“There’re Alligators and Snakes in the Water”

Man, have I got some pictures and stories for you. Survival of the fittest. I have toured towns hit so hard throughout Mississippi and Louisiana and Washington Parish that no one has heard about because they don’t even have phone lines. I even have a friend who stood out in the storm as trees broke down all around her. I’ll keep you up on our needs. Thanks for being there.

w/ Love, Cousin Tony 9-1-05

Tony's e-mail was the first contact I had with my family in New Orleans. I now know that Tony’s home in the La Place Parish is the lone house of my New Orleans relatives to survive Katrina and its aftermath. My family pretty much lost everything. Death and disaster, either from a monstrous hurricane or bullets tearing into your body, never seem that far from the citizens of New Orleans. There’re alligators and snakes in the flood water, and you know that they eat dead people. If you get to high ground you’re okay. Back in the ’30s and ’40s, the levee was something you could run up and down on. It was there for us to play on when we were eight and nine, back when them poor-ass white people on top of the levees lived in them train cars. They had no money. They lived off of the land. Mother said don’t be bothered with them poor white people, but she treated them nice. They didn’t have nothing. Poor blacks at least had real houses.

—Lita Tervalon, upon seeing the high water in her old neighborhood 9-4-05

I've been afraid for some time of hurricanes in New Orleans. Usually we’d plan trips during the brutal heat and humidity of hurricane season because it was so wonderfully cheap to stay somewhere nice in the Quarter, or near the Quarter, like the Windsor Court Hotel. Maybe four years ago I decided that January was almost as cheap as August, and a much safer time to go. My danger radar, a gift I received from growing up in South L.A., clicked on over the subject of hurricanes. New Orleans has always been a town with libertine and libertarian notions about guns and drinking and whatnot. You need to factor your own attitude about risk into the equation — or someone else would do it for you. I remember about 20 years ago, being asked by my cousin Jude (now a Katrina refugee looking for work in Atlanta), to go with him to the lake to watch some hurricane roll in. This didn’t seem like a reasonable idea, but Jude was confident and carefree. I tried to calm myself and appreciate the drive, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how weird it was to be going to the lake to welcome in a hurricane. When we got there, Lake Ponchartrain wasn’t much to look at, just a great, broad and flat-looking plate of a lake. In the late afternoon the water and the sky both looked gray, but not particularly threatening. We stood there by the car, drinking beer, with the occasional gust of stinging wind that was surprisingly strong. Jude wasn’t impressed at all with this pissant hurricane. He seemed almost apologetic about troubling me with a weak-kneed storm. I’m not sure what he hoped for, but I was relieved. On the ride back along Chef Highway, the car behind us tailgated for a while. I didn’t pay much attention until Jude sped up. He turned quickly off the road, turned off the headlights and took out his gun from below the seat. He aimed the gun at the road and turned to me. “They were following us, maybe to rob us. If they turn off, I’m gonna shoot ’em, yeah.” Thank God they stayed on the road and that Jude was the son of a police officer. I believed he knew what he was doing. If only Katrina could have been as easy to handle. We’re trying to get out. When the west wind blows, you smell New Orleans — it’s the foulest smell. We’re trying to get out to North Carolina. Jody (Tony’s brother) got nine feet of water in his house. He lost everything. People shot at the helicopters because they wouldn’t drop anything and the helicopters would just fly by all the time and not do a thing. People needed water, food. I’m not condoning it or justifying it, but that’s why. If you not going to drop us anything, we’ll shoot you down. Dead bodies are stewing, the skin is falling off, the bodies are being burned by the toxins in the water. You look at water and you smell the diesel, the pesticides — all mixing together. It’s not water; it’s thick and oily. It’s going to be pumped into Lake Pontchartrain, and then it’ll reach the gulf. It’s gonna contaminate everything. People rush your car, just try to chase you down, they’re so desperate. This one lady, just look at her eyes in the picture I sent, and you can see all that pain, that suffering she went through.

—Cousin Tony 9-4-05

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