When I first heard Katrina was making her way into the Gulf of Mexico, I didn't think too much of it. I grew up with hurricanes. Each summer and fall the names would pass my parents' lips in worried tones and alphabetical order. They spoke of Betsy and Camille with a reverence I never completely grasped until Andrew.
We boarded up our windows and school was canceled when Andrew threatened in 1992. He was headed our way, and we had bottled water and candles, batteries, a radio, powdered milk, and tinned meat. We were prepared to leave the moment an evacuation was ordered, but the order never came. Andrew changed course, our neighbors in Alabama and Florida bore his brunt, and New Orleans was saved again. And again and again, each year another narrow miss.
And so, here in Seattle where I've lived these past 18 months, Katrina was an afterthought as I perused the news each day. And then suddenly it happened—a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. I called my parents. My mother and her two elderly neighbors were already on the road to my sister's home in Baton Rouge. My father and stepmother were preparing to leave.
Monday I sat online examining weather sites, trying to determine Katrina's path. These type of predictions have been proven wrong many times in the past, but it seemed Katrina was staying on course. Finally, I had to sleep. Tuesday morning I awoke to reassuring news: Katrina had moved east of the city and most of New Orleans was spared. There were fallen buildings here and there, some flooding, the Superdome now had sky lights, but the city had fared pretty well. We had escaped disaster once more. But then the 17th Street Canal levee burst, and a call came from my father. New Orleans was flooding, houses were collapsing, there was no power, no drinkable water, and no gas, and the city was slowly becoming a huge, toxic sewer.
And my grandfather was still there.
* * *
My hometown sits in a shallow bowl between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. It is an old port town and America has fallen in love with its romance and exoticness. But no one appreciates New Orleans like its natives.
The world knows New Orleans as the Big Easy, a place where one can always find good food, good music, and a good time. But my town is more than Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. It's a place where you can find magnificent mansions, Creole cottages, and shotgun shacks all on the same block. Ancient oaks line the streets of Uptown and the Garden District, where Victorian homes preside over streetcars that amble to and from downtown and the air is perfumed with gardenias and jasmine and sweet olive. In the French Quarter, hawkers stand outside their bars, calling out to tourists, while the pungent aromas of sticky sweet liquor, piss, spices, and vomit waft up to the wrought-iron balconies above. There is always music, and there is always laughter. And the Mississippi winds through, big and rolling, just like the songs say. As a child I used to ride the ferry across it, hang my head over the rail and watch the brown water churn below. It was on the river that I had my first kiss.
When I think of my hometown I remember window shopping on Canal Street, climbing the sprawling, moss-laden limbs of hundred-year-old oaks in City Park, riding the streetcar Uptown, spending a lazy evening sitting on the porch at my friend's house in Mid City. That house is now gone, the streetcars are ruined, and flooding and vandals have destroyed the shops on Canal Street.
Then there's the lake, where I swam as a child. In my teens, my friends and I would walk from my high school to sit on the levees and drink wine coolers and make out. My high school is now at the bottom of that lake.
But New Orleans is much more than its landscape and architecture. New Orleans is its people. You are always somebody's "Honey" or "Darlin'" or "Sweetie Chil'" even if they've just met you. It's a metropolis, but it has always felt small to me. People are continually drifting in and out of town—it's one of the top tourist destinations in the country—but the people who live there are always the same. It's a place where businesses run for generations by single families have kept the urban sprawl of corporate America at bay. It's a place where everybody knows everybody through somebody.
But there is a darker side to New Orleans. Throughout its history the city has been divided into two distinct classes: the haves and the have-nots. It was the haves, the middle and upper classes, who managed to evacuate in time. Most of the poor in New Orleans are black, and many survive on welfare checks. Most of these people have never even left their neighborhoods, let alone the city limits. They are now our refugees. And there are the street people, the derelicts and the drug addicts who prey on the poor and the unsuspecting tourists. These are also some of our refugees.
After disaster struck, some of the stranded moved into the drier, more inhabitable areas of town. Some, believing they had been abandoned by our government, began looting stores for food and water. Others burned homes and raided shops for drugs and ammunition. Some raped and killed innocents who were there trying to help. At the same time, a number of police officers turned in their badges. They'd already lost everything they owned; why should they risk their lives? America watched in disbelief. I did not. The violence and lawlessness comes as no surprise to those of us who call New Orleans home. We know that some of our neighborhoods are much like Third World countries. The result of a century and a half of botched economic policy, both conservative and liberal, these areas are overrun with crime and poverty.
Now I sit and wonder what will happen to my beloved city. Will she be rescued? Can she be? Will my old neighbors even return? All I want to do right now is go home. But home to what?
* * *
When I spoke to my parents during the evacuation, my grandfather was planning to leave with them. For some reason, in the rush of my parents' packing, my granddad, an 87-year-old World War II veteran, decided to return to his West Bank home. By the time my parents realized what he'd done, time was running out. They had no choice but to leave without him and hope for the best. But upon hearing the news of the levee breech, my father and stepmother, both OBGYNs, immediately made their way back into the city to search for my granddad and volunteer their services at the hospitals that had not yet been evacuated.
After a seemingly endless day of uncertainty, I had news from my father. They took byways and back roads and passed through roadblocks with their medical IDs. They avoided downed power lines, fallen trees, and flooded streets, and they found him. My grandfather's neighborhood was dry, and he was locked inside without power or food, waiting for relief.