On Writing in the Wake of Katrina
I watched CNN on Sunday for a long time, following the path of Hurricane Irene, worrying about relatives and friends who were in various states along the storm’s expected travels. As it became clear that the inland flooding from overflowing riverbanks would be by far the greatest danger to them, a tiny part of me jumped into a familiar anxiety mode, while another was outraged by the screaming coverage on television. While I pray for the families who lost loved ones, and I do empathize with the people, and there are many, who lost their homes, I was nevertheless annoyed by the continuous loop of video showing a lifeguard station in New Jersey coming off the sand and running into the boardwalk. That video was followed, on a fairly regular basis, by a photograph of a park bench, half hidden by water perhaps 3 ft deep, that the anchors kept looking at in amazement remarking that it had moved—all the way across the street. They were nearly dumbstruck with awe. I meanwhile remembered the endless loop of people on roofs, helicopters with little kids hanging in baskets and, of course, one bit of footage of a looter that was looped like the yarn on my grandmother’s crochet hooks around every other bit of footage as the levees broke six years ago. The coverage was frustrating and more than a little infuriating.
Doubtless there is someone in one of those states looking at the destruction Irene left behind and screaming with fury at the looping footage that doesn’t tell even a tenth of the story.
As Katrina headed in towards land, we had left on the Sunday afternoon before the storm after flipping a coin. Not the best way to make a decision, but one that we admit to as it is true. Under a sound roof in Alabama, we watched that looping footage, switching stations frantically to get more information, maybe better information. What was happening to our city, to the people in it? As the video of water coursing through neighborhoods started, we were shocked.
Then came the reports of what was happening in the Superdome, at the Convention Center, on roofs and overpasses. People. Lots and lots of people waiting for help. Some asking for water, just some drinking water. Reporters saying there were bodies floating near the overpasses. This in our city. Our country. Another couple days went by and we decided to return home after scouring nola.com for other news, connecting with some people, finding comfort in communication, being told we were crazy to go back. We were told it was the Wild West, it was a catastrophe of monumental proportions, it was illegal. We put the map on the dining room table, plotted a route home that would take us north through Hattiesburg and Bogalusa, a route that took us about 150 miles out of our way. We’d buy gas along the way wherever we could find it. We couldn’t sit watching the video loops another minute. We felt compelled to come back and at least make an attempt to help.
As we headed south to the Sunshine Bridge in order to come up 90, we hooked up with some other New Orleans-bound travelers. All of us with the same compulsion to get back, to pitch in. We talked a lot when we stopped for gas or supplies about what we’d do if we couldn’t get into town. What if all the exits were blocked by Guardsmen? We all decided to risk it. As we came north, the southbound lanes looked like something out of a Steinbeck novel. People with furniture tied to the roofs of their cars, passengers sitting on tied down mattresses in the beds of pickup trucks. Not a vehicle was moving. A giant parking lot full of frantic people and a few of their possessions. We wondered where they were planning to go, but we kept heading up toward the city. In the lanes next to us were a few National Guard trucks, humvees, and some personnel. We and the other couple traveling in their car were the only civilians we saw. We got to our exit and miraculously it wasn’t blocked. There was no one around as we approached our house. It appeared that there was no one anywhere. We saw no chaos other than a house in the middle of an intersection and downed trees and power lines everywhere. We lived on the Westbank at that time. We had been lucky. Just the other side of the river it was an entirely different story.
After a quick recon around the neighborhood, we found out who was home, and there were several. We gathered all the news we could, but the information void put us into an alternate reality: we only knew what we saw or what we heard in our little area. It was that way for people in other neighborhoods as well we found out later. We found out that a food distribution point was going to be set up at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras world so the next day we went to offer our services. The people on Powder Street needed medication. The lady by the levee was hooking up with animal rescue folks and needed our dog crate.
Our power was out but the phone line miraculously still worked. We had brought enough gasoline in with us to get us back out if that’s what we thought we should do. Instead we poured it into a generator that our neighbor had and we shared that generator one hour a day. I still had a dial up modem in my computer so I rigged a connection to a dial up number for AOL in New Mexico. It worked. On September 12, 2005 I wrote my first mass email explaining what we were seeing here at that time. I wrote every couple days after that well into March of 2006.
I was asked what it felt like to write during that time. Necessary. That’s how it felt. It was necessary. It was eminently clear that news coverage was limited at best. That people in other parts of the country were getting barely a piece of the story. While I certainly couldn’t give a view of the entire city, I could absolutely tell people what was going on in my neck of New Orleans: what we had, what we didn’t have, when the power was expected to come on, where the food distribution was and who was distributing it.
After one week my mailing list swelled to over 200 as people forwarded my emails to each other and dropped me a line asking to be included on any future updates. AOL was convinced that I was running a gigantic spam operation, so I wrote them and explained where I was and what I was doing. They relented, allowing the emails to go out, and eventually the mailing list grew by another 50. I was getting emails from locals asking if we could check on their houses and post photos, I was getting emails from people outside of the country asking what they could do, I got emails from friends and others asking what they could send and how to send it as the post office wasn’t in service. I was getting emails from people saying that the original mail had been forwarded ten times until it reached them and that their thoughts and prayers were with us.
What started as a simple “we’re okay don’t worry” email had morphed into an on the ground news dissemination system and people wanted the information, not the stuff they were seeing on the news. They wanted the stories of what we were doing, who we had met, the incredible generosity of some guys who drove through the night to deliver much needed goods. We eventually managed to photograph several houses for people who couldn’t get back, and although it was slow going on dial up, we sent them out. It eventually got to a point where we could no longer send individual thank you emails, there were too many and our generator time was too short.
I said earlier that it was necessary to write at that time. It was. Not just because the news coverage was initially so bad, but because once that first email went out the responses we got sustained us. I am not sure how we would have managed those first few weeks without the support of all those emails. People we didn’t know were keeping us going when all we wanted to do was cry. A bond was forged with those strangers on my computer screen. I kept writing. They kept responding, and I felt a duty to continue sending out updates.
Many people sent boxes of supplies. Others sent vitamins and tasty things. They all came with notes of support, often with cash in them, and all with a comment about the frustration of trying to find a tangible way to help in that moment. So many kindnesses to balance the unfathomable cruelty of Katrina. It still chokes me up.
I had always written, an article here, a story there but nothing as regular as the emails written at that time. As the anger mounted and the sadness dropped us into pits of despair, the words were there being read somewhere by someone who cared even if we didn’t know their name. They met the people in my neighborhood, the people helping out. They heard the stories of the noble sons who’d stayed with their elderly, ill mothers. They heard the stories of lost people and our panic over their whereabouts. They heard about little triumphs and major hurdles. They heard about the heat and the exhaustion, the jubilation of power being turned back on, our first sight of Jackson Square covered in satellite trucks and humvees and old bandages instead of artists, and how many nails a tire can absorb before it becomes unusable.
In the writing of those missives I found the strength to cope with what I was seeing around me, and if the responses were to be believed, I was giving the people who read them a more realistic view of what was happening here during that time. Interestingly enough, six years later, sometimes those emails swirl through my consciousness with the tenacity of a CNN video loop.
Sam blogs at New Orleans Slate and is a contributing author and co-editor of A Howling in the Wires: An Anthology of Writing from Postdiluvian New Orleans. Her emails chronicling the days after Katrina can be read at Katrina Refrigerator.