Delta blues: <I>Hook</I> writer reports from the flood
Former Hook music editor Mark Grabowski was just beginning graduate school at Tulane when Katrina intervened with plans of her own.
I moved to New Orleans for graduate school in the beginning of August with my favorite girl. But by the 25th, everything had gone completely wrong– in fact, the month was going to go down in personal infamy as the second worst month of my life (#1 is better left unmentioned).
Though my August there had been horrible, the city was not. Indescribable beauty and strangeness filled the air at any time– sidewalks fractured by erupting roots of live oaks; rich lush green covering everything; no house on any street like any other; liquor on sale at gas station convenience stores; and one club whose advertising agency consisted of a man holding up a sign touting "bottomless" in the French Quarter.
That's only a small sliver of the magical– almost fantastic– sights and sounds in that sinful garden of earthly delights. I was settling in to becoming a permanent resident, had gotten used to the heat and suffocating humidity, and was beginning to think of the place as my town.
Then, on Friday morning, my mom called.
Sometimes, it seemed my mother was the reincarnation of the boy who cried wolf. The soundtrack for my young life included phrases like "Don't drive on the beltway during rush hour," "You won't be taking our car into that part of town, will you?" "You could get killed walking to school!"
But though I took all of her warnings with a grain of salt the size of Lot's favorite pillar, I still listened to her, and sometimes, just sometimes, she was right.
"Have you heard about the hurricane?" she asked.
Looking at the Internet on Friday, August 26, recognizing the storm gaining strength in the Gulf was a Category 3 and likely to get stronger– and was heading right for my new home– I had a prickly feeling she might finally be on to an actual disaster.
I went to sleep that night figuring I would sort things out in the morning if the storm was still heading our way. When I awoke about 10am Saturday, I looked at the Internet again to find that Katrina had swollen to a Category 4 and was drawing a direct bead on the city. Even so, I wasn't worried enough to pack much– most of my effort went to getting things off the floor and onto the bed in case of flooding.
Four t-shirts, three pairs of pants, three pairs socks, three pairs of boxers, my laptop, and my guitar later (the last two being the most valuable things I own), and I was ready to head to Georgia for shelter with my girlfriend's sister. But things looked ominous right outside my door. The city was locked in traffic, gas lines stretching 10 cars long from each pump out into the streets, and during the 40 minutes it took me to get onto I-10 East (usually a nine-minute romp), the situation steadily worsened. Finally, around noon, the town sat calmly in my rearview mirror, and I was on my way to my peach bunker.
There for the next two days I watched my adopted city disintegrate. Monday morning I woke up and checked the Internet immediately– Category 5, projected to hit the coast near the city by mid-day. I murmured thanks that I had decided get out when I did and had had the means to do so.
We sat and watched as the hurricane roared in, as one too many reporters braved the winds to report on the storm with teeth clenched and mitts holding their foam microphones for dear life, and as Mother Nature had her way with New Orleans. Things seemed bad, but still we harbored the thought of returning, perhaps in a week or two, and picking up where we left off.
Until the levees broke.
In what seemed like a matter of hours, 80 percent of the city was flooded, and our hopes drowned with it. Tuesday night we decided to go to our respective parents' homes to regroup and wait things out. Wednesday morning, we said our tearful goodbyes.
From what we can tell from satellite pictures, our apartment house, in all its orange stucco glory, is flooded, though we can't tell by how many feet of water (reports say six feet in our area). The city won't be drained for something like 80 days. Power won't be on at least till then, water won't be restored, and the Herculean task of cleaning up the waste looms indefinitely.
I'm not going to attempt political commentary, as that's never been my style. New Orleans is a mixture of extremes– rich and poor, almost from one block to the next. How anyone expected the poor, especially those without transportation, to evacuate, I can't imagine, and the days before rescue was even attempted roil my blood. I hope someone is held accountable, this time.
School is out, at least for the fall semester, and I suspect for the year– at least. Finding housing after this disaster for all of Tulane's staff, both academic and support, as well as for the many students who live on campus, seems to me an unimaginable feat, even by next fall.
UVA president John Casteen's generous offer to take us Tulaners is greatly appreciated. As for me, though, I'm exploring some other options in the D.C. area.
I'm thankful I got out when I did and that I had somewhere to go and friends to provide me with lodging and the emotional support I needed to figure out what to do next.
Pieces, where they were scattered yesterday, today look like they might have a chance of fitting together. I'm just glad August is over.
Cars are partially submerged on Canal Street after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Cars are partially submerged on Canal Street.
REUTERS PHOTO/JASON REED