A New Orleanian recalls days of trauma and disbelief in the days following Hurricane Katrina
by Ronnie Virgets
The First 72 Hours
Mostly, nature can be ignored, so it is. The unseen core of what makes it up never permeates our selves, never makes its way to our inner lives, which are far too busy imagining sex between strangers or the placement of furniture or the capabilities of a phone.
Then on some dark and stormy night, nature comes to call and this time, no west-wind caress of your cheek or bluebonnet rug at the edge of your vision field or black swallowtail bobbing among the peonies like a fluttering yo-yo or love-bug tragedy to be swept away by a windshield-wiper. Now, nature clucks, I have your full attention and watch, little ones. Watch and learn …
This was it. A hurricane. One of those globs of green and yellow that the TV weathermen dance around excitedly, a meaningful omelette. Only now it was here, the weatherman’s choppy fingers pointing at our mapped selves. And suddenly a hurricane was no longer just a television prop. It was outside.
The winds throttled the trees, paused, throttled them again. They cuffed the house like a fat man jumping up and down on your bumper. The narcotic of television helped keep his mind off of things.
Then the electricity went out. He sat in the dark and watched out the blinds. Lightning with a turquoise tint, leaves flashing their silver undersides. It was a dream world, lovely in its way. No creature comforts. This is how the grandparents of your parents lived every day, in welcome ignorance of what’s coming and what it all means.
He knew at least that the worst would come after dawn. He felt the weather tighten around the house and wondered what the worst would feel like. The winds. Before the lights went out, he had picked up the mythology book that had languished unread on top the TV set for years. He flipped it to the pages about Enlil, master wind of the Sumerians, Baal, Aeolus, the most important god of nature for the Greeks and the ancient winds, Aquilon, Kekias, Notos, Apheliotes, Zephyr, were his relatives.
“Wind is impalpable and invisible and yet makes its existence felt so clearly. The absence or presence of wind modifies both nature and man’s character. For ages, winds were thought to be emanations of friendly or evil gods. Today they are the subject of meticulous scientific studies and have lost their mystery.”
Tonight in the dark they are trying to win it back.
Hear the banshee shriek and watch the nearby trees — oak and plum and willow and palm — flail about like a fierce and frantic woman being wrist-held by her captor and then don’t be amazed at how many come down but how many ever stay up.
The hours struggled along. The day seemed to cling to the dark. Just before dawn, just before it all, time for an act of final desolate defiance. A walk on the slippery back porch, a walk stung by a wind-flogged rain. It’s okay. Power like this should be felt on the skin, in the bones.
Later the winds would make noise like a huge pipe organ or an air-horn on a tractor trailer, twenty or thirty seconds at a time. He poured himself some cranberry juice and contrasted the air-horn sounds with the missing rustle of air-conditioning pouring through the vents to flood your world with blessings. How quickly it can all blow away, one to another.
He heard a pop-slam from upstairs. At the top of the stairs, a little transom window had blown open. He worked the little winch trying to close it again, but it stayed blown open. Rain pelted the wall. He hoped this didn’t mean the start of a structural meltdown.
By one, maybe two, in the afternoon, the worst was over. He poked around in the darkened refrigerator till he found enough to make a sandwich.At some point he looked back outside. This time he saw water. Ribbed water, journeying water, water in a hurry to be somewhere else. It was already to his first step and an hour later, second step.
Think of the joys of water. The splash of a fountain, the gurgle of a tap, the tickle of a slide. All the pleasures of water leashed. But sometimes the leash gets set aside, or else there is no fear and awe.
The houses across the street huddled together in resigned surrender like pups left at the pound by tired-out masters. Everywhere wires roiled and dangled, the civilized spaghetti that usually brought things convenient and communicative, now the hazardous and haphazardous.
What he’s seeing …
Looking out the window and floating by is — what? — two matching legs protruding together from the dark waters spaced about two feet apart, moving steadily down the street with the drifted trash.
Moving what? It could be one side of a desk. Or board or lamp table or barstool or any of many things. Things that normally float past our view, seen partly and quickly, vaguely and incompletely. They only catch our attention now because they are not where they belong. Yet the novelty of their placement doesn’t yield comprehension; some things stay hidden. Or half hidden, which is even more maddening.
And what are others seeing?
Some will be looking out their windows at a world submerged and seeing proof of an unfeeling or uncaring universe. And others will be looking at the same scenes and seeing in the very act of seeing proof of a miracle.
So many eyes and so many ways of seeing …
He closed his eyes and dreamed, and for once the dreams seemed to make sense. He was on Claiborne Avenue near the Circle Food Store and the streets were flooded. But he was in a shopping cart, like a child. No one was pushing the cart, but it was going very fast down the middle of the street, shooting rooster-tails of water off the sides.
He dreamed himself awake and awoke to a reality that seemed fast and sinister already, here among the sheets.
When he opened his eyes again, there was two feet inside the house.He laid in the upstairs bed, munching lemon cookies and looking and listening.
Outside the bedroom window there was only batcave-black, but a white light flashed inexplicably every minute or so. The only recognizable noise came from frogs. From time to time, he’d hear things downstairs clink and scrape, things floating around in the dark and getting closer.
The clinkings got him thinking about things. He walked to the window and let the flashlight find the water-hidden porches and half-hidden windows and thought how this hiding would be ending one day, one day when these owners would come back and be just a wee less grateful “just to be alive.” Then they would begin to think of their grandpa’s pocket watch or the doily grandma knitted or the meerschaum pipes or ivory figurines or baseball rookie cards or photographs or whatever it is that people save to show that they were here and mattered. Things that had been telling their inner ears in some faraway dialect that they might have survived in some unclear and miraculous way. The time for that lie would be forever past when these things were finally seen again.
He flicked off the flashlight and treaded his way to the stairwell. He flicked it again and made ready to follow its forward lick downstairs but it hadn’t gone far before it caught the shine of the water and threw it back in his eyes. God, how many steps were covered now? Four, five? He pushed the flashlight insensate with his thumb and went back to bed.
The portable radio was held in his left hand while he fine tuned with his right. The local stations were pleading for folks out there in Radioland to phone in reports about what the storm had done to them when it was clear that one of the things the storm had done was to insure that no one could phone anyone about anything.
So he gave up on the locals, slowly searching the dial for the whispered high-watt stations in Memphis and San Antone and Cincinnati. He heard all the late-night gripes about offshore leases and local taxes, laced with commercials for pain-free mattresses. It was junk, but he loved that no one was talking about hurricanes.A look up with sleep-besotted eyes and moving along the maze of wires and treetops a thing dark-skinned with a tail that is … blinking light? Ah, no. What’s being watched is a helicopter. No matter what you watch, take another look.
Now that the deluge has passed, the air is busy with the rescuers and recorders looking down on those who now want them. And those will soon begin their Victim’s Dance, waving towels, displaying entreating bedsheets, looking skyward with pleading eyes. All trying to win approval, enough approval that you will be permitted to continue living.
Here comes one now. Wave that towel, crane that neck, try to make eye contact. Throw something, Mr. Pilot. A rope ladder or at least a look. Throw me something, mister. Me, mister, me, me!
The water in the stairwell has come up another couple of steps during the night. Time, maybe past time, to start making getaway plans. He took off his shirt and pants — why give up his only dry clothes? — and went slowly into the water. He had to hop on his toes to keep the water out of his mouth.
Everything heavy was under the water, some things gone from sight, and everything light was floating on top. Some things were remembered as gifts. The gifts now gone can be reconsidered and the motives and methods of the giver recalled and the sweetness of it all resurrected. The gifts can be lost but not the generosity.
It’s a little trickier with the gifts we bought ourselves. Maybe for those with little, to lose everything is in some way easier to handle because it can be more easily replaced, maybe by a single act of charity. It is for the minor-league materialists to suffer the worst scars of materialism. For he or she the sad farewell of the lamp, the table, the clock, the music box, these things evoking sentiments past or devoutly wished for. Now they are all going away, these minor materialisms, vicious reminders that all things are like clouds and moons, lives alien and apart from ours that can never be truly owned. Soon these things will leave the home-spaces they so proudly held, trade their singular identity for the lumping anonymity of the pile waiting for the broom or bulldozer.
Some are leaving early. They’re floating by now, carried by the current to the corner and beyond and with them goes maybe the last normality we’ll ever see.
He treads water by the front door. He’s been swimming in rooms of cool black ink and there was an elation to it, a kind of farewell to flesh, a carnevale, before a long period of repentance and bitter memories. He dog-paddled to the back door.
It opened easily. The kayak and paddle and life jacket were floating around the back yard and he chased them down by going hand over hand between the Chinese parasol trees. When he got them all together, he pushed everything to the porch swing and tied it off on the chain.
Then he thought: How am I ever going to get into this kayak? He swam back inside and retrieved a wooden ladder. He set the ladder up next to the tied-off kayak and whispered that it would work when the time came. To whomever was listening.
He looked at the water lapping against the fence. If it kept rising at this rate, by tomorrow morning it would top the fence and he could take the kayak right over. That’s when he would go. He was in no big hurry. There were plenty of downed power lines out there. By tomorrow morning the water in the house would be in the upstairs bedroom. He’d go out the window and jump off the roof and swim to the kayak.
After a lunch of the remaining sandwich, he sipped cranberry juice and wished for vodka. He’d have to settle for this idea: The enormity of things cushions their pain. If you had lost one of these things, you would have wept and whined. But all of them?
Stay busy. He undressed and went downstairs. He fished a broom out of the water and swung it against the wall until the head broke off. Then he brought it upstairs and hunted for hammer and nails till he found them.
It was hard to write something on the bedsheet. He decided on what he had always been told was the first sentence he had ever uttered, after some hide-and-seek: Here I Is. There was something symmetrical and existential too about it, so he scratched “Here I Is” on the bedsheet and nailed it to the broomstick.
He undressed again and headed for the front porch. In the unlikely event a rescue boat came down the street in front of his house, somebody might see the bedsheeted message and stop.
As he struggled to fix the broomstick to the house-front, he heard a shout, like a man calling for hunting dogs. He heard himself shouting back.
The boat slowly came. Two young men were standing and he could see the tops of two older heads. “Glad to seeya. Wouldja mind waiting for me to get some pants?” One of the young men covered his mouth in mock horror. “By all means,” he said. He dressed as fast as he could; it’s not wise to keep redemption waiting. Still he took time to salute good-bye.
A lifetime, sometimes two, for assembly. A day for disbursement. A minute or two for leave-taking.
He felt vaguely like he was deserting a lover who needed him. He took a breath and went into the water with his pants on.
The two young men in the boat were named Eric and Johnny and that’s all he would know of them, maybe ever. The two old men had been plucked out of attics. One had been in a wheelchair and his shorts were slipping off.
The boat took them to a railroad overpass. He got stung all over his legs by a cluster of red ants floating by as he helped lift the wheelchair guy and lay him down on the railroad cinders.
“Just wait here,” the boat guy advised. “Some Coast Guard guys were around in an airboat. They might be back.”Finally the black waters yielded to the concrete high of the Interstate and here the rescue airboat scraped to a stop. A basketball goal, kid-sized, floated by.
“Start walking” a man in uniform softly suggested, and he did. It was a good, long walk and then he was among the heat and anguish of what was called a triage area at Causeway and the Interstate.
It’s all here, all the fear and blindness and haste and inertia at the assembly of Israelites just before the Pharoah’s chariots arrived or the Vietnamese the day Saigon fell. The cards that Fate would deal for the next hand were being shuffled, cut and dealt here. By boat, plane and flip-flop the dispossessed were coming here to be herded, counted, assigned, while the noise of rotary engines and low gears drowned human sounds.
We look like the extras in somebody’s bad idea for a movie, he thought. The saved were out under the blue sky of the Lord, but they seemed jailed somehow, jammed here against the siege of mortality. Especially the old, halfdressed and dirty. There can be other reasons for the young to be so: crawfishing, grasscutting, triathalons on a drizzly day. There is never a reason for old people to look like this. Frightened, too.
In the boom of silence, most people weren’t talking. Words had simply not caught up to deeds. He directed his eyes to particulars: An old man with a sullen suitcase of many journeys, blue when new. A tousled woman with a tiny travesty of a pillow.
Did they have room to take along some tradition? We are a people of tradition. We have traditional ways to deal with the heat, traditional recipes for redfish couvillion, traditionally favorite novenas.
But the traditions other people expect us to have and the ones we love to tell of ourselves are those of Mardi Gras: The last float of Babylon that your cousin always rode on. The place you always put up the ladders for Endymion. The potato salad Uncle Buck always whipped up only once a year, the afternoon of Mid-City. Your brother and his wife dressing like Fred and Wilma every Mardi Gras.
That’s how we celebrated Mardi Gras. We were dismissive when others tried to celebrate it without quite knowing how, like foreigners first trying to do the steps of a folk dance. We were dismissive, but another part of us was proud that we know such a dance. Traditionally, we taught the steps to newcomers.
The tradition is not a singular thing but is carried along piecemeal, with this one and that one and even that unlikely one over there. We are all carrying some of it with us as we scatter like ants from a footfall, some to Florida or California, Minnesota or Arizona, Texas or even Baton Rouge. Each a piece.
If only you will bring it back again. Back home where it belongs.
He shook his head to get rid of some of the thoughts.
This is the longest day of my life, he remembered.
He shuffled toward a cluster of souls being bossed by some potentates of the town, gendarmes and councilors, super-numeraries exalted by the day. People fluttering without accomplishment, like a caged quail.
“Okay, when these pull up, get in” said a captain hiding behind sunglasses and pointing at some deuce-and-a-halfs with desert camoflauge.
“Where they headed?” The captain thought about not answering and then just said, “Superdome.” He considered only a second and asked: “What else you got?” Like a kid asking what flavors at a sno-ball stand.
The captain straightened his sunglasses on his nose and said in his best captain’s voice: “If you don’t get into one of these trucks, mister, then you’ll spend the night right here because this is the last detail of trucks tonight.”
He shrugged and turned away. As the last truck rolled away, he saw the faces of those Superdome enlistees and they all wore a grimace. He waved sadly.
A slab of cardboard made a perfect spot to sit on the grass under the overpass. He pretended smoking an imaginary cigarette and thought: Well, you’ve made the history books at last. The same waters that erased your individual history back there will float you into the future textbooks en masse. One who lived through the flood of ‘05.
Lived through and then what?
This may not be the very worst history has to offer, but will have to do until something worse comes along.
We are all prophets of another’s present, our future to become another’s past.Then, mercifully, there were five more buses, in a neat yellow row. Schoolbuses from Ascension parish, or was it Assumption? “Where ya-headed?” “Nicholls University in Thibodaux. Get in.” When filled, the buses began. He softly leaned his cheek against the quivering bus window and closed his eyes. He hoped some calm would come but instead a headache rippled through his scalp, helped along by the clamor of the scared and stupid.
Sleep would be such a gift. He felt it far off and getting further.
Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. The plummeting sun still flared intently in the western sky but the formless green fields beneath already were snuggling up in the coming dark.
He surveyed his fellow sufferers. An older woman with sweptback grey hair and an androgynous face kneaded a rosary through her fingers and prayed with moving lips and closed eyes. Next to her on the seat was a commonplace lamp. On the next seat was a middle-aged guy with one hand on top of a painting of dogs playing poker, the image that once decorated half the barbershops in town.
The things we grab when going out the door. Are the first steps in our New Life going to be taken with a commonplace lamp or a barbershop painting in hand?
The guy behind him talked with annoying volume and cheer and guided the sociable last two rows on the bus. They all giggled when a young black man near the front began to retch, then puke.
That began all the humbug. A possum-faced guy lurched to his feet and slurringly demanded that he be left off the bus for reasons incoherent. A big guy was riding escort for the driver and ordered him to sit down because this was a convoy and that’s not how things are done in convoys. The possum-faced guy sat down but he kept cursing, and loud, too.
Then the female half of a Vicodin-laced couple got up and headed for the back of the bus.
“Somebody lend me a blanket. I gotta whiz.”
After a moment, the gang in the last two rows realized that the woman wanted them to clear a space for her to squat and deliver. The cheerful loud guy began to shout and everyone joined. Turned away, the Vicodin gal began to cry and curse. Someone produced a blanket and she held it over her head and did what she had to do, never mind the loud groans from the back of the bus.
Greatly indeed it will ease me of grief when it comes to my mind, the thought of the gods. Yet, though guessing in hope at their wisdom; I am downcast when I look at the fortunes and actions of mortals. –Chorus in Euripides’ Hippolytus
The convoy stopped in a big parking lot outside Shaver Auditorium. Crowds milled around relentlessly. Without electricity, workers took down names by Coleman lanterns. Families staked out sleepspots on the gym floor. It was hot.
Outside the gym was cooler. Herds of cellphone addicts walked here and there trying to make a connection, but none seemed to work. A young woman sat on the curb and fixed another young woman’s hair.
“We gotta keep keeping on,” she said to someone. One addle-eyed young man with a water bottle in one hand and a big bag of barbecue chips in the other kept walking from the gym to a vacant tractor in the parking lot. A security guard would gently stop him and point him back to the gym. The process would be repeated.
He breathed deeply of the night air, warm and dry. There was nobody here trying to sell anything. Before the misery of that sank in, he enjoyed the moment.
Back in the gym he looked around at the dark shapes and thought: Who are these people I am sleeping with, eating with, tonight? Get used to it. In a way you never were before, you will be surrounded by strangers from now on, the familiar less and less familiar. The tiny chips that make up the mulch of your life are blown everywhere and many will stay there.
It will be like being in a long-running Broadway play and one night you show up and some of the other characters are no longer on stage and the rest are all in different places and all the places in the script where the laughs were … well, they just won’t be there anymore.
The generators kicked on around midnight and suddenly the gym was so lit up you could nearly see all the staleness and heat and exhaustion there. The lights stayed on the rest of the night, taking sleep away from most and privacy away from the few who found it. Darkness during the waking hours, bright light during the sleeping hours. Things were different now. Likely they would remain so.When he finally comes back by car to the house he left by boat: On the plywood-covered door of the house on the corner, written in spray-paint the color of garish lipstick, a farewell kiss: “Thanks N.O. for 56 great years. Good-bye.” He leaned against the hood and looked around. A city drained of color, a black-and-white sci-fi movie.
At what point, after how many hours or days, does a misplaced thing become a lost thing? And what about worlds?
Has anybody here seen a lost world?
The woman from a few houses down came by. Her face was like a baby that’s just fallen hard and can easily cry but wants a second opinion and is looking into your face for one. She just held her arms open as she walked up and then put them around him and sobbed against his chest.
“I’m almost afraid to say this,” she whispered, “but I didn’t feel this bad when my daddy died.”
And this didn’t seem at all odd to say because when your daddy dies, people rally around you in tiny support groups until you think of something else. But now it’s as if everybody’s daddy has died, all on one awful day, and what else can be thought of?
He wasn’t sure of what to do with his hands. It’s hard, oh so hard, when the comforter needs comforting. In the worse kind of way…
Ronnie Virgets has, in his 66 years, been a Bourbon Street bartender, a journalism professor, a racetrack PR director and a newspaper sportswriter. It has been his more recent visibility on television, however, that has provided the viewing public with an image that many consider to be a true and forthright reflection of the city’s charm. Virgets has won numerous awards from the New Orleans Press Club for his writings in the Times-Picayune, Gambit Weekly and New Orleans Magazine. His work in television has earned him several awards, including an Emmy.