“Let's dance!” She demands.
Preparation for Hurricane Katrina proceeded like so many other storms in my memory of a half-century or so. I collected, compiled, and spamodulated in anticipation that the worst might happen. Every storm is the same drill, the notion being that with proper anticipation and equipment, personal harm can be mitigated and aid to those less prepared can be given. Staring down Mother Nature had never felt arrogant or foolish; it is simply what I’ve always done.
I’d been monitoring the storm’s projected path for days on the Web and did so one last time before leaving work on Friday. No worries for us; it would seem that poor Florida was to be hit by another monster. Saturday morning however, the neighborhood was a buzz with storm and evacuation talk. Had I missed something? My back door neighbor suggested I have a fresh look at the weather sites. Sure enough, most of the models had her pointing right at New Orleans with category 5 winds and surge in tow. Damn – time to gear-up in earnest.
It’s a familiar exercise but a chore none-the-less: charge up the boat batteries; top off gas tanks (boat, truck, bike, chain saw, extra tanks); fill containers with water (plastic bottles, drums, ice chests, bath tubs, buckets) - some for drinking, some for sanitation; provision the boat (canned food, 12V TV, radio, chain saw, ropes, axe, 1st aid, rain gear, clothes); police the grounds for potential missiles (seemingly heavy or even fixed objects become destructive in 100mph winds); fill several ice boxes with block ice; and finally, stage some perishables in the refrigerator and freezer so that they can quickly be moved into ice boxes when the power outage is imminent.
Saturday came and went; Sunday brought more bad news, i.e., Katrina was still bound for the Delta. Rob Sloan, my Chef Menteur camp partner wanted to lighten the load in his freezer before he evacuated, so we met at the camp and baited the crab traps. Blue Crabs always run great after a storm. There’s a better than average chance you’ll lose your freezer contents and this year we had a lot to lose. Within the three weeks prior, two events had filled our freezers: we slammed the Trout at Grand Isle, and I had hit the Lake Pontchartrain Pogy run just right – three throws with my 7 ft cast net filled an 80 qt icebox. I’d a freezer full of the best eating fish on the planet and enough bait to get me through the Spring Catfish run and Summer Crab season for the coming year.
I spent that Sunday monitoring the news; moving my Dad from his house in Metry to mine in Lakeview; and staging supplies, provisions, tools, and equipment where they would be most needed. The local news was filled with scenario building and animated desperation as the leadership floundered with suggestions and eventually demands on what we should and should not be doing. Something was missing - indeed, a crisp implementation plan.
That evening and the following morning was the single most impressive thing I’d ever experienced. As a geoscientist, this is a fairly bold declaration. We’ve seen some things. We’ve peered down the throats of active volcanoes, and canoed glacier lakes and rapids. We’ve kicked through miles of cactus in Mexico and have even survived Vino and Grapa overdose on the Mediterranean. Many of us have grappled for hours wrestling the death grip of the Louisiana flotant marsh. Ours is a life of passion for the extreme.
For hours the house shuddered with each gust of wind and there was a continuous din of snapping trees and limbs. I’d monitored the rainwater street flooding in front of my house all night and morning. It was flowing (as it should have been) from South to North. By daybreak the storm winds began to subside, so I walked the neighborhood to assess the damage before going down for a well overdue nap. Gratefully, I whispered a prayer of thanks that we had dodged yet another deadly bullet. Simultaneously I observed that the flow regime had made a 180-degree change and was now flowing North to South – my prayer changed to one of mercy. Relentlessly, doggedly, the water crept up the lawn. To the sidewalk, over the porch and into the house it came with ambivalence yet malicious results. Something was wrong I remember thinking. It had to be a break in the levee. Surely the peak surge had passed so the levee could not have been topped. It was about 9:00 am and time to dance – no time for a nap.
There is no way to describe what it feels like to watch everything you own being slowly digested by putrid urban flood waters. Further, no one could’ve imagined what an ominous and persistent shadow this event would cast on our lovely city. No one could’ve believed how ineffectual our local and federal leaders would prove to be; and equally, how impotent their emergency planning. I didn’t at the time. I was operating on pure inspiration and adrenalin – no humanity, no sense of past or future, no blame, guilt, or remorse. It was fight or flight time – instinctive and primal.
My Dad and I got the mutts and all of our provisions from their staging area up to the camelback rooms above the garage. My neighbor Shannon had evacuated and called for an update; the best I could come up with was, “Your house is fine so far, but I can’t talk now because the water is rising!” Within an hour, the water was waist deep and it was time to float the boat out of the garage and prepare for our escape. We tied the boat off to the upstairs window and monitored the radio for information while measuring the water’s rate of rise. Fortunately WWL radio was broadcasting and doing their best given the breakdown in typical communication tools. Frustrated at the information (or lack there of) coming across, I tried calling in to provide a real-time account. Alas cell phone usage was dismal.
We watched and listened for a few hours more and decided to motor off toward dry land. The water was steadily rising and showed no signs of stopping. From a lucky phone connection I’d made earlier, we knew that just West of the 17th St Canal was relatively dry. That would be our destination if we could navigate through the labyrinth of broken trees, power lines, and neighborhood debris. Immediately, we realized that this would not be a simple exercise in navigation. Our modest fishing vessel, a sixteen-foot aluminum flat, was quickly transformed into a lifeboat. I knew why I had not evacuated but why hadn’t so many others; so many without proper means of escape; so many elderly and infirmed? Too many years of dumb luck and blind faith had given us all a false sense of security.
We picked up as many people as we safely could that afternoon and shuttled them to the Vets Hwy, 17th St Canal Bridge. If the boat were full, we would promise others that we would come back for them – and did. Darkness came and it was too dangerous to continue. I remember wondering while tying my boat to a tree for the night – where is the real cavalry? I left the keys and spare gas tanks in the boat in case it might be useful for others. Mentally, I’d written my boat off – another casualty of the storm.
My good friend Richard Thurman picked us up in his truck and brought us to my Dad’s house a mile or so away. It was high and dry, suitable for catching up on some news from my 12V TV, and getting a few hours of restless sleep before reigniting the adrenalin jets. We had plenty of food, but eating was the furthest thing from my mind. I opted for a couple of cold Abita beers on the front stoop instead - they wouldn’t be cold for long.
That evening was unforgettable. There was no power, running water, people, birds, bugs, nor wind. There was no sound. The night sky was beautiful but wrong - too many stars for suburban America. The silence was deafening – peaceful but frightening.
I was jolted out of bed on Tuesday at 4:00am to the rude yet protective barking of our dogs. My (soon to be) good friend Dickie Durham was walking the street with his neighbor Maria looking for people and/or resources to help rescue her family who was trapped in the flood. We talked for a bit and planned to meet at the boat at first light. She was desperate to get to them right away, and I did my best to explain how hazardous it would be to attempt such a rescue in the dark. She was not convinced but reluctantly complied.
Unable to go back to sleep, I armed myself with axe, bottled water and tobacco, and walked back to the boat. It was still tied off where I had left it so I swam out to it and sorted through the tools, ropes, provisions and such while waiting for daylight and my helpers.
Dawn broke soon. Dickie and I shoved off for our first mission, and I was thankful that I hadn’t much time for reflection. The water was still rising so negotiating the currents under bridges, around trees and over power lines was a bit tricky. We found Maria’s family and easily got them out of a second story window into the boat. Four generations were happily alive and well - great grandparents visiting from Italy, Grand-ma, Mom, and her three children including an angel of only six weeks old. When I took hold of the tiny basket from the window and saw that delicate human child gently breathing, eyes closed, and at peace - well, maybe the storm itself wasn’t so impressive after all compared to this.
Maria and her family were reunited and we continued penetrating the neighborhood to pull people, pets and belongings off of roofs and out of windows. In short order a couple of other civilians launched boats and joined in the ersatz rescue force. Richard joined me in my boat and Dickie and another good friend Charlie Dominic found other boats to crew with.
After a couple of hours the Coast Guard choppers were working the area as well. We watched them hover over a house and effectively (albeit slowly) haul one person at a time into their vehicle. Meanwhile we would get two or three folks and as many pets from two or three different houses and shuttle them all back to dry land – six to nine per boat load. I remember thinking how efficient this effort could be if those choppers were systematically locating and mapping out where the people in need were, and communicating that information to those of us on the water.
We dropped off our passengers on the Vets Hwy, 17th St Canal Bridge where private citizens from the dry side of the disaster had congregated. One woman had set up a lean-to out of plastic for shade and took care of the orphaned pets. People were helping each other - strangers in life but brothers and sisters in spirit, they shared towels, dry clothes, food and water. They drove the rescued off in their cars, maybe to their own homes, I don’t know. Dickie’s wife became the self-appointed site director. She enlisted support from what would have otherwise been a random collection of sightseers. She rallied the congregation with clear but curt direction, solicited gasoline and drinking water for the boats, and with conviction of purpose curtailed inappropriate behaviors. She made me take a break and eat a cheese sandwich (white bread, no Mayo) - a mundane yet crystalline act of humanity.
The task was daunting, i.e., too many people with too few resources (and still no cavalry). Richard left me to go get his neighbor’s boat and put it into the fray. It was only late morning and I already felt spent and sun-baked – my God it was hot. I kicked back to have a long drink of water and roll up some nicotine before pushing off back into the neighborhood. This time I would be alone.
A guy with black rubber boots and a formidable collection of cameras around his neck approached my boat. He introduced himself as Chris Graythen, a Getty Images Photographer, and asked if he could ride with me and get some pictures of the event. My initial reaction was ‘no way’ because I could afford neither space nor weight in the boat for a photographer. I further allowed that I could use some help, and if in the process he could get some shots that would be fine. He agreed. Chris proved to be an awesome first mate. He was casually competent in the ways of boating and rescuing, his compassion was inspirational and energizing, and he stayed with me the whole day. A word on this last point: as a professional photographer, Chris could have been traversing the city capturing Pulitzer Prize winning images. Chris chose humanity and me; for that I shall be forever grateful.
About midday Chris and I learned that FEMA was set up on the I-610 overpass so we started dropping off our people there. The cavalry had arrived. Say what you want about that organization’s rank and file but those folks on the ground were kicking butt. They had airboats, chainsaws, emergency medical, food, water, shelter, and busses. And they worked tirelessly.
We continued our civilian efforts until we started loosing light. Time to stand down and leave the mission to the professionals. Richard got his neighbors boat back home and Charlie rescued my boat with a spare trailer of his. With broken hearts and sore bodies, we proudly limped home. I’d have traded my pension for a shower that evening but had to settle for a towel bath with bottled water and Dr Tichenor’s. What evil sort of microbes and chemicals had we been exposed to? Rash like blisters were bubbling up on my face, arms and chest. Paranoia set in.
How many people? How many pets? Unknown. Hundreds, I suspect. It all just ran together and it seemed like it couldn’t get worse. After a few minutes watching the TV, I learned that it indeed was. Most of the city and points Eastward and South were in similarly dire or worse circumstances - Uptown, Downtown, Mid City, Gentilly, Ninth Ward, Arabi, St Bernard, North Shore, Mississippi, etc, etc, etc. Horrific reports of panic in the Dome, looting, and car jacking overwhelmed me with a sense of dread as I had no means of transportation out of the area.
The rest of that evening and the next morning I inventoried provisions and laid out rations to last for several weeks. We were armed, prepared and alive. And like so many others, we were wondering what recovery would look like and when it would begin? Local and national leadership was thin at best, and it was clear that survival would be a personal matter. Salvation arrived mid-morning. Richard came by the house and declared that we could have his truck, he would use his motorcycle, and that we should all escape to safety and sanity. White knuckled and ten hours later, Dad and I arrived at my sister’s house in Houston. Ten months later, I’m still waiting to see some leadership and grateful that I’m not dependent on them for my personal recovery efforts.
Casualties of the storm: they are indeed many and diverse – lives, pets, property, hearts, minds, futures, etc. What has this event done for us? These experiences have enhanced our personal power and resolve. We share a special bond that others will never understand, never empathize with, and can never relate to nor tolerate. We are more tolerant because we’ve all gone a little crazy and back (often). We are more patient because we’ve learned that to behave otherwise will merely enhance the frenzy. We embrace simple and mundane pleasures as if they were priceless treasures because we have been reduced to ‘starting over’ in the fullest extent of the phrase. Those who were lucky started with a car and a change of underwear, or a boat and some tools, or their pets and a friend’s sofa for rest. We cherish the tolerance and charity of others because we understand personal inequities, judgment lapses, and inexplicable reactions brought on by the event. We are comrades of cause and effect.
Compared to nature, we humans are so tiny, yet through simple choices and adrenaline-driven gestures springing from those choices, we have so much power to affect the outcome of events beyond our control. I wonder what the ripple effects of our gestures will be? I wonder how those people we helped will touch the lives of others? I wonder who and what the baby in the basket will grow up to be and how many lives that child will touch through the years? I wonder...
My heart has been shredded in so many ways and at so many levels throughout this event. Oddly, it did not start with the water inundating and destroying my home while my Dad and I escaped in the boat. It began days later when I finally got connected to full time media coverage and witnessed their gross misrepresentation, and the obvious instigation styles, tools, techniques, and agenda. Agenda? Find the angriest person around, spin the report, and fuel the negative energy with subjective interpretation.
For the few days of the storm my spirit was glowing with the kindness, generosity, and tender mercies of humankind. The on-demand rescue fleet, sharing of resources, and general concern for each other's well-being was abundant. I saw little of that on the news. Yes, there were extremely bad things happening and indeed very bad people doing those things. There were however, equally good things happening. Again, I saw little of that on the news. Both are news and information, and the public deserves the whole story. Not just the sensational horror that might as well be slapped on a plastic lunch box and sold at the dime store.
I believe in the goodness of people despite some of the media's obsession for the contrary. I believe that my time spent with the civilian rescue fleet validates my belief. I still feel the love, the caring, the perseverance, and the overwhelming camaraderie. I see the bad stories. I see the evil portraits. I choose to believe in what I feel. This I believe.
In life there are many events,
Some with cause to pine,
These aren't they.
Tomorrow is mine.