Our Hell in High Water

By James Nolan
Sunday, September 4, 2005


The real nightmare began last Wednesday morning, when the city cut off the water supply two days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Until then, I hadn't regretted the decision not to evacuate my second-story French Quarter apartment, even when the electricity flicked off in the middle of the storm, plunging the city into darkness and ending most outside communication.

I still had hope.

I'm not particularly brave, but I am a fifth-generation New Orleans native raised in a culture that knows how to deal with hurricanes. As a matter of fact, the first light I ever saw streamed from a generator at Hôtel Dieu, the hospital the Daughters of Charity had founded in the 19th century. I was born there during the unnamed hurricane that wiped out New Orleans in September 1947, and was rowed home to the Faubourg Tremé along a flooded Canal Street. So as clouds darkened on Sunday afternoon, generations of storm folklore -- sheer instinct by now -- sprang into action. I filled the bathtub with water, cut the wick on the hurricane lamp, froze water in plastic jugs to keep the refrigerator cool, secured the dilapidated wooden shutters on the front gallery, stocked up on batteries, food and bottled drinking water, and got out the portable radio and the plug-in white Princess phone. Then I opened a bottle of wine. By the time my friends José and Claudia arrived to weather the storm with me, I'd cooked a three-course meal, which we topped off with a bottle of Spanish cognac.

"Here's to Katrina," we toasted, "the Russian spy," even as the TV broadcast its unrelenting instructions to evacuate, evacuate, evacuate.

After Katrina began to pound us at 7 a.m. Monday, the only moment of panic took hold when a storm shutter tore open and a buckling set of French doors threatened to usher the hurricane into my study. While José and Claudia wired the doors shut, I held them in place with a wooden cooking spoon wedged inside the handles. Then we retired to the back gallery to watch the howling wrath of the storm whip through the brick courtyard. My building dates back to 1810 and has survived two centuries of storms from the Gulf. It knew what to do.

Or rather, the original architects of the city knew just what to expect, and designed houses on brick pilings, windows and doors with jalousied shutters, thick plaster walls and enclosed courtyards. Most of the buildings constructed before 1910 have been waiting during centuries for a storm of Katrina's magnitude, and survived her with iron-lace grace, as did my place. Houses with concrete slab foundations poured on reclaimed swampland, and towering plate-glass hotels and office buildings, were chewed up and spat out. As my mother complained after her suburban home was flooded several years ago, "Honey, things like this aren't supposed to happen anymore. These are modren times."

Nature hasn't changed, but the city certainly has.

Summer camp by kerosene lamp didn't last long. By Tuesday afternoon I was already beginning to hear about martial law, widespread looting and the city's mandate that everyone leave and nobody return. "You have nothing to come home to," the lone local radio station announced to the evacuated. "New Orleans as we know it has ended." Friends from both coasts called to inform me that the French Quarter was under water, even as I peered down from my balcony into a bone-dry street. When we took a walk around, the Quarter resembled a cross between the morning after Mardi Gras and a grade-B war movie. Choppers swooped overhead, sirens wailed and Army trucks rumbled through the streets.

I began to notice groups of residents lugging water bottles and suitcases, heading for the convention center. Hours later they straggled back. At this point my chief means of communication was shouting from the balcony, and I learned that there were no evacuation buses. The city had ordered us to leave, but was allowing nobody in to rescue us and providing no transportation out. On Tuesday evening, my skeletal neighbor Kip, a kidney-transplant patient, waded home alone by flashlight from the convention center, where there were neither dialysis machines nor buses to get him to one. His last treatment had been four days earlier, and he was bloating. We had to get him out.

By Wednesday morning, when the water was cut off, the city was already descending into mayhem. A looter had shot a policeman in the head, a car was hijacked by someone wielding a machete, gas was being siphoned from parked cars, mail trucks and school buses were being stolen, and gangs of kids from the projects were circling the streets on bikes. The social problems in this impoverished city had been simmering for decades; now the lid was off, and the pot was boiling over.

Despite the orders to leave, roadblocks had been set up, and nobody was being permitted to enter or leave the city. Molly's, a local bar, opened by candlelight and the rumor spread like wildfire: They have ice. If evacuated residents and proprietors had been allowed to return, to take a stand, some public order would gradually have prevailed. Yet the only advice from the city was to head for the convention center.

The city's heavy-handed tactics made me bristle. "We got too many chiefs and not enough Indians," the mayor complained. I knew what that meant: Nobody was in charge. The Homeland Security police state had collided with Caribbean inefficiency, and the result was disaster. I took action. I latched the shutters, kissed my deceased mother's rabbit-foot and cat's-tail ferns goodbye, and in five minutes had packed a bag. In a daze, I was acting out a recurring nightmare: The borders are closing, the Nazis are on their way, grab grandfather's gold watch and run.

I'd heard that hotels might be busing their guests out, and the place to head was the Monteleone hotel on Royal Street, a Quarter institution. So at 5:30 p.m. José, Claudia, Kip and I arrived trailing luggage and low expectations. But it turned out the Monteleone had gotten together with several other hotels to charter 10 buses to the Houston airport for $25,000, to do privately what the authorities should have been doing publicly. We bought a few of the remaining tickets at $45 each. The sweltering lobby was littered with fainting bodies, grandmothers fanning themselves and children seated in shadowy stairways, a scene straight out of "Hotel Rwanda." The last bus out of New Orleans was set to leave at 6:05, the Austrian hotel clerk informed me. I had my doubts.

We weren't the only locals in line. I spotted the legendary jazz musician Allen Toussaint. "Allen," I said, "where did you hear about this?" He shot me a broad grin and walked on, as if we shouldn't talk about such things. By 9:30 that evening the buses still hadn't arrived, much less left and about 500 people were milling around in front of the hotel, guarded by a hotel-hired security force of teenagers in "New Orleans Police" T-shirts with shotguns slung over their shoulders. An obscenely obese man was hauled in on a beeping forklift, and a row of passengers in wheelchairs formed at the corner. A run on the buses was expected, and we were warned that only those with tickets would be allowed to board. Anyone else would be dealt with by the kids with rifles.

Bus headlights appeared at last. A cheer went up. And then a single yellow Jefferson Parish school bus rattled up, bearing the news that the 10 chartered buses had been confiscated by the state police. We heard on the sly that this bus was offering passage to the Baton Rouge airport for $100 a seat. Allen Toussaint was the first to jump on, and after negotiating the price down a bit with the driver, who I assumed was an evacuator trying to make some extra money, we crouched on the floor and held our breath. Ours was the only vehicle sailing along a dry, unlit highway. Why, we wondered, isn't the city providing hundreds of these vehicles to carry people out by the same route? The authorities may fix the electrical grid one day, but who is going to fix the authorities?

Later a neighbor who stayed behind told me that the 10 chartered buses never did show up. "You mean you all escaped on that stolen school bus ?" she shrieked. The news, she said, was all over town. As in the Battle of New Orleans, the pirates were better organized than the soldiers, and saved our day.

We're now luxuriating in a friend's air-conditioned house in Baton Rouge, taking hot showers and sucking on ice cubes. I'm safe and dry, but however comfortable, this isn't New Orleans. The minute the lights flash back on, I'll be back home, unlatching my shutters and staring down a French Quarter street that I hope stretches as far into the future as it does into the past. As Stella says to her sister Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire:" "I wish you'd stop taking it for granted that I'm in something I want to get out of."

James Nolan, a poet and writer, teaches at the Loyola Writing Institute of Loyola University in New Orleans.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company