Thursday, September 08, 2005

Katrina escape

Survivor's story: Last year, my wife and I lived through four hurricanes. Then we moved to New Orleans

Like many Americans, writer Blake Bailey and his wife were veterans of extreme weather. So when Tropical Storm Cindy struck their home in Gentilly, near Lake Pontchartrain, it seemed a good way to meet the neighbours. Then Katrina roared in...

Independent 8 September 2005

Last year, my wife and I lived through four hurricanes. She was finishing graduate school at the University of Florida, and even though we were pretty far inland, at Gainesville [about 100 miles north of Orlando], we lost power for a total of two weeks.
I never really got used to it: the rotting groceries, the mosquitoes, the headache you get from reading by candlelight, the general gloom.
During Hurricane Ivan, the last of the four, I had the good luck to be in Virginia - or so I thought. A few days later, Ivan caught up with me on the road north to Washington DC, and blew me back to my motel in Williamsburg. It's hard not to take that sort of thing personally.
Two months ago we moved to New Orleans with our one-year-old daughter, and a few days later, sure enough, Tropical Storm Cindy struck. Actually, it was a good way to meet the neighbours. We'd bought a little art-deco-y home in Gentilly, near Lake Pontchartrain, a place of wistful gentility where people are proud of their lawns; the day after Cindy, everybody was outside, en famille, removing debris and sprucing up the grass.
My moving company hadn't arrived yet - they took 27 days in all - and my neighbours loaned me rakes and so forth and stood around commiserating. Two days before, I told them, I'd accidentally backed my car over our cat's head; our move to New Orleans, everybody agreed, had gotten off to a rocky start.
On the other hand, our cat had survived, miraculously - there she was, nosing around the debris. Surely that was a good sign.
By the time Katrina arrived, everything was falling into place. Our furniture had been delivered (after we'd threatened legal action), a handyman had fixed our screens and replaced doorknobs and gotten all the appliances working, the baby was installed in a great Montessori day-care centre.
The night before evacuation - we didn't know that yet - we had a dinner party and our guests congratulated us on our cool house. It was true. For the past week or so, I could hardly get any work done because I kept turning around in my desk chair to survey my awesome new study: the rounded mouldings over the doors, the glimmering parquet floors, everything. This was our reward for years and years of hard work.
The next day - Saturday, 27 August - the front page of the Times-Picayune [the New Orleans daily newspaper] warned that Hurricane Katrina was coming right at us. A week before, the storm had been a dinky little depression somewhere in the Atlantic; then it was a category one heading for the Florida panhandle; then, boom, it was a category three - a four, a five - headed right at us! Still, we didn't believe it.
"I went through this crap with Ivan," our neighbour Jean said. "Spent two days fighting traffic for nothing. When I came home, the coffee cup on my back porch was exactly where I left it."
But there was the baby to consider, and besides, we had friends in Oxford, Mississippi, who were happy to let us stay for a few days. So we packed a bag with a few essentials--in my case, three shirts, two pairs of boxers, one pair of shorts, a toilet kit, and a laptop. Also, we took our dog but left the cat in our bathroom with plenty of food and water - she was a house cat, after all, who'd survived a car backing over her head. Traffic was clogged on that first stretch of Interstate 10 - maybe five miles - but it was clear sailing once we got to the Pontchartrain Causeway. It was Saturday afternoon; evacuation was still "optional". We got to Oxford in time for a late dinner and watched the Weather Channel. The situation had darkened all right - there was the storm, bigger than ever, bearing down on our house - but still the announcers talked of a possible low-pressure system (or something) pushing it off to the east.
So the next day I sipped bourbon and waited for the Weather Channel to bear glad tidings about that low-pressure system; instead it used words like "catastrophic" and "apocalyptic".
When the storm hit, Monday morning, it had diminished to a category four - thank God, thank God - and had pulled a little east of New Orleans. My wife and I were worried about wind damage, certainly, but scarcely considered the matter of flooding; we were in a "low-risk" flood zone, as our insurance company would have it, so we'd declined flood insurance.
That night I had a beautiful dream: Our house was not only intact, it was somehow better - bigger, spiffier - and there on the porch was a dry, immaculate coffee cup.
Then my wife and I were awoken by the ringing of our cellphone (which continued to work because of our Florida area code). It was my father-in-law in Fayetteville, Arkansas; the levee had been breached on the lake, he said. "So we can't come home today?" my wife asked drowsily. Hope dies hard. Even after we'd seen the video of the subaquatic Ninth Ward, and what looked like Gentilly, we thought that maybe we'd been spared. A few of those cars on TV were submerged only up to their tyres, and our house was raised three feet. So there was that. But finally, online, I saw a photograph of a street sign in our immediate neighbourhood. It was just poking out of the swirling brown water. That was pretty definitive.
The boxers, T-shirts, and laptop I brought to Mississippi are pretty much my entire worldly possessions. We're lucky, though. Everyone has been so kind. Friends I haven't heard from in months, years, have gotten in touch offering support. A bevy of care packages are on the way. People speak to us gently, as if we might crack at any moment.
But it isn't so. Mornings are bad, to be sure: that first minute after you wake up, and you remember all over again that you're broke and everything is gone and your poor old cat is dead; but there, too, is your wife's warm haunch, right where you left it, and there's the gaping baby between you. And there on TV--in that weird, ragged, computerised footage that seems itself a sign of the Apocalypse--are the people left behind, raging and dying in the ruins. Thank God we're gone.
Blake Bailey is the author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates. He is working on a biography of John Cheever.

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