It’s funny how the universe works. Ever since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I have been obsessed with visiting the area to do something, anything to help. Almost a year later, I had this brilliant idea: I would go to New Orleans and photograph some of the children affected by the hurricane and its aftermath and then help them write about it. I began my research in mid-June and determined the idea was too huge and the cost too enormous to give it a second thought. So, like many of my other bright but costly ideas, it wound up on the cutting room floor.
In mid-July, I received a phone call from a friend, asking if I’d like to be the technical writer for the City of New Orleans’ disaster recovery and business continuity planning project. Two weeks later, I walked through the Louis Armstrong International Airport with my pooch, Maxx, at my side, thinking how blessed I was for the experience I was about to embark upon.
The heat and humidity took my breath away as I walked out to the taxi stand. The driver, Mr. Rodney Simon, a native of the area, took a moment to assess Maxx.
“Does he pee?” he asked, as he tossed my luggage in the trunk. I’m thinking to myself, don’t we all?
Aloud I said, “On concrete and grass.”
“Good answer,” he replied, as he opened the door for us.
“Thanks,” I said, grateful that he hadn’t taken more time making up his mind. He really did himself a favor because he was truly on the brink of being taxi jacked by this very hot, sticky, sweaty, black woman and her hairy beast of a dog.
Welcome to New Orleans.
Mr. Simon was trying to evacuate his family, as well as his best friend: a friend he’d had for 50 years. While he and his wife followed the advice of the weather reporters, his friend decided to wait out the storm.
“I loved my friend,” he said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. “But I know better than to be tryin’ to tell a grown man how to live his life. Now I wish I had just made him get in the damn car.”
His friend made it through the storm. What he wasn’t expecting were the levees to breach. He fled to his car, loaded down with as much of his life as he could stuff into six Hefty trash bags. Mr. Simon found him three weeks later, sitting in his car, his body bloated from the water, eyes agape and his hand still on the key in the ignition. In addition to losing his best friend, Mr. Simon also lost two homes and a lifetime of memories.
I was utterly devastated. I wanted to see the area. For so many years I’d heard about the Lower 9th Ward. The crime. The poverty. Now this. I felt the sting as tears welled in my eyes. I found myself in a state of emotional paralysis. And just as I was sorting things out, I looked through the windshield and saw the monstrosity that is, in my mind, the New Orleans “Den of Iniquity.” No, not Bourbon St. where strip clubs flank the streets from Canal to Esplanade-what I am referring to is the Superdome. Ant-sized men worked diligently, repairing the damaged roof. A huge sign declared that all repairs would be completed by September, which I found odd, considering the buildings surrounding the dome were still in their wartorn state. I just shook my head in memory of the dead man that sat in his wheelchair for weeks before anyone decided to cover him up.
Before I could allow depression to set in, we were crossing the familiar Canal St. and heading into the French Quarter. I looked around at the boarded up buildings and the empty streets in disbelief. It didn’t look anything like I’d remembered from movies like Angelheart or Pelican Brief. ‘Ghost town’ is what came to mind. Mr. Simon was saying, as we pulled up in front of the hotel, that the Quarter had become a mere fraction of its former self, much like the rest of New Orleans. I paid my fare, took his card, and promised to call for a tour of the “devastated areas.” In all honesty, my heart just wasn’t in it. Instead, I came home, celebrated my birthday and that following Monday headed back to the Big Easy-a now Colossal Impossibility.
This time I spent every spare moment talking to the locals. Trying to understand, or perhaps just believe, the stories that had been spoonfed to the country about the state of affairs in the Gulf Coast. It was true that children had been separated from their parents. That people really did spend three to five days or more trapped on the roofs of houses and other structures before they were rescued. How rescue helicopters would come take the children and the elderly and leave everyone else, including the parents of the children, for rescue at a later time. One woman spent five days on a roof waiting to be rescued and reunited with her two young sons. It took her over a month to find them because instead of the boys being held in a safe place until their mother could get to them, they were ferreted onto a bus, frightened and confused, and sent to Houston. Thousands, I have been told, thousands of children are still separated from their parents.
After several unbelievable tales of the inhumanity that followed the worst hurricane in Gulf Coast history, I shut myself off from the world for a week. I went to work and then back to my hotel to watch television until I fell asleep. And trust me, sleep was not readily forthcoming. My mind would not shut down. I couldn’t understand how the country that I lived in, a country where I’m supposed to be proud to be an American, could leave thousands of people that looked just like me (and those that didn’t) stranded to die. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the war broke out in Lebanon. I sat, glued to the television, watching as our illustrious country sent rescue aircraft thousands of miles overseas to rescue 25,000 Americans from harms’ way. None of those people looked anything like me. None of them. I cried myself to sleep that night and woke up the next morning on a mission.
I paid a different taxi driver (I’d lost Mr. Simon’s business card somehow) to take me on a three-hour tour of New Orleans. I set out to photograph the devastation. Our first stop was the infamous Lower 9th Ward. When I say it looked like a war zone, that would be an understatement. As a matter of fact, someone had spray painted “Baghdad” on the side of a house, where the waterline sat at least 10 feet from what was left of the foundation. It was clear: Mother Nature does not discriminate. Thousands of people, regardless of their race, creed, or color had become displaced. The upper class Lakeview and waterfront sections of town were just as desolate as the Lower 9th Ward-which is really a diverse middle and lower class neighborhood.
When the driver dropped me back at my hotel, I headed straight to the local bar to drown my sorrows. I had my first and last “Hurricane” that night. Two sips into it and I felt the alcohol flow through my bloodstream, scorching my internal organs as it passed. A third of the way through and I was smashed (and I’m no lightweight, I must add). There was a guy at the bar who has asked to remain nameless who shared a story with me that had its effects numbed by the “Hurricane.”
This guy, I’ll call him “Gerry,” worked as a contractor, and his responsibility was to help get the pumping stations back on line. He was loaded with gear, given a truck and a partner and sent on his way. The only thing he needed to keep in mind was this: His responsibility was to get the pumping stations running. He was not to perform any rescue missions whatsoever. So, every day, Gerry and his partner would drive to various parts of town to work on the pumping stations, passing people lying dead in the streets or others that were in need of a lift somewhere, anywhere. He said the whole experience was painful, but the one that made him want to quit his job happened three days into it.
On that morning, Gerry and his partner passed an elderly woman in a wheelchair rolling herself down the street, headed in the direction of the Superdome. She was struggling to survive; after all it was the hottest time of the year in New Orleans. The temperature was in the 90s and the humidity above 40 percent, but she was determined. The next day, they passed her again, slumped to one side in the chair. They weren’t sure if she was dead or alive, but keeping a positive attitude, decided she was sleeping. The next day, she was still there and for another two weeks she would remain there. By the third week, they’d decided if they passed her again, they’d at least have the decency to cover her up, which they did.
Gerry wanted to keep talking, but by the time he’d finished his story, I’d finished my “Hurricane.” I was beyond loaded. I looked out the door at Maxx and saw two of him. The room was spinning, and my stomach was moving in revolutions of nausea and repugnance. I thanked Gerry and all the other locals that I’d met for their hospitality and stumbled out the door and up the street to my hotel. I hit the bed face first and remained there until well into the next day. That afternoon, a hurricane warning flashed across the television screen. Did I mention that not only was I there during the hottest time of the year, but also during hurricane season?
Hurricane Ernesto was headed straight for New Orleans. There were no high-pressure systems in the vicinity to steer it into any another direction, so everyone prepared to evacuate. It was a Category 2 (which had everyone especially concerned because so was Katrina-until she hit the coast and became a Category 5). People were in a panic. Except me, because I refused to believe that God worked that way. The God I believed in would not let another hurricane hit this city because it had already been through enough. It was not going to happen, and that’s what I told everyone I could. I remember one guy who said, “You can believe that if you want, honey, but if I were you, I’d start packing now.” He was wrong. Lucky for me, I was right. By that Tuesday, which also happened to be the anniversary of Katrina, Ernesto took a turn to the right and headed toward a state that seems to always be able to afford hurricane damage-Florida.
On the anniversary of Katrina, I went for a long walk around the Quarter. As is usual at certain times of the day throughout the city, scents of mildew and decay assaulted my senses. I had begun calling them the “smells of Katrina, one year later.” I passed friends that I’d made during my stay, wished them well and encouraged them to do something fantastic that day. . .if they could. I walked down Chartres (pronounced Charters for some Southern reason) all the way to St. Peters Square. In the center of the square, to my right, was Plaza el Armas. It was also the place where slaves were sold and/or traded and allowed to practice their religion-voodoo (sometimes written “Voudou” or “Voudun” meaning “God Creator” or “Great Spirit”) as the slaveowners and their families stood around the iron fences and watched. Having nothing to do with devil worship, voodoo’s main purpose, now and then, is to heal the individual in relationships with him/herself, others and ultimately, with God.
As the ghosts of my ancestors danced around the square, I thought of the sense of community I felt during the past month. I never met a stranger on my trip; everyone was always so warm and welcoming, regardless of their ethnic or cultural background. People made eye contact when passing me on the street-most also smiled. I was told by all the shop owners in the area, “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to let us know.” The staff at the W Hotel treated me like royalty and made me forget I was away from home. I made connections, new friends, an extended family, in a way. Our ancestral voodoo priests kept one thing in the forefront of everyone’s mind: hope. Everyone was absolutely sure that New Orleans would once again be the Big Easy-but even better. I believed it too.