Flashback – I’m in Sugarland, Texas, a suburb that lies (I think) southwest of Houston. I am sitting in the 4-Runner with the air conditioner running.
The dogs, Zoe and McKenzie, are with me and Andrea and Alex are inside Wal-Mart. We evacuated from our home in Mandeville, Louisiana yesterday in a concerted effort to miss the path of destruction that is sure to be Hurricane Katrina.
Katrina became big news for us late Friday night, maybe even later. It’s just that we hadn’t noticed that her projected path had shifted drastically putting New Orleans smack dab in the middle of the storm’s cone of destruction. No. It was around midnight when Andrea and I logged on to check out Katrina’s latest coordinates and saw that it was more or less heading straight for us.
At that point, it was still a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, but the outlook didn’t look good.
I woke up leisurely enough on Saturday morning with the knowledge that we may or may not have to evacuate. Alex and I had all-you-can-eat pancakes at the Big K in Mandeville. We then drove up Louisiana 1088 to take pictures of illegally dumped trash for a story I was working on. Alex and I then drove up to the Abita Springs Airport to take some pictures, again, for another story I’d planned for the next week.
Loosely planned – I have to preface this story by noting that I’d been off kilter all week. I’d gone through the entire week thinking Labor Day weekend was coming. I realized on Friday, though, that Labor Day weekend wasn’t until the next weekend.
So it didn’t shock me that the storm had shifted. I chocked it all up to weirdness.
Initially, I found it hard to take a storm named Katrina seriously. She’d wrought some minor damage earlier in the week when she crossed the southern tip of Florida as a Cat 1 or 2 hurricane. I mean really, how bad could a storm named Katrina be? Even as we fled with dogs, cats and child yesterday in a mad dash for Interstate 55, before the morons with the state put the contra-flow plan into effect I was creating leads for the story I knew I would eventually have to write when I returned to work.
One lead, may favorite was: Although Katrina brought waves with her, no one was walking on sunshine as the hurricane pounded the Louisiana coastline.
I may still use that one. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
I’d been spending a leisurely day with my son. In many ways, it wasn’t different than many other Saturday mornings I spend with him, other than the fact that there was a vague, and I reiterate, only a vague feeling that something might not be quite right in the universe.
After the airport, Alex and I stopped at the paper. I’m still not sure why I stopped there. Oh yes, it was to get my publisher’s phone number so I could call her what we should do if the threat passed from “well, it could be hit or miss” to “Oh fuck! We’re all gonna die! Everyone run for the hills!”
I copied her number down and as we locked up and began to leave, I bumped into Louis Fitzmorris, the mayor of Abita Springs. He was on his way to an emergency meeting (The St. Tammany EOC aka Emergency Operations Center is located directly across the street from our newspaper office in the old Covington courthouse) with all the other mayors, cops and local government heads.
I asked him what was up, what he knew, if he thought this could be the big one.
At first he said, “Probably not.”
That’s the last fucking time I ever listen to Louis when it comes to forecasting.
But then he added that the collective heads of local government were treating it as if it could be the BIG one and that he would know more after the meeting-slash-conference-call with the big-wigs from the National Weather Service.
By the time Alex and I got home, people were lining up at gas pumps and the storm had intensified.
Andrea was ready to begin packing. And so it began…
I called Kevin Davis, our parish president and he said it didn’t look good, that storm tracks (all still projections of course) still had this storm with New Orleans dead in its sights. I asked Kevin when contraflow would go into effect and he asked the strangest thing, “Is this for print or because you’re trying to get your family our of town?”
I told him I just wanted to get out of town, but still thought it was a queer thing today considering the St. Tammany Farmer, my newspaper, was a weekly and that he knew damn well that we didn’t publish until Wednesday. It was then that he told me if contra flow did go into effect it would be at 4 p.m. on the dot.
“But you didn’t hear that from me,” he added, for good measure I guess. I told him to take care and that I would try to keep in touch with him via the telephone and/o email.
It was shortly before 1:00 p.m. when I got off the phone with him. The I called my publisher, to see what the plan was. I told her (Didn’t ask, didn’t beg or quibble) we were leaving town, just to be on the safe side, but that I would work on copy while evacuated and email stories to her from the road, from my hotel room. I told her I had some pictures that I would download for her when I returned to the office to pick up materials and documents for stories I was working on.
She said that if worse came to worse, we could probably operate out of the Daily Star’s office in Hammond. She also noted, with a hint of sadness in her voice that in its 100-plus years of publishing history, the St. Tammany Farmer had never missed a production week. It was a cheap shot, on her behalf, meant to instill guilt. But by the same token, I also felt her pain. If this were, after all, the BIG one, and we were in the epicenter, I should be staying put, not running away.
Alex and I rolled back out, returned to the paper and downloaded the pictures. We then raced back to Mandeville, back to the Big K to buy cat carriers, cat food, ice and several other things. By the time we arrived back at the Big K, store workers had already put plywood up in the windows and shoppers were scrambling like mad rats, buying up hurricane supplies. Four stores in the general area had already sold out of ice.
I felt like Alice right after she slipped through the looking glass or after she tripped on magic mushrooms. The Big-K had undergone a dramatic change in just s few short hours. It was surreal. I had to ask myself, repeatedly no less, “Is this the same store I just had a leisurely breakfast with my son in only a few short hours before?”
Indeed. It was that fucking weird.
Alex and I made it back to the house by 2:00 p.m. Andrea had gotten a lot of stuff, almost everything, packed and ready. By 3:15 p.m. we were on the road…..
The above writing is a journal entry, written in the very reporter pad I had been using the week before the evacuation. The writing of the entry itself was abruptly interrupted when Andrea and Alex returned to the car, hot and disheveled.
“It was so fucking weird in there,” she said to me. “I just got a real weird feeling.”
Indeed there was weirdness everywhere.
It is now, Friday June 2, 2006. Yesterday marked the first day of the official start of the 2006 hurricane season. It’s…well weird, to go back to that entry, reflect on it and then think of all that has transpired since that time and those initial two weeks we spent on the road.
Yes, two weeks. We packed as if we would be gone for a day or two; three or four at the longest. And although there was definitely a sense of foreboding in the air, as I can see in the writing in that entry, there was no way I could have, no way anyone could have really realized the destruction, the chaos, the governmental meltdowns- the personal loss and suffering that would follow, that has followed in the wake of Katrina for the past eight months.
I can’t believe it’s really been that long, that that much time has slipped by. There were so many things I planned to do. One was to keep a day to day journal, in that reporter pad, a sort of blow-by-blow Hunter S. Thompson-style chronicle of the events leading up to the hurricane and the shit storm that followed. But the images that hummed over the televsion sets first in Houston and then a day or two later in San Antonio were too shocking.
A new shoreline was created in my home town in Slidell. The shoreline of Lake Ponthcartrain now fell about eight miles north of where it usually was.
My mother’s house- the house I grew up in, the house where a lot of my stuff books, music and personal writings – was still stored took on eight feet of water. Eight feet.
Of course I didn’t know this at first. I didn’t know anything at first, except for the scenes that were coming out of New Orleans and Mississippi, death and destruction, looting, people walking around dazed…The one thing I remember the most, the image of Hardy Jackson a 50-something-year black guy in Mississippi, Bay St. Louis I believe, wandering the streets telling CNN reporters, “I’m lost. I can’t find my wife..she was in my hands but I she told me to hold on to our kids. She was just washed away..she’s lost.”
It’s his solitary image that still haunts me, more so than any of the other footage that was played and replayed, an endless loop during those first few days right after the storm.
Of course there was that. The initial trip back to our home in Mandeville, which only had slight damage, a small hole in the roof that as of this date is still tarped up and awaiting repair. This was followed by another week on the road, this one at our friends house in Atlanta.
Then there was the return home, for good, to the recovery zone. Back to work, back to reality. Boil water notices still posted in most places. Electric, phone, cable none of it back up and running at 100 percent. The first day back in ym office I found my old computer had blown. I was spending most of my time across the street at the EOC because the Red Cross, parish government, Department of Health and Hospitals were still basically living there and because some asshole hit something and ruptured phone lines.
Blackhawk helicopters hovered overhead night and day, the National Guard was set up in Target parking lot handing our free water, free food and boxes of MRE’s for weeks on end. And then Hurricane Rita, which re-flooded everything.
We’ve been under the national spotlight almost non-stop. Ray Nagin, whose hands are stained by the blood of hundreds he could have saved had he fucking just done something, was inaugurated today, re-elected after the fiasco..as the nation undoubtedly looks on at us in scorn shaking its collective head, muttering, “They deserve what they get if they re-elect him.”
Which is true, perhaps, but still a painful pill to swallow when you’re from here, trying to readjust and find your way in the recovery zone. Shit’s still being picked up from Katrina. Waterways are still clogged with fallen trees and sunken boats.
The Mississippi gulf coast is still flattened, FUBAR.
And now here we are, hurricane season 2006. Yeah, I’ve suffered from a pretty bad case of the would haves, could haves, should haves for the past few weeks. I’ve told myself, I’ve been too busy reporting the news to keep an honest chronicle of events. All of it bullshit, no doubt.
So, in this moment of redemption, I am embarking upon yet another attempt to chronicle both this new hurricane season, as well as the process of recovery that will be a part of life in southeast Louisiana, I’m sure, for many days, months and likely, years to come.