Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of Katrina's rampage across New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We are rebuilding homes, businesses, lives, personalities, relationships, all from the ground up. We live in the shadows of corrupt politicians and cowardly criminals, but we trudge on with hope. We are a city of Do-It-Yourselfers, pros at hanging sheetrock and laying tile (I guarantee a lot less carpet in the city these days). There are still some serious issues today, like horrid levee protection and lack of doctors & hospital beds (down 42% from pre-K levels), and ungodly high hikes in home and flood insurance, but we're adapting to the chaos.
In my lifetime, I've had to evacuate maybe 5 times, to avoid approaching storms. And I've watched countless other hurricanes and tropical storms as they've meandered for days in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, watched weather patterns, highs and lows, predicted paths. Within a few days of landfall, we know whether or not to hit the road. Generally, we leave for a couple of days, storm rolls through (some downed trees, a few destroyed homes, a lot of broken windows), and then we come back home. Clean up what needs to be cleaned up, and go about our lives. Katrina was different because she tore through the levees, which were poorly constructed (we the public know now), and poorly tested over the years. The levee system is important to New Orleans because we are as much as 17 feet below sea level, and sinking about 1" every year. One of the downfalls of living at the mouth of a massive river. We are basically a big bowl. The levees keep the water out, and (try to) steer the river along its curves. When those levees were breached by Katrina's floodwaters, basically crumbling in places, the city flooded. Toxic gumbo.
My wife and I left a couple of days before the storm hit, packed up our three cats (who did NOT like sharing one cat carrier, for hours on end), a couple of days worth of clothes, some flashlights and water, pictures and certificates and back up disks. We stayed in Baton Rouge, about an hour away, and watched the horrors unfold on the news. I captured a lot of news footage with my digital camera, in some effort to record it all, knowing I wasn't taking it all in. Really it was all I could do. I remember feeling abandoned, outraged. Being called a 'refugee', as if I had escaped some prison camp in a third world country. Hearing that Canadian mounties on horseback had arrived in the city to help, before our government had even responded. I remember just wanting to go home, not knowing if home was even still there. Even in Baton Rouge, phones were down so I had no contact with family, didn't even know where everyone had ended up. Had they all gotten out? My grandparents were in a wooded area not far from us, so after tiring of the overcrowded streets of Baton Rouge, now teaming with 'refugees', we headed to their more secluded house to make sure they were alright. My wife and I spent two weeks in a house in the woods with my grandparents, in an empty house that my grandfather built with his own hands. I found peace (ironically, in nature). (Got lots of great nature pics too, but thats for another day).....Continued watching the news, recording it (we had a tv with a rigged antenna for crappy reception)...stories spread like wildfire, of car jacking and house jacking, of sharks swimming the flooded highways, prisoners escaped from the prisons, packs of wild rabid abandoned pets.....and then there were stories that you just knew were true...abandoned nursing homes.....full hospitals with no power....no water pressure for firemen....looting and gunfire in the French Quarter, while people were drowning in flooded neighborhoods mere miles away....I remember sobbing on more than one occasion...and I remember the lines.....oh God the lines...the first help to arrive were food stamp cards from the state.....most folks had no access to their bank accounts since local offices had flooded or shut down, but we were just poor....the little money we had when we evacuated had long been used up on gas (which you had to wait in line for, if you could find it), so we headed to the office where we heard they were giving out the cards, and waited in line for about 4 hours, outside, in an unorganized mass of winding people, in summer heat, with no food or water present. About a week in, came the FEMA lines, this time miles of cars in queue.....trucks arrived in surrounding neighborhoods carrying bottled water, ice, and MREs (military Meals Ready to Eat), which we lived on for about a month....I still have a box of them in my kitchen....things like Restructured Beefsteak! and Western Beans!...even eggs (suspect eggs, anyway).....drink powder, napkin, tobasco sauce, and desert (cookie, cake, tootsie roll)....my grandfather (Paw-Paw) told me when he was in the war 'fighting the Germans', MRE's came with cigarettes......and let me not forget the Red Cross line, to apply for unemployment and FEMA housing assistance while on evacuation, because yes, people were still having to pay their mortgages....that one was an all day thing, 9 hours, again outdoors in the summer heat, though this time there was a church next door, and they walked water over to us throughout the day.
Eventually text messaging was functional on cell phones and I was able to communicate with family, friends. No one was allowed back in the city. We discovered our house had received minor damage structurally. We had no mold but some roof damage, electrical surges had wiped out most of our appliances, and that fridge, stood rotting in a corner like EVERYONE else's. There was a particular smell, of oil and waste and death, everywhere, for weeks. I helped my parents, and grandparents, and aunt, gut their houses, saw entire lifetimes piled on the curb, getting bigger and bigger, as there was no trash pickup (that would be weeks away). Our cleanup was vile. I emptied a swimming pool, maybe 6 months after the storm, still filled with toxic gumbo, and writhing live things, leeches....as the black water drained out I expected to find a body. I stood in my parents house, amongst the ruins of my childhood, old books and comics, the first 20 years of my life, drowned. The door that my brother had scratched 'Led Zeppelin Zoso' into, when we were just wee teens. The vine mural I had painted on one wall. The panelling, whose knotty shapes I knew so well, now covering moldy sheetrock. I found myself salvaging items from the pile, my parents in a blind rage to empty, gut, clean. Old photographs, moldy and warped, cleaned up now digitally. A record collection, removed from its damp sleeves and polished. An old leather postcard. I kept recording, as much as possible during the cleanup, but unfortunately didnt get any of the nastiest bits, since I was doing those.
In the months following the return home, every small step was rejoiced, the return of the mailman, the hum of an air conditioner, the taste of fresh produce, and a roast beef po-boy. I remember thinking the landscape had completely changed, with so many trees down. Somewhere in my mind, Jenny Greenteeth had woken from her cave and was swimming through my thoughts. I was unemployed for months, and started cobbling together all of my 'Katrina' footage, editing together a visual record, and yesterday I finished tweaking a video started long ago. A sort of personal retrospective, culled from news broadcasts and, at the end, a little personal cleanup footage, set to Led Zeppelin's 'When the Levees Break'....
Katrina Retrospective from Ubatuber and Vimeo.