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Stormcoming (The Day New Orleans Stood Still)


Stormcoming (The Day New Orleans Stood Still)

By Sean M. Perry [2005]

This is just an excerpt...and one of the hardest works I have ever done. We stayed for the storm, the flood, and the evacuation of the Convention Center. All jokes aside, it was very rough. The trauma didn't kick in for weeks afterwards. Please appreciate this work.

- - - PART ONE - - -


"Git' up! Dumbass!"

I slowly rolled my head over and opened one eye-the eye that had heard Sarge come into the room in the first place. There he stood over me, staring down with his typical cock-eyed look and whimsical grin. I groaned and mumbled something that sounded remarkably like "bite me" or somesuch, moved my arm around to get a look at the clock. 6:30. Blink.Yep. Plan B.

"I said wake me up at 6:30 PM," He laughed and "accidentally" kicked me in the shin, I think testing for further signs of life. "Besides, today is Saturday and Monday is my birthday".

He looked at me quizzically. "Didn't you just have a birthday two months ago? I gave you that knife".

"Sure," I replied, planting my feet on the floor next to the bed and reaching for a cigarette. "But ask my mother and she will tell you that I was born on Labor Day".

Tommy snorted and reached for the shopping cart behind the door. "I'm going to the store to pick up some cokes. You need anything?" I gave him my list, which included a 4-pak of those Starbucks thingies and a few six-paks of beer. "What time are you planning on going to the cemetery?"

Saturdays were our half-day, but was important because that was the day I usually made my report to Red, the supervisor of Lafayette Cemetery. The weather was starting to get hot, even in the mornings, so the earlier I went, the more I could expect to get done before tourists and families started showing up. "Prob' not long after you come back. You with me today?"

He nodded and pulled the cart out of the door into the breezeway. "Oh," I called after him, " the paper guy said he was going to leave a few extra papers tomorrow. The new girl." The "new girl" had just become a new neighbor and I was the welcoming committee. We got free newspapers by virtue of the Project so I always made it a point to spread them around. Goodwill advertising for the Project. But this one particular newspaper was on a mission.

"You and your damned women!" he growled. By this time I was at the sink washing my face. I laughed and tried to think of a fitting retort.

"You used to like women a long time ago." I said, then added quickly when his eyebrows shot up. "Until you married one! And besides," I plopped down in the chair and started putting on my sandals. "I may be ugly, but I ain't DEAD!" As an afterthought. "Yet".

Sarge just shook his head and silently started up towards St. Charles Ave. I smiled, knowing that I had left him with something good. Me an' Sarge had been close friends for many years, back since the 80's. We were both ex-military and, even though seperated by 20 years, had each seen alot. He had been a POW in Vietnam in the sixties, retired as a master sargeant. From Texas. We both had a core understanding of things like critters and such, and he didnt hold it against me that I had been too young for 'Nam, had been stationed in Europe instead of Asia, and had never been recon. But most of all over the years we had formed a bond that had made me proud. When he had his second stroke it was me who had immediately noticed the symptoms and got him to the VA. I had had an apartment in the same complex at the time and was one of very few who could stand his ornery ways for any period of time. But Tommy truly has a heart of gold, albeit under a bit of grumpiness and ruffled feathers.

I put on my pouch with the cemetery map and walked out into the open air. Fantastic day. The birds were singing and I'm sure all of the dogs in the neighborhood were out; I would have been scratching at the door. The streetcar would pass by right there in both directions and even though you might think of the lightly clanking lumbering sound as something you have to get used to, I can tell you honestly that not hearing the sound is something that is hard to get used to. I was born one block from the streetcar; the cemetery is one block from the streetcar. And here I am, less than half a block from the streetcar. Grand.

John, the army vet who had lost a leg through too much corporate air travel as a high-priced attorney stuck his head out and I waved. He had just moved in as well. For some strange reason all of the veterans I ever remember having had lived in the complex had been Army; Mr. Lucky and Mr. Jay had both passed away not long ago. Many an afternoon had I sat and enjoyed the evening with these good people, all of us speaking the same language, from the second war, through korea and nam. I learned quite a bit from these oldtimers, all sorts of interesting stories about their experiences. After years in Germany it was nice having a chance to hang out with vets who remembered the allied occupation...we never ever bored ourselves, although we probably bored others. We never noticed. Or bothered to ask. But we were the saltiest of the earth.

I went back into the apartment and clicked on the TV. Saturday was usually a good time to watch, as you might get a chance to catch Steve chucking one of his kids into a pool of crocs, or a least a few glimpses of his Yankee wife. I flipped through the channels.

Press conference coming on. I had figured I wasn't the only one closely watching the critter that was making it's way into the Gulf via Florida. Stormwatching was a favorite pastime for alot of reasons, fascination being one. I had been through Betsy as a 4 year old, (hense the term "Betsy Baby"), remember Camille very well at 8, and a hodgepodge of other storms over the years. Nash Roberts had been one of my earliest influences and meteorology has always been a passion. So here is this storm coming into the Gulf. I think Angela (Hill) was on duty at WWL, although at this point, after so much, I am not even sure. No matter. The storm had just nailed Florida and was heading due west with a slight little jiggle towards the north, a bit like Karen at Igor's.

Hurricane preparedness is something we think about all of the time, and talk about even more. In between seasons we have alot to do, but the longer you are in New Orleans, the more you get a grasp as to how to handle it. You never want to be stuck totally without when the electricity goes off, for example; even a little tropical system or thunderstorm can knock the lights out. So you build you up a little stockpile of things, usually left over from the year before. Know where you are at, how your structure is built, are there any big trees that might come down on you. Not at all different than what you really should know in case of some other emergency, like a fire. The new contraflow system had been tested recently with bittersweet results; the improvements were a success, marred, though, by the loss of a number of people in transit (the buses) for a storm that didn't even hit. Easy enough to be a bit complacent after so many near misses, although the thinking, and moreover, the actions, of the powers that be, as well as the common folk, should have been quite a bit more farsighted. But hindsight is often 20/20.

None of this really affected me at that point. We (me and Sarge), like many other New Orleanians, had no intention on leaving. Standard procedure is that we prepare for special needs; the sickly, elderly, children, etc. New Orleanians are a group of rugged individualists. If you own a house, someone has to remain to take care of it. If you have any other interests, you usually remain behind with a safe place in mind to go when it gets rough. Government and media usually don't evacuate, criminals like to stay around, so the Home Guard sure as hell ain't goin' nowhere.

Sarge walked in trailing the cart behind him. He handed me a bag then proceded into the kitchen where I could hear him shuffling stuff around. He stuck his head out and tossed me a snack cake. "Happy Birthday".

"You remembered!" I threw it back solidly and it bounced off the POW/MIA flag on the window, knocked down a photograph, then landed in a box of papers, a fate worse than death. I turned back to the tv.

Ray Nagin was on now talking about the evacuation procedures. Voluntary evacuation was in place, contraflow was ready to roll upon go ahead. The experts were coming out one-by-one and detailing the status' of their missions. Tommy came into the living room and sat down. "What's that? News?"

"Press conference"

"Storm?"

I nodded.

"What are they saying?"

"Same old, at the moment. Going to give the contraflow another spin later on." I shrugged. "You know, I wish I would have mentioned to Ward about that loose pillar holding up the awning over the second floor". Ward was the landlord's son and a good friend. I had initially moved into my apartment there on the Saturday after 9/11; Ward had come out with his young son to bring me the key and met my father. I remember us talking about the effects of the constant coverage on the kids. Cartoons resumed that day. It always disturbed me.

The strip complex had a long aluminum overhang covering the breezeway, a godsend in the summer. But the post holding it up was not bolted to the bracket. I think it had been hit by a car, being at the end, where we were. Had tried many times to lift it onto its support; it seemed sturdy enough. I popped open another Bucky.

"I'm going to need help emptying that garbage can when we get there," I commented, referring to the cemetery. "The bottom is falling out." Our tools and dollies had been mysteriously disappearing for quite awhile now, approximately coinciding with me getting the Department of Justice to start investigating two prominent "non-profit" organizations. It seems they had a secret little conspiracy going to sell tombs in Lafayette Cemetery to themselves and their rich buddies. Scumbags.

"O.K. You going to try to wire down the flag?" He was referring to the American flag we made it a point to keep flying over the office at the Sixth St. gate. I thought about it. "Do you want to walk over to the hardware store later? We will need some galvanized wire and some wire clamps."

"Tell me when."

I looked at the clock and yawned. "No hurry," I was so used to the colors getting stolen from the cemetery that I always had an extra set handy. But it was time to go. I stood up and stretched, scratched what was left of the last spider bite I had gotten. It seemed to itch constantly. I went over my checklist in my head, started for the door, and, thinking twice, stuck two beers into my pockets. We made for the cemetery, going out the back way from the apartment which brought us out onto Conery St.

At 9 AM on a beautiful Saturday, New Orleans is wonderful. There is this lazy bustle going on signifying that people are putting their time into some type of recreation. Sitting on their porches in their bathrobes drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, maybe mowing their grass or working in their gardens. The traffic didn't have that sence of urgency felt during the week. You might catch a glimpse of one of the neighbors going shopping from a distance and wave. They wave back. On weekends politics takes a back seat to everything else.

About halfway up the block I saw a kid, university student, meticulously strapping some things to the outside of his car, which already looked like it was ready for an extremely extravagant camping trip. Trunk open and things flowing out, held together with ropes. A set of skis (water) and a small canoe set on the roof on a blanket, tied fore and aft. All of the seats were filled until all you could see were a few small holes here and there for visibility. Where was he going to sit? As we came up to him I called out pleasantly.

"Ya'll goin' camping or something?" Actually it looked more like he was moving. I remember he looked startled for a second before he spoke.

"No. Storm."

I laughed. "You mean that thing in the Gulf?" He nodded. "Well," I replied, determined to keep the hilarity out of my voice. "You might want to leave that canoe in case I need to paddle to the store later." At this Tommy grunted mirthfully and we both shook our heads in disbelief, waving bye to the young 'un as we passed.

Nothing else out of the ordinary as we hit Prytania St. Directly before us was Lafayette Cemetery, just across the street. For the last eight years this place had been the center of the universe for me, and the countless thousands of hours of research and volunteer work I had put into it was something I was very proud of. I knew it pretty much inside and out, as my name on the map next to Freddie Hatfield's would attest. We slanted over towards the left as we crossed the street, intending on swinging around to the main gate on Washington, picking up trash as we went along. This was a daily occurrence; it kept the cemetery manageable and was also good for the spirit. We reached the main gate and went in.

Yep. Trash cans definitely needed a little TLC. We stuffed the overflow back in as best we could and grimaced at our hands as we made up to the first faucet, halfway up the main aisle. A few people were wandering around, most with cameras. I was in standard uniform, with my namebadge on, usually shorts and a solid colored shirt this time of year. The heat built up rapidly in the cemetery, and the light reflecting off of the tombs was like an easy-bake oven. And, yes. Over the years we had tried many wacky experiments and I assure you it gets hot enough in the cemetery to cook eggs on short notice. I grabbed a hose and moved it from one side of the aisle to the other, making it a point to keep the magnolia trees watered just about year round on rotation. We continued our walk through, checking on the condition of the cemetery and picking up stray pieces of trash as we went along.

"Excuse me, do you work here?" I turned. An older couple was walking up. "I'm researcher here, yes," I replied, "Can I help you with anything?"

"We just were wondering if you could tell us anything about the cemetery."

I looked at Tommy. "You wanna finish the walk through? I just need to get the sprinkler on at the office." He nodded and threw me a sloppy salute, which cracked me up. Sarge was by far one of the best volunteers the cemetery had ever had, some 15, 16 years now. I turned back to the couple, motioned them towards the center of the cemetery. "Where ya'll from?"

"Pennsylvania.

"PA? Whereabouts in PA?"

"Lancaster."

"Nice country. Hows the weather?"

"Not as warm as here. Maybe some rain today. Not much. We fly out tonight."

I nodded. "You liked New Orleans?"

His wife perked up "We love it! Everyone is so friendly! You don't usually find that in a city,"

"Don't always find it here, either!" I mumbled under my breath. Aloud, I said, "Mam, we enjoy being helpful to visitors. You all make it worthwhile." She dimpled and I went on. "Hold on a sec." We had reached the cemetery crossroad, at the Jefferson No. 22 Fire Company. I looked down the aisle and saw a group of people coming up the avenue. I waved and called out:

"Hey! Guys! I'm going to show these people around the cemetery! If you'd like to hear about it you need to join us now!" I turned back to the couple.

"Just as easy to show ten as it is to show two." They both nodded and we watched as the people pulled up, waving down and telling the rest of their people to hurry up. I spotted a lady wearing heals halfway down trying to rush and yelled down in my cemetery voice to take their time. High heels? Christ...bust a leg for sure!

People gathered up while we made small talk. "Where are you from? Oh, you remember such and such? No!?! Really?" All of this 'till we had a solid group and I went down the line, officially asking everyone where they were from.

It is great being able to host people from many places. I have traveled a lot over the years, usually fleeing a jealous husband or two, but at least I eliminated the middleman at this point. People are great. The cemetery is one of the most important in history as far as I am concerned, and the work has been one of the most fulfilling projects I have ever been involved with. It has seen quite a bit more than I have, or anyone I know. A Grand Ole' Lady.

"Ya'll ready?"

Everyone nodded assent, looking back and forth at one another. We had a quorum, so I began.

I started by introducing them to myself and the cemetery, welcoming them from all over the world. It usually comes as a surprise to many of them that we don't do things they way they do things, for the reasons they think we do things. Huh? What I mean is that we don't have above-ground tombs because of water. Shocked looks. But this lady told me...You mean that woman from Minnesota with the stupid smile and the sing-song voice? Sorry, she will say anything that comes to her greedy little mind. What about floods? Well, New Orleans hasn't flooded since Hurricane Betsy, but, yes, there were a lot of problems with that...popping up and floating down the street...it goes on - with my outlining the origins of the cemetery as being of Latin influence and that tombs are above ground 'cos...on and on, coolly answering their questions thoughtfully...

But it gets even better. We are walking down the aisle and I am telling them about how we handle our burials. Kids, I have seen things that even I don't like to talk about...probably kill you...
  • Yes, to make room for another person we have to prepare the tomb and the current remains by gathering them up, placing them together one way or another...in effect, move them out of the way so that a new casket can go in. Throw away the pieces of old casket and, after the procession leaves, reseal it with brick and replace the name plaque.
  • Yes, the remains stay at the interment site, unless the family requests otherwise.
  • No, we don't have a lot of Jazz funerals...they are for more notable figures, like musicians, and are based in many ways on state funerals with cultural adaptation to New Orleans.
  • Smells? Please...not before breakfast!
  • What happens if a year and a day hasn't yet gone by? You borrow a tomb...that one will do.
  • What if a body is not totally decomposed? You work quicker....then you go to lunch.
By this time we are in front of the tomb that the family had had the remains transferred out of, but still hold the deed to and have no intention on selling. So we use it as a teaching instrument so that people can see how roomy they are. Someone usually wants to try it on for size; well, they can't hurt anything...I ask if they want me to mix them up some mortar - they usually decline.

Then we cross the cemetery towards the statuary, with me describing how we handle another type of burial....in-soil. Just like the tombs....dig them 'em up, place the bones off to the side, throw away any pieces of casket...make a nice hole for the next casket, place the earlier remains back in and cover them up.....all of this done with due respect...bury the casket after the procession leaves. Please, if you happen to see any bone fragments laying around....no souvenirs....they belong to someone....

It may sound like I'm making a little light of what goes on, but actually it is very serious. When you have had to interr many dozens of people over the years whom you personally knew, you come to terms with it. But respect is something that I make it a point to get across to people. The cemetery is there for families....anyone else is a guest. Were we having a burial today, I would not be standing here talking to you. My people count on me. But a little humor helps me get the important things across to people in such a way that (I hope) they will take home as a new-found respect for their history and heritage.

But it was getting close to beer-thirty. I was conspicuously aware of the fact that the two beers in my pockets were not cooling my legs off anymore, so after showing them the statues, we retired to a shady spot for final Q & A.

This is by far my favorite part. By this time I have shown them all so many things and given then alot to help them formulate questions. Their heads are spinning with questions. They ask me alot about myself as well, all of the hows, whys....New Orleans is MY town...or, depending on my mood...it was a curse...somebody died and left it to me... "Hey! You! Get the HELL off that tomb!...Sorry...I used to go to school with people who remind me of John Kennedy Toole."

Ask me about spirits or ghosts. I will answer with a question every time.

Gravedigger rights. Sorry. Have you seen me grey today?....burying people is not the funnest thing I have ever done. I do not know a gravedigger in the world who would not see me change gears at the question. If you see a ghost, it may not want you to run around like a fool telling everyone. We leave that to the commercial tour guides. Let us move on.

So anyway...we were sitting there in the shade...Tommy came up.....I said bye to everyone and we walked to the gate...

A neighbor was just walking past.

She had her dog. We made a little chit chat, then she asked me pointedly. "Where are you going for the Storm?"

I was a little surprised at the way she asked me. We did the rest of the cemetery work and when Red showed up I mentioned it....shrug...you know I ain't leaving.....that was that....

Still, no one was calling the storm by name. That would come later.

We decided to head back home and then grab a bite to eat. The St. Charles Tavern has a killer chicken fried steak, so we took the streetcar down there (the view of St.Charles and the bridge on the skyline ain't chopped liver either.) The waitress motioned us to sit anywhere; we were regulars. A 24 hour full-service restaurant right on the streetcar line. Who could ask for more?

The waitress came up with a little smile. "I think I can guess what you want". I considered saying something silly, but just nodded and she took Tommy's order. The Weather Channel was on the TV and everyone was staring at that big thing in the middle of the Gulf. But nobody was really commenting. Sometimes it seems that silence speaks volumes. "Could you make me a root beer float with cherry sauce? You know, the usual." I asked innocently. "Sure," she replied. A few minutes later she came back with a Bud Light. "I tip extra when they read my mind." Tommy just shook his head.

We sat in silence for the most part, just taking in what was going on in the restaurant. The mood was oddly a little tense, although still there were very few overt comments. But you could see in the eyes of everyone that they were all at least partially concious of the television. Everyone was intent on hearing one thing: that the storm was beginning it's easterly turn. Every time the eye wobbled a little, someone would make a comment that this was "the turn", but it had always been a false alarm so far. It was pretty much dawning on us that, regardless, we were in for weather no matter how you cut it. I would like an order of rain. We need it. Hold the destruction.

We had had Ivan last year {actually got more rain from Son of Ivan than the main storm itself). Gee, and Georges a number of years back. Weeks before Georges we had had a tropical system pop up and flood parts of the city. That section of I-10 west right before the junction I-610 towards the Metairie line had a flash flood. Right at the railroad trestle. Heard it was because a pump hadn't been turned on and we lost a few visitors from Nippon. But nobody expected it, it had happened so quick. Georges did the sheer just about like Ivan and a few other storms. I remember you could see Georges off to the southeast; it decided to go to Mississippi. Storm comings, goings, and near misses are an omnipresent part of New Orleans' life. It was just looking like this was going to be a very near miss indeed. But you lose track of all of the storms sometimes. It's the same every year.

"Hot damn!" Food was here. I had food and my view of the Avenue for the time being. God, what a pretty day.

- - - PART TWO - - -


By the time we got back home it was late afternoon. Not knowing when (or even if) anything major was going to happen was a bit frustrating, but we dutifully, though albeit slowly, wandered around a bit, picking up things that might fly around, trash, pieces of wood, you know. I had never seen it myself, but I was aware of what an errant piece of wood could do in a storm. The tree impaled by a 2x4 during Camille was pretty convincing. I turned the news back on and heard that contraflow was going on and Ray was calling for voluntary evacuation. I scratched out a short list of things I figured we might need in addition to what we had and asked Sarge if he wanted to go up to the store. It was going to be a long evening.

We kept looking outside, waiting to see if our neighbor Ivan (not the storm) was going to come home. We were pretty much at the stage where everyone was conferring with their neighbors and I was acutely aware of the fact that Ivan had a truck. But he was nowhere to be seen. Hadn't said a word to anybody. A few others were conspicuously absent as well. Less people to worry about, anyway. The family upstairs had come by with supplies, so we pretty much knew who was staying and who was going. I grabbed a hammer and nailed the gate on the house next door shut; it liked to flap in the breeze sometimes. They were from Georgia and I had had a few late night jam sessions with the kids. They were not in attendence either.

I filled up a number of water bottles I had been collecting and stuck them in the fridge. Remember, this is all standard. We had way more than enough food and such to last the reccommended 3 days. Tommy came in and remarked that the Rite Aid was going to close at noon tomorrow. Shopping during a storm is so inconvient. My pouch first-aid kit was stocked. I decided to walk back over to the cemetery, then, maybe, up to Magazine.

There is something about walking around in New Orleans on a summers eve, even in light of what was going on. The birds are singing and the heat has started to dissapate a bit. There was a nice breeze coming in and it was downright pleasant. Very easy to put aside the cares of the world, if only for a moment. And I had alot of cares. The last few years had been rough and I had seen alot of personal loss. There had been some victories, though, hardfought battles that had simply served to cinch my resolve more than ever regarding the preservation work at the cemetery. New Orleans can be a rough town. But when you are from there you expect that.

I stopped and talked with some people who were peering into the cemetery from the gate. I still had my badge on, so we talked a bit about the cemetery; then talk turned to the storm.

I think this is the very first time I consciously remember hearing the name Katrina. Sure, it had been designated days before; it is just how we think. A storm without an emotional reference is just a storm. Names even get recycled upon occaision until officially retired. I seem to remember the name Dennis coming up a few times before.

I decided to grab a quick iced coffee, then go back home. More and more I was noticing how fewer cars were parked in front of their houses, and the-odd people who were still loading up. I didn't really feel much like talking to anyone. Even the coffee shop was empty. They would be closed tomorrow.

The next morning dawned clear and beautiful, as did most mornings that time of year. We ran our errands early, making one last grocery haul for general principles and spent much of the rest of the morning keeping updated on Katrina and taking little walks around the neighborhood. It was pretty imminant at this point that we were going to be hit; the extent as to how bad depended still on that one crucial turn to the northeast. Didn't seem to be happening.

The heat of the day was spent indoors for the most part, with little conversation. The tv was abuzz with continual reports on every channel. We rested as much as we could, knowing that we were in for a very long night indeed. I had slept during smaller storms, but this was very different. Katrina seemed to fill the whole Gulf. We were attentive not out of fear; there was really nothing else to do.

Afternoon turned into evening. Slowly the signs of the impending storm were making themselves noticable. The breeze picked up clouds started rolling in, the bands not yet defined, but with an almost imperceptable and steady increase as the evening moved along. Still no shift to the east.....it was almost due south of us by now.

Its strange that I really dont remember much rain. I think the sheer intensity of the storm itself plays a role in this. Or maybe it is just that there were so many other things to think about.

All the while we are focusing on the reports on tv. Then, at around midnight, the electricity went out. There it was. Lit up a few candles. Had the radio ready in my pouch, but using it was pretty much a moot point. There is the joke about just taking a peek outside. As the bands came in with more frequency we would just listen until there was a lull of sorts, then step outside and smoke a cigarette until the next band came through. It was incredibly dark but there was some diffused light that allowed us to see using off-center vision, an old military technique, besides the fact that we knew the area outside intimately and had no reason to stray from the apartment in the first place. The parking area was reasonably wide open and didn't have a large number of trees around it, so we were just noticing leaves and such flying in the air.

Thump! Thump-a-thump Thump! A sound of aluminum on concrete, pretty regular at this point. A bit too rough to go out, at least not past the door. About 3 am by now. I looked out the door just long enough to see the first post holding the awning colapse and bounce off of the building, then slammed the door as a bunch of leaves and twigs flew in. Shaking my head I turned and looked at Tommy, who was standing in the kitchen not saying a word. So I sat down and just listened as the thumping increased. I knew the awning was losing its support bra at this point. Then the sound of groaning and creaking resulted in a new sound. Banging on the side of the building, the wood part. Lordy. Then the smashing of glass.

I was about six feet from the window when it came in, fortunately protected from flying glass by the venetian blinds and the POW flag covering it on the inside. I stood up at the initial crash and am just trying to make sure that none of the debris strikes me. I couldnt help but giggle a few times.

Tommy growled at me. "You think this is funny!"

I looked at him and laughed again. "Sergeant, I am scared out of my mind!" That's all it was, the whorl of the wind, the incessant grinding and smashing on the side of the building at the window. It kept on like this for a good 45 minutes. Pretty much figured it must be the eyewall. Sounded like The Exorcist. Without the music.

Slowly we could hear a relax in the timbre of the wind sounds. I popped open the last Bucky and Tommy got a coke. The stuff in the fridge was still cold, of course. It was at the point now where we just had to wait for the day.....then we could see what was going on. Squalls were beginning to show a lesser intensity and we started making tentative forays out of the front door again, in reverse order as to how it lead up before.

The dawn was definitely welcome. Long, low whistle. At this point we were simply surveying the local damage, the courtyard/parking lot at the apartments. Boucoup leaves all over the place. It seems that the gate I had secured decided to be 15 feet away from where it lived. The awning might as well have been aluminum foil. It still moved a bit in the wind that was gusting a little as we moved around outside. I had placed the chairs in the laundry room before the storm; pulled them out. Now it was Miller Time.

"Nope, Tommy. Dont expect to get a newspaper today." I stuck one of the earbuds in and scanned the dials. Wasn't getting alot of RF. Settled on WWL. United Broadcasters? Report coming in that the Hyatt had alot of windows blown out. Reporters were across the street on Poydras. Knew Ray and Kathleen were there. Sarge was on the landline trying to report the damage to the landlord. Still had a telephone line.....at least a dial tone. I walked out the front to St. Charles and saw it all down. I had known these trees since I was a baby. Every one of the small trees on the Streetcar line were down. Lots of Mardi Gras beads all over the place.

The big trees lay across the tracks, in the middle of the street........some in weird, but not-so-weird places. We weren't so dazed. Just started picking up the pieces. Putting things back where we knew they belonged. Starting at A and doing a circular assessment. People, mostly males, were coming out. Let the babies sleep. We made a path out to St. Charles.

After we got the path cleared, Tommy decided to walk to Rite Aid. He needs his walks. I went the other way.

- - - PART THREE - - -


Walking down St. Charles Ave. I looped around trees, power lines, debris of all sorts. But I was outside and it didn't feel surreal at all. The one thing noticeably missing: the chirping of the birds which always saw in the day. I dismissed this and walked on, figuring that any birds would have had the sense to leave earlier than the storm and any that didn't most certainly met an unpleasant fate. Birds are great weather predictors, something I had read from Mark Twain as a child and had repeatedly seen proven. As a storm came through the pressure dropped and the birds were very susceptible to this due to their unique physiology. With the constant weather that the city was accustomed to, most particularly our seasonal afternoon thunderstorms which came up very quickly, it was actually the birds who gave the final warning. When they ran for cover, you should be right behind them.

I hit Washington and headed towards the river. It was the same story every inch I walked. I reached the Prytania corner of the cemetery and walked forward, walking the circular path I had taken thousands of times before. I noticed that Commanders wasnt going to be open for a few weeks at least: much of the wall lay on the street. At least one tree was down in the cemetery but it looked more like mostly just debris from trees. Around at Sixth the only real damage I could see was that something that had flown from some unknown building had taken a small section of the wall out, but no big deal. Just figured that we would have alot to do in the next few and started figuring out how that tree was going to be removed. But we would certainly be opening soon, 2-3 weeks at most.The colors were neatly rolled up and sticking through the gate. I laughed, knowing that someone must have found them and knew where they had belonged. I grabbed them and rested them on my shoulder like a hobo with a bundle and walked on. I swung back to Prytania and up Conery back home. Sarge was back.

"Rite Aid was broken into. People are just walking off with things." I looked incredulous. What the hell was this? I knew the cops would never be able to get there, but just the same. We survived the storm. Any time now we would hear the sounds of chainsaws and such, vehicles forcing a path through the debris and clearing the way. Still just walking around I took up a conversation with the brother of one of our neighbors. He had been house sitting and was disappointed that he couldn't get his generator going. We compared notes to no avail and when I left he gave me a box filled with all sorts of juices and a few half-gallon bottles of rum and vodka. I headed back home again.

The heat was becoming a problem. The apartment complex was fully electric with low ceilings, so being inside witout air conditioning or at least fans was out of the question. So we all gathered in the shade of what was left of the awning.

Pretty much everyone was outside at this point. I had the radio on and we were all excited about it all, As the reports would come in we would all talk about them and mull them over, which bridges were out, when something was going to happen. We decided to have a little post-hurricane party with the contribution from our generous neighbor. Still, the mood was pretty light. We decided to have a bar-b-que. The complex had a collection of grills of all types from a number of former tenants and we had at this point an unlimited supply of wood and food enough to go around. With all of the lines down it migt be days before the power grid was back up. Everyone contributed. All in all a nice little survivors party.

Late that afternoon I decided to take an extensive walk around the neighborhood. This was a pretty extensive trek that allowed me to see the big picture of what had happened to my town. Whereas the Garden District damange was extensive, the outlying neigborbohoods, the ones on the otherside of magazine or jackon even put a warzone to shame. Numerous small shotgun houses in the more blighted neigborhoods had simply just collapsed. There were a fair number of people about, even a long line in front of one of the small corner stores not far from where St. Thomas had been. Everyone was calm for the most part; even around collapsed houses there didnt seem to be much hurried activity. I had hooked up with one of the neighbors on Jacksn who stayed with me for a mile or so, then I decided to get back to St. Charles. As people are walking past we are all comparing notes about anything that might be open, etc. Alot of people, black and white, knew me and I didn't note any strife to speak of; everyone was calm and friendly.

Only place that had any activity to speak of seemed to be The Avenue Pub, which seemed to be doing a good business, so I stopped in. The only apparent difference to any other day there was the fact that there was no TV and business was taking place out of a cigar box. I ordered a beer and sat back at the bar.

Someone had made mention of the smell of natural gas, something I had also had a few whiffs of while walking around. Remember, the Garden District itself was virtually intact. And it hadn't yet kicked in that the whole city had to look at least as bad as what little I had seen. The window at the Walgreens across the street was also conspicuously smashed in. I didnt specifically see people looting there; it still all seemed to be isolated types of looting. Everything would be straightened out starting in the morning.

Dusk turned to pitch dark like a switch. I searched my pouch and realized that i had not brought my flashlight. Candles were being lit in the pub and several of my friends were there, so there was no real hurry to get back home. Tommy knew not to worry about me and I knew he would be safe as well, in the company of Messrs. Smith and Wesson. Everyone was buying rounds and I got sidetracked doing a little kissing on a cute bartender from another bar I knew (remember, we were hurricane survivors).

Night turned to midnight. Midight turned to middle-of-the night. People were taking turns now taking naps on the pooltable. We still had a pretty good crowd at the bar, although everyone was talking alot quieter now. Dwayne, the Pub's owner, came down for a bit and the gas grill was still working, so we had burgers and nachos and stuff. I had spent many a night there before. It still wasnt out of the ordinary. Just had to wait till sunup.

As the sun came up it was pretty much a repeat of the morning before as I looked outside.The walk up St. Charles back to the apartment was tedious and it was still important to keep an eye out for power lines, not knowing what the disposition of the power grid was. Glen was moving some downed debris at Igors and the Garlic Clove. See? Everything was getting back to normal already.

Knowing that Sarge was a morning person told me that he was prob out and about already. It was after 6am. But everyting was starting to feel strange. There were still no chirping birds and I subconsciously missed the sound of the Streetcar. And the gas smell. It was noticably stronger. I took a quick shower in the dark bathroom and relaxed untill he came back.

Report, reports, reports. Seems that every store he could think of visiting had been looted. People are calling into the radio station with reports from all over. The 5-mile bridge at I-10 to Slidel was out. The causeway was at least weakened. So? there were other routes into the city. This was Katrina-plus-two. Where the hell were the friggin' cops, at least? I had observed a very small number of private vehicles, suv-types, moving a few downed trees to make a rudimentary path on St. Charles, but other than that, nothing. WHERE THE HELL WERE THEY ALL?

Then came that one report which changed the whole world and the lives of thousands of people.

A lady had called in and asked why the water was coming up in her neighborood. She was somewhere around the 17th St. Canal if I remember correctly. She didn't really sound anxious, just dumbfounded as did I when I heard her. Any water caused directly by the storm would have made itself known immediately after the storm. True, reports were still spotty, but water coming UP? All I could do is keep listening.

John, the disabled vet, came outside. He had been listening to the same reports. Was only one game in town anyway. We pretty much knew about the Superdome by this point and I agreed it would not be a good idea to let 10, 000-odd people out into a city with ruptered gasmains or at least any number of localized leaks. And that would also explain why the looting had seemed to be limited to retail stores. We still hadn't noticed any kind of residential looting. Did eventually glimpse one cop car on St. Charles; they had rifles leaning on the window frames. We had Mr. Smith. Wasn't the issue at that point. Tommy came outside munching on a snackcake.

"Can I have one?" I hadn't felt like eating after being out all night.

He shook his head. "Last one," he mumbled around a mouthfull of cake. I shrugged and poured the last of the pinapple juice into a cup, topped it off with vodka. John asked for a drink as well and I silently rummaged into our box and found some Tom Collins mixer, fixed him one. Was still plenty of booze, gallon and a half or so, just running out of mixer. My buckies coffees were gone and Tommy was down to a few hot cokes. Had about a gallon of water still in the fridge and the tap was still running anyway. Food was still more than adaquate for days, just not funfood. Tommy, keeping himself busy, was making forays to all of the local stores with the same report. I had to clamp down on him a little about the heat. Middays were hotter than hell.

John told me he had cleaned his bathtub out with bleach and filled it before the storm so that his toilet could be flushed if water went out. We had filled ours as well, but ours wasnt the cleanest tub in the world. I told him pointedly that we might all be drinking his water if someting didnt happen soon, commending him on is forsight in using bleach. Using bleach to purify water in a pinch is even in the Boy Scout Handbook, By this time the other oldimer, Al, was with us as well. He was the oldest of us all and the most frail. I gave him some drinking water, making sure he knew to give me the bottles back. Another hot afternoon.

The family unit upstairs had pretty much kept to themselves throughout this. They had the only vehicle in the complex unless someone wanted to try to hotwire one. That was another thing that really wasnt in the works. We weren't going anywhere. But more and more water reports were coming in, sounding more ominous by the hour. I decided to take a nap and found the coolest place I could. Outside in the breezeway. Couldn't do that at night. At least were people around during the day.

- - - PART FOUR - - -


I woke up late, cramping from sleeping on the hard ground, just went inside. Candles were running a bit low, but we had to keep at least one candle lit, for sanity as much as anything else. And if, perchance, any looting was going to happen it would be at night. Keeping a candle lit ensured that any looters would know the place was occupied and minimize any b.s. But I remembered that I had some candles at the cemetery. Would get them if need be. Then I dozed again in the heat, losing no telling how much fluid. Couldn't be helped.

I awoke again in the middle of the night to sounds in the breezeway outside of the door. Figuring this was finially it, I started making some of the most realistic big-dog sounds you could imagine. God, I'm losing days. Wednsday? Thursday? It got quiet very quickly. I waited awhile and then went outside. There was a welcome breeze, but no people.

All alone I sat there, smoking cigarettes. The silence was deafening. The darkness was blinding. The lonliness had an emptying feeling in my heart. I didn't know anymore. I wept for a moment.

The sounds coming from the radio were comforting, although there was no music to be found. I didn't want to hear about the storm right then. I could have always put on a cd in my player, but I had used most of my batteries up in the radio. I had a supply of various sizes and had already made arangements to hook them together with wire and tape so I would be assured of power for the radio at least. I settled on the storm reports. I couldnt take the stillness.

Water. Three levee breaches. Well, the report that the water was to crest at 6 feet above sea level was good news for us at least. There was an inch or 2 of water in the gutter on St. Charles. I knew we were at least that much above sea, due to a survey made earlier in the year at the cemetery. The Convention Center reports, getting the noise that they were moving people there from the Superdome. If all of the reports were true, if they let them out into the city no telling how many of them were going to land squarely in my lap. Make my day. Reports about rapes and gangs of assholes roaming around stealing food. I gave up on humanity. Yes, this was Thursday.

Morning came and went, everyone kept mostly to themselves. Al, the oldtimer from upstairs came to me and pointed said he was ready to leave. I assured him I would work on it. I'm constantly waving down vehicles on the Avenue but most wouldnt even stop. I wasnt going to risk bodily stopping anyone; I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid! Finially I waved a cop down and told them my situation with the oldtimer. Even flushing water was off by this time. And the heat. The cops told me pointedly that their hands were full rescuing the rest of the city and that we were on some of the only dry land left. I thanked them and walked away in a daze.

John had also voiced his desire to leave before, that his daughter was in Cali and that (which I already knew) all he needed was a ride over the West Bank Expressway, one of the only routes still intact. He actually lucked out that day; the family unit was packing up their vehicle for the trek. I asked them if they had room for one more. He was small, they could squeeze him in. He gave me the key to his apartment so we could get at his water supply, which we were already drinking. As an added precaution I was also adding a little vodka to each water bottle. But even that wasn't going to last long. Everything smelled, everything was hot, you could cut the humidity with a knife.

Still, all through this I could not form a mental picture of anything other than what was right in front of me. I had seen the pictures from Betsy from when I was a child. The flooding had been reasonally confined to the 9th ward. I could not visualize what was going on here. I spent the rest of the day working on a ride for Al.

Just 3 of us left now. That night, and the next and the next were sheer hell. Helicopters were all over the sky. You couldn't sleep at night. The toilets started backing up, adding to the stench. Still, no military vehicles at all on St. Charles Ave. We didnt know what to say anymore. About anything. But, I did remember something: I went to that box of papers and dug out that wayward snackcake from days (weeks? lifetimes?) before. I presented it to Tommy.

"Happy Birthday". I said with a straight face.

The look of gratitude spoke volumes. He never could have admitted it, but this was all hard on him as well. And only someone who knew him as well as I did could have known it.

- - - PART FIVE - - -


Another tormented night, another nameless morning. Tommy was still taking his periodic walks and I knew that everytime he went out he was somehow expecting that something would be back to normal. Just being able to get cigarettes and a 12-pack of cokes was all he needed. I stayed at the complex. Al had disappeared. I kept pounding on his apartment door wondering if he had gotten a ride on his own. I certainly hoped so, although I couldnt know for sure. I would not be upset in the least if he hopped into any vehicle and saved himself. Lord knows I was feeling guilty because I couldn't get him a ride. Anyone who knows me personally knows how I am. But the stress of not being able to help him was hard.

Everything on the radio was about the Convention Center evacuation. I was conserving batteries for real now and didn't want to hear play-by-play anyway. This was all getting to me. I wanted to see the military in convoy on St. Charles. I wanted...shit, don't know what I wanted anymore. It seemed to be just me and Sarge. There was no one left in the world.

This was the day I first mentioned to Tommy about trying to leave. Staying was senseless. But Tommy wasn't going to leave. He had his whole life there, all of his things. All I really had was my work and my personal legacy. Material possessions were not a big deal for me.

The feeling of guilt and grief is something that is hard to forget. You are still not analyzing anything consciously except the very moment you are in. You stop thinking of the past, cant even pronounce the word future. Your whole concept of Universe is gone. I went to the cemetery and grabbed a small blue duffle I had stashed there and brought it back, filled it up with a few things. I did it blindly. At this point me and Tommy are just wandering around in a daze in the heat, keeping tabs on what is going on on St. Charles. Was diddly going on on St. Charles.

In retrospect, I can see what I had to be thinking even when I packed my bag. I had really just packed an overnight bag. There was no plan of any kind, not really. Just get away from the heat and the loneliness. I had caught myself praying for a Streetcar a number of times. It was too incredibly hot to weep; actually, it wasn't a weeping-type of moment. Making sure Sarge and I stayed hydrated, having to go into the disgusting bathroom just to get to the last of the reasonably-clean water, the level being down to maybe six inches. Hadn't thought about food for days, it being so hot. I do remember dreading the thought of another night there, with the building-shaking sounds of military choppers flying overhead, one after another. Could hardly even hear the radio over the noise. It was easy to establish the direction they were going; another advantage to having military experience. Knew the Convention Center evac was virtually done, but had no idea how it was taking place other than an abstract idea of how it had to be...no pictures in my mind whatsoever.

The last night was Saturday. It was simply a repeat of all of the other nights. The next morning was still the routine, if you could call it that. As it approached another noon, I realized it was time. I told Sarge as much.

"Have a nice trip" he said.

I shook my head. I didn't even have the energy to argue. I got my bag and put the last few things I could think of into it, the radio and the batteries for the most part. I went into the shed next door and grabbed a small collapsible shopping cart I had noticed there days before knowing good and well I wouldn't be able to carry the duffel any distance in the heat. I gave Tommy the keys to the water and made sure he had a few more waters and knew where the food and candles I had were - S.O.P. - I asked him if he wanted to walk with me. He agreed.

We made our way out of the complex and onto St. Charles and started weaving a path downtown. Nothing was said. Nothing was even thought as far as I was concerned, the sole mission being to get to the Convention Center. The city was desolate. We walked past the familiar landmarks we had seen and enjoyed so recently. I didn't find out for days later that the heat index was around 120 degrees, if not more. I was amazed. The cemetery heat had given me alot of experience with heat and heat index. I am surprised I was able to walk under those conditions.

Past Lee Circle. I don't think we saw more than one person the whole way. Cut up Chase towards the sound of helicopters. At Magazine is where me and Sarge parted ways, him cutting back up towards home. Salute. I glanced after him once as he was walking away and then plowed ahead. The streets were relatively free of debris in comparison to what we had encountered on the way, I'm sure because the CBD (Central Business District) was mostly made up of large buildings and that there were few trees, certainly not like the trees in the Garden District. I remember glancing into an alley and seeing a dumpster surrounded by debris. Something looked uncomfortably like human legs sticking out from underneath a tarp. Don't even know anymore. It could have been construction debris from before the storm. Still not much thought.

I hit Convention Center Blvd. and still encountered no one. But the drone of the choppers was louder and louder. I intuitively cut over to the right and made towards the bridge, still dragging my cart behind me. Not a soul to be seen. I trodded on.

I made it to the bridge. The last thing I remember is entering the shade beneath it.

- - - PART SIX - - -


"Everything is going to be alright! We're going to take care of you!"

I opened my eyes. Or, at least I think I opened my eyes. I had had seizures before, and although I have never seen what I look like during one, I had seen quite a few people having seizures before. You might ask Sarge. He had seen a few.

I focused on an Army or Air Force O-5 (Lt. Col.) talking to me. I was on a gurney surrounded by green BDU ("Battle Dress Uniform" - Military Clothing, usually Camouflage) and was right under chopper blades. I looked down and saw blood on the front of my shirt, then looked back up. A dressing was being held to the back of my head and then I saw there was a camera, video camera. I remember making a conscious decision not to flip it off. I know I had a pretty blank look on my face. They were working around me when I spouted up.

"We've got a couple of old timers in the apartment complex who need help!" I gave the address. They wrote it down and assured me they would take care of it. I gave a few more details as to how they could at least check to see what had happened to Al, exactly where his apartment was, that I had left a set of colors stuck in the dirt in front of the complex. They had my duffel and apologized that they had to go through my stuff to look for weapons. I had the knife from Sarge in my belt pouch and told them willingly, although I'm sure you can imagine I truly miss it now. They put the duffel under the gurney and I think they transferred me to something...it is a bit of a daze. It is all clear, but there were some things I wasn't paying attention to. Gave me an O.D. blanket, an MRE ("Meal, Ready to Eat" - Military road food), and loaded me aboard the chopper. Still have the blanket.

MSY (Louis Armstrong New Orleans Int'l. Airport) is a place I know pretty well. But I wasn't entering via Airline Hwy and going through the concourse. They loaded us up, the handful of people on the chopper, then used the avail cargo vehicles to transfer us to triage. The place looked very different from an airport. They hit me with a bunch of shots, started sewing my head. They said that they were going to have to cut off my pants.....i asked them if they had to - I do actually remember looking around for a nurse - they laughed at me when I started making jokes; we all knew I didn't have a concussion...thank God for many favors!

This is actually the beginning of the real nightmare. Up until that point, with help, anything could have been dealt with. I had never been evacuated before...but this is where Lost began...

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