The water was rising.
All the media were talking about it. Streets with only a trace of standing water in the gutters on Monday now had one foot, two feet, three feet of water, and the level was rising. I knew immediately what that meant. The levees had failed. New Orleans was filling up with water.
I had concluded, based on the thin knowledge we had gathered so far, that our house had suffered significant damage. Katrina, after all, had missed New Orleans, and veered directly our way. If our house was gone, at least, I hoped, New Orleans had survived. In a way, this was more important to me than the survival of my own home. I had insurance and a medical degree, which meant my losses would be paid off and I would eventually find a job. But New Orleans was another matter. New Orleans is a delicate place, a place of poverty and old architecture, of comforting decay, a town of haunting shabbiness and charisma. There was no great wealth, no Information Age economy to hold communities together after a catastrophe. The people there loved their carefree, idiosyncratic lives, but many, many of them lived on the edge. I could survive, but many of the New Orleanians I had known as my patients over the years would suffer great hardship if the city was wiped out.
It is one thing to lose your home. It is another to watch the culture you grew up in quietly drown.
The national media had backed off of their "dodged a bullet" assessment. The new metaphor of the day was the "bathtub" and the "toxic gumbo." New Orleans, as a city below sea level, was the bathtub filling up with a mixture of swamp water, lake water, sewerage, street sludge, and refinery waste. Though I again had concerns about the media's rush to cliché, I sensed this time they were closer to right. I had walked the levees many times. On one side families, homes, children playing in the street, bars, churches. On the other, water — billions of gallons of it. If the levees were gone, the destruction would be unimaginable.
That morning I hooked up my laptop to the hotel internet and started searching for information online. I sent off a email to a fellow St. Bernard physician suggesting an emergency plan. Perhaps all the evacuated St. Bernard doctors could get together in Baton Rouge, I opined, and organize to re-establish medical care in our parish. My colleague had a better grasp on the severity of the situation than I did. He wrote back to me:
Thus far I have nothing except what can see on TV.
We had to get my wife a new phone with Houston prefix as no 504-985 and 225 (Miss) [Gulf Coast area codes were out.]
Clearly the whole city is underwater with fires, no water, sewer or power,
Twin span and Hwy 11 bridge is out
Chalmette is under 12-15 feet so prob total loss.
Will be weeks or months before any possibility of normality.
Currently with family in Houston and I-10 closed to BR [Baton Rouge]
We are trying to find a place in BR to stay while hoping to get into town to see what can be salvaged.
Left with shirts on our backs
I was not ready to accept that St. Bernard Parish was "a total loss." It seemed as incomprehensible to me then as it does now. But it was, as it turned out, the most accurate assessment of what had happened at home that I would read in many weeks.
The time we spent in the hotel room was little more than slow torture. All we had was the TV and internet. The information was repeated and repeated, like the same train running through the same station, except that every once in a long while a new piece of information was added, like an additional boxcar to the long circuitous train. After awhile I learned that there was no need to carefully scan the reports for the new information; if I missed something it would be around again in fifteen minutes.
All the major channels were starting to broadcast footage of looting. It was the same handful of people looting the same store, over and over and over. (I wondered how they kept restocking that Walgreens so fast.) There was no telling how bad the looting was, but the media knew how to make it look very bad.
The gap in the 17th Street canal levee was another matter. The pictures were even more horrible than the rumors. As someone who had seen street flooding many times in his life, I knew how devastating even a few feet of water in a house could be. Nothing escapes filthy water, from pictures, furniture, and appliances down to the sheetrock on the wall and the electrical wiring inside. Then the mold comes and the whole place smells. A flooded house is a wasted house. When it comes time to sell no one wants to buy a flooded house any more than they want to buy a car that has been in an accident. A flooded house is a total financial calamity. And that doesn't even touch the emotional loss.
I saw the same picture everyone else did, a thin concrete wall that had been overwhelmed in a 500 foot stretch, the water silently flowing into the Lakeview neighborhood as if it had been invited. Just a black sheet of water with a few white wave crests outlining the breach to remind the viewer that the water was rushing at a rate belied by the serenity of the picture. Houses and scraggly trees in long, straight lines indicated that there might have been streets between them. The water just flowed and flowed, and it looked like no one was around trying to plug it.
Of all the things that happened that week, the one I cannot get over is that the city and the Army Corps of Engineers did not have an emergency plan to patch a levee breach. Certainly they would have a few helicopters or barges and a few hundred tons of sandbags sitting around waiting to be rushed to a breach. It was inconceivable that if a levee started to break the emergency plan was to watch it on television. But that, in fact, was the plan. I wish I could say members of Army Corps or the Levee Board were just standing around watching the city fill up with water -- fiddling as Rome burned, as it were – but even that accusation would be generous. There was no one in sight of the broken levees, unless you counted drowning people.
Every ship on the ocean has a bilge pump, every car on the road a spare tire, but New Orleans had no plan to rapidly fix a levee breech before it developed into a chasm. In fact, there was not even a sensor system to detect a levee breech. The first reports that the levee had broken came from eyewitnesses who waded to higher ground and told reporters what they saw. The authorities were denying that a breach had even happened up to 12 hours after the first levee broke. Twelve hours to discover a 500-foot levee breach, in the United States of America. Heaven help us.
Today, even more so than on Monday, we grasped at every shred of information, watching every video image over and over, first on one channel, then on another, then a third, hoping each time that the story would turn out better, and it was always, always the same thing, this is bad, far worse than we thought, this is no dodged bullet, I wonder how many people are trapped in those flooded houses.
We tried to get out briefly, but I was not comfortable driving the car without being able to see out of the passenger window. So mostly we stayed in the room, and watched the other New Orleanian kids running up and down the hall as their parents worried in the rooms just as we did.
I learned one thing in that hotel room. Women are naturally better suited to care for children than men. Our room was small, and I would pass the time wrestling with our kids on the bed. When a man is on the bed roughhousing with two toddlers he can expect at least two good kicks to the groin an hour. For a woman that sort of play is much less hazardous business.
We finally escaped to a mall in the area. It was a pleasant enough mall at the bottom of a slope near one of Tallahassee's main highways. The highway ran on a ridge at least 20 feet above it. In New Orleans such a location would flood with every summer cloudburst, but I had to remind myself that we were not in New Orleans. In places well above sea level such matters are not a concern. In Florida water is a way of life. In New Orleans it is a way of life too, but today it was also turning out to be a way of death.
We went to buy shoes for my daughter and socks for me. I had forgotten to pack any socks, and as I watched the broken levees on TV it dawned on me that the socks on my feet might be the only socks I owned. So we shopped.
My daughter got a pair of Dora the Explorer sandals, which she was immensely proud of. Two saleswomen in the shoe department stood nearby and oohed and ahhed as she pranced around, showing off her new shoes. The more they encouraged her, the more she puffed up. I half-suspected we were once again being recognized as Katrina refugees. Maybe they were just being kind, but I couldn't help my self-conscious state of mind.
I tried to buy my socks in the shoe department, but this turned out to be a big mistake. The socks were technically from a different department and didn't scan properly at the cash register. So our whole family stood there while a clerk and two managers tried to figure out how to charge me for a $6 pack of white socks. Three people to close a sale on a pack of socks. And to think I wondered why the government couldn't figure out how to close a levee.
Since they were the only socks I was going to own, I felt a little like the guy in the joke who goes to the store to buy tampons for his wife and the price is not on the box, so the clerk calls for a price check on the overhead system. Price check on socks? Hell, just charge me the full amount and send the bill to my St. Bernard address. I'll be there to receive my mail, I swear.
While we were at the mall we decided to buy a luggage carrier for the roof of our car. Since we were probably out of a home and would be on the road for awhile, it made sense for us to get some extra storage capacity. In case we needed to buy more socks. We went to Sears and picked one out. In the automotive department we met a middle-aged man also looking at roof carriers. I hardly had to ask, but naturally he was from New Orleans. His home was in Metairie, and he was a professional musician by night and a school teacher by day. Classic New Orleanian: half community pillar, half seedy drifter. Well, in his case, to be fair, maybe 10% seed.
We had a pleasant talk with him; pleasant in the way chat at funerals is pleasant. We hoped he hadn't lost everything and he hoped we hadn't lost everything. There really wasn't much else to say.
Sears only had two luggage carriers left. Louisianans had been flocking in over the last two days and buying out the stock.
It would take about an hour to get the carrier installed on the car, so we walked around a bit more. In the food court we ran into more refugees. There was just no getting away from those people. We were sitting at a table minding our own business, when two families standing nearby started trading Katrina gossip. They were talking about which neighborhoods were flooded, how many people were killed.
After a few minutes of listening, my wife got involved with them. When they found out we were from Chalmette, they volunteered information for us. One member of the family had a husband with the state police. Ten thousand people were dead in St. Bernard, he had told them. The government was bringing in trucks full of body bags and refrigerated tractor trailers by the hundreds to take away the bodies.
None of this would turn out to be true. The final body count in St. Bernard was just over 130. Which is terrible enough, but an order of magnitude less than 10,000. Were they just making this stuff up, or did they really believe what they were telling us?
I doubted every word they said, and told my wife so even as they walked away. After all, how could a couple of women in Tallahasse, Florida know things the entire national press (who had the advantage of being in New Orleans) did not? On the other hand, I was amazed at how easy it was to pick up rumors about St. Bernard 450 miles from home. This may say more about my strangeness than of the strangeness of the situation, but I thought about ancient times and how chance meetings like this were the only way information about disasters was spread. It explains a lot about epic poetry.
That moment was probably the lowest point of the week. I knew nothing about our home. Nothing I could trust, anyway. I wondered if my two medical practice partners were dead. I wondered how many of my patients were now dead. If my house was wrecked, if my church, my daughter's school, Today's Ketch Seafood (my favorite spot to buy crawfish during Lent) — if anything was left. And here I was listening to pure gossip, to people who knew nothing more than I did making the reckless speculation that St. Bernard was America's Hiroshima. I didn't want to hear it. They should have kept their mouths closed.
It reminds me of know-it-all friends who volunteer medical advice. A person needs a gallbladder surgery, and tells his friend about it; instead of the friend responding, Good luck, Sam, I'm sure you'll do great, he instead says, Oh, I had an uncle who died from gallbladder surgery. Thanks for helping, pal. Everyone needs friends like you.
It makes it worse when people who do not know you at all think it is their duty to volunteer such information.
Katrina, as it turned out, would be the first major American disaster of the digital age. And the digits pretty reliably let us down. Every phone in the 504 area code was almost impossible to reach. We were constantly trying to call family members, and getting through about 5% of the time. By trial and error, we discovered a peculiar way to pass information around on my wife's side of the family. We were able to call my wife's father, who was in South Carolina on business, at any time and get through. He could call my mother-in-law and get through. But my mother-in-law couldn't call my father-in-law, and my father-in-law couldn't call us. And we and my mother-in-law couldn't call each other. So we fashioned a rickety information highway: We called my wife's dad every few hours, he called his wife, who then passed on news to my wife's sister and kids.
My mother-in-law had spend the night of the hurricane in a school in Baton Rouge with my sister-in-law and her three children, and then the next day found a room to rent there. Baton Rouge was jammed with evacuees, so this was a great stroke of luck. My mother-in-law had a friend who knew someone that managed rental property in Baton Rouge. She ended up in an apartment with my wife's sister, her husband, their three kids, my wife's uncle and his wife and their kids. And to think some were afraid to use the term refugees.
That night we made definite plans to leave Tallahassee. This was partly a financial decision. I was not certain how much money we had available to us, since our bank was in New Orleans and could be out of service for weeks. I supposed I was out of a job, and had no idea how long it would be before we had money coming in again. I didn't want to drain our resources at a rate of $100 a night. My parents were at my aunt's house in Baton Rouge, and we would be a lot closer to the action at her house if there was something we could do. And my aunt was not charging rent.
We still had the problem of the broken car window. Hopefully the car dealership would come through with the part and get us up and going by the early afternoon on Wednesday. For the second time this week we were depending on good service to get us by.
So we sat in the hotel room, and waited, as the water rose 450 miles away. In a way, it was drowning us too.