Stick around while the clown
who is sick
does the trick of disaster

— Neil Young, “Mr. Soul”

After a numbing week and a half of wall-to-wall CNN and MSNBC post-hurricane
coverage, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I could bear no
more reality of the electronic kind. I couldn’t take any more live feeds or
endlessly looped images of destitution or conservative anchors looking increasingly
sullen about having to report at least once an hour on that dirty old Gulf Coast
and the incompetence of government across the board. The levels of debate were
rising perilously and Katrina was already feeling less like a real catastrophe
and more like a season-ending event for the most extreme of extreme sports,
the event being not nearly as important as which team had the strategic edge
and who would prevail — bigger government or more tax cuts? Would there be more
moral outrage about the treatment of mostly black and mostly poor victims of
Katrina, and of poverty itself, or more of the same stoic indifference? In the
midst of all the broadcasts, I started anticipating commercials like the ones
featuring NCAA players with game faces who advertise March Madness with declarations
like “Win or go home.” The displaced people of New Orleans had lost big-time
but couldn’t go home at all. Game over, at least for now.
With some effort I turned the television down, then off. It helped that I had some actual family to visit who had made it out of New Orleans. Most of them
migrated to L.A. decades ago, but some stayed put, including my cousin Shirley
and her husband, Ed. As Katrina approached, they had evacuated and gone first
to Baton Rouge, then Little Rock and, after some deliberation, were now here
in California.
They were staying with their son Elmore in Santa Clarita, and Elmore and his
wife, Janine, had invited the rest of my family and me to an afternoon gathering
at Janine’s parents’ place in Altadena. It was a reunion and a welcome, a bolstering
of spirits among all of us New Orleans-bred people who were suffering the city’s
wounds, maybe its death as we knew it. On Saturday the sky was clotted with
unseasonable gray clouds that hung over the San Gabriel Mountains, which rose
sharply about a mile in the distance. Shirley looked worn, but relieved to be
among family. She was plainly dressed in a button-down shirt and oxfords, her
silver hair cropped short and a gold crucifix at her throat. She greeted me
out on the front porch almost as easily as if this were her house, in her town.
Elmore was manning a massive barbecue grill on the patio that had neat rows
of ribs, chicken, carne asada and hot dogs.
This was part party, part wake — a typical New Orleans affair. Ed was a bit
less jolly than I’d last seen him, but not much less, especially after he got
to nursing glasses of wine. He and Shirley sat on a couch and told us the story
of their escape in great detail, how their other son, Ed Jr., had stayed behind
but made it out of the flood because Shirley had insisted that he leave the
family boat in the driveway, just in case. After making it out — at one point
he paddled under the 10 freeway — he bummed a ride with a motorist to a nearby
parish, La Place. He managed to call his parents on a cell phone (though they
couldn’t call him) and they agreed to drive down from Baton Rouge to collect
him on a certain street in town. That was a nightmare unto itself; most of the
highways were barricaded, the police were uncooperative, and Shirley and Ed
were forced to take back-roads they didn’t know at all. By the time they reached
the appointed place, it was nighttime and pitch-black, with no working electricity
anywhere. They found Ed Jr. only after passing him up on the side of the road
more than once. One of the many things he told them was that he had ditched
the boat and donated it to ongoing search-and-rescue efforts in New Orleans.
“And his dad told him, ‘You gave away my boat,’” Shirley half-whispered to me,
sounding indignant. “What? We almost lost Ed. Imagine that, thinking
about his boat! He was never going to go back and get it no way. It would have
been gone with the house.”
Shirley said nothing about her beloved cats, which I know she had put in a room
upstairs in her house before she fled; she had told them there was nothing more
she could do for them. I didn’t ask. She told me about how she’d gotten a hurricane-victim
debit card from the Red Cross with a limit of about $700, not a bad thing. But
when she got up to the cash register at a store, the card wouldn’t scan. People
in line behind her started getting impatient and she started getting anxious,
feeling conspicuous. “I guess they thought I was a person using a welfare card,
you know,” she said, laughing, but looking a bit pained. She wound up using
her own money.
The barbecue yielded stories I didn’t expect. Janine’s 86-year-old grandfather,
Louis Soule, a New Orleans resident who had also been home during Katrina, had
an even more hair-raising escape than Ed’s. He’d walked some four miles from
his apartment building in water that ranged from ankle- to neck-deep, looking
for help. Finding none, he walked four miles back. Younger men who’d begun the
journey with him fell by the wayside, exhausted. “I’ve never been sick a day
in my life,” Mr. Soule said proudly. He was small and wiry, his skin the color
of walnuts, his eyes burning intensely blue. “Never even had a hangover.”
Eventually, Mr. Soule hacked a hole in the roof of his building; crawled out
and waved down some help. He said he had no choice. “I couldn’t go north, couldn’t
go south, couldn’t go east, couldn’t go west,” he explained to me. “So I had
to go up.” He was picked up by Marines in a chopper. When he took out
his wallet and showed them a picture of his son, a former Marine, they assured
him he would be taken care of. Instead of being dropped at the Superdome, where
he was supposed to go, he went to Texas, bypassed the Astrodome, and wound up
at a military hospital in Austin. Through the luckiest of coincidences, the
brother of a friend of Mr. Soule’s son lived in Austin, and heard he was there.
The friend, who Mr. Soule didn’t know at all, tracked him down at the hospital
by wandering around with a hand-lettered sign bearing his name. Next thing Mr.
Soule knew, his son Jerome, the one with the house in Altadena, was flying in
to get him and bring him home to California. . . . He had landed in the best
place possible, at least in theory.
“God was watching over me,” said Mr. Soule, shaking a bony finger at the sky,
his blue eyes tearing briefly. “Baby, the Superdome was an awful place. I might
have died.” The only obvious ill effect of the whole experience was a pronounced
ache in his legs, which had taken a beating as he navigated the oil, debris,
trash, tree limbs, rats, alligators and dead bodies in the water, all of which
I imagine litter the dark River Styx on its way to hell. Even so, Mr. Soule
insisted, “God was walking with me.” My mother agreed.
The afternoon ended with a surprise anniversary cake and toast to Shirley and
Ed, who for the past year had planned a 50th anniversary fete in New Orleans
for Sept. 3. I was thinking of going to that event, but schedules didn’t permit.
One of the only good things, if I can call it that, to come out of the Katrina
tragedy is that I — and my mother, and some others who’ve been holding down
the New Orleans fort for years on the West coast — didn’t miss the party after

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