This piece of writing is my true event memoir about Hurricane Katrina. It also appears as one of the contributions in the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. The fact that I still want you to read about my experience is a remnant of the healing process. sp 05/15/10
Coming up on Katrina Day 2012, my feelings are the same-- for some reason I want you to know what happened back then in the Superdome in New Orleans. I have a vague idea about what you might have already heard through the media, and I may not have ever heard some of what you heard. During the years since the disaster, we have a greater sense of gratitude and appreciation for the basics, life, family, drinking water, food, a bed, a house with city services, running water, garbage pick-up, a hot shower, and the list goes on up from there. I am a worrier, but I have a greater sense of happiness and love. I am alright. I am so glad to have lived these seven years. sp 8/18/12
New Orleans, Louisiana
The Katrina Superdome
Imagine JazzFest. The first bite into your soft-shell crab po-boy with hot sauce, mayo and pickles. Rosemint tea in a huge ice-filled cup. Brilliant blue sky with gorgeous dramatic cumulus clouds. The laughter of anticipation. Children running wildly and gleefully. The sound of an amplified Cajun fiddle waltz, floating on the warm breeze.
From this, take away the po-boy, the iced tea, and also all the crawfish bread, Ben & Jerry’s, blue snowball, more iced tea and unfamiliar new treats you had planned to sample. Then take away the favorite friend you met at the flagpole at noon, the Hawaiian shirts, the sunglasses, coconut scented suntan lotion, cowboy hats, aromatic seafood frying, music, souvenirs, portolets, running water, ATMs, power, the fun and the prospect of fun. What’s left is heat, humidity, dirt, sweat, exhaustion, rain, and a sea of humanity. Now take away the sky.
I lived in the New Orleans Superdome as an evacuee from Hurricane Katrina, from the evening of Sunday, August 28th, until Friday, September 2nd, 2005, at approximately 2:00 am. One hundred and six continuous, miserable and worsening hours. It seemed like at least two weeks, but time played games with our minds after Hurricane Katrina. So did the news media and the rumor mill of tens of thousands of disturbed people. We were convinced that another hurricane (Lee?, I asked, thinking of the predetermined list of storm names for the season) was bearing down on us and that we would be left behind. Multiple sources reported that CNN reported that the Superdome evacuees had arrived in Houston (where else but the Astrodome), but we were still getting grittier and more perturbed by the day, back in New Orleans. It was generally believed, therefore, that there would be a cover-up, and the media would claim that we had all arrived at Houston when in fact we would die of dehydration (or hurricane wind, or fire) at this horrible desert of a place. The truth would be hidden and all of America would believe what they were told. Happy reunions between family members would be staged for the feel-good news reports. I told my companions that this was nonsense. But in the back of my mind I momentarily wondered if maybe those shots of the moon were really taken in Lower Alabama, out back of the farmers market. I tried to get my face into the image of an interview between an NBC News reporter and a middle-aged Army officer, in which it was admitted that the conditions in the Superdome were “less than optimal.” Partial truths, lies, and ridiculous spins on reality have hurt me. One can have both a high tolerance for chaos, and an insatiable yearning for peace.
The year 2005 had already been particularly miserable, marked by overwhelming feelings of having been betrayed. When I thought of the future, one person always seemed to come to mind—Mayor Ray Nagin. This thought has been in my mind for about two years. For someone like myself, concerned primarily with stability, endurance, and the long haul, it did not make any sense to attempt to work in city government specifically, or Louisiana politics generally. But I have always been favorably impressed with Ray Nagin, ever since the day in the campaign when I was driving up Elysian Fields on a winter workday morning, making a left turn onto Gentilly, and he was standing in the neutral ground waving to everyone passing by. He and I made eye contact, and he smiled right at me. He was giving a “thumbs-up” and was probably truly happy to see me smile back warmly, if only because of the demographic implications. He makes a wonderful impression with his broad shoulders and great smile. He is a Tulane graduate, and makes sense when being interviewed. But these things alone wouldn’t have really forced me to wish to apply for a job working for him. Jobs at the public library or other city offices don’t pay well. Still I felt there was some connection between Ray Nagin and my personal future.
In the Katrina Superdome, Mayor Nagin, the personal symbol of the city, was popularly vilified as the primary reason that conditions were bad and deteriorating. Disaster preparedness must have been completely neglected by city government, it was generally agreed among the evacuees. If this were JazzFest, we would have rows and rows of portolets. If this were a Saints game, we would have nachos, ice cold cokes, and big screen information and pictures. Weather people would be giving us the truth about what had actually happened. We wanted to hear whether or not Katrina had veered to the east and been downgraded to a Category Four. In Nebraska and Kansas, people said, even small towns built strong, large tornado shelters. An LSU professor had recently made dire predictions that a devastating flood could result from a Category Five hurricane pushing Lake Ponchartrain into the city. I thought this might happen two hundred years into the future. As the snippets of crazy interviews on scratchy radios with people on the street who didn’t know much, became increasingly sickening between Monday and Wednesday, and as things turned violent, verbally and physically, it was for the best that the mayor did not make a personal appearance. People say that he was angry at the federal and Louisiana governments, and sharply outspoken early on, but I really don’t know because we didn’t see the news that week. I was willing to support him. I was willing to support President Bush, even though I have enthusiastically voted for every Democrat for president since the seventies. I was willing to support Governor Blanco because she holds a vigil for lost children. I was thinking this may be the end of my own life, and my heart is full of love for all of them.
Sunday. Getting into place.
As Hurricane Katrina gained strength in the Gulf of Mexico, there had been much discussion on television and in the neighborhood about the pros and cons of evacuating. The dreaded word “contraflow” had surfaced as logic and duty took hold. I’ve never evacuated before, even though my mother lost her home in Andrew, and my favorite place on earth, Gulf Shores, had been destroyed just last year in Ivan. Most neighbors were in the process of going—a lady across the street said she had stayed on Franklin Avenue during Betsy, forty years earlier, and that’s why she knew it was best to get out. My neighbor and good friend on the corner had told me she would stay home, but her car was now gone so she must have changed her mind. The Jefferson Parish officials had already ordered an unusual mandatory evacuation on Saturday. Being glued to the set, and scared by worsening reports, I tried to convince my husband that we should pack a bag, get in the car, and drive away. His opinion to stay put never budged. By Sunday afternoon, when Mayor Nagin declared an unheard-of mandatory evacuation for Orleans Parish, I became so worried myself that I unsuccessfully phoned around to see about availability of hotel rooms in the region, as far as Birmingham, and then in the city. During Tropical Storm Cindy in July, many colleagues of mine had taken the easy “vertical evacuation” route of checking into downtown hotels. This, I felt, accomplished nothing except to help with guilt a little bit. Our house is located geographically on the Gentilly Ridge, a plus in real-estate terms, and has survived every storm since having been built in the late 1930s. But all these thoughts and ineffectual motions were not helping with the idea of a 25-foot storm surge that was possible if a major hurricane struck just east of the Lake, pulling the lake’s waters southward. I had a paralyzing compulsion to stay with my husband. But with the help of repeated phone calls from his aunt and my sister, who urged me to leave alone if necessary, I finally concluded that I should seek shelter for the night in the Superdome. The facility was reluctantly being made available, as a shelter of last resort, because of the legal requirement of the mandatory evacuation. After further pleading, I loaded my carry-on, backpack and purse, and the lockbox of important papers, into the back of the station wagon. I then reluctantly pulled away with a loving glance to the pretty house with my husband inside, and its small green front yard. At that moment, I believed I’d be back in a day or two, but I knew there was a possibility of a grave calamity.
I-10 was nearly empty on the way downtown, having been deserted by less dysfunctional people already. I found a parking space on the 10th floor of the HEAL garage on LaSalle, directly ahead of the spots on the open roof. I decided I could only manage with part of the things I had brought. My sense of direction is innately poor, but I walked in the direction of the Superdome in the windy, grey cityscape, wearing my fateful worldly possessions: jean shorts, short sleeve shirt, new white Reeboks, backpack and purse. Policemen and others were walking up and down the middle of the streets. Things were not normal. The atmosphere was tense and fearful, but blissfully ignorant of the magnitude of the actual disaster to come.
I got in the long line to be admitted to the Superdome. As we stood on the sidewalk at street level, it started raining and the pre-hurricane winds blew our umbrellas inside-out. The line wouldn’t move and people were already complaining. A security check was being done, to confiscate contraband: weapons, drugs and alcohol. We weren’t terrorists, but the limited earlier experiences of using this facility as an evacuation shelter had resulted in destruction of property, and other criminal behavior.
Some of those in line were veterans of these earlier evacuations—they came prepared with loads of food, supplies and sleeping bags or cardboard boxes to stretch out on. I innocently thought, this is a cross between “Lost” and Mardi Gras. Somebody dropped an entire aluminum tray of barbecued chicken pieces onto the ground. I had no experience with any of this, and had packed as if for one night in a hotel, having originally made preparations during the unsuccessful attempts to phone for reservations, someplace, anyplace. For two hours we stood in the rain, commiserating about how bad we felt, how tired to be standing up so long with these travel items, not going anywhere. After dark, thankfully, we were moved to wait in line circling the dome, in the outside air but under the overhang, out of the rain. Two more hours passed this way, barely moving forward. I must have inched my way past my future home-base we staked out near Gate C, facing the Hyatt Hotel.
There was a very thorough search of belongings before we were allowed in. The authorities were young Louisiana National Guard troops, both boys and girls. If you had a prescription, the name on the bottle had to match your photo ID, or else the medication was discarded. Knowing this, I sadly emptied a couple of my husband’s pill-packs onto the concrete brick floor, waiting my turn to get processed. I shouldn’t have had them with me—it was all a mistake.
Having no other contraband, I was allowed to enter the building, and felt liberated from an ordeal. After using one of the brightly-lit and nicely functioning bathrooms, I selected a stadium seat about half-way up the bottom level. It wouldn’t make sense to be near the ground if water came in, after all this. Sitting facing the bright field gave a weird feeling that we expected to be entertained. People were not allowed onto the field, it was thought, because the football field’s surface was to be protected. My companions were primarily women with infants and toddlers; an occasional old man would give some insightful, sage advice and then go back to being quiet like most of us. I felt alone and in a foul mood. There was some sort of garbled speaking on the microphone but nothing interesting, about the weather for example. We were promised food, and the tired crowd responded with weak cheers. No time frame was given, and the normal familiar circadian rhythm began to collapse and disintegrate. I was awake most of the night but dozed a little, uncomfortably sitting up shivering in the hard chair. I considered myself a master of dealing with boredom, having spent so many years working for a living, and more years than that practicing constructive uses of solitary quiet time; but these hours of unpleasant fading in and out of consciousness in this unhappy ugly place were starting to strike me as frighteningly boring.
The Superdome has only one positive quality: it is absolutely huge. In spite of this, being on the inside of this structure has always seemed oddly claustrophobic. On the three prior occasions I ever entered this building, I felt extremely eager to get out. These were all in the 1980s—a tour of the facility, a Tulane football game, and an exhibition baseball game. On its best day, I have always detested being inside of the Superdome. I remember on the tour, learning of the interesting, festive design of those fountainlike circular communal sinks in the plentiful clean bright bathrooms. On that Sunday night before the hurricane, the restrooms were usable but dingy, having long since lost their newness in the passing decades. A few more days into the future, halfway into the Katrina week, the accumulated piled-up, flooded excrement filling these dark hot humid bathrooms would become a permanently abhorrent, degrading collective experience. It’s terrible that the sense of smell is retained in memory.
Monday. Katrina itself.
At 5:30 am, the stadium lights were brought up, like a larger-than-life alarm clock. Voices had promised that there was supposed to be a quiet time during the night, allowing everyone to get some rest. Loud drunken feminine shrieking laughter prevented this noble idea from happening. In someone’s mind, 5:30 am that particular morning was made to mark the official beginning of the day. Monday, August 29, 2005, was without a doubt the longest 24 hours I have ever spent on this earth. By about 2:00 pm, it felt like it had been several days since the hurricane. We had to keep reminding ourselves, “The hurricane was just this morning.”
Most people had brought at least a few supplies. Before leaving home, I had grabbed three or four granola bars and a couple of Gatorades, so food and water hadn’t become survival issues yet. But there were whispers of a source of breakfast, which brought, instead of pleasure, the beginnings of anxiety of not knowing who was in charge, when or where to go, or what we were supposed to do next.
The weather must have been bad in the city all night, but the eye of the hurricane passed closest to us within a couple of hours after the ridiculous wake-up call. A horrible clanging of huge metal on metal made us aware that the brunt of the storm had arrived. Power was lost but generators created a creepy dull glow, which would become the normal night and day lighting for the rest of the week. Holes in the roof started letting rain onto certain sections of seating, so people moved around with their entourages, pets, possessions and paraphernalia. Rain occurred in spite of the absence of the sky. It isn’t supposed to rain on the inside of buildings.
That day I moved around continuously, having no special allegiance to the group of women and their infants with whom I had spent the previous night, or to the section of seats I had originally selected. Some people considered their original Sunday seats to have been assigned, in the same way that we will claim a chair as our own for routine meetings in the conference room at work. This little human quirk seems to provide a sense of order. But while watching the damaged roof from any vantage point, vague fears of a major cave-in started to build, and so people voluntarily moved away from the crazy rain and dripping, preferring to be someplace other than directly under the holes. Long interesting conversations with friendly women helped us pass the time, but my heart was still essentially solitary. I was worried about my husband in spite of cell phone conversations before the hurricane. At this point, I did not yet think that he had lost his life, but the storm was fierce and it was possible he could have been cut by flying glass or hurt by going outside in the wind. I had phoned my sister and aunt, to tell them that I had followed their advice and was safely in the Superdome. I left a voice mail message for my friend who had evacuated to Lafayette. Cell phones seemed to be a wonderful invention in these early hours.
Many of the less mobile individuals and families had staked out claims not only to desirable seats but to the segments of floor suiting their needs. Unfortunately, a persistent clammy dripping made much of the horizontal space unusable. Because the population was relatively small at this point (verbal estimates were around 9,000, based on an approximate fraction of full capacity figures, known by football fans), everyone had options about where to be. Dry places were still plentiful and we thought we were only going to be in the place one more night at the most.
In fact, without full lighting, the bathrooms were still alright, although we needed flashlights to go in. So many women had flashlights that seeing wasn’t much of a problem. We brushed our teeth, washed our faces and some even shampooed their hair in the handwashing fountains. An old woman in a wheelchair by the sink wailed “Oh Lord, help me”, and someone else said not to worry, that the lady’s daughter was here and would be right back. I had carefully taken out and stored my contact lenses when I could, and had switched to my thick glasses, making me feel much more comfortable but also more vulnerable. Not being used to wearing these “goggles”, as I call them, in public, the distortion around the outside edges added to the surreal nature of my perception of the already strange environment.
Brief radio reports indicated that the eye of Katrina moved slightly to the east, hitting Slidell, Pass Christian, Waveland, Gulfport, Biloxi, and points east. Maybe we had come through without the tidal surge from Lake Ponchartrain. These tentative, optimistic reports were composed primarily of interviews with uninformed sources, but when news is scarce, we tend to take whatever there is at face value. Especially if it is what we want to hear. Information was anecdotal, being compiled by unwise people interviewing uninformed people, and transmitted across scarcely audible media. No big picture or official word was given.
The day wore on. I eventually moved to a section of seating which was sparsely populated. I engaged in worrisome conversations with several in a loosely knit group, where a couple of men were being overly solicitous of a European-sounding woman. She accepted their attentions graciously so it did not cause a problem. Her facial expression never changed from worry, even when she was asleep. I enjoyed a long talk with a man of around thirty, with long hair and a Panama City tee shirt, who dropped names and evidently was related or linked to Southern politicians, although I’m not sure which ones. He and I didn’t exchange our names, as the time for disaster bonding had not yet arrived, but we laughed and discussed such pleasant topics as libraries’ special collections. He was afraid that some of his valuable politically-significant manuscripts would be destroyed by flood waters in his car. We continued on with groggy friendliness through the early morning hours—he had discovered the technique of pulling down five seats and sliding under the armrests to stretch out. I tried this, needing a shorter length of seats, and it did provide the momentary comfort of variety, but sleeping was out of the question. Another very young man slept right on the hard wet concrete floor beneath the seats. The younger man hurt his leg by getting it caught between two seats, and he was very large. There was no information about first aid or anything else. The only people allowed onto the field were military troops, who engaged in strange morale-boosting maneuvers through the night, involving sitting in circles and chanting something in unison. No further public coordination of activities took place for days.
The second morning we stood in line for food and water. This line stretched about a third of the way around the dome, in the internal hallway at the top of the lower level. There was confusion about where the beginning of the line was. There was confusion about where the end of the line was. People barged into line. I stayed with the free-spirited Panama City man while waiting in this line. I even bumped into someone I know—a retired colleague who still lives in the same neighborhood uptown, and frequently walks along the sidewalk along Freret Street, outside my window. After a long time, when we reached the head of the line, my hand was marked with a “T”, presumably meaning Tuesday, and I was given one MRE pack and a bottle of water. Having a reduced appetite, the Meals Ready to Eat provided us with something to do, as if we were on a flight. This hand-marking was pretty shocking and totally ill-conceived because the mark washed off immediately even without special effort. The marking process alarmed us partly because it was reminiscent of the crude Iraqi voting, and much worse things, but also because it revealed an idiotic lack of forethought, and possible shortages of supplies, if this was our only ration for the day. I am used to drinking lots of water every day. Simultaneously the Superdome was being deluged by more evacuees—people who had stayed home throughout the storm and now had no power.
At some point on Tuesday I could see out the windows that the weather had turned clear and sunny. I remembered thinking that on Sunday, Margaret Orr had grimly promised a beautiful day for Tuesday, as she unsmilingly looked directly into the camera. The military people, while genuinely ignorant of helpful information, were entirely approachable. I asked them so many questions that they probably suspected me of being an undercover reporter. I felt like one, because I was pressing further questions after being given unsatisfying answers. People were saying that we could be allowed access to that outside level, where we had stood to get in, but authorities at one gate denied me the ability to go out the door. Around on the opposite side, I finally found a place they let me out. It was hot and sunny. I felt infinitely better to be able to see the blue sky and breathe fresh oxygenated air. Never mind that it was about 96 degrees, humid and scorching. It was August in New Orleans.
Already, many of the cell phones were beginning to lose their charge, so the ones that had some juice left were cautiously shared. Mine still functioned, for long distance, but when I loaned it to a group of ladies, they were unable to connect with local numbers. The land line service was down in all of New Orleans, and 504 numbers were failing even with cell phones. We heard that the Army had a source from which phones could be charged, but when I asked, they said they needed to save their power for the nighttime lighting. Sitting down cross-legged in the sun, I found that I had a sheet of emergency contact numbers of my co-workers in my purse, so I found a non-504 number, and spoke with the husband of the sister of my boss, located in South Carolina. Fortunately this was a compassionate soul, and it was comforting to have this outside contact. So in this roundabout way, I got word of my safe whereabouts to my employer, so this pleasingly resembled normality. I told everyone my story plainly, including my worst fears about what may have happened to my husband, and they told me their stories. I did not have a clear intuitional sense of what had really happened, but I thought the worst was probable. Various individuals spoke of their fears. One sad young man had lived and worked in the French Quarter and was downcast about the possible destruction of both his home and restaurant. An old man, shallowly panting, who I later saw in news reports from the Astrodome, said he was surviving but he was tired and alone. More people, whose names did not register in my brain, told me their stories, their worries, and whatever information they guessed to be worth repeating. The sunshine had brought so many of us to life, coming out from the zombie-like world inside, and the outside air made us feel more sociable, more normal. Nobody knew when we would be allowed to leave, because the streets around the Superdome had four to six feet of standing water (as a general rule of thumb, all numeric figures may have already been doubled at least once in this manner of blind communication). We could see the broken, blown-out windows of the Hyatt Hotel, and other buildings, but could not see the street level from that vantage point. Fancy vertical evacuation couldn’t have been too much fun either.
This is the scene in which I first saw my disaster partner. He was sitting on the rough dirty concrete floor in the shade of a huge military truck, reading a paperback book and minding his own business. But I approached him and broke his train of thought, off-and-on from that point until early Friday morning, when he helped me be rescued. Why was this polite, physically fit, intellectual professor among the Superdome crowd? I am still unsure exactly. Everyone has his or her own reasons. This unfortunate cross-section of humanity is composed primarily of people without cars, travelers, and procrastinators. But it’s most likely that he was at this point in space and time because his mind was centered on reading or writing, rather than watching television. I am grateful that I came across him, and that he accepted the intrusion graciously.
Another man completed our developing three-person family unit. He is a passionately self-sufficient retired war veteran who chooses to live primarily in nature. Most recently he was living in a tent in a campground in Harvey, enjoying many friendships with kindred humans, raccoons and birds. He was worried about how all of these companions had made it through the storm. As others had done, he broke right in to telling us his life’s story, that his wife died and that he has two daughters. Small talk is bypassed when relationships are in high gear. There is no time to waste worrying about seeking ever-elusive approval.
I heard it reported after the disaster that battered bands of young adults were found hiking on the Interstate, walking away from New Orleans after Katrina. These individuals may not have known each other the previous week; they now comprised what was being called “makeshift families.” I found this term expressive and intriguing, but not quite respectful enough. Time plays games with the emotions, when it is not clear how much time is left. A family bond may take a long lifetime to build, or it may take only a few hours.
Now that we had established our social unit, it was decided then for Tuesday night, out of deference to my desire to be outside on the sundeck level, combined with our shared desire to be protected from possible rain, that we would set up camp at a special location where the floor met the edge of the building. In our eyes, this was a fine piece of real estate. At least two of us would hold down the space at all times. We would accept visitors into the space but would make it clear that this section of ground was ours for the night. Stretching out directly on the concrete hurt me. Sitting on concrete is good for variety but gets to hurting after a while. Gravity pulls down hard on pain. I used an MRE for a pillow, and shifted into various uncomfortable positions, getting grimy. The long strap of my purse was firmly draped across my chest virtually all the time, and I’d be clutching the big purse itself when resting. My green backpack, heavy with whatever could be fit into it, had to be under my knees or within my control at all times. Although trusting my two friends, my brothers and partners in battle, I made it a policy not to leave either item behind, in case of separation or the need for quick action. We settled down to a noisy mix of children singing, dogs barking, and sirens screaming. I thought of the newborns in Children’s Hospital who became accustomed to the shrill high-pitched alarms of their monitors and slept for dear life, later finding it too quiet to sleep at their parents’ houses. I wondered if they had been safely evacuated. The Army’s spotlight was piercing through the black night. Sometimes we would put a washcloth or something over our eyes. Our goal that night was not so much sleep as rest.
Wednesday. Working for a living.
The hot yellow sunlight came at an angle directly into our alcove. The morning was beautiful. Trying to lighten things up, we laughed about eating the dry instant coffee powder, and found a few edible snacks for breakfast among our communal collection. I sacrificed some of my precious water to create Tang. Plain water was really the best.
The edge of the shade almost visibly moved back down over our spot as the sun rose in the sky from behind the Hyatt. Another long sweltering day without possibility of freedom loomed ahead. People joked about making a jail-break, but the prospect of a world of contaminated flood water and impassible roads was not appealing. Up here, at least, we had the promise of governmental meals and clean drinking water for the price of waiting in line. We wondered if there was a point past which a human being could not get any filthier, and discovered later that there is not. My fingernails had never been so dirty in my entire life.
As time went by, it became clear that water pressure had been lost in the city. Properly functioning toilets had gradually become few and far between already, with nobody working to fix clogs. But having no bathrooms whatsoever just wasn’t going to work. Panic rose up. This would be like living in a desert in a mob, with no privacy. In this new situation, there was an intensified powering-down of our metabolisms. The body has a mind of its own. Adrenalin and endorphins gave a floating feeling of energy in the absence of normal routines of nutrition, hydration, and elimination. Drinking fountains were already off-limits even when functioning, because of the fear of bacterial contamination by sewage and dead bodies in the water supply. Now the unpleasant waiting in line, in the gloom, heat and stench, was our main duty and occupation. A man in a mob scene proclaimed that if you ask God for patience, He responds by providing tests of patience. This ironic reminder of God’s presence was accepted by the mob. At times like these, there was danger of being trampled, danger of hyperthermia, danger of fainting. But violence from anger was actually less frequent than it might have been, in some of these truly unbelievable scenes.
As we needed to go into and out of the building, we would survey the dull, acrid world inside. At several points, on the two clear sunny days, big rectangular holes in the top of the roof allowed in shafts of sunbeams so bold that they formed a preposterous Hallmark-card effect within the structure. This vision could have been accompanied by choirs of heavenly angels, but in this setting, the presentation came across quite close to comical.
Back at home base, an assorted community formed to our right, between the rails of automatic doors. Individuals set up their personal territories in these well-defined rectangular spaces where Saints fans had headed toward home after games. In front of us, an elderly woman had a grocery cart/ parasol combination marking her spot, illuminated at night by a smoky citronella candle. Depending upon the prevailing air flow, this sometimes caused us a problem. A strange collection of her family’s possessions, much more substantial than our own, was stored in the cart, and various family members came and went from this central location. Generations of women continuously cared for a lovely, placid girl baby with beautiful eyes, who was joyfully fascinated with my goggle glasses. A young lady sat down and described her recent days leading up to the storm, as well as a traffic accident from which she had recovered. She lost a great deal of weight recently, and felt guilty about enjoying the tootsie roll she was eating. Another one of our visitors was a Haitian college student, enrolled in UNO, who sadly expressed her confusion. We encouraged her to speak with the authorities, because we knew that European exchange students and other international tourists had already been transported away. A proud elderly couple from New Zealand, originally British, had shared their story in one of the food lines, and we had later seen them being escorted to military trucks. Although the Louis Armstrong airport was not in operation, with the runway flooded, there were presumably flights out of the Belle Chasse naval station, or elsewhere.
A new arrival approached us in the afternoon and described his own ordeal. He had stayed behind to protect his ninth-ward two-story brick house, as well as several other homes on his street which were owned by family members. The water rose sharply after a barge struck the levee. He saw the bodies of people who didn’t make it, floating by. He was finally rescued by a friend in a boat, who had promised to come back for him, and was brought to the Superdome. When we offered him some food, this man said, “No thanks, I’m good.” He then attentively listened to our stories.
Believable information about criminal behavior in the Superdome, from relatively reliable and multiple verbal sources, began to circulate. There had been several suicides since Monday morning. One man, it was widely confirmed, had jumped to his death from the second level of seating, landing on his head with a great thump. Even under these circumstances, we agreed, suicide seems senseless, because at least life itself has been spared and should be preserved. There was a story going around that a woman had slashed her wrists. A National Guardsman had been shot—some say in the leg, some say in the head. Women had been raped and killed upstairs in offices. A child had been raped inside in the dark ramps where families camped. Information of this nature came simultaneously from so many sides that perhaps much of it has a base in truth. Exaggerations are most probably of number rather than nature. The existence of crime did not prevent us from going about our business, in the same way that we New Orleanians go about our daily lives while being aware of crime statistics. Americans’ daily activities and high-standard lifestyles go on unchanged in spite of the war on terror. This Superdome population was a subset of urban society, the criminal element being probably no more proportionally represented than it would be in greater New Orleans on a typical day. Thinking in this manner allowed us to take care of our responsibilities.
Once, after waiting a long time, the bottled water had run out at the head of the line, and I was turned away with only an MRE pack. Water was my main interest, however, and I had already accumulated several MREs. The normal ration became one MRE and two bottles of water, twice a day per person, but this was an ideal rather than a certainty. As I dejectedly walked away down the hallway, I bumped into a confused teenaged boy holding two bottles of water. I heard myself say, “I’ll trade you a food for a water.” This proposition was acceptable to him, so we made the transaction without further words.
The only food items I had considered possible to eat for the first couple of days were the simple carbs: a cracker, half a cookie or pound cake, pretzel sticks, for instance. I actually enjoyed the strawberry milkshake mix, a powder in a pouch to which you were instructed to add a third of a bottle of lukewarm water, and shake it extremely well, till the clumps dissolved. It tasted good, but drinking the full quantity overdosed me on pure sugar. People of all ages were fascinated with the chemical heating device in each pack, and carefully perfected their techniques. I only used that once, when I felt protein might help, and warmed up a lump of processed chicken, soft enough to be eaten with a plastic spoon, which was presented in a tomato-soup-like substance with pasta shells. That helped. I came to dislike the acrid smell of the chemical smoke produced in the heating process. People were still using these devices even on the bus to Texas.
Dreadful information began to come to light about flood water rising up, rather than continuing to recede. We had no experience with hearing such news. In the street flooding which frequently happens from strong thunderstorms, the water inevitably went back down as gravity and the pumps did their work. Now there were alternating reports of the water receding, then inching back up again, in different parts of town, as if sloshing around in a great twenty-mile-wide bowl. Levees had been breached and overtopped. The Lake, the River, and various internal canals all have levees, so there was no clarity about which levees were being talked about. Statements such as, “Jefferson Parish is lost” came over us in sickening waves. Both sides of the River? What is meant by lost? A sweet, articulate lady with broken teeth, who collected the clean plastic spoons and had kittens in a cardboard box, related a radio report saying the following: if you take the known figure of people in shelters in the city, plus the number of people known to have fled the city, then subtracted the sum of these two figures from the population of the city, that’s the number of dead. Thousands of body-bags had been ordered. This shocked us. But the specific information that caused me to start crying was the seemingly authentic report that all houses east of Elysian Fields were totally submerged up to their roofs—this was the moment that I accepted unquestioningly the loss of my husband. On top of this, it was becoming clear that every object that I had ever been given, or had bought, was gone. Every photograph I had ever taken was melted, stuck, ruined. The house itself was lost. Seeing my tears, my friends each gave me a warm consoling hug, and continued to say that my husband had most likely made it out of there OK, especially since he was an Air Force veteran himself, and would know survival skills. At this point, I considered there to be a 100% chance that my husband had died. Becoming hard-hearted is extreme and makes no allowances for logic.
Thursday. “A brighter day.”
We categorize people. We classify people into “we” and “they”. In this population at the Katrina Superdome, I would say that there were 95% sane, and 5% deranged; 95% peace-loving and 5% insurrectionist. All 100% human and wanting out. This was the one common desire.
The night between Wednesday and Thursday began as the one before, by the edge of the building in the outside air. No matter how hard the ground felt against my bruises, the thought of heading back inside was abhorrent to me. The claustrophobia I entered with was combined with fear of heavy stale humid air and the possibility of violence. However, events did not allow us to follow my preference. Again, I approached an army officer to ask about any developments, knowing he did not necessarily have any information. But strangely, as if he wanted to tell me something he wasn’t at liberty to say, he promised that tomorrow would be “a brighter day”. I opened my arms as if I was about to give him a hug, and we laughed.
Lying down as if to sleep was not in the cards that night. The position was too vulnerable. The daytime hours had included many conversations with sane individuals needing company, but as darkness fell there was a new urgency and restlessness. Bizarre rap poetry parades passed by, as if they’d been fully rehearsed. There are leaders, the ones who enjoy being heard, and there are droves of followers. The dogs and screaming sirens were louder, or seemed louder. Honking ambulances drove by in the spotlights, evacuating hospital patients, or staging such activity for the cameras. It would be impossible to distinguish this from a movie set. Army men were running in spotlights for the benefit of cameras. In New Orleans we have become accustomed to seeing movie-making in progress, but this was nearly unbelievable. The passing time had finally resulted in evil plans by groups of young men who were probably already criminally bored before the current opportunity came into existence. I witnessed men in the act of compiling scripts, for a responsive dialog between a leader and the crowd, about needing to kill someone. I am not sure if the plans were serious, or if these energetic boys with carefully low-hanging pants simply had a flair for the theatrical.
All at once, out of the dark, a group of three hysterical girls, one holding an infant, came running toward us, literally running over us. Instinctively, I grabbed my two possessions, one in each hand, and jumped to my feet. This move took a total of two seconds. We tried to find out what the disturbance was about; I tried to reason with the oldest one of them. They had been agitated by the talk of killing, and were nervous and scared of what might happen. There was absolutely no peace to be found. Our group reluctantly decided to go back into the building to spend the rest of the night, automatically becoming subdued in the inner zombie world. My first partner and I were of one mind, in that we both wanted the greatest possible amount of empty space around us, for protection. Entrapment and trampling seemed very likely in those conditions that night. I needed to be away from corners. The other friend tended to want a more comfortable stretch of carpet where he could really lie down, in spite of the dangers. First we all three went up to the cheap seats, to the top level, where the dim vertigo made it extremely unpleasant and unacceptable. The middle level was better, so we found the emptiest section and settled. Other exhausted individuals and very small groups with kindred sentiments sat in the safety of relative isolation.
By this time, the field had become another venue of habitation. Seemingly choreographed games of tag broke out diagonally across the field in waves, causing uproar among people who were trying to set up camp and rest down there. I imagine there were injuries resulting from this rough playing. Every once in a while, someone in the stands would scream out or start singing phrases of a gospel song. We heard sounds which may have been gunshots. This was a miserable night, but rumors of busses coming to rescue us to Houston became persistent. Some people said we might be taken to Baton Rouge, or Monroe. Evidently the outside efforts to remedy our terrible situation had finally come to some sort of fruition, although of course we had no firm confidence in this because of its vagueness. It was generally believed that Thursday would result in our release.
As it felt that the morning was nearing, I wanted get out, but it was even more imperative to keep in close communication or proximity to my partner. I asked him how he could have slept through the racket, and he said he had been aware of most of it. He told me he was taking a short walk and would return soon. His extremely heavy duffel bag was left under my supervision.
For some unclear reason, the people on the field started forming lines facing toward an opened gate door across the building, through which I could see a truck. It may have been just water and food lines forming, but possibly it had something to do with being rescued. We had no specific information about any of these occurrences. This is when a foggy smoke began to appear to the left, about 90 degrees away. I could not possibly carry my own possessions and the duffel bag also. There was definitely a smell of smoke. I gave it a little while more, but was becoming very anxious to leave. When he returned, I made it clear that I was not going to be able to stay in here any longer with the added threat of smoke, and needed to go outside. So outside we went.
There was talk of “smoking us out” as a method of crowd control, but also talk of a real fire from a generator. Either way, at least Thursday had arrived, I was outside, and I got some oxygen into my lungs in the open air. The crowd was thick, and the ground covered with all manner of things not to be stepped in. In the absence of formal trash cans, trash was thrown into organized heaps, as an attempt at civilized orderliness, but there was so much that some of it was always underfoot. The weather was entirely gray and gloomy again, but still very warm. Reunions took place with old friends we had first met on Tuesday. We had lost touch with our more independent friend, in the night, and searched around to catch sight of him. Several hours later he found us. Another man teamed up with us, without having been invited. We may not have been especially polite to him, but at this point we had all developed a degree of compassion and kept our composure. Freedom and rescue were being promised, so almost anything else could be tolerated. In a refreshing show of authority, an army officer with a bull-horn made announcements to sections of the crowd, saying we would all be taken to Houston today. No mention of Baton Rouge, Monroe or anywhere but Houston. Tens of thousands of disgruntled unwashed human beings were to be seated one by one on busses and taken through the flood to the west. Calculating how long this might take was not advisable. Military helicopters flew back and forth above us as we stood on our feet for a few hours here. It wasn’t a good idea to sit on the filthy ground, so most people simply stood and watched the sky and the interstate in the middle distance. I was thrilled upon first seeing a line of busses on the interstate, and gave my partner a quick joyous hug, which he accepted with surprise. Of course all of this relief was premature, considering the grueling day ahead of us.
I do not recall what we ate or drank that day, but we must have shared water, and probably a few bites of snacks from our collective stock. People had found some furniture from inside the building, and somehow a few stools were available, so we took turns sitting down, in twenty minute shifts. This helped immensely, as we were thoroughly exhausted. The young man we were with this morning was musing about his future, which would now take place in Houston. They probably need security guards in Houston, so that seemed like the plan to follow. Our many years of self-determination had been compromised, and our fate seemed to be outside of our control. Life consisted of what we were being given, what situation was being presented with the passing of time. Our job was to accept it, adjust to it, and to endure it. It is amazing that such a psychological shift can occur within one week, but we were not at our best.
The remainder of my experience of that Thursday can only be described as a full half-day déjà vu. Thinking back, it reminds me of the famous Stephen Wright joke which goes, “You know that feeling when you are just about to fall over backwards in a chair and then just before it tips over, you catch yourself? I feel that way all the time.” In my prolonged déjà vu, it wasn’t just that it seemed I had done this scene before. Additionally, it seemed to me that everyone in the scene had done this many times before, and knew exactly what to do and say. It was routine. It was something like a play that had run past its productive lifetime, but continued to be performed anyway. There is a resignation in this perception, without rebelliousness or full consciousness of responsibility. Events literally did not make sense, but were unfolding unchallenged. This was like watching a disaster movie, strapped into the seat, without possibility of leaving the theater any time soon.
The welcome announcements ceased, and time continued. The weather stayed gray and hot the rest of the time we were up on the open deck. At one point, there was a light rain, so I sat on the stool just under the overhang, as close to open air as possible. Nearby, truly deranged, angry women and men were shrilly venting their misery, and violence erupted. Guards arrested and dragged away several men who were out of control. In our group, with occasional guests, we continued conversing as normally as possible, but there wasn’t a person in good shape anywhere to be found.
All of a sudden, an armed, male authority figure of some kind pointed to us, instructing us to move around the building to the other side. We scurried in the light rain, as if rushing around to this different point would get us into position to be rescued sooner. But when we arrived at the walkway to the New Orleans Centre, it was entirely unclear where we were to go next. Thousands of people were already in a loosely formed mob, facing outward. There was some talk of a division of groups, such as women/children, and men, but this was entirely confusing and upsetting because families wanted to stay together, both the biological and the makeshift kind. If interrogated, we were planning to say we were cousins. But at one point, I was instructed to get over to one side of the crowd, and felt so submissive that I did not take any other action. Again, I broke down in tears, standing alongside other tired women of various ages. I stood in that spot for perhaps a half hour, then to my delight and surprise, my friend located me and brought me back to the other side again. We had stayed together for so long, we should stay together now. I truly appreciated that he came to find me.
We got into position to wait for the rest of the afternoon and night. The crowd was extremely thick. As soon as we perceived a forward movement, the mass was pushed backward, making us feel like the floodwater that should have receded but instead was pushed in the opposite direction. Nothing in my previous experience had prepared me for being part of this scene, and it was physically difficult to bear. Shifting from one foot to the other gave each foot that moment’s rest. Eventually we did move slightly forward, toward the front of the crowd, within thirty feet. The heat of the weather, combined with the heat of the mob had begun to make me feel faint, but it was not possible to sit. I remember speaking with a kind young man, an artist who was concerned about having possibly lost his parents in the flood. He was mystical and compassionate, and patiently listened to me. I lost him as the mass of people began to move forward again. I saw more than one adult body, down on the ground, naked and as if sleeping. Peculiar debris, larger than the trash on the deck, was now underfoot. There were large plastic objects, chairs, things which were abandoned by earlier occupants of the mob. It seemed I had done every second of this before, and that everyone else was aware of the purpose and outcome of this grim situation, because they too had done this many times before. It was sometimes as if we were waiting to go into a movie or a game, as if this was normal. Other times it was more like we had slipped into some cruel afterlife. The heat was overwhelming. I started to have to bend down at the waist, to get some oxygen into my brain, and at this point, my companions made sure that I got sent to the front of the crowd to be released. The front edge of the sea of people was being guarded and kept firm by armed troops, but they let me through the edge, without instructions about what to do to get to the promised bus to Texas. I sat down next to some others facing the mob, and caught my breath. I had lost track of my friends. I took in the scene and thought, “I have my backpack and purse, so I must be traveling. But I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know where I’m going.” Then I lifted my eyes, and my gaze was filled with the huge, looming black outline of a recognizable horizontal image. I concluded, “That is the Superdome, so I must be in New Orleans.”