by Michael Tisserand
“I can’t go back there,” says my wife, Tami, talking on the cell phone. We’re driving into Lafayette to find an insurance office and check out the food stamp line. She listens to the caller, a friend of mine from high school.
“That would be great,” Tami says. They’re talking about Minneapolis. Every day now, Tami keeps going to pediatrician job websites, calling out the names of cities that have work. Champaign-Urbana. Somewhere in central Wisconsin. Now, Minneapolis.
After the storm, those who love us now want to enfold us. They’ve cleared out their guest rooms, and they tell us about their school districts. There are good reasons to go. But there’s a price, watching others leave for work every morning when you’re carrying unfamiliar pains inside.
My wife and I cross Interstate 10 and enter Lafayette’s new daily traffic of evacuees. I start to wonder about post-hurricane divorce rates. About how a couple can wake up one morning to find themselves rebuilding in different directions. I speak loudly enough to be heard by everyone.
“We don’t know what we’re doing,” I say.
The number of bodies found in New Orleans is still being calculated. So is the growing catalog of known horrors, such as St. Rita’s Nursing Home in Chalmette, where the bodies of more than 30 residents were found. Some of the dead can no longer be recognized, but you can read their final moments in the way they are positioned.
At a benefit in Lafayette, I find John Blancher, who owns Mid-City Lanes, a combination bowling alley and music club on flooded Carrollton Avenue. John used to hire Paul Accardo to do police detail work, before Accardo became a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department. Paul lived in St. Bernard Parish, John says. In the hurricane, he lost everything. He couldn’t reach people who needed help. Then he shot himself. “Good fellow,” John says. “Good cop.” Then John says, “This city was sicker than I ever realized.”
What do we really know, those of us who got out? We know the storm hit. We know that many of the very weakest of us didn’t get help until it was too late.
Those final days of our city, our president put a face on obliviousness. He offered an awkward joke about his younger days, when he had a little too much fun on Bourbon Street. People were still dying in New Orleans that day. Others were still waiting for rescue, the nighttime rooftops in some neighborhoods offering a constellation of flashlights.
We know our anger. But we know something else, too. We knew the levee could break. We knew the planning hadn’t been done. We knew the coast was disappearing.
Have we changed? Some of us have. The storm transformed The Times-Picayune into a street fighter that stayed even after the levee break, publishing articles and editorials on nola.com that are more scathing than anything the daily ever wrote before the city was ruined. Local news anchors are suddenly speaking their minds. So is Mayor Ray Nagin.
“I saw stuff that I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” Nagin told The Times-Picayune last week. “People wanting to die. People trying to give me babies and things. It was a helpless, helpless feeling. There was a lady waiting in line for a bus who had a miscarriage. She was cleaning herself off so she wouldn’t lose her place in line. There were old people saying, ‘Just let me lay down and die.’ ”
I only know one person who’s still inside the city who’s defied all calls to evacuate. Roger Hahn, who like me once came to New Orleans to write about music and culture. He’s single and, as far as I know, he’s still in his house. I found this out from my friend Scott Jordan, who spent days trying to reach him. Then Scott tried calling Roger’s phone. Not a cell phone. His home line.
“Oh, hi Scott, what’s up?”
Scott wanted to go in himself and rescue him. Then he arranged a fire truck to pick Roger up that afternoon. Roger and I talked for about an hour. He was my first line into the city, and I had questions. What did it sound like when it struck? What did you see? I told him about those in the country who now seemed to want to cast off New Orleans like a used-up mistress. He reminded me that the courtesan metaphor dates to Faulkner.
Roger went out right after the storm and felt pretty happy about his running water and gas stove. He took in three tourists from a nearby guesthouse. Before the levee broke, they even strolled to the Superdome. He had groceries for a month.
At home, he listened constantly to talk radio. For days, a local station that stayed on air served as a public 911 line, with DJs answering survival questions. Roger calls the whole thing genocide. “The largest black population in the South—it’s the poorest, it’s the most culturally rich, it’s the most disposable.”
Halfway through the conversation, Roger adds that every day around 2:30 p.m., the heat overwhelms him and he has to lie down. When he needs water, he taps his upstairs water heater, opening the faucet with a flathead screwdriver.
Roger gives tips for cleaning a refrigerator. He comes up with a hurricane joke: How do you tell if an unrefrigerated egg has gone bad? It starts looting.
It’s around this time that I start thinking I might be talking to a dying man. He goes on, about the poor blacks who ran into downtown hotels at the last minute. “When I got down there, the managers were trying to get all those people out,” he says. Then he’s talking about the difference between New Orleans jazz and Dixieland. About how New Orleans makes money by things passing through it, how it really is Blanche DuBois, depending on strangers. How he isn’t really ready to take that fire truck out today. Maybe tomorrow.
For evacuees, nothing stops conversation like a firsthand account about home. One evening, we were meeting in a New Iberia living room with other parents, making plans for our kids’ school year. Another parent came in. He’d just returned from New Orleans, he’d gone in armed, he had the cell phone photos of his office. All talk stopped while we stared at a tiny image of a building with a gaping hole.
I could go in myself. I can get a press pass. But I understand what I’ll see: soldiers armed with M16s, military bases on our old playgrounds. Trees eviscerated, wintry. Quiet neighborhoods punctuated by burned houses, felled oak trees, tableaux of destruction. They say it’s an abandoned movie set; it’s apocalyptic. One friend calls it an acquired taste.
I don’t want to see my house yet. But for the first time since the storm, I did drive east this week on Interstate 10, to Baton Rouge. A friend of mine from New York is here. She used to live in New Orleans, and we’d play noisy games of Scrabble at a Magazine Street coffeehouse. She helped out after 9/11 and now she’s here to do the same.
For the past week, she’s been rescuing and counseling, moving through the city with purpose. When I drove up, she was wearing sweat pants, an oversized red T-shirt and cheap flip-flops. She went to the trunk and pulled out a new Scrabble board.
We’re in the main parking lot of the Jimmy Swaggart Family Worship Center, which is servicing as a portal for first responders who are going into New Orleans. Many volunteers wear T-shirts emblazoned with NYPD logos. People talk of counseling and tetanus shots; the air smells of hand sanitizer. Next to framed pictures of Swaggart and Jesus are taped-up handwritten signs that start out, “After contact with N.O. Water...”
We walk past a New York City cop. He nods at my friend. “I heard you did good work in there,” he says.
She warns me against notebooks. She talks about a reporter who got in her face right as she was evacuating someone. The reporter called her Gestapo, then went to the man in the house and asked him if he was mad about having to leave. She says the reporter’s eyes were dilated, his mouth was turned in, he was losing it.
My friend talks about the Canal Street hotel where they were stationed, the smell of death and sewage, the dysentery. She got someone out of his Ninth Ward home by promising to board his windows, and everyone jumped out of the emergency vehicle to stand in the putrid heat and pound plywood.
They’re all going back to New York now, my friend, her friend, the real estate guy. The Fraternal Order of Police is setting up here. Things are in better hands. We hug each other goodbye. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers.
Michael Tisserand is editor of Gambit Weekly in New Orleans, which was forced to cease publication after Hurricane Katrina.