My Last Normal Day in New Orleans
As I remember it, August 27, 2005, was a typical Saturday during hurricane season in New Orleans. The weather was hot but calm as were most people in the city and there was a storm spinning in the lower Gulf; nothing unusual about that. There had already been at least three out there so far that season none of which had come near New Orleans. We had been loosely monitoring the storm as it approached and then crossed lower Florida. When we woke up that Saturday, we turned on the Weather Channel and logged onto Accuweather Professional to see what Joe Bastardi's predictions were.
At that point, Hurricane Katrina was nearly a Category 3, with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour. It was more than 400 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi, the river that defines New Orleans. Bastardi was saying that everyone on the Gulf Coast should stay alert and the oil industry should get everyone off the rigs ASAP. Not overly concerned, we did what the obsessive-compulsive do when a hurricane is in the Gulf: We went through our hurricane kit the batteries, flashlights, important papers in Ziploc bags, the bottled water, the hatchet in case flooding sends us into the attic and we need to hack a hole in the roof.
You see, we never chose to evacuateor as a local on the radio said, "evaporate"for a storm. We always stayed--through Andrew, Georges, Lili, Ivan, Dennis; and this was no different. The pact was (and still is) that we would only "evaporate" if a storm was a strong Category 4 or a Cat 5 and predicted to hit just west of the city.
Having recently returned from a business trip, I spent the morning in my home office catching up on e-mail and completing outstanding expense reports. I figured that if Katrina did come our way I at least wanted to be as caught up as possible and have the money in my bank account. My partner ran the typical "a hurricane is in the Gulf" errands to fill in the gaps in our kit, get cat litter, more water, and enough non-perishable food to last us a week.
By noon, the question throughout the city had become "Are you staying or leaving?" We, and most of our friends and family, were staying. As the day wore on, the strike predictions widened to include the coastline from Morgan City, Louisiana, 80 miles southwest, to the Alabama/Florida line. Katrina's intensity hovered at Cat 2 or 3. We believed we would likely experience some significant winds and rain and definitely lose power. No big deal. We decided to host a "hurricane barbeque" on Sunday to cook all the meat we had in our freezer. We called our friends and invited them to come over around noon the next day.
Around this time Dan, one of my best friends, called from Tulsa offering to catch a flight down and help us secure the house. When he lived here, we used to joke about experiencing the "big one" together. Many New Orleanians lived in fear, fascination, and awe of a devastating hurricane, and Dan and I were no different. Dan's hurricane kit consisted only of a flashlight and batteries, two cases of Diet Coke, and two cartons of cigarettes. We told him we'd love to have him here with us, but figured this wasn't the big one, so he could stay put.
In the early afternoon, we bathed our two dogs, Irma and Marva, and then went out to gas up our cars. I don't remember there being a long wait for gas business was brisk but not out of control. We confirmed our evening plans for dinner with our good friends Therese and Bob and then we took a nap. Around 6 p.m., we headed to Therese and Bob's house. We grilled steaks and talked about not evaporating we knew that this wasn't the hurricane we feared, the one that would come ashore just west of the city so that its upper right quadrant would slam us; this wasn't the one that would send 30-foot wall of water up the Mississippi and over the flood walls and gates that protect us. We briefly considered flooding and storm surge, but levee failure never entered our thoughts.
Each time we looked at the local weather stations or the Weather Channel or Joe Bastardi's predictions, we reassured ourselves that the track wasn't the worse-case scenario, nor was Katrina big enough or strong enough for doomsday. The four of us weren't worried. We were all staying. We returned home around 10, checked the weather channel again for the 10 p.m. update same story as the one at 8 p.m., a Cat 3 with landfall anywhere from Morgan City to the Alabama/Florida line.
We made a conscious decision to hold off on securing the house and yard, believing we had the whole day Sunday. Securing your house before a hurricane involves moving potted plants, lawn chairs, and garden hoses inside, tying shutters closed, boarding up exposed windows, bringing in the ladder for access to the attic. My house is a Victorian side-by-side shotgun double built in the 1880's to serve as a rooming house for nuns and nurses who worked at nearby Touro Hospital. A side-by-side shotgun has a common wall that splits the house in half from front to back. Each side is identical, and if you fired a gun through the open front door, the bullet would go clean out the back door. Built to handle extreme heat in the days before air conditioning, the house has 13-foot ceilings, pocket doors, hardwood floors, and a door in every room that leads to the outside. It is raised, like many of the homes across New Orleans, on brick pilings three feet above the ground. When I bought the place, I told my friends and family I would give it up only by coming out in a pine box.
Everything changed the next morning at 6:15 when my sister called me from Birmingham, almost hysterical, begging me to get out. She told me the wind speeds were now at 175 miles per hour and the track showed a direct hit on the city. We spent Sunday scrambling to secure the house and the yard, removed the pumps from the garden ponds, bringing in tools from the shed, and unplugging every appliance. We packed our cars with a week's worth of clothes, the computers, the animals, a few pieces of art that were of great sentimental value, and the hurricane kitincluding all that meat from the freezer. There would be no hurricane barbeque.
At 3:15 p.m. on Sunday, 45 minutes before the interstates closed, we headed to Baton Rouge where we had gotten a place to stay. We drove away from our home as emotionally prepared as one can be to return and find it gone. We never thought it would be there and our city, or at least its life as we'd known it and grown up in it, washed away.
We returned to the city on Labor Day to find that we were among the fortunate ones. The water stopped two blocks from our home, and our roof held. We drove through an empty city the whole city was empty, every neighborhood empty, no people, a few stray animals. The entire population was gone no one was here. The French Quarter was empty save for the 82nd Airborne and reporters drinking at Johnny White's a bar that stayed open throughout the hurricane. We drove through the Quarter because it was the only way to get to my parents' house in the Faubourg St. John neighborhood, near the Fairgrounds; the Quarter and parts of Uptown, were the only dry areas. Every other neighborhood was inundated with water seven days after the storm hit. It would be this way until the third week of September. We ended up walking two miles from the edge of the Quarter in water that varied from a foot to a foot and half deepthe city's elevation changes block by block. Still rescuing people off of rooftops, helicopters hovered over us thinking we needed help. My parents' home was surrounded by water, but because it sits on the Esplanade Ridge one of the highest points in the cityand because like mine it is raised, there was no water inside.
We returned to the city for good on 9-11, and lived without power and with water that was safe only for bathing for more than three weeks. We didn't care; all that mattered was that we were home.
Some aspects of life here have returned to the normalcy unique to New Orleans. Many have not. Much has been lost to the floodwaters: lives, homes, local mom-and-pop restaurants and small businesses, our musical and cultural traditions, the tangibles and intangibles that make up the New Orleans way of life. Katrina took the same thing from everyone in our country namely the belief that our government will and can take care of its people when they are most in need.
But we're New Orleans. We'll keep going, even if we have to keep going on our own. It's our way. We'll find it.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter