A year ago, August 28th, when I started blogging about the hurricane, I thought we’d get a little wind and rain, maybe a few downed trees, maybe some local flooding. I wanted to blog because I’d gone through Hurricane Andrew and many of the details had faded with time, I thought “live blogging” would help me remember. I had no idea that the morning of the 29th would be so devastating, I would one day pray that I could forget, that a year later, just seeing the images breaks my heart all over again, especially knowing not much has improved. That I would still grieve, daily, for what happened, for what should have happened, for how horribly things went wrong.
I was asked (just a couple of weeks past the hurricane’s landfall) to contribute a couple of the blog pieces as a single essay for an anthology New Orleans native David Rutledge and his brother, publisher Bruce Rutledge, were putting together. This essay is the result of that request. I’m extremely proud of that little book: Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? There are some really fine essays in there from writers I’m tremendously proud to know.
This is my essay:
WHERE GRACE LIVES
I passed a man at a shelter the other day. He was tall and lanky and sunburned, dressed in cut-offs and a soaked blue t-shirt with a grubby baseball cap shoved on top of muddy curls. There was something about his lean, sinewy body that made me think of the shrimpers I’ve seen down in Cocodrie southwest of New Orleans — it’s a hard life and it makes for no-nonsense, self-sufficient men.
He was sitting in a metal folding chair, slumped forward, his elbows on his knees. The exhaustion in his shoulders made me ache. Between his feet was a medium sized box and he was staring down into it. The box held some basic necessities: toiletries, canned goods, a pair of socks, and a pair of underwear. I realized, then, that he was barefoot — the grime around his ankles marked him as having abandoned his shoes somewhere along the way. His large feet were probably too big for any of the donated shoes stacked up at a one of the nearby tables.
When I looked back at that box, I wondered what he must be thinking. My first guess, without seeing his face, was that these few items weren’t much to give a man after he’d lost everything. This box wasn’t much to hold onto for a man like that, a man who’d clearly worked hard for a living. Maybe he was angry at having lost his home, or frustrated that this was what he’d been reduced to. I had no words that would be of use, no words which could do any good, and I began to turn away when he suddenly looked up and caught my eye.
He had tears on his cheeks.
When I stood there, not sure what to say, he shrugged and said, “I can’t believe how generous people are. I can’t believe total strangers would go out of their way to help so much.”
I mumbled something about it being the least we could do, as neighbors, and I moved off into the crowd, feeling wholly inadequate and humbled in the face of such grace.
It would be one among many things I could not wrap my mind around.
On Tuesday morning, just a few days earlier, we’d been without electricity since Hurricane Katrina had blown through in the early hours of Monday. While there were many trees down in Baton Rouge, the damage wasn’t as horrific as it had been during Hurricane Andrew, and we thought the worst was over.
It was only the beginning.
We managed to get our TV hooked to the generator and found one local station airing news and video from New Orleans. There was no way to know what images the national media were getting, but on Tuesday morning, I saw some of the first footage of one of the breaks in the levee system. Water was pouring into the Ninth Ward, and I felt all my senses hit hyper alert, felt my fingers tingle from the adrenaline, felt my lungs constrict.
New Orleans was filling up.
At first, it appeared that no one nationally realized what was happening. After plugging the computer into the generator as well and discovering I still had DSL, I caught bits and pieces on national websites saying things like “New Orleans dodged the bullet.” There was a steady thrum of “no no no no no” in my head, an awful, gut-kick ache, a sense of the world gone topsy. With the water pouring in, the levees were going to keep deteriorating. The pressure from the flow of water was simply going to be too great. The pumps were already down in areas, and more were failing. Saying “New Orleans had dodged a bullet” was the clearest sign that the outside media didn’t grasp what was happening. It was a bit like telling a terminal cancer patient that they “only” had a broken arm (i.e., wind damage, some minor flooding); it doesn’t matter, the cancer’s going to kill them anyway before the arm can heal. New Orleans was already suffering from the worst kind of cancer – years of inadequate repairs to the levees (or no repairs at all), years of talking about a plan to evacuate, years of warnings that a plan was going to be needed, years of awareness that New Orleans was a bowl and if it filled up, it could be devastating. I remember being on the phone with a friend in L.A. as fresh images of the ever increasing deluge from the levees hit the local news. The chill I felt, I cannot explain. I remember saying, “Ohmygod, we’re going to lose New Orleans.”
And we did.
There are images which will crush me and haunt me forever. Moments seared into my heart. Entire neighborhoods underwater, many with just the topmost part of the roofs visible. People clinging to the peak of what had been their homes in desperation, some for days on end, with no water, no food, no help, and little hope. An elderly woman trying to talk her mentally handicapped son into climbing on board the basket being lowered by the Coast Guard Rescue Team, and him refusing unless she came, too. Only, there was no room but for one. He wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t leave him behind. There was the image of a mother trapped on a rooftop, handing over her small toddler to the Coast Guard, and the news helicopter showing her breaking down as the Coast Guard helicopter flew away; they’d only had room for one more, and she wanted her child saved. People stood on their roofs, waving to the helicopters, desperate to be rescued, only to see the helicopters leave since they were full. I remember the image of two men standing in shock on their own roof, watching a home near them burn, knowing the fire department could do nothing to stop it from spreading.
There are images and moments which scarred us all, embedded deep somewhere in our souls, a slash that will not heal. The sights and sounds of people abandoned, dying, here on our soil. There’s the crystal image for me of the late night DJ for a New Orleans radio station breaking down as he reported on air on a Baton Rouge TV station how he’d been up all night, broadcasting in New Orleans. He told of how his station still had a signal locally, though no one could explain it when so many others had been knocked off the air, and how he realized that the police didn’t have any communication system at all. People were calling in to him, a few cell phones still working. They were begging for help because they were trapped in their homes, trapped in their attics. When he realized neither they nor he had a way to call the police, he’d broadcast the addresses and hope the police heard him so the trapped people would get help.
The DJ told of one call: a young woman, who was holding her infant. She had a two-year-old with her, and her elderly grandmother. They had not evacuated because they had no car to enable them to leave and no place to stay. They were standing chest deep in water, in her attic, and no way to break through the roof, no way to alert police where they were. Her cell phone died before the DJ could get her address to broadcast her location. He never knew if they were rescued.
There were the talk-radio stories from the frustrated and grief-stricken men who’d responded to the call for boats, any boats, and they’d gone to the designated areas, fully prepared to take on the responsibility for any damage they received – they didn’t care, they just wanted to save lives. They weren’t allowed into the water for a full day due to a series of miscommunications between various government agencies. There were the harrowing stories of having to pass people up because their boats were already full, of the boat operators promising to go back, and then doing so, only for the person to have died or vanished. There were the voices in the dark, a night so deep where no light penetrated, where streetlights and businesses and every imaginable source was out and the voices cried from the rooftops, pleading for help.
There are the now-infamous images of the way people were abandoned at the Superdome and the Convention Center; people forced to go days without food, water, basic human needs. People sick and dying. No help in sight. No organization, no FEMA, no Red Cross in many places. There were the images of the looting and the crime. People reduced to the base animal instincts, some for survival, some to prey on others.
Nothing but dying and suffering in the Big Easy.
The world changed, then. Shelters went up in every available space around here: churches, synagogues, and in the River Center, an entertainment complex in downtown Baton Rouge. Other states took in many thousands, and yet, thousands more were here. Everything was different. Even places as old and forever as LSU.
When you drive up Nicholson onto the southern end of the LSU campus, rising to your right is the enormous stadium (under even more expansion), with its parking lot a construction lay-down yard. To the left, Alex Box Stadium, with all of the national championships proclaimed proudly on the exterior walls.
If you looked a little past the stadium on the right, you’d see the Pete Maravich Center or P-MAC for short. (It’s what many of us old LSU grads still refer to simply as the “Assembly” Center.) Its white dome and curved concrete ramps will always hold a special place in my heart — it’s where I officially became an LSU student, years ago. It was exciting to be a part of that crowd. It was fresh, it was hope, it was a beginning into all potential. It was a promise of something bigger to come.
After the hurricane, we drove onto campus and parked in the Alex Box parking lot, took the crosswalk and headed back toward the P-Mac. There was the white dome gleaming in spite of being overshadowed by the behemoth stadium. There was the newly renovated Mike-the-Tiger cage. Next came the concrete ramps which had long ago made me feel like I had been racing up up up toward a future.
Then there was the fence.
There had never been a hurricane fence preventing access to the ramps. Or military standing outside said fence. So around the P-MAC we went, getting to the LSU campus side, making a sharp left turn to walk up the street. There was a large white poster-board sign on the guard’s gate in hastily written print which said, “Ambulances” and had an arrow.
The P-MAC was still on our left, and as I looked across the fence and beneath the mezzanine, there were tables set up. This time, though, it was not like before, when I registered there, when the tables were about hope and future and innocent dreams. These tables were about loss and devastation and pain. There were volunteers behind the tables and many evacuees in front, having just gotten in from New Orleans. There was a table set up with laptops so the people could send a message. There were tables of clothes and shoes (which ran out just as soon as the volunteers could get some in), tables of water and food to eat right then, as well as canned goods and other supplies for the evacuees to take with them… for many of them hoped to bunk with family for the night, and that family probably didn’t even know they were coming.
As we continued around the P-MAC, I could tell we were reaching the serious part of this operation, where there were nurses and techs taking medical information, where higher priority (read: in grave danger) patients were taken in immediately to the triage center and where those in dire need but less life-threatening were interviewed by nurses and their stats recorded on brand new files. Nurses and doctors and all sorts of techs ebbed and flowed through this space. There were Guards with guns (wholly over-kill, but they were there). There were volunteers of all shape and sizes — from LSU and Southern students to firemen to police to little grey-haired church ladies.
We signed in at the non-medical volunteer station and went in to see what their needs were. We were there to volunteer our home to medical staff. We’d heard the staff were working twenty-hour shifts and some of them had no place nearby to just crash and relax.
When we walked inside the entrance, we moved down a slight slope until we reached the wide, round base of the P-MAC. Purple seating had been pushed up against the walls. The last time I stood at floor level like that, I was seventeen, and I remember I stood for a moment in awe of the swarm of people, the organized chaos, the feeling of a small city set to work on one task. It was, in many ways, the same. But this time, that small city was made of dozens of white temporary screens to give the patients some privacy, and many rows of I.V. bags.
There was a M*A*S*H unit in my campus. A field unit triage on the floor of our basketball arena. There were helicopters beating overhead bringing in evacuees from New Orleans, and a row of ambulances, sirens blaring, on their way to the P-MAC.
There was a M*A*S*H unit. In Louisiana. In my university.
In the USA.
It simply didn’t seem possible, that there would be this necessity. That we had so many people wounded in a major catastrophe, that we lost an entire city, that we were still finding and rescuing people, six days later – so many people that our hospitals and clinics were swamped, and a major triage unit was not only critical, but it barely handled the vast quantity of people flowing in.
So many unbelievable things were suddenly true. Families couldn’t find loved ones. People without their medicines, without any identification, tried to remember what they needed so the nurses could help them. A mom cried with gratitude because she found someone’s cast-off clothes to fit her children. Others, tears streaming, were just grateful to have their own bar of soap, or a bottle of water.
In the USA.
It was at the LSU Triage where I met the man without the shoes, the shrimper who was grateful for a small box of goods. He was sitting beneath the mezzanine, just next to the ramps where I’d walked, up up up into the hope of a better future all those years ago. I turned away, knowing his future was going to be difficult and painful, and maybe so much worse.
Everything had changed.
We lost New Orleans, and many many homes surrounding it. How can we understand that?
The business of surviving, or more accurately, of trying to help a huge number of other people survive, took over for many of us who live here. We exchanged information about where there were needs, we gathered what we could, we brought it wherever we could. We met families all staying in one home, forty-five people in a thousand square foot house, sleeping in borrowed tents in the yard, wearing nothing but the clothes they’d escaped with. We heard so many stories of people who lost everything, who had no clue if there was going to be a New Orleans to go back to, if their job would still exist, if there would be a school for their children. In the midst of the pain, they would often get a faraway expression in their gaze, like they were looking off to some memory of New Orleans, and then they’d look at one another and say, “But we got out. We’re all okay. At least we’re alive.”
We lost New Orleans.
My family and I walked into places where there were so many trees and utilities down on the ground, you couldn’t tell a street from a yard. Sign posts were missing, homes were destroyed, one after another. We stepped over power-lines, and visited homes of friends’ families, looking for survivors.
We lost New Orleans.
The heartbreak kept me from sleeping, and I’m not entirely sure I ate anything remotely resembling a proper meal for days. It was grief, I know, so I did the only real thing I knew how to do: I wrote. I poured it into a blog, and many people would post notes about missing loved ones, and others were begging for any information at all about their neighborhoods. These notes chased me in my dreams, always just below the surface. The helplessness etched into every waking moment, acid into the pores, and rendered the grief unbelievably deep.
We lost New Orleans.
A few days into the disaster, boxes started showing up here with supplies. More and more people wrote to ask what we needed. More and more people were as outraged and frustrated as we were here that there just simply weren’t any supplies here, and they wanted to help. I know many donated to charities, but these boxes — they kept showing up, filled to the brim with things people needed, with supplies damned near impossible to find in some of these areas. When I walked into the LSU triage center where three-hundred patients were on the way in, and I asked them what they needed, they immediately said thermometers (digital). They had none. Not just that they had one and had to share. They had none. When I tell you that things were dire, I truly mean dire, beyond description.
And you sent what we needed.
Sure, my family got to bring them to the shelters and to the people who needed them, and the recipients treated me like a hero, but it was not me. It was you. It was every single one of you who sent a box or a prayer or letters of support.
I don’t know how to explain the affect these supplies had. There was the immediate help, of course. So many things were needed by so many people. Baton Rouge doubled in size from evacuees, and for those who could get to the stores, they were crowded and often stripped of goods. I saw clerks stocking shelves only to have items plucked out of their hands before they could even set them down. I had to go to four or five stores sometimes to find things that were needed. And while it was helpful and useful and much required, all of these supplies you sent… it was more than that.
It was the message that we were not alone.
The rage I felt watching New Orleans drown is still palpable. I cannot understand the fact that we live in a country which can put men on the moon, which can help build an international space station, which can create phenomenal structures or explore the deepest oceans, but we could not get water to people trapped on an overpass for days. I cannot wrap my mind around why they were trapped in the first place, since there were trucks passing them by. FEMA trucks, which wouldn’t stop. I don’t understand that. And I can’t believe I live in a country which could show this on TV, for days in a row, and no one in our government did anything about it.
New Orleans was dying. People were dying. It was just one scene of so many, and it made no sense. People died on that overpass, when help just drove right by them.
I cannot understand how media crews could show the devastating events down at the Convention Center and the Superdome, and FEMA or our Federal Government not “know” the people were there. How do we live in a country which can drop aid to everyone else in the world, and no one could drop water and food to the people trapped there? How can we handle going into war-torn areas and get aid to people there, but a few thugs prevented us from helping Americans? How?
How is it that more than two weeks later when we were still going to shelters bringing in supplies, I received reports from the outlying areas that FEMA still hadn’t shown up?
Still. Hadn’t. Shown. Up.
I don’t understand these things. I know I live in America. Well, last time I checked, Louisiana was still in America. New Orleans was still a major American city. Maybe something happened somewhere that someone forgot to mention to us, but yeah, pretty sure we’re still in America. And the magnitude of the inept response (including local government) was staggering.
It was like watching someone I love get gutted and lie there bleeding and knowing that help was standing a few feet away, talking about golf scores.
So when I say to you that you’ve made a difference, I don’t mean it lightly or in any sort of frivolous way. When it suddenly became clear that we were the ugly, unwanted step-child of the government, or worse, the beaten, neglected child of the local officials who were hastily trying to cover up their long-term abuse with loud excuses, you made us feel human again. So many of you — giving, calling, writing, trying. Feeling the outrage on our behalf. Knowing it belonged to you, because you were us, we were a part of this country, and you cared.
We lost New Orleans. We needed you, and you were there, and the outpouring of that grace and hope helped to get us through the worst of the days when we were watching in horror as our own people died, as our friends and family were left, as people were treated worse than we’d ever ever treat an animal.
You made a difference. A big difference. And we thank you.
If you want to read the Katrina entries in order (with photos), it’s on my old blog, and you can start here and click the convenient titles at the top of each page which will take you to the next entry.
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