Last Sunday morning, August 28, at about 7 a.m., I left my apartment on St. Charles Avenue to evacuate New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina closed in. The night before, my parents had plans to "vertically evacuate" to a room in a downtown hotel, but I had managed to convince them over drinks that they should leave town, because this storm looked bad. I didn't sleep that night, watching the weather channel as the storm approached. I packed light -- some T-shirts and jeans in my backpack, enough books and DVDs to keep me occupied for a few days out of town, and the hard drives from my computer -- just in case.
By now you all know the case: New Orleans is decimated, drowned. First by the 165 mph onslaught of Katrina, then by floodwaters and broken levees, and now by anarchic criminal thuggery and an equally criminal lack of federal action. Who knows when it will end -- it's Thursday as I write this -- it's been four days since the storm hit, and the situation only becomes worse by the moment. The devastation...it's unimaginable. The human cost, the emotional toll, the geographic destruction, the economic ruin, it's all more than my mind can even process. We evacuees are all walking around on autopilot, not really admitting to ourselves what happened and what continues to happen. At the same time, it's all we can talk about, and our televisions and radios and Web browsers are nothing but disaster coverage, hoping that we'll see our neighborhoods or find some news about our homes or our loved ones.
I'm lucky; I was able to evacuate with my family (my parents, grandmother, two aunts, a great aunt, and a cousin) to Destin, on the Florida Gulf Coast, where my parents have a vacation condominium. It might be a crazy place to evacuate to, on the coast and all, but by the time we left, it was clear that the worst we'd see here would be nothing compared to what was about to happen in New Orleans. Things have been easy here -- it's the beach, we have everything we need, all our relatives are safe, and my family can stay here as long as they want. But I'm in the great minority of evacuees in that sense.
E-mail has been an incredible asset through this whole ordeal -- and so has my Weblog, Unapologetic. I've received e-mails of concern and support from so many of my friends that I've lost count -- people I haven't spoken to since college have written to make sure I was okay. I've even gotten sympathetic e-mails from readers in Brazil and Singapore and Germany. It's amazing how much that constant flow of support has helped me to get through this week, has kept me from the creeping depression that isn't far from any of Katrina's victims. That being said, I've developed the amazing superpower of being able to cry in public, whenever some little memory hits me and I realize I may never again experience the little details that were my day-to-day life -- coffee at PJ's Coffeeshop on Magazine Street, drinks at Molly's at the Market, jogging on the street car tracks under the great live oaks of St. Charles Avenue.
I've also been able to keep in contact with many of my friends from town, now fellow evacuees scattered throughout the country, and to read their stories -- most got out early, as I did, but some of them, or their relatives or friends, stayed through the storm and were forced to leave when the levee broke. One friend's parents were rescued off of their roof, brought to dry ground, and left there. They walked to a friend's home for shelter, and found him there, protecting his property with a shotgun, and together they got in a car and drove along a railroad track until they were able to cut down a fence to reach the interstate and head out of town. Everyone has stories like that, but what's worse are what you hear about those who haven't been able to leave. I know of several people -- a friend's mother, someone else's aunt and uncle, a neighbor in my condo complex -- who have been in touch via text messages and remain holed up in their homes in uptown New Orleans, running out of supplies, and afraid to even look out of their windows for fear of being murdered by criminals. A doctor friend of my aunt's, who had stayed at Children's Hospital with patients, had to be "escorted" with her patients by private armed guards to a helicopter when the hospital fell under siege by looters trying to reach its pharmacy.
I've been trying to speak with as many other evacuees as I can around here this week. Everyone has been eager to trade stories in hopes that they'll hear something about their neighborhood, their block, their home, their friends who they haven't been able to get in touch with. I thought I might find people out and about at the local beach bars and restaurants trying to drown their sorrows or make the best of a bad situation, but those places have all been empty of evacuees. Nothing could ever make this feel like a vacation. The only places I've found people congregated are around what few computer terminals there are here (in the lobby of the Sandestin Hilton hotel) that are open to guests, and everyone is just concerned with finding that one bit of hopeful information. A website that had been set up at www.scipionus.com was extremely useful, as it contained a Google map of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, which people could annotate with damage reports for specific addresses.
That's where I met a nurse named Jean, trying to find information about her home in Diamondhead, Mississippi, west of Biloxi -- nothing definitive turned up, but she found reports that some nearby homes had been totally destroyed. Another family, from New Orleans, was gathered around Laurie, a Mount Carmel High School sophomore who was checking discussion groups for information about her friends, and when, if ever, they might be able to return to school there. Mount Carmel is near the break in the levee that has caused so much of the flooding into the city, and the news seemed bleak. An attorney named George was concerned for his home in an affluent suburb after hearing a rumor of deep flooding, but wasn't able to find any relevant information and left, obviously shaken and nervous. I even ran into a friend from home, a graphic designer named David Caruso, who with his fiancE, Liz, searched until they found an aerial photograph of their neighborhood and only the roof of their newly purchased home visible in what must have been 12 feet of water. In the same photo I located my grandmother's house and an aunt's, all completely submerged. All we could do was laugh, because...what else can you do? We've all cried so much already.
Like everyone else, I've looked for word on my own address, and found the simple message that "4007 St. Charles is DRY." I got chills of joy. Why exactly that cheered me up, I don't know, because even if I got very little wind or flood damage, the situation in New Orleans is so fucked up at the moment that (living on a major thoroughfare as I do) I've got to almost assume that by the time we can go back there in a few months, my building will have been ransacked by the looting thug mobs that have taken control of the city. As far as my stuff is concerned, it's not important, I think we've all kind of written off all of our property -- you can't count on it being there intact, and even if it is, what does it matter in the face of what everyone else has lost? That's not what bothers me. What bothers me, and what's killing the living, breathing thing that was New Orleans, is the loss of order, the dissolution of the social contract, and the descent of modern Americans into complete bloody savagery.
It's beyond comprehension. The danger is immense. They looted and burned a shopping mall and shot at the firemen who tried to put it out. They've shot so many New Orleans Police that the police that are left are turning in their badges by the hundreds. I'm sorry, but these are savages; if they're so content in a land without law, they don't deserve trials and juries. Anyone seen committing a crime should be shot on sight, or better yet, left there in the water for the next few months to die slow deaths from cholera and malaria and toxoplasmosis.
I had to turn off the television just now because I can't stand listening to the director of FEMA spewing forth about how good a job the federal government is doing responding to this disaster, while we've got the radio tuned into the one New Orleans station still broadcasting, WWL 870 AM, and hearing our elected officials, now helpless and in tears, describe the situation as "the worst type of hell on earth," pleading for troops and humanitarian aid for the starving dying masses of people at the superdome and the convention center, and saying that FEMA, the Red Cross, and federal law enforcement are almost completely absent throughout the city and Jefferson Parish despite what they claim in press conferences. They sound like something out of Black Hawk Down or some other war movie, infantry lieutenants pinned down with their squads under heavy enemy fire, desperately radioing for backup and being told that it's "on the way" -- but it never comes. Forget the most devastating hurricane ever, the federal government's botched response to this is looking like a bureaucratic cluster fuck of biblical proportions. So much for Homeland Security.
We're all still in shock, several days later, but reality is setting in. Talk inevitably turns to the uncertainties and difficulties of the future -- will there be a city to go back to? How long will it be before we can? Will we have jobs if there is? Where do we go next?
As this first week of our hellish odyssey comes to an end, everyone is trying to figure out their long-term plans. Most of the people I've spoken to here, as well as friends I've been in contact with by e-mail, can't afford to stay in hotels much longer and are moving on for extended visits with family or friends in other parts. We won't be let back into our city for several months, and even then probably won't have jobs to go back to -- so those of us without extravagant savings have to start finding places to live and work. It looks as if I'll be heading to DC or Chicago, where my generous friends have offered me room and board for as long as it takes to get on my feet again. I'll make it work; not much choice, is there?
There's so much loss I can't talk about it all, I can't understand all the implications, I can't wrap my head around just how bad things are for my city and the wonderful people who gave it spirit and heart and made it the living thing that it was. It is still alive, critically injured, but alive, and mark my words, we will rebuild New Orleans. It will come back, because there are too many of us who love it and need it to be there. New Orleans will be back, better than it was. And I'll be there when it's time to bring it back.