It was the end of the week and I had a pile of readings to get through before weekend’s end. School had only begun on Monday at Southeastern Louisiana University and I had just started a Graduate degree program in English Literature. I had paid my tuition and fees and had procured a graduate study carrel from the library so I could stash my research materials in one locked place. I had figured out the best commuter route from the house to school and I was even beginning to feel normal in my new routine even though I was a little anxious and nervous at the prospect of my next new adventure; I am planning on getting a degree in English so I can teach at our local seminary college which is run by the Benedictine religious community that I belong to as a professed monastic. We live near Covington, north of Lake Pontchatrain, the behemoth lake that separates us from the fish bowl called New Orleans and the mighty Mississip’. We call our little municipality Saint Benedict. Area code 70457. We have a little post office stuck into an extremity of the Abbey. A Romanesque Church and Bauhaus looking college are architectural highlights here. Loblolly pines (a few Longleaf) characterize the area flora along with strawberries and bedroom community traffic. Many people who live in the towns and cities that sprinkle Saint Tammany parish work in New Orleans. Slidell. Covington. Mandeville. Madisonville. Folsom. Abita Springs. Reminiscence of convalescence from tuberculosis and insanity populate the urban legend of the area. The northshore was at first home to the mad and the sick. Mandeville is a sanatorium founded by Bernard de Marigny who invented craps and Abita Springs is regionally famous for its beer and spring water, apparently easing body and mind for a century or more in what used to be called the ozone of New Orleans.
We had just read Virginia Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall before the storm came. We were in a circle sharing thoughts and ideas about possessions and the seeming impermanence of things.
On Friday, August 26, I heard murmuring at the coffee bar about a storm system in the Gulf of Mexico. I kept the news in the back of my head but it didn’t strike me at first as something to be afraid of. Living in New Orleans, you always have the fear that a big storm will hit and there always seems to be some sporadic storm system in the gulf, especially during August and September. We’ve escaped many hurricanes here. New Orleans had barely escaped hurricane Ivan, last year and the four most dangerous, recent storms that wracked the Gulf coast hit other states. So, I wasn’t that eager to evacuate. I didn’t want to come back to yet another near miss. Coming back to averted disaster creates anxiety and stress and an unwillingness to evacuate again in the future. Not that we want disaster to strike this city but the financial hardships that the tourist and oil industry endure every time the city evacuates disturbs our already weak economy. The rich and the middle class can get out of the city (but even they are inconvenienced by gas prices and hotel bills) when warning of a hurricane is issued, the poor and disenfranchised are stranded. I know a person who lives on the corner of Bourbon and Esplanade and he doesn’t have a car nor a way out. It seems now, in retrospect, that not having a car in this city is tantamount to exile (the street car or the bus will not be much help). In New Orleans, buses cart the poor to work and cars bring the bourgeoisie back to the suburbs. Public transportation to the north of the city begins to break down until there is nothing except stretch of road without a bus stop. When Katrina came ashore New Orleans was Naxos with thousands of Ariadnes.
Fifty hours before Katrina hit, contraflow began in Southeastern Louisiana and everyone with a car fled and everyone without stayed. Contra flow is extremely organized, one of the most organized things we have in this state. Street lights are turned off, so people don’t stop. Once you get into the flow on the interstate, it’s like the Pacific current; there’s no turning back. The expressways become one-way arteries out of the hub. I have family in Orleans, St. Charles and Jefferson Parishes. Everybody got out. Mom and my Great Aunt came to stay with me. My cousin Linda and her children went to Houston. One of the last people I spoke to on the phone before Katrina knocked out power was her eleven-year-old son, who is like a brother to me. He said he was afraid that there would be nothing left of his house when he got home. I asked him what valuables did he bring with him. He said he had brought some photographs. I told him that I loved him and for him not to worry about us. I would see him and other family members when the storm blew over. I wasn’t able to get in touch with my dad but I knew he probably fled like everyone else. His house is right next to the 17th street canal which now has a hole in it the size of an eighteen wheeler.
I spoke to my friend Frida on her cell phone hours before we lost connection. She works in the Garden District, a posh, live oak lined neighborhood near the zoo. When I mentioned that there might be nothing to come home to, she dismissed it and said we can’t think like that right now; if it happens it happens. At that point, I was afraid for the city because I didn’t know what would happen. One guy here went to fetch is father from the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, but his dad insisted that he stay, to take care of the dogs. Still, at this writing, we don’t know where his dad is; the last we heard was that his roof was gone and Saint Claude Avenue was under twelve feet of water. As the storm crept inland doors were pressured off their hinges. Water pumps failed. Cell towers down. The Hyatt Hotel in the Central Business District looked like Beirut, according to one news anchor. The Super Dome suffered massive holes and its outer skin was peeled off. It looked like someone had peeled it back to reveal a rusty navel orange. At least two breakages in the levee system caused rising water near Canal Street, inching toward the French Quarter, which has managed to stay dry, for now. It seems like most of the city is under water and massive relief efforts are underway to rescue people stranded on top of the expressways. I just saw a C-130 carrier plane rumble overhead this morning. They are carting people to the Astro Dome in Houston and there is talk that people will have to board naval carriers to get out of here. Last I heard there were still 30,000 people in need of evacuation. People still on houses. People unattended to even in shelters.
On the news, a little girl was crying, “Somebody help us!” A mother was pouring lukewarm water on her son’s back. A husband lost his wife; she couldn’t hold his hand, the flow of the water was too much; the storm had washed her away. Humanity is supposed to come alive when a storm hits. Even though now, Red Cross shelters and FEMA are distributing food, providing shelter, and caring for the sick and wounded, they came too late. The National Guard, the 82nd Air Borne Division, even ATF agents, are coming in to give relief, four days after the storm. Because so many people were left behind after the storm, relief shelters couldn’t provide for their needs, so people died, babies, the elderly and mental health patients. Dead bodies have been found, slumped in their wheel chairs in the Convention Center. The good news is that even though the Federal Government was slow in responding, most of the humanitarian relief has been by neighbors helping neighbors. My mother has been volunteering at the local high school which has become a local shelter. There was a story about a woman who had a baby by Caesarian section and was trying to get to Baton Rouge for care. She was in front of the Convention Center in New Orleans waiting for a bus to bring her and her baby to a hospital. Looters and thugs were firing gun shots, forcing the woman to start walking. She walked across the Crescent City Connection over the Mississippi river to a car and apparently drove to Baton Rouge. The doctor who received her at Woman’s Hospital, a refugee himself, who was just credentialed to help out, was emotional when he retold the story. Here at my house, stray folks are asking for water and food. Even showers. One family up the road who come to mass here lost their entire house and need a place to take a shower. We have people living in the library, the gym and offices scattered across campus.
I guess there is a secret desire in every one of us to weather the big storm, to see as King Lear sees: the cracked skies and the spit fire of physical evil. But this storm was different. A storm like a category five hurricane has the tendency to shake people to their basic core; either they come alive or curl into the fetal position; a storm like this one should be reassurance that we’re not dead yet! I’ve read articles about hurricane psychology and seen it in action in people, including myself. When Katrina hit, I was on the second floor of our building, watching pine tree after pine tree snap in two, sometimes like a broken toothpick and other times, trees were uprooted and splayed across our walkways, their roots gnarled and exposed to the air. I went crazy. Live Oaks kept their trunks intact but Water Oaks and Cypresses on our property were tossed like a baby’s toy. When you hear a tree, especially trees you’re familiar with, that you walk by every day, that you come to know and love, snap in two, it is a horrible noise, a sound like a crushed spine. I watched most of the storm from the second floor balcony. As the storm barreled its way northward something inside of me, restless and unassuaged, was desperate for air. I needed to release pent up tension. So we went to the first floor to the outside walkways to see the storm at Katrina’s level, to feel the wind and rain. I was soaked and mad. We hooted and hollered at the storm. I flung out Shakespeare: crack you thunderbolts! I’m skinny, so I was afraid that the wind would take me so I hid behind Danny who is a bit heavier than I am. He didn’t appreciate it too much. The wind never picked any of us up but I have a vivid image of the Tulip Poplar crashing to its end. I was mad at God when the Tulip Poplar broke, symbolic of so much further, deeper anger. Something snaps inside of you when a big storm comes. I didn’t feel guilty that I was angry at Mother Nature; I guess can project all of my frustrations and anxiety on her.
Storms do different things to different people. Some people hunkered in their rooms and didn’t come out. Others couldn’t keep still. Like me. I was raging Shakespeare to the nymphs and dryads while the guy next to me was contemplating running through the yard to the bridge, oblivious to the fact that the wind gusts could actually pick him up and toss him to his death. One guy was already out in the storm, in the middle of the gusts, picking up window frames that had flown off. Even in the midst of the insanity, I knew I was insane, but I couldn’t stop. I had to feel the storm inside of me, the rush of it through my body like blood flow. Only then could I know for sure that it had passed. As trees fell one after another I felt sad and disoriented, as if the trees themselves were us, were me, were those that I love.
When the roof of our dining room experienced a major leak, ten or more guys got the nerve to actually fix the leak in order to save the murals that had been done to decorate our eating area. But, I think some of the cellotex panels were damaged and I came to the realization that not even art is permanent, demoralizing, but true. Watching gobs of water spray into our beautifully done murals made me realize how bad it really was.
Not that we should be surprised. Climatologists and disaster experts have been doing worst case scenarios for years. In 2001 there was a spread in Scientific American about “Drowning New Orleans”. There are four major factors at play here, that isolated don’t do much, but collectively bode badly for our area. The first thing is New Orleans is below sea level. When you look down onto the French Quarter from the levee you look down into Jackson Square. Ships on the river seem to be above the Cathedral steeples. The levee system is ancient. Humans have been warding off the Mississippi river for over a hundred years. It is like a one hundred year old house that has been given periodic attention but is still old and cannot sustain the wear and tear any longer. The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the levee system, a network of man made hills that keep the river from cresting into the city. New Orleans is like a bowl, sitting in a tub of water; you tip it a little, either way, and water starts pouring in. The third thing is that the Gulf waters have risen on account of global warming. And our wetlands have disappeared dramatically. When hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans our natural defenses were better equipped to fend off the storm. Now with long droughts that have plagued the region the past few years, New Orleans sits on a dry bed of soil. The spongy swamps won’t protect us like they used to do.
And they didn’t. Katrina hit us in the gut, worse than Betsy and Camille in the 60’s. At first, weather reports were saying that it was good that the storm was moving westerly, supposedly saving us from an even more disastrous hit, but it seems now, judging from the destruction, that it didn’t matter. When the storm died down and we only had tropical force winds blowing, we celebrated the Eucharist in an open room. I was soaked, oddly sad and disappointed that the worst of it was over. There was something about the insanity and chaos of the storm that I loved and also hated. Receiving communion while the winds still blew, I felt my first twinge of sadness and first real conjecture of what this storm did to our way of life. It would take us days to finally realize that this wasn’t just a normal gulf hurricane. I knew it was bad, when later, while watching the news, someone commented, “oh! they only have two feet of water.” and someone else said, “they’re only walking waist deep through the water!”
I knew New Orleans would never be the same again, maybe parts of the city uninhabitable for years; the body count will be in the ten thousand range and it will be difficult to identify all the corpses; missing person reports will go on for years and displaced persons will have to find homes and jobs elsewhere. Entire bridge networks have been washed away and people in cars stuck underneath train trestles and on the roofs of houses. Streets are only navigable in some areas by flat bottom boats where only last week cars were driving down them. I can remember in grammar school, watching historical footage from hurricane Camille’s aftermath, a storm that devastated Pass Christianne, Mississippi. A woman was with police officials and family, looking for her home that existed in a “bombed out” area where apparently everything was lost. But they found her house unscathed and I remember she was ecstatic jumping up and down in disbelief, unable to reconcile her fears with what had actually happened.
I hope stories like hers will be repeated today. New Orleans will be rebuilt, even if the politics is against it. For one: New Orleans represents a cultural heritage that fuels the national psyche. It is also home to millions of people. Louisiana is a model for other cities in the world that are suffering from costal erosion. Louisiana produces one third of the nation’s seafood and one fifth of its oil and one quarter of its natural gas. From New Orleans to Baton Rouge on the Mississippi constitute the United States’ largest port. We have 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands along our coasts and they provide wintering grounds for 70 percent of its migratory waterfowl. I got this information from the Scientific American article that I had read four years ago. If anyone says New Orleans is not worth saving, then I say they really don’t know what they’ll be missing.
I find myself saying little prayers to Our Lady of Prompt Succor, the patron of our state. Not that I have a particular devotion, but at times it is the only thing that I can utter in prayer. Slowly but surely it is dawning on me, my family, and my brothers whom I live with, the vastness of the destruction and the affect this disaster will have on our lives. I can only begin know to painfully put all of the pieces together. My friend Bonnie was Hardy’s reddleman today (from Return of the Native), picking up sticks alongside our buildings, she represented apocalypse at bay, keeping the time with each dropped pine, a silence and calm. I am reminded of life and a quote from Woolf: "the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard."