Saturday, August 29, 2009


at 6:10am dst on august 29th 2005 hurricane katrina made landfall at buras la. according to the records, katrina was a category 3 storm(down from it's astonishing cat 5 just a few hours before). the storm angled up towards the city of new orleans but at the last second shifted east & spared the city a direct hit. that doesn't mean things weren't absolutely deadly & surreal in the city. as douglas brinkley, professor at tulane, wrote in his chronicle of the diaster, the great deluge: hurricane katrina, new orleans & the mississippi gulf coast:

"It was a ripley's believe it or not moment. Looking out the window of a 15th floor condo at One River Place on new orleans' east bank on august 29th, I witnessed a stunning aberration. just below me, the white capped Mississippi river was roaring backwards---northward---due to hurricane katrina's wrath. Earlier that morning I left my uptown home and evacuated vertically to this supposed safe haven. Now, as I gazed at the churning river my miscalculation was evident. A few minutes later I took my wife and two young children to the crowded lobby, where a sense of panic ensued. A lone generator flickered on and off where children huddled around a small refrigerator where baby bottles were stored. Storm phobic dogs paced back and forth, their hind legs quaking. Outside you saw everything from trembling street signs to lost umbrellas flying by as the piercing rain whipped needles and knives. You could hear glass shattering all around and see the nearby Hilton parking garage lose its supposedly hurricane proof roof."

less than 60 hours before that scene, i was sitting in molly's on the market, my favorite bar in new orleans(along w/coop's place, right next store)talking w/jim monahan's daughter about the impending storm. she had no intention of leaving & most of what i heard from locals that night & even the next day before i ran like a scalded dog was about 1965 hurricane betsy. the city had been by-passed several times since tho there had been evacuations w/juan, andrew, & georges. there had been flooding in the lower 9th ward before w/betsy & flossie. everyone i talked to seemed to think the city would be fine. i'd lived on the gulf coast for 40 years. i was a crazy little weird kid who avidly followed every hurricane from when i was 6yo till now. i'd seen some humdingers, like camille. i'd lived through several close calls in p'cola tho that city while i lived there hadn't suffered a direct hit in over 70 years. it was hit directly twice from opposite directions the summer after bobo died(the same year i'd left florida for good). it got hit twice more, once very badly just before i went home for mother's funeral by hurricane ivan.

still, this storm worried me. when i got up early on saturday, a scorchingly hot late summer day which is pretty standard for the city, i checked the weather channel. the storm seemed dead determined to hit the city. i had planned to spend the entire weekend there in new orleans & hit some outlying spots(like the maple leaf bar & another favorite, the f&m patio bar). i hadn't been to either in years. it wasn't looking like things were going to go my way.

i went out for breakfast(cafe du monde)& beers(molly's). it was business as usual at every place i went that morning in the french quarter. i stopped into coop's to see my favorite bartender of all time, faye, & she was unconcerned. i resolved to check w/the weather channel &, if things looked better, to stay. they didn't look better. it looked worse. i had to get out & i knew it. i didn't understand why others weren't sharing my growing sense of dread.

i checked out of the lamothe house & headed west on hwy 10 sometime in the early afternoon on saturday. it took me hours to get over to beaux bridge where i stopped to eat at mulate's. from there i connected w/hwy 49 in lafayette. this trip took over 8 hours. it would usually take 2 or so. the highways were backed up w/folks evacuating as early as saturday. i kept driving until i made dallas late saturday night(the highways had cleared by then). i woke up the next day & drove from dallas to santa fe. i'd kept up enough to know that the storm had missed the city. i thought, along w/everyone else, that the city had been spared. in fact, nature had spared the city. the ensuing tragedy was all of a man-made, government sponsored kind. it proved more lethal than nature. by the time i got in touch w/ann on monday from santa fe, the levees had breached & the city was underwater. i had no idea. it was the first thing she said when i got her on the phone. i couldn't believe it. i recalled first hearing about 9/11 & the twin towers(i'd just begun a four month silent retreat)& how i couldn't understand how the damned things collapsed. i kept repeating to myself "that's not possible, how could they just fall" while trying to picture it in my mind. w/o access to a television, it was unimaginable.

what became obvious over the next couple of days was the naked criminality of the bush administration. i sat there in santa fe, one of my favorite american cities, watching my favorite american city suffer in ways that seemed unimaginable in the new millenium but were all too clearly visible thanks to the unprecedented news coverage. i didn't have to try & picture anything. since i'd spent so many summer days in new orleans i didn't have to imagine what the heat was like for those exposed folks. it's not like the government hasn't caused disasters before & failed to respond in meaningful ways but this became such an infuriating drama of incompetence & blame & ignorance that it's not hard to understand now how it signaled the beginning of the end for the bush presidency.

my friends mark & lucy stayed during the storm. they said it was a little scary as the storm passed but things weren't too bad. it was the day after, when mark noticed water up to rampart st & then went down to the local french quarter police station for news. when he saw that the police were listening to the same news source as he was, he decided it was time to hit the road. things were beginning to feel a little weird. when they returned two weeks later, what they remembered as their most vivid memory was the stench that greeted them way before they even got to the city limits even w/the windows of their car closed. initially, they couldn't imagine what the source of the stench was. they found out real quick once they made it into the city. i've been back to the city twice since the storm. that specific stench that mark & lucy experienced is long gone but it's not stretching things too much to say a sense of it still lingers in that great beautiful american city.

i will also say that w/the help of lots of volunteer groups from around the country & their own irrepressible spirits, the folks of new orleans are alive & well & should be proud of themselves. i can't say the same for the government.

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