As you can imagine, the hours between three and six in the morning were harrowing. I was resigned to a disaster but had to remain strong and calm for the child and the women I was caring for. Our landlady had given me the keys to her property next door, where there had been no roof troubles, in case our roof did not last.
As the roar of the wind and the pounding sheets of rain began to subside, leaks began in the bedroom I shared with the inexplicable woman, right above the living room. Soon there would be no dry or safe place in our home.
I opened our rear door to see if it was safe enough to venture out. It wasn’t. There were twisted pieces of sheet metal flying and various unidentifiable debris scattered through the air, and the street was under a foot of water. Our home was about four feet up from the curb, which was tall, so we were dry underfoot. Inside, the water was coming down on us, not rising up. We were concerned for the levee wall five blocks away and then decided not to mention it again. I had to save what I could and if it broke, it wouldn’t matter anyway.
We discussed the situation and I promised that I’d be fine. I ran next door, unlocked the entry and walked through the house to see what condition it was in. Everything was fine. I ran back to our door to meet the frightened faces of the girls. I was gone longer than they liked. I told them to start bringing what could be saved to the door and I’d take trips to the next house and drop the belongings inside, where I’d take them upstairs in case, well, the levee did break and a flood was coming.
After a couple trips, the woman who loved me demanded to assist. I love her because she’s badass. She helped me carry our most prized possessions; computers, clothes, vintage typewriters, art, my 1950 hollowbody and Fender blues amp, the television… We brought our coffee press, gallons of water, coffee, the ice chests with food we’d stored in them with ice that looked like it would last through the coming day. Soon we had moved what wasn’t already ruined and I covered my woman’s daughter with my leather jacket and carried her next door while her mom ran before us to open entries. Lastly, I assisted her girlfriend and her dog. We were safe, hiding upstairs on the queen-sized futon, taking turns at twenty-minute naps, talking, guessing, fabricating possibilities of what had become of New Orleans.
After another couple of hours it was determined that the storm had passed and we ventured downstairs to the kitchen to prepare coffee and eat what we could force down our tightened stomachs. We had a portable butane camping stove and the woman made breakfast of eggs, pancakes, and bacon. The punk kid ate cereal.
We opened the doors and it began to get warm. The waters uptown had receded. Our research was good. Our levee held and we were okay. We turned on our portable Hello Kitty radio to see if there was a station broadcasting. There was only one. WWL and the legendary Garland Robinette.
We decided to venture out for a walk to see for ourselves. It was a nice way to start a Monday…
We soon discovered our neighborhood was not in the best shape.
Cell cameras were battery hogs, so I took very few pictures. We walked up Jackson and when we reached St. Charles we discovered that maybe it wasn’t as bad as we feared after all. Trees were broken and debris was everywhere, but the buildings looked relatively unharmed.
There was nobody to be seen.
We walked up the street past Martin Luther King Jr. to a church known to assist with homeless endeavors and inquired of their status. We were not allowed to enter and the men at the gate would give no information. “So much for the love of ***,” we thought.
Walking back we found a small group of tourists who stated that they stayed on purpose, not that flights were canceled and overbooked. Out in the damp gray and breezy morning we shared stories. This broken sign laid between the trolley tracks gave us a laugh. We needed it.
It was growing increasingly hot and we made our way back. We passed a brand new Cadillac driven with great haste by a black teen boy aged maybe seventeen. The windows were up except one in the rear. That’s the one he broke to steal it. Upon our return home we found a woman in the middle of the street at the corner of Jackson and Magazine. She laid dead, apparently a victim of a hit-and-run. We shielded the eyes of the child and said nothing.
In front of our house we met neighbors. They told us they worked at a bar eight blocks away at Magazine and Felicity and they invited us to join them. They were going to Walmart seven blocks down by the levee to “get stuff.” I still have the nine-inch wooden-handled Bowie-style Winchester knife they gave me when we met again later.
The rest of this story I wrote one year afterward, on September 1st, 2006. It is slightly edited for tonight:
we were holed up in a local restaurant and bar. my fiancée, her 10 year-old daughter, my fiancée’s girlfriend and myself had spent the last three days with almost a dozen friends and neighbors who, like us, had damaged homes. one of the neighbors was an employee of the bar and had keys. the second floor of the building was over 20 feet above the ground. we felt safe. here we banded together the day after katrina, drinking seemingly infinite amounts of stacked liquor and eating food before it went bad. the owners, of course, got out of town before the hurricane. now we were having a party. we had nothing but a wall of pretty bottles, stacked fifteen feet high. someone raided the walmart and returned with 9″ bowie knifes, a handgun, a rifle, ammunition and sharpening stones. each of us had a knife strapped to our belts, even all five-foot-two of my woman had one. during the evening we took turns staying awake to guard the downstairs area of the restaurant, where our stacked bar was plainly visible to the street through a wall of french doors. we wanted the alcohol. we assumed anyone left in new orleans wanted the same. we were going to guard our liquor because as far as we knew, it would be the new currency of new orleans. we would be rich barons of booze.
from 4 a.m. onward during our last night in nola my fiancée did downstairs duty while the rest of us slept upstairs in offices or downstairs on pushed-together tables. i was wiped out from the heat and stress and alcohol and by being awake 60 hours with only a few minutes of sleep here and there. i had worked the night before, staying up and sitting on the doorstep outside, looking threatening to any group of local thugs that were wandering the street. each group was greeted with a “how are you gentlemen doing this evening,” with my head up high. each group responded with mutters and fading footsteps.
that was the incredible anarchy the radio reported with ferocity every fifteen minutes. roving gangs of violent thugs and looters! shootings all over! rape and murder! i saw none of that and it wasn’t like we were in some upper class neighborhood, either. the ‘hood was like us; working class with small shops and bars and liquor stores that sold mad dog and mountain dew. a year later it was proven that those things never occurred citywide. mayor nagin on the radio was crying about drug addicts looking for a fix with weapons looted from sporting goods stores and walmarts. what a sheltered corporate f**k. WE HAD ALL THE WEAPONS IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD and all we were doing was using them to cut open the foil on wine bottles. it had been like this since monday afternoon. now it was thursday morning. i was awake after about four hours sleeping fitfully in stifling heat. my fiancée was edgy.
the radio blared throughout the restaurant that some bureaucratic f**kwad who is in authority to know is saying that uptown was going to flood and to be prepared for three to six feet of water in the next few hours. “everybody uptown needs to evacuate.” that was it for us. he also said that there were evacuations going on at the superdome, that busses were taking people to houston.
so we packed up what we could carry on our backs. it was everything we had left of our lives in a two-story townhouse. i took the girls out into the heat in the direction of the superdome. it would take an hour to get there. the littlest girl, pink backpack across her shoulders, sobbed and prayed to *** as her mother held her hand and told her we were getting out and it was going to be okay, baby. i repeated to them that i would get them out today and we were not going to die in a flood. i marched ahead a few feet, carrying my guitar. we crossed downed power lines, mother shielding the littlest eyes from a body in a park. huge oak and magnolia trees were strewn across our path. brick buildings had entire walls ripped off, three stories high. debris from roofs and back yards littered the roads as far as we could see. this was what was left of our beloved new orleans.
after a mile of walking down camp street, we got to the freeway overpass where we could see people streaming from the superdome. the national guard was telling people to go away. the surrounding city blocks were flooded and the evacuations were only for those who had been trapped in the dome for days. so much for the accuracy of the news. uptown never flooded and nobody was evacuated for another day. even then, there were still days to go. at the time, we could not have known. we were three lost souls in a ruined sea of debris and worry.
i’ve got to tell you, i am a very white man. i shave my head and have a goatee so blonde it’s white. my fiancée is 50% cherokee with bright blue eyes and her daughter 50% sicilian. new orleans is 70% african-american and from what we saw, 95% of who was left. in no instance did we encounter racial tension. everybody helped everybody and spoke to everybody. we shared a common experience and it was powerful. we were out to save our own ***** and the ***** of those we love, but nobody was going to trample a soul in doing so.
we made a right turn and headed for the convention center, up against a levee along the mad mississippi. it was half-a-mile from the flood, even if feet away an angry river lay. it was over 90 degrees and 90 in the summer in new orleans is 105 in heat index from the humidity. we trudged onward with a sun that shone down upon us like it had never been subdued by a storm. it was like a lover who beats you and then smiles the next day like nothing went wrong. “fix me a drink,” it said, blind to our struggle against a planet that hurt us and a government that had abandoned us.
when we got to the convention center, it was no place to be. there were more dead people. there were children passed out in their mommy’s arms from dehydration and heat. there were sounds of sobbing angry faces as rows of national guard troops drove past us. then they stopped. they held rifles in their hands high and had stressed out looks on their faces.
i took the littlest girl’s hand and approached a military man, a sergeant. he had orders to wait there and that was all. he couldn’t say if food or water was coming. he did not know. what he did not tell me is what i know now; they were sent to keep a riot from happening, not to move anybody, not to give water or medical attention, but to wait and keep a riot from happening.
i curse all the men and women who were complicit in allowing new orleans to sit and wait and die. i curse george bush. i curse michael chertoff. i curse michael brown. your inaction caused the death of trusting, hurting american souls. you could not be bothered. i curse you to be bothered forever, never given rest, feeling let down and betrayed. i curse you to feel unloved. i curse you to be neglected and forgotten.
i turned back to my fiancée who began to sob herself. in two years that i’d known her, she had never cried, and we’d been through tough times. i took my girls by their hands and started walking toward the west bank expressway onramp. i yelled at cars to stop and pick us up. please pick us up! we have two hundred dollars and we’ll pay for your gas! please just take us somewhere where our mobile phones will work! our family will come get us! please, help us…
my walking dream cried and yelled at me for trying. “f**k new orleans! f**k these people!” as car after car drove by.
i curse all of you that made her feel so forsaken.
i kept yelling at cars. please…
an suv stopped. it had texas license plates. a mother and her son named christian were looking for their father. they knew how to get out; they way they got in. they saved us. they might have saved our lives.
thank you. we will not forget you.
There you go, metric mofos. We will be back with your regularly scheduled programming of metric bobbers, choppers, cafe racers, vintage European motorcycle history, builder interviews, tech tips and more. Thanks for reading my Katrina story.
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