29 August 2015
An Article About Katrina
Let's begin as I began long ago: with a story I wrote about my Katrina experiences. Keep in mind that I wrote this for my old newspaper in Atlanta (The Fulton County Daily Report) while I was a grad student at LSU.
I was volunteering at the River Center as a halfassed medic, taking second year PHD classes, and "conducting" a graduate-level seminar for my professor Jeff Humphies, who was having trouble returning from his evacuation in Pineville.
Jeff was a brilliant poet, theorist, and translator, and his course was on "New Orleans and the Arts." I mention it in the piece. Jeff died late last year, and I miss him.
My father, too. He said would rather die in New Orleans than stay in Houston one more day. He died in 2009, in his home in New Orleans, his family around him.
There's a lot I loved about that city that is gone now.
I also must mention that I was writing while all of this was going on, and my information was spotty, and colored by reports from people who had access to media (I had little). We know now that, far from preying on each other, survivors actually banded together for mutual aid. I've left the article as I wrote it, however. It was originally published in Sept. 2005.
I donated my pay for this piece to the relief efforts in Baton Rouge. It won an award for feature writing.
Like all of us who lived through this event, I'm exhausted by talking about it, and shaken by some of the memories. But I would feel irresponsible to let the day go by without marking this time in some way.
Special to the Daily Report
BATON ROUGE, La.-Every New Orleanian grows up steeped in water. It saturates the air on the city's driest days. It laps at the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where I sailed as a boy with my grandfather, father and uncles. And there is the Mississippi, the reason for the city, repository of American power and myth, carrying enormous freighter ships that pass level with the second story of my parents' house two blocks away.
Water is our medium, our background music.
It is the backdrop against which most of our significant memories unfold: endless dinners of boiled seafood and Dixie beer at the lakefront, soggy Carnivals, stolen kisses on the levee with the river golden and scarlet in the fall evening, road trips to Pass Christian or Bay St. Louis to bathe in the Gulf and bask in the sun, football games in torrential afternoon thunderstorms. And always-always, always-the threat of The Hurricane. The one that would return our home to the waters. The one we always seemed to dodge.
To borrow a phrase from Norman Maclean's novel “A River Runs Through It”: those who make their home in New Orleans are “haunted by waters.” The waters always lay in wait to claim their own. We knew it, and we laughed in their face, held parties in the shadow of fragile levees, named drinks after the natural disaster that would sink us one day.
My Last Visit
The last time I visited my home in New Orleans-two weeks ago-I barely spared it a glance. I was in a rush-in transit between a summer spent as a guide in the Wyoming backcountry and a fall semester at LSU that started far too soon. I stopped to spend the night at my parents' house and eat a long breakfast with plenty of sweet rolls and chicory coffee. Then I raced west and north, cursing the heat and humidity. Why, I asked myself, hadn't I just stayed in Jackson Hole?
On the Friday before the storm, I bypassed the city altogether as I made my way to east Tennessee to kayak the Ocoee River with friends. I assumed Katrina was another piddling Category 1 storm-the kind that always seems to knock out power in Mobile for six months but just affords my neighbors an opportunity for a hurricane party. After letting our frightened dog in for the night, my dad and brother would pour their usual tumblers of bourbon, light cigars and sit on our porch to watch the storm pass.
Thirty-three years of hurricane threats I had seen. Not one of them had ever landed a real blow. Of course, any riverboat gambler, any French Quarter casino sharpie, anyone who spent any time at the track at the Fairgrounds, could have told us that runs of luck like that don't last.
When I finally turned on my cell phone late Saturday night, I intended to tell my parents that I would pass through New Orleans for a night on my way back to school in Baton Rouge. Instead I found message after message asking where I was and telling me that the storm looked horrendous.
A Call Home
I called home immediately. The raucous raft guide party 50 yards away faded to a whisper.
“We're going to Houston,” my mother said. “Your dad's boarding up the house right now.”
My grandmother, aunts and uncles were going with them. My sister and her husband were fleeing to Atlanta.
If my father was leaving, this was serious. The Jim Bowie who died in the Alamo would have appreciated my father's attitude to New Orleans. Pop doesn't like to venture farther than our place in Lafourche Parish-about 80 miles away. He'd rather be home. Countless times my mother, grandmother and sister had fled for drier parts before a storm, while my dad stayed home, cooked a steak, watched a football game, and then cleaned up the yard and went to his law office the next morning.
“Some of us have work to do,” he said. My sister-also a lawyer-has adopted much of his attitude.
But this time he sensed the danger was for real. He and my mother now have an apartment in Houston. He refuses to unpack his suitcase. The Central Business District will have power soon, he reasons, and someone will have to get to work. He also checked out a satellite photo of our house Uptown. The deck is still in one piece, and the roof is still on, so he might as well go back.
He hasn't yet. He can't. No utilities yet, and there's the threat of diseases that haven't surfaced there since the 19th Century. Not even the courts are open yet-and there's no telling when they will. The Fifth Circuit federal appeals court may be out of its magnificent New Orleans digs for a long time.
A Changed Baton Rouge
I returned to Baton Rouge on Tuesday, running backroads to escape the Interstates rumored to be impassable. I drove through ditches and over logs to get through. The side of the road was lined with people dragging salvaged belongings, or those who had run out of gas. The radio crackled with spotty AM stations desperately conveying what little information they had to whomever had survived and could listen.
Highway 90 in Mississippi, the conduit to so many spring weekends on the gulf shores: gone. Not just impassable. Not there. As if nature had tired of it and decided to erase it forever. The owners of convenience stores stood in their doorways with shotguns.
Working in a Shelter
The next day I started work as a medic in the evacuee shelter at the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge. My cable was out, so no TV or Internet news prepared me for the crowds: The young, the sick, the hurt, the scared, the old.
My medical training is as a Wilderness First Responder; I can dress wounds, splint breaks, reduce dislocations, wrap the hypothermic and immobilize spinal injuries. But I was dealing with diabetes, with heart conditions, sores and ailments brought on by filthy water, people so sick and scared and traumatized we hardly knew what to do with them. All of them had spiritual hurts I could do nothing about.
One seven-foot giant of a man arrived barely sentient, able to do nothing but cradle his face in his hands and weep. He had been trapped in the Superdome, and could not locate his wife and five children. One woman, once a nurse, had suffered a stroke, and refused to be parted from her husband to receive the care she needed. We had at least a dozen children whose parents were missing.
The first days were terrible-barely organized, supplies short, and hurts deep. Without the few doctors and exhausted nurses who kept the clinic running, the body count already would be much higher than it is.
Since then things have improved. A team of doctors has set up in the clinic, and we have plenty of supplies. My cousin, a displaced Tulane medical student, is coordinating the efforts of medical students nationwide from her new room in my apartment.
The offers of help have been huge-not only in material, but for morale. We haven't been forgotten.
Things Have Changed
But a million things have changed-some of which I notice, some of which I have chosen not to think about. There is no part of my life this storm hasn't touched. In Baton Rouge groceries and gas are in short supply, as is space on the streets and in our homes. There's no place to park, no point in trying to drive. Starting this weekend, my apartment, luxurious for one, will have five people in it-including my three-month-old niece. We don't know when they will go home-or where that home will be. Materials I wanted for school are at my parents' house. These are little things, of course. We're lucky.
My sister's firm is looking for office space. It might be in Baton Rouge. Or it might just continue with its Lafayette office. Or maybe Houston. My brother-in-law is looking for a teaching job. They don't know if there is anything for them to return to in New Orleans-whether their new house of six months survived the storm. My father wants to get back to work-and presumably to his partners.
I am back in class, studying literary theory. I have never been so convinced of the inadequacy of language. As a favor for a professor unable to return to Baton Rouge yet, I have agreed to lead his
graduate seminar: “New Orleans and the Arts.” We're beginning with Walker Percy's “Lancelot”, a work suffused in tragedy and loss, in which some horrible things happen during a hurricane. I honestly don't know how to begin.
Next is a book by Percy's Uncle Will-the classic “Lanterns on the Levee”. Then John Kennedy Toole's “Confederacy of Dunces”.
I have forsaken television news. I turned on the TV when power returned, only to find people bickering over politics while my neighbors drowned, starved, dehydrated, preyed on each other, rotted in the flooded streets an hour away from me. I nearly vomited.
If they like, I can assign blame for them; it's the blame that lies at the heart of all such disasters: some combination of man's breathtaking folly and nature's rage. Nature, as Edward Abbey said, always bats last.
I hate everything about this disaster. I hate the glimpse of humanity it has given me-how quickly people can become beasts. But as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said a few days ago: there's a ray of light. The Quarter survived, as it always does, along with parts of Uptown. The rest is draining slowly. There are stories of great bravery, tenderness, selflessness, to counter the nightmarish brutality we've witnessed in the storm's wake. Signs that civilization may hold.
And there are signs that the city's peculiar magic realist grace will persist. There is the woman we treated, who broke into the boxing gym across from her submerged house and floated to safety with her infant son on a boxing ring. There is the man I saw who swears he was led by a flight of butterflies to the empty skiff that saved his family.
The nation will pay late and large for what it should have paid for early. One day, there will be someplace to live in the crescent of the river south of Lake Pontchartrain. Someplace, we hope, that's worth salvaging. But I wonder whether the New Orleans flair, its Creole, Mediterranean comfort and glee in the face of death, will ever return.
I loved that city.
I wonder if I'll feel the same about the place that will bear its name. r
RICHMOND EUSTIS is a former staff reporter for the Daily Report. He
is currently a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.