Tuesday, August 29, 2006

a cathartic recollection of events, or, a vomiting of my memories

Yeah sorry about yesterday's little rant, guys. I was a bit grouchy.

Now on to another not-so-cheery topic...

A year ago today Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. Maybe you're sick of hearing about it, maybe you're not. I don't know how people see it from the outside, but I'm gonna talk about it.

My parents don't evacuate. Call it stupid, call it stubborn, call it what you want. They just never have. It's not such a rare sentiment in the New Orleans area. You hear year after year for forty years that "this is the big one," and nothing ever really happens, you stop taking it seriously. It's like the boy who called wolf. People figure they're better off staying behind to make sure if anything does get damaged they can start fixing it immediately and get to avoid dealing with the traffic and finding a hotel room. I've lived in Louisiana my entire life and always thought hurricanes were terribly exciting. We got to stay home from school and watch the storm. The worst thing that ever happened was having to spend three days with no electricity once.

I was more scared this time than I had been before, but my parents still insisted on staying. I resigned myself to that fact and began work on my own plans for hurricane preparedness, which mostly consisted of purchasing lots of non-perishable junk food and alcohol. We decided to ride out the storm at my friend Taylor's luxury apartment, and I basically ate marshmallows and played drinking games all day. I talked to my mom around 8 am or so, and she told me there was water in the yard and they thought it might come in. I was worried and pissed, but there was nothing I could do, so I decided to just get drunk and wait.

When the winds died down and the power came back on, I went back to my apartment and turned on the TV. The rest of the next several weeks are really a blur. I couldn't get in touch with my family. Best Friend Roomate's parents and grandparents were staying with us, so our two bedroom apartment was very crowded, but I was grateful for the company. I spent almost all day, every day, planted in front of the TV. Local news had begun broadcasting 24 hours a day, and I would just sit there, waiting for some kind of information. Nothing was coming out of St. Tammany parish at all. Horrifying pictures of New Orleans were everywhere. There was one video clip shot from a helicopter flying over Lake Ponchartrain. The twinspan, the section of I-10 that crosses the lake to connect my hometown to New Orleans, was nearly destroyed, missing huge sections of road. The camera panned the lakeshore on the St. Tammany side, and I could see my grandparents' neighborhood was devastated.

The area I live in is made up of cheap apartments inhabited almost completely by students, but suddenly there were families everywhere. Almost everyone was housing at least one relative, if not ten. You couldn't get anywhere in Baton Rouge for the crowds. Traffic was horrible, restaurants and stores were packed, gas was ridiculous. The nonprofit I work for runs an information and referral hotline, and our number was being broadcast on TV and radio as a resource for information or to volunteer. Our phones were ringing off the hook. LSU turned the PMAC, our basketball arena, into a triage center, and the Fieldhouse into a special needs shelter. Helicopters were constantly flying back and forth over neighborhood. I went to volunteer at the Special Needs Shelter--I thought it would be good for me to do something to help instead of sitting home freaking out. Imagine an indoor track converted into a makeshift nursing home. There were several hundred beds, each one home to a scared, dirty, elderly or disabled person. Most of them were alone; the very lucky ones had caregivers with them. I met a man in his 70's who had stayed behind at his Lakeview home. He was wheelchair bound, and so when the water came in he pulled himself up his attic stairs with his arms. He had somehow been rescued, he didn't seem to remember the details of how it happened. His arms and back were covered in bandages, and he was bruised all over, but I was amazed at his resilience. I fed him lunch and sat and talked with him for some time. He was making jokes and telling me about his grandkids. He said he didn't know how to contact his kids, and I wondered how terrified they must have been after seeing the pictures of Lakeview on the news.

I asked some of the National Guard who were working at the shelter if they knew anything about Slidell, and they said all the knew was that it was bad. No communication was going in or out. Sometime later that week, my boyfriend's parents heard that they were letting residents into St. Tammany to check on their property, as long as they didn't stay, and offered to go see if my parents were okay while they were there.

My parents and sister hadn't seen anyone but the neighbors in days. They had about four feet of water in the first floor, which is really more like a daylight basement consisting of a garage, rec room, laundry room, and my dad's office. The neighbors' house is only one story, so when the water began to rise they came over to my parents' with the dog and a garbage bag full of clothes in a boat. When they saw Bryan's parents come walking up the driveway, my sister, Shannon, ran straight up to her room and started packing a bag. My mom wrote a letter to me apologizing for scaring me and asking me to call my Dad's boss and the insurance companies, get them some supplies, etc. My sister came back to Baton Rouge with Bryan's parents, and began calling family as soon as she got cell phone service. My mom's entire extended family was at my aunt's house in Georgia, and they all started crying when they heard her voice. My dad's dad, who was in Texas, apparently had to pass the phone onto his wife because he was too emotional. I have never been so happy to see my sister before in my life. She's only a year younger than me and we had always fought, but I cried when we hugged, and even though my mom had given directions to send Shannon to Georgia to live with my aunt, we decided we wanted to stay together. We got her an air mattress and a sheet to hang from the ceiling for privacy, and she lived in my dining room for the next two months.

A few days later, I went down to Slidell myself, to see my parents and to bring them supplies. It was like a nightmare. The town I had been raised in looked nothing like I remembered. I don't feel like recounting the details. Boats and mud everywhere. We went to check on my grandparents' house, climbing in through a back window that had already been broken by the National Guard searching for survivors and bodies. I held onto scattered pieces of wet furniture, my flip flops sliding in the mud. Five feet of water, everything was ruined. Muddy bootprints up the stairs, numbers spraypainted on the front of the house, symbolizing that rescuers had been here before us. My cousin has some pictures. Blogger beta won't let me upload any.

I've gotten all into remembering and I lost track of where I was going with this. I'm overwhelmed with random details--like seeing the busses FINALLY driving up I-10 through Baton Rouge, taking all of those people who had been stuck at the Superdome and Convention Center to shelters. Things are starting to get back to normal, kind of. My extended family is gradually moving back into their homes. It's overcrowded on the Northshore, everything still closes early, debris and FEMA trailers still line many of the streets. New Orleans is a mess. My parents have lived in Slidell since they were both kids, and for the first time in their lives are considering moving out. They're disillusioned with the recovery and rebuilding process and want to get out before the economy gets worse. As much as I hate the idea, I can't say I blame them.

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