Cover story -- Hurricane Katrina
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Issue Date:  September 16, 2005

New Orleans, the 'Holy City'

A native son escapes and looks back on what he'll miss

Lafayette, La.

Hemingway called courage “grace under pressure.” I have seen that grace in great display these terrifying days, grace entwined with another kind of valor: the realization that in order to be brave, you must first be afraid.

My wife, Melanie McKay, and I left our house in the Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans to ride out the storm with my brother, Lamar, and his family in Covington, La., a leafy town across Lake Pontchartrain, 50 miles north of the city.

Mary Frances, my mother, 84, was with us. She lived at Chateau Notre Dame, a nursing facility under auspices of the New Orleans archdiocese, which evacuated residents without kin to care for them to Baton Rouge. The Chateau, which dwarfs the archdiocesan chancery building, lies a block from my home. Mother visited several times a week to spend time with Ariel, my 14-year-old daughter, a Down syndrome child no longer in school because of health reasons. Ariel’s mother and I parted many years ago but we have co-parented well, sharing custody in houses less than 10 minutes’ drive from each other.

Six of us would pass the storm in Covington -- Mary Frances; Lamar and Ellen and their 21-year-old son Zachary; Melanie and me. We married in December after the slow waltz of a midlife courtship. Our house in New Orleans, recently renovated, was filled with books and paintings. We traveled light, assuming we’d return in a few days or a week at most.

My daughters, Simonette, 20, and Ariel, left with their mother in a three-car caravan (including pets) by another route, along Highway 90, straddling the Mississippi River until the road veers west to Cajun country, where my former wife and her siblings grew up, and their mother lives today.

Of recent vintage

Evacuations are a ritual of recent vintage. People rarely left in the 1950s, when I was growing up, nor in the 1960s, decade of two horrific hurricanes -- Betsy, in 1965, which flooded the lower Ninth Ward, and Camille, which shattered the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969. Seventeen people died in one apartment building in Camille. They refused to leave despite warnings by the janitor; they were ripping out corks for a party. In parishes across New Orleans, a prayer was regularly intoned in the August-to-October hurricane season: “Our Lady of Prompt Succor, pray for us ... spare us from the storm.”

The ferocity of hurricanes intensified in the 1990s. Hurricane Georges caused city officials to warn people to leave if they could. That was a coded message to those with the means to depart. The highways were flooded with outgoing cars. Yet one knew many would stay behind. For however rich we were in culture, cuisine and the rocking good times of a city that gave jazz music to the world, the poor were always close at hand. The city was 63 percent African-American, of whom half lived at or below the poverty level. When the exodus began for Katrina, thousands had no way to leave.

In Covington, the lights went out sometime before dawn. Katrina’s fury was the most terrifying spectacle I have witnessed. The sky swirled gray, and wind sheets uprooted massive oaks and pines, lashing the earth like a giant with a bullwhip, searing lawns, pummeling roads, cutting gashes and grooves, scattering trees like shards of leather. The wind blasted out the bay window in the living room with the high, keening wail of some creature out of hell. Then came an eerie whooshing sound, intercut by bursts and cracks as tree torsos kept popping. The wind shifted to a deep bellow as we watched the Bogue Falaya river surge, though not as high as the house.

With power gone, we listened on battery-operated radio to WWL Radio 870 FM, the 50,000-watt clear channel station that has done live coverage of hurricanes since my childhood. I am a native son of New Orleans. I had a good life there as a writer and documentary producer. As the house in Covington grew steamy we heard WWL news director Dave Cowan interview city councilman Oliver Thomas, who had been out on a boat rescuing folk from the flooded downriver wards. Thomas pleaded to people in adjacent Jefferson Parish, a white flight suburb: “We got to be tolerant, people. We got to pull together, we are all one area now.”

Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard made regular trips to WWL, warning people to leave amid a surreal, play-by-play of what he was seeing in Kenner. He spoke of an apartment building on Manhattan Boulevard. “The miracle on Manhattan it was once called. Well it’ll be a miracle if anybody in there comes out alive.” He came back later to say it was gone. At some point, Lake Pontchartrain began to pour into the city and the surrounding suburbs. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, a tough and candid presence, showed strong leadership. Those politicians embodied grace under pressure.

President Bush showed cowardice and incompetence. A commander in chief’s first job is to protect the citizenry. Bush failed shamefully. As the enormity of loss and suffering set in, news director Cowan was a haggard voice: “Where do I live? New Orleans is over.” Yet he and others at the station soldiered on. So did The Times-Picayune, which reassembled in Baton Rouge to put out a Web edition, posting its prophetic 2002 series on the fragile levee system.

A legacy of cynicism

New Orleans now is a legacy of the naked cynicism of George W. Bush’s environmental policies and the spurning of many requests for levee restoration. Ray Nagin lost his cool at the end of the week, cursing the failure of federal authorities to evacuate the Superdome and Convention Center and send troops to fight the marauding criminals. But Nagin gave voice to the anguish of those stranded at the Convention Center and Superdome, a half mile from the site of Louis Armstrong’s birth. Satchmo grew up dancing behind the brass bands in street parades, known as second lines. The second liners with their spontaneous choreographies charged the city’s folkways with a sense of myth and connection to the African mother culture. Many of those poor folk ended up stranded in the dark, cavernous buildings, as the world watched aghast.

One of the lucky ones who got out was Fats Domino, the 77-year-old rhythm-and-blues icon who lived in a baronial mansion in the lower Ninth Ward, surrounded by sagging shotgun houses and ramshackle homes with clapboards peeling. With all of his wealth from millions of recording sales, the Fat Man (as he is lovingly called) didn’t, or wouldn’t, leave. He was evacuated to the Superdome where JaMarcus Russell, quarterback for the LSU Tigers football team, went as a volunteer and gave Domino a ride to Baton Rouge and put him up in his apartment, never knowing who he was. That’s another way of saying that Fats is shy.

Countless stories of strangers helping strangers permeate these ravaged latitudes -- people taking in strangers, giving money, food, rides, cell phones -- the grace of hands across the table, reaching to those in need. No one in my family died. My uncle is battling pneumonia in Dallas with first cousins at hand. Other cousins are in Houston, where my stepson and his family are in a hotel. For four days fallen trees kept us trapped in Covington, where Walker Percy set his famous comic novel, Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. I joined an upscale chain gang, a group of guys buzzing through trees with chain saws bought via a supply line of people marching through suburban yards to catch rides with well-heeled neighbors to Home Depot, which sold the chain saws that kept conking out.

Like a sword in the heart

We passed dank, steamy nights in the big house, eating canned food, trying to sleep in the heat, wondering about friends whose whereabouts we knew not, and grieving for the city with a sorrow embedded like a sword in the heart. My brother bought a portable generator to restart his appliances; power will be on in a month, more or less. With the road cleared on Friday, Melanie and I drove Mary Frances, my mother, to Baton Rouge, hoping to reunite her with the Chateau residents.

We found them at St. George’s, a Catholic high school, where the gym had become a huge dormitory. Two ladies on the staff had traveled with the elderly evacuees, some in wheelchairs and on portable oxygen. Those women, Linda Brumfield and Alice Stockard, were angels of virtue. We said goodbye to them with embraces and tears, and drove on to New Iberia, settling Mary Frances in a welcoming facility, recently built. Later that night, I learned that Linda and Alice had no jobs. There was no place to work; they received cash severances. Linda, a trained medical worker, is in a Red Cross shelter in Hammond, trying to find a place to live in Baton Rouge. Alice went back to Kenner on learning her husband and two children died in the hurricane. I established phone contact with Linda, and have been in touch intermittently -- the spotty cell phone service is maddening -- trying to help her find a place to live. Alice, I want to find you and do what I can.

I will miss the life we had, terribly so. Every week an elderly black man cut my grass with his son and another guy. I paid him $30 and called him Mr. Joyner. He called me Jason. Many a time he said: “How’s yo’ momma? Tell yo’ momma I said hi. Tell her I miss cuttin’ her grass.” Where are you, Mr. Joyner?

I will miss the way black ladies called men my age “baby” and the lazy rhythms of the calliope blowing off the river; I will miss the second line parades and the funerals and the bonds I had with so many musicians about whom I wrote for years. I will miss the sermons of Fr. Dave Boileau, a towering septuagenarian, at Mater Dolorosa Church on Carrollton Avenue, the only guy who kept his homilies focused on our responsibilities to “the other” and threw in quotes by Dostoyevski to boot. Dave, I hope you are well and somewhere dry.

I will miss the ritual of drinking wine -- and on special days old-fashioneds -- once or twice a week with my best friend since kindergarten, Kenny Charbonnet, in the solarium of my home. Two sons of the South, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, relished the society of our small place in the sun, while just outside the window lizards danced on the riot of green philodendron and elephant ears and palmetto leaves. God, I will miss that city and the beauty of what we had.

With so many people living on couches, and with real estate prices soaring, this region from Baton Rouge west to Cajun country is something like a mining camp. Like Blanche DuBois, the addled character in Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” we in the ravaged Gulf South must rely “on the kindness of strangers.” I hope the grace shown by so many here strikes the consciences of the social Darwinists who rule Congress. This region cannot rebuild without a massive infusion of money, which means raising taxes, lest we fight a second war on a credit card, as Bush is doing in Iraq.

And so I am in the hub of Cajun country, where a population of 120,000 strains to absorb 40,000 souls from the diaspora. In the home where we are staying, another couple learned yesterday that their house in Metairie burned down. I think our house took at least three feet of water. I shudder to think of the years of research, works-in-progress, all the intellectual capital in that study I loved. And yet at moments like this, one cherishes life as a gift. My little girl will see both her grandmothers regularly. Simonette has been accepted at Boston University to continue her education, the scholarship transferred for credit. I have no idea whether the city will become sufficiently habitable to enable us to return. The epidemiological issues are gigantic. In this strange, rootless configuration of our lives, the pull of family is a constant, and for now and perhaps forever I will think of you, my dear sweet flooded place, as what you were and are in my heart -- the holy city of New Orleans.

Jason Berry’s books include Vows of Silence, Lead Us Not Into Temptation and Louisiana Faces: Images from a Renaissance.

Related Web sites

The National Catholic Educational Association has set up Web logs -- in essence, Internet hot lines -- to help displaced families find openings in Catholic schools, link displaced Catholic teachers with possible jobs elsewhere and inform families when schools closed because of Hurricane Katrina will reopen.

The Catholic Press Association has created a Web log, or blog, to assist editors of Catholic newspapers affected by Katrina.

The New Orleans archdiocese reestablished its Web site Sept. 5. It has a blog under the “forum” link.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities set up a site on its Web page for information on Catholic colleges affected by Katrina and alternative enrollment possibilities for affected students.

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities began posting similar information on its site.

Catholic Charities USA is marshaling national resources to provide emergency and long-term assistance to hurricane victims.

National Catholic Reporter, September 16, 2005

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