It was a most unusual time. I knew it then, and I remember it now. Everything was about the storm and even more about the water – water that for the most part should never have been an issue. But there we were, drip-drying like a bunch of limp wrung-out laundry.
We left New Orleans on the sixth day after the storm. It was a storm that tweaked human error and criminal negligence until 80 percent of our City became a body of water. We were part of the Dry Sector with homes and jobs to greet us back. But outside our small world, the City stretched out in disarray. Molding and smoldering. Fires had picked up where water left off. The burns were not rampant wild fires, but small hot spots scattered here and there; these fires were more like the result of an arsonist that leaves you wondering and waiting for the unpredictable. Few were meant as acts of terror, simply gas lines that blew, or folks still without electricity seeking light from candles.
There were the dead and dying. I was spared first-hand witness to human death. But I did assist a veterinarian, Celeste Gilbert, who from the beginning had been part of the difficult task of rescuing the far-too-many animals left behind. When I came on board, it was primarily cat and dog feedings with the occasional rescue. I saw what could not be saved – stepping over and around the corpse of a pet or a once-tough, street-wise stray. And there were the ones not willing to be saved – the dog, too frightened to accept food or rescue, determined to stay on a roof; or weary cats, done with drama, scattered under houses. But the only truly Oh-my-god-I’m-gonna-see-one close call was when Celeste, alarmed by a certain stench and a toppled wheelchair leaning into debris outside a back door, investigated inside the house. Celeste, fearless and armed with a strong stomach, returned outside with a bag of spoiled shrimp.
With respect to the losses back then, there should be no humor in a bag of shrimp – except sometimes nervous and uncontrolled laughter would take over when tear ducts were exhausted. New Orleanians are a darkly twisted bunch when it comes to accepting tragedy. We understand the need to laugh.
The autumn of that year was one long reunion. My job at Café Maspero tending bar gave me a full view over the restaurant. From this vantage point I watched, mesmerized, as folks adapted quickly to the art of eating and swatting the air above their plates and beverages without missing a beat. This new addition to dining etiquette was born of the need to divert the small flies (often called coffin flies or in polite company: fruit flies) that had become our newest constant.
What will stay with me forever was the daily reunion of folks as they returned. Back then, restaurants and bars acted as town halls or churches where the newly-returned-home could touch base with friends and family as rescue workers and military decompressed over a meal. It was like a community wake.
That first week of October, we joined those folks who were utterly jubilant upon their return to the City. I remember riding my bike through the Quarter waving “Welcome home, welcome home” to everyone I passed. There was so much hugging and “God I thought you were… (you started to say “dead” but just knew they’d tell you that their mom or neighbor wasn’t so lucky)… ah, not coming home this soon!” Bittersweet and powerful moments. Moments I feel lucky to have experienced.
Those of us who were spared the direct hit – whose life, limbs and lodgings were seemingly intact – could not remain sequestered within the pockets of light with people and fanfare; sanity and sanctuary. We had to enter the gray worlds of reality. For some, that path from color to gray was daily, and it took its toll on the seemingly “spared population.” My girlfriend had to drive from the Quarter through Lakeview every day to her job in Jefferson Parish. She said it felt like going from Kansas to OZ while crossing the 17th Street Canal to Metairie. Those who worked outside the color were beaten down slowly, one drive at a time.
Our City had a collective slide into depression. Amid the walking wounded were those injured in ways not visible to the eye but more to the heart – you could feel them. Oh, at first everyone made a big effort to be good sports about their lost homes and ever respectful of those who died. You heard it everyday, the constant refrain: “It’s just stuff. We’re blessed to be alive.” Little by little, brave words were replaced with discussions of which anti-depressant worked best. Then the suicides began.
Katrina, outside our levee system, was a destructive force of nature. And with most natural disasters, most folks are hard-pressed to rail and shake a fist at their god or nature. But in New Orleans the water, death and devastation that took over and remained even after the winds left was more the result of corruption, malfeasance and heartless politics than that of nature. Unlike so many victims of this storm, we had someone, too many “someones,” to damn to hell. Righteous anger is hard to resist, but so slow to heal.
Seven years have now gone by since Katrina.
Will I ever let it go? I doubt it. Fate has allowed me to live through a most amazing moment in history. I am a changed person living in a changed landscape. I am proud and humbled.
That October was a unique beginning.