To the inexperienced, hurricane stories always sound like exaggerations. My grandfather, for example, once told me of a hot afternoon in Waveland, Mississippi, when, drinking Dixie beers on his neighbour’s porch, he noticed that the Gulf of Mexico had receded from the beach across the road. The retreating water had exposed nearly a mile of crabs and stranded fish; beachgoers ventured farther and farther out to pluck them from the wet sand for an easy dinner.
The neighbour, Alvin, decided to get his wife, who was repotting plants in a shed behind the house, to come and see the phenomenon. He started down the steps, accompanied by my grandfather.
As they reached the back of the little house, a wave hit the two men behind their knees. A few moments later, they were choking on warm, salty water.
They swam for a stand of pines a block farther inland and held fast to one of the tree trunks. By the time the water found its level, Alvin’s house had disappeared, except for the brick piers upon which it had been built. As for Alvin’s wife, they never found her body.
My grandfather swore their truth, but as far as I was concerned, the details didn’t add up. If this was some hurricane, then where was the rain, the wind? The day I heard the story for the first time, he was already a one-legged old man, sitting across from me behind my father in the skiff the two of them had built and christened the Squall. My grandfather defended what he had said, explaining all this had happened back in the Thirties or Forties, before hurricanes had names.
‘What’s names got to do with it?’ I persisted. ‘Look to your cork,’ my father interrupted, eyeing me into silence. I gave the speckled trout tugging the end of my line another few seconds, then set the hook, and reeled the fish in.
It has taken nearly fifty years, but I’m finally ready to believe my grandfather’s story—and all the other impossible anecdotes I grew up hearing of what a hurricane can do to human beings.
In the two weeks after Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans and ravaged the coastal cities of Louisiana and Mississippi, I drove 2,200 miles, seeking first to escape the storm and then to find temporary refuge when its aftermath left my family homeless. Except in its particulars, our story is no different from that of the million other evacuees who fled the Gulf Coast in the hours before the hurricane, pushing a surge of water thirty feet high, came ashore near the border between Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday morning, August 29, 2005, killing hundreds and devastating everything in its path.
As we joined the mass migration, with all lanes on both sides of every highway away from the coast carrying traffic only north or west, we expected to be gone two days, perhaps three. My wife and son and I had a pair of small suitcases, hurriedly packed at dawn. Beside them in the trunk of my wife’s VW Beetle, we slipped in portable computers, a book each (in my case, an unfortunately apt volume by W. G. Sebald I had begun the day before, The Emigrants), and the useless paraphernalia one thoughtlessly chooses when given an hour or two to abandon a home.
Thinking we would ride out the storm in the city, as I had every other hurricane from childhood on, we’d spent an hour Saturday afternoon stowing outdoor furniture and loose gardening gear in the garage. All we had left to do the next morning was carry in the shelves of orchids that thrived on our porch in the subtropical climate of New Orleans.
I knew the drill, and I thought I knew what to expect. As a boy in 1965, I had survived Hurricane Betsy at my grandmother’s candlelit kitchen table, hunched over a transistor radio, listening as one of my heroes, Sandy Koufax, struck out fourteen Chicago batters in pitching a perfect game for Los Angeles.
My father had had to secure the construction site where he was overseeing the building of 400 houses, so I was left with my mother and younger brother and sister at my grandmother’s. I remember wandering through the old shotgun house with a candle in my hand as the rain beat its heavy fists against the roof. The whole city was dark. The radio stations were on generators, fading in and out. My mother was furious with my father for leaving us during the storm. My grandfather had died the year before, making me the oldest male in the house that night. While my mother put my sister and brother to bed, I stood my candle in its tinfoil on the kitchen table and started playing with the transistor radio. All of a sudden, I was picking up a baseball game, the Dodgers against the Cubs. So I passed the evening with my head on my grandmother’s table, listening by candlelight to a ball game half a continent away.
Just before dawn, my father shook me awake—I had fallen asleep on a sofa in the living room sometime during the night. Everyone else was sleeping in the back bedrooms. He was dripping wet and exhausted. I asked him what it was like outside. It was nearly over, but earlier it had been rough. After he had dropped us off, he was waiting at a red light with a policeman stopped next to him when the wind gusted and ripped the hood of the police car off, tossing it into a parking lot. Farther on, he was nearly hit by a huge metal mailbox torn loose from a street corner and tumbling down Gentilly Boulevard. I told him my mother was upset, so he decided to sit with me for a while as my grandmother’s lace curtains paled with the morning light.
My most vivid memory of the hurricane itself, though, is something that had happened earlier that night. A few hours into the storm, the wind died. The rain pattered to a stop. My divorced aunt, also waiting out Betsy with my grandmother, gingerly stepped on to the porch. She called excitedly for us to join her. We ran out into the street and were amazed to see stars overhead. Down the block, a tree slumped against a crushed automobile. Not a single light was visible in any direction. But above us, the darkness yielded to more stars than I had ever before seen in the city. We stood with my grandmother’s neighbours, astonished. Then, the oak trees trembled with a sudden twist of wind. As the curtain of darkness fell again after our brief respite, someone felt a raindrop. Children were hurried back into the houses. ‘The eye,’ my grandmother whispered to us, ‘you’ve just stood in the eye of a hurricane.’ And minutes later, the ferocious, snarling snout of the storm was again rooting at our doors, tamping at our windows, seeking something soft, something rotten, something that might give way.
Later that morning, my father drove us home. During the afternoon, a neighbour reported that water was rising in the eastern part of town. Just to be safe, we dragged our boat out from under the carport where it might get trapped if the water rose too quickly. Then we unbuckled the belts that secured it to the trailer and loosely tethered its bow to the telephone pole beside our house, so it might rise with the water. By evening, the flood lapped at our street. And to our great good fortune, that’s where the water happened to stop. It stayed there, though, for over a week, stretching eastward for miles.
In some places, the situation was desperate. A woman in St Bernard Parish had to stand on a kitchen chair with water up to her throat for two days before the police found her. Even for us, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The city’s drinking water was contaminated. We had no power. Much of New Orleans was flooded. The perishables at neighbourhood groceries had spoiled, and the stores could not be replenished.
Finally, after a few days, my father sent me with a neighbour in his pickup truck to the French Quarter to see if we could find milk for the younger children in the neighbourhood. Rolling up to a stop sign halfway there, we saw a dead body in the gutter.
The only human corpses I had ever before seen were in coffins at the funerals I served as an altar boy. Habited in a little black cassock and a starched white surplice, I’d held for the officiating priest a silver bucket of holy water to asperse the dead or a smoking thurible of incense to perfume the remains. But those corpses had been rouged old women in pink chiffon nightgowns and waxen old men in blue suits. The black man in the gutter was starting to bloat. Flies clustered on his swollen lips. His hand swelled above the wrist shackled to the stop sign. A square of cardboard ripped from a carton and pinned to his chest spelled out a simple message: looter. His white T-shirt was stained red at the belly. We pulled away and eventually found the milk we were looking for, though we paid three times what it was worth.
I thought I had seen the worst a hurricane could do to a city. And so, on Saturday, August 27 this year, we spent the morning on our usual weekend chores. At the grocery, we did buy more canned goods than usual, and we stopped off at a hardware store to stock up on fresh batteries for our flashlights. But we weren’t overly worried. We’d been through this before, many times. We’d stay put.
Our plans changed late that evening when, working in my study, I heard a desperate voice on the television in the next room, pleading with one of the news anchors covering the approaching storm. The voice sounded exhausted. ‘I’m lying in my bed, and I can’t sleep. I’ve been doing this job for over thirty years, and I can’t sleep tonight because I’m afraid thousands in your area could die on Monday when this hurricane hits. Tell your people they’ve got to get out of the way of this storm.’
By now I was standing in front of the television set. A caption on the screen identified the speaker as an official of the National Hurricane Center, phoning from Miami. Even the news anchor seemed shaken by the call.
I sat down and watched the weather forecast that followed. The satellite shot of Katrina’s swirling cloud mass filled the eastern Gulf of Mexico. I had seen pictures like that every hurricane season. But the eye wall was gigantic, two or three times larger than usual. Then the meteorologist rotated the computer image of the storm from its cloud tops to what the hurricane looked like from the side: I saw a towering range of ragged purple mountains advancing on the coastline.
It was already after midnight. I got on the phone and called my son, who was out with friends. I told him we might be leaving town after all and to call us at seven o’clock the next morning from his apartment. Then I copied all my writing files on to a CD and slept for a few hours, waking in time to catch the five a.m. National Weather Service bulletin on the storm’s progress. The hurricane had turned a bit more northward, on what would be its final course.
I started carrying books and files upstairs. At six, I woke my wife as gently as I could and told her we were leaving. She didn’t ask why, simply got up and started gathering what we would need. Fifteen minutes later, she called our son, telling him to drive over as soon as possible with enough clothes for a few days away from home.
On TV, we learned there were no hotel rooms still available anywhere in Louisiana and Mississippi or even as far away as Memphis. We could see that the I-10 heading west out of New Orleans toward Baton Rouge and then Houston was already jammed with traffic. We’d have to find a different route to my brother’s house in Dallas.
An hour later, having stacked chairs on tables and lifting what other furniture we could from the floor, we locked the door. Pulling my son’s car into the garage, we unloaded his two cats into the backseat of my wife’s Beetle, and I, extremely allergic to cats, slipped on a dust mask I would have to wear for the entire drive. We headed for the causeway north across Lake Pontchartrain.
Though the sky was blue, the lake—actually a bay of 600 square miles of salt water leading through another bay to the Gulf of Mexico—was already agitated. Overhead, high clouds scudded out of the east. The news on the radio was beginning to report that the mayor would call for a mandatory evacuation of the city by noon. Miraculously, the traffic leaving the south shore flowed smoothly. We crossed the first twenty miles of the bridge as quickly as we might have on an ordinary Sunday morning, but then, four miles from the north shore and still exposed to the open water of the lake, the traffic stopped. We began to inch forward. It took an hour to drive the final four miles across the bridge, and then another hour to drive the three miles to the entrance to the Interstate that would eventually take us north to Jackson, Mississippi, and from there on to Dallas.
Nearly blind with exhaustion, I pulled up in front of my brother’s house just before midnight. A drive of usually eight or nine hours had taken us nearly twice as long.
In Dallas Monday morning, we watched on television as the storm’s outer bands lashed New Orleans. The eye would pass to the east of the city. It might be bad, yes, but we knew from experience that the worst of a hurricane is in its north-east quadrant. New Orleans would be spared the brunt of the storm; only the trailing winds to the west of the eye would hit the city. But just after breakfast came news that a loose barge had breached a levee in the Industrial Canal; the Lower Ninth Ward was flooding. My sister-in-law sighed. ‘Those poor people, they’re going to lose everything.’ I reminded everyone that our house, unlike most of New Orleans, was above sea level; in twenty-five years of storms, it had never once flooded.
That afternoon, we learned 200 feet of the 17th Street Canal levee had collapsed, allowing a torrent of water to flood the western half of the city. Then the television reported that a breach in a levee close to my childhood home was inundating another section of town. We had never before seen city levees simply crumble. Our conversation grew subdued as the day wore on, but on Monday night a message on the web site of our neighbourhood association sent us to bed with a great sense of relief. A man had heard from his father, who had refused to evacuate from the street next to ours. The entire neighbourhood was dry.
Only on Tuesday did we begin to understand that our lives were about to change. During the night, water had begun to rise in our neighbourhood. The city’s pumps had failed, and a levee system that had received little funding over the past few years had given way to the swollen waters of Lake Pontchartrain. Houses that had survived a category-four hurricane the day before now stood steeping in up to eleven feet of water, our house among them. We watched with the rest of the world as New Orleans became a swamp of fetid water, where on every dry outcropping, stunned survivors begged for help.
As the water sat stagnant for weeks in the bowl-shaped city, the question became for us not when would we go back but would there be anything left to go back to. Mayor Ray Nagin announced, ‘It’s my take from talking to experts that most of the homes that were flooded, that stayed in the water for a number of weeks, most likely will have to be destroyed. My gut feeling right now is that we’ll settle in at 250,000 people over the next three to six months, and then we’ll start to ramp up over time to the half million we had before.’ The mayor may have been overly optimistic; opinion polls of New Orleans’ evacuees suggest that many intend to make their lives elsewhere. President Bush, castigated for his administration’s indifference and incompetence in the storm’s immediate aftermath, came to the city to declare that there was ‘no way to imagine America without New Orleans’. But some people in his party did. Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said that it made no sense to spend billions of dollars rebuilding a city on such a naturally hazardous site: ‘It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.’
New Orleans has always been a city teetering on disaster, so often the victim of flood, fire, and fever. It was founded as a European settlement in 1718 by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, a minor aristocrat and a governor of French territories in the New World, and named after the regent of France, Philippe II, due d’Orléans. The first French inhabitants lived on a strip of high ground used as an Indian portage between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. Three years later, a Jesuit missionary judged it to be a ‘wild and deserted place, at present almost entirely covered with canes and trees’.
My own family arrived soon after. A great aunt, the Mother Superior of an order of nuns, maintained that Biguenets had moved from Besançon in France to Philadelphia in 1752 and arrived in New Orleans in 1760, just before it was ceded to Spain. ‘Probably looking for a decent meal,’ my father would add, back in the days before Philadelphians began to take their restaurants seriously.
As the port at the mouth of North America’s greatest river, the Mississippi, New Orleans flourished, superseding Biloxi as the capital of Louisiana in 1723, just five years after its founding. My ancestors arrived to a bustling town that depended upon the river trade in plantation crops such as indigo, rice, and tobacco, before the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 transformed the Southern economy. They would have survived the Good Friday fire of 1788 that in five hours destroyed more than 850 of the city’s 1,000 buildings, leaving most of its 8,000 citizens homeless. (In a telling comparison to Bush’s bungling after Katrina, Governor Miró was able to report to the Spanish king that shelter had been found for every single survivor within twenty-four hours of the fire.) By the end of its first century, the city had become the cultural capital of the continent. I would like to think that members of my family were in the audience in 1796 when a New Orleans theatre gave North America its first opera performance, and that they enjoyed some of the more than 400 opera premieres that followed in the next century, a higher number than in any other American city, even New York. Annexed to the United States by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the city expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century, reaching a population of nearly 170,000 by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
From its earliest days, racial questions troubled Americans seeking to comprehend the city’s diversity. Worrying about its integration into the United States, the American-born merchant Benjamin Morgan wrote from New Orleans in the same year as the Louisiana Purchase, ‘[U]pon what footing will the free quadroon, mulatto and black people stand; will they be entitled to the rights of citizens or not. They are a numerous class in this city…’ (Morgan didn’t quantify, but in his book A Wilderness So Immense: the Louisiana Purchase and the Destiny of America, Jon Kukla reports that the permanent residents of New Orleans in 1803 included ‘3,300 French-speaking Creoles, 2,800 slaves, and 1,300 free people of colour’.) Two hundred years have passed since Morgan posed his question, but as a lifelong New Orleanian, I do not think we have yet fully answered him.
The city has retained its ambivalence about race. At least until the hurricane hit, one could still dine there in a former slave exchange, where squatting slaves once waited to be auctioned. Statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee were prominent throughout the city; few whites paused to consider the affront to many of their fellow New Orleanians in honouring rebels who fought to defend slavery. Until a few years ago, an old laundromat I passed most evenings on the way home had on its front window a sign informing customers of a rule no longer enforced: no coloreds allowed (maids in uniform excepted).
Yet in discussions about racism, white New Orleanians invariably insisted upon the close personal relationships they maintained with black friends. One of my teachers, for example, told me how his white Uptown family had moved their long-serving black maid into their master bedroom on the ground floor when she became too ill to climb the stairs, while they camped on a floor above for many months until the maid died.
I grew up to such heart-warming tales, smugly offered to refute the calumnies of Northern commentators on Southern racism. As in my teacher’s anecdote, the object of a white family’s affection was usually one of their household menials or an inferior at their place of business. And never once in my life in New Orleans did I hear an African-American acquaintance echo such a story.
People who wish to think of themselves as fundamentally decent have to find a way to shirk culpability for the sins of their society, either by asserting their own innocence or by isolating the evil outside the reach of their authority. So these stories also hinted at a kind of segregation that persisted in the imagination between two different and mutually exclusive cities that shared the same name. Whatever they might have believed about the feelings between individuals in the New Orleans they inhabited, few whites ever seemed embarrassed that the city’s public school system, with ninety-three per cent of its students African-American, was bankrupt and in collapse. (The Louisiana Department of Education ranks forty-seven per cent of New Orleans public schools as ‘academically unacceptable’ and another 26.5 per cent on ‘academic warning’, the two lowest classifications.) Nor did they feel responsibility for the city’s dilapidated public housing projects or its widespread poverty. (The city’s poverty rate of twenty-eight per cent is more than twice the national average.)
Even if, as they would assert, racism was more often institutional than personal in New Orleans, the effects on the victims of that discrimination were certainly no less pernicious, and there can be no question that the division between races hobbled the city throughout much of its history. But racism alone did not set the city apart from other American cities. What made the city exceptional was something else.
I once heard a story in New Orleans about a pianist. Rehearsing for a performance one night at a club, the musician sat alone at the piano, gently but repeatedly striking the same key. Finally, the janitor, cleaning the floor in advance of the crowd, dropped his mop into its bucket and addressed the performer. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but what exactly are you doing?’ The musician raised his eyes, even as he continued to play that same note over and over again. ‘Everybody else is just looking for it.’ He struck the key again. ‘I found it.’
That’s the way New Orleanians described their city, indifferent to the reaction of others as they sounded the same note of self-satisfaction again and again. The returning native would always begin his account of ‘abroad’ (Washington, say) with ‘You won’t believe what those people up there put in their mouths’ or ‘You’d have to be deaf in both ears to listen to what they call music up there’ or ‘You ought to see the way those people up there treat one another’. It wasn’t contempt, exactly, that New Orleanians felt for those condemned to live elsewhere; more a profound sense of pity for all those countrymen of theirs who obviously didn’t know the first thing about eating and singing and living like a human being.
A national Gallup poll conducted this past summer among the residents of twenty-two urban areas found the highest level of satisfaction in New Orleans; fifty-three per cent of New Orleanians described themselves as extremely satisfied with their personal lives in the city, a figure that is even more surprising when one considers that under thirty per cent of the population is white. How could people beset by so many problems—endemic racism, wretched schools, vulnerability to hurricanes, corrupt government, a rising crime rate, and a stagnant economy—how could they possibly conclude that they were ‘extremely satisfied’ with their personal lives?
Perhaps they felt that way because in New Orleans, the personal has nearly always taken precedence over the institutional. What might be seen elsewhere as lax standards of official behavior, for example, was seen more indulgently in the city as the bending of unreasonably stringent institutional rules in the good cause of personal need. Every August when I was a child, my mother would dress my sister and brother and me in our worst clothes, and we would take the bus to City Hall to stand in line with other mothers and their children, all looking particularly grubby. Family by family, we would be admitted to the tax assessor’s office to plead that our property was overvalued, that we had had a tough year economically, and that our taxes should be lowered. The assessor, a heavy man in a short-sleeved shirt and a garish tie, as I remember him, would then glance at an index card and ask about the health of one of our aunts or uncles by name. Before my mother could even answer, he’d already be examining the tax rolls and agreeing that, yes, something might be done for a working family like ours. Perhaps $25 would be cut from our tax bill, but as we were ushered out the assessor would always remind us children to tell all our aunts and uncles—and grandparents, too—what a friend he’d been to our family in a time of need.
Those interconnected family obligations tied the city together—often across racial lines and frequently extending for generations—and wove a community unusually impervious to outside opinion or change. Even 150 years after the Louisiana Purchase, my grandfather still called visiting tourists, ‘The Americans’.
The eccentric charm, the distinctive cuisine and music, the reverence for the past, the inattentiveness to official corruption, the carelessness that characterized so much of its institutional life, the striptease clubs just a block away from the cathedral, the religious practices so devout they bordered on the superstitious (when we had trouble selling our first house, a local accountant advised us to bury a statue of St Joseph upside down in our backyard), and all the contradictions inexplicable to an outsider flowed from a culture that was utterly foreign to the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, that concerned itself not with the control of human appetites but with the desire to insure all those appetites might be well fed.
Is it any wonder that, despite all the faults of their city, New Orleanians were happier than their fellow Americans? Or that, at the moment of greatest crisis, all the institutions of government failed New Orleans and its people?
As I write, 1,300 miles from New Orleans in a town outside New York, I am thinking of our house on Bluebird Street. The water is probably still four feet deep inside. I imagine that in the ninety-degree heat a fine black filigree of mould is crawling up the walls, across the books on the upper shelves of the bookcases and over the paintings hung high enough to escape the water itself. The food in our refrigerator has rotted beyond recognition. The wooden legs of our chairs have swollen, crazing and shattering their finish. Every carefully copied recipe in our kitchen notebook has bled away. All the research for my new novel—the neatly trimmed newspaper articles, the photographs, the rare books on obscure topics acquired by chance, the maps, and the handwritten notes—is soggy pulp, adrift in my study. In our garden, the Japanese magnolias, as old as our children, are withered in the toxic water. Every plant we tended is dead.
But where we are now, the light seems wrong for the time of year. So as soon as the gates of New Orleans are opened again, we will choose homecoming over exile, even if the home needs building after we get there.
Union, New Jersey, September 2005