This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love — I too will smoulder away the time until the great and general incandescence.
— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
By the time I awoke the next morning, Katrina had already landed and expended most of itself against the Louisiana and Mississippi coast. The morning was typical only in the sense that the children woke us up. In a two-bed hotel room that was a given.
First thing we turned on the TV and collected a newspaper. From that moment on we were, unknowingly, at the beginning of the long process of figuring out What Happened. My wife and I realized we would not get all the details for a few days, but we had no idea that finding out What Happened would take more than six weeks.
The storm had hit just a few hours after midnight. All the news reports were saying that Katrina had jogged slightly to the east after its initial landfall in Buras, Louisiana. New Orleans had missed the worst of the storm. Dodged a bullet — this was the phrase of the day.
By 11 o'clock in the morning these dodged-a-bullet reports were starting to irritate me. Intuition told me they were wrong. I lay no claim to clairvoyance or voodoo priesthood, but the reports were problematic. All the news was coming from the French Quarter, the Superdome, and the Central Business District — relatively high ground. These reporters didn't know the geography of New Orleans, and the more they talked, the more obvious that became. Huge sections of the city lay east of the Quarter and the CBD. My house was about 20 miles east of the Quarter. If the storm had shifted 25-50 miles east and was originally forecast to hit downtown New Orleans, didn't that mean the eye had crossed over my house?
The media had read too many tourist brochures, and, like a lot of people, thought the Quarter and the Superdome and the Riverfront were all there was. Not exactly. I would believe them when they started exploring further east. But from the way they were talking, there was no telling how long it would take for them to figure that out.
Another thing that vexed me was the degree of agreement in the news assessments. It hadn't been that bad, they said in unison. New Orleans had dodged that bullet. That observation put me at unease, not because it was unwelcome, but because it seemed too tidy. A rush to judgment by a bunch that had not yet examined the most affected part of the city.
Eyewitness reports usually differ in specifics, sometimes sharply. Everyone has his own point of view, and so, one naturally expects that ten different accounts of the same event will differ from one another at least slightly. But when ten people tell the same story down to the particulars, it rings false. All these reporters were reading from the same script. There was no healthy disagreement, as if the source of all the information was one guy.
In a search for dissent I tried to raise some of the stronger AM stations in New Orleans on the hotel room radio, but we were too far away.
My wife and I held our breath, said a few prayers and hoped the suspicious news line was true to its last doubtful letter. The storm had veered east. That could mean it missed us too, or that St. Bernard Parish was now a polluted pond. I hoped no one had been dumb enough to stay down there, but I knew from personal knowledge that was not true.
The information was coming in bits and pieces, and in true modern journalism style each bit was recycled over and over. It was like watching a bunch of kids sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." One reporter would start his story, then another would join in shortly after, singing the same tune, then another, then another. Before long there was all this information looping through the channels, but it was the same thing, the same theme, over and over. We saw every window in the Hyatt Hotel blown out. We saw trees everywhere. We saw a video of a shopping cart being pushed by the wind across an empty parking lot. Street signs wagging in the rain. Exciting stuff like that. Most tantalizing to me were the satellite and radar images of Katrina. Over and over, every chance I could get to watch it, I stared at that spinning blob wobbling ashore. I saw it feint east at the last second. Was it passing over our house? Wasn't it? I felt like a Kennedy nut in a frenzy over the Zapruder film.
After a few hours of this misery we decided to get out for a while. The hallways of the hotel were full of kids and their dazed parents. Everyone was from New Orleans. I couldn't decide if that was a comfort or more misery. There is something unsettling about traveling 450 miles and seeing nothing but people from your home town when there no football game going on. Then it occured to me: I am looking at the true lottery. Some of these people will make out all right; others will be, already have been, ruined. And at the moment none of us knew who was who. We were all holding lottery tickets -- some winners, some losers. The drawing had been early this morning, but no one could find out the results.
We drove around town for a while, got the kids something to eat, and ended up at the place most Americans drift to in a time of need — Wal-mart. By this time we knew from the news reports that we would not be going home for several days at least. New Orleans may have dodged a bullet, but the authorities did not want us back peeking under the bandages.
At Wal-mart we picked up a few supplies. As we came out of the store, an ugly squall swept in from the Gulf. Katrina weather, no doubt. It was amazing — three states away from New Orleans and getting bad weather from Katrina all the same. What an enormous storm.
I waited under the shelter in front of the store with the kids, and my wife ran out to get the car. Today I can't remember why I stood under dry shelter and let my wife get the car in driving rain. I thought I was raised better than that, but maybe not. Perhaps I had concluded that with my superior muscle I could better fend off pilferers from our purchased goodies.
My wife drove the car around, and I saw that the passenger window was open and rain was pouring into the front seat. My first thought was, that goofy wife of mine forgot to roll up the car window. It was a mean thing to think and I was wrong, but that is what I thought at the time.
When she pulled up to the curb I saw a jagged ice-green edge along the bottom of the window where the glass should have been. Someone had smashed in our car window. Probably a delinquent cruising the parking lot and checking out the license plates, knowing that any car from Louisiana would be loaded with valuable stuff. It was great to see people responding to natural disasters with that Amercian entrepreneurial spirit.
A quick inventory showed that there was nothing taken from our car, which was a relief. The parking lot was very busy, so probably the guy called attention to himself when he popped the window and didn't have time to complete the smash-and-grab. So he just went for the smash. Welcome to the refugee life.
To recap, we had all our stuff, but lost a window, and more importantly, it was raining like crazy. I ran back into the store and bought a plastic drop cover, a knife, and some tape. While my wife got the kids strapped into their car seats, I stood in the cool rain, fumbling with the plastic covering and dusting water droplets off the car so the strips of tape I was cutting would adhere.
Eventually we got the window covered over, enough protection to at least discourage the water.
Unfortunately, the car was not easy to drive that way. The plastic made a godawful racket flapping in the wind when I went over 30. Worse, on left hand turns I could not see oncoming traffic. I had seen so many junk cars with busted out and taped-over windows in my life, and never realized how tough those poor suckers had it. It is like driving with your right visual field blocked out. The proper medical term is right hemianopsia, as I recall.
Shortly we realized the plastic was not going to work, and that going back to New Orleans would be impossible without a new window. The next stop was a car dealership.
Naturally the repair shop did not have the part, would have to order the part, but when they recognized our situation they were suddenly helpful. For the second time we had been quickly identified as refugees. I kept looking at myself in every available mirror or glass to see what it was that induced casual onlookers to conclude that our house had just been consumed by a tidal wave.
The people at the dealership made it a point to apologize for Tallahassee. Tallahassee is a good town, they emphasized; people usually don't go around victimizing hurricane evacuees by smashing their car windows. They offered to vacuum out the shards of glass that still covered the passenger's seat for free. Truth is, I could never hold it against Tallahasse that our car was broken into. Not considering the beating my own home town would take in the media for the next week — looting, shooting at rescue helicopters, raping in broad daylight — or so they said. I will probably spend the rest of my days defending New Orleans against the charge that it is a pit of vipers. I may even think better of Tallahassee because I know it, like my own city, is not perfect.
The dealership promised the window would be in by Wednesday. This meant we would be in Tallahassee until at least then. Not that we had anywhere to go, but nonetheless, I was ready to leave.