[This piece was written during Hurricane Katrina. We had no electricity, but had a generator and, weirdly, DSL, but not a phone. I blogged–I have been online in one journal form or another since about 1998–and I wanted to try to capture the experience of going through a hurricane. My kids had been in elementary school when Hurricane Andrew came through and tore up the place, and I’d written nothing about it. I thought, and it’s hard to believe this was my point of view then, that Katrina would be mostly wind, a lot of downed trees, and maybe a few days without electricity, but I wanted to record it.
Little did I realize that I was going to have a blog that ended up getting picked up by several national news sources because I was one of the few blogs getting the truth out there before the national media figured out what was going on.
I post this today as both an urge to awareness–what’s going on in the Midwest with the flooding and in Northern California with the fires–but also as a thank you. I think, if you read the piece, you’ll see what a difference you made in our lives. Because you did.]
I passed a man at a shelter the other day.
He was tall and lanky and sunburned, dressed in cut-offs and a soaked blue
t-shirt with a grubby baseball cap shoved on top of muddy curls. There was
something about his lean, sinewy body that made me think of the shrimpers I’ve
seen down in Cocodrie southwest of New Orleans–it’s a hard life and it makes for
no-nonsense, self-sufficient men.
He was sitting in a metal folding chair,
slumped forward, his elbows on his knees. The exhaustion in his shoulders made
me ache. Between his feet was a medium sized box and he was staring down into
it. The box held some basic necessities: toiletries, canned goods, a pair of
socks, and a pair of underwear. I realized, then, that he was barefoot — the
grime around his ankles marked him as having abandoned his shoes somewhere
along the way. His large feet were probably too big for any of the donated
shoes stacked up at a one of the nearby tables.
When I looked back at that box, I wondered
what he must be thinking. My first guess, without seeing his face, was that
these few items weren’t much to give a man after he’d lost everything. This box
wasn’t much to hold onto for a man like that, a man who’d clearly worked hard
for a living. Maybe he was angry at having lost his home, or frustrated that
this was what he’d been reduced to. I had no words that would be of use, no
words which could do any good, and I began to turn away when he suddenly looked
up and caught my eye.
He had tears on his cheeks.
When I stood there, not sure what to say,
he shrugged and said, "I can’t believe how generous people are. I can’t
believe total strangers would go out of their way to help so much."
I mumbled something about it being the
least we could do, as neighbors, and I moved off into the crowd, feeling wholly
inadequate and humbled in the face of such grace.
It would be one among many things I could
not wrap my mind around.
On Tuesday morning, just a few days
earlier, we’d been without electricity since Hurricane Katrina had blown
through in the early hours of Monday. While there were many trees down in Baton Rouge, the damage wasn’t as horrific as it had been during hurricane Andrew, and we thought the worst was over.
It was only the beginning.
We managed to get our TV hooked to the
generator and found one local station airing news and video from New Orleans. There was no way to know what images the national media were getting, but on Tuesday morning, I saw some of the first footage of one of the breaks in the levee system. Water was pouring into the Ninth Ward, and I felt all my senses hit hyper alert, felt my fingers tingle from the adrenaline, felt my lungs constrict.
New Orleans was filling up.
At first, it appeared that no one
nationally realized what was happening. After plugging the computer into the
generator as well and discovering I still had DSL, I caught bits and pieces on
national websites saying things like “New Orleans dodged the bullet."
There was a steady thrum
of “no no no no no” in my head, an awful, gut-kick ache, a sense of the world
gone topsy. With the water pouring in, the levees were going to keep
deteriorating. The pressure from the flow of water was simply going to be too
great. The pumps were already down in areas, and more were failing. Saying “New Orleans had dodged a bullet" was the clearest sign that the outside media didn’t grasp what
was happening. It was a bit like telling a terminal cancer patient that they
“only” had a broken arm (i.e., wind damage, some minor flooding); it doesn’t
matter, the cancer’s going to kill them anyway before the arm can heal. New
Orleans was already suffering from the worst kind of cancer – years of
inadequate repairs to the levees (or no repairs at all), years of talking about
a plan to evacuate, years of warnings that a plan was going to be needed, years
of awareness that New Orleans was a bowl and if it filled up, it could be
devastating. I remember being on the phone with a friend in
deluge from the levees hit the local news. The chill I felt, I cannot explain.
I remember saying, “Ohmygod, we’re going to lose New Orleans."
And we did.
There are images which will crush me and
haunt me forever. Moments seared into my heart. Entire neighborhoods
underwater, many with just the topmost part of the roofs visible. People
clinging to the peak of what had been their homes in desperation, some for days
on end, with no water, no food, no help, and little hope. An elderly woman
trying to talk her mentally handicapped son into climbing on board the basket
being lowered by the Coast Guard Rescue Team, and him refusing unless she came,
too. Only, there was no room but for one. He wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t
leave him behind. There was the image of a mother trapped on a rooftop, handing
over her small toddler to the Coast Guard, and the news helicopter showing her
breaking down as the Coast Guard helicopter flew away; they’d only had room for
one more, and she wanted her child saved. People stood on their roofs, waving
to the helicopters, desperate to be rescued, only to see the helicopters leave
since they were full. I remember the image of two men standing in shock on
their own roof, watching a home near them burn, knowing the fire department
could do nothing to stop it from spreading.
images and moments which scarred us all, embedded deep somewhere in our souls,
a slash that will not heal. The sights and sounds of people abandoned, dying,
here on our soil. There’s the crystal image for me of the late night DJ for a
New Orleans radio station breaking down as he reported on air on a Baton Rouge
TV station how he’d been up all night, broadcasting in New Orleans. He told of
how his station still had a signal locally, though no one could explain it when
so many others had been knocked off the air, and how he realized that the
police didn’t have any communication system at all. People were calling in to
him, a few cell phones still working. They were begging for help because they
were trapped in their homes, trapped in their attics. When he realized neither
they nor he had a way to call the police, he’d broadcast the addresses and hope
the police heard him so the trapped people would get help.
The DJ told of one call: a young woman, who
was holding her infant. She had a two-year-old with her, and her elderly
grandmother. They had not evacuated because they had no car to enable them to
leave and no place to stay. They were standing chest deep in water, in her
attic, and no way to break through the roof, no way to alert police where they
were. Her cell phone died before the DJ could get her address to broadcast her
location. He never knew if they were rescued.
There were the
talk-radio stories from the frustrated and grief-stricken men who’d responded
to the call for boats, any boats, and they’d gone to the designated areas,
fully prepared to take on the responsibility for any damage they received –
they didn’t care, they just wanted to save lives. They weren’t allowed into the
water for a full day due to a series of miscommunications between various
government agencies. There were the harrowing stories of having to pass people
up because their boats were already full, of the boat operators promising to go
back, and then doing so, only for the person to have died or vanished. There were
the voices in the dark, a night so deep where no light penetrated, where
streetlights and businesses and every imaginable source was out and the voices
cried from the rooftops, pleading for help.
There are the
now-infamous images of the way people were abandoned at the Superdome and the
Convention Center; people forced to go days without food, water, basic human
needs. People sick and dying. No help in sight. No organization, no FEMA, no
Red Cross in many places. There were the images of the looting and the crime.
People reduced to the base animal instincts, some for survival, some to prey on
dying and suffering in the Big Easy.
changed, then. Shelters went up in every available space: churches, synagogues,
and in the River Center, an entertainment complex in downtown Baton Rouge. Other states took in many thousands, and yet,
thousands more were here. Everything was different. Even places as old and
forever as LSU.
When you drive
up Nicholson onto the southern end of the LSU campus, rising to your right is
the enormous stadium (under even more expansion), with its parking lot a
construction lay-down yard. To the left, Alex Box Stadium, with all of the
national championships proclaimed proudly on the exterior walls.
If you looked a little past the stadium on
the right, you’d see the Pete Maravich Center, or P-MAC for short. It’s what many of us old LSU grads still refer to simply as the "Assembly" Center.
Its white dome and curved concrete ramps
will always hold a special place in my heart — it’s where I officially became
an LSU student, years ago. Back before there was computer registration, we all
"walked through,” battling and jockeying in lines on the floor of the
Center to claim a "punch card" for the class we wanted — a slender 3
x 7 card with "chads" punched out, indicating the class for which
we’d just enrolled. We’d take the cards and climb to the second level and walk
around the mezzanine’s corridor, stopping at the various tables set up for each
task required and then finally, on to pay our fee bill.
It was exciting to be a part of that crowd.
It was fresh, it was hope, it was a beginning into all potential. It was a
promise of something bigger to come.
After the hurricane, we drove onto campus
and parked in the Alex Box parking lot, took the crosswalk and headed back
toward the P-Mac. There was the white dome gleaming in spite of being
overshadowed by the behemoth stadium. There was the newly renovated
Mike-the-Tiger cage, a luxurious enclosure complete with rocks to climb, a
waterfall, a very large pool and plenty of space to run and play. Next came the
concrete ramps which had long ago made me feel like I had been racing up up up
toward a future.
Then there was the fence.
There had never been a hurricane fence
preventing access to the ramps. Or military standing outside said fence. So
around the P-MAC we went, getting to the LSU campus side, making a sharp left
turn to walk up the street. There was a large white poster-board sign on the
guard’s gate in hastily written print which said, "Ambulances" and
had an arrow.
The P-MAC was still on our left, and as I
looked across the fence and beneath the mezzanine, there were tables set up.
This time, though, it was not like before, when I registered there, when the
tables were about hope and future and innocent dreams. These tables were about
loss and devastation and pain. There were volunteers behind the tables and many
evacuees in front, having just gotten in from New Orleans.
There was a table set up with laptops
so the people could send a message. There were tables of clothes and shoes
(which ran out just as soon as the volunteers could get some in), tables of
water and food to eat right then, as well as canned goods and other supplies
for the evacuees to take with them… for many of them hoped to bunk with
family for the night, and that family probably didn’t even know they were
As we continued around the P-MAC, I could
tell we were reaching the serious part of this operation, where there were nurses
and techs taking medical information, where higher priority (read: in grave
danger) patients were taken in immediately to the triage center and where those
in dire need but less life-threatening were interviewed by nurses and their
stats recorded on brand new files. Nurses and doctors and all sorts of techs
ebbed and flowed through this space. There were Guards with guns (wholly
over-kill, but they were there). There were volunteers of all shape and sizes
— from LSU and Southern students to firemen to police to little grey-haired
We signed in at the non-medical volunteer
station and went in to see what their needs were. We were there to volunteer
our home to medical staff. We’d heard the staff were working twenty-hour shifts
and some of them had no place nearby to just crash and relax.
When you walked inside the entrance, you
walked down a slight slope until you reached the wide, round base of the P-MAC.
Purple seating had been pushed up against the walls. The last time I stood at
floor level like that, I was seventeen, and I remember I stood for a moment in
awe of the swarm of people, the organized chaos, the feeling of a small city
set to work on one task. It was, in many ways, the same. But this time, that
small city was made of dozens of white temporary screens to give the patients
some privacy, and many rows of I.V. bags.
There was a M*A*S*H unit in my campus. A
field unit triage on the floor of our basketball arena. There were helicopters
beating overhead bringing in evacuees from
blaring, on their way to the P-MAC.
There was a M*A*S*H unit. In Louisiana.
In the USA.
It simply didn’t seem possible, that there
would be this necessity. That we had so many people wounded in a major
catastrophe, that we lost an entire city, that we were still finding and
rescuing people, six days later – so many people that our hospitals and clinics
were swamped, and a major triage unit was not only critical, but it barely
handled the vast quantity of people flowing in.
So many unbelievable things were suddenly
true. Families couldn’t find loved ones. People without their medicines,
without any identification, tried to remember what they needed so the nurses
could help them. A mom cried with gratitude because she found someone’s
cast-off clothes to fit her children. Others, tears streaming, were just
grateful to have their own bar of soap, or a bottle of water.
In the USA.
It was at the
LSU Triage where I met the man without the shoes, the shrimper who was grateful
for a small box of goods. He was sitting beneath the mezzanine, just next to
the ramps where I’d walked, up up up into the hope of a better future all those
years ago. I turned away, knowing his future was going to be difficult and painful,
and maybe so much worse.
We lost New Orleans, and many
many homes surrounding it. How can we understand that?
The business of
surviving, or more accurately, of trying to help a huge number of other people
survive, took over for many of us who live here. We exchanged information about
where there were needs, we gathered what we could, we brought it wherever we
could. We met families all staying in one home, forty-five people in a thousand
square foot house, sleeping in borrowed tents in the yard, wearing nothing but
the clothes they’d escaped with. We heard so many stories of people who lost
everything, who had no clue if there was going to be a New Orleans to go back to,
if their job would still exist, if there would be a school for their children.
In the midst of the pain, they would often get a faraway expression in their
gaze, like they were looking off to some memory of New Orleans, and then they’d look at one
another and say, “But we got out. We’re all okay. At least we’re alive.”
We lost New Orleans.
My family and I
walked into places where there were so many trees and utilities down on the
ground, you couldn’t tell a street from a yard. Sign posts were missing, homes
were destroyed, one after another. We stepped over power-lines, and visited
homes of friends’ families, looking for survivors.
kept me from sleeping, and I’m not entirely sure I ate anything remotely
resembling a proper meal for days. It was grief, I know, so I did the only real
thing I knew how to do: I wrote. I poured it into a blog, and many people would
post notes about missing loved ones, and others were begging for any
information at all about their neighborhoods. These notes chased me in my
dreams, always just below the surface. The helplessness etched into every
waking moment, acid into the pores, and rendered the grief unbelievably deep.
We lost New Orleans.
A few days into the disaster, many more
boxes showed up here with supplies. More and more people wrote to ask what we
needed. More and more people were as outraged and frustrated as we were here,
and they wanted to help. I know many donated to charities, but these boxes —
they kept showing up, filled to the brim with things people needed, with supplies
damned near impossible to find in some of these areas. We got to bring them to
the shelters and to the people who needed them, and the recipients treated me
like a hero, but it was not me. It was you. It was every single one of you who
sent a box or a prayer or letters of support.
I don’t know how to explain the affect
these supplies had. There was the immediate help, of course. So many things
were needed by so many people.
Baton Rouge doubled in size from evacuees, and for those who
could get to the stores, they were crowded and often stripped of goods. I saw
clerks stocking shelves only to have items plucked out of their hands before
they could even set them down. I had to go to four or five stores sometimes to
find things that were needed. And while it was helpful and useful and much
required, all of these supplies, it was more than that.
It was the message that we’re not alone.
The rage I felt watching New Orleans drown is still
palpable. I cannot understand the fact that we live in a country which can put
men on the moon, which can help build an international space station, which can
create phenomenal structures or explore the deepest oceans, but we could not
get water to people trapped on an overpass for days. I cannot wrap my
mind around why they were trapped in
the first place, since there were trucks passing them by. FEMA trucks, which
wouldn’t stop. I don’t understand that. I absolutely cannot fathom that these
people were trapped because sheriff’s at the foot of that bridge prevented the
people from crossing into their city of
Gretna just because they didn’t want people from New Orleans in their city. And I can’t believe I live in a
country which could show this on TV, for days in a row, and no one did anything
New Orleans was dying. People were dying. It was just one scene of so many, and it made no
sense. People died on that overpass, when help just drove right by them.
I cannot understand how media crews could
show the devastating events down at the Convention Center and the Superdome,
and FEMA or our Federal Government not "know" the people were there.
How do we live in a country which can drop aid to everyone else in the world,
and no one could drop water and food to the people trapped there? How can we
handle going into war-torn areas and get aid to people there, but a few thugs
prevented us from helping Americans? How?
How is it that more than two weeks later
when we were still going to shelters bringing in supplies, I received reports
from the outlying areas that FEMA still
hadn’t shown up?
Still. Hadn’t. Shown. Up.
I don’t understand these things. I know I
live in America.
Well, last time I checked, Louisiana was still in America.
New Orleans was
still a major American city. Maybe something happened somewhere that someone
forgot to mention to us, but yeah, pretty sure we’re still in America.
the magnitude of the inept response (including local government) was
staggering. It was like watching someone I love get
gutted and lie there bleeding and knowing that help was standing a few feet
away, talking about golf scores.
So when I say
to you that you’ve made a difference, I don’t mean it lightly or in any sort of
frivolous way. When it suddenly became clear that we were the ugly, unwanted
step-child of the government, or worse, the beaten, neglected child of the
local officials who were hastily trying to cover up their long-term abuse with
loud excuses, you made us feel human again. So many of you — giving, calling,
writing, trying. Feeling the outrage on our behalf. Knowing it belonged to you,
because you were us, we were a part of this country, and you cared.
We lost New Orleans.
We needed you, and you were
there, and the outpouring of that grace and hope helped to get us through the
worst of the days when we were watching in horror as our own people died, as
our friends and family were left, as people were treated worse than we’d ever ever treat an animal.
You made a difference. A big difference.
And we thank you.
This essay first appeared online, over several weeks. I was asked (almost at the time of online appearance) to contribute to a little book I have become very proud of: Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans. Publishers Bruce Rutledge and his brother, New Orleans Professor David Rutledge did a fine job capturing the city over a span of time, even the dark, gritty corners of it.
Have you ever been through a natural (if the breaking of the levees could be called ‘natural’) disaster? How prepared are you?