|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2005-6|
What was the worst thing about being a New Orleans expatriate during Katrina?
"I know what this means. You don't understand I know what this means!" I was trying to let Dave know that this was serious, that what we were watching on the cable news networks wasn't just another hurricane moving into the Gulf. This was the one we always joked about, the one that I would use as a party piece: "Yeah, New Orleans is like a soup bowl. If you get the right hurricane coming in from the east with strong enough winds, it will sweep the lake right into the city". Then I'd shrug and laugh and have another drink.
But now it was happening. This was early Sunday morning UK time. Regardless of the hour back home, I called my dad living in Metairie and got his answerphone. Good. That means he got out of town. I then called my sister Debbie in the Biloxi area and got the same. Good.
I sat by the television and began my vigil, watching the reports of wind speed and direction. Most of my relatives live north of the lake nowadays. For some reason I felt they'd be OK. They always stick together and look out for each other. But dad was still living near the city and Debbie was on the Gulf Coast near Biloxi. I was concerned.
Fox News and CNN were repeating the same thing over and over, showing pictures of idiot reporters standing in the wind saying "Yup, it's really blowing hard out here." I went to the internet and found a web cam set up on the north shore of the Causeway Bridge, pointing back towards New Orleans. There was a mass of traffic, all leaving the city and the sky was so very dark. It would get darker as the day progressed until the cameras stopped working. I managed to find a way of streaming into two of the local TV stations: WDSU and WWL and watched as they repeatedly told people to get out of town.
I called JoAnn Montalbano, the woman who's been my best friend for more than half my life. She was living on the northshore, close to where I had relatives. Thankfully I managed to catch her. She was frantic; she had her house to seal up and her parent's house too, as they were out of town. Her current fella, Tom, had gone into NO to secure something to do with his work place and was due back - but of course the traffic on the Causeway was incredible. I can't remember now what I said. Just a general "hang in there, I'm sure it will be OK" platitude - knowing that it wasn't at all going to be OK.
There was nothing to do now but watch on a glass tube at a distance of several thousand miles. I was glued to whatever media I could get hold of. Dave kept telling me to turn it off, that I was only upsetting myself but of course I couldn't. I watched through the night, grabbing a few hours sleep then began again in the morning. The whole time I'm telling Dave about hurricanes that I've been through; about Betsy when my aunts & uncles and cousins came to stay "just in case" because our house had a second floor. Or Camille when my Aunt's house in the ninth ward got flooded - but remained standing. I remembered the sound of the wind making a god-awful noise as it blew under our front door, of listening to a crackly transistor radio, the smell of the kerosene lamps and that eerie feel you get as a kid when you know that adults are worried and scared but are trying to make you feel better. Now I was one of the adults. And I knew to be worried and scared for the people of my home town.
So I watched as the hurricane approached and I watched the huge queues of people trying to get into the Superdome. Why are they queuing for so long? Why won't they let them in? This thing is on its way!
And I watched as it passed, and I was there when they started talking about first one, then another break in the levee and about the water rising. What levee? Where? There are a million miles of levee in New Orleans. The news was on every channel but it wasn't enough. I began running back and forth between my PC and the TV - looking for any information I could find.
And I watched as the next day started and we could see what was left in the wake; streets that I knew, areas that I had lived in, the gulf coast where I'd holiday, the whole landscape of my past - looking like other pictures I'd seen on TV - of tsunamis and earthquakes and floods. But this wasn't some other place. This was my home town.
Time blurred after that. I had to find my dad and my sister. That was all that I could think about. It took several days, many message boards, e-mails and phone calls to relatives I hadn't talked to in years - but I was finally able to piece together where my family were. Debbie and her family ended up in Montgomery, AL with news that her house was gone. Not ruined or blown to pieces or knocked down. Just plain old gone. Dad ended up being sheltered by a small Baptist church near Winnsboro, north Louisiana. He drove until he couldn't drive any more, saw a sign outside the church welcoming evacuees - and went in.
Amidst all this was the trauma of having to watch what was going on in New Orleans - all those people at the Dome or the Conference centre, the ones on the roof of their houses, the ones wading through the filth. And knowing as I know with every pore in my body what that New Orleans late summer heat and humidity is like - with no reprieve of air conditioning or cool water. No drinking water of any kind.
What was going on? Why was no one helping? I listened to a representative from the UN say that they could have emergency assistance there in a moments notice - but they weren't asked. Same with several European emergency assistance groups who were waiting, wanting to get in there and help. But no. The US didn't ask for help. The US didn't need help. So along with the rest of the world, I sat helpless and in tears of frustration watching as people begged for help of any kind.
I don't need to tell you the rest. Everyone has seen the same images I've seen. I feel blessed that my family are alive.
Once I knew where my dad and sister were I immediately wanted to fly over and just be with them, no matter how chaotic and torn up the place must be. The urge to get back there so strong. I physically need to see New Orleans. I told someone that this must be what a salmon feels like - where you'd batter yourself to death to get back to your spawning ground. That's what it's like. I have to go back and just touch the city again.
New Orleans is where I grew up. I can point to the very spot where I got married, graduated from school, had my first job, went on my first date, learned to drive. It's where learned how to two-step, caught a Rex doubloon, watched Professor Longhair at Tipitina's, listened to Irma Thomas, drank a cold Dixie. It's where I sucked the heads and squeezed the tails a thousand times and slurped down a ton of raw oysters. It's part of who I am.
I've lived in the UK for 26 years now. Each visit back to New Orleans always brought a "gosh, that didn't use to be there" reaction. Of course I expected things would change; buildings and shops would come and go. But the heart of the city, the feel and atmosphere and attitude were always reassuringly the same. It still felt like Home.
I talk on the phone to my dad and sisters every few days .But I want to see them and hold them and hug them and tell them how much I love them. My flight to New Orleans is now booked and I'm quite anxious. This isn't going to be a holiday or a friendly family visit. It's going to be difficult. But it's a much needed visit in order to reconcile myself with what's taken place.
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is (c) 2003-2005 by Guy H. Lillian III.
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