After watching the news and reading the paper from front to back, I concluded that all I had left to hope for in my own little world was that the water in our house had not gotten high enough to flood out my car, or if that was gone, maybe the upper shelves of my book collection had survived. If all else failed, at least I could count on whatever garbage was left in our attic. (I would lose that too.)
We got in touch with my wife's family again. They had moved out of the emergency shelter at the elementary school and were now set up in an apartment near the Louisiana State University campus. We arranged to see them that afternoon.
In the meantime, we took a ride around Baton Rouge. The city was certainly not the sleepy midsize Southern town it had been only a week ago. Although Houston eventually got credit as being the destination for the largest number of evacuees, Baton Rouge undoubtedly took in the most in proportion to its population. Baton Rouge was a town of about 600,000 people prior to the storm, and accepted almost 250,000 evacuees. The city groaned under the burden.
After the storm Baton Rouge teemed with rumors about violent refugees. On Thursday morning a story spread that New Orleans hoodlums were roaming downtown Baton Rouge mugging and looting. This rumor induced many downtown businesses to tighten security and restrict visitors, or even close down completely. My cousin's office was ordered "locked down" by his managers, meaning no one was allowed in or out of the building until the business day was over. As we would learn in the coming weeks, these reports were completely false, but in a city where every third resident was an evacuee, it was easy for such talk to take wings.
Poor Baton Rouge was also an agony of gridlock. Traffic backed up in every direction. People from New Orleans crowded every store parking lot and anywhere it was rumored FEMA or the Red Cross had an office. (FEMA had responded to the disaster by commandeering an entire floor of a Baton Rouge hotel and kicking the evacuees there out on the street — and no, I did not make that up.) There was nowhere to go, but everyone seemed to be trying to get there, 24 hours a day.
Evacuees rushed to the open gas stations, sucking them dry. Before long it was impossible to get a tank of gas without a 30 minute wait. As is often true in such situations, shortage nudged everyone with less than 3/4ths of a tank to queue up to top off their supply just in case. This of course only served to make a bad thing worse.
Everyone was shopping. In the stores there were two types of patrons, the Baton Rouge residents trying to look collected as they worried about the fate of their overrun city, and lost-looking New Orleanians who wanted to buy everything to replace their losses but realized as they bought that they had nowhere to put their new stuff.
There was tension. Baton Rouge and New Orleans are only about 75 miles apart, but they are not very much alike. Baton Rouge is a typical deep southern town, with all the good and bad that comes with that. Easygoing style, unsophisticated and cordial, bad schools, strong moral compass, religious, patriotic, poor, blue collar, country music, relatively segregated. It is a place that is traditional and mainstream America.
New Orleans is very different. It is a city that was born under a foreign flag and had every intention of living out that foreign past as long as it possibly could. Something about New Orleans loves the past, loves it so much that it prefer nothing better than to wake up one morning to the sound of the hooves of horses in the dirt streets, realize it was once again 1880, and bound out of bed to take on another yellow fever epidemic.
New Orleans never wanted modernity. Baton Rouge has not quite embraced it, but like much of small-town South, has accepted it. Baton Rouge is traditional. It looks to the past. New Orleans is calcified. It lives in the past.
With these diverging attitudes, the two cities never meshed. John Barry, in his book The Rising Tide , argues that much of this enmity arose after the great Mississippi flood of 1927 when the city of New Orleans elected to flood rural St. Bernard Parish to protect itself from a massive Mississippi flood. The rest of the state resented this New-Orleans-is-more-important
-than-rural-Louisana attitude, and never forgave the city for it. Doubtless this has contributed to the division, but the difference runs deeper. Most people in Baton Rouge think of New Orleans as Sodom. Most New Orleanians think of Baton Rouge as Boring, which in French Quarter parlance is probably a far greater insult. Historically, New Orleans never wanted to be American. Baton Rouge, as the Louisiana capital and the representative of Louisiana to America, never forgave this.
So there we were, heathens in the Bible belt.
The bursting city was a peculiar combination of normality and confusion. In recent years, Baton Rouge has had traffic problems, but nothing it had before could touch this. A jam could occur at dawn, noon, or midnight. The grocery stores were stripped of the essentials, and especially of everything New Orleans, from Cajun seasoning blends to coffee and chicory to Zatarain's gumbo rice. I remember standing in the aisle at a grocery store, looking at an empty shelf set aside for New Orleans hot sauce, and feeling a sense of despair akin to what I felt seeing the barren looted shelves in all the news videos.
The New Orleanians were in town, and they planned on staying for awhile. The State Board of Education was advising people from evacuated areas to enroll their children in school wherever they were. Schools in New Orleans could be closed for an entire year. My aunt ran the kindergarten and preschool at a Catholic school in Baton Rouge; her phone rang constantly as evacuees plied her to get their children on the waiting list. She offered to reserve places for both of our children.
In the afternoon we crossed town to visit my wife's mother and sister at their apartment near LSU. They were in a run-down neighborhood full of rentals for struggling college students. It was a weary rather than emotional reunion. Our children were happy to see their cousins again, but mostly everyone was wondering how long this arrangement could last. My mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and her husband and three children, my wife's aunt, uncle and his sister and their two college-aged children, were all crammed into a 3 bedroom space.
From New Orleans the news continued to worsen. A hotel downtown was burning to the ground, the looting was getting worse, gunshots were heard all over the city and this supposedly was slowing rescue efforts. As if rescue efforts weren't slow enough. FEMA wasted no time kicking people out of hotels. If they could just expend some of that energy clearing out the Convention Center everything would be all right.
Eventually things would either have to hit bottom and then start to improve, or New Orleans would sink into the ground and be covered over with swamp, never to be heard of again. We were just waiting to see which way thinks broke.
At the time I did not feel the sense of outrage over the slow response that was the national mood. I am not certain I can explain why. I was gnawed with anxiety, numbness, depression, but not yet anger. The fate of New Orleans, at this point, seemed a matter of chance. It would be annihilated or not, and it was almost as if no one could do anything about it, or no one cared to. New Orleans was earning its nickname The City That Care Forgot. I no longer believed in the federal government, or the city, or the state. This thing was going to run its course.
One of the troubling news stories of the day: The Army Corps of Engineers (which was responsible for the levee design and for flood control planning in Southeastern Louisiana) kept saying the levees had "overtopped" rather than being breached. This confounded me. I had a professor in medical school who was fond of saying that if you find a dead possum in the road it doesn't matter if it was run over by a car or a truck. In other words, if things go to hell the exact cause not relevant at the moment. The real question is what to do now. The whole overtopping spin was nothing but a lame excuse. Eighty-five percent of the city was underwater, and all the Corp had to say was that the levees had held. At this point in the game, a person of integrity wouldn't care if the levees had held or not. A person who cared would be desperately trying to come up with a plan to pump the city dry.
Months later, the Army Corps would admit that some of the flooding could be attributed to design flaws. (Note the use of the word some.) But often you learn more about what is in a person's heart from his first response to a challenge than from a later, more considered answer.
That night, I logged onto my aunt's internet account to try to find out what was going on with our house. The national and even local news was saying nothing about St. Bernard Parish. Either it was completely gone, or cut off from all communication and being ignored. I suspected the last.
Unfortunately, my aunt only had dial-up access, so finding information was a very slow process. After awhile I came across a public forum at Nola.com where people were posting about St. Bernard. The rumors were grim. Some of them turned out not to be true, but overall they would prove to be much more right than wrong. The posters were saying that the Meraux Food Store near our house had been destroyed by a tornado (true), that a tornado had destroyed the entire back street of our subdivision and nothing remained (that nothing remained is true, but the destruction may have been from the flood surge since this street was flat against the levee), that the water on our street was up to the gutters on the houses (true), that the storm had completely destroyed the Paris Road bridge that provided the main access to St. Bernard from the north (false).
According to the rumor board, the entire Parish Council, which had remained behind at the Parish Civic Center, had to be rescued from the roof of the second floor of that facility by boat and helicopter. This, sadly enough, was also true.
Life in St. Bernard would never again be the same.