Submerged Series Part II: City of the Dead
Gambit Weekly editor reacts to Katrina disaster
"I can't go back there," says my wife, Tami, talking on the cell phone. We're driving from Carencro into Lafayette to find an insurance office and check out the food stamp line.
She listens to the caller, a friend of mine from high school.
"That would be great," Tami says. They're talking about Minneapolis. Every day now, Tami keeps going to pediatrician job Web sites, calling out the names of cities that have work. Champaign-Urbana. Somewhere in central Wisconsin. How about the West? Now, Minneapolis.
The week after the storm, those who love us now want to enfold us. They've cleared out their guest rooms and they tell us about their school districts. There are good reasons to go. But there's a price, watching others leave for work every morning when you're carrying unfamiliar pains inside. "My dad died a few years ago," says an old neighbor who's now with family in Pittsburgh. "This is like that."
My wife and I cross Interstate 10 and enter Lafayette's new daily traffic of evacuees. I start to wonder about post-hurricane divorce rates. About how a couple can wake up one morning to find themselves rebuilding in different directions. I speak loudly enough to be heard by everyone.
"We don't know what we're doing," I say.
The death toll - the amount of bodies found in New Orleans' streets, on porches, in homes - is still being calculated. So is the growing catalogue of known horrors, such as. St. Rita's Nursing Home in Chalmette, where the bodies of more than 30 residents were found. Some of the dead of St. Rita's can no longer be recognized, but you can read their final moments in the way they are positioned throughout the home.
At a benefit in Lafayette, I find John Blancher, who owns Mid-City Lanes, a combination bowling alley and music club on flooded Carrollton Avenue. John used to hire Paul Accardo to do police detail work, before Accardo became a spokesman for New Orleans Police Department. Paul lived in St. Bernard Parish, John says. In the hurricane, he lost everything. He couldn't reach people who needed help. Then he shot himself. "Good fellow," John says. "Good cop."
Then John says, "This city was sicker than I ever realized."
What do we really know, those of us who got out? We know the storm hit. We know that many of the very weakest of us didn't get help until it was too late.
Those final days of our city, our president put a face on obliviousness. He offered an awkward joke about his younger days, when he had a little too much fun on Bourbon Street. People were still dying in New Orleans that day. Others were still waiting for rescue, the nighttime rooftops in some neighborhoods lit up in a constellation of flashlights.
We know our anger. But we know something else, too. We knew the levee could break. We knew the planning hadn't been done. We knew the coast was disappearing.
Have we changed? Some of us have. The storm transformed The Times-Picayune into a street fighter that stayed even after the levee break, publishing articles and editorials on nola.com that are more scathing than anything the daily ever wrote before the city was ruined. Local news anchors are suddenly speaking their minds. So is Mayor Ray Nagin.
"I saw stuff that I never thought I would see in my lifetime," Nagin told The Times-Picayune last week. "People wanting to die. People trying to give me babies and things. It was a helpless, helpless feeling. There was a lady waiting in line for a bus who had a miscarriage. She was cleaning herself off so she wouldn't lose her place in line. There were old people saying, 'Just let me lay down and die.' ... It's unbelievable that this would happen in America."
Those who escaped, we're still finding our places. We shift rooms and houses, trying to set up for the long term.
For some, the road back to the city seems to have disappeared. Last week, Ouida Forsythe, who works with the Lafayette public school district, walked through the Cajundome, signing up children for classes. Ouida told me about a 5-year-old girl in the shelter. "I asked her where she was from. She said, 'Well, I used to be from New Orleans, but I'm not any more.' Then she looked at her mama and said, 'Where are we from?'"
In only know of one person who's still inside the city, who's defied all calls to evacuate. Roger Hahn, who like me once came to New Orleans to write about music and culture. He's single and, as far as I know, he's still in his house. I found this out from my friend Scott Jordan, who spent days trying to reach him. Then Scott tried calling Roger's phone. Not a cell phone. A line that led directly into Roger's New Orleans residence.
"Oh, hi Scott, what's up?"
Scott wanted to go in himself and rescue him. Then he arranged a fire truck to pick Roger up that afternoon.
Roger and I talked for about an hour. He was my first line into the city, and I had questions. What did it sound like when it struck? What did you see? I told him what I knew from the news, about those in the country who now seemed to want to cast off New Orleans like a used-up mistress. He reminded me that the courtesan metaphor dates to Faulkner.
Roger went out right after the storm and felt pretty happy about his running water and gas stove. He took in three tourists from a nearby guest house. Before the levee broke, they walked around the city together. Even strolled to the Superdome. He had groceries for a month.
At home, he listened constantly to the talk radio station WWL 870 AM. For days, the station served as a public 911 line, with DJs answering survival questions. Nagin would break in to talk about the 40,000 troops he's not seeing on the ground. Roger calls the whole thing genocide. "The largest black population in the South, it's the poorest, it's the most culturally rich, it's the most disposable."
Halfway through the conversation, Roger adds that every day around 2:30 in the afternoon, the heat overwhelms him and he has to lie down. When he needs water, he taps his upstairs water heater, opening the faucet with a flathead screwdriver and twisting his body just so, allowing him to fill teacups.
"I had a little episode of irrational exuberance," he says. "I finally figured out the water tank, I was carrying a three-quart sauce pot, I wasn't paying attention. A little water sloshed out, and my foot went out, I hit my hip, hit my back, my head snapped back. I may have cracked my rib, actually."
Roger gives tips for cleaning a refrigerator. He comes up with a hurricane joke: How do you tell if an unrefrigerated egg has gone bad? It starts looting.
It's around this time that I start thinking I might be talking to a dying man. He goes on, about the poor blacks who ran into downtown hotels at the last minute. "When I got down there, the managers were trying to get all those people out," he says. Then he's talking about the difference between New Orleans jazz and Dixieland. About how New Orleans makes money by things passing through it, how it really is Blanche DuBois, depending on strangers.
How he isn't really ready to take that firetruck out today, maybe tomorrow.
For evacuees, nothing stops conversation like a first-hand account about home. One evening, we were meeting in a New Iberia living room with other parents, making plans for our kids' school year. Another parent came in. He'd just returned from New Orleans, he'd gone in armed, he had the cell-phone photos of his office. All talk stopped while we stared at some miniature image of a building with a gaping hole.
Friends call me daily to say they're going in, or they've just been in. One tried to duct tape his refrigerator shut and move it out of the house. It wouldn't fit through the doorway. So he tried to clean it out. He threw up five times before he was done.
I could go in myself. I can get a press pass. But I understand what I'll see: soldiers armed with M16s, military bases on our old playgrounds. Trees eviscerated, wintry. Quiet neighborhoods punctuated by burned houses, felled oak trees, tableaus of destruction. They say it's an abandoned movie set, it's apocalyptic. One friend calls it an acquired taste. He just left for Austin, Texas.
I don't want to see my house yet. I don't want to see our block, silent as a graveyard, which in New Orleans is called a city of the dead because they're built above the ground.
But for the first time since the storm, I did drive east this week on Interstate 10, to Baton Rouge. A friend of mine from New York is here. She used to live in New Orleans, and we'd play noisy games of Scrabble at a Magazine Street coffeehouse. She helped out after 9/11 and now she's in Louisiana to do the same.
For the past week, she has been rescuing and counseling, moving through the city with purpose. She drove down with a friend who's an EMS worker and some real estate agent they met over the Internet. When I drove up, she was wearing sweat pants, an oversized red T-shirt and cheap flip-flops. She went to the trunk and pulled out a new Scrabble board.
We're in the main parking lot of the Jimmy Swaggart Family Worship Center, which is servicing as a portal for first responders - doctors, cops - who are going into New Orleans. Maroon tents cluster across manicured lawns. Many volunteers wear T-shirts emblazoned with NYPD logos. People talk of counseling and tetanus shots; the air smells of hand sanitizer. Next to framed pictures of Swaggart and Jesus are taped-up hand-written signs that start out, "After contact with N.O. Water ...,"
We walk past a New York City cop. He nods at my friend. "I heard you did good work in there," he says.
She warns me against notebooks. She talks about a reporter that got in her face right as she was evacuating someone. The reporter called her gestapo, then went to the man in the house and asked him if he was mad about having to leave. She says the reporter's eyes were dilated, his mouth was turned in, he was losing it.
"This city is a petri dish," my friend says. "When did the story become that people shouldn't be gotten out of here?"
My friend talks about the Canal Street hotel where they were stationed, the smell of death and sewage, the dysentery. She got someone out of his Ninth Ward home by promising to board his windows, and everyone jumped out of the emergency vehicle to stand in the putrid heat and pound plywood. Then, at the Convention Center, she watched him take the helicopter out.
Others were too far gone to reach. Living without medications, on salt and beer.
They're all going back to New York now, my friend, her friend, the real estate guy. The Fraternal Order of Police is setting up here. Things are in better hands. We hug each other good-bye. "I'm so sorry," she whispers.
Labor Day in Lafayette's Girard Park. An old-time microphone is suspended from a tent roof. The Lost Bayou Ramblers Cajun band has set up in the sweltering afternoon heat. The band's fiddler cranes his neck and sings out an old tune: "Tu peut me dit y a un ouragon quand le soleil est bien chaud, mais tu peut pas met un macaque sur mon dot." It means: "You can tell me there's a hurricane when the sun is shining bright, but you can't put a monkey on my back."
A local group called Healing House sponsored this festival for evacuee kids. One volunteer tells me that they'd hoped the children sheltered in the Cajundome might be here. So did I. Last week, I stopped by, hoping I could try to find anyone I knew. They wouldn't let me in; if I had a name, they'd page someone.
The Cajundome kids didn't come. There were separate activities scheduled for them. This might explain why people in Girard Park keep coming over with more and more ice-cream sandwiches.
The Healing House is set up to help children who are grieving. There are shaded places here to draw and write and play board games. We meet up with New Orleans friends and make the rounds. My 4-year-old son, Miles, takes off his sandals and climbs into the spacewalks. Cecilia, my 7-year-old daughter, gets her face painted. I read a brochure titled "How to help child victims of disaster." It advises not to give more information than a child is asking.
I already learned that. The previous day, I'd been bike riding with my daughter. I thought I should tell her that there is a chance we might not return to New Orleans to live. I figured that she'd hear us talking about it, and I should be honest. I told her and then I asked if she had any questions. She didn't.
That evening, as we pulled down the sofa bed and got ready for books, Miles started to say, "When I get back to New Orleans ..." He started to talk about his favorite babysitter, how he looked forward to playing with her.
"Miles," Cecilia said. "We might not ever live in New Orleans again."
I held him until he stopped crying. I haven't heard him talk about his home again.