imrs

In 2006, I started tutoring the Moorhead sisters twice a week at their charter school on Napoleon Avenue. It was one of the first schools to open after Hurricane Katrina with 319 students enrolled. The Moorhead sisters got to school by city bus. They had evacuated Katrina late – in a rainstorm – and saw the car in front of theirs drive over the spillway. Everyone in it died. Their family had lost their home and they’d relocated to a double on Elysian Fields. Their mom was an RN at Touro Infirmary, but she’d decided to open her own catering business.

2603960317_05d136df81_o

How can I characterize my love for a place I only came to know after its devastation?

I first traveled to New Orleans in 2006 with a group of student volunteers half a year after the failure of the levees. The city never knew I existed until it was undone by Katrina’s storm, when it was ravaged and its insides exposed on national television. My love for this place is the other side of heartbreak, and sometimes the line between the two isn’t so clear. It is a strange kind of attachment, one that comes from seeing destruction, persistent injustice, and, sometimes, resilience.

Through a local grassroots relief organization, my group was sent to work in Violet, Louisiana, a small city in St. Bernard Parish, located east of New Orleans proper. Katrina pushed a twenty-five foot storm surge into St. Bernard, leaving oil-tarnished water with nowhere to drain for weeks. All of the Parish’s homes were declared “unlivable.” I knew little of what to expect, though I understood residents had to clear out the site of their former home to qualify for a FEMA trailer. Our job was to tear everything down, leaving only the bare wooden frame.

I thought I knew the scope of Katrina’s wrath from photos and videos, but looking out the window while driving into St. Bernard Parish for the first time brought the reality into razor-sharp focus. It was seven months after Katrina and all the traffic lights were still broken along the four-lane road into town. There were virtually no other cars and certainly no people walking down the street. No businesses were open. We passed a gas station where the typical T-shaped roof had completely toppled over, its legs folded and buckled. I saw rusting cars in the grassy median and a motorboat in a ditch by the curb. A small wooden house with light blue siding lay off its foundation in the middle of the street. Even the most iconic American corporation didn’t survive, the golden double arches of McDonalds bent into an unrecognizable shape. As we drove deeper into St. Bernard, the accumulated mountains of trash and debris grew larger, more sinister: couches, tree stumps, broken furniture, refrigerators, mattresses, and entire chunks of wall and insulation.

 

“The drugs!  Ditch the drugs!  He’s coming!”

When Pete doesn’t immediately comply with my frenzied request to jettison the narcotics I grab his backpack and attempt to throw it into the brackish water.

“Take it easy man,” he says, wrestling the bag away from me. “We’re gonna be fine.”

Stanton has no reaction. He silently and expressionlessly pilots the boat from his position in the back.

Seized by terror I pull my knees into my chest, bury my face between them, and tell myself that if I don’t look at the boat creeping ever closer this nightmare will somehow end.

Hurricane Katrina was still 24 hours from New Orleans but I was already bruised, bloodied, and exhausted to the point of nausea. My fiancé Mike and I were up until midnight the night before putting boards on all the windows in the house and bringing all the porch furniture and potted plants inside. I’d hardly slept, but I was up early to finish battening down the hatches and preparing to ride out the storm. We were glued to the weather report and trying to decide whether we were going to ride it out at home or head for higher ground Downtown. Evacuating wasn’t a consideration.

 

The boarded up house was dark, and the air was stagnant, so I went outside to clear my head. That’s when I saw Mr. Anthony getting in the car. “Oh shit!” I thought. I figured we’d have a few of us on the block: the family across the street, Mr. Anthony, and the two of us. Everyone else had already high-tailed it out of town. The family across the street said they didn’t have anyplace to go. Mr. Anthony had lived in his house since he came home from his service as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. Though well into his eighties, it was easy to see the handsome soldier he once was. Tall, neatly dressed, and with a carefully slicked back full head of gray hair. Despite his cane he still exuded the confidence of a much younger man. Of course I knew he was elderly, but I never imagined that a hurricane would drive him any farther than his porch.

 

I was trembling as I walked over to him. He was carrying his cane in one hand and a tumbler of amber-colored liquid in the other. Stupidly, I asked if he was leaving. He said he’d never left for a storm but this time he thought it was best. His sons wouldn’t let him stay alone and he couldn’t ask them to risk their lives to stay with him. They had families to consider.

 

I started to cry. He told me not to worry. Good New Orleans Catholic that he is, he removed his rosary and Father Seelos medallion from his breast pocket. He said, “I know you’re Jewish, but Gawd don’t care bout dat.” He waved the medallion in a circle toward all the houses on our block and said, “Father Seelos, protect us.” “Now,” he said, “we got nothing to worry about.”

 

“You kids staying?” he asked. I told him we were. “Well then,” he said, “there’s something you’ve got to do. You put on your helmet, tighten that chin strap, and … Semper Fi.” With that, he stood up more erect that he likely had in 30 years, saluted me, gave me a kiss on the cheek, took and big swig from his tumbler, and slid into the passenger seat.

 

Once the car had turned onto Magazine Street and was out of sight, I walked in the house and told Mike that Mr. Anthony had just left. “Oh shit,” he said.

 

Within a half an hour we were packing the car to head Downtown.

 

Now I’m usually incredibly uncomfortable with anything military-related, but there were literally dozens of times in the following days, weeks, and months when all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and ruminate on that U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi. Always faithful.

 

When windows exploded in the building where we sheltered from the storm. Semper Fi.

 

Watching desperately poor people ransack grocery and convenience stores for food, water, and diapers. Semper Fi.

 

My mother sitting next to me in the passenger seat of my car with a gun in her lap as we drove out of town. Semper Fi.

 

Waiting in hours-long lines for gasoline. Semper Fi.

 

Sleeping in the car and enduring the brutal August heat. Semper Fi.

 

Screaming at Mike in frustration on the side of the road somewhere in Mississippi. Semper Fi.

 

Realizing that I was making a huge mistake marrying Mike and breaking our engagement. Semper Fi.

 

Going to the cemetery to see if the family tomb had been submerged in the floodwater. Semper Fi.

 

Cleaning rotting food and maggots from my refrigerator. Semper Fi.

 

Filling and hauling I don’t know how many contractor-sized bags of debris from my house and yard. Semper Fi.

 

Ripping out walls and floors by myself. Semper Fi.

 

Deciding to sell my house and move. Semper Fi.

 

Saying goodbye to my favorite restaurants and coffee shops, friends, and my home. Semper Fi.

 

Making a new life in a new place where I knew no one. Semper Fi.

 

Coming out. Semper Fi.

 

Sleepless nights when I first adopted my daughter. Semper Fi.

 

Feeling the loss five years later. Semper Fi.

 

It was a couple of weeks after the storm before I was able to speak with Mr. Anthony on the phone. He was chomping at the bit to get home. He asked me if it was bad. I tried not to break down. I told him I’d remembered to Semper Fi. “I knew you could do it,” he said. I told him I appreciated his confidence in me but that I wasn’t so sure. He said, “Now you know if I didn’t think you could handle whatever happened I’d have gone in that house and told Mike to get your butt out of there.” And I know that he would have.

 

So it’s five years later. I visited New Orleans recently, and Mr. Anthony was on his porch, right where I’d left him. The only thing that had changed was that he had grown a mustache. He’s Semper Fi-ing through the dwindling months of his long, brave life. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are Semper Fi-ing through the worst oil spill in history. And we’re all Semper Fi-ing through the anniversary.

 

RIP my former life

July 27, 1967- August 29, 2005

Note to the reader: Last year I published my firsthand account of enduring Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for the storm’s four-year anniversary. I wanted to write something for the fifth anniversary this year, but as I have not been back to the Gulf area since, I cannot comment on the current state of the area or the lasting effects this disaster has had. There are other, better qualified writers already doing so. So instead, I present to you this tale from the road during my time as a post-Katrina refugee.

You can read my previous piece here.

The town of Bucksnort in Hickman County, Tennessee is absolutely no place to find yourself stranded. Avoid doing so at all costs. If you never believe anything else I say, trust me at least on this.


It has no post office. It’s so small the United States Census Bureau has no statistics on it, so I cannot tell you the population density, other than: ain’t much. Near as we could tell the town was little more than a glorified truck stop, with nothing other than a motel, a diner, a bar/auto mechanic (they shared building space) and a gas station. The beds at the motel were hard as a wooden bench, and the food at the diner, though filling, was an unremarkable selection of standard Southern fare.


While the area is thick with deer, local legend (meaning: printed on the back of a T-shirt sold in the diner) claims that the name actually comes from a pre-Civil War local who sold “snorts” of moonshine for a dollar apiece.

My girlfriend and I wound up there when Lovecraftian noises erupted from our car as we crossed through the state on our way to California from our post-Katrina refuge in Roanoke, Virginia. This was followed very quickly by a shaky, unresponsive steering wheel. With zero chance of making it to Memphis for the night as originally planned, we limped off the freeway into the first town we came to.

If it had just been the two of us, we might have attempted to coax it along to someplace more substantial, but we also had our dog and two uncooperative cats, not to mention what personal effects I’d been able to salvage from our flooded apartment. What remained of our lives was packed into the back of that little two-door Honda Civic, and becoming stranded on a dark road in a strange state was a risk neither of us was willing to take.

The mechanic–a chain-smoking, stringy kid all of maybe nineteen years old, who lived in a room above the bar–had some bad news for us: he did not have all the parts he needed for the repairs, would in fact have to order then from Kentucky, which would take about four days. He was quite likely lying to us (I know for a fact he grotesquely overcharged us), but what choice did we have?

The boredom that followed over those next few days was the worst I’ve ever encountered. My experiences in the hurricane, hellish as they were, were at least not dull, and you knew that sooner or later they would end. This, though, was interminable. There was nothing to do other than eat at the diner and watch Law & Order reruns and crap movies on the one TV station that came in clearly. The motel room was more of a prison cell than a place of rest, the bed a deeply uncomfortable place for sleeping and an even worse one for sex.

We tried the bar one evening after dinner, if for no other reason than to ameliorate the boredom with a bit of alcohol. It was exact kind of dive you expect in a town named “Bucksnort”: the smoke-stained wooden interior, the ubiquitous large belt buckles on the men and peroxide hair and push-up bras on the women, twangy accents and a deficit of complete sets of teeth all around. The largest Confederate flag I’ve ever seen hung behind a stage at the far end of the venue. Though the proprietors were nice folks who bought us the first rounds when they learned we were Katrina refugees, ultimately the booze and conversation couldn’t distract us from the knowledge that we were trapped there.

All of this might have been bearable if we’d been in a good place emotionally, but we were not. Our separate experiences with the hurricane had wounded us both deeply, and the longer we stayed in Bucksnort the faster the small measure of peace we’d found in Roanoke unraveled. My dreams were filled with galvanized corpses of flood victims grasping at me, desperately seeking succor I was helpless to give, and waking every morning was to wash ashore from a sea of guilt and sadness. My girlfriend fared no better with hers.

On our third day there, unable to bear the tedium any longer, one of us—I genuinely forget whom—suggested we hike the trail running up the hill behind the motel. Just to have something, anything to do. It was either that, or endure the cinematic colonoscopy that is Stuck on You once again. So up the hill we went.

It became evident very quickly that no other human had made that ascent in some time; after less than twenty feet the worn footpath gave way to the bramble and detritus of a woodland area well into the act of reclaiming lost territory. There were places where the trees bent together overhead to knit a sort of tunnel, huge primordial spider webs stretched across the expanse. More than once we had to stop to pluck the sticky threads from our faces while the dog romped and frolicked through the underbrush, dashing off after some unseen critter or another, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.

It took us about an hour to make the climb. The trail banked at one point, curving like a fishhook around the hill’s far side; from the small overlook there all we could see was the rolling auburn-dappled forest of the Tennessee back country in early fall. And when we finally reached the top we found, nestled by itself in the middle of a tiny quiet meadow, a grave: twin obelisks of thick polished granite surrounded by iron fencing.

No one had tended the tiny cemetery in a very long time. One stone had lost the battle with entropy and toppled over onto its side, and both were stained and weathered from long exposure to the elements. The fencing likewise had long since become rusted and warped, parts of it nearly consumed by the surrounding earth.

It was as unsettling a tableau as one could expect to come across in the woods. My girlfriend instantly loved it. “It’s so creepy,” she said, in the exact voice another might say “That’s really cool.”

Creepy, yes, but fascinating, and oddly peaceful. The idea of these two stones, alone in the forest at the end of a long-forgotten path, was something out of a fairy tale. They were very old, too: while much of the writing was worn away, we could still identify them as the markers of J.H. Rains (1845 – 1911) and Margaret Rains (1852 – 1909). They’d been buried at the top of that hill for almost a hundred years, and from the look of things, we were their first visitors in several decades.

The sun was rapidly heading down into the western foothills, so we lingered only long enough to take these few pictures. Neither of us spoke much. We went to the diner and bar that night to ask around, but none of the townspeople we spoke to knew anything about the graves or a family named Rains, or much cared. Their attitude is best summed up by the sweet-natured, wall-eyed waitress who served us dinner: “Well, ain’t that a thing! Now, would ya’ll like to try the chicken-fried pork chops tonight? Gotta nice home-style applesauce and buttered green beans on the side.”

The mechanic, mercifully, had our car fixed the next morning, and $1200 later we were able to leave Bucksnort. We made it without further incident to California, where we began the process of rebuilding our lives; first as a couple, then later as individuals.

I did some cursory investigative work while preparing this essay, but could turn up nothing on J.H. and Margaret Rains in Hickman County or anywhere else in the state, or any trace of a genealogy. I expected this. Given that a Google search for Bucksnort unveils sweet fuck-all, I doubt either their births or deaths were ever recorded on paper.

I wonder about their lives sometimes. Perhaps J.H. had been a Confederate bushwhacker in his youth and a moonshiner later on, Margaret the proper wife 19th century Southern tradition demanded. Had their families owned slaves? How did they make a living during Reconstruction? They must have been persons of some means, as someone put a great deal of time and care into fashioning their burial place.

Likely as I’ll never know. Whoever the Rains once were, all they remain now is a forgotten piece of history tucked away in the Tennessee hills.

 

I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.

As soon as we entered the aquarium, I heard a familiar yet unidentified sound. As we got closer, the little hairs on my forearms stood on end. I could see what it was before we crossed the threshold. An indoor waterfall. That’s really cool. It was aesthetically pleasing. Many people find the sound of water soothing.

So why was I beginning to quiver? Why was I sweating? Why did I feel compelled to run?

In order to keep my toddler from falling headlong into the exhibit, I approached the waterfall. For some reason, I looked up. The nanosecond I spied the juxtaposition of the waterfall and the timber ceiling, my knees buckled a little and the room began to spin.

I felt certain that I’d vomit if I did not get out of that room and away from the sound. I corralled the kiddo and, in a fake sing-song voice, calmly encouraged her into the next room. But the sound was reverberating in there, too. And the next one. Finally, I spotted the river otter exhibit ahead and bribed her along with the promise of furry cuteness.

It worked, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I tried to breathe. I took an overly generous dose of a homeopathic remedy I carry in my bag for the babe. I knew I was having a PTSD moment and I knew exactly why: Hurricane freakin’ Katrina.

I was supposed to be done with this. Katrina was four and half years ago. I was cured of my helicopter and breaking glass-related PTSD symptoms years ago by cranial sacral therapy. Fuck.

************
I rode out Hurricane Katrina in a turn-of-the-20th-century warehouse near downtown New Orleans with my then fiancé, my mother, my fiancé’s friend, two dogs, and four cats. It wasn’t just a random warehouse mind you. It had been renovated into an arts center in the 1980’s, and my fiancé worked there.

Since we were in an interior gallery space with no windows, the majority of my memories of the storm itself are aural rather than visual. That is except the waterfall, which is traumatically both.

I can’t say how long Katrina raged. It felt like days, weeks, months, but was likely only a few hours. During the full fury of the storm, the wind made a crazy whooping noise. It would start slow and relatively quiet. It sounded circular. The level and speed of the sound would eventually reach a crescendo that felt completely intolerable and then there would be a loud crash of windows shattering followed by a moment of eerie silence. Then it would start again, low and slow on its way to crazy loud and the inevitable crash.

At one point I realized that my joints ached from my clenching in panic. I harkened back to a friend’s story of her highly successful natural childbirth experience, where she relaxed more and more in direct opposition to the intensity of the pain.

I tried it, and it worked. I was impressed with my new-found ability to remain clam and self-soothe.

At one point, something above us exploded. I mean really exploded. The huge, century-old brick building shook as if made of paper. I wondered if anyone knew the identities of everyone sheltered in the building. They knew about my fiancé (he worked there), and they knew I was with him, but what about my mother? Would they have to identify her body through comparing her DNA to mine? What about my fiancé’s friend? The dogs and cats, would they be buried properly or scraped into a dumpster?

My relaxation techniques were much less effective after that.

Toward the end of the storm, we heard the craziest sound ever, like rushing water. We gingerly made our way to the door of the gallery where we sheltered and peeked out of our second floor perch into the four-floor foyer of the building and saw… a four-story indoor waterfall. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen.

We wouldn’t find out until later that the water had come from the sprinkler system reservoir that was located on the roof, which had exploded during the storm, most likely from pressure or wind. But without this knowledge, we were pretty dumbfounded. It was so much damn water.

I have to admit, I didn’t think about the danger of the situation or the potential damage to the artwork. Instead, all I could think about was the shattered windows and water, water everywhere. They would never get this cleaned up and repaired in ten weeks.

Why was ten weeks so important, you ask? Well, we were supposed to get married in the exact spot where the thousands of gallons of water were landing and pooling.

Was this a bad omen? Why, yes. Yes, it was.

A couple of weeks later, while exiled in North Carolina, I would walk away from this relationship and into a future I could never have imagined.

************
Four and a half years later, I was in an aquarium on the North Carolina coast with my two-year-old daughter, and yet I wasn’t there. I was back in that warehouse with the four-story waterfall. The space-time continuum was disrupted.

Not for long, of course. The river otters calmed me. Plus, the mommy role trumps PTSD. I was back to doling out her snack, wiping her nose, and discussing fish poop in no time.

But the experience left me wondering, how many other ticking time bombs are out there? Will I one day freak out while sitting my rocking chair at the old-age home because I hear or see something that reminds me of Katrina? I guess I won’t know unless it happens. Until then I’ll just make snacks, wipe noses, and talk about poop. After all, how often do you encounter an indoor waterfall?

Here’s the good news. My first novel was reviewed by the New York Times.

Here’s the bad news. It was a horrible review.

I do not hyperbolize. It was really bad. So that you understand how terrible it is, I’ve included it entirely as the next full paragraph. Please feel free to gasp, snicker, or laugh aloud at any time during my cautionary tale, even if you think you shouldn’t. Release the humours. It’s healthier that way.

Note to the reader: I lived in New Orleans from 2001-2005. For the last six months of this period I held a position both on the security team and as an ER intake/administrator at the Oschner hospital, the largest medical facility in Orleans Parish and one of only two to remain open in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. As a member of the Disaster Relief Staff I remained within the city for the storm and the first few weeks of the aftermath. The following document is a collection of the emails I mass-sent to friends and family during that time. I have edited out some bits of personal information of no interest to the casual reader and have made some minor corrections to the spelling, but have otherwise left the text unchanged, grammatical warts and all, so as to preserve the immediacy in which these were originally written. Some of the second-hand information reported herein was later proven to be hearsay, and some of it turned out to be worse than originally thought. I was very torn as to whether I should publish this at all, and am doing so largely due to the encouragement of some friends and fellow TNBers.

The paragraph titles are taken from the subject lines of the original emails.

Hurricane 8/28/2005

There’s a Category Five hurricane barreling down on New Orleans right now, the biggest in the history of the state according to some of the news anchors. The Mayor has issued a mandatory evacuation alert, coupled with Sheriff Harry Lee announcing, “If you stay, you’re a damn fool,” at a press conference this morning. My girlfriend is evacuating to her parents’ home in Mississippi. I’m a damn fool, and am going to remain in the city. The security department has been deemed “essential emergency staff” at the hospital, although in what capacity we can be helpful I do not really know. It’s a fairly new building and up to code as far as structure is concerned, so I should be safe enough, and if anything happens I’ll be able to get treatment right away. Just hope my apartment survives all right.

Approaching the Hour 8/29/2005

Half past midnight and a glance at the sky outside of the Emergency Room makes me feel like I’m in an H.P. Lovecraft story. The night overhead is an inky expanse ribbonned with gray streaks, and it moves and undulates in a seething mass, as though heralding the rise of something ancient from the depths of a brutal and uncaring sea. The whistling of the wind is painful on the ear. Out on the street I can see stop signs bending to forty-five degree angles, and I foresee them becoming deadly projectiles before this thing is done.

We have a skeleton staff on hand here. Everyone is nervy, on edge and afraid, and drinking more caffeine than is probably healthy.

It’s going to be a long night.

The Hammer Falls 8/29/2005

I don’t know what time it is. Hurricane Katrina is beating us senseless. The wind battering against the glass is choking with water. Unidentifiable pieces of debris can be glimpsed hurtling through the air. Parts of the hospital shake like we’re in an earthquake. Staff, patients and their families are huddling down in corridors, exam rooms and waiting rooms, away from any exposed windows. No matter where you wander, you can hear the desperate sobs riding just underneath the barbaric winds.

At some point in the last hour we lost main power, and are currently on the reserve generator. Enough to keep the critical care machinery functioning, provide some lighting and power to the computer terminals, but that’s it. We are currently without television, radio, or telephones. The plumbing has stopped working entirely, and the hallways near the restrooms are thick with the odor of human waste.

I’m off shift right now, and need to find a safe spot to take a nap—I’ve been awake since this time yesterday.

Aftermath 8/29/05

It’s about 3:30 PM right now. The worst of the storm seems to have passed, and by the looks of it beat the living daylights out of the hospital front—there’s broken glass, metal debris, and stripped siding from the buildings lying everywhere. Although we didn’t flood, places throughout the facility sprung leaks in the ceiling, and we had to seal off portions of the campus. We’re still without main power and running water. Without air conditioning the hospital is growing uncomfortably warm.

A few police officers have stopped by to check in. They report that downtown took it very hard; apparently the glass windows on the Hyatt-Regent blew out. My neighborhood is said to have fared better, so there’s a chance I might actually have a home to go back to tomorrow.

My cellular network is either damaged or overloaded; I get a busy signal every time I try to call someone.

In a very surreal turn of events, as Katrina raged outside, I found myself catching a few hour’s sleep in an OB/GYN exam room.

On the exam bed.

Hot 8/30/2005

I won’t be going home anytime soon. The lake, pregnant with runoff from Katrina, has ruptured through the 17th Street levee, spilling water into the city. Levels are rising right now, and movement within the city is completely cut off. The hospital seems be staying dry, but that could change very soon.

Temperatures rose sharply, and everyone inside is miserable. The emergency generators are unable to power the AC without cutting out the support systems for the patients in the Intensive Care Unit, and the nurses and doctors are walking around in cutoff scrubs and tank tops. Those of us on the security detail have been instructed to remain in full uniform, and I am developing a heat rash in some very uncomfortable places. Bottled drinking water is in urgent demand.

The psychiatric ward on the seventh floor is having extreme problems. The doctors have been upping the patients’ levels of Thorazine since before the hurricane hit, but the rising temperatures aren’t helping. We’ve had three calls up there in the first half-hour of my shift. I’ve had four other cases of internal violence since then, largely do to a potent combination of heat and fear.

I still can’t make any calls on my cell phone, but I was able to swap text messages with my girlfriend. She and her family survived all right but the house, like my hospital, is without power or water, and they are leaving for her aunt’s house in Roanoke.

We have running water, although it’s unsafe to drink. The toilets work, at least, and we can take cold showers.

There are rumors that looting has begun downtown. Everyone on my team has been issued a sidearm.

I’m not sleeping well.

Camped Out 8/31/2005

My cellular network has completely crashed. Although the hospital is still running on emergency power, we’ve managed to safely restore AC to much of the building, and even have hot running water in a few places. My understanding is that we are the only functional medical facility within the metropolitan area.

The restoration of AC is crucial. It’s been so hot over the last three days that people’s tempers have been flaring up all over the place, and my crew and I have had a great deal of peacekeeping to do throughout the hospital. Stress and anxiety aren’t helping, either, and on the average most people are getting four hours of sleep out of every twenty-four. Last night one of my friends in the ER had to give me an IV of fluids to combat dehydration.

The Salvation Army is here, handing food and blankets. A local grocery store has a distribution warehouse across the street, and has given us permission to raid it as we need, which earlier today our Shipping and Receiving department did, accompanied by several police officers; their efforts have provided us with a stockpile of canned food and dry cereal.

People are kind of on the barter system at the moment, trading what they have for what they need: a can of peaches for a change of scrubs, a tube of toothpaste for a pair of clean underwear. I traded off my last extra razor to an ER nurse in exchange for showering privileges.

There have been several shootings in and around town. Two individuals assaulted a police station with AK-47s, and there are reports that medivac helicopters and ambulances are being fired upon. Looters are turning on each other, and some of the bodies floating around downtown aren’t drowning victims. Other hospitals have been raided, or are taking on water, and we’re doing what we can to get their patients here safely. The shock of moving has been more than some of them could handle.

Last word that reached my ears is that my neighborhood stayed fairly dry, even with the resultant flood from the levee breaking. Flooding has stabilized, not really increasing, not really draining. My car was left in a different area of town before the storm, and is now most likely underwater.

We have as yet received no aid outside of local law enforcement, and they are stretched thin enough as it is. Martial law and a strict curfew have been imposed.

I’m doing a little better. Last night I found an abandoned conference room to camp out in, and in my off hours hole up in there to read and write by flashlight. Given that I’m using my Swiss Army knife to open and consume all of my canned meals—Campbell’s Spaghetti, Del Monte Pears and SPAM—it’s a lot like Boy Scout camp.

Except without the fun.

I’m currently on my last set of clean clothes, but there’s talk that the hospital laundry may be functional again later today, so we might be able to get some stuff washed. The Mayor’s office is going to allow us to return to our homes on Monday, and if I can I’ll grab some more clothes. As far as civvies go I only have three tee shirts and a pair of jeans, and right now the pants can walk around without me.

Gunshots 9/1/2005

Occasionally you can hear the pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons firing in the neighborhood around the hospital. There’s no way to judge the distance; there is absolutely no vehicular traffic and no noise pollution, so the shots could be carrying for miles.

Gradually, and then in increasing numbers, people are trying to get into the hospital. The day after the storm we sealed ourselves off to everyone but incoming emergency care patients, and everyone who is allowed in must be searched for weapons. Although no one has been armed, people are getting aggressive in their attempts for access, including faking ailments as severe as heart attacks right outside our door. Although I don’t feel good about turning them away, the sad truth is if we threw our doors open we’d be flooded with uncontrollable numbers of people, placing the staff and the patients that actually need care at risk.

Still no TV or radio, although the cell phones are sporadically working again, and the Internet remains functional. The news websites claim that federal aid is coming, and we’re supposed to get some National Guardsmen here later.

The news also reports that people trapped downtown are beginning to die. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but I don’t really doubt it.

Lull 9/2/2005

A strange quiet has descended tonight. After all the chaos of the last few days the lull is surreal. I can’t help thinking it’s the stillness of the sheathed knife, of violence and danger waiting to be. Between the anarchy in the streets and the ever-growing cabin fever of the people trapped in here, it’s only a matter of time before something brutal and nasty happens. I hope desperately that it won’t, as there are enough injured and suffering people, and such behavior will only make it worse, but all of my training and experience tells me it will. Still, I’ll try and enjoy it while it lasts.

Curfew is lifted during the day. I’m going to try and make it back to my apartment when this shift is over.

The Knife in Motion 9/2/2005

A huge explosion just erupted downtown, powerful enough to be seen and heard from my post outside the ER, ten miles away. It lit up the night like a flashbulb, and the afterglow is still visible against the sky. Preliminary reports from the police stationed with us place it somewhere in the vicinity of the French Quarter, possibly at a chemical storage facility. Could be arson or just some idiot breaking into the wrong place and lighting a cigarette. I can’t tell yet if it started a fire. Although without functional water in the city, how would the fire crews fight it? Is the Fire Department still functional?

I realized a few minutes before the explosion that I can’t remember what it feels like to sleep in my own bed. Or any other.

Fun With Herpetology 9/4/2005

It’s been a long and weary twenty-four hours. I have successfully conducted a commando raid of my own home, bypassing looters, wreckage and miscreant reptiles. My will is a thing unto iron and my kung fu strong.

After the night of the explosion (Friday morning I think, it’s been getting hard to tell) one of my coworkers volunteered the use of his car so I could conduct an inspection of my apartment. What is normally a ten-minute drive took the better part of an hour. I was initially stopped at a sheriff’s checkpoint by six deputies wearing flak jackets and armed with AK-47s and riot shotguns; they kept their weapons trained on my vehicle until I identified myself as a member of the hospital stafff, at which point they let me pass.

Katrina turned my neighborhood into a Mesozoic wasteland, the uprooted and shattered oak and cypress trees forming a dense maze; in some places the rubble was so thick I couldn’t see the houses beyond. Coupled with the downed power lines, it was difficult terrain to navigate in the car. I passed a looted Rite-Aid on Oak Street. Someone had found a forklift and used it to smash open the rolldown security gate.

Worse, the earlier reports weren’t accurate. There was flooding in much of the neighborhood. From Oak south to St. Charles was dry, but north towards South Claiborne was a different story. I had to park the car and slog through five blocks of thigh-high nasty water the rest of the trip. I had a PR24 riot baton ready in case of itinerant looters (I am by law not allowed to take a firearm off hospital property). Stray cats roamed everywhere around, some of them following me at a discreet distance with expectant looks on their faces, and I had the creepy thought they were waiting for something tragic and fatal to happen to me so they’d have something to eat. The water was brown and shockingly cold, and covered in a slick oily sheen.

Here’s where the narrative gets strange. This may be the most truly surreal thing that has ever happened to me, and I wish to all hell I was making it up.

About halfway there, around the intersection of Plum and Burdette streets, I was attacked by an alligator.

Yes, that’s right. Go ahead and read it again. A fucking alligator.

I didn’t believe it either.

I was walking down the center of the street, as it was the highest point, although by no means easy going; the street underwater was littered with branches and God only knows what else, not to mention the ever-present New Orleans potholes. I kept having to go over or around fallen logs or power lines, and while doing so my foot went down in one of those unseen holes. I stumbled, reflexively reaching out for something to steady myself with, and that’s when the little bastard bit me. I guess he was lying in the water around the branches or something, and I spooked him. I didn’t even know what it was, just that something latched onto my forearm. I pulled free and finally saw him—pretty small, really, about two feet long or so, the size of a well-loved iguana. Looking at the wound, I’d guess his mouth was just big enough to fit around my arm but not bite down, which is why he didn’t do much other than scratch me.

He came at me again, and that’s when I hit him; the PR24 was caught in my belt on my left-had side, so I used my fist, landing an underhand strike that knocked him back in the direction I came. Normally the environmentalist in me would shriek at the thought of treating an endangered species that way, but it’s a different matter when said endangered species is treating you like so much beef jerky. He plopped in the water and didn’t come back up.

Several of my coworkers have chastised me for not finishing the job and bringing the carcass back so they could eat him in turn.

I made it to my apartment without further incident. The house had lost its rain gutter and there were shingles lying all over the place, but aside from one broken window where someone had tried to break in it appeared unmolested. Nothing inside was missing, but the house stank of rotten food. The basement in the building’s lower half was filled with water. I cleaned the fridge out as best I could and gathered the personal items I’d come for.

Items rescued included: all relevant computer disks containing my own writing projects; birth certificate; the entire contents of my sock-and-underwear drawer; changes of clothing, including clean uniforms; all remaining canned food in the pantry. All of this weighed about seventy pounds, strapped onto my body in a backpack and two duffle bags. Walking back took twice as long as getting there did, and by the time I finally made it back to the hospital (unmolested this time by either man or animal) I smelled like a bilge rat. I stashed my bags in my campsite and went to the ER for treatment of the bite. They cleaned it and gave me several antibiotic injections. I fell asleep with four hours to rest before my next shift started.

Since then it’s been nonstop. New Orleans is burning along the Riverfront and French Quarter, and the police are actively exchanging gunshots with looters on the street. The wounded are coming here, as well as the evacuees that are too ill to make it to Texas without treatment. We’re doing our best to keep them safe and get everything staged for their departure. Last night a medivac chopper rescued a pregnant woman who had gone into labor while trapped in a water-filled attic; she was actively giving birth as we sped her stretcher through the hospital up to Labor and Delivery.

I volunteered to spend the first part of today helping the rescue teams crate up the bodies of the deceased. In my first two months on this job I saw more dead bodies than ever before in my life; in one day I saw more than triple that number. My body right now feels like a wad of Silly Putty slapped hard up against a wall and left there.

Spirits are starting to lag all around, including mine. We now have main power back online, but stir craziness is getting bad, especially after the 11:00 PM curfew, when the dyed-in-the-wool smokers get profoundly hostile about not being allowed out for their fix. I need rest, mostly, a little time to read a book or write a bit—free time seems to be trickling away faster and faster. I miss my girlfriend terribly.

Two NOPD officers shot themselves today.

I’m going to shower and go to bed now. My brain has the shape, texture, and cognitive ability of day-old oatmeal.

I need a cold beer. Someone out there drink one for me.

Fresh 9/05/2005

Funny. As of today it’s been only a week since this whole business began, and it feels like a lifetime. Strange how acclimated I’ve gotten to this routine. Everything else in the world seems like so much distant history. The hospital is an island, floating in a stream of chaos. We have main power; the rest of the city is using candles. While our running water is by no means clean, it comes from a well instead of the contaminated reservoir, and is as good for flushing a toilet as anything else. We have bottled drinking water and have canned food, hot showers and clean clothes. Everyone still left in the city has none of those things. They have violence, despair, illness and misery.

My department had a meeting last night, voicing complaints and concerns to our immediate supervisors. It was largely a bitch session, and some tempers erupted, but the end result is that this evening my bosses rolled a big cart loaded with fresh apples, oranges and bananas into our operations center. After a week of canned  meat, powdered milk and over-boiled pasta, I can honestly say that nothing on Earth tastes so splendid as a ripe fist-sized navel orange, rivulets of juice running helter-skelter like children on a playground.

Tomorrow is the day that the city government is supposed to allow us to return to our homes. I am utterly tempted to take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge and hop a plane for California.

I’m not going to, though.

I got off easy; about half my team lost their homes and only has the clothes on their backs, and they need this time to start getting their lives back in order. My apartment might be inaccessible, but it’s still there, most of my things undamaged. Any time I take off robs them of what they need. I want to be with my girlfriend, but I’m okay and she’s okay, and so many of my crew aren’t. With luck I’ll have a week or so later on in the month to start putting my ducks in a row, but right now it’s imperative that others do so first.

Shift change, so I must go.

Sleep 9/06/2005

So after being diagnosed with Exhaustion, not to mention the head cold that’s making the rounds in here, I was prescribed sleeping pills and given a night off. At best I’ve been sleeping about five hours a night since this thing started, and that’s usually been broken, as I wake up every forty-five minutes or so. If I dream, I don’t remember, which is probably a good thing.

I took my pill, laid down in my little campsite, and proceeded to sleep for about twelve hours. The fatigue headache I’ve been carrying around seems to have disappeared, or at least taken a break, and my hands have lost the tremble that started sometime on Sunday. Still, I can’t wait to sleep in an actual bed and eat something that doesn’t come out of a can.

Apparently I got lucky in my exposure to the floodwater. People who have been stuck down in the 9th Ward and other flooded areas are being treated here for lesions and massive skin rashes due to the contamination in the water. We continue to be a staging area for the dead to be shipped off elsewhere for identification and inspection. The effect being in the water has had on some of the dead I won’t try and put into words right now—suffice to say it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. And there have been a lot of those in the last nine days, so it’ll be a while before I figure out what tops that list.

Spirits are dropping hard around here. People are tired, worried about their homes and loved ones. New Orleans proper is still officially sealed off for entrance, so a lot of employees haven’t even seen how their homes fared through Katrina. Even with the arrival of relief from Baton Rouge and FEMA (who showed up here last night—finally) there hasn’t been much of an upswell in mood. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that we’ve endured a massive traumatic experience, which I hadn’t considered before. I’m no psychiatrist but I guess it’s fair to say that we’re seeing some signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome; it explains why those cops swallowed bullets a few days ago. It also explains why some yahoos are refusing to leave their flooded homes even as the rescue boats come by. The last time we talked, Tristyn asked why I’m keeping it together when she’s going to pieces.

I don’t know. I’m so damned weary, even beyond what sleep and medication can cure. There are people here that have the skills and training to save lives, but in the meantime they need protection and safety, both from the looters and elements and their own collapsing morale. I can do that, or at least try. I wish I had more medical training, gotten certification as an EMT or something. I wish I’d fled, even though I know I’d stay if it happened again.

But when all is said and done, I’m going to have a nice big cathartic freak-out.

Swamp Thing 9/12/2005

So in the wake of Katrina the city of New Orleans has effectively turned into a toxic waste dump. The Garden District periodically bursts into flames that can’t be put out, as there is no functioning fire brigade. The U.S. Army controls the streets now (and I never thought I’d be happy for the day when the military forcibly seizes control of an American city) but really, what is left to control? The broken, ruined shell of a city, saturated with water carrying disease, the week-old bodies of the dead and gallon after gallon of raw sewage. The water is now so toxic that even touching it has been deemed highly hazardous. Plus, there’s so much oil coating it, and so many exposed gas mains and downed power lines that every single fire that starts could cause what’s left of the city to go up like a Roman candle.

It’s starting to go back to the animals, too. The police officers coming in for treatment over the last couple of days have been reporting some strange things. Water moccasins slither on their merry way down the streets; several of the search-and-rescue boats have had to abandon bodies because displaced alligators are snacking on them, and the teams can’t drive off the reptiles without endangering themselves. And when the levees broke, the floodwaters washed several bull sharks into the waterlogged streets. A Jefferson Parish Levee Board officer used his cell phone to snap a picture of a four-foot shark happily cruising the I-10 service road.

(Bull sharks, for those who don’t know, are one of the most dangerous breeds of shark. They attack quickly, ferociously, and indiscriminately, and there are records of them bashing through canoes. They’re all the more dangerous because they can survive in both salt and fresh water, and have been documented as far up the Mississippi River as Indiana. Large numbers have lived in Lake Pontchartrain for some time.)

Several months ago at least forty manatees were spotted in the lake. They’re delicate, slow moving and slow to reproduce species, which is also highly endangered. In what you could call a tragic caveat to the misery Katrina has caused, the pumping of all this toxic sludge back into the lake is almost certainly going to endanger their lives—and there isn’t much the EPA or WWF can do about it. Like a rapist, Katrina continues to leave scars long after the deed is done.

Getting slowly ready to depart. I’d like to remain down here for another week or so, just to get one last complete pay period done, especially since FEMA is dragging its feet on actually getting financial assistance to those of us still stuck down here. I lost my car, I no longer have a home I can live in, I am displaced—where’s my $2000 debit card? I still have to get a plane ticket to Roanoke and enough gas to drive from there to my family in San Diego, not to mention food and lodging along the way.

Seriously, every single FEMA employee I’ve talked to in the last twenty-four hours gives me the dull-eyed look of a freshly milked cow when I ask them where I can obtain pocket money for travel and shelter expenses.

Does anyone else think the federal government’s handling of this mess has effectively guaranteed we’re going to have a Democratic president in the next election?

Out 9/18/2005

I sat on top of the hospital’s raised parking garage last night and watched some of the fires that continue to flare up downtown, although less severely than they did before. Sadly, this may be because there isn’t much dry material left to burn. Occasionally something ignited a patch of leaking gas, leaving a bright orange flower against the horizon. It looked like nothing so much as the opening of Blade Runner.

This morning brought the restoration of cable to the facility, so we could all turn on the TV monitors and see footage of what we’ve been dealing with the last couple of weeks. The political sturm and drang is just going to get worse, I fear. As a final example of FEMA ineptitude, I submit the following piece of information: they have yet to get a single representative down here to deal with aid and recovery matters for the citizens who could not flee or be evacuated. All we have are FEMA medical personnel giving out free inoculations. Which means that we are forced to rely on what money we have in our pockets to get around on. There are currently no functional banks or ATMs anywhere in the area. As an added surprise, the hospital screwed up payroll, so those of us who worked will have to wait an additional two weeks for any sort of compensation.

Figures.

With the cheerful assistance of a nursing student I made it back to my apartment today. The water had receded from my neighborhood, leaving the earth, houses and concrete a dead gray color. In Jefferson Parish you can smell the sewage, rot, gas, garbage and other effluvium that make up the floodwaters. The smell turned into a stench as we got into my neighborhood, despite the lack of water, and I can only guess how awful it is downtown. I was able to put some more of Tristyn’s and my things in our only suitcase, but everything else will have to remain for the time being. A horrible mildew smell came from the basement when I opened the door, and fear of toxic mold kept me from going down there. We’ve already had a few cases of spore inhalation in the ER in the last two days. Phone and power were still out, and when I tried the tap something that looked and smelled like raw sewage came out.

The EPA has advised that the water contains high levels of lead and E.coli, which means that the city will be infectious and toxic even after the water is finally pumped out. Buildings will have to be razed or decontaminated before anyone can live in them, and it’ll be months before there is water or electricity available. Underground sewage mains have ruptured, many in places where crews will have to cut through large blocks of the street to get at them.

The hospital has brought in a large portion of its staff, and many closed areas of the facility that needed repairs are getting ready to reopen. We are crawling with the National Guard, many of them from Puerto Rico, a place that is not even granted the privilege of statehood yet we can recruit them into our armed forces—someone explain that to me. The facility is safe, secure, and nearly fully staffed.

My small part seems to be over. Tomorrow I take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge where, thanks to an old friend, I have a plane ticket waiting to take me to Tristyn in Roanoke. After a week or so to recover and plan our next steps we’ll be driving cross-country to California to start rebuilding our life, a trip that I pray will be less eventful than these last two weeks. If there’s a word to describe the marrow-deep fatigue I feel right now, I don’t know what it is.

This will be the last dispatch.

I’m getting out.