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What Would You Do?

The fifth day after Hurricane Katrina disappeared most of New Orleans, where I’ve lived for the past six years, I paid $26 for a notebook with a soft fabric cover and creamy, gold-trimmed pages. It was a foolish extravagance when you consider that the home my husband, Matt, and I bought in Uptown four months ago could well have been in tatters that day, or razed by arsonists the next; it was downright crass given that so many of my neighbors haven’t a penny to their names, much less a pocket in which to keep one. But by Day Five I was finally able to turn away from the weblogs and newscasts for brief stretches to document these awful days that I never want to lose. During certain moments they feel like all that’s left of the New Orleans I love. Decent people don’t covet material possessions in times of crisis and extreme suffering. They don’t steal televisions when babies are drowning, they don’t rob neighbors already frightened for their lives, and they don’t stuff themselves on foie gras from the hotel minibar when just half a mile downriver families are starving. Literally starving. Certainly they don’t splurge on pretty paper. Then again, when a hurricane slams you in the gut with the strange knowledge that human lives are not a city’s only precarious possessions — that within hours school districts can vanish, and parade routes, prisons, political scandals, church schedules, a thousand unwritten gumbo recipes, songs, routines, football teams, tourist industries, criminal evidence rooms, radio stations, potable water in hospitals, communication between mayor and sheriff, integrity, hope — that’s when holding on to whatever you can get your hands on makes all the sense in the world. If I want to keep these days, I figure I’ll have to carry them around with me for the rest of my life. Before the notebook I don’t think I ever bought anything with such an intention of permanency. Matt and I were in New York visiting his mother and stepfather when Katrina made her presence known in the Gulf of Mexico. We commented on how fortunate it was that we had brought our cat with us. We called the airline to say that we’d probably have to reschedule our flights, and then we went out for dinner. At that point we were still on vacation; now it appears that we live here.Like everyone in New Orleans, we have been through this hurricane thing before. Last year I evacuated to Memphis for Ivan. Matt, who is (was?) a pediatric resident at Children’s Hospital, was on call that day, which meant that he had to remain at the hospital until the storm passed and the city returned to normal. (It’s the luck of the draw — with Katrina, half of his upper levels evacuated because it wasn’t their turn, and many of those who stayed had just begun their residencies on July 1.) Ivan skipped New Orleans, as so many storms do, and both of us went home after four days. That seemed like a long time back then. Matt was so exhausted, and unaccustomed to natural light and ordinary acts like driving, that he rear-ended a 4Runner on the short drive from the hospital and totaled his car. Until last week, this was our most dramatic hurricane story.On Sunday, Katrina minus one, I called several friends to check on their evacuation plans and to hear about others. The only close friend who wasn’t evacuating had just given birth. She and the baby had no postpartum complications, so when the hospital ran out of electricity their greatest discomfort was learning to breastfeed by the glow of a cellular phone. Eventually that too went dark.Our main concern on the day of the storm was our house. A giant termite-infested pecan tree wedged against our back fence surely fell. But where? It’s perverse to wish such a thing on your neighbors, but given a choice between them or us, our thoughts weren’t pure. And then the levee broke. That’s when my concerns shifted to peripheral friends, the many people who help define my immeasurable affection for New Orleans but whom I’ve never called and now have no way of calling: people like Mary Hansen, of the sno-ball stand, who is in her 90s and who I hear was hospitalized when the hurricane hit; Uncle Lionel, the avuncular and waifish bass drum player of the Treme Brass Band, who I don’t think has a car; Ieka, my sister’s pregnant co-worker, who holed up with her two little girls in an apartment she thought was in a safe suburb but wasn’t; all the chefs living hand-to-mouth, which is to say nearly every one of them; the Roman Candyman, who sells taffy from a mule-drawn cart (could he possibly have evacuated with his mule?); the 14-year-old kid next door who was working on a book report about To Kill a Mockingbird. Even if all are alive, we may never all live in the same town again. We will surely never live in the same town again. And so I’ve stayed glued to the news in an effort to remain connected to the city and its people, and I wish with all my being that Matt and I were there to help. On the other hand, I don’t want either of us to die — not because no one thought to put Porta-Potties at the Superdome, or because there’s no helipad at the hospital that holds the city’s only trauma center, or because no one in charge got it together until Friday to get food to the Convention Center, or because I didn’t put an ax in our attic, or because the crackheads are playing a life-size video game in the streets, or because someone deposited me on an island of concrete and then left.Anyway, I’m not there. I’m here, phoning senators, diverting magazine subscriptions, trying to figure out what else I’m supposed to do, and cursing whenever I hear politicians and celebrities and anyone else not in the trenches wax poetic on the resiliency, the endurance, of the human spirit. They have no right. As long as New Orleanians are still awaiting rescue and dying (and plenty of them still are as I write, a full week after Katrina struck — a week!)then human spirit is a luxury. Let’s talk about human life. How could they have forgotten the human lives?