Monday, August 28th, 2006
One year after Katrina, how’s the recovery going? Depends on who, where,and when you ask.
Many households — and even whole neighborhoods, like Broadmoor — are in full recovery mode, forging ahead on a wing and a prayer, without waiting for official approval or the long-awaited Road Home rebuilding funds. Thirty cottages in the Habitat for Humanity-built Musicians’ Village are ready to welcome their new owners, with more to come. Ray’s Boom Boom Room, a cool new black-owned club on Frenchmen Street, opened just in time for Louis Armstrong’s birthday bash, which was hoppin’ with jazz lovers. White Linen Night, the art galleries’ signature summer event, was also overflowing with see-and-be-scenesters, and you have to fight for a chair at Bacchanal when Chef Pete fires up the grill in his makeshift outdoor kitchen on Sunday nights. Still, there’s something a bit frenetic about all this activity, and everyone’s keeping a wary eye on Tropical Storm Ernesto as we enter the peak of hurricane season with pump stations on the fritz and levee upgrades barely begun.
Signs of bureaucratic bogdown are everywhere. Hundreds of kids are wait-listed for the state’s vaunted Recovery District schools, which haven’t even hired all the teachers they need to open in September. Much of the Lower 9th Ward remains without power or water. And that old swashbuckler Mayor Nagin, as I jauntily referred to him in my post-election diary, has neither swashed nor buckled since voters gave him back his job; the best master plan he’s been able to muster is a “plan to have a plan” by year’s end.
Hurry up and wait has become so endemic post-K that I wasn’t exactly shocked that the interview I taped with my friend Brett Evans a few months back, when he recounted his hairy escape from New Orleans, turned out to be . . . totally blank. Ghosts in the machine erased every trace of his story as thoroughly as the floods wiped out entire blocks in the Lower Nine.
But Brett, being a poet, loves a good metaphor. So he was happy to rewind his memory on the eve of Katrina’s one-year anniversary. Sitting out on his Mid-City back porch, where he eventually rescued the household’s four dogs after a series of miracles, Brett recounted the adventures of the “Cavalier Assholes Club,” who worked “more by magic than logic” and lived to tell and retell the tale.
Valerie Massimi navigates Mid-City floodwaters en route to Brett Evans' back porch, where this boatload of dogs were rescued several days later.(Photograph by Jonathan Traviesa)
What happened during the hurricane was so enormous. There are many different perspectives that you can apply to it, all valid.
One of them is how much life is like a J.G. Ballard novel. The frailest bit of civilization gets stripped away and the whole thing cascades pretty quickly. All the most appealing things about staying for a hurricane become the most hellish: Being stranded with your friends, being cut off from annoying telecommunications, being in a situation that is absolutely not boring.
The perspective I was thinking about today is how New Orleans operates more by magic than by logic, which is antithetical to planning against these sorts of things. I mean, everybody will do more than they did the next time. But my specific friend group and myself — the “Cavalier Assholes Club,” as we ended up calling ourselves — were going more by magic than by logic.
Two days before the storm, on August 27th, my friend Jonathan Traviesa had an opening at the Waiting Room Gallery in the Bywater where there was lots of speculation about whether to stay or to go. By all the data that was coming in, everybody should have been going. But there’s a sort of group think that happens when you have enough people you think are gonna do what you’re gonna do.
As people began to parcel themselves out, Jonathan and my friend Valerie and I decided we’d go up to a friend’s fourth story place in the American Can Company, an old warehouse in Mid-City that’s been converted to apartments, and do a sort of vertical evacuation. Knowing how laid-back and cool Valerie and Jonathan are, part of my thinking was, if I have to be stuck in a storm with anybody, I might as well be stuck with them. We also knew seven other people who were staying on the floor below us — the “third floor seven,” as I ended up calling them — that I consider a lot more sensible than myself, and if they were going up in the building, it mustn’t be a totally stupid thing to do.
Another factor in my not leaving that fateful Sunday before the storm was that I was a bit hungover. And the idea of like 12 hours in gridlocked traffic didn’t seem too pleasant.
Val arrived on my porch Sunday morning with nothing but a guitar, high heels, and a copy of Moby Dick, which sort of set the tone for our move to the Can. Tellingly, the night before the storm, we all played this parlor game called Aliens, where a couple people are the aliens and everybody else has to figure out who they are. It’s not based on any clues, just pure group dynamics. A pretty fitting metaphor for how we’d all ended up there.
When the storm hit early Monday morning, the building successfully bucked it. Not one window broke. The water was only about three feet high, and people were still able to go down to the courtyard and barbecue. We still had ice, it hadn’t melted yet. Even Monday night was pleasant. Me and Jonathan and Val sat around drinking bourbon and singing songs. We never imagined the levees would break, or that we’d be trapped by water everywhere.
Once the building got cut off and we realized we might actually die, it was absolutely not a game. Being stranded with my friends suddenly became much more ghoulish than I’d ever imagined. Everything was based on rumor and hearsay and you couldn’t believe anything except what you saw with your own eyes.
By Tuesday, we knew something was truly wrong. The water, instead of going down, came up higher. You couldn’t go down into the courtyard anymore. Life started to get more miserable. Everybody had to hang out on the roof of the building, where things got more tribal and weird, good and bad. There was an Indian family, maybe three generations, really sweet people, who were in town for a wedding. There was also some maniac who had swum across to the convenience store and looted all the cigarettes and was trying to sell them for like $10 a pack.
We had our own tribe, us three plus the third floor seven. I also had my three dogs and my neighbor’s dog and her cat. We still had radio power, and Mayor Nagin came on and said the water was gonna go up another eight feet. I knew if that happened, we’d probably die, and there was no way the animals would get out. We were trapped by water all around.
Early on, Jonathan and Val had gone back to his place, which was nearby but flooded, and retrieved an inflatable boat. Jonathan actually rescued a family or two in that boat, but then he lashed it to the front of building and the boat got stolen.
Fortunately — and in this regard there were many small moments of chance and opportunity — my friends Bill and Nancy were boating by. They came up into the building to go into another friend’s apartment, where I found a small, tiny boat that was really just a pool toy. I brought that back to Jonathan, who was able to take it out and eventually get another boat, a real metal boat, which would later end up being huge.
Wednesday was the last night everyone was together. Me, the dogs, Valerie and Jonathan were all in this tent on the roof, or just outside of it on blankets, and it was a last false, cozy moment. It felt almost like we were camping out as we drank whatever little liquor was left and dozed off.
As soon as daylight broke, it was like the opening of Apocalypse Now. Helicopters were hovering all around us. It was unbelievably loud. Unbelievably hot. All you could smell was diesel fuel and greasy, disgusting stagnant air, mixed with total human desperation.
At this point, everyone started to get really confused and frantic. And I had a complete meltdown.
It was in the parking garage, standing in the water, that I said my goodbyes to the dogs. This off-duty cop came up in a hotwired boat that he’d stolen from a roof with Jonathan’s help and I got in, thinking I was going to this little strip of land where the helicopters left and that I’d see Jon and Val over there.
Thankfully, for me and my dogs, they ended up not leaving that day. Instead, they took the dogs in the boat to the back porch of my house a few blocks away, which didn’t flood.
The police boat dropped me off by the interstate, and I knew if I spent the night there it was going to be absolutely hellish. I thought I was definitely going to die, and it was sort of my punishment for leaving my friends and my dogs. But at the same time, death seemed a little too severe a punishment, even for me.
Fortunately, I was with a couple of other people from the building and one of the guys spoke Spanish. And when these Mexican guys came up in a boat, filled with Corona and ice and water that they were bringing to other people stranded on the interstate, he asked them to take us back to the helicopter island. So I got out on a helicopter, which was no joy at all because I’d left my dogs behind. And instead of attaining any freedom for myself, I was just dropped off at this giant refugee camp of total chaos out by the interstate in Metairie.
I consider it a total failure of my will that I left the dogs. But what’s so puzzling about the whole story is that, as fate would have it, if I hadn’t gone when I did, things probably wouldn’t have worked out. Because when I got to the refugee camp, I met these Australian journalists. And when I finally met up with my wife, Janine, who’d been in Guatemala this whole time, we spent two days of serious jockeying on the Internet, doing everything we could think of to get back to the dogs, and finally got back in touch with the Australian journalists.
With them [and their press credentials], we were able to come back into the city and eventually work our way to our Bayou St. John neighborhood and wade into the by then black water, total shitwater, and get the dogs from the back porch where Jonathan and Val had left them a few days earlier.
So this particular tale ends with a miracle about how I got out, and especially about how my dogs got out. New Orleanians a lot of times live by the idea of a miracle. Because miracles are much more glamorous and dramatic than problem-solving. And it makes a good story — one that ended up on Australian radio. But at the same time, it reveals that when you play by the miracle, you play it absolutely close to the edge, with no margin of error.
The irony of the story is that the people who were in charge of the logic-over-magic department — the engineers in charge of the levees — ended up being as hungover and incompetent as if they’d been partying for 17 years straight.
THIS JUST IN! Read Cree McCree's new article, Citizens K: The 10 Best Blogs By, From and About New Orleans—One Year After Katrina.