. “Petunia’s fine,” I say. “No water.”
About an hour later, we lose all phone communication and, oddly, there is no rain but about an inch of water in the street. Then two inches. Then four. I move my car to the sidewalk, where it will be about 8 inches higher. Stacy and her thirteen-year-old stepson, Raymond, check out the water, too, but we are all innocent of alarm and I go back to Mom’s.
A few hours later it is too late to move my car. The water is only mid-wheel but the street corners on either side are too deep. Dan, Vicky, and a handful of twenty-somethings splash by with their two dogs. We exchange a joke, a laugh, and half-baked theories on where the water is coming from and when it will go down. I go back to Mom’s and eat yesterday’s mashed potatoes and a boiled egg.
Tuesday, August 30
The water is still slowly rising. It’s about three feet in front of Mom’s house, but her house is four feet off the ground. We hear of a breach in the 17th Street Canal levee. We’re unsure of the full implications.
I trudge through the waters to survey the neighborhood. About two or three families are still on each block, each saying to “come over if you run out of water.” A neighbor occasionally comes by in a skiff or canoe, taking the dogs to City Park or the Orleans Avenue neutral ground, where there are patches of dry land. When you walk toward Delgado Community College it gets shallower. Delgado (the main building) is dry, and fire and police have moved in. Neighbors mull around the Delgado lawn as a kind of central point and sleep in the halls if necessary. In the days after the storm, in fact, I would become friends with many neighbors I’d seen for the last couple of years but never took the time to meet. Mel, the music industry engineer who’d drive back to L.A. right now if he could get to his car in the high-rise parking lot at the foot of Veterans Highway, just on the other side of the 17th Street Canal in Jefferson Parish. Henry, the biker-type, single parent of twin girls, presently sharing his porch with the girls and another neighbor.
Mom and I go back to my house. My fridge and sofa are now bobbing like ice cubes among my books and records and Rachael’s toys and stuffed animals. We return to Mom’s and at dusk the water seems to have crested but we are unsure. It is about six inches from entry into Mom’s house. We’d better take the dogs to a neighbor’s second-story, stone porch, high above any floodwaters. We float flashlights, water, towels, radio, and necessities in the plastic sandbox Mom keeps for little Albert, and go down the block. The dogs half-swim; we half-carry them. The water carries a palpable smell of gasoline now. Bugs, and we suspect red ants, populate the surface.
We settle in on the stone porch. Linda, the owner, has evacuated. Despite the mosquitoes and other, less recognizable, bugs, we don’t feel desperate enough to break in. Mom and I notice the beautiful star-filled sky, an impossible sight in a city electrified with light. The staccato chop of helicopters interrupts the stillness at regular intervals.
A twentyish neighbor arrives in the dark at the house next door with a canoe clipped from the City Park boat dock. He offers to take us anywhere and asks if we want to come into his house. “No, we’re OK for now,” says Mom. “We’ll see tomorrow.”
Wednesday, August 31
We wade home at daybreak and I notice something in the window. “Look, Mom. My cardboard patch is still up on the window.” I am absurdly proud. “Ain’t that something,” Mom says.
The house no longer has gas or running water. We have about four days of food and drinking water left. We can dump water from outside or from the bathtub we filled Sunday night to flush the toilet if necessary. Still I am not worried about us. We can move about the area, and neighbors and firemen periodically come by in boats. I am worried about my daughter, who evacuated with her mom to Houston. Communication has been cut off since before the floodwaters came. She will be wondering day and night if her Dad is dead.
I walk down to Delgado. Everyone has their watermarks. Some say the water is rising, some say it’s going down. At Delgado, the firemen are pulling up stakes to relocate. They will take in boats anyone who wants to get out. I return to Mom’s, and Mom wants to know what I think.
“They said bodies only, no luggage, and yesterday they wouldn’t say where they were going. I’m going to take my daypack and walk down. If they say for sure they’re going to Metairie or Baton Rouge or Lafayette, and not the Superdome or Convention Center, if they let me take my pack, I’m going out to find Rachael. Any ambiguity, I’m coming back.”
“I’m staying here with the dogs,” says Mom. “But I’ll walk you down.”
When my little boat reaches the 17th St Canal at the foot of Veterans, the view in one direction, the Orleans side, shows an open sea with boats zigzagging around the occasional rooftop jutting up. Turning toward Jefferson Parish, it is totally dry land, bicyclers, people walking their dogs, emergency vehicles moving in and out of a staging area.
I walk through the staging area, bypassing the buses and planning to hitchhike out. I look up at the high-rise parking garage at the foot of Veterans. Just this morning, Mel had damned all boats to hell and said he’d wait until he could walk the railroad trestle to Veterans and get his own car. If only he knew that the boats were going directly there.
Then I saw him. Mel himself, jaunting through the staging area. Some information must have trickled through the chain. He sets out for Los Angeles and I hop in for a ride to Houston. Another mid-city resident, Eddie, hops in the back seat with a near-empty bottle of tequila. But either the storm or the tequila is too much for him. The anticlimax of escape becomes more heavy and dull with each sip, and he gets out in Lake Charles, determined to go back and look for his girlfriend and her child, somewhere in New Orleans East.
“Jesus, Mel,” I say. “One black sock, one white sock, my Mom’s yard slippers, and nothing to change into.”
Mel is fiddling with the CD player.
“Mel, my feet stink. I mean, really stink.”
“I know,” says Mel. “Look. Texas state line. Damn. 890 miles to other side of Texas. I’ll stay in San Antonio tonight.”
“You want to stay with us tonight in Houston, assuming I can find them?”
“No. I’ll make it to San Antonio.”
Thursday, September 1
In Houston, I find incredible generosity everywhere I go and incredible distortion every time I turn on the television. Media coverage of the hurricane well displays the magnitude of the disaster but completely misrepresents the demeanor of the vast majority of New Orleanians on the street. To create the desired image of a “City in Chaos,” the media took the one sliver of the city that was most violent before, during, and after the storm, piled on a few rumors, and presented that as the norm, a city ubiquitous with racially-tinged violence. What was left out was what was going on in most of the city, in neighborhoods like mine: black and white kids canoeing down the street together to see if anyone needed help, families sharing food and water on porches, incredibly resourceful people helping strangers, people taking their dogs to the dry patches to swap stories and rumors about when the water will go down, who’s going to leave and who’s going to stay.
Epilogue: Sunday, September 4
I had not heard from Mom, so Saturday I went back from Houston with an inflatable raft to see if I could cross the three concentric parish (county) line roadblocks and get her and the dogs. I had negotiated a way past the first roadblock and into St. Charles parish when news came that Mom was discovered 150 miles west in Opelousas at a campground with Uncle Al and Paula (and 7 dogs, 2 cats, and a rabbit). Rescue mission aborted. Checked on Mary’s property in Covington and visited Mom at the campground. Uncle Al was happier than I’d ever seen him, with his raggedy folding chairs and his supply tent set up and his truck full of toilet paper and junk food, freed from all the aggravation of modern conveniences. Paula and Mom were equally adaptable and happy to stay there for as long as it takes. Now I’m back in Houston and planning a trip to Austin, where some old friends have their eyes on a couple of used cars for me.