At first, the phones just rang busy. We took turns calling, we members of the Wiltz clan, scattered from Atlanta to Australia. My dad in Georgia, my uncle Charles in Chicago, my uncle in Los Angeles, the first cousins, 13 of us in all.
And then, sometime during the day yesterday, the busy signals were replaced with a message: "Due to a hurricane in the area you are calling, your call cannot be completed at this time. Please try your call later."
Right now, we don't know where they are. Haven't a clue. The last we'd heard from them was on Sunday. All we know is this: Most of our family in New Orleans was heading toward Texas, some were heading somewhere else. My cousin Deneen and her fiance decided to stay, never mind the mandatory evacuation; they weren't leaving.
That was Sunday.
Tuesday, we were looking at pictures of people trapped on rooftops and hearing reports of bodies floating down the street, of bursting levees and rising waters and disappearing neighborhoods and a man who apparently leaped to his death from atop the Superdome.
And our anxiety ratchets up a notch, or two, or four.
The night before, it looked as though we'd missed the bullet, that my father's birthplace, the city where I'd spent summers in my grandparents' big, creepy house, would survive. Some bad wind, some blown-out windows, a bunch of ill-tempered folks crammed up in the Superdome, but nothing that couldn't be handled with some federal money and a whole lot of patience.
Nobody had talked to "Bern' and them," as we called our first cousins, Bernadette, Deneen, Ellis Jr., Jerome and my aunt Sonja, but we figured they'd be calling us, just as soon as they could get to a working phone. Maybe Deneen got to the Superdome in time. I could see her there, turning up her fastidious nose at the nasty bathrooms.
So everything had to be okay, right?
Failing to reach our New Orleans kin, we called each other, tying up land lines, cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging: Have you heard anything? Where did they say they were going?
So we wait. And watch the news.
How can my city be swallowed by the water? Could this city that I've loved -- for its Creole culture, its food, its history -- and loathed -- for its flying cockroaches, its withering heat, its ofttimes spooky vibe -- cease to exist?
I am, of course, not alone in my worries.
My friend Lisa Moore, a New Orleans native, sits in her Hyattsville apartment surfing the Net and watching TV. She hasn't showered or changed out of her pajamas. Hardly ate a thing. How can she? Folks keep calling her. She's grateful that she doesn't have cable. The pictures, she knows, would be too much to take.
She last talked to her dad, a musician, on Sunday. At first he didn't want to leave town. His wife worked in a hospital, and she was on duty. But then Lisa got on the horn and called her aunt's cousin -- everybody's related to somebody down there -- who works on a commission overseeing the levees, and he barked orders: Tell him to get out. Now. So her dad started packing up, worrying that he wouldn't have room in his car for all the other members of their extended family, his 94-year-old Na-Nan, or godmother, their cousins. . . .
"He was scared," says Lisa, 41. "He said, 'Everybody's got to save themselves right now.' "
That was Sunday. Later that night, he called her to say he'd managed to get higher up, in Hammond, closer to Texas, between Baton Rouge and Slidell. She hasn't heard from him since. She doesn't think it's flooded up there. She hopes. But then again, Slidell is under water now.
"I'm all over the Internet, worrisome, but I can't do anything until he calls me or I see his face on the TV."
Meanwhile, there's her brother, who's been ill, who, last they heard, was heading for Mississippi. But he doesn't have a cell phone, so . . . they wait.
As do the members of a local listserv of Washingtonians with Louisiana ties.
"Just got a report from a relative who has a cop who went on a chopper tour and reported the entire New Orleans East is submerged. Also the twin spans leading to Slidell is out," writes one.
Another worries: "My family is on the westbank and I haven't heard from them AT ALL! We are REALLY quite devastated by the pictures and news of levee breaks. Are there any grief/mental health counselors in the network? . . . Let's continue to pray without ceasing."
Praying without ceasing is something that my grandmother would have approved of. Hers was a house filled with prayers, with nightly recitations of the rosary broadcast over the radio, of heads bowed, fists beating on chests. I wonder what she would think of all this. Would she think this was God's wrath? I wonder about my grandparents' house on Coliseum Street, with its big, hot rooms, stuffed with bloodied statues of martyred saints, where I spent many a summer night sweating under a weak-willed electric fan. I wonder about the crypt where my grandparents, Philip and Teresa, are buried, along with three of their children. And I worry that their resting place is buried under Lake Ponchartrain, the lake where I used to swim on hot summers with my uncle.
But mostly I wonder about my cousins. Time and family tensions have kept us largely apart, thanks to a family feud over land, land that is most likely submerged under 15 feet of water.
I hope I get a chance to see them again, mend some fences, indulge in a little door poppin'.