Greater New Orleans
I was here before the storm. I was here during the storm. And I am here after the storm. I will try to tell some bits and pieces of what it was like for some of the folks down here. I cannot tell it all. I'm glad there's others to tell their bits and pieces. I cannot tell it all.
In the days before the storm, I prepared for the storm, all the usual preparations and then some. I live on the edge of a bit of swamp outside of New Orleans -- where, I won't specify 'cause I am a bit of a private person. I didn't plan on evacuating to a shelter -- they won't take my dogs and I will not leave them, I figure that I'm better off on my own. I am accustomed to difficult environments. I have a cushion, my house is a bit above sea level, and the swamp here is generally intact and can absorb the shock of the storm surge. My house is about 100 years old, built of cypress by a working-class family who couldn't afford either insurance or to rebuild -- it was built simply and to last. It has lasted. Call me a fool, as you may. My neighbors stayed as well, and we were all prepared to move quickly to higher ground or take to boats if the water came up. Folks are a bit independent out here.
My parents' house is in a town on Lake Ponchartrain. Their house is a block from the water. They always go to a hotel a bit further inland when hurricanes roll this way; they had reservations to check in Sunday with the storm expected Sunday night or Monday morning.
On Sunday morning, I visited them to make sure they were ready to get going -- in their 70s and all, I was just making sure. My father didn't feel well, didn't look well, he had a stroke a couple years ago and had heart problems. I insisted that he go to the hospital. The hospital admitted him, as tests there revealed that he was on the verge of having a heart attack. The hospital folks agreed to allow my mother to stay in the room with my father, what with the storm rolling in and all.
Back at my house, I finished battening down the last details. As night fell, I brought the dogs in, tucked my cat into a cat carrier, called my sister in Texas to touch base and let her know where the parents were, checked the National Hurricane Center Web site, biding time. The wind picked up, the electricity went out around midnight, the phone soon after. I didn't get much sleep and kept going outside to check on the conditions. The radio gave bulletins throughout the night. At some point, the announcer said, "Wherever you are, stay there." Sometime in the night, there were no more radio stations that I could receive.
The storm picked up all Monday morning. First the front porch was in the leeside of the wind, then as the wind shifted and became stronger, the back porch was in the lee. By 8 a.m. or so, trees were bending wildly, by 10 a.m. it sounded like jumbo jets were taking off and landing all around the house. A few 100-foot pine trees popped out in the woods, snapping and folding 50 feet above the ground. The oaks and sweet gums were thrashing; still they held. The house was holding fine, the water wasn't coming up too bad. The swamp was absorbing the shock. I went outside on the leeside to have cigarettes, it was hot and close in the house. I took catnaps, the dogs curled up into me. The wind roared, the rain was blowing sideways. Around noon, it started to slack off. One of my neighbors said the the highest winds his anometer registered were 128 mph.
Around 2 p.m., I perked up to a sound. The wind was still blowing at about 30-40 miles per hour, but there was a different sound on the wind. It sounded like a chain saw. Out of the front porch, I looked down the road. I saw some of my neighbors working on a big pine that had come down across the road. With chain saws. I got my chain saw and joined them.
As I walked up, one of my neighbors looked up and over the wind he said, "We gotta get the road clear up to the highway. Water come up, ain't no one gonna come get us."
Truer words were never spoken.
There are six miles of road between us and the highway. There were people working on downed trees and utility poles the whole way. Luckily, none of the electrical lines were live. Everyone came out to clear the road. Whole families were out clearing the road. There were probably a hundred chain saws working on that six miles of road. By 4:30 p.m., I was driving down the highway to check on my parents at the hospital. The remnants of the hurricane were blowing off. There were a few cars out on the road.
At the turnoff for the hospital, a sheriff's deputy had his cruiser parked across the road, blocking traffic. I parked and walked over. The deputy looked a bit done-in. He said I couldn't pass, too many trees and power lines down and they didn't know if any were live. He said no one could get off the highway at least to the Mississippi state line, probably further. He said go home and check on your folks tomorrow, the hospital made out okay.
No radio stations were coming in, I don't have a TV by choice, the phones were out. I fixed some dinner -- I have a propane tank so my stove was working fine. I got some sleep.
Tuesday morning, I drove in to the hospital. On the radio, they were trying to figure out whether the levees had breached in New Orleans proper. I thought ... "Refugees. There's gonna be tens of thousands of refugees ..."
Refugees are something I have experience with. Only, not here in the US. In war-torn countries far, far away. When I arrived at the hospital, there were people camped out in the lobby. My parents were okay. On the TV, people were still trying to figure out whether the levees had breached. The hospital was going to discharge my father Wednesday or Thursday; they wanted to make sure he had someplace to go that had AC as he was stable but considered fragile. I decided to drive to see about my parents house. I don't have AC, by choice, I like the ceiling fans and open windows and all.
In my parents' town, there were so many trees down that there were 12-foot-high walls of trees across roads. People who had not evacuated to locations far away were filtering back. Virtually every electrical line was down, poles snapped off at the ground. I parked and walked maybe two miles to my parents' house. The water had already receded, my parents' house had a waterline that said they got four feet of water on the ground floor. Everything on the ground floor was ruined.
Back at the hospital, the phones there were working. My parents arranged to stay with relatives in north Louisiana. I went home to my house, the radio announcers were now saying that the levees had breached. The radio networks started working together, broadcasting the same show across all working stations, the same show no matter what station you tuned into, the only source of news that everyone could get to.
And people with boats, out here away from the city, they started getting their boats ready.
Here is where I must depart from a straight timed narrative. 'Cause here is where time breaks down. Where everything breaks down. From Tuesday until Friday morning, the radio, the people, everyone kept saying the same things, over and over. If you went into New Orleans, what you heard was ...
"Oh. My. God."
"We gotta get them folks outta there."
"They are not coming."
"They" were the federal government. Regular ol' civilians brought their little flat-bottomed aluminum fishing boats into New Orleans because "We gotta get them folks outta there." A lotta those regular ol' civilians were named Bubba, a lotta them were the folks that some few people here call "rural Southern f***tards". The Coast Guard went to work. The Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries went to work. And the "rural Southern f***tards" went to work, too.
But the feds ... They are not coming.
I don't have to tell you what happened. You saw it on TV if you were not here. They are not coming. Everything broke down. Everything. They are not coming. How could this be happening? They are not coming. Why the f***? They are not coming. They are not coming. They are not coming. They are not coming. They are not coming.
... And after Forever, on Friday morning, the military was here. They were so here that they were refueling rescue helicopters in-air over Lake Ponchartrain. But not until Friday morning.
After Friday ... it seemed to still go on forever, even after the cavalry was coming.
How long did it go on? I don't know. I don't know. I was here, still I don't know.
And that's all I have to say about that.
And we heard the news on the radio. And we heard the mayor lose it on the radio. And we heard the parish president lose it on the radio. And we said, "Yeah, you right. Tell it again." And we heard about the Brownies and we heard about the cruise ships and the hospital ship offshore and the crony contracts. And we sucked it up because there was work to be done and they were not coming.
Eventually, I worked on my parents' house, outside of New Orleans. It took me three days to clear out the first floor. The only people in town were doing the same sorta thing. I cut up downed trees in my parents' yard for something like a week, ten days. People helped each other. One day, I saw a sleek, smallish corporate-looking jet circling overhead. I figured it was Heckuvajob Georgie, and started gesticulating wildly, screaming "F***YOUBUSHF***YOUF***YOU." People who heard me looked at me like I was crazy, I yelled "BUSH! BUSH!" and pointed at the jet. They joined in, screaming at the jet and yelling "F***YOUF***YOU" at the jet. Then the jet peeled off, and everyone went back to work.
I filled up the gas tank in my Jeep every chance I could, whenever I saw a gas station open. I drove 40 miles to find a grocery open and stocked up. It was surreal, a grocery store open. People started coming back more and more. Businesses started opening on the outside of New Orleans, power or not. Signs appeared on the roadside ... WE'RE OPEN!!! ... We were still here ... we were still here ... People drove in from other parts of the country, with trucks full of generators -- and sold them on the roadside at wholesale prices, no markup. The Times-Picayune, the local NOLA paper, assembled its staff in Baton Rouge, at an LSU dormitory. Then the publisher insisted that the staff come back into the city and work in the offices. They camped out at each others' houses.
People came from all over to help. There were workers from everywhere. They were kind. They helped. They were citizens, helping citizens who were in need. They shook your hand, and they worked. Helping.
The Red Cross started handing out debit cards, no one knew exactly what the rules were, the rules changed. People lined up to get cards, everyone was eligible. A lotta people refused to try to get a card, it didn't seem right. It didn't seem right ...
There were utility workers from all over the country, working long hot days to get power lines back up. My neighbors and I knew -- we knew that we should've been the last to get power. We were getting power too quickly, even at two weeks after, too quickly, they should've been in New Orleans ... We're out at the end of the line, New Orleans should've been first. We knew that the utility companies had written off the city. Written them off. Still, the utility workers were busting their asses, living in tent camps, 90-degree days and nights. It was the decision of the suits. Written off the city.
Phones came back on. I talked with my parents in north Louisiana, they wanted to come home. NO! No power at your house. NO! I couldn't reach my sister, I talked to one of her friends in Baton Rouge. The friend started in with "All that shooting and looting, those people ..." NO! UNDERSTAND! You MUST understand! Someone fired a weapon somewhere and it was used as a f***ing excuse to not help. NO! That's NOT how it was! NO! UNDERSTAND! They didn't come, they didn't want to come, they could've come, there was no help ... The gunfire wasn't enough to keep away those who wanted to help ... UNDERSTAND!
One day, a chain saw day, a 90-degree hot, dirty chain saw day, a car pulled into the driveway at my parents' house. A frantic middle-aged woman got out, babbling a mile a minute. I finally calmed her down and figured out that she was the niece of my mother's best friend. My parents were her last hope, her aunt, my mother's best friend lived a couple blocks from one of the levee breaches. The authorities had no news, her aunt was not in a shelter. Her last hope was that her aunt was with my parents. Her aunt was not with my parents. I folded my arms around her and told her. She collapsed, ten days, two weeks, no news, only hope. The next day, her husband took a boat across the lake, across what is basically 25 miles of open water. Beached the boat on the base of the levee. Hiked to the aunt's house. The flood water was down by then. They were stopped by the National Guard across the street from the aunt's house -- the National Guard refused them access. The guardsmen agreed to go kick down the door and look for them.
The aunt was elderly, in poor health. She had told my mother a month or so before the storm that she felt that Armageddon was coming, the end of the world, the world news was so bad, so bad. She told my mother that she wanted to go in her own home, with her little dog in her arms, that she hoped that it all ended quickly.
The guardsmen found her in her easy chair, with her little dog in her arms. Her house had flooded to the rafters, a coupla blocks from one of the levee breaches. When I told my mother, my mother cried, heart-rending cried, "She knew! She knew! She knew!"
People everywhere would tell each other their stories. And the stories that they had heard. Complete strangers, longtime friends. There was no one-upsmanship. None. None. All the stories were hard. Hard.
My parents came back to their house when the power was back on in their town. Three weeks, maybe, after the storm. They didn't look so well, still they were glad to be back.
Then Hurricane Rita rolled in. The southerly winds pushed the Gulf back into the whole region. My parents evacuated to a high school overnight, were back in their house the day after. My father didn't look so well at all.
Two weeks later, my father had a second stroke. He lingered for a couple of days in the hospital, the hospital was barely functioning, only half of the wards were open. The staff was worn out, they were heroes. Heroes. Worn out heroes. My sister came in from Texas. We held his hand. He passed away. I closed his eyes with my hand, gently gently. The worn-out heroes contacted the funeral home.
We met with the funeral director. She was trying to explain that, yes, it was all prepaid, the arrangements could be made ... but no one had yet been interred in New Orleans, everything was broken down, it might take a couple of weeks to make the arrangements ... I explained that it would happen and happen soon ... She balked ... and I explained, her looking in my eyes, that it would happen and soon ... There was a very long pause, eyes on eyes ... and she said that she would make it happen. My father was cremated and we interred his ashes where he wanted to rest. The cemetery was desolated, waterline above our heads, all the grass was dead, all the trees were dead, in the bright sunshine of an early morning. I spoke the words he wanted, in a cemetery in a drowned city.
And Thanksgiving came sometime after ... and I was thankful that my mother had a mostly intact roof over her head.
And people everywhere would tell each other their stories. And the stories that they had heard. Complete strangers, longtime friends. There was no one-upsmanship. None. None. All the stories were hard. Hard.
And They Are Not Coming. Still They Are Not Coming.
May you have Peace. May we all have Peace.
Lucky Dog wrote this for DailyKos.com, where it originally appeared.