Coping with Katrina

Writing in exile, a Louisiana novelist reflects on one of our nation's worst natural disasters.

By Dayne Sherman

The storm came quietly and quickly. I’d heard some rumblings about it on Thursday, August 25th, a Cat 1 hurricane skirting South Florida. I didn’t know its name, and, being used to storm warnings that are never as bad as predicted, I didn’t pay too much attention to it. Like the poor, hurricanes are a given, something we have with us always in Louisiana.

My seven-month-old son was sick with an ear infection, and I stayed home from work with him on Friday. That afternoon, I went to the bank just before it closed to deposit a check. I didn’t even bother to get any cash, not one dollar in my wallet when I left the bank. It was just a regular weekend.

On Saturday, my wife attended a special planning session for a new curriculum at her elementary school. I watched our baby at home.

When she got back, my wife was upset. The storm warnings were ominous. People were starting to evacuate the city. She wanted to leave, to go to her sister’s place in southern Arkansas, but my job hadn’t announced a closure for Monday. I work at a university library, and I couldn’t commit to leaving until I knew I’d have a day or two off, to make the eight-hour drive to Arkansas. As we wrangled and waited, my wife packed a few clothes, and I washed the cur dog, Cookie, twice. My wife was scared Cookie would stink up her car. She and the dog have a little history, a bad history, but that’s another story.

At around five o’clock that afternoon word came: the university was shutting down for a storm named Katrina. By dusk we were on the road, two other cars following, a nephew and niece from St. Tammany Parish in our convoy, toting their little yappy dogs. We stopped in downtown Hammond, my hometown, and ordered a couple of big hamburgers, a corndog, a shrimp Po-Boy, and giant onion rings from Lee’s Drive-in, food for the road. While I waited for the burgers, I sensed an eeriness a dozen yards away: the red lights on Thomas Street were now caution lights, blinking yellow, changed to allow people to evacuate swiftly. As I stood outside the car looking at the street, my two back seat passengers were oblivious to the mounting danger. Ecstatic at the unexpected car ride, Cookie was swatting my son in the face with her whip-like tail, and my boy was laughing with infant delight.

We drove the two lane asphalt back roads through Southeast Louisiana and Southwest Mississippi and North Louisiana, making every effort to avoid the evacuees from New Orleans. They’d started the contra-flow, both sides of I-55 heading north, and the last thing we wanted was to be trapped in the car, stuck on the interstate.

My father’s a stoic. He wouldn’t leave. I told him that I thought this could be the big one. The one I’d been warned about my entire life, a hurricane like Betsy or Camille or worse. The rabid kind of hurricane that hits the mouth of the Mississippi River and traces its way up to New Orleans, leaving nothing but death. A catastrophic event, something that might resemble Tim LaHaye’s apocalyptic Left Behind series. A cataclysm worthy of Rev. Jerry Falwell’s pronouncements of judgment against this nation that’s home to homosexuals, Hollywood, Bill Clinton, and everybody else not welcome at his fundamentalist empire in Lynchburg, Virginia.

As long as I can remember, I’ve been told that the Crescent City was a bowl, below sea level. And over the past few years, I’ve read more and more about how neighborhoods would be under water during a bad storm. Communities completely submerged, including the rooftops of the houses.

Be warned: If you hear a bureaucrat in Louisiana or Washington saying they didn’t know what could happen to the city of New Orleans, they’re bald-faced liars. Ask for their resignation. They knew what would happen, all right, and they are trying to cover their asses.

“It ain’t gonna be nothing to it,” my father said.

“This is the big one,” I said.

“Naw. It ain’t gonna be nothing. It’s gonna move east.”

“Well, we’re leaving,” I said. That was the end of our phone call.

Graham Greene once said that deep down in his soul, the writer has a splinter of ice. When the rest of the world is in gut-wrenching tragedy, the writer is taking notes. I have, to my shame, been taking notes.

But while the writer part of me is on ice, the rest of me is melting. I feel all the human emotions of panic, rage, fear, despair. I know this storm will cost me something, and it will cost you something, too.

When I watched Senator Trent Lott on television say that his 155-year-old antebellum home on the Gulf Coast was blown away, he meant it was gone with the wind, totally destroyed. It cost the Senator something.

When I hear of people paying six dollars a gallon for gasoline in Atlanta, and that no amount of money can buy gas in Covington, Louisiana, I know it’s going to cost you something, too.

At about four o’clock on Sunday morning we arrived at the state park house, where my brother-in-law is an interpreter, a park ranger without a gun.

We were tired, dog-tired. We’d made one bad turn during the trip that cost us a half hour. Now, half an hour is a negligible amount of time in normal circumstances. But when you’re running for your life it’s as precious as a few mouthfuls of water to a man dying of thirst. My wife tried to warn me but like all men, I knew where I was going. I was wrong, but fate overlooked my arrogance and we made it to safety.

Our son was asleep when we took him out of the car seat, and Cookie was happy to run around in my in-laws’ fenced yard with another dog. There was this feeling of completion. We were 400 hundred miles from Tangipahoa Parish.

By Tuesday, our kin who had stayed through Katrina started to arrive. They were beaten down. I learned that in my area there was no water, electricity, or gasoline. There were rumors of lawlessness and looting, and a million trees down, scattered like Pick-Up Sticks all across the area north of Lake Pontchartrain, the region commonly called the Northshore.

As we frantically tried to call loved ones and watched the tube and streaming video footage from the two laptops on the Wi-Fi in my brother-in-law’s home, I wondered whether this disaster was going to turn Louisiana into a wasteland. If America would be transformed overnight into a collapsed super power, something like the Soviet Union after its breakup, where people stood in line just because it was a line and something essential might be coming up for sale.
Meanwhile, I holed up in that splinter of ice. I worked on my novel, “Louisiana Public Integrity,” set in Southeast Louisiana in 1993, a story of theological and moral meltdown, the same themes as my first novel. Keeping focused on something other than the end of the world was essential. I felt split in two: one part of me was horrified to the point of numbness. The other was the observer, the unmoved, the writer witnessing human tragedy unfolding in real time at his own doorstep.

But more than once I was shaken from my observation point. Like when my wife started crying over the images of a dying baby in a mother’s arms down in New Orleans. And when Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans, told the WWL 870 AM radio interviewer on Friday how the cow eats the cabbage:

“I don't want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don't do another press conference until the resources are in this city. And then come down to this city and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops that we can't even count.

“Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.”

As I write this essay, I am still in exile, still staying with relatives in the state park. By the time you read it, I will probably be home, or at least on my way back to my house, which was spared damage. I just learned that the electricity has returned to my neighborhood. I have a job waiting on me, and my wife has a job waiting on her—that is, if the state can avoid bankruptcy. We will leave the hospitality of kin, take our baby and our tail-wagging cur dog, and we will go home in one piece.

We have been extraordinarily lucky. But too many others have not been as fortunate.

We’ve heard it for days now. Over and over. “One of the worst natural disasters in our country’s history.” I promise you, it is far worse than what you are seeing on CNN, and there are places, such as rural Washington Parish, where the Red Cross and FEMA ignored the country people until perhaps Saturday, September 3rd, if they bothered to help out at all. Years from now, people will hear tell of a America’s hell on earth, once a great city, reduced to a fetid wasteland where bodies were stacked in the streets like cords of wood while our government—state and federal—ran around with its pants down, hopping on one foot, with a T-shirt over its head, trying like all hell to get dressed for the big party.

At this hour, New Orleans is like a floating corpse. In a few brief hours, it hurtled back in time 100, 500, 1000 years. As one story on National Public Radio put it, the place is darn near “medieval.”

I have met people who have lost all of their possessions, their houses blown off the face of the earth or completely under water. They are enrolling their children in Arkansas schools, looking for work, renting houses. One woman told me her house in Violet, Louisiana was under fifteen feet of water—that’s from water’s surface to the roof. A boater—I assume with a GPS—went to the site of her home and sent back the report.

The folks who left before the storm are the fortunate ones. Those who stayed, the throngs of people stuck in the drowning city, most of them dirt poor, with neither money nor transportation, are catching a lifetime’s worth of hell for being broke and stuck.

Though I do not believe for a minute that God caused the hurricane, nor do I believe that God sent it, I do believe God knows about the suffering that follows such horrific events. The sufferings of Christ, who taught us to walk with others in their anguish, to bind wounds, to give as we have been given.

Perhaps this will be our redemption, the end of a long, dark shadow: There is some good work going on amongst those who claim to be God’s people, and amongst those who act as God’s people even if they claim to be unaffiliated. This is an opportunity to make good out of bad. Rather than asking why these terrible things happen—other than trying better to prepare the region for future hurricanes, trying hard to shore up levees and rebuild coastline—we can work on giving a cup of cold water to the parched refugee, and helping folks to pick up the broken pieces.

One of the most important lessons of life is to get beyond asking how someone got into a fix. Just help the person get out of the ditch he is in. If we can do this on a personal level, we can bypass a lot of needless trouble.

The New Orleans region, the Northshore above it, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast must be rebuilt. People are homeless and need to be taken in, and they will need jobs and the basic necessities, and lots of encouragement to keep on keeping on.

This is not an isolated disaster, something to be watched like a miniseries, “The Fall of the Gulf Coast,” from the comfortable confines of your living room while munching on Cheetos. It is “one of the worst disasters in our country’s history,” and “our” means yours as well as mine. Please help us. Now and in the months and years to come.

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Dayne Sherman is the author of Welcome to the Fallen Paradise. It was named a Best Debut of 2004 by the Times-Picayune and a Crime Novel Debut of the Year by Booklist, among other honors. MacAdam/Cage Publishing will release the paperback in October 2005. Even after Hurricane Katrina, Sherman still lives in Ponchatoula, La. Visit his website here.

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